This is chapter 6 in the Growing in Grace teaching series.
Our two memory passages are 1 John 5:13 and John 5:24.
- 1 John 5:13, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.”
- John 5:24, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
In the Market for a Reliable Car
With the recent passing of our third vehicle, the Catons are down to two cars for four drivers. My college age kids share a car away at school while Kristy and I share our 2002 model 300,000 mile mini-van. So yeah, I am in the market for a new car.
Our primary concern isn’t a certain make, model, or color. While gas mileage is important, our primary criteria is reliability. Will it get us safely from point A to point B? Whether driving down into the city during rush hour or travelling along twisty mountain roads without shoulders, I want to know that this car is reliable and will make it safely to the intended destination without breaking down. If my kids drive this car, I want to have certainty that it will carry them home.
The concern for safety and reliability has a spiritual application. In the same way I want a reliable, dependable vehicle I can trust to transport me safely to an earthly destination, I want to know that I will arrive safely at my anticipated eternal destination.
Theologically, we are talking about having the assurance of salvation, an assurance—a complete confidence—that God’s promises in the gospel are reliable and that I will safely and securely reach my heavenly home.
I wonder what a difference it would make in your life and in mine to live with such complete confidence.
Considering such a proposition — of absolute, unconditional assurance — makes me feel spiritually lighter, freer, and more at rest. It feels like peace. I can feel joy right under the surface of this potential assurance, along with a deep well of gratitude just ready to burst with expressions of praise and worship.
Is it really possible to have complete assurance of salvation?
In a word, yes. In fact, this is why the apostle John wrote both his personal account of the life of Jesus, which is called the Gospel of John, as well as the reason why he wrote his smaller letters, 1,2 and 3 John.
In the first of these short letters, 1 John 5:13, under the inspiration of God, John says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
What I take away from this is that it is not only possible to have assurance, but that God wants us to have this assurance. The deep desire of the Father’s heart for us is that we rest in his love for us and in the knowledge that he will not disown or reject us, regardless of what we do or don’t do.
Remember, if I didn’t do anything to gain salvation, there is nothing I can do to lose it if I truly possess it.
To be saved means that we are no longer orphans. Not only have we been rescued from sins condemnation, but we have been adopted by God. We are his own beloved children.
I can imagine an adoptive father longing for his adopted children to have absolute confidence in the father’s love for them. Yet, I also can imagine an adopted child who previously lived as an orphan having a very hard time adjusting to the notion of being the object of a father’s affection.
Even with all the words of love spoken by a father, a former orphan easily could have deep doubts and suspicions. “Love me? Really love me, with all of my dysfunction, hang ups, and moral failures? Nobody has ever really loved me. They have used me, deceived me, and deserted me. But not love.”
Having never experienced that kind of love as an orphan, it may take time for the reality of the father’s love to fully penetrate the heart.
This is how some of us are living the Christian life. It is how I have lived much of my life—living with a sense that the father regrets saving me or that he is perpetually disappointed in me.
But God hasn’t just spoken love to us with words, but with a demonstration of profound proof.
Paul writes in Romans 5:8, “This is how God showed his love among us: even while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
God wants us to live with assurance of our salvation. He wants us to reject the lie that he merely tolerates us. No, he treasures us and desires for us to be confident in his free and full forgiveness of our sins and of the intense affection with which he has set upon us and has confirmed with the costly love expressed through the cross of Jesus.
Why is assurance of salvation so elusive?
According to the apostle John, the primary reason assurance is elusive is because of my failure to believe that I really am forgiven and loved by God.
In 1 John 5:13, he writes, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.”
Assurance of salvation is inextricably connected to trusting that Jesus has atoned for your sins and reconciled you to God as a beloved son or daughter.
This is reiterated in John 5:24, where he says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.
Assurance is elusive because we fail to trust God’s promises of grace in the gospel.
Assurance is elusive because I look more to what I have done for God or failed to do more than I look to what Jesus has done for me.
Robert Murray McCheyne, a 19th century pastor in Scotland, used to exhort his congregation, “For every one look at yourself, take ten looks at Jesus.”
McCheyne may have been influenced by Thomas Wilcox, a Puritan preacher in the 17th century. One of Wilcox’s most popular sermons is based on Psalm 81:16, entitled “A Choice Drop of Honey from the Rock.”
In this message, he exhorts his hearers to beware of looking to their own righteousness as the basis for their right standing before God. He says, “Many call Christ Savior; [but] few know him so.” With that statement he acknowledges that there are many who actually have a false sense of eternal security.
He proposes a solution, distinguishing between standing on the sand of self-righteousness and the solid rock of Christ. These words he spoke in the 1600s are still true for us today:
“When you… come to Christ, you must leave behind your own righteousness, and bring nothing but your sin. Oh, that is hard! Leave behind all your holiness, sanctification, obediences, etc., and bring nothing but your [need], or else Christ is not fit for you, nor you for Christ. Christ will be a pure Redeemer and Mediator, and you must be in undone sinner, or Christ and you will never agree. It is the hardest thing in the world to [receive] Christ alone for [your] righteousness.4
Cutting to the chase, he says, “You are a religious person and partake of all the ordinances. You do well: they are glorious privileges. But if you have not the blood of Christ at the root of your religion, [all of your doing] will prove but painted pageantry to go to hell in.”5
Jesus said the same thing when speaking to the Pharisees in the New Testament, those Jews who looked to their own morality as the basis for assurance of their rightness with God.
There are still some of us today, like those Pharisees, who have yet to throw off the clinging stench of self-righteousness. We have been deceived by moralistic teachers who would have us look to Jesus once for every ten looks at ourselves.
If that is the formula, then I will never possess true assurance of salvation. I either will become a Pharisee type or I will despair.
But I want assurance. I want the peace, joy, and fruit that comes from such eternal confidence in the reliability of the blood of Christ upon my soul.
For those of us who want assurance but struggle to possess it, what can we do?
What can I do when struggling for assurance?
Kids, in the old days before debit cards, to pay for something you had to use cash, pay with a credit card, or write a check. If you wrote a check without adequate funds in your account, the check would “bounce.” Not literally. It wasn’t rubber. The check would bound back to the one who wrote it with a red stamp on it that read: “Insufficient funds.”
Even though I don’t write many checks anymore, when I use my debit card I have been gripped with that concern on multiple occasions. “Do I have sufficient funds to make this transaction?”
Now, with my smartphone, before I make a payment with my debit card, I can access my bank account through an app that will give me up to the minute access to the balance on my account. I can know with assurance, objectively in real time, how much I have in the bank and whether I can afford to swipe my card or not.
The same thing is true for spiritual assurance. I can know the balance on my moral, spiritual account before God. Not by guessing or hoping, and not by opening an app on my phone, but by contemplating the objective, historical significance of the cross of Christ.
My balance according to the gospel is not what I have achieved through my own obedience and sacrifice. That balance in heaven is what I have received from God that Jesus achieved through his obedience and sacrifice for me.
At this point, some of us need to undo everything we have ever thought about how religion works. Forgive my use of theological terms, but in man-made religion, sanctification leads to justification. But in biblical Christianity, it is justification that leads to sanctification.
Getting these theological distinctions in the correct order is crucial for possessing true assurance of salvation.
Consider these four passages, which speak of the priority of Jesus’ finished work for us:
- Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” Past tense. It is finished.
- 1 Peter 3:18, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” Past tense. It is finished.
- Titus 3:4-5, “4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” Past tense. It is finished.
- Ephesians 2:8, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Past tense. It is finished.
Some of us may be asking, “But what about obedience?” Doesn’t John mention elsewhere how practical obedience to Jesus as Lord has a part to play in our assurance of salvation.
In view of his loyalty to us, our loyalty to Jesus that manifests itself in following his ways is what we call the fruit or the evidence of salvation. Good fruit grows because the root absorbing the nutrients from good soil.
If the fruit is sanctification, the root is our justification.
Concerning the doctrine of assurance, theologians distinguish between the objective aspect of assurance and the subjective aspect.
Trusting in the substitutionary, atoning death of Jesus is the objective aspect of assurance. This is justification.
The subjective aspect of assurance is the spiritual renovation that takes place in us by the work of the Spirit. This is what we call sanctification.
After all, when we receive God’s grace through faith, that grace changes everything. We don’t only celebrate him as Savior, we honor him as Lord. This means that if nothing is different in my life after I have professed to receive Jesus as Savior, then maybe I haven’t really received him as Savior.
A Queen’s Testimony
Victoria was as Queen of England from 1837 until her death in 1901. During her reign, she attended a Sunday service at St. Paul’s Cathedral and listened to a sermon that greatly provoked her interest. Afterwards she asked her personal chaplain, “Can one be absolutely sure in this life of eternal [security]?” His answer was, “No.” In his opinion, there was no way to have absolute assurance of one’s salvation.
The incident was published in the Court News and read by a pastor named John Townsend. After reading of Queen Victoria’s question and the answer she received, he sent a note to the Queen:
To Her Gracious Majesty, our beloved Queen Victoria, from one of her most humble subjects: With trembling hands, but heart-filled love, and because I know that we can be absolutely sure now for our eternal life in the home that Jesus went to prepare, may I ask Your Most Gracious Majesty to read the following passages of Scripture [of which he listed several].
I sign myself, your servant for Jesus’ sake, John Townsend
Two weeks later he received her reply:
To John Townsend: I have carefully and prayerfully read the portions of Scripture referred to. I believe in the finished work of Christ for me, and trust by God’s grace to meet you in that home of which he said, “I go to prepare a place for you.” (Signed) Victoria Guelph
That is it: “I believe in the finished work of Christ FOR ME.”
That the ground of true assurance—knowing that Jesus has saved me.
 We begin to have new desires to love and follow Jesus—to walk in his ways, seeking his wisdom and leading.
 After Queen Victoria’s discovery of Christian assurance, she used to carry a small booklet to give away written by George Cutting (1834-1934), entitled Safety, Certainty, and Enjoyment.