Are you sure?
The issue throughout the epistle of I John is the assurance of salvation. John says over and over I want you to know, I want you to be sure, I want you to have joy and knowing that you have eternal life is necessary to have joy.
Being sure of your salvation is spiritual reality that we should enjoy. In Eph. 3:12 Paul, speaking about Christ says, “We have boldness and access with confidence through faith in Him.” In other words, we are assured that we have the right to enter into the presence of God. We can go to God with whatever is on our heart, fully assured, boldly confident that you are his child and he awaits your arrival to meet your needs. In Phil. 1:6 Paul writes, “Being confident of this very thing that He who has begun a good work in you will perfect it or perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.”
We can be confident of our future. We can be confident of our access to God. We can be confident that we can go to God anytime and anywhere for help in time of need. I am telling you this to remind you that God doesn’t expect you to go through life worrying and wondering about whether you really belong to him. There are some preachers and religions that say we can lose our salvation but the Bible is clear that you cannot lose it so you might as well enjoy having it. Salvation is forever. But the question I want to address today is, why do people lack assurance? Why do some Christians worry about whether they are going to heaven? Why do some Christians continue to fret over their salvation? So I would like to give you some reasons why some Christians struggle with assurance. Some people lack assurance because they are in a church that seldom preaches about God’s holy standards. Let me put it another way: If you are in a church where preaching is weak, where the Law of God is never preached, where holiness is never exalted, it is unlikely that you will struggle with assurance. You see, demanding preaching and demanding teaching forces people to acknowledge a high and holy standard for believers and that can lead to a lack of assurance to a disobedient and sinning Christian. The pulpit is to be a creator of anxious hearts. That is part of the duty of a preacher. Why? Because II Cor. 13:5 says we are to examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith.
We don’t want to be a church that psychologically assures people that their salvation is forever when they don’t even have it because they never had true repentance and a true confession of Jesus as Lord. The balance of the pulpit is to offer convicting preaching and comforting preaching. It is good to make hearts a bit anxious because that leads to self-examination. The second reason Christians lack assurance is because they can’t accept forgiveness. There are some of us who are tyrannized by our emotions, feeling we are too bad to be saved, too much garbage in our mind, too much sin that we can’t get rid of. I remember a story I read once of a farmer who went to his pastor and was convinced he was a pretty good fellow and questioned whether he needed to be saved. The pastor told him to go home and every time he consciously sinned to hammer a nail into his barn door. A few months later he came back and said to the preacher, “There is no more room for nails.” The pastor said, “Now if want to understand the forgiveness of God, it is like pulling all the nails out.”
The man than received Christ. The pastor then told him now every time you sin I want you to pull one of those nails out of the barn door. A few months went by and the man returned and told the pastor the nails are all out. The pastor responded, “Isn’t that wonderful.” The man responded, “No, the holes are still there.” Some people just can’t get by the holes, can they? Those holes represent the scars of the past. There is a reason for that. Our conscience speaks against forgiveness. The essence of our conscience is to berate you, to hold you up before the standard of God as wanting. That is how God designed your conscience to work. Your conscience will never let you off the hook and it doesn’t stop doing its work when you get saved. In fact it works better now because its function is to waken your heart to sin. The more you are exposed to the preaching of the word of God, the more you know about sin, the more active your conscience is. Your conscience knows nothing about mercy and forgiveness.
Only God can give you mercy and forgiveness, not your conscience. The law of God also knows nothing about forgiveness. The law but holds you to a standard and sentences you to death every time you violate it. There is no grace in the Law, there is no mercy in the Law, and there is no forgiveness in the Law. The Law simply says, “Do this, or die”. The law doesn’t even understand excuses.
So when a Christian is exposed to the Law, God’s standard of divine justice, they can be so overwhelmed that it impacts their emotions and they feel too evil to be saved. But when the Law of God damns you, when the justice of God damns you, the work of Christ graciously redeems you. It is faith that brings forgiveness.
One puritan writer put it this way, “He that lacks assurance converses too much with Satan. He that has assurance of God’s love converses with Christ. It is His spirit that bears witness with your spirit that you are a child of God.” Satan will always follow you and tempt you to suspect the love of Christ, to be suspicious of grace to distrust mercy. The puritan writer than added, “The truth is, beloved, this lack of assurance of God’s love is an inlet to many sins and miseries for first a man doubts his own salvation, afterwards he continues doubting. Then he rises up to the full conclusion saying, Now that I know Christ cannot love me and will never love me, I now have no interest in Christ”. Stop that process. Let the Law be a schoolmaster to drive you to Christ and be thankful for His forgiveness and grace. A third reason Christians lack assurance is because they never really comprehended the gospel or the plan of salvation. I am afraid that many Christians base their salvation on an emotional experience. Yes, they prayed a prayer and have this feeling of well-being. But assurance is not based on an emotional experience. It is built on a true understanding of the saving work of Christ. Do you understand what really happened when God saved you?
Do you believe you were a sinner and God knew it? Do you realize that you were condemned by Him as a just and holy judge? Do you understand that the penalty had to be paid? Do you understand that God substituted His Son to pay the penalty that His wrath required? Do you realize that Christ paid it in full and God was so satisfied with the Son for his payment that He raised Him from the dead and exalted Him at His right hand and gave Him the name Lord? Do you understand that the work of Christ was complete? That sin was fully paid for. Do you understand that when He died He died bearing the punishment for your sin? Do you comprehend that when you put your trust in Him, God credits all His righteousness to your account? Do you understand that because your sins are paid for in Christ God will never remember them again? That he buried them in the depths of the sea? That He removed them as far as the east is from the west. That written across your account, the account you owe to God, is the statement, “Paid in full” written in the blood of Christ? Do you understand that? Though your sins were scarlet, they are white as snow, though they were red like crimson, they are as wool. You have been washed. You have been cleansed. You’ve been purged. You have been purified because He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement that had to come to us to make peace with God was laid on him and by his stripes, that is his suffering, we are spiritually healed. You may not be able to forget the years of wandering and the years of sinning but God has. Your emotions may make you feel guilty, but God declares that you are not.
Liberals think God justified the godly; the Bible teaches that God justifies the ungodly. The moment you put your trust in God you are viewed by God as sheltered behind the blood sprinkled cross, just as Israel of old was sheltered behind the blood sprinkled door in the lintel. Why do I feel sure of my salvation? Because I have come to an understanding of the work of God in Christ. It is not a matter of holding on to my assurance emotionally, but doctrinally. Romans 8:38 says, “I am persuaded that neither life, nor death, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present or things to come, nor powers, or height, or depth, nor any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. How was he persuaded? By some feeling? By some recollection of emotional experience in the past? No but by the facts of the gospel. Someone wrote, “If anyone is ever to be kept out of heaven for my sins, it would have to be Jesus.” Why? Because he took all the sins of the world upon himself, He made himself responsible for them. And he is already in heaven. He wasn’t kept out. If the Father accepted Him back in heaven, I should have no fear that I might be turned away.”
There is another reason some Christians lack assurance, it is because they still feel the pull of the flesh and wonder how they could have been transformed. They feel the hankering of the past life, those old relationships. They feel the pull of recycled sinful experiences that are being dragged back through their consciousness. And they wonder if the presence of that doesn’t indicate that they are not a transformed person, that they are not a new creation in Christ where old things are gone and new have come. But what they are really experiencing is the battle of Romans 7. In Romans 7 Paul says there is a principle in me that’s in my flesh and it’s there all the time and its powerful and relentless, it make me do what I don’t want to do and not do what I want to do. He even says, “O wretched man that I am, who is going to deliver me from the body of this death.” That is what it means to be a Christian in and unglorified state. In Roman 8 Paul says we are waiting for the redemption of our bodies. Before you became a Christian you loved sin and hated the Law of God. You lived in sin and relished it and loved it. Now you desire a deliverance from it. You once were self-confident and trusted in your own goodness, now you judge yourself as a sinner before God. You once wanted nothing to do with God and ran away from his authority and rebelled against it.
Now you want to have a relationship with God and desire to know him better. You use to deny that you were a sinner, now you confess that you are a sinner. Bonner, a Scottish preacher who pastored a little church wrote, “I was a wandering sheep, I did not love the fold. I did not love my Savior’s voice. I would not be controlled. I was a wayward child, I didn’t love my home. I did not love my Father’s voice, I loved afar to roam. The Savior sought his sheep, the Father sought his child. He followed me over vale and hill or deserts waste and wild. He found me nigh to death, famished and faint and alone. He bound me with the bands of love, He saved this wandering one. Jesus, my Shepherd is, t’was He that loved my soul. T’was He that washed me in His blood, t’was He that made me whole. T’was He that sought the lost that found a wandering sheep. T’was He that brought me to the fold. I was a wandering sheep.
I would not be controlled. But now I love my Shepherd’s voice. I Love, I love the fold. I was a wayward child, I once preferred to roam. But now I love my Father’s voice. I love, I love His home.” That captures it, doesn’t it? It is that change of affection that demonstrates that I am His and He is mine. The conflict will always be there in this external man but my affection for the Lord shows that I have a transformed inner man. The last thing that causes Christians to lack assurance is because they don’t see the hand of God in their trials. They think that if I belong to God and Christ is my Savior and my Lord, He certainly wouldn’t let this happen. How could God love me and not hear my prayer when I prayed for a loved one who died. How could I be God’s child and accept the promise that he will meet all my needs when I lost my job and I don’t know where my next meal will come from. There are Christians who in the midst of trials don’t see the hand of God in those trials. They lose their assurance fearing that this is evidence that God doesn’t care for them. But actually they are missing the strongest assurance God’s gives His own. It is called tested faith. Paul said the power of God is perfected in weakness. Listen, nobody is too weak to be used by God, but many people are too strong. God is in the business of breaking, of stripping us down, of pruning. He takes away everything we have so we can see him clearly. It is only when you come to the end of yourself, when you come to the last gasp of your own resources and have nowhere else to turn that you become utterly dependent on God. Faith is tested and tested faith becomes the foundation for assurance.
Is salvation forever?
Can a Christian enjoy assurance?
But only when you understand that conviction comes through preaching the standards of God, that you can accept forgiveness, that you comprehend the gospel, that you struggle against the call of the flesh, and that you have the care of God during trials.
The Rev. Dr. James Barnes is currently the pastor of White Memorial Church in Milroy.