I remember a conversation during college in which a friend confessed to me that he did not think it was necessary, or even possible, for a believer to gain assurance of their salvation. I was surprised by his comments, especially because we were attending a Christian college that emphasized all the biblical truths related to assurance of salvation: election, grace, faith, repentance, substitutionary atonement, the fully deity and humanity of Christ, and eternal security.
As it turns out, this was not an isolated incident. Over the past several years as I’ve wrestled personally with the issue of assurance and had opportunity to speak to others about it, I’ve found that many Christians do not rightly understand the biblical basis or importance of this doctrine. Assurance is essential to genuine Christianity and central to the New Testament’s theological framework, yet plenty of Christians are content to walk through life without the sure knowledge that they belong to Christ. There are, of course, those who claim assurance who have no right to; but it seems that there are an equal number of professing Christians who have either resigned to the fact they will never have assurance or that they don’t really need it.
What is Assurance?
When I use the phase “assurance of salvation” I am referring to a professing Christian’s confidence that he is, through the gospel, presently in right standing with God and will, upon his death or at the return of Christ, enter into eternal life and be delivered from the penalty of eternal condemnation. Assurance is the present intellectual and heart-felt conviction that I am, at this moment and for eternity, at peace with the living God through Jesus Christ.
But is such assurance really that important? In light of our sin and struggles with faith, shouldn’t we be content with the reality that we may or may not achieve assurance in this lifetime? While Scripture acknowledges that we will wrestle with sin and a lack of faith, it also consistently calls professing believers to gain assurance of their salvation. Scripture doesn’t suggest that those who are without assurance of their right standing with God are not necessarily saved, but neither does it applaud those who lack it as though being without assurance was a mark of spiritual humility and maturity. Assurance is essential for the Christian life. Here’s why.
(1) Assurance is God’s Will for You
The first reason we must say that assurance is essential for the Christian life is because assurance is God’s will for you. Listen to the language of the New Testament.
Colossians 2:1-3: For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
Hebrews 6:11-12: And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
Hebrews 10:22: let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
Hebrews 11:1: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
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.
(2) The Gospel is Grounded in Theological and Historical Certainties
The second reason why assurance is necessary for the Christian is because our faith is based on theological and historical certainties. Christ’s work for our salvation was conducted and completed in real-time, historical events (Acts 26:26; Rom 3:21-26). Our Savior offers salvation with sure and unshakable promises (John 5:24). Our salvation was prepared and provided by the God who cannot lie (Titus 1:2; Heb 6:18). Jesus Christ is able to save to the uttermost those who come to him (Heb 7:25). Those whom Christ has called will never lose their salvation (John 10:27-30; Romans 8:31-39). It is no exaggeration to say that he entire scheme of salvation is designed for the express purpose of providing the believer with the full assurance of his or her salvation.
(3) Assurance is Essential for True Joy in God
It is impossible to worship God if you have the suspicion that he is going to condemn you to eternal punishment. Assurance of our right standing with God, therefore, is essential to a life of authentic worship. It is no coincidence that Paul throughout his New Testament writings intertwines worship with theological affirmations that relate directly to our assurance (consider especially Romans 5:1-11 and Eph 1:1-14). Assurance and authentic worship are vitally related. You cannot have the latter without the former.
(4) Assurance Undercuts Works-Righteousness
Our hearts are so bent on establishing our own righteousness that we will even reject true assurance of salvation if it gets in the way of our self-made religiosity. Horatius Bonar explains:
The self-righteous heart of man craves an interval [between faith and assurance] as a space for the exercise of his religiousness, while free from the responsibility for a holy and unworldly life which conscious justification imposes on the conscience.
Immediate assurance of salvation implies a vital connection with a holy God and thus imposes the biblical requirements for a holy life–not our self-righteous inventions–upon the believer. Assurance, therefore, cuts works-righteousness at its very root. In another passage, Bonar describes the person who is enjoying wholesome fruits that flow from assurance. This assurance, Bonar explains,
rescued him from all temptations to self-righteousness, because not arising from any good thing in himself; it preserved him from pride and presumption, because it kept him from trying to magnify his own goodness in order to extract assurance out of it; it drew him away from self to Christ; from what he was doing to what Christ had done; thus making Christ, not self, the basis and centre of his new being.
(5) Assurance Promotes Spiritual Diligence and Decisiveness
It is possible that those with a faulty understanding of assurance would be led into a life of spiritual ease and worldliness. “Let us sin that grace may abound!” But any assurance the tends toward spiritual laxity is merely a counterfeit of the genuine article. True assurance–confidence that the holy God of the universe has chosen us to inherit salvation through Christ–will lead without fail to a life of godly diligence. Consider the logic of Hebrews 6:11-12:
And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
To what does assurance lead? It leads to diligence in exercising faith and obedience as we anticipate of our eternal inheritance. When we have assurance, we enjoy comfort of divine forgiveness and free justification. But these good gifts bear the fruit of spiritual zeal and a passion for holiness. In this way, assurance also promotes decisiveness in the Christian life. J. C. Ryle explains
That a child of God ought to act in a certain decided way, they quite feel; but the grand question is, ‘Are they children of God themselves?’ If they only feel they were so, they would go straightforward, and take a decided line. But not feeling sure about it, their conscience is forever hesitating and coming to a deadlock. The devil whispers, ‘Perhaps after all you are only a hypocrite: what right have you to take a decided course? Wait till you are really a Christian.’ I believe we have here one chief reason why so many in this day are inconsistent, trimming, unsatisfactory, and half-hearted in their conduct about the world. Their faith fails. They feel no assurance that they are Christ’s, and so feel a hesitancy about breaking with the world.
If we are ever wavering between confidence and doubt with regard to our standing with God, it will be difficult if not impossible to be decisive in spiritual matters. Obedience often requires earthly sacrifice, and if we are unsure that we possess eternal life we will be unable to endure earthly trouble for the sake of Christ.
Assurance is essential to the Christian life. If you have fallen into a pattern of doubt and have neglected the assurance of your salvation, let this be the day you heed the Scripture’s exhortations and, by God’s grace, find your footing through faith in God’s sure promises.
For help in this area, please see my other posts on this topic:
- “Sleep, Exercise, and Assurance of Salvation”
- “Self-Examination, Obedience, and Assurance”
- “Helping People Find Assurance of Salvation (or A Case for Systematic Theology)”
- “Eight Strategies for Cultivating a Good and Honest Heart”
- “Looking to Christ, not to Faith”
- “Spiritual Drought: Thoughts for Refreshment”
- “Battling Spiritual Depression: A Letter to a Friend”
I also recommend the following books.
- The Everlasting Righteousness by Horatius Bonar (Intermediate)
- The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson (Intermediate)
- When I Don’t Desire God by John Piper (Beginner/Intermediate)
- The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes (Beginner/Intermediate)
- Spiritual Depression by Martyn Lloyd Jones (Beginner/Intermediate)
- The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance by Thomas Schreiner and Ardel Caneday (Intermediate/Advanced)
- Run to Win the Prize: Perseverance in the New Testament by Thomas Schreiner (Beginner/Intermediate)
- The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification by Walter Marshall (Intermediate)
- Saved Without A Doubt by John MacArthur (Beginner)
- The Doctrine of Justification by James Buchanan (Intermediate/Advanced)
- Justification by Grace through Faith: Finding Freedom from Legalism, Lawlessness, Pride, and Despair by Brian Vickars (Intermediate)
- Redemption Accomplished and Applied by John Murray (Intermediate)