The Development of Assurance in the Daily Act of Faith
12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. 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.
The primary task I have as a minister is to prepare people to die. I really don’t care about how you live if you do not live ready to die. Death often comes unannounced and almost always it comes at inconvenient times. Only the fool will try to ignore it, try to deny it. How foolish we have become!
While many of us may fear death because of how unfamiliar we are with the experience of it, we do not have to fear what comes after it. The Apostle John wanted his readers to live with the assurance that though they would one day die, they would nevertheless have life. Eternal life. The book of 1 John was written to give Christians an assurance that they really possess eternal life.
Assurance, not Security
When we talk about assurance of salvation we mean the certainty that we possess eternal life. We do not mean the certainty that God will make good on his promise. That’s usually called eternal security. Do not confuse the two issues. Today’s passage is not focused on whether or not God will come through but whether or not you and I will inherit eternal life.
This distinction is quite necessary to keep in mind because we are not dealing today with questions about “once-saved-always-saved.” We are dealing with the question of knowing whether or not you are saved.
The Need for Assurance
Many in John’s church must have wondered whether or not they truly possessed eternal life. Many of us have struggled with such questions as well. There are at least two reasons why those who wonder whether or not they have eternal life desperately need assurance.
When doubt is a mercy
It is possible that one would not possess an assurance of eternal life simply because he does not have eternal life. In such cases, doubt is a mercy. A troubled soul is a good thing for the soul that is in trouble. It is my prayer that the words of this message today will trouble those who do not truly possess eternal life, and I pray that it will trouble them so much that they will be brought to repentance and faith. I am convinced that many people sitting in our churches today need to be given the gracious gift of doubt.
When doubt is an enemy
It is also possible, however, that a person could be a true believer and therefore possess eternal life, but still be plagued by doubts about this. Such was the case for many of John’s readers apparently. The Christian needs assurance because unchecked doubt prevents one from experiencing the joy of the Christian life. I say this because the joys of the Christian life are often experienced through the sufferings of this present life. Without assurance, there will be no way to have joy when sickness and tragedy and death and pain are the realities we face today. Christians need to have the firm assurance that God is for them when everything else has turned against them. If that is you today, my prayer is that this message will quiet your soul and give you peace.
Assurance by the Grace of God
Only God knows if your heart needs to be troubled or if your heart needs to be quieted. Either way, assurance is not something we can work for. Assurance comes by the grace of God. That’s because assurance is part of the package of salvation. It is not something extra but something that God aims to give us when he saves us. That’s the argument Paul makes in Romans 5:9-10.
Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.
Paul’s argument is that if God has gone to such a great extent to justify us—through the sacrificial death of his Son—then surely God will complete the work of salvation by sparing us from the wrath of God that is yet to come. Again we are reminded to find assurance through the reality of our salvation. That means that we can never earn our assurance. It is a gift of God to us who believe.
So assurance is the treasured possession of believers. But the fact remains that it is believers who often struggle with it. So the BIG QUESTION is WHAT ARE THE WAYS BY WHICH GOD INTENDS TO GIVE BELIEVERS HIS ASSURANCE?
Assurance is to be found in the Scriptures and never apart from them.
“I write these things to you,” John writes, “that you may know that you have eternal life.” The Apostle John says here that the reason why he has written this book is that he hopes his words will result in an assurance of salvation for those within the church. That means that John believed that what he had written would have the effect of assuring his readers that they were not going to perish but would live eternally. Here we find a very important truth: assurance of salvation is the aim of the Scriptures and without them, we have no basis for our assurance.
I say this because this is not the only place that we find the Scriptures at the center of our assurance. Let’s look at a couple of others. Consider Romans 15:1-4.
We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
Paul is speaking here about the unity that ought to exist between strong and weak believers. The unity is based upon Christian humility as we follow the example of Christ and seek to do good to one another. In verse 3 Paul quotes from Psalm 69:9 and says that Christ fulfilled this Old Testament prophecy. Then in verse 4 Paul makes this interesting comment: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Paul was telling his readers that as they read the Old Testament they were to receive encouragement from what they read, and this “encouragement of the Scriptures” would produce in them hope. The Gentile believers in the church at Rome may have wondered if they would be accepted as part of the people of God. Paul says they can increase in their hope of being accepted by God by seeing that the Old Testament was fulfilled by Christ. Since they were now a part of Christ’s church, they could be assured that they would be accepted. “By strengthening their ‘hope,’ therefore, the Scriptures help these “strong” believers become more secure about their place in the people of God.”
It is in the Scriptures that our hope can be strengthened. So what happens is that as we nourish our souls in the Scriptures, not just reading them as an academic interest, we gain encouragement through them. We begin to see how we fit into God’s plan and we begin to comprehend something of his wisdom. In short, through the Scriptures we are really able to know God and so our hope of being accepted by him grows.
Another passage that speaks about hope is Psalm 119:49-50.
Remember your word to your servant, in which you have made me hope. This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.
I like this passage because it talks about assurance in the midst of “affliction.” The Christian life is not always the easy path or the prosperous path. Sometimes we are persecuted. Sometimes things just don’t go as we plan. If our assurance is based upon our circumstances, we would often have cause to be concerned. But the Psalmist turned to God’s Word for hope in the midst of difficulty and came away with hope.
One of the deepest questions of life is why evil things happen, if there is a good God. It is amazing how many Christians stumble over this question, too. The Scriptures give us answers, answers that lead to hope and assurance. One of the greatest things you can do to prepare for the tragedy you will one day face is to saturate your soul on the Word of God so that you will have a strong anchor to hold on to when you lose your job or your loved one suddenly dies or your house burns to the ground.
A third passage to consider is 1 Timothy 4:11-16. Here’s what it says:
Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
What does Paul mean that by committing himself to his own character and to the ministry of the Word, Timothy will be able to “save” both himself and his hearers? When Paul uses this word for save he is almost always referring to personal salvation. And there is no reason to suggest a different understanding here. Paul is saying that the means by which salvation will come to Timothy and the congregation at Ephesus is by persevering in sanctification through the ministry of the Word of God. God does not save apart from his word but always through it. That’s why it is foolish to think that we can be assured of our salvation without giving the Scripture prime place in our lives. It would simply be difficult to overestimate the value of the Word of God to the eternal safety of your soul. The Apostle Paul expected salvation to come only through perseverance in the Word of God.
Assurance is something we develop not something of which we become convinced.
Paul’s emphasis on persistence as a necessary means for salvation points us to another observation we can make from 1 John regarding our assurance. I find it significant that the way John works to assure his readers is not by giving them arguments for eternal security. He doesn’t say, “now you should know that you have eternal life because God guarantees it.” But that’s the way we typically approach this issue. We say things like, “Now that you are a child of God, you are a part of God’s family so you can be assured that you will inherit the promises that God offers to his sons.” Such an explanation may be true, but it is not the biblical way for obtaining assurance. John hopes to give his readers an assurance of salvation by urging them to persevere in the faith. Assurance of salvation belongs to those who believe in Jesus, not necessarily to those who believe in eternal security.
Let’s put it another way. Our text says that assurance is for those who believe in the name of the Son of God. John does not say it is for those who have believed in the name of the Son of God. The use of the present tense in this verse rather than the past tense is important in light of the fact that John was writing to warn his readers of those who were at one time a part of the church but ended up leaving the church (1 John 2:19). Such people were trying to deceive those still in the church (1 John 2:26). In the face of such threats, John urges his readers to persevere in their faith about who Jesus is. He also commands them to keep God’s commandments and to love one another with God-like love. The result that John hopes to achieve in exhorting his readers in these ways is that they will be assured of their eternal life. He does not hope to assure them of eternal life by promising it to them; rather, he hopes that they will prove that they have eternal life and thereby gain assurance. He does not try to convince them that they have eternal life; he wants them to find their assurance by discovering evidences of eternal life in themselves.
Earlier we mentioned Romans 15:4 and its teaching that assurance comes through “the encouragement of the Scriptures.” But that verse also says that it is “through endurance” that we might have hope. Through endurance. That means that we have little right to assurance of salvation if we do not persevere in our faith in Jesus. And the reason we should not have assurance without perseverance is because the Bible says we cannot have salvation itself without perseverance.
This teaching is often lost in baptistic circles today. We don’t know how to handle verses like Colossians 1:21-23. Here Paul explicitly says that our final reconciliation with God will depend upon our perseverance in the faith.
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith . . . not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard...
The writer of the book of Hebrews urges his readers to find their assurance in their earnest efforts for faith and perseverance.
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. (Heb 6:11-12).
The Scriptures practically scream at us to not look for assurance in the decisions of our past but on the strengthening of our faith now and into the future. We’ve got to encourage each other to fight for our faith now as a means for deepening our assurance of our eternal security.
John wants us to develop an assurance of salvation not by hoping in something we can’t see but in building upon that which is a reality within us. The proof is in the pudding, as it were. The proof that we live is in our breathing not in our birth certificate. That’s why one of the best Scriptures for helping us with assurance is 2 Peter 1:5-11. Peter urges us to “make every effort to supplement” our faith with things like virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love. He says that for those who possess these qualities, they will be kept from “being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And in verse 10 he says that when these qualities are increasing within a person, they prevent him from falling away. But if one does not have these qualities he can easily forget “that he was cleansed from his former sins.” God wants us to be assured of our salvation, and he wants us to find that assurance in seeing evidences of salvation in our lives.
So the point I want us to take here is that assurance of salvation is something that deepens within us rather than being something of which we become convinced. That is why we desperately need to persevere in our faith. And that is why we desperately need each other. Every time we gather together we do so to exhort each other to go deeper in our faith and there find the assurance that God wants us to have.
Assurance is about our relationship with a Person, not our dreams of a place.
There is one last thing I would like us to observe that brings everything we have seen in 1 John 5:13 together at a very important point. John says, “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.” Notice that the thing John wants his readers to be assured of is that they possess eternal life. So an obvious question that needs and answer is this: what is eternal life?
One way we can begin to answer that question is to see that it is something we can possess now. John does not say, “that you may know that you will have eternal life.” He wants his readers to know that they have eternal life now. Because salvation comes through a new birth it is not surprising that salvation would be described as life. So John can say, in 1 John 3:14, that we have “passed out of death into life.” Through the new birth, we now have eternal life.
At this point we might be tempted to say that eternal life simply means we do not die. And that of course is true. But noting that this eternal life comes from God, it would be fair to ask why God gives this eternal life. Why not let us all die eternally? What is God’s purpose in giving eternal life?
We can go to Romans 4 to see one way the Bible answers that question. There we find the example of Abraham, whose faith is the central topic of discussion in the entire chapter. God had promised Abraham that he would become the father of many nations (v. 18), but Abraham was about a hundred years old and he had no son. In spite of this, Abraham believed God. Here’s what we read in verses 20 and 21:
No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.
In spite of the physical odds stacked against him, Abraham did not give in to temptations to doubt God. Instead “he grew strong in his faith.” How did he grow strong in his faith? By giving glory to God. How did he give glory to God? By being “fully convinced” that God was able to do the impossible. And verse 22 tells us the result of Abraham’s growth in faith: “That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness.’” In other words, God credited Abraham with righteousness because Abraham believed God, and this faith brought God glory. Abraham’s faith in God led Abraham to salvation before God because God was glorified in Abraham’s faith. Verses 23-25 tell us explicitly that it works the same way for us who “believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord.” Simply put, God grants eternal life to those whose faith brings him glory.
In other words, God is interested in giving us eternal life because it brings him ultimate glory. Don’t miss that. God is not interested in life that revolves around his gifts instead of him. But many people do not think of eternal life in this way. Most people think of eternal life as a place. They talk of heaven, a place where the streets are made of gold and we spend our days pursuing the things we never could quite obtain on this earth. Heaven is often thought of as the ultimate American Dream—mansions and riches and plenty of time to enjoy it all. How dreadful has our vision of heaven become.
Heaven is not primarily a place. It is a place, to be sure, but what makes it heaven is that it is the abode of God. It is a place where God especially manifests his presence. Don’t be so mesmerized by the beauty of heaven that you forget why it is beautiful. What makes heaven “heaven” is the presence of God. Eternal life is not a place but a Person, Jesus Christ. John tells us: “the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.” Assurance of salvation, then, is about our relationship with a Person, not our dreams about a place.
This is another reason why we can have assurance of eternal life now. The experience of heaven is available to us to some extent already. The deepest assurance that you and I can have is when we find ourselves delighting in our fellowship with Jesus Christ. Remember what John said in 1 John 1:3? “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” John says at the beginning of this book that he writes so that we might have fellowship with God. He says at the end of the book that he writes so that we might have assurance of eternal life. Putting these two things together we find that our assurance of eternal life comes through our fellowship with the Eternal Life.
Conclusion: Test yourselves
Here’s a summary of what I think the Bible teaches about assurance. Assurance of salvation is a result of God’s grace and it deepens within us through our frequent communion with Christ.
I do not wish to convince you that you have eternal life. My aim is to get you to do what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 13:5: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.” Perhaps I can offer some questions to guide you in your examination:
- What do you desire more than anything else in this life? If your desire for Christ does not match your passions for anything else, my prayer for you is that the Holy Spirit will awaken your heart to see the beauty and supremacy of Jesus Christ over all of his gifts and so move you to enjoy him now and forever. I do not pray for you to make a decision necessarily. I pray for your affections to be stirred for Christ. Here is how John Piper asks the question: "If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?”
- Do you know for sure that you will inherit heaven when you die? How do you know? The point of this question is that our assurance should deepen through our present fellowship with Christ and not through clinging to a decision we have made in the past. While conversion may happen at a point in time, biblical assurance of salvation usually urges us to look at our current relationship with Christ.
- How central are the Scriptures to your life? If your assurance depended entirely on your meditation in God’s Word, how assured would you be of eternal life?
 Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon Fee (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 870.
 John Piper, God Is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), 15.