The Diligent Pursuit of Assurance
Our subject today is the doctrine of assurance. We call ourselves Christians. For some of us that have grown up in Christian homes, that’s all we’ve ever known. But how do we know that we’re really saved? How do we know that what’s true for others is true for us?
Some Christians believe that anyone who claims to have an assurance of salvation is arrogant, presuming to know more than he has a right to know. But this is not necessarily so. Arrogance and presumption are only problems if we believe that we deserve to be saved. But if we really believe that we are wretched and miserable sinners saved only by God’s grace and that the promise of assurance comes from him, then there is no arrogance or presumption in our assurance whatsoever.
Then there are others who are assured of all kinds of things that simply are not so. Some are assured, for example, that no one can have any assurance of salvation at all, since justification can be lost and salvation depends on remaining in communion with the Roman pontiff until death. Others have absolute confidence that a man can be saved in the morning, lost by lunch, and saved again by dinner. I’ve heard of some people being lost and saved as much as five times in a single day. Against such things, the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is a great comfort. We do not remain in the faith by our own goodness or power any more than we deserve to be saved; rather, we are preserved in the faith by God’s grace, which perseveres in us by his sovereign power.
Making Your Calling and Election Sure
Contrary to these false ideas of assurance, our text says that it is your duty to seek the assurance of your salvation. Why? Because the question of assurance is tied directly to your sanctification. When you seek to make your calling and election sure, Peter says that you will never fall. While this may seem like an easy thing, it is really a monumental task.
To begin with, Peter describes the pursuit of assurance as something that requires tremendous exertion on our part. The word translated give diligence (σπουδάσατε) in verse 10 means to do your best, spare no effort, and work hard. It conveys eagerness, seriousness and earnest attention. We can see this when we consider other passages where the same word occurs. For example, in Ephesians 4:3 Paul instructed the church to endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Endeavor is the same word found in our text. The unity of the Spirit is not something that we should pursue halfheartedly; rather, we should seek it enthusiastically. Likewise, Paul told Timothy to study to show himself approved before God, a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the Scriptures (II Tim. 2:15). Here the same word is translated study: it requires Timothy and all other ministers of the gospel to give themselves entirely to the ministry of the Word.
So, when Peter says that you must give diligence to make your calling and election sure, he means that this should be one of your chief goals in life. Picture yourself as a blacksmith swinging his heavy hammer and with every blow forging the iron into a useful instrument. In the same way, you should construct your whole life so that everything you do and say works toward the one goal of confirming your salvation. Your assurance should not be a nice but unintended consequence of what you do, but something that you pursue all the time and in every aspect of your lives.
What we are supposed to make sure is our calling and election. Election is God’s choosing particular individuals to be saved, and calling occurs when the Spirit causes us to hear and embrace the outward preaching of the gospel. Since these are both acts of God, we might wonder whether we can be sure of them at all. We have no access whatsoever to God’s thoughts except those that it has pleased him to reveal in Scripture. Nowhere does the Bible provide a complete list of his elect. Further, even our response to the preaching of the gospel does not prove that the Spirit has called us. We may have responded for any number of reasons, as Jesus illustrated in the Parable of the Sower, where the seed fell on various kinds of soil and sprung up to that which fell on bad soil eventually died (Mark 4:2–9). Theologians refer to such responses as historical faith or temporary faith because they are attributed to people who assent to incorrect and/or incomplete propositions. The problem is that people with historical or temporary faith are confident, just as we are, that the Spirit has called them. How, then, can we be sure that he has called us? For that matter, is it even possible to be sure of these things?
I can say with 100 percent certainty that you can be assured of your calling and election. My confidence is not based on my own experience. Therefore, I will not tell you that since I am assured of my calling and election, you can also be assured of yours. This kind of argument is not helpful since I may be one of those whose faith is of the historical or temporary kind. If my faith is not saving faith, you may not know that until sometime in the distant future. That’s why we must not follow any man. Even if everyone whom we believed was a Christian would deny Jesus Christ, we must keep on believing. Our standard is not other men. We need something more dependable, viz., the Word of God. The Bible will never let us down.
Thankfully, the Bible speaks to the possibility of assurance in several ways.
First, the Scriptures testify to the fact that some of the saints whose life stories we read about in its pages had the assurance that we’re talking about. The apostle Paul comes immediately to mind. Toward the end of his life as he awaited the very real possibility of his own martyrdom, he confessed his confidence in God’s mercy to him. He wrote, For the which cause I also suffer these things: nevertheless I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day (II Tim. 1:12). As one of God’s elect, Paul knew that he was elect, and it was this knowledge that strengthened him in his trials. It kept him from falling, just as Peter promised that it would do for us.
Second, the Bible offers us the same assurance of our salvation that Paul had of his. Not only is it implied in our text, where Peter instructed us to give diligence to make our calling and election sure, but there are also numerous passages that speak of ordinary believers having assurance. In Philippians 1:6, Paul encourages believers to be confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ. What he wrote to the Thessalonians is even more to the point. I Thessalonians 1:4 says, Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God. In fact, there is one book in the New Testament that was written specifically to reinforce our confidence before God. In his first epistle, John gives three practical tests that confirm our fellowship with God, viz., righteousness, love and belief. Do we obey God’s law from hearts moved by divine grace? Do we love God and one another? Do we believe the truth as it has been revealed in Scripture? After citing these tests John wrote, These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God (I John 5:13).
Third, the Bible reminds us that our assurance is not natural, but supernatural. Only the Holy Spirit can seal our hearts to God’s love. Romans 8:16 says, The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.
And finally, the Bible makes it abundantly clear that our assurance is grounded in the promises given to us by God. Our hearts often deceive us because we have not yet been perfectly sanctified. Other men also deceive us. Sometimes even the institutional church deceives us (I mentioned a few instances of this at the beginning of today’s sermon). But God’s promises can be trusted because they are backed by the integrity of God himself. God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent (Num. 23:19a). So, when God says, For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16), you can be absolutely sure that if you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ God has, to use the words of our text, abundantly choreographed your entrance into the everlasting kingdom of his Son. It cannot be any other way. God has spoken. Hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good? (Num. 23:19b).
In the final analysis, the best thing to help you develop and grow in your assurance is Scripture itself. Read its promises over and over. Memorize them. Meditate on them. Apply them to your life. When you do this, you will be the man described in Psalm 1, who like a tree planted by the rivers of water,… bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper (v. 3). You will not question your salvation because you will be drawing your confidence entirely from the Lord and from his Word.
You Shall Never Fall
Our text says that you will never fall if you give your full attention to making your calling and election sure. In fact, this is one of the first promises that you should acquaint yourselves with in order to reinforce your assurance. In the Greek, it is especially emphatic promise. Not only does it use a double negative (οὐ μὴ) to call attention to the utter impossibility of your falling, but it also has an adverb (ποτε) that means it will not happen at any time. Peter wanted to make it crystal clear that you cannot fall if you have a strong assurance of God’s mercy to you through Jesus Christ.
Does this mean, then, the true believers can never fall? The answer depends on what Peter meant by the word fall (πταίσητέ). The word in the original can mean either to sin (cf. Jas. 2:10; 3:2) or to stumble (cf. Rom. 11:11). If it means sin, then we can fall since we sin far more frequently than we would like. If it means stumble, then it probably means that we stumble in our assurance, though not in our salvation. This also happens. Our assurance is never a static thing. It grows when we read the Word of God, pray and guard ourselves from sin, and it shrinks when we let it slip away or are negligent in guarding it. It is even possible that our assurance can become so small that we cannot recognize it.
None of us wants this to happen, so how do we avoid it? The most obvious answer, as I’ve stated several times already, is to use the means that God has provided. We call these the means of grace. At the top of the list is the Bible itself. You need to be present for the public preaching of the Word of God unless providentially hindered, and you need to read and meditate the Word for yourself. Other means of grace are the sacraments and prayer. Fellowship with the people of God is also critical because in our fellowship we remind each other of what the Bible says and we pray for one another. When we do not make use of the means of sanctification that God has provided, we make ourselves vulnerable to the assaults of the evil one, who will make us doubt and question the existence of God and his goodwill toward us.
Yet, the greatest danger to our assurance is unrepentant sin. When sin takes control of our lives, it tries to crush everything that is good and holy. Its ultimate goal is to destroy our lives, targeting first our assurance. David found this to be true. In Psalm 38 he wrote, There is no soundness in my flesh because of thine anger; neither is there any rest in my bones because of my sin. For mine iniquities are gone over mine head: as an heavy burden they are too heavy for me. My wounds stink and are corrupt because of my foolishness. I am troubled; I am bowed down greatly; I go mourning all the day long (vv. 3–6). This psalm is the lament of a man who has realized how much misery he brought upon himself and his desperately sought the assurance of God’s favor.
In a sense, Psalm 51 is a counterpart of Psalm 38. There David prayed for and expected complete restoration. Listen to the hope he expressed once he confessed his sin and looked to the Lord for forgiveness. He wrote, Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.… Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit. Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness (vv. 7–14).
We often question our assurance in the midst of grievous trials — the death of loved ones, painful diseases, crippling accidents, wayward children or the loss of a job. We want to comfort ourselves or others. We need to spend time jump-starting a new career. The fact is that we get lost in the busyness of the needs of the moment and forget to turn to our only help. Though Job experienced greater trial than any of us and probably had his own periods of doubt, in the end he was sustained by trusting in the Lord. He said, Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him (Job 13:15).
When you experience great trials, remember the afflictions of Job. Think of the cross Jesus Christ bore to bear your sins. Know that your suffering is not unique in the sense that others before you have endured the same trial. Your trials are unique only in the sense that God has framed them specifically to further your sanctification. Peter wrote, Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: but rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy (I Pet. 4:12–13).
The fact is that we all go through periods of weak assurance. We might say that we are spiritually cold or that it seems as though God has withdrawn himself from us. Perhaps we convince ourselves that he no longer cares about us and doesn’t hear our prayers. And then we think to ourselves that we must not really be Christians after all; otherwise, God would not have abandoned us.
From the time that I first became a Christian when I was twelve or thirteen, I have never doubted the truth of Scripture. The Bible says that God created the world in six days, and that’s what I believe. The Bible says that Jesus died on the cross for those who put their trust in him, and I maintain that there is no other way to be saved. But as a young believer, my question was not what the Bible said. I may not have been able to answer all the arguments of evolutionists or universalists, but I was absolutely certain that they could be answered. My question, on the other hand, was whether the promises of Scripture applied specifically to me. Jesus died for all those who put their trust in him, but do I trust him? Did he die for me? How do I know that I will not turn my back on him or drift away from the faith years to come?
In the course of time, I came to realize two things. The first is that I was focusing too much on me. Do I trust him? Did he die for me? In effect, I was looking for my assurance in myself, and found that it was no better to trust myself than to trust any other man. The second thing I learned was that I needed to turn to Jesus Christ for my assurance, just as I look to him for my complete salvation. If I really and truly believe that Jesus died for all those who put their trust in him, and if I find my whole salvation in him and nowhere else, then that should settle the matter. After all, what does the Bible say? Draw near to yourself? No. James 4:8 says, Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you (Jas. 4:8).
The Biblical doctrine of assurance is based on the character of God himself. God has said that he will be our Savior; he wouldn’t be much of a Savior if he gave up on us before our salvation was consummated. Thus, the immediate basis of our assurance is the doctrine of divine perseverance — God’s promised to keep us true to himself. Jesus said, All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out (John 6:37).
In our text, Peter exhorts us to pay close attention to our assurance. When we do so, the Lord promises to keep us from falling and to minister to us an entrance into the everlasting kingdom of Jesus Christ. But how do we give attention to our assurance? By walking with the Lord — trusting his Word, obeying his commandments, crying out to him for all our needs, fellowshiping with God’s people, and withdrawing our confidence from every creature, including ourselves. Jesus Christ is the alpha and omega of our salvation. Our trust must be in him and in his Word alone. That is where we find our assurance!
Let each one of us, therefore, look to the Lord for our assurance. May the Spirit of God help us hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end (Heb. 3:6). Amen.