How can I know that I am saved?
“Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? – unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (Second Corinthians 13:5, ESV)
“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.” (First John 5:13, ESV)
In his popular book Chosen By God, Dr. R.C. Sproul writes that when it comes to salvation, there are basically four kinds of people in the world:
(1) Those who are not saved, and who know that they are not saved.
(2) Those who are saved, but who do not know that they are saved.
(3) Those who are saved who know that they are saved.
(4) Those who are not saved but who “know” that they are saved.(1)
In terms of those who are in category # 1 (i.e., those who are not saved and who know it), the gospel of Jesus Christ graciously offers the following solution to their dilemma: Repent from your sins and believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ alone for salvation, and you will be saved (Mark 1:15; John 3:16; Acts 16:31; Romans 3:20-26; 10:8-13; Ephesians 2:8-9; etc.). Salvation through Christ is received as a free gift of God’s sovereign grace, received in the way of God-given repentance from sin and saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, apart from works of the law or any human merit. Look not to yourself, to your own works, or even to your own faith or “decision” for Christ. Look outside yourself to Christ, crucified and risen for sinners! In the gospel He offers Himself freely to you, dear sinner. Receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation from your sins, and believe the good news that your sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake! Only then might you begin to know the blessing of full assurance of salvation.
In the case of those who find themselves in category # 3 (i.e., those who are genuinely saved and who know it), there is no dilemma to be resolved. Believers who are blessed with the grace of full assurance of their salvation must simply continue to diligently use those means of grace (the Word, sacraments and prayer) by which the Holy Spirit preserves His elect in faith (without idolatrously trusting in the means themselves), and to continue striving after a new obedience and endeavoring to walk in all clear conscience before God (the fruits and evidences of a true and living faith), lest they lose the comfort of this inward sense of a full assurance of salvation.(2)
It is those professing Christians in categories # 2 (i.e., those who are saved but who lack full assurance of their salvation) and # 4 (i.e., those who are convinced that they are “saved,” but who are not actually saved) who are in a difficult spot, spiritually-speaking. These categories of individuals throw a wrench into the engine of biblical assurance of salvation. Believers who are in category # 2 often include new converts, immature believers, believers who have lapsed into a serious sin or pattern of sin which wounds the conscience, and/or believers who are overly-scrupulous or hyper-sensitive in their consciences. Professing Christians in category # 4 often include arrogant hypocrites (like the self-righteous pharisees), professed believers of an antinomian (“anti-law”) bent who presume upon the grace of God while living in conscious, willful, unrepentant sin; “Christians” who are sincere but self-righteous, trusting in their own works-righteousness instead of in Christ alone for right standing with God; and other careless and/or self-deceived individuals. Obviously these different categories of individuals need to be dealt with in a different way.
When it comes to hypocrites or self-righteous individuals who trust in their own works for salvation, and who are convinced that they are saved because they are “good people,” such individuals need to hear the unbending demands of God’s holy, moral Law. They need to be shown that they, in fact, do not love God with their whole being, that they do not love their neighbor as themselves, and that they constantly violate God’s holy laws every moment of every day, in thought, word, and action. They need to be shown that they lack that perfect, everlasting righteousness which alone can serve as their title to heaven, and which is provided by Christ alone to believing sinners. In other words, they need to be shown that they are sinners who desperately need a perfect, sinless Savior who bore the curse of the law in order to deliver us sinners from that curse (Galatians 3:10-14). The Law of God needs to crush and slay them spiritually before they will be open to the Gospel, which has the power to raise broken, humbled sinners who, through grace, believe in Christ.
But probably the most difficult category to address is # 2 – those who are in reality in a saved condition, but who lack full assurance of salvation and who are often plagued by doubts about their salvation. This can be a particularly painful condition for an earnest, sensitive Christian to find himself in. As the Westminster Confession of Faith acknowledges, “This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be partaker of it…” (Confession of Faith 18.3). Yet, in line with the Word of God, the Confession goes on to offer this hope: “…yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means (those “means” being the Word, sacraments and prayer – GLW), attain thereunto” (Confession of Faith 18.3).
Dear reader, if you are a believer who struggles with doubts about your salvation, or if you regularly lack a full assurance of salvation (i.e., if you find yourself in category # 2), how can you come to enjoy the comfort of a full assurance of your eternal salvation? First of all, you need to understand that this full, infallible assurance of eternal salvation is based on two factors: (1) First and foremost, the objective promises of the gospel which come to us in Word and sacraments; and (2) Secondly (and subordinately), on the subjective evidences of the presence of saving faith within your heart.
We believers come to enjoy an initial, basic hope and assurance of salvation simply by trusting in the objective promises of the gospel, as those promises are presented to us in the Word and sacraments. For example, when the gospel is preached by a minister of the Word, Jesus is essentially saying to you, dear sinner, through that gospel Word “I offer the benefits of my death and resurrection to you. Trust Me! Believe the good news that your sins are forgiven through My blood!” Take God at His Word. Just believe the gospel promises. Of course, it is true that you cannot and will not believe those gospel promises unless the Holy Spirit gives you the faith to believe. But if you desire to believe, that is a good indication that the Spirit is awakening faith within your soul (otherwise you would have no such desire to believe and no real concern about the state of your soul). So get your focus off of yourself, put your focus on Christ, and just believe the good news, calling upon the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ for faith and salvation. As the Word of God promises, “For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”” (Romans 10:13, ESV) God means what He says! Just trust Him! And don’t deceive yourself into thinking you have to somehow improve yourself or make yourself more “savable” before you come to Christ. Come as the wretched sinner that you are, whatever your life circumstances might be. Remember that Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6), not for those who have it all together. Come to Christ as you are; be assured, He won’t leave you that way!
The objective gospel promises are the ground and foundation of our assurance. Once you trust in the objective promises of salvation in Christ, God will begin to change your life as you grow in the knowledge and love of Christ. Your assurance will be strengthened as you (and others around you!) begin to see the fruits and evidences of a true and living faith manifest themselves in your life (such as the fruit of the Spirit – Galatians 5:22-24). So these subjective evidences of saving faith can serve to supplement and strengthen your inward sense of assurance of salvation, even leading to a full, infallible assurance of salvation — a wonderful blessing which is like a foretaste of heaven on earth! However, here you need to be careful. You see, one of the things that happens as we grow and mature in our relationship with Christ is that we also become increasingly aware of just how deeply sinful we are. So the more you mature as a Christian, the more sinful you will feel, and the more you will realize how far short your spiritual “fruit” falls from God’s holy standard. Furthermore, even unregenerate (unsaved) individuals can mimic and imitate the “fruit of the Spirit” by conforming themselves to outward Christian behavior. In addition, even true believers are capable of falling into serious and scandalous sin. The point here is that, while a changed life and subjective evidences of saving faith can serve to supplement and strengthen our own personal assurance of salvation, they can never serve as the basis or foundation for that assurance. Only God’s infallible, trustworthy Word in the objective gospel promises can serve as the basis for our assurance of salvation!
Do you struggle with assurance of salvation? The ultimate solution to your dilemma can be summed up as follows: Go back to Jesus! Always, always, always go back to Jesus Christ and His wonderful gospel promises! Get your focus off of yourself, your religious performance (or lack thereof), your sins (many though they may be!), and turn your eyes upon Jesus, the perfect, sinless Savior who offers to cover you with His perfect, everlasting righteounsess! As you do, may God grant you the grace of a full assurance of salvation!
(1) See pp. 163-187 in Chosen By God by Dr. R.C. Sproul (Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Copyright 1986 by R.C. Sproul).
(2) Please note: Believers who fall into serious sin do not lose the objective reality of their salvation, for the salvation of God’s elect is secure because of the efficacy of Christ’s atonement, and therefore there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1; John 5:24; etc.). However, lapsed believers often lose the comforting, subjective sense of assurance, and can be plagued by doubts about their salvation. If you are a true believer who has full assurance of your salvation, do not take your assurance for granted! Strive to maintain that assurance, lest you lose the blessed comfort of your assurance! If you have lost your assurance through sin, you can regain your assurance only through renewed repentance, faith, a diligent use of the means of grace, and a renewed endeavor to walk in all clear conscience before your Lord.