MESSAGE FOR FEBRUARY 8, 2004
This week, we turn a final corner and conclude our series of message on true and false conversion and assurance of salvation. As we have said, there is much superficial, imbalanced teaching and just plain ignorance on these subjects in the church today and so we have spent much of the last eight messages contrasting the unbiblical notions that pervade current evangelical thinking with a balanced biblical understanding. Last week, we summarized many of the current errors by exposing some of their underlying biblical imbalances. This week, we want to move beyond what assurance of salvation is not, to what it is and how to grow in it. We define assurance as “the God-given inner confidence a follower of Christ has that he/she has indeed been brought into a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ.” That’s a definition. Now let’s say a few things to clarify it and we’ll do that by asking three questions.
The first question is: What is the relationship between saving faith in Christ and assurance of salvation? Saving faith is “the God given trust in Christ alone for salvation resulting in a transformed life and the certainty of heaven.” Saving faith has as its object, Jesus Christ. The person who believes places their trust in Christ who saves. That is different than assurance. Biblical assurance of salvation is not identical to faith, but it is part of faith--an outgrowth of faith. One theologian says, “Assurance…flows from faith…is the fruit of faith.” Saving faith is the foundation; assurance of salvation is the next story up from it rising up from saving faith. We see the relationship between saving faith and assurance in Hebrews 10:22 where the author says, “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith…” Assurance is part of faith, it is an extension of saving faith—it grows out of our faith in Christ. As we have said before, it is possible to have false assurance because a person may believe they are a Christian, but in fact have NOT placed their faith savingly in Christ.
We must understand this distinction between saving faith and assurance of salvation. I am laboring this a bit because if we are unsure here, everything we hear from now on can be misunderstood. As we said, saving faith has as its object Jesus Christ. By contrast our assurance of salvation has as its object our faith. I have assurance I am saved because faith rises up within me and expresses that assurance. If you were to diagram these relationships, Christ would be at the bottom as the foundation and springing out from Christ is saving faith and assurance of salvation comes out of saving faith as an extension of faith.
Saving faith is faith placed in Christ. Assurance of salvation is faith that I am IN Christ. We must hear the difference. This distinction is important for us to know for many reasons but here’s one illustration theologian Joel Beeke points out. That is, if someone comes up to you and asks you, “how do I know if I am saved?” they are not asking you a question directly about salvation, they are asking you a question about their assurance and so you should not answer by saying to them, “Have you believed in Christ?” That question is about salvation, not assurance. It confuses faith in Christ with faith that a person is IN Christ. Other people make the same mistake in the other direction. They say things like, “I am saved because I know that I know that I know I am a child of God.” What’s the object of faith there? Their faith in Christ is the object, not Christ. We mustn’t confuse faith and assurance of salvation.
That leads me to the second question we must ask if we are to have a biblical understanding of this topic which is what are the biblical grounds of assurance? Or to put it another way, assuming I am in Christ what are the sources of evidence that will help me live with the strong assurance that I am truly a child of God? The Puritans did an awful lot of deep thinking about this and they found in the bible three grounds of assurance. I can’t expand on their findings. There are three major grounds upon which assurance of salvation should be based but they are NOT of equal importance. One is more important than the others. The most important ground of assurance of salvation is the promises of the gospel. The objective, firm, immovable and primary ground for our assurance is the promises of the gospel. These are the precious promises of salvation. These are the rock-solid ground to which are spiritual boats must be anchored. The promises of God like, “Acts 16:31, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Romans 10:13, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” John 3:36, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Romans 10:10 “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Romans 10: 11, “For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.”
Related to these promises are ones like Hebrews 13:5, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." John 10:27-30 is another example of a promise that buttresses our assurance. Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. 30I and the Father are one." We need to breathe these in. These promises are the fuel that keeps the flame of our assurance burning brightly.
Those promises and many others like them are THE primary ground for our assurance. If those promises do not exist, we not only don’t have assurance of salvation, we don’t have salvation. These are the truthful, completely objective facts that cannot be changed or altered or dim with the passing of time or fade depending on a person’s situation. They are fixed, immovable, eternal and if we doubt them, we are necessarily consigned to having either very weak assurance or just plain false assurance because any assurance cut loose from God’s word is no assurance. God can, does and will save anyone who places their faith in Christ alone for salvation and he will keep them to the end. Now, as we saw in James, there is a difference between a faith in Christ that saves and a pseudo faith that does not save, but nonetheless, the primary ground for the assurance of salvation is the promises within the word of God. If we doubt them, there can be no valid assurance of salvation, period.
We should treasure these promises, prize them, and repeat them over and over again until they become part of the very fabric of our mind and soul. These words are truth and life to us. Romans 10:17 tells us, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” That is true not only for saving faith, but also the part of faith we call assurance. If we are weak in assurance one reason may be that we are not allowing our faith to be stoked by these promises of God. When everything else fails us, we must cling to these words if we are to have assurance. Our Christian experience, our feelings and our practice of the word will ebb and rise but these words will never fail. They must be the primary ground for our salvation. They are essential, necessary for assurance. They are necessary, but they are not sufficient however. In other words, the promises alone are not enough for us to have a valid, biblical assurance of salvation because as we have seen, there are plenty of carnal, lukewarm people in the church who can claim those promises with utter certainty but that doesn’t mean they are saved. This is why C.I. Scofield is dead wrong when he says, “assurance rests ONLY on the Scripture promises.” Primarily yes, exclusively, no!
A second ground for our assurance is our subjective sanctification. Sanctification is the process wherein we are working out our salvation—wherein we are gradually by the Holy Spirit becoming more and more conformed to Christ’s image. I say sanctification is subjective not because subjective is bad, but because sanctification is experiential. It’s not objective like the unchangeable propositional truth of the promises of Scripture. Sanctification is subjective because it is worked out in our experience. We have seen many times over the past several weeks that our sanctification is part of the ground of our assurance of salvation. We see it in texts like 1 John 2:3 where the apostle says, “And by this we KNOW that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.” Do you hear how that verse is all about assurance? “By this we KNOW that we have come to know him…”—that is a definition for assurance—knowing that we have come to know Christ. How do we know this according to John? “…if we keep his commandments.” Keeping the commandments of God is part of our sanctification and it helps us KNOW we are saved.
We see the same truth in First John 3:14. “We KNOW that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.” John says we can KNOW we have spiritual life as opposed to spiritual death by what? “…because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.” John says a proof or a ground upon which to build assurance of having been made spiritually alive is the love we have for fellow believers. If we love fellow believers that is a part of our subjective sanctification that serves as a support for our confidence that we are saved. If you go to church only because you like the music or like to listen to messages but there is no deep connection with and desire for God’s people, that does not bode well for having valid assurance of salvation because John says we can know our spiritual state on the basis of our love or lack of love for fellow believers. You may ask the question, “How do I know if I love God’s children?” First John 5:2 provides the answer. “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.” Are you discerning a pattern here? Obedience, loving God, loving fellow believers are all part of our sanctification experience and if those elements are absent then we have no good reason to have assurance of salvation because, although this element is not as important as the promises of the gospel, it is still necessary for a strong assurance of salvation.
So we have the objective promises of God and our grace-induced practice of the word in our sanctification. Beyond those two there is one more necessary ground for assurance of salvation. That is the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. The inner witness of the Holy Spirit is the glorious truth that God’s indwelling Spirit communicates with the genuine believer, assuring them that they are indeed in a relationship with God. We see this in at least two places. The best known is Romans 8:14-16 where Paul says, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!" 16The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,”
The ministry of the Holy Spirit in a believer is broad and multifaceted but this ministry Paul highlights here is one of His most precious to many believers. The Holy Spirit comes to the believer as the “Spirit of adoption.” God has one natural child (if you will) Jesus Christ, the first-born of many brothers and all the rest of us are adopted through Christ. We have been placed into a new relationship with God. We are not only forgiven, not only justified, we have also been adopted. Forgiveness addresses the great need we have for cleansing from our sin. Justification speaks to our great spiritual need as condemned sinners for a new legal standing before our holy Judge. Adoption, however speaks to the great need we have because of our estrangement from God. God created humanity to know him personally but our sin brings estrangement from Him. God does not relate as a Father to sinners because their sin separates them from him—they are alienated from God, fallen from intimacy and relationship with Him.
When God saves the sinner, he sends to him/her the Holy Spirit who as the Spirit of adoption confirms to the redeemed person they are no longer personally estranged from Him. Not only are they not estranged from God; God has adopted them as his own children. They have gone from the estrangement of alienation to the intimacy of sonship through adoption. Paul says in verse 15, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The word used for “cry’ there means to scream or shriek—this is a loud and obvious cry of “Abba! Father!” This is a strong inner witness of the Spirit that our relationship with God has radically changed. A spirit of independence has been replaced by an attitude of dependence. Hatred and rebellion toward God have been changed to love for and submission to God. Estrangement has been replaced by intimacy. The Spirit gives us this deep, profound sense that the God of the universe is our Father. We know this not only because Jesus tells us to pray to him as, “Our Father in heaven” but also because the Holy Spirit of adoption living within us “bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”
We see this again in Galatians 4:6 where Paul says, “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" In Romans Paul says it is WE who by the Spirit who cry, “Abba, Father.” Here in Galatians he says it is the SPIRIT who cries out “Abba! Father!” I understand that to mean that the way the Spirit enables our spirit to cry out to God as Father is by the Spirit’s own crying out to us “Abba!” “Father!” Our new, Spirit born hearts resonate with this Spirit-born cry. In our hearts we echo what the Spirit first cries. We have been brought into a new relationship with God—He is now our Father. This is a powerful ground of assurance and if we do not have this internal, Holy Spirit-induced witness that God is now our Father, then we are missing a crucial piece necessary for strong and valid biblical assurance.
Now we must be careful here. We are not talking about us hearing voices crying inside our head. That is almost always a bad thing! We are speaking of the witness of the Holy Spirit in our life in such a way that causes our inner disposition toward God to move from the estrangement sin brings to the intimacy of sonship, making God not only our Creator and Judge, but also our heavenly Father. J.I. Packer in his book “Knowing God” says “Father is the Christian name for God.” If when we pray, for instance there is not a sense of intimacy with God as if we are talking to someone we know as Father, then something is missing. Something is wrong.
Notice how these three grounds of assurance of salvation work so beautifully together. The promises serve as God’s work to give us propositional assurance of salvation. God’s work in us as we work out our sanctification gives us experiential assurance and the internal witness of the Spirit to give us relational-assurance. This three-stranded cord of the propositional, experiential and relational can and should provide the believer with a strong sense of assurance. If we are to have a healthy assurance of salvation, we need all three. We need the unchanging propositional assurance of God’s promises at all times but especially when we are under spiritual attack and are being condemned by the accuser or the brethren. The word is our sword with which to carve up his condemning accusations. We need the ongoing, experiential assurance of sanctification because the gospel changes lives and hearts and as we show, albeit imperfectly the transforming work of God in our lives, we grow in assurance that we have been made new in Christ.
Finally, we need the internal witness of the Spirit of adoption because salvation as we said last week is defined primarily relationally. We are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and relating to Him within the intimacy of a Father/child relationship is central to that. When we sin, we need to know that our sonship to God is a fixed relationship that is not dependent upon our performance. We may be disobedient children at times, but we are still God’s children and if we, as imperfect parents don’t disown our wayward children, then how much more will our perfect heavenly Father keep us in relationship with him as his children. A healthy Christian KNOWS they are in Christ and they have eternal life in Him. Having a strong sense of assurance is vital to spiritual health. This is why Peter tells us in 2 Peter 1:10, “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.
Having laid out the grounds of assurance, let’s ask a third and final question. That is how can we grow in our assurance of salvation? One broad answer is this: though assurance like faith is a gift from God, it is also something we must work at if we are to grow stronger in it. How do we work on it? Let’s take each of the three sources of assurance and make application. If the promises of the gospel are the primary ground for assurance, then we must go regularly back to the cross to confess our sins. Hebrews 10:22 says, “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil [NIV says “guilty”] conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” If full assurance of faith is dependent on a sprinkled, guilt-free conscience (as I believe this verse teaches) then we need to keep short accounts with God and go back again and again and again to the blood of Jesus if we are to enjoy strong assurance. We must claim gospel promises like 1 John 1:9 “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Unconfessed sin and the guilty conscience that comes from it cripples our assurance. Also, as I said earlier we must bathe our minds in the assurance-bolstering promises of God to enable our minds to be renewed from doubting and distrusting into the believing and promise-claiming vehicles they were intended by God to be.
Second, because one of the grounds of assurance is our sanctification, we must understand that if we are living a lukewarm, stuck in the mud Christian life that will greatly compromise any VALID sense of assurance. If, as first John 5:18 says, “We KNOW that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning…” but we are living with rampant areas of unchecked, unrepentant sin that is naturally going to weaken our assurance. We are not speaking of perfection, but if you have an area or areas of sin you are simply not battling against and have come to just accept them as a part of your lukewarm way of life, any assurance of salvation you will have will either be very weak or just plain false. We need to by God’s grace continually work out our salvation in fear and trembling if we want our assurance to grow.
Finally, because we know that the Holy Spirit’s witness to us as the Spirit of adoption is that we are God’s children, we must heed the command of 1 Thessalonians 5:19, “Do not quench the Spirit.” When we move into patterns of unchecked, unrepentant sin that quenches the Spirit. That muffles his cry. Unrepentant sin transforms a clear “ABBA!” “FATHER!” into “a**_” “f#r.” We can easily miss sensing his cry of sonship because we have through our sin quenched Him. Do you hear that an increasing assurance must be worked for? Jonathan Edwards said, “Assurance is attained not by self-examination but by action.” Oh, how badly needed that truth is in our navel gazing, self-absorbed, introspective evangelical culture. Instead of fretting about our lack of assurance, endlessly agonizing over whether we are in or out, by God’s grace we should just repent of our sin and do those things which will honor God, bring us great joy and work to our strengthen assurance. My observation is that people who are emotionally and mentally healthy and whose walk is solid with God don’t do a lot of doubting about assurance—in child-like faith they simply delight in God as their Father.
Let me close with a quote from Joel Beeke on assurance. He says, “Assurance is essential for living that overcomes the world and walks in tender fear of God through Jesus Christ. Assurance of faith confesses with Paul in Scripture’s richest chapter on assurance, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” May God give us the grace to live in the overcoming victory of a biblical assurance of salvation.
Page last modified on 2/15/2004
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