By Dr. Herbert Samworth
One of the most precious promises found in Scripture is 1 John 5:13:
“These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life.”
In this verse, the Apostle John seeks to encourage his readers about the doctrine of assurance of salvation.
If a teaching is found in the Word of God, we are certain that it is part of the Christian’s heritage. A simple reading of John’s words makes it clear that a person may be assured that he or she has eternal life. If we define assurance of salvation in other words, we can state that it is a firm biblical confidence that a believer is an heir to all the Scriptural promises given to the child of God.
In this article we will study the biblical teaching of assurance: its benefits, how to obtain it, and some objections to the doctrine.
BENEFITS OF THE ASSURANCE OF SALVATION
Why should we be concerned about the assurance of salvation? The benefits indeed are great. It gives us the confidence that we have Christ as our Savior and Lord. There are times in life when we can lose heart or become discouraged. Being assured that we belong to the Lord Jesus gives us true peace in the midst of the storm. As assured believers, we are confident that, because we are the Lord’s, nothing can happen to us that lies outside of His permissive will. Romans 8:28-29 become far more than just verses quoted in the midst of difficulties; they express the deepest convictions of our hearts. We know that all things do work together for good to those that love God. We are confident that, from all eternity, God has determined to conform us to the image of His Son. We know that we belong to Him and nothing can separate us from Him or frustrate His purpose for our lives. Therefore, God’s perfect and permissive wills ultimately accomplish His absolute will for His creation.
True assurance also gives us a maturity of character in making decisions. We are enabled to take a long-range view of life and the things that occur to us. In the midst of difficulties, we desire to know the reason why such things happen. Many times we demand to know the answer immediately. However, if we are assured of our relationship to the Lord, we can see these difficulties as part of a greater purpose: God’s sovereign will in conforming us to the image of His Son, Jesus Christ.
True assurance also is an encouragement to consistent growth in the Christian life. It is tragic to note the number of professing Christians who appear to have stopped growing in their faith. However, when we are assured of our position in Christ, rather than making us secure and indifferent, it serves as a spur to go deeper in our walk with Him. No one would dispute that the Apostle Paul was a mature Christian, yet he confessed that even he put all things aside in order to grow in his relationship with the Lord. See Philippians 3:10-15.
HOW TO OBTAIN ASSURANCE OF SALVATION
Many people believe that the assurance of salvation follows immediately after a profession of faith in Christ. After leading a person to Christ, the counselor is encouraged to lead the person directly into assurance as though salvation and assurance of salvation were two sides of a single coin. Now this can indeed happen. There are individuals who have professed Christ and have never doubted the genuineness of that decision. However, there can be a danger here. There can be the subtle temptation to think that one’s salvation is based on something the person has done. Frequently, we meet people who believe they are saved because they went forward in an evangelistic meeting many years before, they prayed to receive Christ as a child, or they were baptized and joined a Bible-believing church. They base their spiritual relationship with the Lord on a past action although there may be little or no evidence of any change in their lives. True assurance is always experienced in the present tense. While the person may have accepted Christ years ago, the reality of that decision is confirmed in the present. It is no accident that the verbs in Scripture that express assurance of salvation such as knowing or being confident are expressed in the present tense.
What, then, does the Word of God teach us about the way to attain a true assurance of salvation? First, it is important to state that the essence of biblical salvation is not primarily that I have eternal life and that I am going to heaven. While that is a true statement, biblical salvation is, primarily, a personal and living relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. New Testament salvation is never given apart from the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. To have Christ is to have salvation and all the blessings promised with Him. See Romans 8:31-32.
The first means of assurance of salvation comes by the testimony of the Word of God. The purpose of John’s first epistle is to assure believers that they belong to Christ and to be confident of that relationship. See 1 John 5:13. A number of verses in God’s Word speak to this fact. God promises that He will be God to those who believe in Him. He tells them that their names are engraved on the palms of His hands. The Lord Jesus promises that no man can pluck His children out of His hand or out of the hand of the Father. See Isaiah 49:16 and John 10:28.
The second means of assurance is through the testimony of the Holy Spirit. The primary ministry of the Holy Spirit to believers is not to equip them with spiritual gifts, but to accomplish the sanctifying work of conforming them to the likeness of the Lord Jesus. In Romans 8:14 we read that those who are being led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. It is interesting to note that the context of being led is not vocational guidance but a transformation into the likeness of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Finally, there is the testimony of a changed life. Biblical salvation is not a moral change that the person accomplishes through his own power. Biblical salvation requires a new heart given by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. While we cannot read the motives of people’s hearts, and there is the possibility of self-deception, we can make a ministerial judgment that those who show the consistent evidence of a changed life are Christians. This judgment can also serve to encourage the person himself. The Bible states that those who desire to do the Lord’s will from the heart belong to Him. A saved person does not have to be coerced into doing God’s will; he has a heart-felt desire to do it.
OBJECTIONS TO ASSURANCE OF SALVATION
There have been those who have strongly objected to the doctrine of assurance of salvation. We will note some of their objections.
First, there are those who seek to maintain spiritual control over others by denying them any assurance of their salvation. They seek to make the person dependent on a church or group. This attempt to control is an abuse of pastoral authority. Paul states in 2 Corinthians 13:10 that the purpose of spiritual authority is to build people up in their faith, not to exercise lordship over them. It is the privilege of a minister to guide people into the state of a settled conscience before God. It is never right to bring those whom God has delivered from the power and penalty of sin into a worse bondage. A true pastor teaches people that they are genuinely free in the Lord. His responsibility is to show them the marks of a true Christian from the Word of God. He is also responsible to warn them that the one who violates those boundaries will experience the chastening rod of God. Such chastening is the evidence that they are truly the sons of God. The writer to the Hebrews warns that those who do not experience chastening are in fact illegitimate children and not true sons. See Hebrews 12:8.
Second, there are those who are convinced that even a true Christian can lose their salvation by voluntarily turning away from God. Thus the doctrine of assurance would be a falsehood and not the truth of Scripture. This teaching misunderstands what God’s Word instructs us about the nature of conversion. One of the most precious doctrines found in Scripture is the teaching of our union with Christ. Paul speaks of this in Romans 6. He tells us that the believer is now united with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection. There is an indissoluble spiritual union formed between the Christian and Christ Himself. Does any person have the power to break such a union? Why would a Christian, who has experienced the blessings and joy of the Lord, even desire to have this union broken? While it is true that even the most mature Christian can sin; God’s Word teaches that the true Christian cannot continue to live in sin. The pertinent question is not whether such a person can lose their salvation; it is whether that person has ever truly experienced the saving work of God in their hearts.
Finally, there are those who have practical objections to the doctrine of assurance. They are convinced that if a person is assured that he is saved, he will live an ungodly life. According to this view, assurance of salvation is a license to sin without any consequences. However, this view of assurance demonstrates an impoverished view of what salvation is and the power of God’s work of grace. Biblical salvation is a salvation from sin, not a salvation in sin. We have been translated from the kingdom of sin and unrighteousness into the kingdom of righteousness. See Romans 6:1-4. In seeking to guard the Christian faith from ungodly living, people who deny the truth of assurance take away one of the greatest means God has given to help people live a holy life. This understanding of the doctrine of assurance distorts the grace and power of God in granting true salvation. A true Christian is not sorrowful because he no longer can sin with impunity, instead he mourns because he cannot live in a godlier manner. His life reflects an attitude of gratitude to God for saving him.
Let each of us determine that we will experience the biblical assurance of salvation in order that we may “taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34:8)