ASSURANCE OF GRACE AND SALVATION
1 Temporary believers and other unregenerate people may deceive themselves with futile and false hopes and unspiritual presumptions that they are in favour with God and in a state of salvation, but their hope will perish.1 Yet those who truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, and endeavor to walk in all good conscience before him, may be certainly assured in this life that they are in the state of grace; they may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, knowing that such hope will never make them ashamed.2
2 Ro 5:2, 5, Ro 8:16, 1 Jn 2:3, 1 Jn 3:14, 18-19, 1 Jn 3:24, 1 Jn 5:13, 2 Pe 1:10
There are some who are certain that they will be saved who are deceived. Temporary believers, those who have the seed of the gospel fall on hearts without much soil or with weed infested ground, experience some stirring in their hearts at the teaching about Jesus and the work of his church. They are convinced, sometimes by themselves and sometimes by well-meaning friends, that this feeling, this temporary faith, is enough to secure eternal salvation. With this in mind we ought to be careful not to offer assurance too quickly but remember that this certainty belongs only to those who persevere in the faith. The fact that there are some who falsely believe they are saved should make us cautious, but not skeptical. We must not allow the dangers involved in this doctrine push us towards the false doctrine that there can be no assurance of salvation except by special revelation reserved for a very few or the teaching that there can be no assurance of eternal life at all.
2 This certainty is not mere conjecture or probability based on a fallible hope. Rather it is an infallible assurance of faith3 based on the blood and righteousness of Christ revealed in the Gospel,4
Assurance is not only possible, it is infallible. There is an assurance of salvation that is real and goes beyond mere probability. We can tell those who long for this assurance but are afraid of deceiving themselves that there is certainty that is no illusion and will not fail. False assurance is built on false assumptions: a profession of faith or going to church or knowledge of Scripture is all that is required. The assurance God offers is built on the truth revealed in Scripture and the promises of God. Specifically, assurance is based on the blood and righteousness of Christ. It is based on what he has done for us. But it is not just assurance that God’s promises are true, it is assurance that they are true for us. It is not confidence that God saves, but that God has saved me.
on the inward evidence of those graces of the Spirit (about which promises have been made),5 and on the testimony of the Spirit of adoption who witnesses with our spirits that we are the children of God.6
True assurance can be distinguished from false assurance by the qualities each manifests. True assurance springs from the graces that only the Spirit can bring to a man’s life. No one can claim that the promises of the gospel are his without the faith, repentance, humility, holiness and other graces that the Spirit brings to the life of every true believer. There can be no true assurance where there is no repentance for sin and no practice of holiness. In addition, there is the testimony of the Holy Spirit who applies the Word of God to our hearts. The testimony of the Spirit is not merely a feeling we have about something for it includes the objective witness of Scripture that what we feel to be true really is. For instance, we read “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands” (1 Jn 2:3) and see how our desire and ability to be obedient is growing and find assurance. As the Spirit shows how the work of God’s grace revealed in Scripture is true in our life we find the assurance we seek.
As the fruit of this assurance, the Spirit keeps our hearts both humble and holy.7
One of the fears of those who reject the idea that we can know we are saved is that this belief will lead to presumption and pride. We cannot however reject truth simply because when twisted it produces bad results. True assurance leads to holiness and humility. John tells us that those who know they are the children of God have a hope that leads them to purify themselves (1 Jn 3:1-3). If there is a real enemy of godliness it is the idea we can never know, no matter how much we struggle to be holy, whether or not we will be accepted by God. This belief leads most often to despair and an end to the struggle for purity of life.
3 This infallible assurance is not an essential part of faith, for a true believer may wait a long time, and struggle with many difficulties before obtaining it.8 Yet we may obtain it without extraordinary revelation and by the right use of ordinary means, for we are enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given to us by God.9
Assurance of salvation is a possibility, but it is not a certainty even for those who are truly saved. We are saved by faith in Christ, not by faith that we have faith in Christ. Scripture makes a clear distinction between these two. One reason John gives for writing to those who believe, and are thus saved, is so that they can know they are saved (1 Jn 5:13). Some are granted this gracious gift when they are saved, all are urged to seek it, but some struggle a great deal before it becomes theirs. Assurance is not possible, as the Roman Catholic church teaches, only by means of extraordinary revelation. Rather, every believer is given the opportunity through the right use of the means of grace as enabled by the Spirit to find it. We are called on to add goodness to faith, knowledge to goodness, etc. (2 Pt 1:5-7) so as not to be ineffective and unproductive in our knowledge of Christ (2 Pt 1:8) and in doing so make our calling and election sure (2 Pt 1:10). Likewise, the author of Hebrews encourages us “to show the same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure” (6:11, cf 10:22). Full assurance is not just for the spiritually elite, but for all who will give heed to the words of Scripture. Because it is offered by God and he encourages us to find it, every saint has the duty to be diligent in seeking assurance.
Therefore it is the duty of everyone to be as diligent as possible to make their calling and election sure, so that their hearts may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in carrying out the duties of obedience. These duties are the natural fruits of this assurance, for it is far from inclining people to loose living.10
The motivation for seeking this assurance is that we may grow in holiness. We have a confident assurance that God loves us, and living in this love means living in God (1 Jn 4:16). In this, we see the connection between assurance of his love and holiness. As our love for God and thankfulness for what he has done increases so too does our strength and desire to serve him. This is a far different outcome than what some fear will be the result of this doctrine. Many believe the teaching on assurance leads to carelessness and neglect in our spiritual lives. This assurance though is the fruit of diligence in making our calling and election sure. It comes as we exercise the means of grace given to us by our Lord. The root is grace, the tree through which nourishment for growth flows is diligence and the fruit produced is assurance. Assurance does not discourage diligence in our pursuit of holiness, for it is held out by God as the fruit of that pursuit.
4 In various ways true believers may have their assurance of salvation shaken, diminished, or interrupted. This may be because of their negligence in preserving it,11 or by falling into some particular sin which wounds the conscience and grieves the Spirit,12 or by some sudden or forceful temptation, or by God withdrawing the light of his countenance and causing even those who fear him to walk in darkness and to have no light.13
Assurance of salvation is not an all or nothing affair. It is not a matter of either resting perfectly confident in God or living in constant fear that we can never be loved by him. The assurance of most believers fluctuates and can at any given time range from being very weak to very strong. In general terms our assurance may grow weak if we neglect the means of grace given that we may grow in our faith. We may fail to spend time in God’s word, grow careless in our prayers, absent ourselves from public worship on the flimsiest of excuses or refuse to take part in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. A special sin may rob the believer of the joy that his assurance brings as it did with David (Ps 51:8,12). A time of testing in which we endure great temptation may so shake us emotionally that we question our assurance (cf Ps 31:1-9).
Yet believers are never destitute of the seed of God and the life of faith, the love of Christ and the brethren, sincerity of heart and conscience of duty. Out of these things, this assurance may in due time be revived by the operation of the Spirit, and in the mean time they are preserved from utter despair.14
There may be times in God’s sovereign will when he withdraws ‘the light of his countenance’ from us for no apparent reason and we are led to question our relationship with him. Even in moments of doubt and despair though, the Christian will turn to God for though he may have no confidence at all in himself, he continues to believe in the faithfulness of God. No matter how dismal and uncertain our future we can say with Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (13:15). Though his assurance of salvation may waver, some things about the believer do not change. The uncertain believer still has the new nature given him at regeneration and the fruits of that new nature (e.g. faith, love, obedience) will continue, by the Spirit’s power, to grow. Because of these certainties in his life, which exist whether he can sense them or not, the believer will be preserved from utter despair. The period of darkness will pass and the light of God’s smile will once again be seen. When our sin has been the cause of our doubt, the darkness most often passes with the confession of sin when we are granted our heart’s prayer: the joy of our salvation and a willing spirit that will turn once again to follow in the paths of righteousness (Ps 51:12).