Yesterday I began answering an email sent to me by a reader who struggles with assurance of salvation. In the first part of this two-part article I listed three important affirmations regarding assurance of salvation: it is possible and even normal for the Christian to experience assurance of salvation, it is possible and even normal for the non-Christian to experience a false assurance of salvation, and it is possible and even normal for Christians to have doubts about their salvation. Today I’ll discuss the Christian’s true basis for assurance.
It is a tragic but indisputable fact that many who think themselves Christians are not, and we have all known people who fit this mold. At the final judgment many will approach Jesus convinced that they are saved only to be told that Jesus never knew them (and hence that they never knew Him). We can often discern these people today simply by asking others how they know they will be given entrance into heaven. The answer to this question reveals a great deal about a person’s understanding of the gospel. My grandfather was asked this question and could only answer that he was a good person and from a family with several ministers in it. He may have been a good man, but he wasn’t a saved man.
Far too many people depend ultimately upon themselves for assurance. This applies, I suspect, equally to believers and unbelievers. A person may be truly saved yet look to himself for assurance of this salvation. While to be saved he must know that his grounds of salvation are extrinsic, he may feel that assurance is intrinsic to himself. This is dangerous ground to tread for when a person experiences a time of doubt he may drive himself to despair because of his misplaced assurance. I have warned before against statements of assurance that begin with, “Because I…” When our assurance rests on something we have done, a promise we have made or a prayer we have prayed, we have placed our assurance on shaky ground. When I ask you, “How do you know you are saved?” do you answer with “Because I…?” The reader who confessed her difficulty with assurance seems to have fallen into this trap. “I have prayed the salvation prayer numerous times because I thought that maybe I was not saved, “she wrote. “I just prayed today and I know that I am saved. I know that Jesus saves. I know that all doubt has been removed.” And I suspect this may be where she is having difficulty. She knows she is saved because she prayed the salvation prayer. It seems that she is putting her confidence in something she did. Her confidence is ultimately in herself. No wonder she struggles. No one was ever saved because he or she prayed a prayer of salvation. People are saved only because the Holy Spirit has indwelt them, has regenerated them, and has given them the gift of faith. We must think rightly about regeneration–about coming to faith–if we are to think rightly about assurance, for just as salvation depends on God, so does assurance.
Let’s turn to the Bible to discover the true basis for our assurance.
First, assurance of salvation rests on God’s character. In the last article I quoted the words of the Apostle Paul as we find them in 2 Timothy 1:12 “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.” What was the basis of Paul’s assurance? He rested in the character of God. He knew whom he had believed and trusted that God was good and would preserve him. He trusted in the goodness of God and in God’s desire to save His people. He rested in the words of Jesus that “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” He knew that Jesus would never reject anyone who came to Him with humility and sincerity.
Second, assurance of salvation rests on God’s promises. We must not allow our assurance to rest on the basis of the words of any mere human. It is God who saves us and thus we must hear His heart on the matter. Hear some of the promises of God regarding salvation.
- “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…” (Acts 16:31).
- “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
- “And this is the promise that he made to us -eternal life” (1 John 2:25)
- “whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).
- “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21).
God’s promises are sure. Recently Mark Dever wrote a book–a survey of the New Testament–with one chapter dedicated to each book. The book’s title is The Message of the New Testament and the subtitle is “Promises Kept.” The title is telling for the New Testament is a book of fulfilled promises. We should need and require no greater proof that God keeps promises than the New Testament where we witness God fulfilling promise after promise after promise. If God assures us that He accepts us on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ, how can we argue? How can we doubt? If the Bible is trustworthy in telling us how we can be saved it must also be trustworthy in how it prescribes assurance of that salvation. If we will not trust the Scripture what can we trust?
Third, assurance of salvation rests on the completed work of Jesus Christ. Before the birth of Jesus, while Joseph pondered Mary’s pregnancy and formulated a plan to be rid of her, he was visited by an angel who assured him that this child was of the Holy Spirit. The angel also told Joseph what Jesus’ life would accomplish. “…He will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Three decades later, as Jesus prepared to draw His last breath He cried out, “It is finished!” He cried out for all the world to hear that He had accomplished the purpose for which the Father had sent Him. When Jesus died He did not merely make salvation a possibility for those who would grab hold of it, but He fully and effectually saved those who believe in Him.
We can build our assurance on the fact that Jesus Christ died having accomplished our salvation. His work was finished. And so the question we face as believers is, “Do we believe this?” Do we believe that Jesus actually accomplished His mission? In his first letter to Timothy Paul writes, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…” Did Jesus accomplish what He came to do or did He merely allow the possibility of that work being accomplished?
And so we see that the basis of our salvation is God Himself. We can have great confidence that God does wish for us to have assurance and that He is ready, willing and able to provide it to us. Our assurance of salvation is extrinsic rather than intrinsic. It is built upon the character of God rather than upon anything we have done or could do.
It is useful to turn to a brief discussion of the marks of salvation. Those who are saved should be able to look to their lives and see some marks of those who are Christians. This is an area that I feel quite inadequate to discuss so I am going to turn to Don Whitney, whose work on this subject has done much to shape my understanding of assurance. I will provide an outline of the marks of salvation that he provides. He begins with a discussion of the inner confirmation from the Spirit. He shows that the Holy Spirit ministers to us through the Word of God to open our hearts and minds to the Bible in ways that give us assurance. He then teaches that assurance may be experienced partly through the attitudes and actions the Bible says will accompany salvation. Here are several questions which can guide us as we seek assurance:
- Do you share the intimacies of the Christian life with other believers?
- Do you have a deep awareness of your sin against the Word and love of God?
- Do you live in conscious obedience to the Word of God?
- Do you despise the world and its ways?
- Do you long for the return of Jesus Christ and to be made like Him?
- Do you habitually do what is right more and sin less?
- Do you love Christians sacrificially and want to be with them?
- Do you discern the presence of the Holy Spirit within you?
- Do you enjoy listening to the doctrines of the apostles taught today?
- Do you believe what the Bible teaches about Jesus Christ?
These biblical principals, taken as a whole, will do much to assure the believer that God is working in his life. If you see no evidence of these qualities in your life, it may well be that you are not saved. If you do see them it does not necessarily mean that you are, but it probably points that way.
There is a great deal more we could discuss about this topic, but I am going to keep this series short. I trust that you have come to understand that assurance of salvation is the privilege of the Christian and that we are blessed to be able to seek after it. I trust that you have come to see that our assurance of salvation must not rest in our sincerity or in anything we have done. Rather, our assurance rests entirely in the character of God, the promises of God and the completed work of Jesus Christ. We can have assurance and I pray that both you and I will find and experience it to God’s glory.
If you wish to read more on this subject, I’d recommend Don Whitney’s How Can I Be Sure I’m A Christian?.