How can a professing Christian have assurance of salvation? How can he know that his faith is genuine and that he is truly saved? The New Testament clearly teaches that not all who profess Christ as Lord are saved. In Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus said,
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Also, in the Parable of the Weeds, Christ taught that God’s kingdom was full of wheat, which God had sown, and weeds, which Satan had sown. They would dwell together until the harvest, when the angels would throw the weeds into the fire (Matt 13:36-43). This seems to illustrate how within the church there are true believers and false ones. Likewise, in the Parable of the Net, Christ illustrated this same truth. The kingdom is like a net, let down into a lake by fishermen, which gathered both good fish and bad fish. At the end of the age, the unrighteous in the kingdom, represented by the bad fish, were thrown into the fire (Matt 13:47-52).
The Parable of the Virgins and the Parable of the Sheep and Goats in Matthew 25 seem to teach the same (v. 1-12, 31-46). To the foolish virgins who called Christ, “Lord,” Christ replied, “I do not know you” (v. 11-12), and with the goats who also called Christ, “Lord,” they were sent into “eternal punishment” (v. 44, 46). Both groups were apparently unconverted believers.
Because of this reality, in 2 Corinthians 13:5, Paul exhorted the Corinthians to, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?” Likewise, in 2 Peter 1:10, Peter exhorted the Roman Christians, “make every effort to be sure of your calling and election.” Though true believers can never lose their salvation, as God protects it, believers must confirm that they are truly saved.
While many Scriptures help one develop assurance of salvation (i.e. the Beatitudes, the book of James, 2 Pet 1:5-10, etc.), 1 John was specifically written for this purpose. In 1 John 5:13, John said, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” Throughout the book, he gives a series of tests to help believers know they have eternal life. We’ll consider a few:
1. The Test of Obedience
First John 2:3-5 says,
We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys his word, God's love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him
Similarly, James 1:22 says, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” What is the person deceived about? If he listens but doesn’t obey God’s Word, he is deceived about his faith—it is not genuine (cf. James 2:26). True faith is demonstrated by a lifestyle of obedience.
Are our lives characterized by obedience to God?
2. The Test of Love for Christians
First John 3:14-15 says,
We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.
Similarly, John 13:35 says, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” When someone is born again, God supernaturally gives them a great love not only for God but for other believers. Romans 5:5 says “the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” True believers love one another, and it shows up in their gathering to worship God, studying his Word together, and serving one another, among other things. As an example, in Acts 2:45, the early church sold all they had and gave to those who had needs among them. This was God’s supernatural love working within them to love and care for one another. It was proof that God had saved them.
Are we loving other believers by meeting with them, caring for them, and sacrificing for them?
3. The Test of Doctrine
First John 4:15 says, “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.” If we don’t hold orthodox doctrine about Christ—that Jesus was fully God and fully man, that he came to earth as a man to die for the sins of the world and was raised from the dead, then we are not saved. A right understanding of the gospel, including who Christ is, is needed for salvation. And this belief in orthodox doctrine continues throughout the life of a true believer. Colossians 1:22-23:
but now he has reconciled you by his physical body through death to present you holy, without blemish, and blameless before him—if indeed you remain in the faith, established and firm, without shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard. This gospel has also been preached in all creation under heaven, and I, Paul, have become its servant.
Do we believe what the Bible says about Jesus?
4. The Test of Not Loving the World
First John 2:15 says, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”
One of the characteristics according to John of a person who is saved is that they do not love the world or the things of this world. Furthermore, 1 John 5:19 says, “We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.”
Because believers understand the world is passing away and that the devil is the controlling force behind the world system, believers reject the world. They reject materialism, lust, the devaluing of human life, perverted views about marriage and sexuality, and other worldly philosophies and ways of life. Certainly, believers still go through progressive sanctification where they continually let go of sin and worldliness and look more like Christ. However, at salvation, there is a distinctive break in allegiance. It is not a perfect break, but it is progressive. A true believer lives for God and not the world. James 4:4 says, “Adulterers, do you not know that friendship with the world means hostility toward God? So whoever decides to be the world’s friend makes himself God’s enemy.”
Are we rejecting the world and its evil ways to continue to follow God?
5. The Test of Decreasing Sin
First John 3:6 and 9 says,
No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him... No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.
John says “no one who lives in him” keeps on sinning. In 1 John 1:8, he already told us that if we claim to be without sin, we are liars and the truth is not in us. So, he is not talking about perfectionism. He is talking about a decreasing pattern of sin in the life of a believer.
Yes, believers will still struggle with sin, but they struggle because they have been saved. The world welcomes sin and often celebrates it! But, it’s not the same for true believers. At times, they will fall to sin and often repeatedly, but they won’t quit fighting sin by rejecting Christ and living for their lusts. It’s impossible for them to ultimately do that because God’s seed is in them. God has given them a new nature, which is empowered by his Spirit. God’s Spirit convicts them of sin, disciplines them by trials, and always ultimately turns them back to God, even if that’s by a premature death (cf. Acts 5:1-10, Heb 12:5-11, 1 John 5:16-17).
6. The Test of Persecution for Righteousness
First John 3:12-13 says,
Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother's were righteous. Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you.
John says that believers might be hated by the world. In fact, Scripture teaches that in some form or another every truly born again believer will experience persecution. In Matthew 5:10, Christ said: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
He says those who receive persecution for their faith are part of the kingdom of God. This doesn’t mean all believers will be beaten, stoned, or jailed. This suffering is often displayed in less extreme forms such as being disliked, considered strange, verbally abused, and/or ostracized because of one’s beliefs or actions. Consider what 1 Peter 4:3-4 says,
For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you.
Do others find us strange because we don’t practice drunkenness like the world? Do others find us strange because we don’t practice sex outside of marriage? Do others find us strange because of our beliefs about creation, abortion, homosexuality, gender roles in the home, and other controversial topics? Being considered strange will be normal for a person who is a Christian. True believers will experience persecution from the world.
7. The Test of Perseverance
First John 2:19 says, “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.”
For John, the fact that the cultist in Ephesus left the church (presumably, never to return), proved that they were not truly saved. Christ handled those in the church who professed Christ but weren’t truly saved in the same way. In Matthew 7:23, he said, “I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!” Therefore, persevering in the faith is a proof of true salvation. Likewise, in Matthew 24:13, after Christ described the growing false teaching, persecution of believers, and apostasy which would occur in the end times, he said, “but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” True believers will persevere.
Great examples of this are Peter and Judas. Peter denied Christ but ultimately returned to him—proving that he was saved. Judas denied Christ and never repented—proving he wasn’t a true believer (John 6:70).
Assurance as a Subjective Experience
As we consider the perseverance of the saints, it must be realized that eternal security is an objective reality based on what Christ has done for us. He gives us eternal life, and he keeps us to the end (John 10:27-30). However, assurance is not eternal. It is a subjective experience given by the Holy Spirit that many times is temporary. In Romans 8:15-16, Paul said: “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children.” Therefore, when not walking with Christ faithfully, we quench the testimony and power of the Spirit in our lives—leading us, at times, to doubt our salvation (cf. 1 Thess 5:19).
How does the Holy Spirit bear witness of our salvation? He does this by changing us and making us look more like God (Gal 5:22-23) and also by building intimacy in our relationship with God (Rom 8:16). As he bears the fruits of the Spirit in our lives—love, joy, peace, patience, and perseverance—we have confidence that we are God’s children (cf. 2 Pet 1:5-10). When we look like the world, we are more prone to doubt if our salvation is even real.
Proving One’s Salvation
Therefore, as believers, we have a role in gaining assurance of salvation. Paul, in fact, commands us to “prove” our repentance (in referring to our salvation) by our good deeds. In Acts 26:20 (NIV 1984), he said, “First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.”
We are not proving our salvation to God, as he knows who are saved (cf. 2 Tim 2:19). We are proving it to ourselves and all who look at us (cf. 2 Cor 13:5, John 13:35). Peter says something similar in 2 Peter 1:10: “Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall.” He describes how to make our election sure in the previous verses.
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.
2 Peter 1:5-7
In order for us to have assurance, we must prove our salvation by continued repentance—fighting and turning away from sin—and continued growth in godly character.
Protection in Spiritual Warfare
In addition, assurance is very important not only to confirm that we are saved but also for our spiritual protection. In Ephesians 6:17, Paul mentions assurance of salvation as a necessary part of the armor of God, which protects us in spiritual warfare. He said to put on “the helmet of our salvation.” What is this helmet? Since Paul is writing to believers, it doesn’t seem to refer to salvation but the assurance of salvation. In a physical battle, like a fist or sword fight, an opponent often aims for the head because a damaged head will severely weaken a foe. Likewise, in a spiritual battle, doubting one’s salvation opens the door for the enemy to severely weaken believers by leading them into doubt, shame, depression, addiction, inactivity, and other sins. We must realize that Satan always attacks our head, and therefore, as believers, we must be diligent in making our calling and election sure, so we can avoid Satan’s trap (cf. 2 Pet 1:10).
Which test of true salvation stood out most to you and why?
What is the difference between eternal security (i.e. perseverance of the saints) and assurance of salvation?
Why is gaining assurance of salvation so important?
Have you ever experienced a lack of assurance of salvation, and if so, why?
How would you help someone struggling with assurance of salvation?
What questions or applications did you take from the reading?