The Foundation Of Assurance
By Dr Tony Evans
A great spiritual malady permeates the church of Jesus Christ today. I call it ADD: Assurance Deficit Disorder. The proportions of this spiritual affliction are gigantic. Many Christian ministries consistently list the lack of assurance of salvation as the Number One issue they deal with. The problem affects millions of sincere Christians who have little or no assurance that their eternal destiny is secure in Christ. When asked if they are on their way to heaven, they might answer if they’re being honest, “I think so,” or “I certainly hope so.” But they would stutter to say, “I know so.” The symptoms of Assurance Deficit Disorder include an inordinate fear of death and hell, a questioning of God’s love or of the believer’s worthiness to be His child, a sense of real insecurity concerning eternity, and—not surprisingly—a lack of spiritual victory in daily Christian living. Assurance of salvation is not a minor issue, for several reasons. First, it’s important because the Bible addresses it in a number of places, which makes assurance a vital part of Christian doctrine and teaching. It must have been important to Jesus, because His last words to His disciples included this statement: “Peace I leave with you; My pe as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful” (John 14:27). That was a foundation they could stand on, so I want to address first the foundation of our assurance.
ASSURANCE AND CERTAINTY👈
Why do so many Christians lack assurance of their salvation? Some people are simply chronic doubters. They are so used to doubting that they are willing to doubt the clear teaching of God’s Word before they are willing to doubt their doubts. Other people have unconfused sin in their lives, which will always undercut assurance. Still other believers suffer from Assurance Deficit Disorder when they are undergoing the stress of trials. This is chronic among believers in our culture because we have this persistent idea that if we were really God’s children, we wouldn’t be going through these things. And then there are those Christians who, because they can’t remember the exact day and hour they were saved, often doubt the reality of their salvation. Faulty Theology Erodes Assurance The reasons for a lack of assurance may vary, but unfortunately bad theology is a leading cause of this malady. A faulty understanding of the gospel of God’s grace will play havoc with a believer’s confidence in the power and promises of God. We are not the first generation of believers to experience this problem. The Christians at Thessalonica were shaken and uncertain because they feared they would never see their dead loved ones again. Paul wrote to assure them with the truth of the church’s rapture (see 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). But the most common reason for a lack of certainty among those early Christians was the presence of false teachers who followed the apostles around to the various churches, upsetting some people’s faith and undermining their assurance. The writings of the apostles contain many references to these deceivers (see Romans 16:17-18; 2 Corinthians 11:13; Galatians 1:6-7; Ephesians 4:14; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 3:7; Jude 3-4). Those who fell victim to the deceivers were deeply distressed. If you believe in an eternal heaven and an eternal hell, and if you aren’t sure you are going to make heaven and miss hell, that will ruin some good nights’ sleep. The early church dealt with false teachers, and so do we today. And the antidote we need today is the same as it was in the days of the apostles: the clear teaching of God’s Word. Your Assurance Is Found in Christ Where is assurance to be found? Very simply, our assurance is found in Christ. In other words, we don’t look to Christ for salvation and then look elsewhere for the certainty of that salvation. My premise for saying this is that assurance is bound up in the promise of the gospel. It is not an afterthought or a separate issue. John, whom we could call the apostle of assurance, built a powerful case for this doctrine: “The testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life” (1 John 5:11-12). Then John clinched his teaching with verse 13: “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” Notice how salvation and assurance are woven together in this passage. God not only gives us eternal life in Jesus Christ; He also gives us the knowledge or certainty of that eternal life. The God who saves us through His Son is the God who secures us and testifies of our assurance through the Holy Spirit. Paul told the Colossians, “Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him” (2:6). We received Christ by faith, and we live by faith. The same principle is true for assurance. We could paraphrase Paul by saying, “Just as you have received Christ alone as your Savior, find your assurance in Him alone as well.” God’s Testimony to Us If our certainty is located in God’s objective promise and not in our subjective experience, then what does John mean by the statement, “The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself” (1 John 5:10)? This sounds subjective. But the testimony we have within us as believers is not just a warm, fuzzy feeling or a sense of security that we have to work up within ourselves by self-talk. The testimony we have internally is “the testimony of God” (v. 9) about who Jesus is and what He has done. This truth may generate good feelings of assurance and joy—and it should. But the feelings are not what John is talking about here. We also know that this internal testimony is not just self-talk because of Romans 8:16: “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.” This is the Holy Spirit, whose job it is to inform your human spirit of the certainty of your salvation. For some true Christians, the issue is not only that they are looking in all the wrong places for assurance, but that they simply can’t believe real certainty is possible. As far as they’re concerned, expecting to have certainty about things we can’t see and feel and measure is just too much to ask. John met this objection when he said, “If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater” (1 John 5:9). The argument is from the lesser to the greater. We believe other people all the time about all kinds of things we can’t see or measure for ourselves. So why should we have such a hard time believing what God tells us is true? In John 5:24 Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, He who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” There is certainty in this. You hear, you believe, and you have eternal life. Jesus did not add any qualifiers to His promise. There is no “may have” or “might have” here. Jesus never brought anyone from spiritual death to eternal life only to let that person fall back under God’s judgment. This is a tremendous word of assurance to all believers, but the key is to look to Christ both for salvation and the guarantee or assurance of salvation. The Promise of Assurance The bottom line of verses like 1 John 5:13 is so clear. You can know that you have eternal life. If you know Jesus Christ as your Savior, you are as certain of heaven today as if you had already been there ten thousand years. One of the greatest believers in the certainty of salvation was the apostle Paul. Believers have quoted and even sung about his great declaration of confidence in God: “I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day” (2 Timothy 1:12). In another place, Paul said that for him departing this life meant being with Christ (see Philippians 1:23). And Jesus Himself spoke with certainty to His disciples when He told them, “Rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven” (Luke 10:20). It would be hard to rejoice if you had to worry about doing something that could cause your name to be erased from the Book of Life in heaven!
ASSURANCE AND GRACE👈
We also need to understand the relationship of saving grace to the doctrine of assurance. We dealt with grace’s role in salvation, and I would urge you to review that chapter if you need to refresh yourself on the way grace operates. My purpose here is to develop a twofold thesis. First, the grace of God that saves us totally apart from any merit of our own is the same grace that keeps us saved, totally apart from any merit of our own. Second, the God who saves us by His grace totally apart from anything we can do to earn it is the same God who guarantees the uninterrupted flow of that grace, totally apart from anything we can do to earn or keep it. As Christians we often tend to get our Bible doctrines confused and start mixing truths that were never meant to be mixed. The relationship between grace and works is Exhibit A of this tendency. If the truth about salvation is compromised, our assurance will also be compromised. Compromising Our Assurance The early church also became confused about the nature of grace even though they heard the truth straight from the apostles themselves. The Christians in Galatia got sidetracked because a group of people called the Judaizers had confused them about the relationship between the gospel of grace and the works of the law. Paul brought up the issue right at the beginning of the letter. I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! (Galatians 1:6-8) This was a serious issue to Paul. Even if he, or the angel Gabriel himself, showed up in Galatia with a message other than the gospel of grace, the Galatians were to show the person or angel the door. This was a reference to the Judaizers and their message that people needed to add law-keeping to grace to truly be saved and sanctified. Paul summarized the problem this way: “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Galatians 2:21). To try to win salvation by the works of the law ruins grace. Law and grace are an unholy mixture. That’s why Paul called his readers “foolish Galatians” (3:1) for thinking they could begin the Christian life by grace and then progress in it by works (see v. 3). Confusion’s Road to Trouble How confused can people become concerning the proper relationship between grace and the law or works? The answer to that is in Galatians 5:1-4, where Paul addressed the issue of circumcision in relation to salvation. One of the law’s requirements that the Judaizers insisted on was that Gentile believers become circumcised. But Paul warned that if the Galatians submitted to this rite as a means of seeking God’s favor, then they were assuming the obligation to keep the whole law, which is what God demands and yet is impossible for anyone to do. More than that, those who sought to be justified by law-keeping cut themselves off from Christ. Phrases like “severed from Christ” and “fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:4) sound like it is possible for believers to lose their salvation, which if true would fly in the face of everything the Bible says about our security in Christ. So let’s find out what Paul meant by these severe warnings. The first thing to remember is the context of Galatians 5:1-4. The teachings of the Judaizers had thrown these believers into such confusion that at least some of them were ready to take a giant step backward and place themselves under an impossible burden. Paul spared no severity or sternness in warning them against making this mistake. So the very nature of the gospel as a gift of God’s grace was at stake in this Galatian controversy. Those who were on the verge of “seeking to be justified by law” (5:4) were setting themselves up to be severed from a connection they had and to fall from a height they had reached. Did Paul mean that these believers would lose their salvation and fall back under God’s judgment if they submitted to circumcision? No, for at least two reasons. First, loss of salvation is not the subject under discussion here. The subject is the basis upon which a person is saved. Second, the Bible is clear that those who belong to Christ are kept by Him forever. If you or the Devil or anyone else could remove you from Christ’s hand, then that entity would be greater than Christ and the eternal life He gave you would not be eternal at all. That’s an impossible equation. The issue Paul was addressing in Galatians 5 was the ground, or basis, upon which a person is saved. In other words, we can choose either “works of the law” righteousness or “by grace through faith” righteousness to be acceptable to God. But the Bible wants us to understand that these two paths are so mutually exclusive that the person who chooses to try to work his own way to heaven is cut off from the grace of Christ. It has to be either/or, not both/and. To exchange grace for law is to trade a life of peace, joy, spiritual power, love, and confident assurance for one of guilt, frustration, exhausting effort, spiritual ineffectiveness, and restless uncertainty. A believer who decides to live like this in a misguided attempt to please God will still make it to heaven, but he won’t enjoy the trip. The Bible says in Colossians 2:6, “Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him.” How did we receive Christ? The Bible answers that for us. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). So how does God want us to live our Christian lives? By grace. The Cost of Grace God’s grace is incredibly costly because He had to give His only Son to save us. But what does the cost of grace have to do with the issue of assurance? It has everything to do with it, because when God gives us His complete package of grace in Christ and says, “This is My gift to you; it is free of charge, and I will never take it back,” we can react in one of two ways. We can receive the gift with gratitude, thank the Giver, and rest in His promise that the gift really is ours forever. Or we can insist on trying to pay for that gift despite the Giver’s assurance it already belongs to us. The Impossibility of Paying for a Gift But when we say to God, in effect, “Lord, I believe Your grace is enough to save me but not enough to keep me saved. Thank You for the gift of my salvation, but now I’m going to work hard for You and try to do everything right so You’ll be satisfied with me and I won’t lose my salvation,” we insult Him (see Hebrews 10:29). The point is that if God went to all of that trouble and paid such a dear price to save us, why should we think that it’s too hard for Him to guarantee the eternal life He gave us? Paul asked the question this way: “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). Assurance is part of the “all things” of the gospel. I’m aware that many people get jittery when the subject turns to assurance and security because they’re afraid that some will abuse grace and use it as permission to live in sin without having to worry about missing their trip to heaven. Paul anticipated that problem and answered it with an exclamation point: “Are we to continue in sin so that grace might increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2). Next question! Our “Thank-You” Note to God If our salvation and assurance rest solely in Christ and what He has done for us, where do our good works fit into the picture? After all, immediately after saying that salvation is a gift, Paul added, “For we are His workman ship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). The answer is quite simple. Grace inspires and empowers works while at the same time being distinct from works (see Romans 11:6). Good works are our thank-you note of gratitude to God for what He has given us. We serve the Lord not to get saved or make sure we stay saved but in appreciation for His grace and because He has promised to reward us for the things that we do in His name and for His glory.
ASSURANCE AND FAITH 👈
I wish I could say that the confusion surrounding the doctrine of our assurance in Christ was just an academic debate among theologians. But I’ve seen too many believers who live in a “netherworld” of constant, nagging doubt regarding their salvation, and it’s crippling to their spiritual growth. The problem for many Christians is that they don’t fully understand what it means to trust Christ and then live by faith. The trouble usually starts when people add human effort either to salvation by faith or to the life of faith. Getting Paid Versus Receiving a Gift There is a huge difference between getting paid for the work you do and accepting a gift. In the first case, you earned your salary and you get the credit for it. In the second case, you contributed nothing while someone else paid the price and he receives your gratitude for such generosity. The gift-giver gets the credit. Salvation belongs to the latter category. There is a great example of this difference in Romans 4, where Paul reached back to Abraham to illustrate the truth that salvation comes by faith: If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness. (vv. 2-5) God is not going to let anyone take credit for His salvation, because if we earned it by our own efforts, we would have something to brag about in heaven. But God will not share His glory with anyone. Jesus paid it all, and He’s the One we will be praising in heaven. As Bad Off As We Can Be If salvation is a faith proposition totally apart from works, why should it surprise us that assurance is also a faith proposition totally apart from works? The world, and too often the church, operates on a basic misconception about the nature of human works that says that the good things people do, especially if they’re done in a religious cause, make the doer acceptable to God. Let me be extremely clear about this. The Bible has a very graphic term for the “righteous deeds” that human beings do apart from faith to try to win God’s favor. These things are like “a filthy garment” (Isaiah 64:6; “filthy rags” KJV)—a reference to the cloths that a woman used during her menstrual period. It is not an attractive picture. According to Jesus, many people who thought they were pleasing to God are going to stand before Him at the judgment and say, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” (Matthew 7:22). But Jesus’ response to them is sobering: “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (v. 23). This may not make sense to some people, but it does if you understand the doctrine of human depravity. The fact is that on the best day we ever had, our finest works are like a soiled garment in God’s sight. The Nature of Faith Many people are unclear as to the nature of true faith. They think that if they “just believe,” or “hope against hope,” that’s good enough. But no amount of wishful thinking can change the truth that the object of a person’s faith is more important than the size of that person’s faith. This is a biblical principle that is crucial to our understanding of assurance. The Bible urges us to believe in Christ and receive His offer of salvation, and we are responsible to believe. But nowhere does the Bible assign any saving merit to our faith. When Jesus healed a man who was deaf and mute, the people who witnessed the miracle didn’t congratulate the man. The Bible says they were astonished at Jesus and said, “He has done all things well” (Mark 7:37). The Bible doesn’t define faith precisely, but the famous description of faith in Hebrews 11:1 is a good starting point: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is an inner conviction and persuasion that what God says to us is true. I want to emphasize the second part of my definition because without this, faith loses its shape and becomes vague and nebulous. When you’re hurting or in need of comfort, the statement “Just have faith” with no object or reasonable ground for that faith won’t help you much. Again, the object of our faith is far more important than the intensity of our faith. People often say, “I wish I had more faith.” But that’s not our need, and I have Jesus’ testimony on that. “The disciples said to the Lord, ’Increase our faith!’ And the Lord said, ’If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and be planted in the sea”; and it would obey you’” (Luke 17:5-6). And just in case there’s any doubt about that, Jesus also said, “Believe in God, believe also in Me” (John 14:1). We don’t need more faith per se; we need either the right object to put our faith in or a deeper understanding of the object we have already put our faith in. When you go to a doctor whose name you can’t pronounce and receive a prescription you can’t read and then take that prescription to be filled by a pharmacist you don’t know and ingest a medication you never heard of before, you are exercising faith. So everyone operates by faith on some level. The problem is a lot of people think saving faith is a special, “religious” faith that’s entirely different from everyday faith. I don’t find that distinction anywhere in Scripture. What separates saving faith from everyday faith is its object. The Object of Faith When the Jewish religious leader Nicodemus came to Jesus one night (John 3), Jesus told him, in summary, “Believe in Me and you will have eternal life.” As part of that discussion, note that John 3:15 is followed by the wonderful promise of John 3:16. Jesus is the object of faith, and if your faith is in Him, you are His for eternity. The Confidence of Faith If you’re still full of doubts as you read this, let me give a word of hope and a suggested solution to that nagging sense of uncertainty. There were doubters in the Scripture, who had all kinds of doubts. In fact, several prominent people in the Bible had serious moments of doubt. One biblical doubter was the father who brought his demon-possessed child to Jesus and said, “If You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” (Mark 9:22). We’ll call this the doubt of desperation. John the Baptist is probably the leading example of a powerful figure of faith who fell into doubt. John had been arrested, and he began to wonder if Jesus really was the Messiah (see Luke 7:18-19). In other words, John became overwhelmed by negative circumstances. He was isolated, and all kinds of questions began running through his mind. Why was he in prison and facing death if Jesus was the Messiah? Had he misplaced his trust? We might call this the doubt of defeatism. Then there was the most famous doubter of all, the disciple Thomas. Ten of his fellow apostles testified to Thomas, “We have seen the Lord!” (John 20:25a). But Thomas insisted, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (v. 25b). The man had ten reliable eyewitnesses and rejected them all. Thomas’s problem was deliberate doubt. Take Your Doubts to Jesus When Jesus challenged the unbelief of the father with the sick child, the man cried out, “I do believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24), and Jesus healed his son. John sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are You the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?” (Luke 7:20). Jesus performed mirecles and preached the gospel, and then told John’s disciples, “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard” (Luke 7:22). John never raised another doubt. And we know what happened to Thomas. Jesus invited Thomas to touch His wounds and said to him, “Do not be unbelieving, but believing” (John 20:27). Thomas’s response is the one we need to make when we realize who Jesus is and what He has done to save us: “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28). If you have doubts you can’t shake, bring them to Jesus. He is still there, and He is your security.
APPLICATION FOR LIFE 👈
1. One reason we need to rid our lives of known sin immediately is because the Enemy may try to convince you that your sin can cause you to lose your salvation. Remember, if you are a believer, your salvation is a work of God’s grace—it is a gift that you can neither earn nor lose. Never allow false teaching that might come your way to conflict with what you know to be the truth. Take a moment to read and meditate on 1 John 5:6-13, and ask God strengthen your heart with its truth. 2. There are going to be times when you don’t feel saved. There are going to be times of doubt and confusion when you wonder if you are on the right train. And there are going to be times when you have sinned and failed and don’t even feel worthy to be on the train. Memorize 1 John 4:11-13, so that when such times come you can rest in the truth that “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life.” 3. Do you ever have doubts about the security of your salvation? Remember that your salvation is not dependent on your feelings or circumstances. Rather, its security rests with a person who is your Savior. Take to heart the admonition: “Do not be unbelieving, but believing” (John 20:27) and take your doubts to Jesus. 4. One blessing of assurance we ought to be thankful for is the fact that it lifts a heavy weight from our shoulders. We could never secure our own salvation. As a result, we are free to serve Him out of gratitude and love. What motivates your service to God? A fear that you might lose your salvation, or gratitude that God is holding you firmly in His grasp?
FOR GROUP STUDY 👈
Questions for Group Discussion 1. For what reasons is the assurance of salvation an important doctrine and issue in the church today? 2. What was the main reason for the lack of certainty of salvation in the early Christian church? (See Romans 16:17-18; 2 Corinthians 11:13; Galatians 1:6-7; Ephesians 4:14; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 3:7; Jude 3-4.) What is the antidote to false teachers? 3. Read 1 John 5:11-13 and Luke 10:20. For those who lack an assurance of salvation, where can they find that assurance? (Use the chart below as an aid to your discussion.) 4. For what reasons is it important for salvation to be the result of the grace of God? (See Hebrews 10:29.) What part does faith play in our assurance of salvation?
As believers, we need not lack assurance of our salvation. There are several assurances from Scripture we may mention, four of which are listed below.