When we trust in Jesus Christ, our eternal security in Christ becomes a spiritual reality whether we understand it or believe it. Ones belief in security in Christ does not make it true or false. If we have trusted in the person and work of Christ for personal salvation, security is a fact.
Assurance is the confident realization of that security. It is the realization of what we have in Christ such as eternal life, forgiveness of sin, and being the object of God’s personal care as his children. Assurance has to do with our comprehension of the facts and provisions of salvation through faith in Christ. This is a crucial doctrine because, properly understood, it will touch the believer’s life in several areas. Not only does it give assurance of salvation, but with that also comes a greater assurance of God’s provision in all areas of life.
Romans 8:32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?
When people do not have assurance, we should always begin by sharing the gospel to be sure they have truly trusted in Christ. Once this is confirmed, then move on to the matters of assurance.
(1) People often lack assurance because they cannot remember or point to a specific time when they received Christ. Some doubt or wonder if they were ever really saved. There is a specific point in time when salvation occurs—the point when regeneration takes place. The issue for people is to know if they now really trust in the person and work of Christ.
(2) People often lack assurance because they question the procedure they went through when they accepted Christ. Many evangelists and preachers emphasize the need for some form of public confession of faith like going forward at the end of a service or raising your hand. If people receive Christ privately, they may wonder if they should have made a public confession or prayed a different prayer.
(3) People often lack assurance because of struggles they have with certain sins. They wonder if a true believer would have these kinds of problems. The real problem is ignorance of man’s sinful nature, the spiritual warfare we are in, God’s means of deliverance, and the need to grow and mature in Christ.
(4) The primary reason behind a lack of assurance is doctrinal misunderstanding and the consequent lack of faith in the finished work of Christ. This means a failure to understand the Word and its teaching regarding mankind, his sin and inability to work for or maintain his salvation, God’s perfect holiness, and the finished nature and sufficiency of the work of Christ.
(5) Finally, people often lack assurance because they have erroneously been taught that they should look to themselves and their works as the primary proof of their salvation. This is a major issue today. Robert Lightner writes:
Those who think the sinner must make Christ Lord of his life, or at least promise to do so, before he can be saved make assurance rest on the evidence of a surrendered walk. MacArthur cites this as the only way a believer can be assured of his or her salvation. ‘Genuine assurance comes from seeing the Holy Spirit’s transforming work in one’s life, not from clinging to the memory of some experience.’7
So what is the proper basis for assurance? Should we look to some experience or our works?
The Word of God is God’s witness to the believer (1 John 5:11-13). The Greek text includes the article with the word “life.” Salvation in Christ is not just the gift of life, but of “the life,” the one which comes only through faith in God’s unique Son. The clear declaration of Scripture is that the one who believes in Christ’s person and work on the cross as God’s provision for his sins has:
(1) Eternal life.
John 3:36 The one who believes in the Son has eternal life. The one who rejects the Son will not see life, but God’s wrath remains on him.
1 John 5:11-13 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. The one who has the Son has this eternal life; the one who does not have the Son of God does not have this eternal life. I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.
(2) Forgiveness of all sin.
Acts 10:43 About him all the prophets testify, that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.
Colossians 2:13 And even though you were dead in your transgressions and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, he nevertheless made you alive with him, having forgiven all your transgressions.
(3) Freedom from condemnation.
John 5:24 “I tell you the solemn truth, the one who hears my message and believes the one who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned, but has crossed over from death to life.
Romans 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
(4) Justification (declared righteous by God).
Romans 5:1 Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
Romans 4:1-6 What then shall we say that Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh, has discovered regarding this matter? 2 For if Abraham was declared righteous by the works of the law, he has something to boast about—but not before God. 3 For what does the scripture say? “ Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his pay is not credited due to grace but due to obligation. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness. 6 So even David himself speaks regarding the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
Romans 4:25 He was given over because of our transgressions and was raised for the sake of our justification.
Ephesians 2:8-9 For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 it is not from works, so that no one can boast.
(6) A child of God by faith.
John 1:12 But to all who have received him—those who believe in his name—he has given the right to become God’s children
Romans 8:14-17 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery leading again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 And if children, then heirs (namely, heirs of God and also fellow heirs with Christ)—if indeed we suffer with him so we may also be glorified with him.
John Calvin emphatically warned against looking to ourselves, that is, to our works or the fruit of the Spirit, for certainty of our salvation. He taught that we should look to Christ as the objective basis for assurance. To look to ourselves produces doubt and detracts from the saving work of Christ. He rejected the exhortation to self-examination as a dangerous dogma.8
Contrary to MacArthur’s comment quoted above, this is not a matter of clinging to some experience, but the sure witness of the Word of God. Earl Radmacher writes:
Many wise pastors have insisted that the basis for knowing that I am a Christian is not what I do but what God’s Word says about what Christ has done and continues to do for those who have believed (John 1:12; 1 John 5:13). I know I belong to Christ because I have believed in Jesus Christ as my only Savior and Redeemer from eternal destruction. It’s not the evidences of my life that are my basis for knowing that. It’s the Word of God. God said it. That settles it. I am fearful of those today, who because of a genuine, valid concern about the lack of growth and the lack of evident Christian lifestyle, are willing to try to prop up the Gospel by adding to it.9
To properly understand the work of Christ (Christ’s substitutionary death, dying in our place and bearing our sins on the cross) is another vital need tremendously important to assurance. This too, of course, is based on the statements of Scripture, but the emphasis is on understanding the sufficiency, finished nature, and accomplishments of the death of Christ. There are two prominent aspects here which Scripture emphatically teaches:
(1) Salvation is not by our works or merit (cf. Rom. 4:1-7 above).
Ephesians 2:8-9 For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 it is not from works, so that no one can boast.
Titus 3:5-7 He saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us in full measure through Jesus Christ our Savior. 7 And so, since we have been justified by his grace, we become heirs with the confident expectation of eternal life.”
(2) Salvation is solely by Christ’s person and work as a gift of God.
1 John 5:5-12 Now who is the person who has conquered the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? 6 Jesus Christ is the one who came by water and blood—not by the water only, but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. 7 For there are three that testify, 8 the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three are in agreement. 9 If we accept the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, because this is the testimony of God that he has testified concerning his Son. 10 (The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has testified concerning his Son.) 11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 The one who has the Son has this eternal life; the one who does not have the Son of God does not have this eternal life.
Acts 4:12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among people by which we must be saved.
Philippians 3:8-9 More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things—indeed, I regard them as dung!—that I may gain Christ, 9 and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness—a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness.
(1) The Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of Truth.
John 14:17 the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it does not see him or know him. But you know him, because he resides with you and will be in you.
John 15:26 When the Advocate comes, whom I will send you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me,
John 16:8-13 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong concerning sin and righteousness and judgment— 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. 12 “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. For he will not speak on his own authority, but will speak whatever he hears, and will tell you what is to come.
1 John 4:6 We are from God; the person who knows God listens to us, but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of deceit.
(2) The Holy Spirit is called an anointing. Both of these descriptions portray the Holy Spirit’s ministry of teaching believers God’s Word.
1 John 2:20, 27 Nevertheless you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you all know. … 27 Now as for you, the anointing that you received from him resides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, it is true and is not a lie. Just as it has taught you, you reside in him.
(3) The Holy Spirit opens the Word to our hearts.
Acts 16:14 A woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, a God-fearing woman, listened to us. The Lord opened her heart to respond to what Paul was saying.
(4) The Holy Spirit takes the things of Christ and gives us understanding.
1 Corinthians 2:12-16 Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things that are freely given to us by God. 13 And we speak about these things, not with words taught us by human wisdom, but with those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people. 14 The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The one who is spiritual discerns all things, yet he himself is understood by no one. 16 For who has known the mind of the Lord, so as to advise him? But we have the mind of Christ.
Ephesians 3:15-19 from whom every family in heaven and on the earth is named. 16 I pray that according to the wealth of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner person, 17 that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, so that, because you have been rooted and grounded in love, 18 you may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and thus to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.
(5) The Holy Spirit assures our hearts through the Word that we are children of God. The witness concerning life in the Son through believing in the Son as promised in 1 John 5:11 is really the message to which the Holy Spirit bears witness in the Word.
Romans 8:15-16 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery leading again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children.
1 John 5:7-11 For there are three that testify, 8 the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three are in agreement. 9 If we accept the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, because this is the testimony of God that he has testified concerning his Son. 10 (The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has testified concerning his Son.) 11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 The one who has the Son has this eternal life; the one who does not have the Son of God does not have this eternal life.
Principle 1: We need to draw our assurance from faith in the facts of Scripture and not from our feelings. Our faith and thus our assurance must stand on the sure promises of the Bible rather than on our feelings. The biblical order is: FACTS ——>FAITH ——>FEELINGS. Feelings are the responders of the soul or heart. They are to follow and respond to our understanding of Scripture, but they are never a safe guide to what we should believe or of the state of our salvation. This leads to the next point.
Principle 2: We need to draw our assurance from faith in the facts of Scripture and not from our works. Works or the biblical changes that occur in our lives as a result of the grace of God can confirm the reality of our life with God. We must be ever so careful, however, in making such subjective ground the basis of our assurance, for when a believer is out of fellowship he or she can have the appearance of an unbeliever especially if the condition lasts for any length of time.
1 Corinthians 3:1-4 So, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but instead as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready. In fact, you are still not ready, 3 for you are still influenced by the flesh. For since there is still jealousy and dissension among you, are you not influenced by the flesh and behaving like unregenerate people? 4 For whenever someone says, “I am with Paul,” or “I am with Apollos,” are you not merely human?
If we depend on works or obedient living to prove our salvation then we are faced with the following dilemma: If we are living obediently now (the supposed proof of salvation), the possibility exists that could change in the future. If later on we cease to live obediently, then that would prove (based on the above premise) that we are not now true Christians in spite of our obedient lifestyle. So present obedience can never really prove our Christianity and thus, we could never have assurance.
Post-generation performance is not a trustworthy basis for assurance of salvation. Scripture clearly warns against basing assurance or true relationship with God on performance. Note Matthew 7:13-23, for an example. The false prophets typically come in sheep’s clothing. Catch that—they look good! They do all the right things. They appear to be ‘model Christians,’ pillars of the church. (Fruit here refers not to the behavior of these people but to their teaching—see Matt. 12:31-37.) But they’ve never trusted Christ; they have no vital relationship with Him (v 23). Instead, at the bottom line, they are trusting in themselves (v 22). Their performance looks good. In fact it leads them to conclude that they are right with God. And yet they are deceived. They learn too late that assurance of salvation cannot properly be based on performance.10
Proper Christian living should never be the fundamental grounds for assurance of salvation. Rather, assurance of salvation which should rest in the merit and sufficiency of the Savior and the believer’s new life in Christ, must be the fundamental basis for proper Christian living.
Colossians 3:1-4 Therefore, if you have been raised with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Keep thinking about things above, not things on the earth, 3 for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ (who is your life) appears, then you too will be revealed in glory with him.
As John shows in 1 John 1:6-7, Christlike behavior is an evidence of genuine fellowship and that a person is truly walking with the Lord in the light.
1 John 1:6-7 If we say we have fellowship with him and yet keep on walking in the darkness, we are lying and not practicing the truth. 1:7 But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
However, proper Christian living is not necessarily an evidence of genuine relationship because when believers are out of fellowship for any length of time they will manifest the works of the flesh and may look very much like an unbeliever. As mentioned earlier, the apostle Paul speaks of this when he described carnal Christians as “behaving like unregenerate people” in 1 Corinthians 3:3-4.
3 for you are still influenced by the flesh. For since there is still jealousy and dissension among you, are you not influenced by the flesh and behaving like unregenerate people? 4 For whenever someone says, “I am with Paul,” or “I am with Apollos,” are you not merely human?
The apostle was not questioning or denying the fact of their salvation. He affirmed his conviction of their salvation, but they were walking according to the flesh rather than according to the Spirit of God. This made them behave so they looked like natural men, like men who were without the saving power of Christ, when in reality they were in Christ with the Spirit indwelling them.
1 Corinthians 1:2-9 to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, and called to be saints, with all those in every place who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours. 3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! 4 I always thank my God for you because of the grace of God that was given to you in Christ Jesus. 5 For you were made rich in every way in him, in all your speech and in every kind of knowledge— 6 just as the testimony about Christ has been confirmed among you— 7 so that you do not lack any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8 He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, by whom you were called into fellowship with his son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
1 Corinthians 3:1 So, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but instead as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.
1 Corinthians 6:19-20 Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? 20 For you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God with your body.
Sometimes a passage like 2 Corinthians 13:5 is used to support the necessity of examining our works to prove our salvation. This is unfortunate because this is mere proof-texting and misses the context and the actual meaning and purpose of this passage in the argument of Paul in 2 Corinthians.
2 Corinthians 13:5 Put yourselves to the test to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize regarding yourselves that Jesus Christ is in you—unless, indeed, you fail the test!
MacArthur is an illustration of this. He writes: “Doubts about one’s salvation are not wrong so long as they are not nursed and allowed to become an obsession. Scripture encourages self-examination. Doubts must be confronted and dealt with honestly and biblically.” Then, after quoting 2 Corinthians 13:5 he concludes, “That admonition is largely ignored—and often explained away—in the contemporary church.”11
But is this the correct interpretation of this passage? Is Paul calling these believers to examine themselves for the purpose of assurance of salvation? The context says no! The following are some reasons for this position:
(1) Again, as in 1 Corinthians, Paul affirmed his conviction they were saved. He does not question their salvation for a moment as is clear from the passages mentioned above.
(2) Even if Paul were telling them to examine themselves for assurance, he does not tell them to examine their works for assurance. In light of the plain teaching of Scripture, if anything needed to be examined, it would be the object of their faith. Had they truly trusted in Christ rather than in some system of works?
(3) He does tell them to examine themselves, but he had another purpose in mind according to the context of verses 3-7. Some were questioning the validity of the ministry of the apostle because of the influence of certain false teachers. Compare 2 Corinthians 11:1-12:21 where the apostle defends his ministry against their accusations. They were demanding proof in verse 3 that Christ was speaking through Paul. In verse 5 Paul shows them that the proof they were looking for was in themselves because he had been their father in the faith.
1 Corinthians 4:15 For though you may have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, because I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
The sure way to prove Paul’s ministry was to examine their own faith since their belief in the genuineness of their faith carried with it the proof of the genuineness of Paul’s ministry as a spokesman for Christ. Did they know the Savior? Yes. How did they come to know the Savior? Through Paul’s ministry. He did not believe they were counterfeit and knew they were unlikely to come to a different conclusion about their faith which only proved he too passed the test. This is the point of 2 Corinthians 13:6, “And I hope that you will realize that we have not failed the test.”
Remember that the basis God gives us for assurance of salvation is His record or witness to us as clearly declared in 1 John 5:11-13:
11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 The one who has the Son has this eternal life; the one who does not have the Son of God does not have this eternal life.
Does the fact that we are confident of our salvation because of the finished work of Christ mean we can be indifferent about our lifestyle? Does assurance of salvation promote promiscuous Christian living and faulty stewardship? No, not if one understands the whole counsel of the Word.
Every believer as a child of God is a steward to whom God has entrusted stewardships of time, talents (spiritual gifts included), God’s truth, and treasures. A steward is someone who manages the property or equipment of another. What does this mean? The apostle Paul teaches us “it is required in stewards that one be found faithful.” God holds us responsible for what we do with our stewardship, and a day will come when we will be held accountable for what we have done with the life God has given us. This is the point of 1 Corinthians 3:12-15:
12 If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, 13 each builder’s work will be plainly seen, for the Day will make it clear, because it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test what kind of work each has done. 14 If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
Note the contrast here. The believer is in heaven because of what Jesus did, but accountable reward-wise for what he did with the life and gifts God gave him. Again, listen to Radmacher’s comments on this:
As I write these words, I stand in God’s sight faultless and perfect because God Almighty sees me through Jesus Christ. There is no compromise to that. No one who knows Jesus Christ will ever appear at the Great White Throne Judgment of Revelation 20. Believers shall appear, however, at the Judgment Seat of Christ (the Bema) and will be judged by their works (2 Cor. 5:10). It is significant to note that both the unregenerate and the regenerate will be judged by their works. The unregenerate will be judged by their works at the Great White Throne Judgment and the results of that judgment will be degrees of eternal punishment in hell. The regenerate will be judged by their works at the Bema and the result of that judgment will be either be reward or the lack of it.12
In lesson 7 we will cover the Judgment Seat of Christ in detail, but for now, it is sufficient for us to realize that while we are secure in the Savior as far as heaven is concerned, we have a wonderful stewardship for which we are each responsible. Our need is to be disciplined through God’s grace unto godliness which has a promise for the present life and also for the life to come.
1 Timothy 4:7-8 But reject those myths fit only for the godless and gullible, and train yourself for godliness. 8 For “physical exercise has some value, but godliness is valuable in every way. It holds promise for the present life and for the life to come.
7 Robert Lightner, Sin, The Savior, and Salvation, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 1991, p. 246 quoting John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 23.
8 Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance, Handsel, Edinburg, 1985, p. 28.
9 Earl Radmacher, The Grace Evangelical Society News, Vol. 10, No. 3, May-June 1995, p. 1.
10 Rich Christianson, The Grace Evangelical Society News, Vol. 9, No. 1, January-February 1994, p. 4.
11 John F. MacArthur, Jr., The Gospel According to Jesus, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1988, p. 190.
12 Radmacher, Vol. 10, No. 3, pp. 1, 4.