Question: “What would you say to the Christian struggling with assurance?”
When church-going people use the term “assurance,” it usually means we’ve been around the church a long time. If I were to say, “I’m struggling with assurance,” what I’m really trying to communicate is something like, “I’m not really sure that I’m saved.” Since assurance of our salvation is what’s at stake, then, this is an important question.
Let’s start by breaking this down into two smaller questions: 1) How do I know I’m saved? and 2) How do I know I’m still saved?
How do I know I’m saved?
When we speak of salvation we mean it both negatively and positively: saved from something, and saved to something. The Bible is clear that what is on offer from Jesus is salvation from judgment. God is the righteous judge of the universe, and to him we must all, one day, give an account. (See Ecclesiastes 12:14, 2 Corinthians 5:10, for instance.) That doesn’t sound so bad, until we understand that not one of us can stand upright before this judge. We all have blemishes on our record. The Apostle Paul says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”(Romans 3:23). And Jesus himself indicted us all as murderers and more, when he “upped the ante” on the sermon on the mount:
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21–22)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27–28)
Who could stand unashamed before that high moral standard? So we see that we must be saved from this judgment. That’s the first aspect of “salvation.”
The second — what are we saved to? In other words, “What do we gain?” Simply put, we gain life — and there is no real, eternal life outside of Jesus. All of our sin only leads to death; so it’s not possible to have real and lasting life without Jesus’ life and death and resurrection on our behalf. But through the cross, we are saved to life. Eternal life (John 3:14–18). Put another way (John would say “Life himself”), we get Jesus forever (Psalm 23:6, Revelation 22:1–5). Peter calls it our “inheritance” — one that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4).
Salvation is being saved from judgment, to Jesus himself. We escape death, and embrace life. And all we do is trust him for it. We just need to take him at his word. Jesus has never once not saved someone who has trusted him for salvation. Not once.
How do I know I’m still saved?
Here is where we finally get to the question of “assurance.” How do I know that my trust in Jesus from way-back-when still stands? How do I know he’s still willing to save me?
It’s a serious question. It was a serious question to the Apostle John, who wrote 1 John, and he was careful to give the recipients of his letter one or two specific tools to establish a basis for their assurance. It goes something like this:
That’s a way, not the way, to think about and find assurance. For a fuller answer which we don’t have space for here, see chapter 12 in Donald Macleod’s book, A Faith to Live By.
A note on “once saved, always saved”
Jesus is abundantly clear — he will not lose a single one of his sheep (John 6:39). In other words, if Jesus saved you, Jesus will keep you until the very end. He’s not wishy-washy about who he sets his heart on.
But some of the means of Jesus keeping us until the end are our obedience and sanctification (growth in holiness).
That’s why we take the exhortations and warnings of the Bible seriously. Passages like Hebrews 4:12–15 and 1 John 1:5–10 remind us that we can’t take Jesus lightly. We really must obey, and we really must repent when we don’t obey. As Christians we are free — but lawlessness is not freedom. And if we live as though we are lawless, with a carefree approach to Jesus and the ethics of his Kingdom, then we shouldn’t be surprised when our confidence in our salvation is shaken.
1 John helps us again here. John says something like this: “Brothers and sisters in Christ, don’t sin. But when you do (and you will, none of us is perfect), you can go to God for forgiveness and cleansing! Jesus will be your advocate.” (Check out 1 John 1:5–2:6 for more on this.)
Turning from our sin and to God (the Bible’s word for that is “repentance”) often brings a sweet consolation to our souls, and persuades us that God really does love us, and that we really do belong to him.
I leave you with a thought from Dr. Macleod:
”The quality of our witness, our worship, and our whole service of God depends on the depth and power of our feelings and affections; and primary among these is this fact of assurance. Our service is driven by the persuasion that God loves us.”
Upcoming Q&A Service
Sunday the 27th of September, our evening service at St. Columba’s will be a time of Q&A. It will be streamed online so you can comfortably participate from home, or gathered in small groups of two households. If you have a question for consideration, please submit that by Sunday 20th September. We look forward to hearing from you!
Submit your questions at stcsfc.org/ask