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The Doubt Trap 

This article examines a different cause for a lack of assurance—the belief that doubt cannot coexist with saving faith.

May 9, 2024

A good trap clutches its prey and won’t let it go. A good trap captures and fails to release. Many people feel stuck in a doubt trap. This trap causes them to doubt their salvation and won’t let them go.  

Perhaps you doubt whether God will be reliable to keep his word at the final judgment (Romans 10:11). Maybe you feel as if the gospel promises somehow don’t apply to you despite expressing faith in Christ (Romans 10:13). Some of you may wonder whether or not your faith is the right kind to even save (Ephesians 2:8–9). These doubts and others can cause you to doubt that you are saved just by the fact that you doubt! 

Maybe you (or your counselee) think in the following way: If I doubt, how can I be saved? Doubt is the absence of faith. So, if I doubt, I don’t have faith. Right? 

The thinking goes like this:

  1. Saving faith cannot exist with doubt 
  2. I doubt 
  3. Therefore, I do not have saving faith 

This tight reasoning has a stranglehold on so many Christians and makes many regenerate believers wrestle with the reality of their conversion. To be fair, there are many causes of a lack of assurance of salvation. These could include living in unconfessed sin or a failure to mature (2 Peter 1:9), scrupulous personal examination (2 Corinthians 13:5), a small faith (Mark. 9:23-25), or the fact that you genuinely have not come to faith in Christ (John 16:8). In this article, however, I want to examine another cause of lack of assurance: the belief that doubt cannot coexist with saving faith. I call this the doubt trap.  

In the above syllogism, the first point is wrong, and therefore the conclusion is wrong. Faith and doubt can indeed exist together. Perhaps this isn’t an ideal, but the Bible shows that doubt can exist alongside faith without rendering faith null. 

Here are three truths that God provides to help you break free from this doubt trap.  

I. Saving Faith and Assurance of Salvation Are Not the Same 

Often, you can associate the feeling of assurance with salvation itself. You assume that if you do not feel saved, then you must not be. But this is not the way the Bible presents salvation. Categorizing different biblical terms will help. 

First, salvation is what God does when you go through conversion. It’s the act of God by which he reverses the curse of sin and brings you back to himself. This includes gospel facts like justification, forgiveness, reconciliation, and so forth. Your salvation is a fact granted to you when you place your faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8-10). Saving faith consists of three elements: knowing the facts of the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1-4), trusting that those facts are true (Hebrews 11:6), and relying on the gospel alone for salvation (Philippians 3:8-9). When you understood the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, believed these truths to be genuine, and turned from your sin to rest in Jesus for salvation, the benefits of the gospel became yours.  

Second, there is eternal security. The Bible is clear that someone truly regenerate cannot lose their salvation. God promises to keep you (John 6:35-40, Jude 24-25). 

Third, perseverance is when you are working out your salvation. It is your action working alongside God to continue in the faith throughout life (Philippians. 2:12-13, Colossians 1:23). 

Lastly, assurance of salvation refers to the subjective knowledge that you are a true believer. It is subjective; it comes and goes. This means that you can have the first three (salvation, security, and perseverance) without having the fourth (assurance). 

But don’t just take my word for it. The apostle John shows that regenerate Christians may struggle with assurance of salvation.  

In First John 2:2-3, John writes to believers who need to know that they know Jesus. How do you know that you know Jesus? And if I can put it in modern terms, how do you know that you are saved? Well, if you keep his commandments. John doesn’t say, “If you don’t know that you are saved you must not be saved.” No, John acknowledges that his Christian readers may not know that they are saved. He then tells them to look and see if they’ve kept God’s commandments. 

In First John 5:13, John says that he is writing to professing believers to give them assurance that they have eternal life. Once again, we see John addressing Christian readers who struggle to know that they truly have eternal life.  

Just because doubt is present in your life does not mean faith is absent. Faith and doubt can and do coexist. You can be saved and still struggle with doubt. 

II. Doubt Can Coexist Alongside Saving Faith Without Rendering It Ineffective 

In Mark 9:14–29, Jesus’s disciples are unable to drive out a demon from a young boy. Jesus then rebukes them for being faithless (Mark 9:19). What’s stunning is that, in contrast to the faithlessness of the disciples, Jesus upholds the example of the boy’s father. How great was his faith? Not at all that great. In Mark 9:24, the father of the child says, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Here again, we see that faith and doubt coexist. The beautiful thing about this passage is that Jesus doesn’t rebuke the man. He actually casts out the demon based on the man’s faith! This man’s doubting faith is held up as an example of faith compared to the faithless disciples. 

Faith that is mingled with doubt is still acceptable, saving faith. Jesus doesn’t rebuke the man for his struggle with doubt; he blesses him because of his faith. Does Jesus desire or approve of doubt? Not necessarily. Even the man in this story asks Christ to help him wrestle with his doubt. A faith mingled with doubt is never the ideal, and Christ often rebukes his disciples for their unbelief (Matthew 17:20). This story shows two important truths: The presence of doubts or fears does not mean that a person is not saved, and legitimate saving faith can exist alongside doubts. Ultimately, saving faith is a gift of God (Ephesians. 2:8-9), even if mingled with doubts in this life. At the same time, a true believer should desire to grow in their faith, which will decrease the presence of doubt. 

III. God Expects and Intends for Christians to Grow in an Imperfect but Saving Faith 

Lastly, I want you to see that inner peace and assurance are things that do not always come immediately with salvation. In fact, God may be putting you through your trial and struggle with doubt to give you the very thing you desire—assurance and peace. 

The apostle Paul writes: 

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because Gods love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:1-5). 

Look at this pattern. When you place your faith in Jesus, you are justified and have peace with God. These are propositional truths, not necessarily subjective feelings. How then do you gain inner peace or assurance of these things? Through trials. Paul says that we rejoice in our sufferings because suffering produces endurance, character, and then hope. Hope then assures us that God’s love is poured into our hearts. The way you get that settled hope and joy of knowing you are saved is through trials. 

Inner peace and assurance are feelings that grow and come with sanctification over time. Assurance is not automatic. Inner peace is something that God grows in you through trials. 

Set Free to Grow in Faith 

God’s Word makes it clear that doubt can coexist with saving faith without stripping saving faith of its power. Once you understand that faith can exist without doubt, you are now set free to use all the resources of salvation to battle against doubt and grow in your faith. 

You are set free to renew your mind with the anchoring gospel truths found in Scripture: the truth that God will not allow you to turn away from him (Jeremiah 32:40), the truth that you have peace with God in Christ (Romans 5:1), the truth that you will not be turned away from God (Romans 10:11), and the truth that God will keep you until the end (Jude 24). 

 You are set free to endure trials and allow trials to perfect your faith and give you assurance (James 1:2–4). 

You are set free to examine the fruit of your Christian life in a helpful manner designed to bolster your assurance or give you clarity that you are unsaved (1 John 5:13). 

You are set free to wrestle with questions about your faith without fearing that Christ has abandoned you until you find an answer (Hebrews 4:16).  

Finally, you are set free to confess the sin of double-minded doubt without feeling the need to get saved again and again (James 1:5-8). 

May the words of Scottish pastor Robert Murray McCheyne encourage you and those whom you counsel when they feel stuck in this doubt trap: 

“For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely. Such infinite majesty, and yet such meekness and grace, and all for sinners, even the chief! Live much in the smiles of God. Bask in his beams. Feel his all-seeing eye settled on you in love, and repose in his almighty arms.”1Andrew Bonar, Memoirs and Remains of R.M.M’Cheyne, (Banner of Truth: Carlisle, PA, 1966), 293.