A Theological Reflection on Assurance and Perseverance: “How Do You Know That You Know?”
I thought about subtitling this post “how do you know that you know that you know in your heart of hearts that if you died tonight you would go to heaven“. I have actually heard the question of assurance posed that way by evangelists and pastors. Which is a ridiculous way to pose such an important and serious question. Assurance of salvation can be a very personal and emotional struggle for thoughtful followers of Christ. As a pastor, I often receive questions from people concerning their salvation. Questions like:
- If I am a Christian, why don’t I feel like it sometimes?
- If I am a Christian, why do I succumb to the same temptation over and over?
- If I am a Christian, why does God feel so distant?
- If I am a Christian, why do I wrestle with doubt?
So, what are we to do when we find ourselves echoing the words of the father in Mark 9:24, “I believe; help my unbelief”? Well, I believe that we prayerfully turn to God’s word. This is why the Apostle John and so many other writers of the New Testament recorded what they did, that we may believe (1 John 5:13).
So, here are a few theological reflections on assurance and perseverance. This post is not exhaustive in any way. First, I write this in response to a few questions that arose in the Sunday morning class that I teach at our church. For the sake of brevity, I have stuck primarily to the New Testament. Lastly, I write this post for Christians. That is, persons who are repentant of their sin and place their faith in Jesus Christ as their only hope for salvation. So, here are a few thoughts.
Because true salvation is first and foremost a work of God, rest that you are secure in the love of God. Be comforted, God will never abandon you.
In Romans 8:29-30 Paul is very clear that it is God alone who secures all who are truly believers. He continues this line of thought through verse 39 and ends with a glorious applicable climax, namely, that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Because salvation is a work of God we can rest assured that we are absolutely secure in the love of God. It is not that the Father’s love grows and diminishes for his children in accordance with their actions, for his love is unflinching. Therefore, we ought to receive warm confidence from these words of Jesus in John’s account of the good news.
And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day…No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. – John 6:39-40, 44
Concerning those that the Father has given Jesus, those who come to Jesus in true faith, they will not only receive eternal life but also persevere in the faith. This verse implies that no true believer will ever lose his or her salvation. Everyone who believes in the Son will continue as a believer until the last day, when Jesus will raise him up into the fullness of eternal life. Moreover, in verse 44 the words “no one can come to me” implies that no human being in the world, on his own, has the moral and spiritual desire to come to Christ unless God the Father gives him the desire to come and trust in Christ. Believers must rest in the pursuing love of God found in Christ. And even though saving faith is something that we exercise, it is a gift from God.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast – Ephesians 2:8–9
Your assurance of salvation does not depend on the strength of your faith. Your salvation depends on the object of our faith, Jesus Christ.
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one. – John 10:27-30
Part of one’s assurance comes when recognizing the good shepherds’ voice. Those who belong to Jesus’ flock are those who believe. Again, Jesus teaches that true believers will persevere. Notice the language that Jesus uses here. “The security of believers is not dependent on their hold on Christ but on Christ’s hold of them.” And Christ’s hold is firm because his work is complete. Remember, right before Jesus took his last breath on the cross he proclaimed “It is finished” (John 19:30).
The work that the Father had sent him to accomplish was complete; namely, his perfect sacrifice for our sin was finished. The author of Hebrews is clear in 1:3 that after making purification for sins, Jesus sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. Sitting down is an action that underscores the finality of his work and status. Unlike the Levitical Priests who made imperfect sacrifices year after year to mediate sin, Jesus made the perfect once for all sacrifice that eradicated sin and took his seat to reign forever (Hebrews 10:11-12). Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him (Hebrews 7).
And, not only is Christ’s salvation complete it is eternally secure. Consider the words of Peter;
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. – 1 Peter 1:3-7
Here Peter says we have double assurance! Not only is our heavenly inheritance being kept for us, we are being kept for our inheritance – by the power of God. But notice that Peter says we are kept by the power of God through faith. Where is the place of our faith in this process?
The true believer will reveal their genuine faith by Spirit empowered repentance and perseverance in the faith.
It seems from Scripture that one can be sure of salvation in Jesus even though he may not always be in full possession of that assurance. A Christian may certainly wrestle with doubt, but ought not to remain in doubt. Doubt must be fought with God’s word to regain certainty. Again, listen to the Apostle Peter.
Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. – 2 Peter 1:10
While it is God who calls believers to faith through the gospel, God’s grace should not be taken for granted. Growing in the Christ-like virtues mentioned in 2 Pet. 1:5–7 will give believers increasing confidence that they truly have saving faith. Good works are evidence of and give assurance of salvation, though they are never the basis for it. The New Testament repeatedly encourages the believer to cultivate greater assurance in salvation.
Consider Romans 8:16 where Paul argues that the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. The verb “bears witness” is in the present tense indicating that the Holy Spirit continues to bear witness to us that we are truly children of God. In summary, “…We must try to cultivate greater assurance of salvation and pray that we may discern with increasing clarity the confirming testimony of the Spirit that we are children of God.”
Obviously one must understand that all have fallen short of the glory of God. Even more so, we all have indwelling sin – even if we are Christians. As the Apostle John wrote, if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8). What distinguishes us as true believers is a Spirit wrought recognition and repentance of our sinfulness. In other words, we cannot continue in our sin. I appreciate the work of Baptist theologian John L. Dagg here, who wrote that those who assume that God’s people will obtain their reward without struggle against sin are totally mistaken.
But, God’s true people will persevere through the struggles in sin. This is why we have so many exhortations in the New Testament to continue in the faith, underscoring our responsibility in our perseverance. Remember the words of Jesus:
I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned (John 15:5-6).
Paul encourages his readers to “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves” (2 Cor. 13:5). Again, we don’t create our own salvation by our actions, but we reflect and express it and so grow in our certainty of it.
Understand the difference between union and communion with Christ
Although the Holy Spirit’s work is evident in the life of someone who is truly born again, even believers can operate by their own self and natural ability apart from what is pleasing to God. Paul explained that Christians have a continual internal battle:
For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do – Galatians 5:17
There will be times when your sin will affect the experience of your relationship with God. To understand this one must see that there is an essential theological distinction between union and communion when it comes to our relationship with God.
- Union: Believers are united to Christ in God by the Spirit. This union is an action by God, in which the dead sinner is made alive by the grace of God. The doctrine of union with Christ is developed from passages that depict Christ in the believer (John 15:5; Gal. 2:20; Col. 1:27) and the believer in Christ (John 15:5; 1 Cor. 15:22; 2 Cor. 5:17).
- Communion: Those who are united to Christ are called to respond to God’s grace by living in communion with Him. Moreover, the Christian is called to commune with the Father and Son through the Holy Spirit (John 15:9-10; 2 Cor. 6:16b; Phil. 2:1).
While union with Christ is a status that never changes, one’s experience of communion with Christ can fluctuate. Union speaks to the status of our relationship, in Christ we are adopted sons and daughters of God. Communion speaks to the experience of that relationship. When a Christian grows comfortable with sin it affects the level of intimacy this person feels with God. Sin tends to isolate the believer, making him feel distant from God. This is what Paul is describing in Ephesians 4:20 when he speaks of grieving the Holy Spirit, which means to cause him sorrow by one’s sin.
This is why Christians are reminded to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1–3).
Biblical thoughts to dwell on when you lack assurance
For the true believer, the promises of God’s are sure and solid. So dwell in these promises.
- Isaiah 55:1
- Revelation 22:17
- John 6:37
- Romans 10:13
For the true believer satan only has empty accusations, so don’t confuse his empty accusations with conviction before God.
- Romans 8:1
- Romans 8:33
Remember the witness and work of the Holy Spirit in your sanctification and preservation as you await glorification.
- Romans 7:12, 22-23
- Romans 8:15-16
- 1 John 1:8
- 1 John 2:29
- 1 John 5:10-13
Here are a few books that I would encourage you to check out if you would like to dig deeper into the doctrines of assurance and perseverance, salvation, and pursuing holiness.
- Run to Win the Prize – Tom Schreiner
- Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart – JD Greear
- The Hole in Our Holiness – Kevin DeYoung
- Saved by Grace – Anthony Hoekema
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