Sure of our Salvation

I heard a comment recently from one of the young men in our church that gave me pause for thought. He said, ‘I don’t think I have ever heard a sermon about assurance.’ My initial reaction was to frantically cast my mind back over the last 40 years trying to remember if I myself had ever addressed the subject (thankfully I have), but then I began to wonder why this vital topic has apparently been neglected both in the pulpit and in Christian literature in more recent times.

One reason may be because we belong to a generation that tends to take things for granted without appreciating their true worth. As well as this, although we speak much about our struggles and fears in life, in real terms they are little in comparison to what previous generations had to face and what vast numbers of people in other parts of the world live with on a daily basis.

In a Christian context this translates into the way so many professing Christians, even those who see themselves as ‘Reformed’, take for granted the means of grace. While brothers and sisters in parts of the world where there is persecution routinely risk their lives by faithfully turning up for public worship and for prayer meetings, we in the Free World too often regard these privileges as optional. So what may on the surface appear to be ‘assured faith’ is in reality nothing more than spiritual indifference.

Another reason for this topic’s being neglected in many pulpits and many Christian books may be because of how at times it has been handled unhelpfully. Some churches in their commendable concern to avoid ‘presumptive’ or superficial faith have created the unintended consequence of regarding the idea of full assurance as falling into that category. The effect of this, especially on Christians who have a tender conscience, is to make them think they have no grounds for being sure of their salvation and for that reason will often refuse to come to the Lord’s Table. Where such emphases have prevailed for one generation of Christians, often following generations will swing to opposite extremes in an attempt to correct it.

Whatever the reasons may be for this doctrine’s being neglected in the teaching of the church, there can be no doubt that it is a vital truth and that it needs to be taught in every congregation. The Westminster Confession of Faith devotes an entire chapter to it (Ch 18 ‘Assurance of Grace and Salvation’) following on from and carefully bound up with Chapter 14, ‘Of Saving Faith’. This emphasis on the nature of and need for true assurance simply reflects its place in the Bible’s teaching on the nature of salvation.

In both the Old and New Testaments, Scripture speaks openly about the many ways in which the faith of true believers is challenged, shaken and sometimes plunged into doubt and even despair. The Psalms contain more than a few examples of the saints faltering in their faith and crying out to God in fear and perplexity. (Though the very fact they engage with God in this way is, in itself, an evidence of the genuineness of their faith and the reality of their relationship with God.)

It is, however, in the New Testament that we find the most developed teaching on this subject. Peter, addressing Christians who had been scattered because of persecution (whose lives had been radically and permanently reconfigured because of it), speaks explicitly about it in the context of making progress in the faith. Having surveyed the various milestones in spiritual development, he tells his readers, ‘…be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure’ (2Pe 1.10). Being sure of where we stand with God as his children is not optional; it is an essential of faith.

James says something similar, but from the opposite perspective. Having just exhorted his readers to ask God for wisdom in the face of the trials of faith, he qualifies exhortation by saying they should do so, ‘…with no doubting’ (Jas 1.6). Indeed, by comparing a doubting Christian to ‘a wave of the sea’ he makes it clear that such lack of certainty in a believer can only lead to the kind of instability that will both spoil his or her enjoyment of God, but also their usefulness in his service.

Paul addresses this topic at length and in detail in his letter to the Romans. Having spelled out the marks of true and saving faith and the grounds on which it rests in the earlier part of this epistle, he goes on in the eighth chapter to declare the certainty that undergirds a believer’s standing before God because they are ‘in Christ Jesus’ (Ro 8.1). He goes on to ground this assertion in everything that qualifies Christ to save all who embrace him through the gospel. But he takes it further as he spells out the Holy Spirit’s role as the agent of God’s assurance in his children. Indeed, the fact that Paul describes him as ‘the Spirit of adoption’ who enables us to cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’ (Ro 8.15) is yet another strand of how he ‘bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God’ (Ro 8.16). For a person who has no grounds for assurance, because they have never truly believed, it will never cross their minds to cry out to God in this way because they have never known him to begin with.

In the closing section of this chapter (Ro 8.31-39) Paul takes us literally through the battlefield of the life of faith into every theatre of conflict in which our ancient foe would seek to undo us. In each and every one of them – from ‘fightings without’ to ‘fears within’ – he shows how none of them ‘will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Ro 8.31). That’s the assurance we all need!

Mark Johnston