“Assurance is glory in the bud; it is the suburbs of paradise” (Thomas Fuller).
One great tragedy in the church today is the number of believers who can’t say for sure they are saved. What blessings are missed where there is no beyond-a-doubt certainty that we have eternal life.
In his soul-winning program Evangelism Explosion, D. James Kennedy asked, “Have you come to a place in your spiritual life where you know for certain that if you were to die today you would go to Heaven?” Not only do most unbelievers stumble at the question, so do many believers. “I’m not really sure” and “I hope so” may be honest answers, but they are not the answers anybody wants. God wants you to know you’re saved.
Secure in Christ
First John is the “assurance epistle.” John used the word know 41 times in these five short chapters. While John’s Gospel was written to produce life through faith in Christ (see John 20:30, 31), his first epistle was written to produce assurance of life in Christ. His purpose statement is seen in 1 John 5:11-13: “And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. 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.” These verses give us five vital gospel truths about eternal life: (1) Eternal life is a present possession; (2) it is a gift; (3) it is found in Christ; (4) it is through faith; and (5) you can know you have it.
Throughout 1 John the apostle repeatedly assures his readers that they are secure in Christ. “We know we are in him” (2:5); “we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him” (3:2); “we know that we have passed from death to life (3:14); “we know that we live in him and he in us” (4:13); “we know” that he hears us (5:14,15); “we know that we are children of God” (5:19). John wants there to be no doubt in his readers that “your sins have been forgiven . . . because you have overcome the evil one” (2:12, 13), that “now we are the children of God” (3:2), so that, he says, we can “have confidence” when Judgment Day comes (2:28; 4:17; see Paul’s emphasis in Romans 8:1).
You will rarely find a Christian with real joy, real peace, or real power who is not certain of his salvation. To miss out on assurance is to miss the quiet joy of the Lord’s presence in times of pain, hardship, and failure. What a difference it makes to know God doesn’t hate you, but rather is working all things for your good (Romans 8:28). How reassuring to know that “The Refiner is never very far from the mouth of the furnace when it’s his gold in the fire” (Charles Spurgeon on 1 Peter 1:6, 7). How can we have peace when facing death if we’re unsure of our destiny? And our fervor for sharing our faith is all but quenched if we can’t be sure the power of the gospel has worked in our own life.
Why, then, are many Christians reluctant to accept this empowering principle of assurance? Some think it’s arrogant to say that you know you are saved, that it’s somehow a claim of goodness, or reflects a pompous assumption that you could never fall away from the faith. This kind of thinking misses the truth that assurance is not rooted in our goodness, but in God’s grace. This assurance is not the same as the doctrine of “eternal security.” It’s true that we have eternal security in Christ. As Jesus said in John 10:28, “I give them [my sheep] eternal life, and they shall never perish; and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Hebrews 13:5 and Romans 8:37-39 also teach a security that is eternal. However, contrary to the teachings of Calvinism, this security is not unconditional security. The Bible teaches conditional election and conditional assurance.
Some can’t find assurance because they are looking for God to confirm their salvation by some out-of-the-ordinary emotional experience, some “internal testimony.” But our assurance doesn’t rest on something as fickle as our feelings. It is a serious error to doubt the promises of the Bible, to subordinate them to our own emotions. John warns that we are, in effect, calling God a liar if we don’t accept his witness about having life by being in his Son (see 1 John 5:9, 10 in the context of 5:11-13).
Some believers are unable to feel securely saved because they haven’t stopped sinning. This is a legitimate concern only if sin has become the rule rather than the exception in a believer’s life. The Lord’s “sheep,” who cannot be “snatched” out of his hands, are described by Jesus himself as those who “hear my voice . . . and they follow me” (John 10:27). As long as we listen to and follow him, we are forever secure. But there is no promise of security for the habitually disobedient.
Over and over in 1 John, the assurance epistle, we come across three tests that identify those who are saved. There is the moral test, obedience (2:3-5). There is the social test, love (3:14-19). And there is the doctrinal test, believing the truth about Jesus Christ and rejecting heresies about him (2:22, 23 and 4:2, 3). Only departures from these essentials of the Christian faith would put our salvation in jeopardy: failure to obey God or to love our brothers, or putting our trust in a counterfeit Jesus.
Simply put, our continued salvation and our continued confident assurance are conditional on our continued faith. Not only were we initially saved by grace through faith (see Ephesians 2:8, 9), but we stay saved by grace through faith. First Peter 1:5 speaks of born again ones who are [literally] kept by the power of God for salvation through faith, or kept saved by grace through faith. The danger comes when a person stops living by faith.
Paul promised the Colossian believers that Christ would “present you holy in his sight . . . free from accusation—if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel” (Colossians 1:22, 23). The same principle is seen in many other passages (see Romans 11:17-24, Hebrews 3:12–4:11; 6:12;10:36-39; John 8:31, 32; 8:51; 15:1-10).
Secure by Faith
We are secure by faith. God does not demand perfection to remain saved, just faith. Forgiveness comes from being “in Christ” by faith. Back to our assurance epistle: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1, 2). Note that God’s goal for us is that we never sin, but, when we do, we have an Advocate, someone to come to our side and plead our case. It is Jesus himself (see Hebrews 2:16-18; 4:14-16).
Previously John wrote, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). The person who is living by faith will be genuinely sorry when he sins and will admit his sin to God; because he is in Christ, and because Christ sees the faith in his heart, he promises forgiveness. Perhaps you’ve heard it said, “You don’t have to be an angel to be a saint.”
We’ll never be good enough to deserve salvation. Both salvation and assurance are products of God’s grace and love. Any doubts? Trust God’s testimony. “And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. I write these things to you . . . so that you may know that you have eternal life.” Got guilt? Or got Jesus?
Dale Cornett is a retired Professor of Greek and New Testament from Boise Bible College. He and his wife Janine have three married children and six grandchildren.