The Compass Christ Sails By

“Follow your heart.” We hear this time and again, the world’s mantra to find assurance in emotion and intuition. Yet this is hardly a consolation for the Christian who knows that the heart is ever-fickle and oft-misleading. When the weight of sin overwhelms, or when doubts arise, or when fears assail, what comfort is there to be had? When weary saints distrust their salvation, where can they look for assurance, rest, and peace?

The prophet Jeremiah would warn, contra the world’s call to “trust and follow your heart,” that the subjectivity of our feelings are no sure guide for our lives. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). Or, to borrow the language of Samuel Rutherford, the heart is no sure compass:

"Your heart is not the compass Christ saileth by. He will give you leave to sing as you please, but he will not dance to your tune. It is not referred to you and your thoughts, what Christ will do with the charters betwixt you and him. Your own misbelief hath torn them, but he hath the principle in heaven with himself. Your thoughts are no parts of the new covenant; dreams change not Christ."[1]

In a letter written in 1637 to Earlston the Younger, Samuel Rutherford penned these assuring words to remind his friend that our salvation depends on the steadfastness of Christ and not our unsteady hearts. Evidently, Earlston was a youth who felt like he was being beaten while struggling against all manner of sin and doubt. Rutherford responded to him in three ways: He encouraged Earlston to not listen to the lies of sin or Satan; he implored Earlston to turn to Christ as the Physician of his soul; and he offered several compelling ways to fight such doubts of the heart.

Beware the Lies of Sin and the Devil

Satan “cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy,” while Jesus comes, “that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Is it any surprise that Satan would aim to steal, kill, and destroy the Christian’s assurance in Christ? And what better tactic or strategy is there for the devil to employ than that of temptation? Is there any experience more subjectively deceiving than the momentary and fleeting pleasure of sin followed by extraordinary remorse, regret, and doubt?

The Apostle Paul had cautioned his youthful protégé Timothy to, “Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22). Rutherford’s warning to Earlston was similar:

"I have seen the devil, as it were, dead and buried, and yet rise again, and be a worse devil than ever he was; therefore, my brother, beware of a green young devil, that hath never been buried. The devil in his flowers (I mean the hot, fiery lusts and passions of youth) is much to be feared: better yoke with an old gray-haired, withered, dry devil. For in youth he findeth dry sticks, and dry coals, and a hot hearthstone; and how soon can he with his flint cast fire, and with his bellows blow it up, and fire the house! Sanctified thoughts, thoughts made conscience of, and called in, and kept in awe, are green fuel that burn not, and are a water for Satan’s coal."[2]

To return to youthful lusts and passions is to dig up the devil. To do so is not only to give into the demands of a wicked enemy, but to return to an old life, though we be new creations in Christ. By turning back to Satan and sin, the Christian essentially gets on the ground alongside Satan’s burning coals and blows upon them with his own breath, causing the consuming flames of temptation and sin to burn brighter and spread. Is it any surprise that sin produces doubt in the heart?

But, as Rutherford (agreeing with Paul) insisted, the one who pursues sanctification through righteousness, faith, charity, and peace will find that these “sanctified thoughts” and actions are able to fuel holiness in the heart while at the same time extinguishing Satan’s coals. The Christian who sins puts his ear close to Satan’s mouth and hears the lying whispers he tells: “You can’t be a Christian. Look at your sin. Would a Christian do this? You can’t belong to Jesus. Would he truly accept one such as you?” But the one who turns from sin to Christ plugs his ears shut to Satan’s lies and gazes on Christ alone, who is the author and finisher of his faith. Looking to Christ, rather than listening to Satan and staring at our shortcomings, reminds us that Jesus promised, “I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand” (John 10:28).

Trusting Christ, Our Physician

Turning from sin to Christ does not mean that our problems go away, or even that all doubts flee completely. Rather, as Rutherford wrote to Earlston, “All Christ’s good bairns[3] go to heaven with a broken brow, and with a crooked leg.” It is good that we experience trials and hardships as Christians, for each storm of life creates a wave that throws us against Christ, who is the anchor of our faith and our salvation. We must not distrust the trials which God causes us to pass through. There is no such thing as a bad day, for all our days have been ordained by a kind and Heavenly Father who appoints all things for the good of our sanctification (Rom. 8:28). We must not distrust the treatment our Physician prescribes. As the writer of Hebrews put it, “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth” (Heb. 12:6). We must receive what Christ prescribes us as our great Physician, who alone can heal, cleanse, and hold fast. As Rutherford continued:

"Let your bleeding soul and your sores be put in the hand of this expert Physician; let young and strong corruptions and His free grace be yoked together, and let Christ and your sins deal it betwixt them… Ye must take a house beside the Physician. It will be a miracle if ye be the first sick man whom He put away incurred, and worse than He found you. Nay, nay, Christ is honest, and in that is flyting-free with sinners. “Him that cometh unto Me I will in no wise cast out” (John vi. 37)."[4]

What Christ offers the saint is grace; grace that is free, grace that is great, grace that is powerful, and grace that can heal. Doubts, fears, and struggles with sin can all be defeated by this most powerful medicine prescribed by the Physician of our souls. So, we must quickly arise and go to Jesus!

But what if the saint feels in his heart that Christ can’t be found? Such emotion-based gauging of assurance has no place in the Christian’s heart; Jesus must be sought all the same. Rutherford encourages:

"When He hideth Himself; it is no time then to be bird-mouthed and patient. Christ is rare indeed, and a delicacy to a sinner. He is a miracle, and a world’s wonder, to a seeking and a weeping sinner; but yet such a miracle as shall be seen by them who will come and see. The seeker and sigher, is at last a singer and enjoyer; nay, I have seen a dumb man get alms from Christ."[5]

Christ is a Physician of the sick, and you must come to Him. Broken hearted, wounded, bleeding, sick, dying, there is no sinner that Christ will turn away. And, as Rutherford said, our seeking and sighing will turn to singing and enjoyment in this great Physician.

The Objective and Concrete Assurance Christ Gives

Rutherford knew that Earlston could put his sin to death, turn to Christ as Physician, and still struggle with doubt in his heart. So, Rutherford warned against doubting God’s covenant by asking, “What if Christ had such tottering thoughts of the bargain of the new covenant betwixt you and Him, as you have?”[6]

When sinful doubting does come, Rutherford acknowledged that such doubts can be, “Christ’s drugs, and ingredients that the Physician maketh use of for the curing of your pride.”[7] Doubting humbles us to remember that we are mere sinners dependent on God’s grace. Likewise, if it is true that we are sick, poor, and blind beggars standing before the Physician of our souls who heals, cleanses, pardons, and saves, then we must praise Him for the victory He has wrought, rather than doubt the covenant.

Salvation is God’s gift to us. We must not see our subjective lack of faith or sense of desertion in our hearts as evidence of a lack of salvation, for it is not the amount or extent of our faith that saves, but the object of our faith; namely, Christ Himself:

"Faith hath not a vote beside Christ's merits: blood, blood, dear blood, that came from your Cautioner’s holy body, maketh that sure work… Since faith apprehendeth pardon, but never payeth a penny for it, no marvel that salvation doth not die and live, ebb or flow, with the working of faith. But because it is your Lord’s honour to believe His mercy and His fidelity, it is infinite goodness in our Lord, that misbelief giveth a dash to our Lord’s glory, and not to our salvation."[8]

Remember, Christian: Your heart is not the compass that directs Christ. His love, Word, and promises are His compass — and so they must be ours. Your salvation in Him is secure because His covenant is sure.

Jacob Tanner is pastor of Christ Keystone Church, a Reformed Baptist church plant in Central Pennsylvania where he lives with his wife and two sons.  He is the author of Union with Christ: The Joy of the Christian’s Assurance in the Doctrines of Grace, releasing late 2022.

Related Links

Holiness; Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots by J. C. Ryle 

"Assurance: How do I know I am a Christian?" by Mark Jones

"Christian Assurance: Rome and Thomas Goodwin" by Ian Hamilton

"Grace in Salvation" by Mark Johnston

"Delighting in the Doctrine of Assurance," with Josh Moody, Mark Jones, and Stephen Yuille


[1] Samuel Rutherford, Letters of Samuel Rutherford (Carlisle, Pa.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1981), 350.

[2] Ibid, 349.

[3] Scottish word for children.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 350.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 351.

Jacob Tanner