In the mid-1960s, a small volume showed up in the world and since then 2.5 billion copies have been published. Think about that: 2.5 billion. For perspective, consider Harry Potter: including all seven volumes and the companion books, there have been 500 million copies sold. So, this 1960s work is a Big Deal. The book, or more properly booklet: The Four Spiritual Laws by Bill Bright.
Now that kind of distribution has not surprisingly generated a rash of slim volumes which hope to become The Four Spiritual Laws 2.0. Obviously these new volumes won’t be freely distributed by Campus Crusade for Christ, but maybe if they are small enough and inexpensive enough they could get some traction. After all, even a mere 0.1% of The Four Spiritual Laws distribution is 2.5 million copies! (Again for comparison, Michelle Obama’s book sold half that number.)
Enter Dean Inserra. He is the pastor of City Church Tallahassee, with an average Sunday attendance in the range of 1200-1500 people. That is a big church. Inserra obviously has the ability to communicate well. So, he wrote a slim volume: Without A Doubt: How to Know for Certain That You’re Good with God.
First, the Good. This is a thoroughly orthodox (small-o) Christian volume. Sentence by sentence, there is literally no place where I thought “This is wrong.” It is perfectly solid evangelical Protestant theology. If you handed this out in Baptist churches across the country, I have a hard time imagining there would be any pushback at all on the content.
It is also a chatty book with an informal style. Since it is really short, it can be read quickly. The obvious hope with a book like this is that people will buy copies and give them to their friends. Sure, 2.5 million copies sold is unrealistic, but maybe 0.01% of the distribution of The Four Spiritual Laws?
Unfortunately, for a book with nothing objectionable in the sentence by sentence content, the structure is a bit of a mess. Start with the question: who exactly is the audience for this book?
It isn’t hard to see who Inserra imagines his audience to be. The book starts imagining someone lying awake at night worried about whether they have a right relationship with God. The introductory chapter is “The Question that Keeps You Up at Night.” So one might reasonably expect a book on Assurance. That would indeed be a nice topic for a quick little volume.
But, immediately after setting up the question, Inserra starts talking about people who have False Assurance. And therein lies the first big structural problem. Inserra never seems to realize that people with False Assurance do not lie awake at night wondering if they are right with God. People with False Assurance have assurance, after all. Inserra thinks they should not have assurance though. If you believe you are right with God simply because you think there is a God out there or because you are not the most evil person who ever lived or because your grandparents were right with God, then Inserra thinks you should have less Assurance than you do. So, a good part of this book is telling people to stop being so assured.
It isn’t Assurance that Inserra is preaching, it is Assurance for the Right Reason. Now that too is a perfectly good argument for a book, but it is not the argument that was set up at the outset of the book. The outset imagines someone lying awake at night with incomplete assurance, and Inserra proceeded to address his argument to people who were not having that problem in the first place. In other words, a good part of this book is not “How to Know for Certain that You’re Right With God,” but rather “How to be Right With God.”
But, the structural problems get worse later on. Having explained how to get right with God and insisting that you can be assured you are right with God, Inserra turns to the always tricky passage in Hebrews 6 about people who leave the faith. Apostates should not have assurance that they are right with God, obviously. But, Inserra just leaves the problem hanging out there. If I have a Right Faith, how can I be assured I will not later become apostate? How can I be assured I am not currently apostate? Should I lie awake at night worried that even though I am not currently apostate, I might later become so? How can I be assured this is impossible?
These problems arise because Inserra is confusing the general promises of God with the belief that those general promises apply to a particular individual. For example, Inserra tells us that assurance comes from believing what God has said in Scripture. If we think God is a liar, then we have no reason for assurance. But, if we don’t think God is a liar, then since he has assured us of his Love, we have nothing about which to worry.
That just confuses the matter. First, I can believe that God is not a liar, believe he gives assurance to those on whom his favor rests, but still wonder if I am one of those people. Second, I can believe that God is not a liar, that he has said that people who are really, really good go to heaven, and thus have perfect assurance that God will do what I believe he said. Asserting that we have assurance because God is not a liar gives no assurance to the first person and wrong assurance to the second,
So, how can we be assured? And this is where a funny thing happens on the path to assurance. It turns out that the ultimate source of assurance is…works. You know you have assurance because your faith in God bears fruit. Now, again, there is nothing wrong with what Inserra is saying, but it makes a mess of the way he has structured the book. Imagine Rex who thinks he is right with God because he is a really nice guy. Inserra comes along and says “No, you are not saved by your works. You are saved by faith in Jesus Christ.” Rex asks “What does it mean to have faith in Jesus Christ? Where can I get assurance that I am right with God?” And Inserra answers, “You’ll know you are right with God if you have good works.” And Rex says, “Done!”
Now this is obviously not what Inserra wants to say to Rex. But, because this book lacks a clear audience, it is exactly the sort of tangle Inserra ends up in when you try to put together the argument of this book. The problem with a book like this is that it is obvious that at no point in the writing or publishing process was the manuscript read by anyone with a skeptical ear. The book sounds right if you just float along with the prose, but as soon as you start connecting the dots, you realize the argument needs to be either vastly crisper or longer.
The best example of a chapter which could have used a reader who asks, “Why?” is the chapter on the “Marks of a Transformed Life.” Inserra notes, “I believe it is important to give tangible examples of what a life lived by a saving faith actually looks like, rather than simply talk in theoretical terms.” He then gives what amounts to a checklist. It is almost like Inserra is saying, “Do these things and you can be assured of your salvation.” He doesn’t quite say that, but it seems like he says that. The list is, shall we say, idiosyncratic. A Life of Repentance. Eternally Minded. Sound Doctrine. Spiritual Disciplines. Generosity. Heart for Those Who Do Not Know Christ. Love for God and His Church.
There is nothing wrong with anything in that list. All good things. But, compare that to the message of the earlier chapter “Essentials of Saving Faith.” There we have “the scriptures are our source for what we must believe, and the gospel is the essential business. Jesus Christ died for our sins. He was buried, and He rose from the grave.” There is the gospel message. That is what is essential. So, is the list of the “Marks of a Transformed Life” essential or nonessential? I truly have no doubt that Inserra could explain this. It is, after all, one of the staples of evangelical Protestantism to reconcile the statements “Salvation is by Faith Alone,” and “Faith without Works is Dead.” But, Inserra does not explain it in this book.
Instead right after the passage saying that the essentials are belief in the death and resurrection of Christ, we get what must be one of the most cringe-inducing things I have ever read in a Christian book: “If there was a NCAA basketball tournament style bracket for necessary Christian beliefs for saving faith, these would be the number one seeds.” Egads. If belief in the death of Jesus is the number one seed, does that mean it is possible that it could suffer an upset at the hands of the number 16 seed? And what exactly is the number 16 seed in this March Madness of Salvation? Inserra should know better than to write something like that. I am sure it was a great line when he delivered it in a church setting and everyone chuckled along. But, in a book seeking to explain the nature of assurance?
Inserra’s book thus could have been vastly better if it had been more forthright about the real source of assurance. While Christians are quick to say “Salvation come by faith,” they are oddly loath to acknowledge “Assurance comes by faith.” I would truly be shocked if Inserra disagrees that assurance comes by faith. The answer to “How can I know for certain that I am good with God?” is rather simply, “Ask God to give you more Faith.” If God is the source of assurance, and again, I am certain Inserra would agree, then as we draw closer to God, we will gain more assurance. This solution cuts right through all the problems above. “I believe. Help my unbelief.”
(Moody Press sent me a copy of the book in exchange for this review.)