The Imperative to Examine Oneself
The doctrine of assurance has become extremely muddled in recent years, largely as the result of a dangerous wind of doctrine that has swept through the church. This a popular new teaching that expands the company of true believers to include people who, though they have accepted Christ, have never decided to live for Him. It calls them "carnal Christians," a name implying that people may be considered saved even though they show little interest in spiritual things and hardly differ from the world in their attitudes, priorities, and conduct.
The new teaching is contrary to what Christians in the past believed. Indeed, it is contrary to the Bible. The Bible asserts that a true saving faith in Christ produces a changed life (2 Cor. 5:17; James 2:14-17). If you are truly saved, you become a new creature, with new attitudes, priorities, and conduct. The Bible speaks of carnal Christians, but reserves the term for new converts—for Christians that it describes as spiritual babies (1 Cor. 3:1-5). What should be obvious is that all babies grow. The only ones who do not are dead babies. Therefore, Scripture gives no support to the idea that a Christian has the option to remain carnal.
Of course, if you are a new Christian, you will not become perfect overnight. It may take you a while to forsake old sins that are holding you back spiritually. The first year of the Christian life may be a period of intense struggle, as you try to make the changes that God wants. But with God’s help you will succeed.
Still, in this life you will never reach actual perfection. From time to time you may stumble and fall, but if you do, the Lord will pick you up. You may even backslide spiritually, but if you do, the Lord will eventually stop you and reverse your direction. Even in the midst of your worst failures, you will retain some desire to love and serve God.
Yet the Lord's graciousness in forgiving and correcting the faults of His children should not lull you into complacency. There are many false Christians, many who delude themselves that they are right with God when they do not even know Him. The Bible says that in the Last Days, many who claim to be Christians will be victims of self-deception (2 Tim. 3:5, 13; 4:3-4). Therefore, the Bible commands you to examine your faith and find out whether it is genuine (2 Cor. 13:5; 2 Pet. 1:10-11).
Many professing Christians need not be urged to examine their faith. A sense of failure or unworthiness causes them to be plagued with doubts about their salvation. Or they anguish over whether they were really saved at the time of an early decision for Christ, back at age four or five perhaps. Such people, perhaps saddled with a melancholy or introspective disposition, need to stop doubting their salvation and get on with serving God.
Many others who say they are Christians would never think to examine their faith. Their profession is glib, superficial, and wholly untroubled by doubt. The motive behind it in many cases is some calculation of personal advantage. They may be trying to keep peace in the home, or they may be mouthing the right words to gain membership in a local church, which they desire to attend not for spiritual growth, but for marrying, burying, and potlucks.
A soulwinner often encounters unsaved people who are satisfied with their brand of Christianity. They respond to the gospel by claiming to be saved already, but nothing in their lives sets them apart from garden-variety sinners.
We obviously need criteria for distinguishing between true faith and spurious faith. Once we know these criteria, we can use them in soulwinning to help people determine whether they have need of the gospel. And we can use these same criteria to settle our own doubts. After all, we must be sure that we are going to heaven when we die or when Christ comes for the rapture. There is no more important question than whether we are truly saved.
Invalid Tests of Faith
Two ways of testing faith cannot be trusted.
The test of feeling: Some people try to judge whether they are saved by how they feel. If they are having a good day, sweetened by happy events evoking feelings of optimism, they decide that indeed God loves them and the Holy Spirit dwells within. But if they are having a bad day, they take it as proof that they are lost souls, cut adrift from the love and grace of God. The Book of 1 John directly warns against judging ourselves according to our feelings (1 John 3:19-21).
The test of a past decision: It is true 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 a past decision is the primary basis of assurance.
- A person might be saved even though he does not remember when he originally accepted Christ. Most believers can recall the life-changing moment, but a few cannot. Why? The possible reasons are various.
- They cannot because they were saved when they were very young.
- They cannot because age or some impairment has robbed them of many recollections.
- They cannot because their decision for Christ took place under traumatic circumstances which, to avoid pain, the mind has blocked from memory. For example, a veteran of war who is a firm believer in Christ may not recall when he got right with God, because his heart changed while he crept over contested ground with bullets flying overhead and shells exploding nearby, and now when he ponders what happened in the battle, he can remember nothing at all.
- They cannot because they were raised in a church which did not call upon them to make a decision at a definite time, yet the truth they heard was enough to allow the Spirit's work of bringing them to true faith. They know they have faith now, but they cannot remember when faith began.
- A past decision for Christ is not in itself a conclusive proof of salvation. Many adult Christians testify that they went through the motions of accepting Christ when they were young, but the decision was devoid of meaning—that they never knew the transforming power of God until God saved them as adults. Moreover, we all have known people who made decisions for Christ, but who, within days or weeks or months, resumed their old lives as if nothing happened. They never demonstrated true salvation by becoming new creatures in Christ. The Parable of the Sower teaches us to expect many false converts. It compares them to rocky soil that will not allow a planting of gospel truth to become deeply rooted (Matt. 13:1-8, 18-23).
The erroneous teaching that assurance rests on a past decision entails the danger that we, as evangelical Protestants, will slip into the kind of ritualism that we frown upon in others, particularly Catholics. Ritualism is the belief that gaining heaven requires participation in certain religious ceremonies. It is therefore a variation on the false doctrine that salvation comes by works rather than by faith.
We dare not think that a decision for Christ is the same as coming forward during the invitation at the close of a sermon, listening politely as a personal worker reads the verses known as the Romans Road (Rom. 3:23; 6:23; 5:8; 10:9; 5:1), and then reciting a brief prayer asking God for forgiveness and salvation through Christ. There is nothing wrong in the procedure itself. It has been the avenue that many have taken to Christ. Yet someone may go through the motions exactly as required and still be lost. His decision may be a matter of externals only. It may be no more than going through a ritual. Why? Again, the possible reasons are various.
- He fails to understand the gospel presented to him. He nodded when the soulwinner spoke of repentance, sin, faith, salvation, the cross, eternity, and heaven, but many or all of those words were actually outside his vocabulary. The challenge for today's church is to reach people steeped in a popular culture that has left them impoverished of basic spiritual concepts. A soulwinner must always adapt his message to the hearer's comprehension level.
- He is responding to social influence rather than to the influence of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps some friends went forward to be saved and he followed just to stay part of the group. Or perhaps he is meeting the expectations of parents or family. Instead of waiting for the Spirit to work in his heart, they have directed him, either in subtle or unsubtle ways, to get saved now or suffer their disapproval.
- He lacks the strength of character necessary to stand firm in a life-changing decision. Jesus taught that the gospel takes root only in a good and honest heart—that is, a heart that God has prepared to respond with meaningful repentance and enduring faith (Luke 8:15). A decision for Christ must be grounded in sincerity. A profession coming from a heart still comfortable with telling lies is worthless.
Since going forward and saying a prayer do not necessarily demonstrate true spiritual rebirth, no one should pin assurance of salvation on a past decision for Christ. Such a decision is necessary to be saved, but assurance of salvation rests not on the memory of that decision, but on the changes in life and character that certainly followed that decision if it was genuine.
Valid Tests of Faith
There are basically four tests a person can use to determine whether he is a true believer. All four are described in the Book of First John. As the author himself states, he provides these tests so that we can have assurance of our salvation (1 John 5:13). God wants His children to be free of anxiety about their eternal destiny. Yet, we are not entitled to such assurance if we are merely taking our salvation for granted. We must examine ourselves by submitting to the four Biblical tests of genuine faith.
As 1 John lists all the tests that a believer can use to verify his salvation, it leaves out any inquiry concerning a past decision. None of the included tests is past-oriented. They all have to do with present belief and character. The four tests are the belief test, the love test, the separation test, and the holiness test.
The belief test: The belief necessary to validate your faith is the same as the belief required for salvation (1 John 4:15; 5:1; 2:23). You must believe in the name of Jesus, and His name is the Lord Jesus Christ. That is, you must acknowledge Him to be your personal Lord and Savior. The true faith that starts at salvation never ceases, neither through life nor through eternity.
The love test: The love test focuses on our relationship with other believers (1 John 3:14). This test is so important that John comes back to it again and again (1 John 2:10-11; 3:10-18; 4:7-11, 20-1).
What does it mean to love your brothers?
- It means that if you are a Christian, you will not stand aloof from other Christians, disdaining their fellowship. Rather, you will join a church, support its ministries, and cultivate loving ties with the people of God. If you really love your brothers in Christ, you will not always be inventing excuses to stay away from church. You will not be satisfied with a way of life that gratifies self but deprives you of Christian fellowship. Giving all your time to TV, Facebook, outdoor recreation, shopping, gorging your belly, and keeping fit will leave you with an empty heart.
- It means that you will not quarrel with other Christians (Gal. 5:14-5). Sometimes you may find yourself divided from Christians who do not like your convictions. But even then you must do everything in your power to preserve peace (Rom. 12:18). That is, you must not seek a fight for its own sake. But if conflict is unavoidable, you must speak the truth only in love, and you must refrain from cutting down your opponents. You must desire good for them, not harm.
- Most importantly, as John emphasizes, it means that you will not hate other Christians in general or any brother in particular (1 John 2:11; 3:15; 4:20). According to Jesus, hate can take three forms (Matt. 5:22).
- It is hateful to be angry without a cause. It is natural to be angry if a brother has truly wronged you, but even then you should try to resolve your grievance by taking the steps Jesus laid out for a believer in your predicament (Matt. 18:15-18). If your anger is unjustified or if you disregard these steps, thereby forfeiting your right to claim it is justified, Jesus says you are in danger of judgment.
- It is hateful to call your brother "Raca," which is much the same as saying "worthless idiot." Is there anyone in the church that you consider to be slightly subhuman—perhaps someone disabled or elderly? The penalty for harboring the contempt expressed in such insults as "Raca" is to be in danger of the council.
- The worst form of hatred is to call your brother a "fool," signifying a moral reprobate. To treat him as an essentially wicked person is a grievous insult to the Holy Spirit who indwells him. The penalty is to be in danger of hell fire.
None of these penalties exists in our dispensation. What they are referring to is uncertain. Perhaps they describe a system of justice that will prevail during the Millennium.
Test whether hate has poisoned your heart. Do you have a deep-seated dislike or resentment toward anyone in the church? Have you chosen to be anyone's enemy? Is there anyone you cannot look at without your face hardening and a bitter feeling rising in your heart? Is there anyone you go the other way to avoid? Is there anyone you belittle in conversation with others? Is there anyone you encourage others to snub or reject? Is there anyone you try to hurt by lashing out at him either behind his back or before his face? Is there anyone you would rather see dead?
The separation test: John says that a true Christian is free from love of the world (1 John 2:15-17; 5:4-5). By "world," he does not mean the world of nature, which glorifies God by showing His handiwork (Psa. 19:1-5). Nor does he mean the world of people, which should be the object of our love as it is of God's love (John 3:16). Rather, he means the world of evil influence pressing upon us as we live among sinners. To love not the world means that we resist the efforts of sinners to recruit us for sin.
The world system attacks our testimony in some measure through the worldly people we know. But an especially potent assault descends upon us through the avenues of education and entertainment. We have shunned the world and the lusts thereof if we have refused to let a humanistic education shape our beliefs and priorities and if we have kept the entertainment media from drawing our lives and speech away from what pleases God. Here is where nearly all modern Christians, new Christians and older Christians alike, need improvement. We all need to strive harder to separate ourselves from worldly thinking and values.
The holiness test: The holiness test looks at whether you are living in victory over sin (1 John 3:6, 9; 5:18). Certain Holiness groups infer from these texts 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. Scripture explains Scripture, and the same writer who states dogmatically that sin cannot coexist with faith also denies the possibility that in our mortal state we can become sinless. His precise wording is extremely important. "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). If sinless perfection were possible, surely the likeliest believer to attain such an exalted state would be the beloved disciple himself. Yet he explicitly includes himself among those who must admit that they now, presently, have sin.
The possibility that any Christian may sin is taught again a few verses later (1 John 2:1). Here 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 (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). Perhaps John in this passage is remembering a sad moment in his own experience when he saw God take the lives of Ananias and Sapphira, two believers who lied to the church and then failed to correct themselves when given a chance (Acts 5:1-11). But John adds that if a believer’s 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.
What then does 1 John 3:9 mean when it says, "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin"? The answer is threefold.
- The proper interpretation of 1 John 3:9 and similar verses hinges on the verb tenses. In 1 John 2:1, the verbs "sin" and "sin" are in the aorist tense, implying a single act of sin. But the verb "doth commit" in 1 John 3:9 (as well as "sinneth" in 1 John 5:18, "sinneth" and "sinneth" in 1 John 3:6, and "committeth" in 1 John 3:8) is 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.
- Again, we can use Scripture to explain Scripture. The meaning of John's puzzling assertion that a believer cannot commit sin is clarified in the writings of Paul (1 Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:19-21). On Paul's authority, we can say that when John excludes sin from the Christian life, he means not the continuing practice of sin in general, for we all sin every day, but specifically the habitual practice of any gross sin. If you are a Christian, you will cease to be a fornicator, an idolater, or any other kind of sinner in Paul's list. If you do not cease to be entangled in one of these gross sins, what must we conclude? On the authority of God’s Word, we must conclude that if you do not repent, you will never see heaven because you were never truly saved.
- To balance the teaching that a believer can sin with the teaching that he does not continue in sin, we need a correct understanding of faith and repentance. To be saved requires both. But neither stops at the moment of salvation. Just as salvation merely marks the beginning of a faith that endures, so likewise it marks the beginning of a repentance that endures. As long as a believer remains in the flesh, he recognizes that he is a sinner unworthy of salvation, and he seeks to escape sin through the power of God. Committing sin or living in sin—the state which John holds to be impossible for a Christian—can be understood as the opposite of living in repentance.
In practical terms, how may we apply the holiness 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? If it is a serious sin, do I forsake it altogether? We might fall short of full victory over lesser sins like worry, but we will not fail to overcome gross sins like thievery or drunkenness or fornication.
A false Christian who sins continually will probably get worse and worse until he falls into one of the grievous sins listed in 1 Corinthians. 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 holiness 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.
These four tests boil down to two. The belief test is equivalent to asking, do you now have genuine faith? The love test, separation test, and holiness test all require the absence of sin. Hence, they are equivalent to asking, does your life now express genuine repentance? As we have said earlier, the repentance and faith that first appear at salvation continue throughout the Christian life.
We see now why a past decision is irrelevant to assurance of salvation. If you now have genuine faith (that is, if you now believe in Christ) and genuine repentance (that is, if you now regret sin and desire victory over it), the only explanation is that there must have been a soul-saving moment in your past.
Failing the Test
What if you cannot honestly say that you pass all the tests in 1 John? What if, for example, you have allowed hatred for a brother to creep into your heart? Must you conclude that you are not saved? No. You may be saved, or you may not be saved. The result of your unrepented sin is that you have lost the right to be certain of your salvation. This is especially so if the sin does not bring pangs of guilt to your heart or if you have allowed the sin to deepen into a settled way of life.
God's purpose in the tests He provides in 1 John is perfectly evident. He intends them as a powerful incentive to deal with sin. They serve as a warning that if we stubbornly continue along the path of disobedience, He cannot guarantee our salvation.
The warning is made explicit in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. He recalls that when the nation of Israel wandered through the wilderness after their escape from Egypt, many fell under divine judgment because they committed grievous sin, whether idolatry, immorality, or rebellion (1 Cor. 10:1–12). Although the sinners appeared to be members of God's chosen people, and although they had celebrated the rites equivalent in their day to baptism and communion (vv. 2–4), they died along the way and never the reached the Promised Land, a picture of heaven. Paul concludes, "Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come. Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall" (vv. 11–12).