Mystical Union: Assurance or Documentation?

As I’ve written about mystical union with Christ over the past two months or so, various points of resistance have appeared.  This week I’d like to address one of the big ones.  Some folks feel that this way of understanding relationship with God removes any real ground for assurance of salvation.

Let me be the first to say that if the accusation is in fact true, then it is absolutely damning.  Nobody should be ready to sign off on a theology that destroys any ground for assurance.  I would be the first one to dump it.

In this case, however, it’s just not true.  People who meet God don’t generally question the reality of the experience.  They do sometimes later doubt it — but the doubt generally grows up after they have drifted far from God, in the same way that a man who has been estranged for years from his wife begins to doubt whether he ever really loved her (or she him) at all.  No, at the time that a person meets God, he is generally pretty clear on what is happening to him.  You can see this certainty in Saul of Tarsus, the man born blind in John 9, Moses at the burning bush, and so on.  You can see it dawning slowly in Nicodemus, or bursting all at once into the consciousness of the woman at the well, or Nathaniel, or John the Baptist.  They know.  There’s no ground for doubt.

So what’s going on here?  Why do people feel like being at a meeting where God shows up would leave someone in a morass of uncertainty?

I’m kinda puzzled too.  Some of these people, by their own testimony, had assurance long before they got their theology of assurance sorted out.  I certainly did.  They know this; they give testimony to it.  And yet, they don’t seem to connect it to their theology.  When they talk theology, they talk as if assurance is impossible unless you get your theology of assurance straight.  This is just not true, and it was not true of many of them, for years.

As far as I can see, here’s the problem: these people don’t really want assurance.  They won’t be satisfied with being certain, themselves, that they have been saved by Jesus, nor with you being certain, yourself, that Jesus has saved you.  That is, they won’t be satisfied with the fact of assurance; they want to see an accredited process that leads to assurance.  They want documentability, something they can check from the outside, any time they want.  Something “objective” rather than just something they know.

That means that people have to get their propositions exactly right.

I toured the Osceola County Jail once, many years ago.  A guard explained how they let the inmates out for exercise, and had to log the time, date and duration of the exercise period for each inmate.  “If you can’t document it,” he said, “then it didn’t happen.”  I wondered then whether it was the inmates or the guards who were really imprisoned.

I’m still wondering.

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27 Responses to Mystical Union: Assurance or Documentation?

  1. Tony L Smith says:

    I enjoy your blogs. Your right, our walk started with relationship, even if it was just an introdution to the Lord. It was not just words, or someones theolegy that brought us in. If introduction to an Awesome Lord made us feel so special, then what would walking, talking and taking on His feelings, cares and desires do to us? It would keep us in the encounter of God to become one with Him.
    Truth is not a doctrine, its a person!

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    Tony,

    You wrote: “Truth is not a doctrine, its a person!

    I’ve said much the same, and I agree. But I also feel a little nuance is in order. I suspect you would agree with the nuance I’m about to add, because you also wrote: “It was not just words…” (emphasis mine).

    I quite agree, and there’s the nuance, in that one word in bold. Speaking in ultimate terms, truth is not a doctrine but a Person. However, there are true doctrines, true propositions. Some of them were given to us directly by the Person; others are simply true statements about the person. These things are true because they partake of the nature of the Person. So when we hear true doctrine rightly, we are never hearing just words; we are hearing the Person of whom those words speak. The Bible is laden with propositional truth, and we are required to submit to those propositions.

    But never to worship them in themselves — that way lie the Pharisees.

  3. Eric Kemp says:

    Tim

    I just wanted you to know that something you pointed out in an earlier post has been haunting me. I don’t think I realize it’s full implications for my theology and philosophy of ministry yet. It’s more of a question: When Jesus converted Saul of Tarsus, why did he seem completely unconcerned with what Saul believed about him? He merely introduces himself, and then tells Saul what to do. Yes, Saul apparently trusts him (because he did as he was told) and assented his will to him (calling Jesus “Lord”), but that’s it.

    I know I’ll eventually reconcile this, but at the moment, by theological fortress is crumbling around me.

  4. Tim Nichols says:

    Eric,

    Good. Trust Jesus and walk with Him and you’ll be fine. Can’t promise the same for your theology…

  5. Tim Nichols says:

    Okay, that was kinda mean. I’m making a valid point, though — give it some thought. “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”

    To help you out a little more: Consider what Saul already knew. He was there at the trial and stoning of Stephen, remember? He’d undoubtedly argued with the likes of Stephen, and maybe with Stephen himself. He knew Christianity’s claims very well already; what He didn’t know — or didn’t want to admit to himself — was that the Light in the heavens is Jesus. This is what the Damascus road experience proved to him. Consider the John 20 gospel: “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” Saul believed that there would be a Messiah, a Son of God who would deliver the nation and fulfill the promises to Abraham. He could probably have told you, long before his conversion, all about the Messiah from the OT. But he had missed that *Jesus* was that guy.

    (For you GES folks: this is the other half of the John 20:30-31 message. All that focus on defining “the Christ, the Son of God,” — and nothing wrong with it — but who’s Jesus?)

  6. Eric Kemp says:

    Tim

    I didn’t take it as mean, don’t worry about me, my ego will recover from this blow. If my fortress is born out of false presuppositions, I WANT it to crumble. Still, it doesn’t have to feel good when it does.

    That makes sense, how much Saul already knew. Still, no Jew, or human being for that matter, at that point, not even Saul, knew anything about “justification by faith alone in Christ alone” or what Jesus, the man, being Messiah meant. Or any of the other propositions we demand immediately that converts assent to. It took Paul to explain most of that to us. And Jesus didn’t seem to care. Like you said, just follow him and everything will be OK.

  7. Maybe the “Jesus” that spoke to Paul was really Satan transforming himself into an angel of light and impersonating “Jesus”? Or maybe it was Elvis in a time machine? Or maybe it was really just an Elvis impersonator from Vegas in a time machine–not the King himself? Or could it have been a Satan impersonator impersonating an angel of light?

    How can we know? And how can we KNOW that we know?

    How could Paul know? And how could he have KNOWED that he knewed?

  8. How do we even know that Saul of Tarsus and Paul are one and the same man? Maybe Saul was just pretending to be someone called Paul–or visa versa? In which case the light could have appeared and spoken to the wrong man by reason of mistaken identity?

  9. Ontology and epistemology can git downright HAIRY when you really tink about it!

  10. Tim Nichols says:

    Eric,

    Yeah, people did know. The point of Rom.4 is that if you read Gen.17 and missed justification by faith, you read it wrong. Paul spells it out, but it’s already there, and in countless other places — Psalm 51, Psalm 99, plenty more. People did get it; that’s why some people came to Jesus right away, and stayed. There were people who read the OT right. NT makes some of those truths a bit harder to miss, but they’re there, and not really hidden. That’s why the Emmaus road conversation could go the way it did, or Stephen’s arguments with the synagogue of the freedmen, or Paul’s debates in the synagogues a decade or two later.

    The point I was after is that (1) the sine qua non is really meeting Jesus, and (2) not a lot of doubt inheres in that, at the time. He has a way of making things clear to people who want to see.

  11. Eric Kemp says:

    Tim

    Hmmm…that’s interesting. I’ve only studied 6 chapters of one gospel (Luke) in depth but so far Luke is purposefully leaving me with the idea that no one gets it yet. Sure, Jesus has his 12, and other people following him around, but none of them really get it and everyone around him is asking “Who is this guy?”, either behind his back or to his face, including John the Baptist (Luke 7). At this point, they are calling him Rabbi and “great prophet”.

    I’m looking forward to having a semblance of a comprehensive understanding of the earthly ministry of Jesus and maybe then I’ll meet people who did get it right away. Perhaps Luke will bring me around to that point. I can’t wait to find out!

  12. Tim Nichols says:

    Gary,

    Ontology and epistemology can git downright HAIRY when you really tink about it!

    How would you know?

    As you know, I tolerate disagreement, invective, mockery, and even light verse on my blog. Even — or perhaps I should say, particularly — when they’re directed at me. But here, you’re just being rude. You don’t have to say anything nice, but say something productive, or stop talking.

  13. Tim Nichols says:

    Eric,
    Look at the first few chapters of John; he showcases the people who get it. Even in Luke, there’s Anna, Simeon, Mary.

  14. FedExMOP says:

    Tim,

    I think that Gary’s posts, while misguided, illustrate exactly your point. When Jesus appeared to Paul, there was no need for an explanation of who or what. Paul had no doubt Who it was he had encountered, and Paul knew right away what He wanted. This is what happens when we really encounter Christ, there is no room for doubt. We do not have to fully understand all the propositions about Christ, we do not even have to have the correct doctrine of how to know Him. When we meet Him, we know it, and we are forever changed.

    FedEx,
    President,
    Men of Praise Motorcycle Ministry

  15. FedExMop, I’m not sure what point you think MY misguided post illustrates, but let’s take a close look at the confusion YOUR post illustrates so well. Actually, I think that WAS my main point–thank you for confirming it yet again! Contrary to what you say, Paul’s encounter with Jesus illustrates just the OPPOSITE of what you’re suggesting, i.e., you’re missing the main point of the entire ‘encounter.”

    You just said to Tim: “When Jesus appeared to Paul, there was NO NEED FOR AN EXPLANATION OF WHO OR WHAT. Paul had no doubt Who it was he had encountered, and Paul KNEW RIGHT AWAY what He wanted. This is what happens when we really encounter Christ, there is no room for doubt. ”

    Really? Paul had no doubt Who it was he had encountered? Well, he certainly didn’t know at the beginning of the encounter, until AFTER he had fallen to the ground, and AFTER he asked, and AFTER Jesus had answered him, did he? In response to Saul asking Him who He was, Jesus answered him: “I am Jesus…” Paul didn’t just immediately and automatically know on the basis of some ineffable mystical encounter with a light (or RAINBOW!) from heaven–there was rational and propositional communication between him and Jesus– and only as a result of that communication did he know who He was– but not before.

    Same thing with regard to what Jesus wanted. Saul asked: “What do you want me to do?” And Jesus answered: “Arise, and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” Again, Saul must ask, and Jesus must communicate in rational propositional language (even in Paul’s preferred Hebrew language!). So Jesus tells him to go into the city and He will tell him even more propositional truth!

    Furthermore, we know from Acts 26 that the account in Acts 9 doesn’t include EVERYTHING Jesus said to Saul on the road to Damascus:

    12 “While thus occupied, as I journeyed to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests,  13 at midday, O king, along the road I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and those who journeyed with me.  14 And when we all had fallen to the ground, I heard a voice speaking to me and saying in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’  15 So I said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  16 But rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you.  17 I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you,  18 to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.’ ” Acts 26:12-18

    First of all, we know from v. 14b that the Lord had already been working in Paul’s heart and life prior to this encounter to draw him and teach him (cf Jn 6:43-45). Yet, even when Paul fell to the ground, he still did not believe in Jesus and was not yet born again. He only found out that it was *Jesus* speaking to him AFTER he had fallen to the ground and AFTER he asked and AFTER Jesus told him. At that point he knew that (1) *Jesus* was the identity of the voice (2) *Jesus* is the Christ and (3) *Jesus* had truly been resurrected from the dead, as the Christians he hated had been proclaiming. But also notice that as Jesus tells him to ‘rise and stand on his feet”, He communicates MORE propositional truth to him. Note especially verse 18b: “that they may receive (4) FORGIVENESS of sins and an (5) INHERITANCE among those who have been sanctified (positionally) by (6) FAITH IN ME.” That’s at least 6 things right there that Paul now knew and believed about *Jesus*–probably before he had even risen to his feet–because *Jesus* communicated it to him in rational propositional language– in HEBREW no less!

    Paul would have understood (just as Abraham and all OT saints) that the “inheritance” is a guaranteed future possession which included physical resurrection and an eternal relationship with God, i.e., ETERNAL LIFE! He also knew, as 26:18b proves (!), that “whosoever believes in Jesus has eternal life.” So Jesus essentially communicated the promise of eternal life that we find throughout John’s Gospel to Saul probably before he even had time to rise to his feet. And this is only what has actually been recorded for us in scripture.

    By the way, keep in mind that an actual PHYSICAL encounter with the risen Christ of the kind Saul experienced is NEVER promised to us in scripture. Of course, we know that to be an apostle one had to be an eyewitness of His resurrection, as Paul was. But to us Jesus says: “Blessed are those who have NOT seen and yet have believed.” Jn 20:29b.

    What is it we must believe? The same “promise of life which is in Christ Jesus” which Saul of Tarsus believed when he met the resurrected Jesus–the same promise of life according to which he was given his commission as the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus:

    “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, according to the promise of life which is in Christ Jesus.” 2 Tim 1:1

  16. alvin says:

    FedExMOP what did He want? Was it the package plan? Since you folks are so caught up on expereinces, what if there was no real change in his life was it then not truly recorded in the book of life, it didn’t really happen?

  17. FedExMop,

    Since my earlier post that you mentioned was obviously non-sensical, and I shouldn’t really expect you to understand it, I’m sorry for my snide opening remark to you. Sometimes I get in these strange cynical moods and say bizarre things like that. It’s my way of blowing off frustration I guess. Anyway, I apologize to you and Tim.

  18. alvin says:

    Luke 10:20-21
    20 Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”

    21 In that hour Jesus rejoiced in the Spirit and said, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight.

    ( for more information see promise John 3:16 )

  19. alvin says:

    It’s clear to me that you all are putting the emphasis on meeting God, and downgrading the means, “His word” that brings life once believed. That’s why you can say someone like Daniel was SAVED even though he claimed you could not be saved by just believing Jesus promise, but something MORE was needed. He went on to explain it as the five-points of Calvinsm, other words God forces you to love Him because as Daniel said, ‘They can no more believe the gospel than they can breath water.’ That is why Daniel believed God has to force those to believe who hate Him, like Daniel said he did. For you all the MORE is making contact (will,experience), even if the means is false words. You just think they need to be corrected on what they have been told, but don’t question the reality of the experience with god. If they made contact, ‘it has to be God.’ But, when you tell them the truth from the word of God, like Daniel they reject it, and say it takes MORE or it’s not real.
    Maybe you’ve heard the saying, ‘the proof is in the pudding.’ I have relatives who believe you can lose the gift of eternal life, in fact they have dreams that they died and woke up in hell. They live in fear and believe that is healthy for staying on the path. They are full of experiences with god coming out of the Charsmatic movement. You think God is giving them those nightmares so that they stay on the right path? They believe He is, the One they made contact with. And they would call Him Lord, Lord didn’t we do mighty things in your name~!
    Your reasoning would be, ‘they know God because they met Him, so they don’t need to varify if it was true from Scripture.’ They would also say they are, “changed.”

  20. FedExMOP says:

    Gary,

    No Problem, I understood that you were being non-sensical on purpose to illustrate a point. Also, the statement I made was very much over-simplified. I appreciate your willingness to put the silliness aside and really give a substantive response. I will try to do justice to your response when I am not so busy. Thank you.

    FedEx,
    President,
    Men of Praise Motorcycle Ministry

  21. alvin says:

    John 2:23

    23 Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did.

    That was the purpose of the signs that they may believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name (see John 20:30,31). And that was the purpose of John the Baptist witness that they believe which is stated early in John’s prolog: There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. (John 1:6,7).

    To receive Jesus as stated in John 1:11-13 was to believe in His name. And the one who received Him was given the right to become children (teknon not huios sons, Romans 8:14,17) of God. These ones that believed in Jesus in John 2:23 were children of God by simple faith.

    John 2:24
    24 But Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He knew all men.

    But even though they were God’s children Jesus would not entrust Himself to His children. Why not?
    I believe Jesus talk with Nicodemus reveals why,and as an example of those in John 2:23,24, they were not willing to confess Him.
    Nicodemus was a Pharisee who had not received the witness of John the Baptist (John 3:11 do not receive Our witness). They had been sent to John in 1:24 “Now those who were sent were from the Pharisees.” They wanted to know who John was and why he was baptizing? They did not come to be baptized by him, therefore rejecting his witness. We know that Jesus said to count the cost concerning following Him (see Luke 14:26-27,28,29-33). But the price for these Jews in John 2:23,24, as also with Nicodemus by rejecting the baptism of John was having “harmony with God.” To confess Him was to publicly submit to the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Even though the ones in John 2:23 were children of God by simply believing in Jesus name, they still were not in harmony because as Jews that took the baptism that Jesus disciples and John and his disciples were carrying out (see John 1:28; 3:22-26).
    That was ONLY true for the “Nation Israel” who had broken their covenant with God and was a condition to restore harmony for it was the “acceptible year of the Lord,” (see Luke 4:18-19).
    This is not true of any Gentile they were in harmony (fellowship forgiveness) with God the moment they believed in Jesus, there was NO other condition like the Jews had, (see Acts 10:43-45; John 4:39-42).

    And that was ONLY for that generation of Jews who not only had to believe in their Messiah for eternal life, but to be in harmony which was what John the Baptist was sent, for he said,”I am ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” (John 1:23).
    For before Jesus could set up His kingdom the nation Israel not only had to believe but repent to be in fellowship.
    These Jews in John 2:23,24 had only believed part of John’s witness.

    It’s all about receiving a gift by simply believeing Jesus for everlasting life, and when you do at that very moment He entrust’s Himself to you:) But, concerning discipleship He says, ‘count the cost~!’

    alvin:)

  22. alvin says:

    John 1:6,7

    There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all (Jews) through him might believe. (see John 1:23; 31)

    That was the way it was suppose to happen~!

    They were to come to John the Baptist FIRST just like Jesus did, and be baptized. That made the way straight by the baptism of repentance for the forgivness of sins . . . . then they were in harmony with God and READY to receive their KING~!

    If they rejected the first part Jesus could not commit Himself to them because even though they could believe in Him for the gift of everlasting life they were still not in fellowship with God UNTIL they were confessing Him by public baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (see 1:24-26; 3:11).

    We got all that the moment we believe . . . . we are in PERFECT HARMONY with GOD🙂

    That is IF you have believed Jesus promise as stated in John 3:16 with the faith of a little child? You could have believed for the forever gift in different terms such as ‘the One who saved you from ALL your sin,’ meaning you knew you would never go to hell~!!!!!

    But it’s IMPOSSIBLE to believe in Jesus in the biblical sense and NOT KNOW HE SAVED YOU.

    You can get all messed up by someone right after you believed, but at the moment you did believe the LIGHT came on and you passed from death into life. You were convinced just as Abraham was that God had kept His promise~!

    alvin

  23. Drew says:

    The reason that some people have assurance, even before they get their theology sorted out, is simply because they are sure of their own capability to keep doing good deeds. So just the fact alone that they have assurance doesn’t necessarily mean they’re believing in the right thing. They might be absolutely confident that they have met God, as you say, but if they also think that God wants them to keep living right in order to avoid hell, they don’t have much of a concept of eternal life.

  24. Tim Nichols says:

    Ah, Drew. Nobody is suggesting that it’s impossible to do it wrong.

    I am suggesting that it’s possible to be in real relationship with the real Jesus Christ, and get some points of theology wrong. As Peter was in relationship with Him, and didn’t believe He was going to die. As Thomas was in relationship with Him, and didn’t believe He had risen. You can know and love Jesus and still flunk the theology exam.

    The problem with the present FG approach is that assurance is pegged to performance on a theology exam, proving that you can’t get rid of any form of legalism (including the theological kind) just by saying you’re agin’ it. The Pharisees said they were agin’ sin in all its forms, and look at ’em….

  25. Drew says:

    I do agree that some of the Free Grace people are overly uptight, e.g. the people who condemn the Sinner’s Prayer, or the people who say you have to understand the Trinity to be saved.

    I think if the gospel gets presented in at least a halfway clear manner, the person can believe the right stuff initially and then have flawed theology develop only later. Granted I’ve been a Christian basically since as long as I remember, but I seem to recall it being several years before the question of losing salvation even crossed my mind. I suspect that even many adults who get saved probably have a similar experience, and aren’t pondering technicalities at the moment they first believe. They are just thinking, “Good, I’m glad Jesus has saved me and I’m going to heaven.” Then bad theology develops later, when they get corrupted by a bad church.

  26. Tim Nichols says:

    Drew,

    I agree that’s often the case.

    But then a FG guy comes along and causes them to doubt their salvation because they are messed up now. And this from the guys who are supposedly champions of assurance! We need to remember that the early Reformers were also champions of assurance, and their experience of glorious assurance — instead of being transmitted to their children — was obscured and destroyed by the way their theology was worked out and systematized. We are not so special that this can’t happen to us, and it is happening to us.

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