|By: Dr. Steven Riser; ©2006|
|Dr. Riser explains that it is possible to have genuine assurance of salvation. He explains what the Bible teaches on this important topic.|
- 1 The Blessing of Experiencing the Biblical Assurance of Salvation
- 1.1 How can we have this assurance?
- 1.2 What effect does one’s religious background have on one’s assurance of salvation?
- 1.3 What is it that fosters such a lie in the individual? What leads to false assurance?
- 1.4 What greater blessing could there be than to experience the joy of salvation that comes through Jesus Christ?
- 1.5 What is the work of God?
- 1.6 What does it mean to be born again?
- 1.7 How is true assurance gained?
- 1.8 How do we know if a person is regenerated or born again?
- 1.9 What does a Christian look like?
The Blessing of Experiencing the Biblical Assurance of Salvation
In a Barna Survey, 75% of the adults, when asked, said they were Christians. No one believes that this statistic is really true, but what it says is that there are millions of adults in this country that have a false assurance of salvation. How tragic to go through life thinking we’re “saved” only to wake up on Judgment Day and discover that we’re not. But the Bible clearly teaches that, for some, this will be the case (cf. Matt.7:21-23).
While it is possible to have false assurance, it is also possible to have genuine assurance of salvation. The good news is that we don’t have to go through life without this assurance. The Apostle John says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 Jn. 5:13).
How can we have this assurance?
This question is very important because our eternal destiny may be at stake. “Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure” (2 Pet. 1:10).
In 2 Peter 1:10, Peter not only teaches that believers are to make their election sure and he fully expects them to be capable of doing so. How do we make our calling and election sure? By diligently pursuing the means of grace that God has provided by way of the spiritual disciplines and by cultivating the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). This exhortation by Peter is an essential element in our sanctification and enhances it. While it’s true that we must believe in Christ to be “saved,” how do we know if our faith in Christ is “saving faith”?
We need to blast before we can build. We need to discover some false basis for assurance before we can grasp the biblical basis for salvation. Certainly we can’t rely on our feelings, since feelings can be misleading. We can’t rely merely on mental assent to certain facts since James 2 makes clear that this is inadequate. Even demons believe that God exists but that belief does not save them. We can’t rely on praying “the sinner’s prayer” since thousands have prayed this prayer with no demonstrable effect. Trusting in any outward sign or symbol such as joining a church or participating in the sacraments or even seeking to “do” something for God has never saved anyone. Further, trusting in our own “good works” rather than God’s grace has never saved anyone (Eph. 2:8, 9).
What effect does one’s religious background have on one’s assurance of salvation?
It’s extremely rare for a Roman Catholic to come to a full assurance of salvation for their entire system of sacerdotal religion mitigates against it. For Arminians, daily assurance is the only possibility because they believe they can lose their salvation tomorrow. Only those Reformed in the faith are capable of being assured that they are in a state of grace because the Reformers believe in the sovereignty of God in salvation and the eternal security of the believer.
When it comes to assurance of salvation, there are four types of people:
- The person that is unsaved and knows it: these are godless people and they know where they are going. Paul talks about such people in Romans 1:18, 20; they may look for a loophole at the very end of life.
- The person that is saved and knows it: by way of the Scripture and the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit.
- The person that is saved and does not know it: it is possible to be in a state of grace and not be aware of it.
- The person that is unsaved but thinks he is saved (false assurance). This is the ultimate self-deception.
What is it that fosters such a lie in the individual? What leads to false assurance?
There are two main causes: 1) They do not understand what salvation entails, or 2) They have not met the requirements of salvation.
One sure ticket to false assurance is to believe in Universalism: that everyone is saved and going to heaven. Another common cause is to believe in Legalism or a works-righteousness religion. Virtually all other cults and religions advocate some form of works-righteousness. One of the most common responses of such a person when asked if you know you are going to heaven is: “I’ve lived a good life.” Paul is clear in Galatians 2:16— “a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.” A final cause of false assurance is sacerdotal salvation— placing our faith in some outward sign or symbol for our salvation. Trusting in outward signs alone leads to false assurance.
What greater blessing could there be than to experience the joy of salvation that comes through Jesus Christ?
While assurance can be a blessing, it can also be an agonizing problem. The most agonizing problem about the assurance of salvation is not the problem of whether the objective facts of Christianity are true (God exists, Christ is God, Christ died for sinners, Christ rose from the dead, Christ saves forever all who believe, etc.). Those facts are the utterly crucial bedrock of our faith. But the really agonizing problem of assurance is whether I personally am saved by those facts. Facts never saved anyone; faith saves those who place it in Christ’s atoning sacrifice.
Assurance of salvation begins by discerning whether or not I have “saving faith”. What makes this agonizing—for many in the history of the church and today—is that there are people who think they have saving faith but don’t. For example, in Matthew
7:21-23, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.’”
Is there a difference between profession and possession? Are all professors, possessors? According to Jesus, no. A mere profession of faith in Christ with our lips will not suffice if our hearts are far from Christ (Isa. 29:13-14). Carnal Christianity teaches that one can be “saved” and remain completely fruitless throughout life.
What is the work of God?
In John 6:29, Jesus said, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” Doing God’s will involves not only behavior but belief. Behavior is never a substitute for belief or faith. Paul made this crystal clear in Ephesians 2:8, 9 when he taught that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works. While some behavior may represent “the fruit of faith”, it is never a cause of our salvation or a substitute for faith. Man says “do” (salvation by works), Jesus says “knew” (Matt. 7:23). Jesus said in John 17: 3, “…this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” Our faith in Christ enables us to establish a saving relationship with God through Christ. Our behavior can never accomplish this.
Some of the questions we need to ask are: Do I really have saving faith? Is my faith real? Or — Am I self-deceived? Some well-intentioned people try to lessen the problem by making faith a mere decision to affirm certain truths, like the truth: Jesus is God, and he died for my sins. Some also try to assist assurance by denying that any kind of life-change is really necessary to demonstrate the reality of faith. So they find a way to make James 2:17 mean something other than what is seems to mean: “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead.” But these strategies which are designed to help one’s assurance actually backfire. They deny some Scripture and even the minimal faith they preserve can be agonized over and doubted by the tormented soul. They don’t solve the problem, and they lose the truth. And, perhaps worst of all, they sometimes may give assurance to people who shouldn’t have it.
It is impossible to believe without first being regenerated because we are spiritually dead. (Eph. 2:1 cf. 1 Cor. 2:14) This is why Jesus said that except a person is born again (regenerated) he can’t see “the Kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3). We can’t know we are truly “saved” until we are born again because, until we are born again, we are not saved.
What does it mean to be born again?
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” What changes will take place in our lives when we are born again?
- We will not habitually continue to live in sin (1 Jn. 5:18 cf. 3:9; Rom. 6:2)
- We will seek to live a holy life by obeying God’s Word (1 Jn. 2: 19; 3: 10; 2:3)
- We will love others regardless of who they are or what they have done (1 John 4:7-8; 3:14)
- We will not place our affections upon the things of this world (1 Jn. 2:15; Rom. 8:5, 9)
We need to be reminded that evidences of salvation must not be confused with causes of salvation. The root of salvation is not identical to the fruit of salvation. Assurance of salvation is not the essence of saving faith. It is the result of faith, and follows it. True believers may not experience it. Trust itself is something different from the evidence that we do trust. Believers are encouraged to seek the grace of full assurance (Heb. 10:22, 2 Pet. 1:5-10). The attainment of this grace is a duty that is to be diligently sought by all true believers. Assurance is possible via:
- The external testimony of the Scriptures (1 Jn. 2:3; 3:14; 5:11-13)
- The internal testimony of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:16)
- The command to seek after it (Heb. 6:11; 2 Pet. 1:10) and
- The fact that it has been attained (2 Tim. 1:12; 4:7, 8; 1 Jn. 2:3; 4:16)
How is true assurance gained?
If false assurance is the result of false doctrines of salvation, then a biblical understanding of salvation and meeting the requirements of salvation is the means of a warranted assurance of salvation. Clearly, one’s view of election and calling is related to one’s view of salvation and the ability to have assurance concerning salvation. In Romans 8:30, there are four verbs: “predestined, called; justified and glorified.” Each verb applies to the same group of people.
How do we know if a person is “called”?===
A person is called if they are regenerated or born again.
How do we know if a person is regenerated or born again?
If they have responded to God with genuine repentance and biblical “saving” faith. Additionally, the Holy Spirit will bear an internal testimony that we are, in fact, children of God (Rom. 8:16).
Instead of minimizing the miraculous, deep, transforming nature of faith, and instead of denying that there are necessary life-changes that show the reality of faith, we should tackle the problem of assurance another way. We should begin by realizing that there is an objective warrant for resting in God’s forgiveness of my sins, and there is a subjective warrant for God’s forgiveness of my sins. The objective warrant is the finished work of Christ on the cross that “has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:14). The subjective warrant is our faith which is expressed in “being sanctified” and permanently indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8: 9)
Next we should realize that saving faith has two parts. First, faith is a spiritual sight of glory (or beauty) in the Christ of the gospel. In other words, when you hear or read what God has done for sinners in the cross and the resurrection of Jesus, this appears to your heart as a great and glorious thing in and of itself even before you are sure you are saved by it. In 2 Corinthians 4:4, Paul says that what Satan hinders in the minds of unbelievers is the “seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of
Christ, who is the image of God.” For faith to be real there must be a supernatural “light” (spiritual sight) that God shines into the heart to show us that Christ is glorious and wonderful (2 Cor. 4:6). This happens as a work of the Spirit of God through the preaching of the gospel (Rom. 10:9-13).
Second, faith is a warranted resting in this glorious gospel for our own salvation. I say “warranted resting” because there is an “unwarranted resting”— people who think they are saved who are not, because they have never come to see the glory of Christ as compellingly glorious. These people only believe on the basis of wanting rescue from harm, not because they see Christ as more beautiful and desirable than all else. But for those who “see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” their resting is warranted (2 Cor. 4: 4-6).
While behavior per se is not positive proof of salvation, it can be a helpful indicator. Behavior can affect our fellowship.
What does a Christian look like?
The Apostle John gives the following seven tests of Christian behavior:
- Test one: Walk in the Light – 1 John 1:6 says, “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.” We cannot be in fellowship with Christ with unconfessed sin in our lives. Christ’s presence throws light on our conscience and shows us the need to repent (Eph. 5:13). A Christian who is walking in fellowship with God will enjoy fellowship with others Christians (1 John 1:7). Sin separates us from God and others. (Please note: being out of fellowship with God does not mean that we are out of relationship with Him. For example, I am still the son of my earthly father (relationship), whether or not I am on speaking terms (fellowship) with him. Paul teaches that unbelievers are blinded (2 Cor. 4:4) and do not have the light of Christ’s presence (1 John 1:6). It is only the believer’s privilege to “walk in the light.”)
- Test Two: Admit You Are a Sinner – 1 John 1:8, 10 says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us… If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.” As we walk in the light, God keeps showing us the sin in our lives and when He does, we need to be willing to confess it (agree together with Him concerning it, 1 John 1:9.) We are to specifically confess the sins about which the Holy Spirit convicts us and when we do we are cleansed from all unrighteousness. It’s not enough to admit we have sin, we must confess it to our Advocate (1 John 2:1).
- Test Three: Obey God’s Will – 1 John 2:3-4 says, “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” The Living Bible paraphrases verse 4, “Someone may say, I am a Christian, I am on my way to heaven, I belong to Christ. But if he doesn’t do what Christ tells him to, he is a liar.” If we would please God, obedience is the acid test. Jesus says in John 14:21, “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.” What are God’s two primary commandments? To love God first and foremost and to love our neighbor as ourselves. God’s commandments help us to identify specific ways in which to love God and others. We desire to please and spend time with those we love, including God Himself.
- Test Four: Imitate Christ – 1 John 2:6 says, “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.” The Living Bible translates verse 6, “Anyone who says he is a Christian should live as Christ did.” Jesus was sinless; does that mean that we have to live a sinless life to be saved? Of course not. The truth is that Christ is an example as well as our savior and Lord and we should follow in His steps (1 Pet. 2:21). The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord. We begin to know what God wishes as we begin to know Him better and we have a greater desire to please Him as we learn to love Him more (1 John 3:24) WWJD = What Would Jesus Do?
- Test Five: Love Others – “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness” (1 John 2:9). Another acid test of the Christian life is love (1 John 2:7-11). Love absolutely changes a person for the better. Love makes us have a concern for the welfare of others. The three chief ways people relate to others are: 1) hostility (1 John 3:14), 2) indifference (1 John 4:8, 20-21) and 3) love (1 John 2:9-11; 3:14, 16-18). Christians should want to love as God loves with “agape” love. Jesus says that we are to love others as He loved us (Jn. 13: 34, 35).
- Test Six: Don’t Love the World – “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). Since we live in a present evil age (Gal. 1:4) we are not to love the world or the things in the world. As a matter of fact, the Apostle James says that “friendship with the world is hatred toward God. Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (4:4). Most sins can be put into three categories: 1) the lust of the flesh, 2) the lust of the eyes, and 3) the pride of life (2:16, 17). Adam and Eve’s temptation and Jesus’ temptation follow the same basic pattern (Gen. 3; Matt. 4).
- Test Seven: Live a Righteous Life – 1 John 2: 29 says, “If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him.” What does it mean to act righteously? It means that we commit to do what is right regardless of the circumstances or our personal feelings. It means doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do. God is interested in our attitude as well as our actions. Love is the first instinct of a regenerated heart. We love God because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). He who has love in his heart has fellowship with God (4:16), but where there is no love, there is not fellowship (4:19-21).
We should continually look to the cross and the work of God in Christ, because this is where God makes the light of His gospel shine. Secondly, we should continually pray for God to “enlighten the eyes of our hearts” (Eph. 1:18). Thirdly, we should love each other; because, as John said, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren.” In the end, the assurance of salvation, like repentance and faith, is a precious gift of God. Let’s pray for each other that the assurance of salvation will abound among all true believers.
May we all know the security that comes from making our calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10).