One of the most common issues I deal with in pastoral counseling consists of helping people with their struggles regarding the assurance of salvation. The Scripture tells us, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). But once we’ve believed in Jesus, the next question which inevitably follows begs an answer, “And how do I know I’ve believed?” It is this question that gnaws at the consciences of many.
To add to this dilemma, we know it’s possible to think we’ve believed when this isn’t the case. We can be deceived by a false profession of faith with produces a false sense of peace when we’ve never truly exercised saving faith in the biblical sense of the term. Our Lord warned about this (Mat. 7:21-23). He said, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Lk. 13:24). The apostle John spoke of many in Christ’s presence who exercised counterfeit faith that wasn’t efficacious to save (Jn. 2:23-25; 8:30-44). Scripture is replete with warnings about religious deception and false professions of faith and even exhorts those who profess Christ to examine themselves to see if they’re in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5). The sheer weight of these biblical texts causes many fear as they struggle to attain to a sense of certainty with regard to their spiritual condition and eternal destiny.
But even though it’s possible for the unregenerate to possess a false sense of assurance, it is also possible for the truly regenerate to struggle with his assurance. The Puritans explained this by saying that assurance is not “of the essence of faith” . What they meant is that it’s necessary to distinguish between saving faith and the assurance of saving faith. Faith and assurance are not necessarily synonymous. Salvation and the joy of salvation, although related, are not intrinsically united in the experience of the saint. The true believer may have many long, intense and hellish battles before attaining to a conscious, full and well-grounded sense of joy in the assurance of his salvation.
For this reason, Scripture exhorts us to be diligent in pursuing assurance. “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure” (2 Pet. 1:10). In this text, Peter is addressing “brothers” who “have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (1:1) but who nonetheless were in danger of lacking assurance that they were cleansed from their former sins (1:9) due to a lack of diligence in pursuing the means of grace in order to grow in sanctification (1:5-8). We must never be slothful in seeking to enjoy full and unhindered fellowship with God through Bible study, prayer, worship, fellowship with the church, and all the other means that God has graciously provided for us to grow in our knowledge of Him and in spiritual fruitfulness. Assurance is a precious flower in the garden of God that must be handled with tender care and cultivated with persevering fellowship with and persistent obedience to God.
Considering these things also helps us to answer our initial question, “How do I know I’ve believed?”
First of all, we can be sure that we haven’t believed with a true, saving
faith if our lives are characterized by continual, voluntary, and persistent disobedience to Christ. According to our Lord’s words in the Sermon on the Mount, those who cried out, “Lord, Lord” in the Day of Judgment didn’t truly possess a saving relationship with Him because they were “workers of lawlessness” (Mat. 7:23). The Greek word used here, “anomia”, literally means, “no-law” or “anti-law”. It refers to those who reject God’s law in rebellion by failing to obey it. In this case, such lawless living is indicative of a lack of saving faith. “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 Jn. 2:4). True faith manifests itself through practical obedience to God (Jam. 2:14-26). It is “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6) and “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5) that supplies the necessary evidence of truly knowing Christ. This doesn’t mean that the true believer will always perfectly obey God, but that the general pattern of his practice will be characterized by a sincere desire to glorify His sovereign King and please his heavenly Father above all things.
Second, we can be sure we have believed and been justified if our faith is an effectual and operative faith which propels us forward in sanctification and growth in grace. Luther coined the term, “living faith” to describe the nature of the faith that saves, because it is a faith that works, grows and matures as it rests on Christ alone as the foundation of its confidence. This is in contrast to a dead faith which merely rests content in an empty profession but shows no signs of the works and growth that characterize spiritual life. The Puritans would often say that sanctification is the evidence of justification. While justification is invisible, sanctification brings forth fruit and evidence (Rom. 6:21-22). And the faith that justifies at the moment of conversion when we receive salvation continues to sanctify throughout our lives as we work out that salvation in our practical experience.
In 2 Peter chapter 1, the apostle knows that in order for the believer to enjoy the confident assurance of being in a state of grace, it is necessary to diligently pursue spiritual growth through faith in Christ and obedience to His commandments. The Scriptures offer no assurance of salvation to those who consistently fail to obey Jesus Christ. We cannot attain to the full assurance of faith by being slothful in our duty and slack in our perseverance. Assurance is for those who are “fervent in spirit, serving the Lord” (Rom. 12:11) as they diligently seek to be filled with all joy and peace in believing so that by the power of the Holy Spirit they may abound in hope (Rom. 15:13).
In the following post, we’ll take a closer look at this topic by outlining the three sources of the believer’s assurance. After that, we’ll identify some of the most common reasons believers struggle with assurance together with some practical counsel for those who are battling. Stay tuned!
. See, for example, the Westminster Confession, 18:3.
I am a worshiper of Jesus Christ, husband, father, missionary to Mexico, preacher, church planter, pastor, who loves to read ancient dead preachers, study Systematic Theology, fantasize about revival, strategize about missions, and enjoy God.