A Christian's assurance of salvation rests on two things: (1) the reliability of God's promise to save all who believe, (2) the evidence that the Christian has truly believed.
The first cornerstone of assurance—the reliability of God's promise to save all who believe—is affirmed by the doctrine known as "eternal security" or "the perseverance of the saints." The reliability of this promise is a corollary of the power, love, and truthfulness of God.
The power of God
To comfort His disciples lest they fear for their eternal security, Jesus taught,
28 And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.
29 My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand.
We are secure because we rest in the hands of Jesus. His power is greater than the power of any other who might seek to rob us of our salvation. "Man" is italicized because it is not in the original. Our chief enemy is not a man but Satan, and the verse teaches that we are safe even from Satan's power. "Neither shall any [including Satan] pluck them out of my hand."
We are not only in Jesus' hand, but also in the Father's. How is that possible? Jesus' answer is,
I and my Father are one.
In other words, they are "one God." The persons of the Trinity, each being infinite in power and knowledge, cannot do otherwise than work together in perfect cooperation. Thus, we are held jointly by the Father and the Son. The wording suggests that when the Father gave us to the Son, He Himself did not let go of us. We are in the hands of both.
Jude 24, quoted in the previous lesson, also directs us to see the power of God—not His power against our enemies so much as His power against our own weakness and frailty. Once we are in the hand of God, no enemy can take us away, and also we cannot remove ourselves. We cannot muster enough determination and strength to get out.
The love of God
Although we as human parents lack the love and patience of God, we do not disown our children should they happen to disobey us. If we did, the streets would be full of homeless urchins. Instead, we persist as long as possible in every measure that might help our children do right.
What we can do for our children is limited, however. But what God can do for His children is unlimited. There is no sin that a wayward child of God can commit that his infinite, all-powerful Father cannot correct and eliminate by means of chastisement. Thus, since God our Father is perfect in love (Psa. 103:13; Heb. 12:6), He will, if we do wrong, chasten us rather than eject us from His family. We cannot do anything foolish or sinful enough to forfeit our salvation.
That the love of God guarantees our eternal security is taught also in the book of Philippians.
Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.
In other words, God does not stop His projects when they are half-finished. When He is done fashioning us to His liking, we will all be images of Christ (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18). Will we then be all exactly alike? No, that would be a rather dull prospect. Christ is infinite God. Therefore, within Himself He is the fulfillment of all the shades and types of human potential. Therefore, we can be like Christ and still be different from each other. Look at the wonderful diversity in creation—at the many odd kinds of animals and flying beasts. God loves variety.
The truthfulness of God
Our eternal security is guaranteed not only by the power and love of God, but also by His perfect truthfulness. The impossibility that God would ever renege on a promise is stressed in the following texts:
. . . For I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.
2 Timothy 1:12
Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator.
1 Peter 4:19
10 For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister.
11 And we desire that every one of you do shew the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end:
12 That ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises. . . .
17 Wherein God, willing more abundantly to show unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath:
18 That by two immutable things [His counsel and His oath], in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us:
19 Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, . . . .
Hebrews 6:10-12, 17-19
Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised).
What has God promised us?
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
The verb “have” in the phrase “have everlasting life” is present subjunctive. It indicates that eternal life is the present possession of anyone who meets the condition of believing. In other words, if you believe in Jesus, you have eternal life now. We find the same promise in other presentations of the gospel (1 John 5:11-13; John 3:36; 6:47). But it could not be truly said that we have eternal life now if we could lose it in the future. If we could ever cross over some boundary of permissible sin into impermissible sin, causing us to forfeit our salvation, then all the benefits we enjoy now, including new life in Christ, might be of temporary duration. They could not be described as eternal. But since our life now is nothing other than eternal, we know that our salvation is secure forever. We have eternal security.
Another promise in John is even more explicit.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.
Jesus explains what it means to have eternal life now. The result is safety from any possibility of falling later into condemnation. Therefore, salvation, which means salvation from condemnation, must be a permanent benefit of believing. There is no danger of losing salvation at some dark moment in the near or distant future. Jesus goes on in the same text to explain why belief yields imperishable life. The reason is that the person who believes passes with absolute finality from death. Death has been hanging on him like a leach, because he has given God nothing but sin in return for the gift of life, and the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). But upon repenting of his sin and accepting Christ, he moves from death to life along a one-way street. There is no going back, because the life he receives is of such a heavenly quality that it is incapable of dying.
Evidence of Salvation
Yet though a Christian understands that God will save all who believe, he cannot have assurance of salvation unless he knows that his own belief is authentic. As we have seen, faith can be genuine and vital, or it can be false and dead. The evidence of true faith is therefore the second cornerstone of assurance.
How can a man know that he is one of the sheep in the hand of Jesus? Too often in churches today, people hear the wrong answer. They are told that a man can be sure of his salvation if at some definite time in the past, he accepted Christ as his Savior.
In fundamentalist circles, accepting Christ means to come forward during the invitation at the close of a sermon, to listen politely as a personal worker reads the verses known as the Romans Road, and then to recite a brief prayer asking God for forgiveness and salvation through Christ. The personal worker may advise the new convert to write down in his Bible the date and circumstances of this prayer, so that in the future he will not be tempted to doubt his salvation.
It is true, of course, that a person cannot be saved without making a definite decision for Christ. Therefore, a Christian does draw some assurance of salvation from a distinct memory of such a decision. But there are two flaws in the teaching that such a decision is the primary basis of assurance.
- A person can be saved even though he cannot remember his decision for Christ. Most believers recall when God saved them, but a few cannot. They cannot because they were saved when they were very young, or because faith developed gradually, obscuring the exact moment of regeneration. In counseling a believer who cannot remember his decision for Christ, others may urge him to go through the motions of accepting Christ again, and when he has done so, they say, "OK, now you're saved." But such a tactic is unwise. The Bible never teaches that a decision for Christ must leave an indelible memory.
- A past decision for Christ is not in itself a conclusive proof of salvation. In fact, the book of 1 John, as it lists all the tests that a believer can use to verify his salvation, leaves out any inquiry concerning such a decision. As we will show later, none of the included tests is past-oriented. They all have to do with present belief and character.
The erroneous teaching that assurance rests on a past decision entails at least two dangers.
- As we have just shown, a decision for Christ is too easily equated with a certain ritual. Yet this ritual may be a matter of externals only. Going forward and saying a prayer do not necessarily express a transformation of the heart. A man may go through the ritual sincerely, at least in his own estimation, and still be completely lost. Therefore, to find assurance of salvation in a past decision for Christ is a dangerous form of ritualism. We must guard against ritualism not only by teaching the Scriptural grounds for assurance, but also by removing ritualistic tendencies from our soul-winning. Such a tendency surfaces in the often-heard sentiment that when we are witnessing, we should quote the Bible and avoid any other talk, especially any attempt to deal with questions or arguments raised by the person we are seeking to win. This sentiment frowns on the sort of communication on a personal level that may be essential to show love, to cut away cobwebs of doubt spun by the evil one, and to give reassurance that the speaker is reasonable and kindly. The Word is effective, but it is not a magical incantation for obtaining conversion. In some instances, the Word may be inessential or even detrimental to effective witnessing (1 Pet. 3:1).
- The practice of admitting into the church anyone who has gone through the ritual of accepting Christ leads to an accumulation of unsaved people in the church. A prospective member should be examined primarily with respect to how he presently lives and what he presently believes.
The four Biblical tests
The purpose of 1 John is stated near the end of the book.
These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.
1 John 5:13
We see that 1 John was written to answer the question, how may we know that we have eternal life? The book offers four practical tests.
1. Obedience to Jesus' commandments.
3 And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. . . .
5 But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him.
1 John 2:3, 5
Some down-to-earth questions will help us apply this test to our own lives. Since we cannot keep Jesus' commandments unless we know them, we should ask ourselves, am I abiding in the Word of God?
Let that therefore abide in you, which ye have heard from the beginning. If that which ye have heard from the beginning shall remain in you, ye also shall continue in the Son, and in the Father.
1 John 2:24
Do I know God's Word? Do I treasure it? Do I study it? Do I meditate upon its meaning and seek to apply its teaching to my daily walk? Do I listen carefully to preaching? For anyone entitled to assurance of salvation, the answer to all these questions is, yes.
In 1 John 2:6, the thought of preceding verses 3 and 5 is refashioned in new language. The idea of keeping the commandments of Christ is expressed as walking even as He walked.
He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked.
1 John 2:6
How did Christ walk? He walked according to His Father's will. As He confided to His disciples,
. . . My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.
See also John 5:30 and John 6:38. The contrary of doing the will of God is being controlled by the lusts of the world.
15 Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.
17 And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.
1 John 2:15-17
Am I denying these lusts and walking separate from worldly attitudes and speech and practices and amusements? An answer of "yes" is evidence of true faith.
2. Freedom from sin.
Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.
1 John 3:9
Certain Holiness groups infer from this and similar verses that God is willing to grant the believer a second work of grace which will lift him to sinless perfection. But John does not mean that a normal Christian lives on a cloud floating high above the sin and filth of this world. If sinless perfection were possible, surely the likeliest believer to attain such an exalted state would be the beloved disciple himself. Yet he says,
If we [including John and the believers he is addressing] say that we have [in the present tense] no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
1 John 1:8
John explicitly includes himself among those who must admit that they now have sin. The possibility that any Christian may sin is implied a few verses later.
My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we [a term inclusive of John] have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.
1 John 2:1
Here, then, we find a contrast between every believer, who is liable to sin, and his sinless Advocate. Because the believer has an advocate in Christ, he need not fear that sin will bring the loss of his salvation. Every confessed sin will certainly be forgiven.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
1 John 1:9
It is true not only that all believers have sin, but also that a believer can fall into a sin so grievous that God must take his life (1 John 5:16-17, quoted in the last lesson). If his offense is less serious, it is the privilege of fellow believers to pray for the fallen brother, beseeching God to deal with him not in wrath but in grace, so that he might live and become useful again in God's service (same reference).
What then does 1 John 3:9 mean when it says, "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin"? An equally strong assertion to the same effect comes later in the book.
We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not.
1 John 5:18
The proper interpretation of these verse hinges on the verb tenses. In 1 John 2:1, quoted above, the verbs "sin" are in the aorist tense, implying a single act of sin. But the verbs "doth commit" and "sin" in 1 John 3:9 and "sinneth" in 1 John 5:18 (as well as "sinneth" and "sinneth" in 1 John 3:6 and "committeth" in 1 John 3:8) are in the present tense, implying continual sinning. John is teaching that sin is not the habitual practice of anyone entitled to call himself a Christian—that a true Christian has abandoned a life controlled by sin.
In practical terms, how may we apply this second test to our own lives? Perhaps the most helpful question is this: How do I react after I have committed a sin? Am I troubled by a bad conscience? Do I sense the convicting presence of the Holy Spirit? Do I try to stop sinning? Do I eventually have victory over the sin?
It might be helpful to see what John means by sin. He says,
All unrighteousness is sin: . . . .
1 John 5:17
He means that sin is anything arising from an unrighteous motive. Not all of the blunders in our speech and conduct are rooted in unrighteousness. Many are simply the outgrowth of human imperfection. We may forget. We may fail to think ahead. We may not have enough understanding of a situation to act appropriately. We may lack ability to succeed in what we set out to do. But persistent human imperfection is not what John means by continual sinning. Rather, continual sinning is habitual failure to obey God.
A professing Christian who sins continually will probably get worse and worse until he falls into one of the grievous sins listed in 1 Corinthians.
But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.
1 Corinthians 5:11
9 Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,
10 Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.
1 Corinthians 6:9-10
In contrast, a true Christian is not getting worse and worse, but is at some stage of growth. His growth may be uneven, especially if he backslides from time to time, but over a span of years, there is evident progress. Thus, another way to apply the second test is simply to ask, Am I growing as a Christian? A young Christian is far from perfect, because he is only a spiritual babe (Heb. 5:13), but if he walks steadily onward in the Spirit, he will soon attain the holiness characteristic of a mature believer. Every Christian, young or old, should be striving to move beyond his present level of maturity.
3. Love of the brethren.
10 He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him.
11 But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes.
1 John 2:10-11
We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death.
1 John 3:14
The third test is so important that John comes back to it again and again. If we love our brothers in Christ, none of the following questions will require us to say, yes. Do I have a deep-seated dislike or resentment toward anyone in the church? Do I bear enmity toward anyone? Is there anyone I cannot look at without my face hardening and a contemptuous feeling rising in my heart? Is there anyone I go the other way to avoid? Is there anyone I cut down in conversation with others? Is there anyone I lash out against or try to hurt by either secret opposition or direct verbal attack? Is there anyone I would like to see dead?
Sometimes we may find ourselves divided from other Christians who do not like our convictions on matters of principle. But even then we must do everything in our power to preserve peace.
If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.
That is, we must not seek a fight for its own sake. But if conflict is unavoidable, we must speak the truth only in love, and we must refrain from attacking personalities we do not like. We must desire good for those who oppose us, not harm.
Another practical way of applying the third test is to ask whether we enjoy going to church. If we really love our brothers in Christ, we would rather be among them than at home watching TV or at the beach or anywhere else devoid of Christian fellowship.
4. Confession that Jesus is the Son of God.
Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father: . . . .
1 John 2:23
Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God.
1 John 4:15
Many people in mainline churches today might imagine that they meet the first three tests of salvation. After all, they lead respectable lives, and they feel stuffed full of love for everybody. But they cannot easily delude themselves that they meet the fourth test. Although they may concede that Jesus was an exceptionally good man, or even that He was a special messenger from God, they do not believe that He was really God Almighty in the flesh.
The denial of Christ by these self-satisfied churchgoers is the evil effect of the religious philosophy known as modernism. By trimming away Biblical accounts of the supernatural, modernism reduces Christianity to a system of ethical principles. A modernist may retain a belief in God and heaven. But, branding them as superstitions, he rejects recent creation, the Flood, the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai, the miracles of Elisha and Elijah, Jesus' Virgin Birth, and the Resurrection. From a modernist's perspective, the doctrine that Jesus is the Son of God is a mythical rather than a factual conception.
© 2007, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.