The being in a state of grace will yield a man a heaven hereafter,
but the seeing of himself in this estate will yield him both a heaven here and a heaven hereafter;
it will render him doubly blest, blest in heaven, and blest in his own conscience.
- Thomas Brooks
Over 350 years ago, Thomas Brooks referenced the doctrine of assurance and rightly understood it to be one of the most precious blessings available in the Christian life (A Puritan Golden Treasury). Indeed, for the child of God to have certainty concerning his union with Christ invariably leads to an abundance of related blessings—an increased intimacy in prayer, an increased joy in worship, an increased zeal in service and an increased humility in fellowship, to name but a few. However, coupled with the riches of assurance is the truth that it is also one of the most complex issues in the Christian faith. Many are often left wondering, "how can I know if I'm saved?" It is a multi-faceted concept and for this reason, one that can often escape the well-intentioned believer.
Its complexity stems in part from the fact that we all have a history—we have experiences and influences in the past that affect the way we understand our relationship with Christ now. Furthermore, we all have personality traits—we have tendencies and dispositions which can color our understanding of what it means to be saved. Finally, we all face a set of present-day circumstances—we endure the reality of life in a broken world and that can easily cause us to ask questions regarding the nature of our standing before God. Although assurance is available to every believer, it is not promised. It is a complex issue and it is often absent in the Christian’s life.
A Knowledge of Eternal Life
The apostle John addressed the issue when he wrote to a group of Christians who were experiencing turmoil, false teaching, and the departure of some in the congregation. With pastoral skill and theological precision, the Beloved Disciple penned 1 John “to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). His aim was to instill confidence in a group of disciples—confidence that they were indeed secure in Christ, in the midst of teaching that had undermined the true and saving gospel. Though we may not be facing the same historical situation as these Christians, John’s first epistle is the fullest articulation of the doctrine of assurance in the New Testament. It serves to give us a certainty concerning our union with Christ in light of a multitude of issues that could rob us of such joy today.
As we survey the contours of the letter and John’s strategy in writing, it is instructive to note how the apostle begins. He does not call the believers primarily to examine themselves, nor does he question their fidelity to the word. Contrary to our tendency to set the discussion of assurance within the framework of obedience, John begins his letter by simply setting forth Christ. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1 John 1:1).
At this point we might ask, what is John’s method? Why does he start his discussion of assurance in this way? He does this because assurance is a fruit of faith. Assurance grows out of our trust in the Savior, and it cannot be properly considered apart from this fact. As such, if we want to grow in confidence of who we are in Christ we must—as a matter of priority—nurture our faith.
The way to nurture faith is to feast on the gospel
We delight ourselves in the one who saved us. For this reason, John begins his letter to this group of unsettled disciples by exhorting them to pursue a larger view of Christ.
Ten Looks at Christ
As John continues to address the issue of assurance he discusses what it looks like to live a transformed life in Christ. God is light and if we are in communion with him then our lives will testify to that relationship. John explains what evidences of this relationship he sees in the Christians to whom he is writing, and the apparent absence of such fruit in the false teachers. As he seeks to comfort his readers in this way it is notable how John continually seeks to bring the cross of Christ into view—“the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7), “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9), “he is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:2).
With every evidence, John makes reference to the atoning work of the Savior. Why? Because he is eager to stress that our salvation comes not by works but by grace—a grace that is made manifest through the blood of Christ. In this way, the apostle continues to lean upon the principle introduced at the start of the letter—that to grow in assurance we must feed our faith and that happens when we look to Christ.
The nineteenth-century Scottish minister Robert Murray McCheyne was correct when he counseled that for every look at self, there should be ten looks at Christ.
It is when we bathe our minds and hearts in the truth of the gospel—salvation by grace
accomplished at the cross—that our faith increases, which in turn fosters a sense of assurance
Obedience the Friend of Assurance
While it is true that the doctrines of grace permeate every corner of 1 John, it is also true that the topic of assurance cannot be divorced from the issue of obedience. After laying a foundation of grace, John issues clear imperatives calling his disciples to a life of holiness. “Do not love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:15). The relationship between assurance and obedience is simple—if we are not seeking to submit ourselves to the commands of Scripture then the Holy Spirit will not testify to our souls that we are indeed children of God. Or as Sinclair Fergusson writes in The Whole Christ, “high degrees of Christian assurance are simply not compatible with low levels of obedience.”
At this point, it is worth considering the proper antidote to a lack of assurance. Oftentimes a Christian will suffer from uncertainty concerning the nature of his salvation because there is ongoing sin in his life. As the counselor, you might be tempted to advise him “start obeying in order to gain assurance.” However, such advice runs contrary to John’s logic. When he makes an appeal for holiness he is not anticipating that obedience will in turn yield assurance. To strive for obedience in order to nurture assurance is to turn our faith upside down and pursue merit via our own efforts. Put another way, assurance is not the child of obedience.
Fidelity to the commands of Scripture does not, in and of itself, beget certainty of our union in Christ. Rather, the relationship between obedience and assurance is one of friendship. They are companions, and they are both products of faith. Therefore, just as assurance is nurtured by growing our trust in Christ, so also is true obedience. As such, the proper counsel for someone who is lacking in assurance because he is demonstrating an inconsistent pattern of Christian living is to look to the Savior, to set his gaze on Jesus. Then, with Christ firmly in view, he must wage war against sin, trusting that in time a sense of assurance will grow.
Obstacles to Assurance
If the pursuit of Christ is the primary means by which we gain assurance, what then are some of the common hindrances? Externally, we can often get distracted by our circumstances. When God’s good providence works itself out in our lives via apparently negative circumstances, we can all too easily begin to question the nature of our relationship with him. This, in turn, is indicative of a desire in our hearts to live a comfortable life and even a belief that because we are Christians we should only ever experience immediate, material blessings. There are no such promises in Scripture. Rather we understand that God is working things out for our ultimate salvation according to His wisdom, and this may entail times of discipline or circumstances that are very difficult to endure.
Our experience of life in a broken world does not affect
our standing with God. Our union with His Son is an eternal union
Internally there is much that may go on in our heart that prompts us to experience a lack of assurance. As fallen creatures, we tend to have an inherent suspicion of God. We are prone to distrust Him. Just as the serpent undermined the Creator’s integrity in the garden—“did God really say…” (Gen. 3:1)—so we also believe all manner of falsehoods about our Father in Heaven. It is important to remind ourselves often of His character—that He is good, and faithful, and just. Based upon His person, we can trust in His Word which assures us that the work of Christ is sufficient to accomplish eternal acceptance before Him.
We are also prone to distort the chronology of the gospel blessings. Though the Bible teaches that we are justified from the moment we believe, we can often place this privilege on the final horizon of our salvation. All too easily we begin to think of God’s declaration concerning our right standing before him as something that is yet to happen—that He will make His decision concerning us on the final day. Such thinking introduces uncertainty; it erodes our sense of assurance.
We must continually remind ourselves of the biblical timeline
for gospel blessings—we are justified now, from the moment we trust in Christ
Finally, we can often believe that we have not secured the victory over sin—that we are still mastered by wickedness. Though we may fail Christ in many ways and at many times, we must believe through the gospel our relationship to sin has fundamentally changed forever.
Whereas we were once in bondage to sin with no option but to rebel, now we have been set free.
Sinful desires remain, but we are finally free to obey
For that reason, John can write with confidence and say “everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world” (1 John 5:4).
I Am Not My Own
In 1563 a group of men from Heidelberg University wrote what is known today as the Heidelberg Catechism. Often overlooked in favor of the Westminster Catechism, the Heidelberg is generally more pastoral in tone. The very first question reads, "what is my only comfort in life and in death?" The answer:
That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
May we delight in Christ, so as to feed our faith, and enjoy a confidence in such truths as these.
For more, you may be interested in a sermon entitled Holy Affection by Professor Paul Twiss from Shepherds' Conference 2020.
[Editor's Note: This article was originally published in August 2018 and has been updated.]