The Assurance of Salvation
Pastor Logan Almy
Kirk of the
“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God
that you may know that you have eternal life.” 1 John 5:13
God desires Christians to have assurance of their salvation in Christ. Sadly, true Christians often lack this assurance of salvation, and false believers often presume that they possess salvation when they don’t. In light of these two problems, Christians who want to be sure that they are truly saved must be informed about the biblical teaching on this important subject.
The Good News of Assurance
God tells us in the Bible that he desires his people to have full assurance of salvation. The Apostle John wrote his first epistle to instruct his Christian readers about this assurance. “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). The key word in this verse is the word “know.” We can know for sure that we have eternal life. God doesn’t want our salvation to be an uncertain matter of wishful thinking. He calls us “to have the full assurance of hope until the end” (Hebrews 6:11) and to “draw near with full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:22). This assurance of salvation is a tremendous blessing, but, regrettably, it’s not without counterfeits.
The Danger of False Assurance
There are several counterfeit versions of Christian assurance. Satan provides spurious believers with all kinds of false securities to make them presume on the grace of God. Many professing Christians boldly claim to be sure that they are saved; however, their so-called assurance is nothing more than presumption. Since the dangers of false assurance are grave, we should know how to identify some of the common forms.
Baptismal Regeneration. Many professing Christians assure themselves that they are on the highway to heaven simply because they have been water baptized. These professing Christians are mostly in the Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and some Lutheran churches that teach the false doctrine of baptismal regeneration. This view teaches that God regenerates the sinner in the water rite of baptism. Accordingly, this erroneous doctrine makes people presume on their water baptisms as a superstitious and magical means of salvation. Saving grace is mechanically bestowed through the application of water to the person in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Baptismal regeneration, however, isn’t true. There are many baptized non-Christians in the world today. Water on the forehead does not put faith in the heart. Simon the magician had professed faith and received water baptism (Acts 8:13), but after he sought to purchase the Holy Spirit with money, Peter said to him, “You have neither part nor lot in this matter for your heart is not right before God” (Acts 8:21), and, “For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity” (Acts 8:23). His profession of faith and his water baptism were a sham. He was a hypocrite. We must always keep in mind that the sacrament of baptism, like circumcision, is a sign and seal of salvation (Romans 4:11), but it does not effect salvation. It confirms the grace of regeneration. It does not confer it. And many so-called Christians have marched into hell proclaiming that they have been baptized and are surely saved.
Church Membership. Others presume on their membership in the visible church. The visible church consists of all those who profess faith in Christ together with their children. But the visible church, as important as it is, is no reason to assure ourselves that we are saved. “For not all who are descended from
Israel belong to ” (Romans 9:6b). There are many in the visible community of the redeemed who are not themselves redeemed. Or to put it another way, membership in the visible church doesn’t mean that one is a member of the invisible church. Having one’s name on the roll of a local church is no assurance that one’s name is in the Lamb’s book of life. Israel
Decisionism. The error of decisionism is perhaps the greatest cause for false assurance in evangelical churches today. This is the view that God causes the sinner to be born again in response to the sinner’s free-will decision. But this is contrary to the clear teaching of John 1:12-13: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” We are born again by an act of God’s will, not our own. Our faith is the result of the new birth. “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” (1 John 5:1a). The reason we believe (present tense) is because we have been born (perfect tense) of God. The logical order isn’t reversible. The error of decisionism, however, is the view that if a sinner has “decided to follow Jesus” at some point in time, then he is born again and saved, and he should never question that decision. Thus the sinner’s decision becomes the basis of assurance. Usually, the decision is formalized by praying the so-called “Sinner’s Prayer” or by signing a decision card. Sometimes the decision is sealed at a campfire meeting where all throw a stick into the fire. There is nothing wrong with making a decision for Christ. We all are called to choose God and follow him (Deuteronomy 30:11-20, Joshua 24:15, etc.), but making a decision is not the basis of assurance. The date we make a decision to follow Jesus has little bearing on the question of our assurance. We may, after all, discover that we were following the wrong Jesus. Or we may later discover that we did not follow the right Jesus in the right way.
Presumption is the Problem. The main problem with all forms of false assurance is the sin of presumption. The person who proudly presumes that he has salvation when he has no such thing is like “the one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart’” (Deuteronomy 29:19). He is like those who say, “We have Abraham as our father,” but fail to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). Such people presume that simply because they have performed some action (made a decision, prayed a prayer, signed a card, joined a church, etc.) or had some action performed on them (water baptism) that they are guaranteed eternal life. But God’s grace of salvation and God’s grace of assurance are not based on the actions of men. “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy” (Romans 9:16). They come to us on God’s terms, not our own. We must receive God’s salvation in Christ and his assurance of that salvation according to the instructions of his Word. This is why we must continually seek to understand the nature of true assurance from God’s Word.
The Nature of True Assurance
True assurance of salvation comes in two main forms: inferential and immediate. Inferential assurance is the fallible assurance based on the Christian’s inference. For example, a Christian may read, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved” (Acts 16:31). After reading these words, he may consider that he does truly believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. And, therefore, he concludes that he is saved. His assurance is based on an inference from God’s Word and his assessment of his own faith. This supplies a fallible assurance, meaning that it is capable of error, because the professing Christian could be wrong about his faith. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). The promise that he who believes on the Lord Jesus Christ shall be saved, is true regardless of his faith. However, he will not benefit from this promise if he does not have faith (Hebrews 4:1-2). And, unfortunately, professing Christians can be deceived about their faith.
In addition to inferential assurance, there is also immediate assurance. Immediate assurance is what the Westminster Confession (18.3) calls “the infallible assurance” of salvation. It’s immediate in the sense that it doesn’t depend on a logical inference like the example above. It’s not immediate in the sense that it comes without the mediation of the Word. No, it always comes with the Word as the Spirit bears witness with the Word in our hearts (Romans 8:16). This is the absolute certainty that a person saved. This is possible. This is available. We can say with the Apostle Paul, “I know whom I have believed” (2 Timothy 1:12). And yet many Christians don’t possess this blessed assurance. Others do possess it but only after a long struggle. So then, in order to obtain full assurance of salvation, we need to understand the proper grounds of assurance.
The Grounds of Assurance
There are three main grounds of the assurance of salvation: (1) the promises of the Word of God, (2) the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and (3) the witness of the Holy Spirit. One way that we can examine ourselves to see if we have true assurance is by asking ourselves these questions: Why do I consider myself to be a Christian? What are my grounds for believing this to be so? If the answer is one of the false securities mentioned above, then we know that we have a false assurance. True assurance is founded on the right grounds. Let’s examine these grounds.
The Promises of the Word of God. The greatest ground of assurance is God’s Word. Assurance, like faith, comes by hearing the Word of Christ (Romans 10:17). More specifically, God’s promises in God’s Word give us the assurance of our salvation. When we seek assurance, it helps to look away from ourselves to the objective promises of God. These promises awaken, strengthen, and confirm our faith. The author of the letter to the Hebrews tells us that God makes a promise of salvation to us, and in order to reassure our hearts he confirms his promise with an oath. “So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us” (Hebrews 6:17-18). God’s sworn promise gives us strong encouragement to hold fast to Christ. Our God who cannot lie (Titus 1:2) swears to us that he will keep his promises. When we are in heaven, what was true of
Israel in the days of Joshua will be true of the Church: “Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord made to the house of had failed; all came to pass” (Joshua 21:45). One of the practical ways that we can find true assurance of salvation is by returning again and again to the promises of God. “For all the promises of God find their Yes in [Jesus]. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Corinthians 1:20). The Holy Spirit uses these promises to create faith in our hearts and to assure us that we shall be saved. “And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Corinthians 1:21-22). We should read and review these promises often. “Truly, truly, I say to you, 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 5:22). “Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). Israel
The Fruit of the Holy Spirit. After reading the promises of God’s Word, one of the legitimate questions a Christian can have is the question of whether or not he has faith. We must have faith in order to benefit from the promises of God. But do we have faith? In his first epistle the Apostle John emphasizes that those who possess true salvation will have evidence of such salvation in their lives. They will walk in the light (1 John 1:5-6). They will confess their sins (1 John 1:8-10). They will keep the commandments of God (1 John 2:3). They will love other Christians (1 John 2:9-11). They will not love the world (1 John 2:15). All of this is the fruit of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our lives. “And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us” (1 John 3:24b). “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” (1 John 4:13). The presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives produces the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Galatians 5:22-23 says, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” No Christian is perfect (Philippians 3:12). No Christian achieves sinless perfection in this life. But all true Christians should have fruit. And the promises of God are meant to be believed and used by true Christian to produce holiness in heart and life. “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love” (2 Peter 1:3-7). This is how we are to make our calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10). We must examine our lives in order to have assurance. “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corinthians 13:5). Since faith without works is dead (James 2:17), there must be fruit in our lives if we claim to have faith.
The Witness of the Holy Spirit. The first two grounds of assurance, at best, can give us inferential assurance. The witness of the Holy Spirit gives us immediate, intuitive, direct, and infallible assurance. Romans 8:16 says, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.” This means that the Holy Spirit internally testifies to our spirit that we have been adopted through faith in Christ into the family of God. The Holy Spirit cries from within our hearts, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6). More specifically, the Holy Spirit is the one who confirms in the Christian’s spirit that he himself is in fact a child of God. God is his Father, and he is his son. Notice the grammar of Galatians 4:5-7: “And because you are sons (note the plural), God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts (plural), crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son (singular), and if a son, then an heir (singular) through God.” He moves form the plural to the singular. This is instructive about the witness of the Holy Spirit. It is the personal and immediate assurance within my heart that God is my Father and I am his Son. We need to be careful at this point. This is no mere feeling. This isn’t a mystical experience unmediated by the Word of God. This isn’t an audible voice. It is the witness of the Holy Spirit by and with the Word in our hearts. We are aware of his testimony and know that we are God’s children. We know that we know. There’s no kind of assurance that is deeper or more profound than this.
The Struggle of Assurance
We need to come to terms with the reality that a person may be a true Christian and lack assurance of salvation. One of the reasons many Christians are surprised to hear of the separation between salvation and the assurance of salvation has to do with the way many evangelists present the gospel. The evangelist asks the sinner, “Do you know for sure that you are going to heaven after you die?” Unfortunately, this gives the mistaken impression that salvation is about knowing for sure that you are saved. But that is assurance, not salvation itself. Of course, God may grant absolute assurance to a sinner at conversion, but the absence of complete assurance is not evidence that the sinner isn’t truly converted. A sinner may come to Christ in true faith and repentance and yet struggle for a period of time before obtaining full assurance. We need to keep in mind that 1 John 5:13 says that John is writing to Christians in order to help them arrive at this full assurance. It is therefore implied that one may be a Christian and lack such assurance. Otherwise, the first epistle of John is superfluous. The Westminster Confession explains, “This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be a partaker of it” (Chapter 18.3). Observe the language carefully: “a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be a partaker of it.” Thus a person may be a true Christian who struggles to find full assurance. If you are such a person—and there’s no reason to doubt that there are many such people in the visible church today—then you need not conclude that you are not saved at all. Nevertheless, you should take your Bible and seek this full assurance of faith with all of your might, the Spirit empowering you to do so.
The Loss of Assurance
True believers cannot lose their salvation. Jesus says, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified, he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). Our salvation is safe and secure in Christ. True believers can, however, lose the joy of their salvation (Psalm 51:12) and the assurance of their salvation. The Westminster Confession explains, “True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted” (Chapter 18.4). Again, we need to underline the difference between salvation and assurance. A sinner can be saved and lack assurance. Also, a sinner can be saved, obtain assurance, and lose assurance for a season. The Christian never loses his salvation because he is kept by the power of God (1 Peter 1:5), but he may sadly lose his assurance for various reasons.
You may neglect assurance. Sometimes Christians lose assurance of salvation “by negligence in preserving of it” (WCF 18.4). God uses means to achieve certain ends in our lives. If the end is assurance, then we must not neglect the means of having that assurance. We should not neglect the promises of God, the development of Christian character, the ongoing need of self examination, and the awareness of the witness of the Spirit. If we neglect these means of assurance, then God will deprive us the blessing of assurance.
You may fall into a season of sin. Although the Christian’s sins are not damning, they are deadening. Sin robs Christians of their joy and assurance. We can lose assurance “by falling into some special sin which woundeth the conscience and grieveth the Spirit” (WCF 18.4). There’s no doubt in my mind that David lost his assurance of salvation when he fell into the arms of Bathsheba. So it was with Peter when he denied Christ three times. Again, such sin does not cause the believer to fall from the grace of salvation. They may, however, cause the believer to fall from the grace of assurance. When the Christian falls into heinous sin, he does begin to wonder, “Have I truly been born again? Am I truly a child of the living God? If it were so, then why do I live this way?” These questions are not completely out of place either. Such questions reveal the inseparable relationship between our justification and our sanctification. We realize in our hearts that our lack of sanctification does raise questions about our justification. Of course, we should not be thrown into doubting our salvation every time we sin. But there are seasons of sin that can cause us to doubt, not Christ, but whether we are really and personally united to him.
God may withdraw himself. Does God play hide and seek with his people? He certainly does. “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isaiah 45:15). God will temporarily hide his face from his people if they fall into periods of heinous sin and backsliding (Isaiah 57:17). One of the reasons Christians lose assurance is “by God’s withdrawing the light of his countenance, and suffering even such as fear him to walk in darkness and to have no light” (WCF 18.4). God will at times in the Christian life withdraw himself to teach us our need to depend on him. “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). Assurance is found in him and in him alone. And we need reminding of this from time to time. So God withdraws his presence. He is not really gone, of course, but he withdraws his manifest presence in our souls. He withdraws “the light of his countenance,” not as an end in and of itself. He does this to teach us our need of him so that Christians can learn to trust Christ, not their own assurance.
The Fruit of Assurance
Christians who possess full assurance of salvation are a blessed people. The fruit of true assurance is plentiful and precious.
Unspeakable Joy. Knowing for sure that our names are written in the book of life brings great joy to our souls. Jesus told his disciples to “rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). Jesus speaks words to his disciples to assure them that they are his and to make their joy complete. “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). When John wrote his first epistle to impart assurance of salvation (1 John 5:13), he began by saying, “And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (1 John 5:4). Knowing, believing, and loving the Lord Jesus Christ brings our souls “joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8-9).
Fervent Prayer. When the Spirit bears witness with our spirits that we are the children of God (Romans 8:16) and cries out from within us, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6), this makes us fervent in prayer. We are confident that we are invited to come boldly to the throne of grace for what we need from Jesus (Hebrews 4:16). And thus we pray with confidence and boldness, “Our Father, who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9).
Loving Obedience. True Christian assurance does not make us rest on our laurels when it comes to obedience. It makes us active in our pursuit of holiness. “And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Hebrews 6:11-12). When we know that we are called, justified, and adopted in Christ, we are eager to obey God. Thomas Watson, the English Puritan, once wrote, “Faith will make us walk, but assurance will make us run: we shall never think we can do enough for God” (Body of Divinity, 253). We love Christ more when we know that he is ours and we are his, and if we love him, we keep his commandments (John 14:15).
Boldness in Witness. Proverbs 28:1 says, “The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion.” When we know that we are righteous through faith in Jesus Christ, we become bold. When the Holy Spirit assured the early Christians that they belonged to God, they “continued to speak the Word with boldness” (Acts 4:31). It was the boldness of Peter and John, not their education that made them such great witnesses for Christ. “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). We shall become bold as lions when we know that we have been with the Lion of Judah!
As we close, let me address you personally. Christian, do you possess the full assurance of salvation? Know that God does desire for you to know this in your own life and experience. Seek this assurance. Read the promises of God’s Word until the Holy Spirit speaks peace to your soul. Examine your life and see if you see evidence of the fruit-producing work of God’s Spirit. Ask other mature Christians if they see fruit in your life. Do you sense the witness of the Holy Spirit bearing witness with your spirit that you belong to the number of the sons of God? The presence of the Holy Spirit in your life is the greatest evidence that you belong to God. Do you know the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit? If you do not, then you do not belong to Jesus Christ (Romans 8:9). Remember that God wants you to know that you are saved. He doesn’t want us to hope-so. He wants us to know-so. So then, let me exhort you to seek this assurance until you have it. And once you have it, rejoice that you know that you are in Christ and called, justified, and adopted in him. To God be the glory!