Assurance of Salvation: Can I Really Be Sure?
John G. Reisinger
The doctrine of Assurance of Salvation has been the subject of both confusion and controversy down through the years. Actually, it goes all the way back to the New Testament times. The question, "Can I really be sure I am going to heaven?" has been given a variety of answers. Some have not only said yes, but have gone a step farther and taught that you must be sure or else you do not really have faith in Christ. At the other extreme, men have not only answered with an emphatic "No!" but have earnestly contended that any form of assurance of salvation was a dangerous delusion of the devil. In between these two positions have been the many forms of 'maybe' which were attended by many 'ifs' and 'buts' that tended to nullify each other. I personally think this is one of the most misunderstood doctrines of our generation. I will try to unravel the problem with a series of questions.
One: Is true assurance of salvation possible or must we wait until we die? Put another way, is it possible for a person, while still living, to be certain that he is going to go to heaven? The answer is, "Yes, assurance is not only possible but Christians are exhorted, as a duty, to seek and find heartfelt assurance."
Two: Is assurance of salvation necessary to true salvation? Can a true Christian doubt that he is saved and still be saved? The answer is, "Assurance is not necessary to salvation." Faith and assurance are not the same thing. You can have either one without having the other.
Three: Is it possible to be sure you are saved and actually be lost? The answer is, "Yes, it is possible to have false assurance of salvation."
Four: How can I be sure of salvation and be certain I am not deluded with false assurance? The answer to that will form the bulk of this article.
Let us examine the first question and answer it more fully. When we affirm that a believer can indeed be sure of his justification before God we immediately part company with religions like Roman Catholicism. The question of assurance was one of the primary points of contention between Rome and the Reformers. Rome called assurance of salvation "the Sin of Presumption." For anyone to dare believe he went straight to heaven upon dying was tantamount to an unwarranted presuming on the grace of God. It was and is literally a mortal sin.
This view teaches that no man can be sure, while he is in this life, that he is justified in God's sight. No man can be certain that all of his sins are completely forgiven and that when he dies he is sure to see the face of God in peace and acceptance. The Roman Catholic Church is the premier representative of this view. She is also the most adamant in her deliberate opposition to the Biblical doctrine of assurance. Gregory the Great, a seventh century pope, not only denied assurance was possible, he taught it was dangerous and not even desirable.
The greater our sins, the more we must do to make up for them whether we have done enough to atone for them we cannot know until after death We can never be sure of success assurance of salvation, and the feeling of safety engendered by it is dangerous for anybody and would not be desirable even if possible.
The Council of Trent, in answer to Luther's exposition of the Biblical truth of Justification by faith alone, went a step farther than Gregory the Great. They were not content to say that assurance was dangerous and not desirable, they declared that it was a mortal sin to claim assurance of salvation. They went still farther and, with full Papal authority and sanction, hurled anathemas and consigned to eternal damnation all who dared preach or believe such a doctrine. Let any who doubt this read the section on justification in the Decrees of the Council of Trent, and see how specifically and clearly the Jesuits spelled out how deeply Rome hates the doctrine of Assurance. Here are the actual words used by the Council of Trent:
Whosoever shall affirm, that when the grace of Justification is received, the offence of the penitent sinner is so forgiven, and the sentence of eternal punishment reversed, that there remains no temporal punishment to be endured, before his entrance into the kingdom of Heaven, either in this world or in the future world, in purgatory, let him be accursed. Council of Trent, January 1547.
The above "curse," or anathema, which means "let him go to hell" is still the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic church. Assurance of salvation is still a cardinal sin, the sin of presumption, and anyone holding that doctrine is condemned to hell. Many think Rome has changed and has become evangelical. They are being duped very badly. The Anathema of Trent still stands in force. It is still a cardinal sin for which there is no forgiveness unless it is given up before you die. In other words, a Roman Catholic who dies with assurance of salvation is sure to be doomed in hell according to the official teaching of Roman Catholicism.
Like Roman Catholicism, every form of works religion must of necessity say, "No, you cannot be sure." The best you can have is a "hope-so" salvation and wait until death to find out for sure. You can only "do your best and hope it is good enough." One never knows if he has worked hard enough in a system of works religion. We all know we have sinned, but how many good deeds does it take to make up for a bad deed? Any notion of a works religion is totally foreign to the Bible. The Word of God is clear that salvation is by grace through faith and not by works.
Here is a sample prayer from the Roman Catholic prayer book that shows how far into error one can go when rejecting the gospel of free and sovereign grace. "I desire by Thy grace to make satisfaction for my sins by worthy fruits of penance; and I willingly accept from Thy hands whatever pains, crosses, or sufferings I shall meet with during the remainder of my life, or at my death, as just punishments for my iniquities; begging that they may be united to the sufferings and death of my Redeemer, and sanctified by His passion, in which is all my hope for mercy, grace, and salvation."
One need only compare that works statement with the words of the great hymn, It Is Well With My Soul to see how radically different Rome's gospel is from the gospel of grace preached by Paul.
When Roman Catholics become sick, they are urged to pray these words: "Beg that God would accept of all thy pains and uneasiness, in union with the sufferings of your Savior Jesus Christ, in deduction of the punishment [in Purgatory] due to your sins." Again, the Roman Catholic is urged to ask God: "Let our fasts, we beseech Thee, O Lord, be acceptable to Thee, that by atoning for our sins, they may both make us worthy of Thy grace, and bring us to everlasting effects of Thy promise."
One final quote to show how clearly and totally Rome rejected the all-sufficiency of Christ's death as the only ground of assurance and substitution for the filthy 'good' works of the sinner. "How very short the time of this life is, which is given us in order to labor for eternity, and to send before us a stock of good works, on which to live for eternity."
It should be obvious that it is impossible to believe in salvation by works, that is, earning the favor or mercy of God by our own efforts or good deeds, and at the same time have any degree of assurance. Any person, Catholic or Protestant, who starts where Pope Gregory did, will inevitably end up where the Council of Trent did. If we have to 'atone for our sins' and 'make up for them by our works,' we certainly will never know 'whether we have done enough' and must therefore, of necessity, never be 'sure of success.' It must also follow that it will not be possible for such a man to be anything other than angry with the person who says, "I know" and "I am sure". The very nature of salvation by works not only makes assurance impossible, it also makes hostility toward anyone that claims assurance inevitable. The most that sincere 'good works' can produce is a very shaky foundation at best, and the man who has earnestly labored 'by his own efforts' knows this only too well. It is only natural for him to react in anger at the man who says, "Ah, friend, a single look at the Lord Jesus Christ in repentant faith brought hope and assurance to my soul. My feet are on a foundation of solid rock." If the poor man has spent his whole lifetime working hard at his religion without even a taste of assurance, who does the person think he is who boasts about "full salvation by simple faith" having tasted of a "well of water that springs up into soul satisfying assurance."
The people who feel that assurance of forgiveness is either the result of pride or presumption are not aware of it, but actually, it is they who are filled with pride. They have never seen themselves to be what they really are in God's sight. Once a man stands under the Word of God and honestly measures himself by its requirements, he will never again talk about earning God's mercy in any manner or any amount. When God's word in Romans, "none righteous no not one all are sinners all guilty " (Rom. 3:1023), comes to their hearts in power, their mouths will be stopped, their hopes in their own efforts crushed, and they will be forced to look outside of themselves for hope.
Now because sin is not felt, the work of Christ in behalf of poor sinners cannot be seen. The first hope that such a thing as assurance is possible begins when we see the greatness of Jesus Christ. Ah, friend, if you would see how able He is to deal with sin, death, and the grave, you would seek Him and Him alone. If you have been taught by the Holy Spirit how willingly the Savior is to receive and forgive all who come to Him in repentance and faith, how can you keep from coming to Him as the hymn says:
The real problem with those who commit this first mistake, those who believe you cannot be sure of forgiveness, is not so much a wrong doctrine of assurance as it is a wrong doctrine of salvation. They have no salvation about which to be sure. They have no sure way into the presence of God to test and try. It is not an understanding of how to have assurance these folks need, but rather a knowledge of salvationor how to be saved. It is true we might show them how the great apostle uses those two great words of assuranceI know, and I am persuadedto prove assurance is a reality. We might preach from II Timothy 1:12, " 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." However, we would have to go back to verse nine and show what saved and called meant. We would preach from that text what salvation by gracenot according to worksbut grace from eternity according to His own purpose, really means. We would probably then go to 4:68 and explain how Paul's great assurance was based on the certainty of (1) Christ being able and willing (1:12), and (2) Paul knew he had really believed and committed because his perseverance in the fight and faith proved it. There must be faith before it can be tested, and there must be a clear gospel before there is faith. Most of those in this error need the gospel.
We should add that Rome's great fear that assurance of salvation would lead to loose living and a 'no-care' attitude was unfortunately justified by the lives of some of those claiming to be 'justified by grace through faith alone.' We can do no better than to quote the article on assurance of salvation in the Philadelphia Confession of Faith:
Although temporary believers and other unregenerate men, may vainly deceive themselves with false hopes and carnal presumptions of being in the favor of God, and (in a) state of salvation, which hope of theirs shall perish; yet such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before him, may in this life be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed. Philadelphia Confession of Faith, Chapter XVIII, Article 1.
Do the Scriptures support this statement? Is real assurance of salvation possible in this life time? I believe the Bible does teach what the confession states. I have looked in many faces in hospital beds and read Romans 5:1, "Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God." I would ask, "Do you have this peace which is here promised? Have you been declared righteous by God? Can you say, "I am as righteousin God's sightas His dear Son Jesus Christ?'" That text is clearly stating that assurance of salvation is possible.
Ephesians 2:8, 9 has been used of God to bring many sheep to an assurance of forgiveness of sins. They have seen that salvation is a totally free gift from God's grace that is the possession of every one who has faith in Jesus Christ. The "have been saved" is a "once and for all statement" that cannot be altered. That passage is talking about assurance of salvation.
II Timothy 1:12 is like a sledge hammer against the work mongers that deny assurance is possible. Just look at those amazing words carefully.
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 Timothy 1:12.
This verse contains two of Paul's favorite words. Paul knows and he is persuaded. He is not saying that he knows all about Jesus Christ. Paul knows Christ Himself. He is emphasizing Whom he knowsnot what he knows. Because he knows Christ, Paul is confident that he can commit his soul and his eternity into Christ's hands and both will be kept secure for time and eternity. Paul had entrusted his eternal destiny into the hands of Christ against "that day" when he, Paul, would stand before God. He knew all would be well in the day of judgment. He was positive he was saved and secure. The word committed means to deposit and would be the word used when you deposited money in the bank. You were trusting them to keep it for you against a rainy day. When Paul envisioned himself standing before God, he was absolutely certain he would hear God say, "Come and welcome, thy sins are all forgiven Thee."
It is essential that we realize these words of Paul are not spoken in an emotional fit of religious enthusiasm by someone unaware of the import of his words. No, no, these are the words of a man whose emotional reality expressed exactly what he knew was true from personal experience. These words are the logical conclusion to a lifetime of faith that had been tested experientially under every circumstance and had "finished the course" with flying colors.
The most important thing about this statement is that it is not written for Apostles, preachers, missionaries, or "super spiritual Christians." This is for every believer. This statement includes every person that is joined to Christ in a living faith. If you have trusted Christ then this verse describes you whether you feel it is true of you or not! It is not your faith that will keep you, it is the one in whom you have put your faith. If you have committed your soul and life into the hands of Jesus Christ, you are safe!
One of my favorite passages in dealing with strangers to grace is John 14:16. I explain that Jesus predicted that He was going back to heaven. He then informs His disciples that they not only know where He is going but they also know how to get there. I am so grateful that Thomas asked the big question. "Thomas saith unto him, Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?" (John 14:5). I explain to people that any religious leader, including myself, could mislead them through ignorance, but Jesus Christ would never do so. Here, in the Bible, a confused doubter asked Christ Himself the specific question, "How can I know the way to heaven?" If anyone ought to be able to answer that question with absolute authority, it is our Lord Jesus Christ.
And what is the answer? It says nothing about baptism or joining the church. Jesus did not tell Thomas to "send up a big stock of good works." Look at the answer Jesus gave. "Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). The way to heaven is by believing in Jesus Christ. He is the Way, without Him there is no going. He is the Truth, without Him there is no knowing, and He is the Life, without Him there is no living. When you put this verse together with John 6:37 you have the gospel and assurance. Just as Jesus said, "No man cometh unto the Father but by me," (John 14:6). He also said that all, without a single exception, that did come to the Father through Him were absolutely guaranteed of being received and kept forever. Read John 6:37 for yourself.
We totally reject Rome's view that assurance is both impossible and a mortal sin. However, we must immediately add that if Rome's doctrine of salvation led to assurance being the sin of presumption, modern fundamentalism's doctrine of salvation has led to the sin of a groundless assumption. The doctrine of "eternal security" is not assurance, it is insurance for graceless professors. Today everybody and his brother is sure they are going to heaven regardless of how they think or act. They made a decision and were given the assurance that they were truly saved. We call this "easy-believism." The root cause of this error grows out of the strong desire of every religious group to have a method of manufacturing believers.
Every group seems to have this strong desire for a fool-proof method of giving assurance of salvation. Each group has a system that enables them to produce, package, label, and seal their converts with the assurance that they are heaven bound. Every group may have a different method, but they all have a clearly defined system that enables them to say to anyone who goes through the prescribed course, "you are saved and safe." Let me list a few such religions and their particular system.
The Roman Catholic system of making a 'saint' is quite clear. You live a holy life and then make a personal appearance via a miracle. The church investigates and validates both your holy life and miraculous appearance after death and then declares that you are on the saint list. This is called being "canonized." The faithful may then pray to you along with Mary and the other saints on the list.
The Episcopalian will baptize you as a baby and declare that your original sin has been removed and you are now a regenerated child of God.
The Church of Christ does not sprinkle little babies into the kingdom but they do teach that you "meet the blood of Christ in the waters of baptism (immersion)." Like Rome and the Episcopalian, this group believes it is essential to be baptized in order to be saved.
The Lutheran and the Reformed, including the Presbyterians will sprinkle you into the covenant as a baby and then later 'confirm' you in the Covenant of Grace into full church membership after catechizing you in their particular creed.
The Plymouth Brethren have an iron-clad system of rigidly conforming to their clearly defined but unwritten code of nonconformity. They have the tightest nondenominational denomination that you will ever find.
The typical Baptist and Bible churches also have their system. You walk down the aisle in response to an altar call, say a short prayer, memorize a verse, shake the preacher's hand and you are assured that you are "saved, eternally secure and ready for heaven."
The Charismatics put their hands on a television as a "point of contact" with the guru who has "the gift of healing and power to anoint you with the Holy Spirit." A $100.00 donation to keep this "mighty work of faith on the air" is often implied to be part of the system. The sign that you are sealed in grace is the ability to speak in tongues.
True Religion Is A Heart Matter
The great difficulty with this packaging and labeling business is obvious to any honest observer. First of all, we all know that true religion is ultimately a "heart matter" that directly affects one's life, attitudes, and conduct. We also know, in our saner moments, that we cannot look into another person's heart. This being true, we cannot therefore give any person assurance that he is really saved. At most, all we can say, "John professes to be a child of God, and so far his profession looks pretty good. His life seems to back up his profession." We really have no business to dogmatically say to, or about, any individual, "He is saved." All we can say is, "His profession looks genuine." If he deserts his wife and family and runs off with the choir director next year then we will say, "His profession looks totally empty."
The second difficulty this packaging and labeling business creates is this: Once we have run someone through our system and labeled them saved, what do we say when they get caught in open sin and rebellion? What do we say about our converts to whom we gave explicit assurance that they were saved and secure because they had gone through our system? Remember, we are the ones that "signed, sealed, and assured their certainty of heaven." And, I must add, this sad and embarrassing situation occurs in every group mentioned above.
I remember when one of the popes took some of the Catholic saints off the list. The comedians had a field day with a song called When the Saints Come Tumbling Down. One of the saints removed was Saint Christopher. He was the patron saint of my wife's aunt, an ardent Roman Catholic. She always prayed to Saint Christopher and was furious when the pope took her favorite saint off the list. She never did forgive the pope. It was not a joking matter to her.
Many babies who were 'engrafted into Christ' at baptism and then sealed at confirmation later lived like the Devil and mocked the very grace they had supposedly had infused into them. Who does not remember the famous Episcopal priest who received a $2,000 speaker's fee for ridiculing the very gospel that he had sworn to believe and preach? His favorite line was, "When I hear the hymn "Rock of Ages, cleft for me; Let me hide myself in Thee," I think of scared cock roaches running into cracks in the rocks." The Bishop had assured that man's parents that he was engrafted into Christ.
All of the branches of Reformed churches have seen many who had been sprinkled into the church and later memorized the catechism only to grow up in blatant unbelief and hate and ridicule the very truths they learned as children.
The fundamental Baptists and independent churches have had more than their share of false converts. How many have gone forward, prayed the sinners prayer, been given assurance of eternal security only to disgrace the name of Christ in openly wicked living? This group has many Chuck Templetons, the co-founder of Youth for Christ, who today totally deny what they once preached to thousands.
I would venture to say that the church that you attend has seen some cases of apostasy that has brought great grief to your soul. You saw a young couple walk down an aisle with tears running down their face. You took them into the inquiry room and assured them, after they prayed, "Lord Jesus, come into my heart," that they were saved and eternally secure. They are now divorced, the husband is in jail for selling dope and the wife is working as a stripper and living with a man who is married to another woman. Have we not all seen things that we can hardly believe are true?
Problems With Labeling People
One of the greatest difficulties in dealing with this packaging and labeling error is the inability to confront the problem because we are often the very people who packaged and labeled the guy who is in jail for selling dope. He went through our system and we told him he was safe and secure. It is not possible to deal with the problem without at least considering that just maybe something is terribly wrong with our system. However, the moment the system is challenged many will immediately reply, "But the altar call system and inquiry room method really works!" But does it really? Granted it gets people to make a confession of faith but are most of the professions really genuine?
We assume that we are the truly fundamental people that alone are proclaiming the truth. All of the 'godly soul winning preachers' have done it this way. This argument totally rewrites history. The church evangelized for nearly 2,000 years without any altar calls or inquiry rooms and still experienced genuine revival. It is true that they had people fall away after confessing Christ but never in the great numbers that are doing so today.
The real question we must face is this: What do we do with a host of our converts that are living like the Devil after they were 'saved' by going through our system? There are not too many choices and most of them are cures that are worse than the disease. Let me mention two errors that arise when we refuse to admit that something may be wrong with our system of giving assurance.
First of all, we can adopt the old view that these people were saved and then lost. Granted there are some texts that seem to teach that this is possible but a careful examination of those texts plus an exegesis of many other texts will always lead us to conclude that no one will ever be truly saved and then lost. I will say more about this later. The second error is of more recent origin and has deeply penetrated the church in our generation. It was invented by people who were unwilling to either examine their system or give up their doctrine of eternal security. I am referring to the Carnal Christian doctrine. We covered this subject in two previous issues of Sound of Grace (Volume 5, Nos. 5 and 6) and so will say very little here. I do, however, want to remind you of several things.
(1) This doctrine was a deliberate invention to protect the converts of an easy-believism gospel that had departed from the biblical gospel. Leaders could not blame their own system nor could they accept that a Christian could be saved and lost. Believing those two things forced them to find another answer to the problem and the Carnal Christian doctrine was the result. This doctrine enabled the proponents to protect (a) their easy-believism gospel, (b) the altar call and giving assurance to all who came, (c) the doctrine of eternal security of all who had been assured, and (d) the 'sure salvation' of their converts who did not live like real converts. Everybody and everything won except the truth of the gospel. The truth of the gospel was dragged through the streets.
(2) The Carnal Christian doctrine is less than 200 years old and was preceded by, and consciously brought about by, the people who rejected the preaching of both repentance and the lordship of Christ in evangelism. This doctrine was designed and promoted purely as a means of justifying the lack of true godliness among the converts of easy-believism.
(3) To repeat what I said in previous articles. No Christian is totally carnal and likewise no Christian is totally spiritual. There are not two categories. A carnal Christian, meaning a person totally controlled by carnality even though truly saved is a contradiction in terms. All Christians have carnal aspects in their life and likewise all Christians have spiritual aspects in their life.
A Fair and Honest Question
"But Mr. Reisinger, are you saying that we should never label people? Do you mean we should never tell anyone, 'You are saved' "?
That is exactly what I am saying. If you are honest, you will have to admit that since you cannot see a person's heart you cannot give him assurance that he has truly believed. Someone may say, "But I always make sure they are sincere." And how my friend, do you do that without looking into their heart? If you reply that you "always ask them if they are truly sincere," I will not bother to answer that silly statement.
Whether we like it or not we are not in a position to say with perfect certainty that any one individual is either saved or lost! The most we can say of any person in an absolute sense is that they either do or do not make a profession of being a Christian. There are many people that appear to be truly lost and others that appear to be truly saved, but in both cases we cannot see the heart.
In my first pastorate there was a Deacon who used to say, "Time and the Devil will tell." If someone got married and I said, "Ray, I believe that will be a good marriage," he would say, "Time and the Devil will tell." When someone made a confession of faith and I said, "I believe that is genuine," I would get the same "Devil will tell" routine. And do you know what happened in every case? Time and the Devil would show that sometimes we were right in our expectations but other times we would see how very wrong we were. Let me give you a few biblical examples of this fact.
If we would have heard Peter curse and swear by the fire when he openly denied Christ, we would have concluded he was not a truly saved man, but at that moment Peter was a true believer. If we would have heard Thomas utter his words of unbelief, we would have been sure he had no faith, but he did have saving faith. We would have called David an adulterous and murdering hypocrite, but at that very moment he had the grace of God in his heart. (By the way, people often say, "David's sin of adultery and murder prove the doctrine of eternal security." That is nonsense. David's awful sin only proved that he was a sinner. The sincere repentance expressed in Psalm 51 is what proved the grace of God was in his heart.) Likewise, if someone would have suggested that Judas was a phony and had his hand in the till, we would have protested and said, "He is a godly believer. You are misjudging him." In all of these cases we would have been as wrong as can be.
I honestly believe the average fundamental church in our generation would have labeled Judas a "carnal Christian" who was eternally secure. They would have never let that rich young ruler get away. They would have "decisioned" him and made him a deacon within six months as well as chairman of the building committee.
Another Sincere Question
"But Mr. Reisinger, if we do not give people assurance, many true believers will lack the joy and peace that only assurance can give. I have heard you labor the point that only assurance of salvation can promote truly holy living."
It is true that what I am saying may cause a few sincere believers to doubt their salvation. However, the opposite danger is far more dangerous and prevalent. If we give assurance to the people that went through our system, then many false professors will have a false peace and think they are saved when in reality they are lost. I would cut off my hands before I would try to deny assurance to a true child of God. But I do not feel that a lack of assurance is nearly as big a problem in our churches today as is the many lost people that have a false security based upon being given assurance by a pastor or personal worker. Is your church filled with serious seekers after holiness that are not sure they are saved, or is it filled with people with little evidence of any desire for holiness but who are loaded with assurance?
I would rather send a true believer home without assurance than I would send a lost man home assured that he is saved and safe. If we give hypocrites assurance then we cannot help them when it becomes evident we may have made a mistake. What do we say when we challenge them and they reply, "But you assured me I was saved. I did exactly what you told me to do. I went down front at the altar, I prayed the prayer after you, and I memorized the verse of Scripture."
This awful problem is the curse of fundamentalism that they simply will not face. It is the result of an easy-believism message followed by a physical actusually walking to the front of the churchby all who want to publicly confess they have believed or want to believe. Whether it is done in a mass campaign, or in the local church, or in response to a radio preacher, or in a living room with a 'soul-winner,' all who "bow your heads and repeat after me" are given assurance they are saved and safe. "You have obeyed this promise of Christ (usually Rev. 3:20), and I assure you on the authority of God's word that He has done exactly what He promised to do." In order to make sure the individual 'has assurance,' he is asked, "Where is Christ now?" If he hesitates, or gives the wrong answer, the salesman (oops, I mean personal worker) goes back to approach number three, lesson number four, in the sales manual (I mean personal worker's course) and proceeds like this: "Did you just now invite Christ into your heart? Does he ever lie? (You really have him now!) If you invited Christ into your heart, and He says He will come in when He is asked, and He never lies, where is He right now?" Now, if the client (I mean person) is rather dull, it might be necessary to spell out the obvious dilemma in which he is caught. "Are you going to admit you are really saved or are you going to call Jesus Christ a liar?" (The manual will probably explain how important it is to raise your voice to emphasize how awful is such doubting of Christ.) If that does not force assurance into their minds, nothing will.
These words may sound as though I am attacking many sincere and godly people. However, I believe those who are genuinely sincere and truly godly will carefully weigh that little piece of satire. It should really be funny because it is so ridiculous but since it is true and involves the souls of men, it is not funny, it is tragic. I do not write to be amusing, but in the hope people might see how anti-Biblical the whole system of present day 'soul winning' really is. I ridicule such nonsense in the hope that some dear sincere people (who were butchered by other sincere people) who are now saying, "I tried that once, and it doesn't work," might realize they never tried Christ and His salvation at all. All they tried was a man-centered, man-inspired, man-manufactured, and man-manipulated way of getting 'decisions.' God's way of saving poor sinners through the work of Christ and His way of giving confident assurance by the work of the Holy Spirit, have been replaced by the much quicker and more 'successful' method outlined above. Sinners do Christ's work and save themselves by their decision, and evangelists and personal workers do the Holy Spirit's work and seal the decision as genuine and the one who made it as safe and secure in Christ.
Now, fundamentalists are not the only ones guilty of the sin of assumption. As I noted earlier every group that has a system that you go through that is "God's way of bringing His grace to men" can easily fall into this error. When anyone who has obediently gone through the system, given the correct answers, and performed the right acts, is told he is a Christian, false assurance must inevitably follow. How many millions are enduring the torments of hell today who had the following words of the Book of Common Prayer recited over them as they were sprinkled with water? (Emphasis mine).
Seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that this child is regenerate and grafted into the body of Christ's Church, let us give thanks unto Almighty God for these benefits, and with one accord make our prayers unto him that this child may lead the rest of his life according to this beginning.
I wonder how many children mouthed the following words at their confirmation by the Bishop and later in life mocked the whole idea?
Question: What is your name?
Answer: Give name.
Question: Who gave you this name?
Answer: My Godfather and Godmother in my Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of Christ.
All of these people need to be told, whether they were put through a system by the Anglicans, the Presbyterians, the Lutherans, the Baptists, or the Fundamental Independents, that they should consider the clear teaching of Scripture. Many texts could be given but I will mention only one.
Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. Matthew 7:21-23
I want you to particularly notice how assured these people were of their
salvation. They professed to know Jesus as their personal Savior. They had
done many things, including preaching, and had given Christ the glory by
doing all of it in His name. They went all through life without doubting
their salvation. They went through the valley of death without an ounce of
doubt. So convinced were they that they were saved that they dared to argue
with Christ the Judge. Standing at the judgment in eternity, unshaken by
the trials of life or the ordeal of death, fully assured as they approach
the judgment, they cry out in shock, "No Lord, you made a mistake. Go check
the books again." Now that is how sure a man can be that he
is God's child but be miserably deluded. Many, like these in this text, are
positive they know Christ and have His forgiveness, but have never bothered
to investigate if He knew them.
What then is True Biblical Assurance?
One: Is true assurance of salvation possible or must we wait until we die? Put another way, is it possible for a person, while still living, to be certain that he is going to go to heaven? The answer is, "Yes, assurance is not only possible but Christians are exhorted, as a duty, to seek and find heartfelt assurance."
Two: Is assurance of salvation necessary to true salvation?
Three: Is it possible to be sure you are saved and actually be lost?
Four: How can I be sure of salvation and be certain I am not deluded with false assurance?
We spent most the time discussing only the first question, "Is assurance possible?" We showed how Roman Catholicism, and all other religions based on a works salvation, vehemently rejected any notions of assurance. Rome went so far as to make assurance a mortal sin. In this article we want to look at the second question: Is assurance of salvation necessary to true salvation? Or put another way, can a true Christian doubt he is saved and still be saved? We will see that the clear answer is, "Assurance is not necessary to salvation." A person may be truly converted and lack assurance and likewise a person may be positive they are saved and be as lost as the Devil.
The basic error in modern evangelicalism is in confusing the relationship of faith and assurance to genuine salvation. Faith and assurance have become basically the same thing in modern evangelical preaching. If an individual smiles and says, "I accepted Christ, I know for sure I am saved," his very assurance proves that he has faith. Likewise, if a doubting soul says, "I am not sure my faith is strong enough. Maybe I am lost," that is proof that person is without faith and is therefore lost. Let me show you that faith and assurance are not only two distinctly different things, but also that you can have either one without having the other one. In other words, you may be as sure as can be of salvation and be as lost as the Devil, and likewise, you may doubt your faith and still be a true child of God.
To quote the Westminster Confession of Faith:
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.i
I think that statement may be a bit too strong, but I wholeheartedly agree that assurance of salvation is not "of the essence of faith." However, I also feel it is very unusual for a true believer to "wait long" for assurance despite the fact such a thing is possible.
Let me ask a very simple question that will help us sort out a lot of bad thinking on this subject. If you are sure you are saved, who told you that you were saved? Put another way the question is, who gave you assurance that you had saving faith and were on your way to heaven? Please notice I did not ask, "Who told you how to be saved, but who told you that you were saved?" Your preacher, your parents, or a friend at work may witness the gospel to you and tell you how to be saved, but only the Holy Spirit of God Himself can tell you that you are saved. I can tell you how to be saved but I cannot tell that you have true faith. Only the Holy Spirit can see your heart and He, and He alone, can validate His own work in your heart. I can tell you the way of salvation but I cannot assure you that you are truly in the way of salvation. I hope you can see the radical difference in those two things. Unfortunately most preachers and counselors today cannot tell the difference. They do not distinguish between knowing the way to heaven and being sure that you are in that way.
This is one of the terrible and dangerous elements of the altar-call system. When a person comes to the altar it is the 'duty' of the counselor to convince that person that they are now truly saved. The person who comes forward has evidenced his faith by his act of coming forward and is now safe and secure in Christ. The individual has taken the first step of faith and is surely on his or her way to heaven. The personal worker, or pastor, will give you assurance to that effect. Is that how you got assurance that you were saved?
If you know exactly who gave you assurance of salvation, that will go a long way in helping to know if your assurance is valid. If it was anyone except the Holy Spirit of God, you are in a dangerous position. Let me lay down a couple of facts that seem very clear and essential.
(1) You cannot doubt Jesus Christ and a be a saved person, but you can doubt your faith and be truly saved. Doubting your faith is doubting your own heart and sincerity and may at times be a good sign of true salvation. You are not necessarily (although you may be) doubting Christ when you doubt yourself.
(2) You cannot trust Jesus Christ and ever be lost, but you can trust your decision and your assurance and be as lost as can be. In reality, most preaching on assurance today is preaching "faith in your faith." Sinner's build their whole assurance on their personal faith and decision. "I know I am saved because I made a decision for Christ." That is faith in your decision. That is faith in your own faith.
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not at all suggesting that no one has ever been converted that went to an altar. Nor I am saying that every person who says "I know I am saved because I made a decision for Christ" is lost. God can, and does, draw straight lines with awfully crooked sticks. What I am saying is this: Nobody ever got saved because they went to an altar, they got saved in spite of it. My concern is with the host of people who have been given assurance that because they went forward they are now saved.
I repeat my basic presupposition. You may be positive you are saved and still be lost! Likewise, you may doubt you are saved and be a true child of God!
There is a sin of presumption where men presume they are saved even though they live like the Devil. Just as there is true assurance there is also false assurance. The old saying "everybody talking about heaven ain't going there" is true. We can add, "and everyone who doubts is not necessarily lost."
In our last article we mentioned Thomas. It is true that doubting Thomas said, "Unless I see the holes and put my finger into the holes in his hands and side, I will not believe." However, he was not saying, "This is a bunch of baloney and too ridiculous to believe." He was saying, "This is too good to be true and I cannot believe it." He was not looking for excuses to reject the truth, he was looking for evidence to believe. He wanted to believe but could not. Thomas was a natural pessimist. He always looked on the dark side. Every single mention of him in Scripture shows his negative attitude. Our Lord did not treat him like he treated the Jews. When they asked for a sign Jesus rebuked them. When Thomas made his statement, which was far more audacious, Jesus, in effect, said, "Thomas, is that what you need. Well, come and put your finger in the holes." Jesus always treats the tender sheep differently that than He treats the wolves.
I learned the difference between faith and assurance very early in my ministry. Let me give you the two major examples that helped me to understand this basic presupposition.
Following the first sermon I preached after going into the ministry I asked a lady if she was saved. She began to cry and said, "Mr. Reisinger, I am not sure I know what you are talking about. You confused me more in one sermon than all the sermons that I ever heard. I was baptized in this church and have been a member here for over twenty-five years and no one ever asked me before if I was saved." I smiled and said, "I just asked you, and I am going to ask you again." We talked for nearly half an hour. I urged her to read the Gospel of John and underline every time she read "eternal life" or "everlasting life." I told her to ask two questions and let the text answer her questions. I explained that I, or any other religious leader, might lie to her but the Bible would never lie to her. The questions were these:
(1) Who can have the eternal life which is offered in this text of Scripture?
(2) What must they do to get this eternal life?
I then used John 3:16 to demonstrate how she was to underline and ask the two questions.
On Thursday, the lady phoned me and with a hesitant voice said, "Mr. Reisinger, I think I became a Christian. I think I have everlasting life." I rushed over to visit the lady and discovered that she really seemed to have grasped the truth of the gospel. I was elated. I was never so sure that God had called me to preach as I was that moment. It seemed that God blessed my very first sermon to the salvation of one of His sheep.
On Sunday morning as I went to Sunday School, the lady was standing in front of the church crying. She said, "I guess I did not become a Christian after all. I just thought I did." I was heart-broken. I thought, "Here is the first convert and it was a false profession." When I asked her why she was sure she had not become a Christian she said, "This morning I had an awful fight with my husband. I said some awfully mean things to him and I know that if I had truly become a Christian I would never have said those awful things." Well, when she said that I thought I better ask some more questions. I asked, "Have you ever gotten angry with your husband before and said nasty things?" She replied, "We have been married twenty years and we have been fighting twenty years." She stopped and got a strange look on her face and said, "You know in all our fights I always blamed him regardless. This time I was positive it was 100% his fault and he deserved to be told off but that did not help me. I still felt bad even though it was his fault. I went into the bedroom, kneeled down at the bed and asked the Lord to forgive me for what I had said and then I even asked my husband to forgive me when I was positive it was his fault. I know if I had a become a Christian I would never have said those mean things."
Here was a lady who was totally convinced that she was not a Christian! She did not have an ounce of assurance.
Several years later I took a pastorate in Toronto, Canada. I was visiting the people who were listed as members on the church roll. I visited one man that was drunk, smoking a big cigar, who took God's name in vain and used the name of Christ as a curse word. He said, "There are two things I learned in that Baptist Church (the one I was pastoring). I learned that John 3:16 says whoever believes has everlasting life and once you are saved you can never be lost." I tried to talk to the man about his soul and he started to get angry. He is the only church member that ever bodily threw me out of his house. He kept insisting that he was saved and secure.
He asked, "Don't you believe John 3:16," and I replied that I surely did. He said, "Does it not say that whoever believes has everlasting life and once you have everlasting life you can't lose it?" I said, "What does that have to do with you? What makes you think that you ever believed? John 3:16 does not say, 'Whoever says he believes and keeps on getting drunk and cursing in God's name has everlasting life and will never perish?'" That was not when he threw me out of the house. That happened when I asked the man what Paul meant when he said, "No drunkard will enter the kingdom of heaven."
Here was a man with absolute assurance of salvation and quoting the Bible to prove it! He did not have an ounce of doubt that he was saved.
If those two people were race horses heading towards heaven which one would you bet on it to make it? I would bet on the lady who was positive that she was not a Christian! In reality, I cannot say for certain that either of these people were either saved or lost since I could not see their hearts. I can say that the lady gave far more evidence of a genuine conversion than the man but that is as far as I can go. The important thing is not whether we can prove that either, neither, or both of these people, were either saved or lost, for we cannot positively prove any of these options. Since we cannot inspect their hearts, the important question becomes, "How should we counsel and treat these people?" This is where modern evangelicalism so miserably fails.
Should we scold the woman and rebuke her for her unbelief? Should we say, "You wicked and faithless woman. You ought to be damned for doubting the promise of God. Your lack of assurance is proof that you have no faith." And should we say to the good 'brother' who is drunk and cursing, "I know you are saved because you accepted Jesus as your Savior, but if you do not quit cursing and getting drunk you are not going to have any 'yo-yos' to play with in the millennium?"
Someone might be saying, "Brother John, you have surely proved your point that you can have faith without assurance and vice versa with these two illustrations. However, you are pretty good with illustrations and I have often heard you say, 'You can prove anything with an illustration.' What about Scripture? What does the Bible say on the subject." That is a fair question. Let me answer it with two passages of Scripture. The first is John 20:30, 31 and the other one is 1 John 5:13.
If someone were to ask me how to become a Christian, I would show them John 20:30, 31. Look at the passage:
And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.
Jesus did many things that are not recorded in any book in the Bible. John mentions many things that the other three gospels do not and he left out many things that all three of the others recorded. In this passage John tells us what motivated him to choose the particular dialogues, events, and miracles that he did. John alone records the dialogue with Nicodemus, the raising of Lazarus, the woman at the well, the changing of the water into wine, and the great "I am" declarations. In this passage John informs us that he chose the material that best proved one thingthe truth that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, the Messiah, or the Savior. However, John was not interested in winning a debate or argument, he wanted to convince sinners that by faith in Christ they would be saved.
John keeps putting men and women in the witness chair and eliciting testimony from them. The testimony is always the same, "we believe and are sure that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God." One of the best examples is the testimony of John the Baptist. The Baptist would have had every reason to hate Christ. After all, all of John's followers left him and followed Christ. The Baptist would have seemed to be an ideal witness against Christ. When a person who has every reason to be hostile testifies in your behalf, they make the best witness. John the Apostle puts John the Baptist on the witness stand and asks, "Do you know this man?" "Yes, He is my cousin." "Is it true that when he came to town you lost your entire following to him?" "Yes." "And how does that make you feel?" The courtroom is quite shocked when the Baptist replies, with a genuine smile, "I am quite happy because that is the way it is supposed to be. He must increase and I must decrease. He is the bridegroom and I am nothing."
If one reads the Gospel of John with the knowledge of 20:30, 31 in his mind he will constantly feel himself being pressed with the person and work of Jesus Christ. He will over and over get two clear impressions. He will know that (1) Jesus Christ is an able Savior. There is not a sinner that He cannot save. He will also know that (2) Jesus Christ is a most willing Savior. There is not a single sinner that comes to Christ who will ever be turned away. The message is "him that cometh I will never cast out."
So if you ask me "How do I become a Christian" I will give the Gospel of John and say, "God has moved one of His Apostles to write a book just to answer your specific question." I would then point you to John 20:30, 31 and explain the above and tell you what I told the lady in my first pastorate about underlining the words "everlasting" and "eternal" and then asking the two questions.
Suppose you came to me several weeks later and said, "Pastor Reisinger, I have read the Gospel of John and I am convinced without question that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the only Savior. I know and understand that the only way to heaven is by faith in Christ. I have prayed to Christ and asked Him to save me. I do want to trust Him and have everlasting life, but I am not sure my faith is strong enough or if I am truly sincere. I do not at all doubt Christ but I doubt my own wicked heart and my faith." Do you know what I would say? I would say, "Just as God moved the Apostle John to write a book for the sole purpose of answering your first question about how to become a Christian, He moved that same Apostle to write a second book just to answer your second question about how to be sure about your faith." I would then turn with you to 1 John 5:13 and explain what John meant. Look at the text:
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.
It is important to notice several things that show the difference in the Gospel of John and this Epistle of John.
(1) The Gospel of John is written to unbelievers to bring them to faith. The audience is 'the world.' The Epistle is written to "those who believe" to help them be sure that their faith is real. The Gospel concerns being saved and the Epistle concerns being sure you are saved.
(2) The Gospel examines Christ and proves Him to be an able and willing Savior. The Epistle examines a person's confession of faith to see if it is genuine. If a true believer cannot lack assurance of salvation then John wasted his time in writing his first epistle. If you cannot have eternal life without being sure you have it then it is silly to write to people who profess to believe but lack assurance. Remember, 1 John is written to people who profess to believe what was written in the Gospel.
(3) The words "these things have I written unto you" are not referring to the Gospel of John but to the Epistle of 1 John. To use 1 John 5:13 to prove that a Christian can be sure that assurance of salvation is possible and then jump over to John 3:16 to show the person how to have assurance is to grossly misuse the Word of God.
1 John gives us nine clear and specific tests that we are to use to test our life and faith. Now I said tests and did not say texts. Today we have "proof text assurance" and very little of biblical testing of our faith. I am fully aware that some Reformed people have fallen into the opposite error and make all of their religion to be one of constantly "searching their heart for evidences." Unfortunately we have one 'truly Reformed' group that uses this wonderful book to destroy assurance rather than promote it. I once heard a well-known seminary professor say, "Pastor so-and-so is the only preacher I know that can take a book of the Bible that was expressly written to give believers assurance and preach over eighty sermons where each sermon is deliberately designed to make them doubt their salvation."
We do not have time or space to cover all nine of the tests of eternal life in 1 John. Let me deal with one of the most important ones. It is found in 1 John 2:3, 4:
And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him.
(1) We notice the double emphasis. John says, "hereby we do know that we know." That is like saying, "hereby we are positive of our assurance."
(2) The assurance grows out of "keeping His commandments, or word."
(3) Saying "I love God," while not keeping His commandments, or keeping His word, is the proof that I am a liar and not in Christ in a way of saving faith.
It is obvious that what it means to "keep His commandment, or word," is the key to the passage. Any preacher or teacher with a legalistic bent can bring the conscience of tender sheep into fear and bondage by using, or rather misusing, this text and test. I remember many years ago hearing a southern preacher on the radio preaching from 1 John 2:15 which says, "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him." He was doing a pretty fair job until he got to the specifics. He finally said, "Now what does the Bible mean by not 'loving the world?' Anybody but a fool will know that God is talking about playing baseball." The man then preached against baseball for ten minutes. You had a choice of either giving up baseball or admitting you were not saved!
That is exactly what men do with 1 John 2:3, 4. "Has God clearly commanded women to not cut their hair? Those scissors will prove you are lost." "Has God commanded that his people are 'not to forsake the gathering of ourselves together?' Your failure to attend prayer meeting (and any and all other meetings) is proof you are disobeying God's clear commandment and are therefore lost." How often have we heard "God's clear commandment" that Christians are to "obey them that have the rule over you even when they are wrong" as the means to force a Christian to obey an elder even when he feels in his heart the elder is wrong? Texts like 1 John 2:3, 4 can be used to make any sincere Christian doubt his salvation and unfortunately there are many power-hungry false shepherds eager to use, or misuse, such texts to control the conscience of sincere sheep.
But someone says, "What about the ten commandments? Surely this is what is meant by John." The whole context seems to say otherwise. I think "his commandments" are the ones John has been talking about in his Epistle. Look at the context of 1 John 2:3, 4. John tells us exactly what he means by "keeping God's commandments." Read his words carefully.
But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him. He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked. Brethren, I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which ye have heard from the beginning. Again, a new commandment I write unto you, which thing is true in him and in you: because the darkness is past, and the true light now shineth. He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now. He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him. But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes (1 John 2:511).
The great commandment, whether it be the old or the new version, is to love the brethren. Anyone who hates his brother is the worst of all liars when he claims he loves God. If many 'truly Reformed' brethren, and many of the great Puritans and Reformers, would have this text applied to their treatment of sincere brothers that disagreed with them theologically, in many cases their salvation would be suspect! How could a 'Christian' Presbyterian drown a fellow 'Christian' Baptist just because he rejected infant baptismand that happened more than once in history! And it happened while the killers were claiming "the love of Christ" as the motivation for their "holy deed." How can someone today, in the name of Christ, distort, misrepresent, and even lie about what some brothers believe and preachand this is happening every dayand in the same breath talk about "keeping His commandments?"
In a future article, we will show how a Christian is to correctly use 1 John to "examine himself" to see if his faith is genuine. We will also see that a Christian is sure of salvation in three different ways. The errors surrounding this subject occur when one method is emphasized to the neglect of the other two.
From: "Sound of Grace Online"
For more help with assurance, see:
"The Faith of the Saints" & "Christian Assurance: A Balanced Trust"
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