Assurance of salvation is a God-given confidence for every true believer in Christ of their present approval and future acceptance by their Father.
The Bible consistently testifies to the assurance of salvation for all those in Christ and grounds that certainty first, in the objective promises of God and second, in the subjective work of the Spirit in both direct testimony and the indirect testimony of the fruit of conversion. This assurance does not deny the role of warnings and the existence of doubt.
The God and Father of our Lord Jesus not only wants to save and forgive his people he wants them to know and experience their salvation and confidently delight in their forgiveness to the glory of God.
The biblical promise of assurance of salvation is a unique privilege among world religions and is sadly not always found among every Christian tradition to the point where in some cases, it is actually forbidden.1 James Denny rightly stated, “the acid test of any version of Christianity is it’s attitude to assurance.” 2
Assurance of salvation must not be confused with salvation itself. One can be saved in Christ without having assurance of salvation. Equally, one can have assurance of salvation without being saved.
The Grounds for Assurance
Both the Canons of Dort (1618–1619) and Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) give essentially the same three answers for the sources of assurance for those in Christ.
- Assurance comes from faith in the promises of God.
- Assurance comes from the testimony of the Holy Spirit testifying to our spirits that we are children of God.
- Assurance comes from “a serious and holy pursuit of a clear conscience and of good works” (Canons of Dort 5.10).
Assurance comes from faith in the promises of God.
Assurance springs not from the power of positive thinking but the power of the gospel.
The very nature of faith or trust in the gospel promises implies confidence. Assurance is part of the experience of trusting in the promises of a trustworthy God. Faith takes God at His word, “…being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (Rom. 4:21, Heb. 11:1-2).
Since the gospel is God’s gospel (Rom. 1:1) it can be trusted because He is powerful to save, faithful to his covenantal word (Rom. 3:3), unable to lie (Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18) and unable to change (Mal. 3:6). And since the gospel promises are according to the Scriptures (1Cor. 15:3-4) certainty is possible because these same Scriptures are God authored and therefore infallible and trustworthy (2Tim. 3:16-17; Luke 1:4; 2Pet. 1:20).
One way to frame the objective grounds of assurance is by grasping three categories of thought which are interconnected: 1) adoption into God’s family, 2) union with Christ, and 3) the sufficient work of Christ at the Cross.
- Adoption has been rightly stated to be the highest blessing for the Christian. God is both a loving and perfect Father who has adopted a people for himself forging an eternal family ushered in by Christ who is both Lord and older brother (Rom. 8:29). As a loving Father, God wants his children to know they are His beloved (1Jn. 3:1-3), rather than stay in suspense as to whether He is for them or against them. Assurance extends to eternal security, in which God preserves his children until he takes them home, forever more (John 10:25-30). The destiny of God`s elect ultimately rests within the safe hands of God the Father, Son, and Spirit (John 6:37,39). Packer helpfully observes, “Adopted children need assurance that they belong, a perfect parent will not withhold it.” 3
- Union with Christ asserts that the destiny of each believer is irrevocably bound up with the destiny of the Messiah. Every blessing including assurance is mediated through Christ alone. It is a union which began before the creation of the world when God, in love, predestined his people to be adopted as his sons. It is a union which allows the believer to know they are forgiven and redeemed (Eph. 1:7), justified (Rom. 5:9), and reconciled (Rom. 5:11) in the “now” by Christ’s blood. Union with Christ also looks to the future with confidence because having believed the gospel, the Spirit has sealed the believer guaranteeing their future inheritance (Eph. 1:3-4). Every believer has not only died and risen with Christ but is described as already raised and ruling with him in the heavenly realms (Eph. 2:6).
- There would be no assurance of faith if it were not for the penal substitutionary work of Christ at the cross in bearing and removing sin once for all (1Pet. 2:24; 3:18; John 1:29; Heb. 10:10), propitiating God’s wrath (Rom. 3:25; 1Jn. 2:2), and disarming Satan (Col. 2:15). In so doing, the cross is a demonstration of both God’s justice and God’s love which becomes further grounds of assurance for the believer. (1Jn. 1:9; Rom. 5:8; 8:31-37) The resurrection confirms the victory of Christ’s work (Rom. 4:25), the defeat of death (Rom. 8:11) and serves as sufficient evidence for all to repent and be saved (Acts 17:31)).
The promises of assurance are a repeated theme among New Testament writers as seen in the following texts: 1 John 5:13, Hebrews 4:16, 1 Corinthians 1:8, 1 Peter 1:4-5, Jude 1:24-25, and especially Romans 8.
Assurance also comes from the testimony of the Holy Spirit directly testifying to the believer’s spirit that they are children of God.
This is one of two subjective and secondary grounds for assurance. The Spirit of adoption which enables the believer to cry out “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15) also bears direct witness to each believer that God is their Father and they are his children (Rom. 8:16). As Packer states, “This is a direct and immediate sense of God’s fatherly love given as kind of an immediate communication-like God is saying, ‘I love you,’ directly, immediately to the soul through His Word.”4 Importantly, the Spirit testifies to one’s own spirit not about others. Therefore, a believer cannot have the same level of certitude about the salvation of others as they can of themselves.
The Spirit testifies to the believer’s adoption by the evidences of conversion and a transformed life.
The transformed life can function as a sign and indirect form of assurance. For some examples:
- 1 John 2:3 points to the obedience of the commandments as testimony that one belongs to God.
- 1John 3:14 identifies love for the saints as evidence they have passed from death to life.
- 2 Peter 1:4-11 urges believers to make their calling and election sure by serious effort to grow in maturity and produce godly fruit.
The reformers and puritans gave a consistent warning that the grounds and causes of salvation must never be confused with the signs of salvation or they will cause injury to the soul. Robert Murray M’Cheyne, while recognizing the need for self-examination, wisely urged his congregation that, “they should take ten looks at Christ for every look they take inside themselves.”5
Biblical Warnings and Assurance
How are we to understand the apparent tension between biblical warnings and assurance?
There are in Scripture warnings about apostasy (Heb. 6:4-6; Matt 24:3-14), presuming on the grace of God (1Cor. 10:12), not being ashamed of Christ (Mark 8:38), confessing Christ but not doing the Father’s will (Matt. 7:21-23), spurious faith without works (James 2:26), those tempted to go back under the law (Gal. 5:3-4), or works of the flesh (1Cor. 6:9-10; 13-15) to name but a few. A number of these are accompanied with threats of eternal rejection on judgment day.
The New Testament also has a number of examples of those who started in the faith but failed to persevere including Judas, Demas, Hymenaeus, and Alexander (1Tim. 1:20). In addition, every Christian personally knows those who once “called on the name of our Lord” but have subsequently denied Christ and fallen away.
So are these clear warnings real or hypothetical? In other words, can the elect fall away.
This issue is a subset of the broader tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. The notion of divine compatibilism helpfully seeks to preserve the place of both truths without denying some degree of mystery. As a result, we must not speak of assurance in such a way that denies the weight of the warnings and the responsibility of each disciple to make every effort to persevere, because true faith, by definition, always perseveres. However, nor must we speak of the warnings in a way that undermine the clear promises that those God foreknew and predestined are those who he glorified (Rom. 8:29).
Divine compatibilism helps to avoid both the curse of “easy believism” on the one hand, and tortured souls with obsessive introspection on the other. Carson helpfully notes that warnings against apostasy don’t function to annul the promises of God rather they are to promote perseverance.6 The promises of God are not to engender apathy they are to promote zeal, gratitude, and appreciation of God’s faithfulness.
From the vantage point of the observer, professing Christians do fall away. From the vantage point of both God and the elect themselves they will not fall away.
All the promises of God including those that warn the saints are part of the means of grace that God uses to keep his people safe. How the promises of God are applied, including church discipline (1Cor. 5:5), becomes a matter of pastoral wisdom, because both the warnings and those being warned in the Bible and in life are in an array of different contexts. A simple comparison of 1 Corinthians 1-4, Galatians 1-3, and Hebrews 6 makes the point.
At times the call to persevere and the promise of divine preservation fit like a hand in a glove. The reason why we are called to work out our salvation with fear and trembling is because it is “God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Phil. 2:12-13).
Challenges to Assurance
In Church History
The theological challenge to Assurance is often connected with a faulty view of Justification and the Sovereign grace of God.
Roman Catholicism responded to the Reformers’ clarity of gospel assurance by emphatically declaring that “no one can know with a certitude of faith which cannot be subject to error, that he has obtained God’s grace.”7 The reason Catholicism denied assurance is because it turned justification into a process over a period of time which is able to be lost through mortal sin. In short, sanctification (as traditionally understood) preceded and was a basis for final justification because it was claimed that God cannot justify a sinner while still being a sinner. In addition, those who claimed to know for certain they were among the elect, apart from special revelation, were condemned. Catholicism had repeated the medieval error which allowed faith to hope for heaven but refused any certainty of arriving there.
If the objective grounds for assurance were a focus among the reformers, the subjective grounds for assurance were a focus among the puritans without denying that both were present in each period. Nevertheless, the puritans tended to not see assurance (present or future) as essential to faith and overly weighted the subjective and secondary basis of assurance resulting in a lack of confidence for many believers brought on by intensive introspection. Assurance shifted from an, “…aspect of faith to a subsequent achievement, from a privilege to a duty…”8
In the 18th century Wesley followed Luther’s claim that assurance is of the essence of faith and the role of the Spirit in giving direct testimony. However, he limited assurance “to the present acceptance by God only, and that there can be no present assurance of persevering.”9
More recently, the “New Perspective on Paul” has played a part in weakening the grounds of assurance in its ambiguous view of justification. Justification as a forensic and legal standing by individuals before God the judge, gives some way to justification as an identification and inclusion into covenant people of God on the basis of one’s faithfulness. Crudely put, we are in by grace, but we stay in by works. With the move, away from personal faith that relies on Christ and results in individual salvation comes a degree of loss in the full assurance of faith.10
Doubts and Assurance
Assurance is not the domain of a select class of Christian who never question their faith nor doubt their salvation. The opposite to faith is not doubt but disbelief and there is a corner of doubt in every Christian. “I believe; help my unbelief” is to some extent the normal Christian life. Calvin recognized that “we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt.”11 Hence, Jude 22 writes, “Be merciful to those who doubt.…”
Doubts may arise for a wide range of reasons including; outright disobedience, secret sins, lack of knowledge in God’s promises, misunderstanding suffering (Heb. 12:7), lack of sleep, and mental health issues to name but a few. Diagnosing the correct reason(s) for doubt and lack of assurance is a pastorally critical matter.
Satan is the great accuser who wraps lies in half-truths with the aim to deceive the elect and hi-jack their confidence. He is the enemy of God`s people and one of his strategies is to throw arrows of doubt by falsely accusing the brethren, even though he himself has been disarmed and humiliated at the cross (Col. 2:15). As Beeke notes, “…if Satan can’t hurt us in our obedience, he will hurt us in our comforts.”12 Christians pursuit of assurance is a matter of spiritual warfare (Eph. 6:12). The believer’s defensive armor consists essentially of different elements of the gospel, (truth, salvation, righteousness, peace, etc.) prayerfully preached to oneself. The shield of faith in the gospel promises is how flaming arrows of doubt are extinguished (Eph. 6:16).
Why Assurance Matters
Assurance of faith is important because it not only provides great comfort to believers but stimulates a life lived in joyful holiness, and unending praise to God.
Martyn-Lloyd Jones highlights what is at stake when assurance is not grasped, “We should all be concerned about our assurance of salvation, because if we lack assurance we lack joy, and if we lack joy our life is of probably of poor quality.”13
- Joel R. Beeke, Knowing and Growing in Assurance of Faith (Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, Christian Focus 2017).
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), especially Book 3, Chapters XI-XVIII.
- D. A. Carson, “Reflections on Christian Assurance,” WTJ 54 (1992): 1-29.
- D. A. Carson, Talks on 1 John.
- D. A. Carson, “The New Perspective on Paul,” Reformed Theological Seminary, 3 Lectures.
- Bryan Chappell “An Explanation of the New Perspective on Paul.”
- Ray Galea, From Here to Eternity: Assurance in the face of sin and suffering. (Sydney: Mathias Media, 2017).
- A. N. S. Lane, “Calvin’s Doctrine of Assurance,” Vox Evangelica 11 (1979): 32-54.
- D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 8 The Sons of God, Romans 8:5-8 (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1970).
- J. I. Packer, Knowing God, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1975) especially chapter 19, “Sons of God,” and chapter 22, “The adequacy of God.”
- J. I. Packer, “Sanctification and Assurance.”
- Klaas Runia, “Justification and Roman Catholicism,” in Right with God: Justification in the Bible and the World, D. A. Carson (Exeter: Paternoster; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992).
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