The Demands of Assurance
By Dr Tony Evans
False security is always dangerous. The last thing I want to do is give anyone who doesn’t really know the Lord a false sense of assurance. That’s why we keep coming back to the central truth that our assurance rests in nothing but the finished work of Jesus Christ and the witness of the Holy Spirit that we are truly children of God (see Romans 8:16). I also do not want to see Christians develop a false sense of security that often manifests itself in one of two ways: either the belief that we are above falling into temptation and failure because we are secure in Christ, or the equally mistaken notion that our eternal security means we can live in unrepentant sin or spiritual lethargy because we will make it to heaven anyway. There are demands that Christ has the right to make of us, based on the incredibly high price He paid to redeem us. Thus the truth that we are forever secure in Christ doesn’t give us an excuse for failure and spiritual lethargy and coldness. Nor does it mean that spiritual failure is a small thing. It’s a real issue in the Christian life, and it will erode your sense of assurance faster than anything I can think of. I want to explore this issue, and then discuss how we can fortify ourselves against the very real danger of spiritual stumbling.
ASSURANCE AND SPIRITUAL FAILURE👈
There is no denying the fact that saved people who are sealed by the Holy Spirit until the day of redemption and secure forever in Christ can still fall into sin and failure. The Bible contains many examples of people who fell, some for short periods and others for a good part of their lives. These examples range from spiritual insensitivity and coldness to moral failure and even outright denial of the truth. The Possibility of Spiritual Failure David is an example of moral failure in his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah (2 Samuel 11-12). David covered his sin for about a year until confronted by the prophet Nathan. Then David immediately confessed and repented, and he told the Lord, “Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight” (Psalm 51:4). That’s an important truth, because all spiritual failure ultimately is against the Lord. The early church also contained examples of spiritual failure. The incestuous man in Corinth fell into deep moral failure (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-5), yet even in this case the man’s eternal salvation was not at stake. Paul pronounced his discipline with the expressed desire that the man’s soul would be saved (v. 5). Spiritual failure doesn’t have to be a huge leap into doctrinal error that denies the truth of Scripture. We can deny the faith by the way we live, failing to fulfill our biblical responsibilities or allowing the world to pull us away from faithfulness to Christ. I think of Demas, one of Paul’s ministry companions who deserted the apostle because he “loved this present world” (2 Timothy 4:10). The Road to Spiritual Failure Admitting the possibility of spiritual failure is the first step to being on guard against it. None of us is perfect, but that doesn’t mean we have to live in spiritual mediocrity, stumbling along from one setback to another. There are plenty of warning signs along the road that leads to spiritual failure. The first sign is spiritual neglect. We don’t have to curse the Lord or teach false doctrine to get into trouble. We can simply neglect our faith. “For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” (Hebrews 2:2-3). Spiritual neglect is so subtle that we can fall into it without feeling particularly sinful. People in this situation may console themselves by the fact that they aren’t really doing wrong. It’s not like they’re lying or cheating or being unfaithful to their spouses. They still pray and read their Bibles and attend church sometimes. But no Christian ever “neglected” himself or herself into spiritual growth. A second warning sign is spiritual insensitivity. If allowed to persist, spiritual neglect leads to spiritual insensitivity. Hebrews 3 contains this warning: “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ’Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (vv. 12-13). Insensitivity sets in when Christ stops being real to you and you stop looking to Him for your life. When you stop looking to Christ, unbelief sets in. And when unbelief sets in, you become susceptible to the deceitfulness of sin. The third warning sign on the road to spiritual failure is spiritual stagnation. If you’ve ever seen a clouded, stagnant pond, you know what happens when the flow of freshwater is cut off. Nothing gets in or out. Even if you poured a bucket of freshwater into a stagnant pond, the new water would soon become green too. In Hebrew 5, the author began teaching some deep truths about the priesthood of the Old Testament character Melchizedek, who was a type of Christ. But then it’s as if the author realized whom he was addressing in his letter, because he stopped and said, “Concerning him [Melchizedek] we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing” (v. 11). The phrase “dull of hearing” means mule headed, or stubborn as a mule. These believers had been saved long enough to be spiritually mature. But they had stagnated in their development because they had quit practicing the faith. That doesn’t mean they had quit being Christians. But eternally secure Christians can become so dull and stagnant that they are basically useless to the kingdom of God. And when that happens, we shouldn’t be surprised that there is no sense of assurance and peace of heart concerning salvation. Here’s a fourth warning sign: spiritual defection. If we miss the warning sign of stagnation, we’re really heading into some serious territory on the road to spiritual failure. The Hebrews were on the verge of spiritual defection, so they received this admonition: Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:23-25) Forsaking the local church is tantamount to spiritual defection. The Bible knows nothing of a Christian who is severed from the church and going it alone. If you’re slipping toward spiritual failure and lethargy, the body of Christ can reel you back in. The Consequences of Spiritual Failure God takes spiritual defection very seriously, as He does spiritual failure on any level. There is always forgiveness available when we repent and come back to God, because we are still God’s children even when we fail. One of these consequences is divine discipline. In Hebrews 6:4-6a we read, “For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance.” This is the passage that causes such confusion and is a favorite of those who deny the truth of eternal security. Some people try to get around the problem by saying that the people in question were not real believers because they only “tasted” of salvation. But that view doesn’t stand up, because Hebrews 2:9 uses the same Greek term to say that Jesus tasted death for every person. Did He just nibble at death, or did He die? If Jesus didn’t really die on the cross, we have a major problem. But He drank the cup of death down to its dregs. The word “taste” means “to appropriate, not to dabble with.” The people of Hebrews 6 were believers. If that’s true, don’t these verses clearly teach that believers can lose their salvation? If this is true, then the text is also clear that it is “impossible” for them to get it back again—a view that no one who denies the possibility of assurance wants to hold. So if the text is talking about true Christians and it is not talking about them losing their salvation, what is the author’s point? He is saying that Christians can become so hardened in spiritual failure and departure from the truth that it becomes impossible to renew them again to repentance. This is certainly not impossible for God, because the Bible says nothing is impossible for God. But believers who turn away from God can become so hard other people can’t win them back, and their lives may end in spiritual ruin as far as their earthly service is concerned—even though they are saved. Death is the most severe consequence of persistent spiritual disobedience and unrepentant sin. The book of Hebrews also addresses this issue in 10:26-29. The writer pointed out that an offender against the Mosaic law was stoned to death. That’s how seriously God takes His character and His Word. The punishment for the offending Christian isn’t specified, except that it is “much severer” than stoning. We don’t see this kind of judgment carried out very often, because God is gracious and it brings Him no pleasure to have to judge His erring children. The Cure for Spiritual Failure Many people who agonize over whether they have lost their salvation need to be reminded that their deep concern is one of the best signs that they are truly saved. Lost people don’t usually lose any sleep wondering if they are saved or not. The same principle applies to spiritual failure. If you are concerned about your walk with God and you agonize over your sin, that’s the best sign of all that you have not become hard of heart and uncaring. A good place to begin in renewing your spirit is to practice self-examination.
ASSURANCE AND SELF-EXAMINATION 👈
Every coach who has ever lived has probably yelled in frustration to one of his players: “Get in the game!” This doesn’t mean the player is on the sidelines and needs to get up and get on the field. Any sports fan knows that this expression means the player in question is messing up. Maybe he’s not giving it his full effort, or he’s not paying attention and needs to do a little mental self-examination and wake up. “Get in the game!” means that although the player may be filling his position, he’s not fulfilling the responsibilities of his position. As Christians we need to be told to get in the game sometimes. The Bible tells us again and again to examine our spiritual condition. Self-Examination and Spiritual Failure Sometimes when you misbehaved as a child, your mother might have said something like this: “What is wrong with you, child? You didn’t learn that in this house. You’re acting like one of those wild kids down the street!” God has the same problem with some of His children, and there’s nothing humorous about it. Consider the spiritually ill-mannered Corinthian believers who were making a sham of the Lord’s Supper by being gluttonous and even getting drunk (see 1 Corinthians 11:21). Paul took on that mess in no uncertain terms and warned the church, “For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep” (v. 30). We don’t have to guess about the judgment Paul was talking about, because he provided that information. The judgment was physical discipline in the form of illness and even death (v. 30). The judgment mentioned in verse 32 must be read the same way. God was spanking His children for rebellious living, even destroying some of them physically the way the unbelieving world will also be destroyed someday. Like a good father, God disciplines His children—and sometimes the discipline may be severe. The Bible says, “Those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives” (Hebrews 12:6). We would be wise to examine ourselves to make it unnecessary for God the Father to spank us. Self-Examination and Spiritual Productivity Given the spiritual track record of the Corinthian church, it’s not surprising that Paul had to come back again and urge them to examine themselves. As he wrapped up his second letter to this church, the apostle wrote: “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?” (2 Corinthians 13:5). This passage is a little stickier to explain because it seems so obvious that Paul is saying, “Check yourselves out to see if you are Christians or not.” In other words, “Check to make sure you are born again.” But 2 Corinthians 13:5 is not about our eternal standing before God. The theme of 2 Corinthians is Paul’s vindication of his ministry and his love for the Corinthians. In answer to those who opposed and criticized him, and the Corinthians’ own fickleness, Paul opened up his heart to demonstrate the sincerity and authenticity of his love and his apostleship. This is key to understanding the test of faith Paul referred to in chapter 13. This was not a test of salvation but a test of whether God was really at work in a believer’s life. How do we know this was the apostle’s focus? Because he used the same Greek term translated “fail the test” in 2 Corinthians 13:5 to refer to the productivity of his ministry. “I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27, italics added). To be disqualified is to fail the test, lose the race, and forfeit the victor’s reward. Paul was not afraid that he was going to lose his salvation. He was the champion of the eternal security of the believer. But he was afraid that he would be unapproved and unrewarded by God because he had not been faithful to his calling. Paul wanted to finish the Christian race so that he would not appear before Christ empty-handed and receive no rewards in heaven. Self-Examination and Spiritual Growth The apostle Peter also addressed the need for self-examination in 2 Peter 1:10. This is an interesting text because in one sense, we as believers don’t make our calling and election certain. These are God’s action to save us, and He is the One who guarantees our salvation. Yet Peter has written that we are to “be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you.” So what did Peter mean? In the context of spiritual growth, he was saying that by being diligent to grow in our faith, we produce for ourselves something like a deed that a homeowner has to prove that he owns his home. This is the background meaning of the Greek word translated “certain” in verse10. In other words, if you are growing in your faith and producing the qualities listed in verses 5-8, that’s a proof of the reality of your salvation. This is very different from saying that your growth guarantees or secures your salvation. Salvation is not dependent upon your spiritual growth but upon the finished work of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, the word certain in 2 Peter 1:10 is translated “guaranteed” in Romans 4:16 and “assurance” in Hebrews 3:14, strongly suggesting that Peter used it here to convey certainty with regard to salvation. It’s in this context that we must evaluate the word stumble at the end of verse 10. It cannot refer to a loss of salvation but the failure to grow as we should. Spiritual growth was definitely on Peter’s heart when he wrote his second letter. His last word to the church was “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). Second Peter is a reminder that God wants us to get busy growing in the grace He has given us instead of fretting about whether we are still in God’s grace. With this in mind, go back to 2 Peter 1:5-7: “Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love.” Applying diligence to supply the qualities that make for spiritual growth means that we must make a plan to grow and work that plan. Where will these qualities take you as you grow in grace? Peter wrote, “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:8). Fruitfulness, usefulness, and the eternal rewards these will bring are the result of careful spiritual self-examination. Don’t let yourself get sidetracked into fearful and paralyzing introspection over whether you’re really saved—or even worse, whether Christ really meant what He said when He promised eternal life to all who trusted in Him.
ASSURANCE AND DISCIPLESHIP 👈
Discipleship is not your ticket to heaven. Nor is it the source of your assurance of salvation, but a process of growth whereby we get on with the business of becoming like Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master” (Matthew 10:24-25). This statement alone makes it clear that discipleship is not instantaneous. Instead, it involves a lifetime of learning. The word disciple means “student” or “learner,” and so discipleship describes the process by which students absorb their teacher’s instruction and skill so completely that they become just like that teacher. A more formal definition is that discipleship is a process of the local church that brings people from spiritual infancy to spiritual maturity. The Meaning of Discipleship In the ancient world, students often attached themselves to a teacher or master until they had acquired both a body of knowledge and the skills to use that knowledge effectively, no matter how long the process took. True disciples immersed themselves in their learning; it was a way of life, which is one difference between being a disciple and having a hobby. When we became followers of Christ, we were enrolled in Jesus’ school of discipleship and introduced to its curriculum. This is a lifelong process of learning from which we will not graduate until we are promoted to heaven. And even there we will not stop learning, because we’ll spend eternity discovering more and more about our great God (see Ephesians 2:7). Our challenge as Christians, then, is to become such committed, excited, and teachable disciples of Jesus Christ that we begin to look and act like Him. The Bible calls it being “conformed” to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). Assurance plays a key role in this process, because you can’t be a focused, learning, and growing student when you’re spending all of your time worrying about whether you’re still enrolled in the course. Assurance of salvation makes effective discipleship possible. How Discipleship Differs from Salvation Now that we have defined our terms, we need to decipher the relationship between discipleship, which is a lifelong process of growth, and salvation, which is complete the moment we trust Christ. Our thesis is that confusing these two leads to a lack of assurance and sends us searching for it in the wrong places. You may be surprised by one passage that shows that discipleship and salvation are distinct. The Bible says that Jesus had disciples who were not even saved. According to John 6:60, a group of Jesus’ disciples became offended at His teaching about His flesh and blood. They objected to what Jesus said, to which He replied, “There are some of you who do not believe” (v. 64). And it gets worse, because John went on to say, “As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore” (v. 66). It’s obvious from this text that the term disciple was applied broadly to anyone who wanted to learn more about what it meant to follow Jesus Christ. Jesus had a large following at one point, but He thinned out that crowd when He began showing them the true cost of being His disciple. Whereas salvation is free, discipleship is costly. Jesus said on one occasion, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). It will cost you your life to become Jesus’ disciple. Another difference between salvation and discipleship is that salvation demands only faith (although faith is to issue in works [James 2:14]), while discipleship makes radical, ongoing, and long-term demands. Jesus said, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26). You don’t have to hate your mother or your father to get saved. You don’t have to hate yourself to come to Christ and find eternal life. But to become a disciple requires such radical self-abandonment to Christ that compared to your love for Him, your love for even the people closest to you looks like hate. Another important contrast between salvation and discipleship is what we might call their observability. That is, salvation is a transaction of the heart. No one can see it take place. Salvation takes place in the privacy of a person’s heart and soul. But discipleship is always meant to be public and, therefore, observable. John 19:38 refers to Joseph of Arimathea as a disciple of Jesus who had followed the Lord secretly because he was afraid of his fellow Jews. But guess what happened to Joseph? There came a day when he had to declare himself publicly, and you can read about it in the same verse. He went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body to bury, and he laid Jesus in his own tomb. It would have been impossible to do something like that in Jerusalem without making his true allegiance known. Jesus may have some “secret-agent saints,” but He does not want disciples who function as covert operatives when there are no restrictions on the practice of their faith. “Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33). Salvation is unconditional, but discipleship is conditional. “Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, ’If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’” (John 8:31-32). To continue means to abide or remain in the truth. Many people want truth without the abiding that it takes to get the truth inside of them. If someone says, “I know the truth, but I’m not free,” then we have an abiding problem. John 8:32 is one of the most quoted verses in the New Testament, but don’t forget the Bible study principle we learned earlier: the importance of context. The problem comes when people want to skip verse 31 and claim verse 32. We want to be free of our problems, our addictions, our vices, or our circumstances. But in order to be free, we have to know the truth. And in order to know the truth, we must continue or abide or remain in Christ and so prove to be true disciples. How Discipleship Relates to Assurance Salvation gives us new life, and assurance gives us the security and confidence to develop that new life as we follow Christ in discipleship. There is a tremendous interplay of salvation, assurance, and discipleship in Titus 2:11-13. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” Notice that the grace of God appeared to us and brought us salvation (v. 11). And that same grace will be manifested to us at the end of this age when Jesus appears and takes us to be with Him in glory (v. 13). Verse 12 speaks to our discipleship “in the present age” and the way we should conduct ourselves on our journey from earth to heaven. It’s like a sandwich, with the “meat” of discipleship in between the two pieces of bread called grace. The bread holds the meat in place, and the meat fills out the sandwich. Assurance is an integral part of the formula. Assurance is the motivation and the power of discipleship. God wants us to be grateful for our eternal salvation. He wants us to be thankful that because of Christ’s death on the cross, heaven is our home. If we will look at what God has given us and stop fretting about whether He is going to take back His gift of salvation, we’ll be ready to follow Him in committed discipleship here on earth. If we can trust Christ with our eternity, can we not trust Him with our few days on earth?
PERSONAL APPLICATION FOR LIFE👈
1. When is the last time you did a spiritual self-examination? The Bible encourages us to do this on a regular basis. Examine your heart and ask God to help cleanse your life of sin, claiming 1 John 1:9. Should you neglect this responsibility, be assured that God disciplines His children. 2. Beyond monitoring sin in our lives, spiritual self-examination means monitoring our spiritual productivity. This is a test to confirm that God is working in our lives. If you are not seeing spiritual fruit and God’s blessing in your life, perhaps you have allowed the world’s substitutes for God to creep into your life. Take inventory and clean house if necessary. Ask God to help you keep things on a proper spiritual course in your life. 3. Whereas salvation deals with our legal relationship to Christ and is unconditional, discipleship is conditional, and has to do with the level of intimacy we have with the Savior who guarantees our eternal life. Maybe you became a Christian when you were ten years old; now you’re forty-five, and you’re still asking to see God. Maybe the intimacy you’re missing is waiting for you in a deeper commitment to Christ in discipleship. 4. Discipleship for the believer is a costly commitment. The assurance of your salvation is the motivation and the power of discipleship. Are you ready to follow Him in committed discipleship here on earth? If you can trust Christ with your eternity, can you not trust Him for your days on earth?
FOR GROUP STUDY 👈
Questions for Group Discussion 1. Dr. Evans discusses “spiritual failure.” What does he mean by that term? Of the four warning signs that a believer is on the road to spiritual failure (see chart on page 822), which do you fear the most, and why? 2. Read Hebrews 6:4-6a. What serious consequences can result from spiritual failure? What is the cure for spiritual failure? 3. Why is spiritual self-examination a good preventive measure against spiritual failure? Read 2 Corinthians 13:5. How can it be a catalyst for spiritual productivity? 4. What is discipleship? (See Romans 8:29.) How does discipleship relate to our assurance of salvation?
PICTURE THIS 👈
Since the Hebrews were on the verge of losing their spiritual confidence (not their salvation) and turning back, the letter to the Hebrews contains some clear warning signs we can read and heed as we seek to avoid going into the ditch in our Christian lives.