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Assurance of Salvation

“giving light to the eyes of your heart to know the hope of his calling, which is the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints and  which is the exceeding greatness of his power toward us, those who believe, according to the outworking of his power and might.”

(Ephesians 1:18-19)

And thus, when there is light in the eyes of your heart — when the Holy Spirit has opened your eyes so that you may see with eyes of faith and not with natural sight — what is the end goal? It is that we may know the hope of God’s calling. This is a matter of both confidence and assurance.

Assurance is a question with which many Christians struggle. “How can I know that I am saved?” people often ask. Arguably the two most poignant passages that can be pointed to are in Habakkuk 2:4 and Romans 8:16. In the first, the prophet makes the very clear statement that the righteous shall live by faith. This passage, of course, is quoted by Paul in Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, and then in Hebrews 10:38. The second passage mentioned above speaks of the Holy Spirit testifying to our spirit that we are children of God. Since only those who are elect to salvation are God’s children, if the Holy Spirit so testifies to us that we are God’s children, then that is a mark of the faith we have.

True, these two passages are somewhat subjective. Nevertheless, they give you a clear starting point. Look at your life. Do you live righteously? Or, at least, do you try to do so to the best of your ability? And, when a Christian brother or sister points out sin in your life, do you seek to reform that sin because you want to honor Jesus by the way you live? If this describes you, it is a pretty good indication that you are a true Christian. And, if the testimony of the Holy Spirit affirms with your spirit that you are a born again believer — a child of God — then again, you should take this as assurance.

In a more objective sense, 1 John also offers us a very clear indicator of the mark of a Christian versus the mark of a non-Christian. There are various questions about what one believes regarding sin, regarding the person of Christ, and how one lives out their faith. One of the most striking questions that John asks is whether you love your brothers and sisters in faith. John goes as far as to say that if you see a fellow believer in need and you close your heart to him when you have the ability to help, then God’s love does not abide in you (1 John 3:17). In the verses that lead up to this statement, John addresses things from the other perspective and states that everyone who hates his brother is a murderer and eternal life does not dwell in him (1 John 3:15). So, more objectively, perhaps, you can ask yourself, have you hardened your heart against a fellow Christian and are refusing to help him or her when they have need? If so, you are not a believer according to the Apostle John. Repent and sin against your brother no more.

Faith gives assurance, but that faith needs to be a genuine faith — one that affects not just the perception you have of yourself but also the way you live. And that is where the boldness of hope comes into play. Part of the reason that the Christian does not live in the same way the world lives is because we have a hope of something better. What is the world to us when we are promised both heaven and a new creation? Why would we even want to build our treasure here where it can be spoiled or taxed away from us? No, as Christians we store up our treasures in heaven. We do not allow our churches to function as businesses; we function like military outposts in enemy territory, laboring to tear down every stronghold that raises itself up against the knowledge of God. We have the boldness or confidence to live in that way because we hav the hope of glory. Beloved, if you are a true Christian, you will seek to store your treasure in heaven and not on earth. Be at work building the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

Questions of Assurance

“who is the downpayment of our inheritance, into the redemption of his possession, to the praise of his glory.”

(Ephesians 1:14)

The classic definition of faith is found in Hebrews 1:11:

“And faith is the essence of that which is hoped for, the proof of things not seen.”

This is a definition which we have explored elsewhere and does not bear repeating here. The main idea that the author of Hebrews is driving home is that the faith given to us is part of the proof that God is working within our lives — proof to us and proof to the world. What follows, then, in Hebrews 11, is a series of examples from the lives of those with faith as to what that faith looks like when it is lived out in a believer’s life. One might summarize the chapter this way, “If you live boldly for God and for His Kingdom then it is an indication that you have faith and the faith that you have (as it comes from God) is that which affirms that you are genuinely a child of God.

Paul is alluding to that same idea here. Paul again, ties this idea of a downpayment (or earnest) with the notion of being sealed by the Holy Spirit in 2 Corinthians 1:22 and reminds us that this is once again a work of God in 2 Corinthians 5:5. Why a downpayment? That is simply because we will not understand the fullness of the sealing of the Holy Spirit and the fullness of our faith until we are glorified in the presence of our King and Lord, Jesus Christ. Yet, for now, God gives us a little taste of such things in this life through the faith we are given — and this is a big part of the assurance that we have.

Over the years as a minister, one of the questions that I have often fielded is that of assurance. “How can I know that I am saved?” people ask. Certainly, one of the places I go is to Romans 10 and ask, “Do you believe that God raised Jesus from the dead?” Then I ask, “Do you confess that Jesus is Lord of your life in word by action?” Assuming the answer is “yes” to both of these questions, then my response is to remind them of God’s promise that you will be saved. Remember, our salvation rests in God’s will and power and not in our own. 

That said, people often want something that is more experiential in nature (not that a living testimony of Jesus’ Lordship is not experiential — it most certainly is!). So, in such cases, I remind them of this passage and of that in Hebrews 11:1. I ask, “Do you have faith?” If the answer is “yes,” then that faith comes from God himself and he has given it as a kind of “good-faith payment” to assure you that in the fullness of time, what he has begun in you he will make complete and whole. Though you see as through a mirror dimly now, you will one day see as if face to face. If you struggle with assurance of salvation, be encouraged by the faith you have, it is deposited in you by God as a sign that he will fully apply the payment worked by Christ on the cross and bring you eternally into his presence.

Forgiveness, Everlasting Righteousness, and Salvations for Others and for Me

One of the beauties of the Heidelberg Catechism is that much of its language is found in the first person — “I” believe this to be true or that applies to “me.” Unlike many of the other Reformed Catechisms and Confessions, this makes Heidelberg stand out as a very personal and intimate profession of belief with rich pastoral overtones (a testimony to the pastor’s heart of Ursinus and Olevianus, its principle drafters). 

Question 21 illustrates the importance of this approach in first person as it asks about the nature of true faith. And here, one of the statements is that the person with true faith believes not only that forgiveness, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are possible and worked by Christ for others, but the person who confesses this answer of the Catechism professes that these things are worked for him or her personally. More simply, it affirms that with faith comes the assurance of salvation. And, pastorally speaking, assurance is one of those questions that people struggle with the most. 

What is interesting is the question of how and where people seek to find their assurance. In pentecostal circles, assurance is rooted in experience and feelings, hence worship services are built around seeking to generate that experiential faith in the person. The problem with this, of course, is two-fold. First, experiences can be created and manipulated — lighting, hands in the air for prolonged periods, and music are all designed to artificially create in a person a sense of euphoria which is then equated with the work of the Holy Spirit. The second part of the problem is that when a person bases assurance on their experience of God’s presence (no matter how genuine that experience might be), that sets them up on a kind of spiritual roller-coaster because for every height of experience there will be lows as well. This leaves a person with no ongoing assurance of salvation.

In Arminian circles outside of pentecostalism (Methodists, Freewill Baptists, etc…), assurance tends to be rooted in the decision the person has made to be a follower of Jesus. Not only does this make salvation God’s response to man’s action (something not testified to in the Bible), but once again it establishes a theological context where people can lose their salvation. Indeed, what if one, due to a series of events, “chooses” wrongly and loses assurance. Hence, in churches such as these, much more emphasis is placed on the “Altar Call” and on constantly renewing their commitment to Christ. As one person who grew up in the Free Methodist movement recently shared with me, “I felt like I had to be re-converted every service.”

In Reformed circles, assurance is not seated within man, but it is found within God where it belongs. Assurance is based on God’s promises to those who come to him in faith. And, since God is unchanging and eternal, those promises are such that they can be relied upon. Truly, that does not neglect the place of experience — Paul writes that the Holy Spirit testifies with our spirits that we are children of God — but our assurance is not based on that experience; it is based on the humble reliance upon God to fulfill his promises to us (personally and individually) as he has done so in others. Such is the nature of God’s assurance and such is the importance of this statement about faith. Faith is the assured knowledge that the things promised to believers in Christ belong to me personally just as they have been given to others — all through faith and because of the completed work of Christ. Thus, in Christ, all of the promises of the Old Testament are yes and amen.