Many Christians frequently struggle with doubts about the certainty of their salvation. In our last post, we began to consider the issue of the believer’s assurance. We talked about the duty of pursuing assurance with diligence and persevering obedience to God. As we continue our discussion of this topic, it’s necessary to outline what Scripture teaches about the sources of the believer’s assurance.
Much bewilderment exists at this very point. Where should we be looking in the hope of obtaining assurance? It is due to confusion and lack of knowledge of this that many believers suffer an unnecessary amount of affliction of soul as they agonize over whether or not they truly abide in a state of grace. Understanding the sources of our assurance as believers helps us to pursue it effectively in a biblically-informed way. What, then, are the sources of assurance according to Scripture?
To answer this question we must turn to the first epistle of John. It is the only book of the Bible written with the explicitly stated purpose of helping those who believe to enjoy a substantially-informed and well-grounded assurance of salvation: “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 Jn. 5:13).
It is important to note that that which is intended to provide us with the confident assurance of our salvation is that which is written; “I write these things”, says John. It is the inscripturated Word of God that details the sources of the believer’s assurance. We must go to Scripture, and not to our own wavering opinions or faltering feelings, as we seek assurance. In 1 John, the apostle provides us with three fundamental sources of assurance.
The first and primary source of assurance is found in the promises of the Gospel which are rooted and grounded in the perfect, finished work of Christ.
John begins his epistle by calling our attention to the veracity and utter certainty of the historic, objective truth of the Gospel event as accomplished in the Person and through the work of Jesus Christ.
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life– the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us– that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (1 Jn. 1:1-4)
With these words, John emphasizes that the Gospel is true and reliable. As an eyewitness to the life, death and resurrection of Christ, the apostle declares that Who Jesus Christ is and what He accomplished serves as the basis for and foundation of the salvific fellowship the believer enjoys with God, and thus serves as the first and foremost fountain of the joy of the assurance of his salvation. John proceeds to state the specific promise of guaranteed eternal life predicated upon faith in Jesus Christ according to the inscripturated message of the apostolic witness to the Gospel (1 Jn. 2:23-25). The apostle makes clear that above all, Christ and His redemptive work alone must be the principle source of our assurance, as we embrace and appropriate the salvific benefits of that work by faith in the promises of salvation which are infallibly recorded in the Word of God.
The second source of assurance is identified as the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.
“And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us” (1 Jn. 3:24b). “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” (1 Jn. 4:13). Whereas the first source of assurance is rooted in the objective truth of the Gospel as recorded in Scripture, this second source springs forth from the subjective, internal work of the Holy Spirit’s abiding influence in the heart of the believer. As the Spirit of God effectually causes faith to arise in our hearts through His regenerating work (cf. 1 Jn. 5:1), and continues to nurture that faith through His sanctifying influence, He bears witness to the truth of Scripture within our hearts so as to cause us to be consciously aware of our participation in the saving power of the Gospel as the particular recipients of the salvation wrought out at the cross of Christ. It is the work of the Holy Spirit that molds the affections of our hearts to esteem and treasure Jesus Christ, to love Him and desire to be with Him, so that we continually and increasing enjoy fellowship with Him and thus rejoice in the assurance of our salvation. It is the Spirit who produces the subjective realities of the fruit of internal heart-holiness which manifest themselves objectively in practical obedience to Christ.
The third source of assurance consists of the evidences of regeneration.
The larger part of 1 John is concerned with detailing those identifying characteristics which mark the general pattern of living and habitual practice of the child of God. Those who are born of God walk in the light of the truth and holiness of God (1 Jn. 1:5-7), they confess their sins continually as they are conscious of a peculiar sensitivity to sin (1 Jn. 1:8-10), they obey God’s commandments and strive to be Christ-like in their submission to God’s will (1 Jn. 2:3-6), they do not hate but rather love others, especially their fellow believers (1 Jn. 2:7-11), they experience progressive and continual spiritual growth (1 Jn. 2:12-14), they are not dominated by inordinate affection for the fallen, satanic world system (1 Jn. 2:15-17), they persevere in the faith (1 Jn. 2:18-19), they confess Christian orthodoxy especially with regard to the doctrine of Christ (1 Jn. 2:20-27), they are characterized by a general pattern of persistent righteous practice (1 Jn. 2:29-3:10), they know and seek to continually procure a clean conscience in the presence of God (1 Jn. 3:19-22), they love God and they abide in His love (1 Jn. 4:7).
These fruits of a genuine regenerating work of the Spirit in the life of the Christian constitute the evidence of what is always the case when one has been truly born of God. According to the apostle, every real Christian will be characterized by these things at least to some considerable degree in his experience. Those who lack the fruits of regeneration lack eternal life and yet abide in a state of spiritual death.
As one compares his lifestyle to that which is set forth of the genuine believer in the Word of God, if the general pattern of his conduct concords with the descriptive realities of genuine Christianity outlined in Scripture, he can be confident that God indeed is at work in him to will and to do for His good pleasure (cf. Php. 2:12-13). This in turn provides something of an objective way to discern if one truly abides in a state of grace. Those whose lives are marked by the fruit of regeneration can be confident they have eternal life, and thus be assured by the testimony of God’s Word that their salvation is genuine; those whose lives are marked by an absence of the fruit of regeneration can be confident they abide in spiritual death, and thus be assured by the testimony of God’s Word that they are bound for Hell unless they repent and turn to Christ.
Now, some words of clarification are in order at this point. It is imperative that we maintain these three sources of assurance in a correct biblical balance and proper perspective. The order in which I have laid them out here is not done carelessly. While the importance of all three sources of assurance should never be diminished, and we should never so emphasize one of these sources to the detriment of soberly considering the others, we should also prioritize them in the order set forth here so as to give due precedence to that which is first in order of importance. I have listed these sources of assurance not only in a logical order, but also according to the prioritized order each should have in the practical experience of the believer so as to set before our minds the precedence of Scripture’s testimony to the work of Christ as the ground of our confidence over and above the subjective influences of the Spirit within our hearts and the fruits of regeneration in our lives. This is vital to understand, and many believers, by failing to grasp these simple truths, thrust themselves into much needless despair.
Not a few Christians have struggled unnecessarily due to an inordinate prioritizing of giving undo emphasis to the third source of assurance over the first source of assurance. That is, by falling into an obsessive practice of introspection they turn the eyes of their hope inwardly to scrutinize themselves as they grope for some certain evidence of regeneration rather than lifting their eyes upward to behold the perfect righteousness of the crucified Savior who represents His people as Advocate and Mediator in the presence of God. They fall into the subtle trap of seeking assurance primarily by looking to their own performance and works rather than resting in simple, childlike faith in the finished work of the cross. In doing so, they struggle frequently as their minds are buffeted with many doubts since they are seeking a confident assurance of salvation in their own imperfect performance and flawed personal righteousness.
This subtle trap is an abyss of endless self-examination. In order to be accepted in the presence of a just and holy God, one must have nothing less than a perfect righteousness. But those who look into themselves to find a sufficient degree of righteousness or holiness to commend them to God can only despair of finding hope there because they can never attain to the perfect ion their sensitive conscience so ardently desires. As they examine themselves for the evidences of regeneration, they consider their actions, thoughts and motives, and question themselves endlessly with the desire to be sure that they are sure that the spiritual fruit of true piety has been really wrought in their hearts and lives. But the problem with over-analyzing our own piety and motives is that it is like peeling off the layers of an onion –after advancing through one layer there is yet another, and then another and another. Indeed, the only thing it produces is the desire to cry. Who can understand the depths of his own heart? Who can perfectly discern his own motives? “Who can say, I have made my heart pure; I am clean from
my sin?” (Pro. 20:9) Never will we find within ourselves the source of confidence we need to rest in the hope of the certainty and assurance of our salvation. Our primary source of assurance must be our beloved Lord Jesus, His redemptive work, and His precious Gospel promises as contained in His infallible, written Word.
May God grant us to say with Paul, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14)! May the perfect work of our flawless Redeemer be the primary ground of our confidence as we embrace His work by faith in the evangelical promises of Scripture so that we may have what the Reformers called an “infallible assurance”, since it is based on the perfect redemptive work of God incarnate and not on our own personal performance!
Believer, do you struggle with assurance? Do you agonize over whether you are saved or not? Lift up your eyes, and behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!
Whether you are truly regenerate or not, I tell you, the answer is the same: look away from yourself and place your trust in Christ and Christ alone! If you are saved but struggling with assurance, only Christ can speak peace to your troubled soul and calm the waters of crushing doubts, so look to Him! If you are not saved, the remedy is no different; you must look to Christ alone. In Him alone is the righteousness by which you can be accepted in the presence of God. So, whether you are saved or lost, run to the open arms of the Son of God, “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). May He be the solid rock upon which the feet of your confidence stand so as to never be shaken; may He be the strong tower to which you run for refuge from the enemies of doubt and fear; may He be the pillow upon which your troubled soul rests in peace; may He be your only boast and confidence in the presence of the holy God!
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.