David Clarkson on the Causes of False Assurance

Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity (Matthew 7:22-23).

The Puritans are often viewed as some of the greatest thinkers that Christianity has ever produced. Many of their books are still in print, despite being quite old. This is because their writing contains a depth that few can match.

One example of this classic Puritan weightiness can be seen in The Conviction of Hypocrites by David Clarkson (1622–1686). This work deals with the sobering words of Jesus in Matthew 7:22-23. Clarkson rightly observes the following from the text: “Many think themselves sure of heaven, when it is sure they shall never come there.”

Not content with that observation alone, Clarkson probes further. He begins to examine this question: What would cause a person to be falsely assured of his or her salvation? What is the root of presumption? Clarkson goes on to explain four causes that could lead a person to such a conclusion.

Ignorance and Inadvertency

First, people simply do not know about spiritual things. Clarkson titles this section “Ignorance and Inadvertency.” He says, “There are many who know not, or at least consider not, what is necessary to bring a soul to heaven.” This would be the most obvious cause of false assurance.

In making his point, Clarkson lists spiritual things that many are ignorant of. He writes: “They consider not that there must be regeneration…that there must be a new creation…There must be a universal change in every part of the soul…There must be a holiness in the life…A renouncing of the world…Mortification…A taking up the cross.” Those who are right with God will know about such necessities. However, countless unbelievers are not familiar with these concepts and will be ignorant about what God requires for salvation, thus causing false assurance. Many who engage in this kind of thinking will incorrectly appeal to morality and works as a source of assurance, rather than faith in Christ.

Negligence and Slothfulness

“Ah,” one might say, “but what about those who are well-versed in Christian doctrine?” Clarkson answers that objection in his second point. Citing negligence and slothfulness as contributors to people’s condemnation, Clarkson writes: “If they know these things, yet will not take the pains to examine their state by them, they will not be at the trouble to compare their hearts with the rule. They will not spare a few hours seriously to inquire whether they come up to what the word requires. Alas, for the wretched carelessness of men as to their own souls, and their everlasting state!”

He continues by saying that one who believes in spiritual matters (such as eternal damnation and everlasting life) but doesn’t take them seriously is a “madman.” Clarkson reasons: “thus they hang the whole weight of eternity upon a cobweb; and thus they pin the everlasting concernments of their souls upon a shadow, as though it would hang there safe enough, where it can have no hold at all. Would any do this but a madman?” Their negligence leads to their undoing.


Third, if someone does consider spiritual things, if they do begin to examine their souls, they will often fail to be objective. These kinds of people will think far too highly of themselves. “Self-love will not suffer them to deal impartially with their souls,” says Clarkson. This self-love deceives the hypocrite and causes him to flatter himself with only positive opinions.

Clarkson illustrates his point by saying: “A blind man cannot judge of colours; and self-love blinds them, they cannot judge of the complexions of soul, whether the features, the characters of heaven or hell be on it…Satan blinds one eye, and self-love closes the other…no wonder if when they think they shall be safe ashore in heaven, and their feet near the very banks of happiness, at that very moment they are falling into the ditch.” Truly, God must open their eyes and remove their blindness if they are to be saved.

Misapprehensions of God

If someone is able to overcome the first three obstacles and rightly judge himself to be a sinner, there is one final hurdle to be faced. Being able to see oneself as he is, he must now see God clearly. Clarkson says that many fall victim to “misapprehensions of God.” People will often mistakenly suppose that God is more merciful than He actually is. They think that God will neglect justice in order to issue forgiveness, which He will not.

Clarkson characterized such a thought process like this: “Though I allow myself in this or that sin, and fall into it now and then, why it is but a little one, and God is gracious, he is not so strict and rigid as some would make him.”

People will often assume what God is like based on what they want Him to be like, instead of how the Bible describes Him. Is the Bible false? Is God a liar? When Jesus said: “I am the way,” was He mistaken? We can confidently answer these questions with a “No.” Therefore, God will not make an exception for anyone (and make Himself a liar) in order to pardon an unbeliever. Faith in Jesus is our only way to heaven. There is no other way.

To debunk people’s false assurance is a very important evangelistic exercise. If people think themselves to be saved, how can they properly come to Christ unless they are made aware of their misplaced trust? Preachers would do well to consider this problem when assessing their congregation’s health. Furthermore, individuals must know Christ in order to avoid those dreadful words, “I never knew you: depart from me.”

– R.A. Miller runs the website Church History Database (ChurchHistoryDB.com).