Assure our hearts
Reading: 1 John 3:10-23
“By this we shall assure our hearts before Him”
Everton Park Evangelistic Meeting: 23rd June 2002
Reading: 1 John 3:10-23
“By this we shall assure our hearts before Him”
Text: v 19
And tonight I want to talk about this matter of “Assurance”:
“How can I be sure if I am a Christian or not ?”
I guess, as a pastor, the two hardest tasks I face are:
- To convince those who say they are Christians but are not, that they are not.
- To assure those who doubt they are saved but are, that they are.
And, of course, that’s made all the more difficult by the fact that, in talking to such a person, I don’t know for sure myself whether they are saved or not. Sometimes, only God knows.
But I hope that, by the end of this evening, all of you here will be clear one way or the other:
- If you’re not saved, then I hope that you’ll know very clearly that you are not saved – so that you can do something about it.
- And, if you are saved, but are crippled by doubts and fear – well, I hope, that those doubts and fears will no longer cripple you, and that you’ll be fully assured of your salvation.
1. John’s Epistle
Now John wrote this letter specifically to help us work out the answer to this question.
He wrote it, specifically:
- to expose those who said they were Christians, but were not.
- to assure those who were having doubts about their salvation, but who needn’t.
Now before he wrote this letter, he wrote his Gospel – what we call the Gospel of John.
And, in that Gospel, he also gives us a reason for writing that.
Near the end of the Gospel (and, as I read this, just be thinking about the words there in v 13): “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.”
O.K. Two very clear aims he had in mind there:
- “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God”
- “that believing you may have life in His name.”
In other words, he wrote his Gospel principally to bring unbelievers to faith in Jesus Christ. It answers the question of, “How can I be saved ?”
But then, having believed, a new question arises: “What if I’m having myself on ?”
“All these doubts come flooding into my mind. I’m not so sure now that I really have believed and am saved.
“So, how can I know if I really am saved or not.”
And, to answer that question, John wrote this letter – again with two very clear aims in mind:
“I have written these things to you who already believe in the name of the Son of God,
- “that you may know that you have eternal life”
- “that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God.”
So, if you think you are a Christian, but are having doubts about your salvation, then this is the place to go.
2. John’s Three Tests
Now, the way John goes about this is to propose that we apply three tests. It is these tests that assure us of whether a person is saved or not;
· What you believe test
· How you relate to others test
· Whether you obey God’s commandments test
And these tests are not spelt out in just one verse here and there. But John keeps coming back to these things over and over again.
i. “What you believe” test
There are certain things you just have to believe in order to be a Christian.
And, as I say, you don’t get these in just one verse here and there in this letter of John’s. But you get it in everything he says put together.
- v 23a
So, there is one thing the Christian believes: he believes – or rather, he believes in – the name of Jesus Christ.
That means he puts his trust in Christ.
There are also certain things he has to believe about Christ.
à vv 2b-3a
So there is something the Christian believes about Christ. He sincerely believes that He really came to this earth, in the flesh. We are not in the realm of myth, or legend here.
The Christian believes these things to be true, and confesses them to be true.
“And this gives us assurance,” says John. “By believing this we know that person has the Spirit of God.”
Of course that is not all he believes. John isn’t saying that anyone who says he believes that Jesus has come in the flesh – though he might not believe anything else about Christ – that, by itself, doesn’t mean we can be sure the person is a Christian.
“No,” he says. “There are other things that the Christian believes:”
“There you are,” says John. “If someone abides in God and God in him, then we can know that because that person will also confess, as something that he truly believes, that Jesus is the Son of God.”
There is something else the Christian believes. This is how we can tell if someone is “born again”, or “born of God” (as John puts it here).
So, all these things together, if they are all believed, assure us of a person’s testimony. And, they assure the believer’s own heart, if he truly believes these things, when he is tempted to doubt his own salvation.
And, in fact, John goes even further. He says that the true child of God will accept, and believe, whatever the apostles wrote in the Bible – in fact, the whole Bible.
à v 6b
à v 6c
Hence: v 6d
There is the ultimate test when it comes to what you believe.
How do you know the one who has the spirit of truth ? How do you know the one who is deluding himself and is led astray by the spirit of error ?
Well, do they believe what the writers of the Bible wrote ?
“We are of God,” says the apostle “… we who teach these things and wrote the Bible.”
“And he who knows God is known because listens to what we say.
“On the other hand, he who doesn’t really know God, is exposed because he doesn’t listen to what we say.”
“By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”
ii. “How you relate to others” test
And this, too, is a very important test.
The key word here is (I think) the word that appears most often in this letter: “love”.
(It occurs something like 46 times.)
How do you relate to others ?
Or (in the context here) how do you relate to other genuine Christians ?
- Do you love them ?
- Are you able to forgive them ?
- As far as it depends upon you, do you live at peace with them ?
And (as I say) this is a test that John keeps on coming back to in this letter:
à v 19
This is part of our assurance: that we love others who are genuine believers.
- v 14
- 4:20 etc.
iii. “Whether you obey God’s commandments” test
This follows on from what we have just been saying – because the things we have just been talking about are, themselves, commandments of God.
- v 23
“Loving one another” is a command of God.
“Believing on the name of Jesus Christ” is a command of God.
And so, to do these things: the “What you believe” test, and the “How you relate to others” test – these things themselves are part of the third test: Are you going to do what God has commanded you – the “Whether you obey God’s commandments” test.
But obviously, there are many other commands (apart from these) that God has given us in the Bible that we are also to obey.
These commands are summed up under the general heading of the “law” of God.
And so, fulfilling this test, means that we want to do the law of God.
That is called “righteousness”. Righteousness means doing what God commands, obeying His law.
And this too is the test of whether or not a person is a Christian.
This is part of our assurance that we are indeed saved.
(Notice I didn’t say this is what saves us.
What I did say, is that it is part of our assurance that we have been saved. The saved person will want to obey God’s commandments.)
Notice that: “By this we know that we know Him…”
You “know” God ? You believe that you are saved ?
But how can you be sure ? How can you know that you know Him ?
Well, one way is that you see within yourself a new and genuine desire to be keeping his commandments.
On the other hand, the opposite of “righteousness” is “sin”.
Sin is not doing God’s commandments. It is breaking His law.
And so, to go on happily sinning is quite contrary to all that the Christian now is.
Do you have a clear conscience ?
Have you genuinely repented of sins in your life ?
An evil conscience is one of the most common hindrances to assurance of salvation.
- v 21
That’s what we aim for: for a conscience that does not condemn us, so that we may have confidence towards God.
While, on the other hand, the person who happily goes on sinning and abusing his conscience can have little assurance that he is saved.
Now, if you’re at all like me, and if you believe you are a Christian, around about now you’ve started to think, “This is something of a pointless exercise.”
“You said you were going to talk about assurance.
“You said John wrote this letter to help those of us who are doubting become more assured of our salvation.
“But the more you talk, and the more I read of what John had to say, the less sure I become !”
“You talk about the ‘What you believe test’. And, O.K. – I do believe whatever I read in the Bible – though I don’t always find it easy to accept what I read there.”
“But then you talk about the ‘How you relate to others test’. And I’m definitely starting to have problems there.
“Because I regularly have problems relating to others, and loving others. And I know I can’t just blame them, because I know it is often my fault. So, I started to get a bit less sure of my salvation as you spoke about that.
“But then, when you came to the ‘Whether you obey God’s commandments’ test – then I really lost heart.
“Because every day I find myself breaking God’s commandments. Every day I find myself sinning. I can’t even say that I always do so unwillingly – sometimes, to my shame, I have quite deliberately and willingly disobeyed God.”
“So then, am I a Christian ?
“I’m really beginning to doubt that I am a Christian.”
Well, before we address this, let’s just think about one other matter that is sometimes used (and abused) when it comes to getting assurance:
4. The Witness of the Spirit ?
Now this is based upon what Paul says in Rom ch 8:
- v 14
O.K., fair enough. If we want to know if someone is a child of God – if I want to know if I am a child of God – then I have to ask, “Am I led by the Spirit of God ? Do I have the Spirit of God ?”
And Paul further directs our thinking here by going on:
à v 16
All believers have this witness of the Holy Spirit within them that they are the children of God.
And here again, the frail believer can be discouraged, rather than encouraged, because he says, “But I don’t feel this. I don’t feel this witness of the Holy Spirit to my spirit.”
Well, we have to be careful to think about what the Bible is actually saying here.
What are you expecting to “feel” ?
What sort of “feeling” would convince you that you do have the Holy Spirit ?
You say, “I don’t know. But surely if there is some sort of ‘witness’ going on to my spirit, there must be some way I can sense that. Otherwise, what’s the point of Paul saying this here ?”
But you see, there is the problem.
It doesn’t say here that, “The Spirit witnesses to our spirit” at all.
That’s a Pentecostal interpretation – or, misinterpretation – of the verse. Being into “special revelations” they say that the idea here is that the Spirit gives some special revelation to the Christian – to his spirit – assuring him of his salvation.
And this “special revelation” (they say) takes on a definite form – it may be a voice, or a vision, or some special gift such as speaking in tongues. But, one way or another, the Christian is supposed to get this assurance of salvation through God’s miraculous intervention whereby the Spirit consciously speaks to our souls.
Now that isn’t what it actually says, does it ?
This passage doesn’t say anything about the Spirit speaking to our spirits.
On the contrary, it speaks of the Holy Spirit bearing witness with our spirits.
And that’s a very important distinction. There is a world of difference between bearing witness to someone, and bearing witness with them.
You see, what this verse is saying here is that there are two witnesses within us:
- there is our own spirit
- there is the Holy Spirit.
And it’s not a matter of one of these witnessing to the other.
But rather, it is the case of both of them bearing witness side by side: “The Spirit bears witness with our spirit.”
So, there is the witness of our own spirit.
And we’ve already looked at that. Our own spirit bears witness by consciously considering those questions we were looking at before:
- “What do we believe ?”
- “How do we relate to others ?”
- What is our attitude to the commandments of God ?”
It is our own spirit that searches these things out. That is the witness of our spirit.
But then, alongside that, is another witness, helping us to search these things out.
And that is the witness of the Holy Spirit.
How is it that we are convinced of the truth of all that the Bible says, and the promises of God contained in it – except by the Holy Spirit ?
You see, that is His witness:
- not directly to our spirits,
- but with our spirits, helping us to believe these things.
How is it that we love others the way we do (something that is so contrary to our fallen natures) – except by the power of the Spirit within ?
How is it that we who are, by nature, contrary to God and contrary to His commandments – how is it that we now (mostly, anyway) at least want to obey His commandments.
Again, this is only by the power of the Spirit within.
And so this too is evidence of His witness, with and alongside, our spirit.
So again I have to say – because many Christians get confused by this, and go astray because of this – What are you expecting from this witness ? What are you expecting to “feel” ?
There is just one thing that Paul mentions here that he says we will feel as a result of all this, i.e. we will “feel” like calling upon God as our Father.
There is something very tangible that Paul mentions.
But, it is the only tangible thing he mentions.
- Not a vision from above, or a voice from heaven, or a gift such as speaking in tongues,
- But, just this: We feel constrained to cry out to God as our Father.
That is the testimony of the Spirit, who bears witness alongside of our spirit, that we are children of God, and thereby gives us assurance of salvation.
5. “But, I still have doubts”
“But,” you say, “I still have doubts.”
“O.K., I can see that I’ve been looking for the wrong thing when it comes to the witness of the Spirit.
“But I still a at 6’s and 7’s over the witness of my own spirit.
“I look within – and I’m so discouraged, especially when I see my failures in my relationships with others, and in being consistent in obeying God’s commandments.
“I think I’ve genuinely repented of my sins:
- “I hate my sin.
- “I’ve confessed my sin to God, and to those I have sinned against.
- “I’ve put those sins away.
“But still, I’m depressed, and troubled by an uneasy conscience.”
O.K. It is true that we do need to look within ourselves. That is an important part of obtaining assurance of our salvation.
(It is certainly not where we are to look for salvation itself. We daren’t look within ourselves for that. All we can do there is to look to Christ, and to Christ alone.)
Nonetheless, if Christ has saved us, then that should’ve brought about some change within.
And so we should be able to look within ourselves and see some evidence of that change.
And, seeing that evidence, assures us (as the apostle John puts it) that we do indeed know God.
But there is also a danger there.
And the danger is that our eyesight – especially our spiritual eyesight – is not always that good. We don’t always see ourselves as we really are.
We have ourselves on.
And, especially in times when we are seeing our sin for what it really is, it can be hard to see any good at all that God may be doing in our souls.
So that, we can genuinely wonder, “Am I saved – when I still continue to commit such sins.”
i. Look Most to Christ and His Promises
And, for that reason, I urge every Christian, even in this matter of assurance, to look more at Christ than at themselves.
(For salvation, don’t look to yourself at all.)
But for assurance, though you are to look to yourself – “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.” as the apostle Paul says…
Yet, for every look at yourself, take ten looks at the Lord Jesus Christ.
Remember, this is where salvation begins: it begins in Christ.
And therefore, if we want assurance of salvation, we have to keep going back to Christ.
Go back to the basics.
Go back to the promises of God.
You never see yourself as you really are. Your view of yourself is always changing, and never accurate.
But, the promises of God never change. They don’t depend upon your mood from day to day.
The promises of God are always the promises of God.
And that’s where we have to keep going back to.
In the Westminster Confession we say that:
Our assurance is founded, first and foremost:
- “upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation,”
And only then upon:
- “the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made,
- “the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God.”
That’s where we need to begin: the promises of God.
These promises are absolutely certain because God is absolutely certain.
One time, when one of the astronauts who was sent into space returned to earth, he was asked, “What were your feelings as you stood on the surface of the moon and looked back over that vast expanse of space, back to this earth.”
And he replied, “I was suddenly very taken up by the thought that my frail spacecraft had been built by the lowest bidder.”
That’s not all that comforting, is it ?
Someone can make all the promises in the world.
But, in the end, such promises depend upon whether the one who makes them, is able to do what he says.
Well, when God planned our salvation He didn’t go to the lowest “bidder”.
Far from it. He paid an inestimable price for our salvation that He - and only He - could pay.
But because He paid that price, all those promises are now rock solid.
Christ is greater than our sin.
He is greater than a conscience that may torment us, even when we have repented of our sin and fled to Christ.
Yes, v 21
But, v 20 !
So, go back to:
1 John 1:9
That’s what God has promised.
Maybe, at the moment, I don’t feel it. “I am so confused and full of doubts, that I despair that there is any grace of God at all in my heart.”
But I cling to this – to this precious promise of God:
“Have I confessed my sin ? Have I (as far as I sincerely know) sincerely repented of my sin ?”
Or that promise in:
1 John 2:1
à v 1b
Is Christ my Advocate in heaven ?
Have I turned to put my trust in Christ, and in Christ alone ?
That is the question !
Before ever you ask questions about evidences of God’s grace within, or the witness of the Spirit, you have to begin here.
You have to go right back to the beginning:
Have I given up trusting in being able to save myself ?
Am I trusting in Christ, and Christ alone ?
Then, there is the foundation !
I can resolve all these other questions in due time.
But, as long as I am trusting in Christ, I have all these precious promises to cling to that assure me of salvation.
And so, for every look you take within yourself, take ten looks at Christ and His promises.
ii. Don’t do nothing
The other thing I would say, when you begin to doubt your salvation, is don’t do nothing.
That’s a tendency we have, any time we get depressed about anything, isn’t it ? We just want to do nothing.
And it is so, just as much, when we get depressed as to whether we are saved or not.
So, what do we do ?
Well, we can try examining ourselves.
I mean, if there is something there – genuinely there – because of which we have an uneasy conscience, then we have to face up to that and deal with it.
But, as I said, there is a limit to how profitable that exercise may be, especially if we are depressed about the whole thing.
But it is important, if we are trusting in Christ – even if we don’t actually feel anything – that we still seek to do what we would normally do to grow in grace. I.e.
- We still seek the Lord in prayer and Bible study each day,
- We still get to worship
- We still get to join with others in Bible study and prayer etc.
In other words, we keep up the use of the means of grace.
Richard Baxter, who was one of the greatest of the Puritan pastors, put it this way:
“Be sure that the first and far greater part of your time, pain, and cares and enquiries be for the getting and increasing of your grace, than for the discerning of it…”
In other words, spend less time in introspection, and more time in seeking to grow in grace.
He went on (with another of these 10 to 1 ratios):
“See that you ask ten times at least, “How can I get or increase: my faith, my love to Christ and to His people – for every one time that I ask, ‘How can I know that I believe or love as I ought.’”
You see what he’s saying there ?
He was conscious that, while it is right to be concerned about of assurance of salvation, yet the Devil can use that to paralyse you so that you stand still spiritually as you spend the rest of your life examining your navel.
It is better just to accept that it is not unusual for Christians to go through times like this. It is part of life – the Christian life.
And as such, it is quite natural that the Christian, when he does go through times like this, will be distressed by it.
But don’t let it turn you in on yourself completely.
Don’t let it lead to becoming absorbed in yourself.
Of course you want it to be different. And, of course, you want to come out of it.
But simply brooding on it, or sitting around moping, will only increase your sense of despair.
You will come out of it, that is certain.
But you’ll come out of it, when you come out of it – whether that is sooner, or whether it is later.
It will be later rather than sooner, if you allow it to take over, so that you become completely self-focussed.
But it will be sooner rather than later, if:
- for every look at yourself, you take ten looks at Christ.
- for every exercise in self-examination, you pursue ten exercises in the means of grace.