Part 2: The Biblical Basis for Seeking Assurance
Today we embark on a study of personal assurance. To have assurance is to know with certainty in my Christian experience that I am known by God and adopted into His family through the gospel. It’s one thing to read in the Bible that salvation comes to those who repent and believe in Christ. But how do I know that God’s sovereign and saving grace has been poured out into my own soul? Because of its practical implications the pursuit of “full assurance” (Heb. 10:22) is one of the most important doctrines of the Bible. As Joel Beeke writes, “Many doctrines may escape a typical believer’s notice without serious consequence, but assurance is not one of them” (Quest, 281).
This study is connected with, but distinct from, a study on the perseverance of the saints. The doctrine of perseverance concerns God’s faithfulness to lead His children home without letting any of them perish. The doctrine of assurance, however, is more concerned with how I know that I am in fact one of God’s children (I’ll show later how these two are connected).
The diligent pursuit of assurance
The best place to begin this study of assurance is to open Scripture and see that we are in fact to labor and search after personal assurance. So my goal today is simply to let you read these passages for yourself with minimal comments. For the sake of space I have limited these passages to the New Testament.
2 Peter 1:10-11 … “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Hebrews 6:11 … “And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end”
2 Corinthians 13:5 … “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? — unless indeed you fail to meet the test!”
1 John 5:13 … “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.”
These calls to assurance would be unnecessary if (1) Christians were not called to attain assurance and (2) if all Christians were naturally imbibed with this assurance.
Paul’s deep assurance
Related to these calls to assurance is the example of assurance demonstrated in the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul. He lived in a profound sense of personal assurance. Notice in these passages not only the sovereign power of God to persevere His children, but especially how convinced Paul is that he is in fact one of God’s children.
Galatians 2:20 … “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
2 Timothy 1:12 … “But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.”
Romans 8:35, 38, 39 … “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? … For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor 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.”
Ephesians 1:13-14 … “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”
Paul’s words are a model of assurance for every Christian.
Dangers of false assurance
The seeking of true assurance is motivated by warnings in Scripture of those who have rested in false assurances to their eternal condemnation. If it were impossible to be convinced of the genuineness of our assurances these passages would drown our souls under doubt and despair.
Matthew 7:21-23 … “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
James 1:22, 26 … “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves … If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”
James 2:17-18 … “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
Revelation 3:15-17 … “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”
“We know” in 1 John
But praise God, His children can know for certain they are saved! And if there was a single book of the Bible devoted to the Saints pursuit of assurance it would be 1 John. Listen to the wording as we are called to “know” that we are saved.
1 John 2:3 … “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.”
1 John 3:14-24 … “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.”
1 John 5:2 … “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.”
And the purpose statement of the entire book in 1 John 5:13 … “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.”
It cannot be mistaken here that while we are saved by the Cross apart from any works, we are assured of partaking in the Cross by a life marked by change. These passages say to us, “take note of your own heart and labor after full assurance.”
Where has assurance gone?
We don’t need a Ph.D. in church history to see that a pursuit of personal assurance – the personal question of whether I am truly a child of God — is no longer a prominent theme in the Church today (and a reason why Puritan spirituality is so alien).
I think there are two reasons why.
1. The Gospel call has been separated from the call to Cross-bearing. It is fascinating to watch Jesus evangelize. Just listen to one example: “whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:38-39). This is no tit-for-tat salvation where we do good things and get life for our obedience. Rather, in Jesus’ call there is a union into Christ’s death (Rom. 6). This union to Christ means salvation and justification, but also self-mortification and self-crucifixion. The goal of the Gospel is total life transformation, beginning in sanctification here, and glorification at the first sight of Christ’s glory (1 John 3:2).
If, from the beginning, sinners were aware that Jesus was calling them to a radically new Cross-centered life, pursuing evidences of grace and assurance would be an obvious step of consideration. The Gospel carries with it God’s holistic transforming grace evident to others and powerful enough to form part of the basis of our personal assurance.
It may be that because salvation in Christ comes by faith alone that we also think assurance is by faith alone. When this happens, the passages above that call us to pursue full assurance are viewed as uncomfortable oddities to be avoided, rather than the means to great joy and delight and personal security in our Father.
2. A neglect or denial of God’s sovereign grace. Probably the most radical passage in Scripture on assurance comes in 2 Peter 1:10-11, “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities [virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection and love] you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Here Peter calls us to make certain our personal calling and election by the demonstration of godliness. Think about this for a moment… God’s children were elected from before the foundation of the earth and here we are called in our Christian experience to make this election certain (Eph. 1:4). God did not pencil us into His family until we wrote our names in Sharpies. Rather, the elected child of God will live a life that affirms God’s sovereign election! In our Christian experience we can know with certainty that we were elected in Christ!
But it’s not only 2 Peter that ties assurance directly to God’s sovereign grace (see also 1 Pet. 1:1-7 and Rom. 8:28-39).
The only way we can pursue our assurance of salvation is to know that God sovereignly preserves His chosen. Where an emphasis on God’s sovereign grace is not found, the pursuit of assurance will not be found either.
For example, Roman Catholicism teaches that “common Christians” will never know for certain they are children of God. At the Council of Trent Rome made it clear that none can know with any certainty that he or she is justified (6.9). It’s no wonder. God’s sovereign preservation of the Christian and the Christian’s assurance in this world undermines the foundations of mass, purgatory and the authority of the church as dispenser of sustaining grace. As Francis Turretin aptly noted, “For he who would be certain of his own salvation would betake himself neither to the patronage of the saints, nor to the merits of martyrs, nor to the absolution of priests” (Elenctic, 15.17.4).
But also for Protestants who believe that salvation can be lost, the pursuit of assurance would not make sense either. How can we ever find assurance in a salvation that we ourselves can undermine?
Theologian John Murray writes, “every brand of theology that is not grounded in the particularism which is exemplified in sovereign election and effective redemption is not hospitable to this doctrine of assurance of faith” (Writings, 2:267). The joy of pursuing personal assurance can only be pursued within a solid understanding of God’s sovereign election and perseverance of the sinner. Our fallible self-sustaining power would prove too flimsy a foundation to base any assurances.
The goal of assurance in the Christian life is not a labor of self-centered, self-righteous and introspective drudgery. The goal of pursuing assurance is a transcendent joy in our Abba Father who adopted His children in love! We are opening our spiritual ears to hear the witness of the Holy Spirit in our own spirits (Rom. 8:16).
Scripture (and especially 1 John) challenges me. I want to know with certainty that I am a child of God. I want to see the life-transforming effect of God’s grace in my heart and enjoy the humbling fact that I was elected from the foundation of the earth.
The act of pursuing assurance is one of deep communion with God that produces nothing short of a deep and abiding joy in the life of the Christian. This assurance is the “summit of intimacy by which the believer both knows Christ and knows he is known of Him” (Quest, 279). Next time we ask the big question … How do we labor after this “summit of intimacy” with Christ?