Great debate revolves around the topic of the assurance of the believer. This controversy stems from people’s understanding of the salvation and election of God’s children. While there are many different fundamental doctrines that fuel this debate, we will not find true understanding in this matter by arguing about such teachings. Rather, by looking into the scriptures, we can find some simple truths that fit nicely into the various orthodox beliefs held by both those that call themselves Calvinist and Arminian. These simple truths ultimately establish that outward transformation always accompanies true assurance of a right relationship with God.
Truth #1 – There is no assurance for those that live wicked lives.
But the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud. “There is no peace,” says my God, "for the wicked." (Isaiah 57:20-21)
The first truth that we shall look at is that those who are living wicked lives are not able to experience actual peace and assurance before God. It doesn’t matter what a person claims about their condition before God because they will be known by their fruit: “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn-bushes, or grapes from briers. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:43-45). Those who curse with their mouths and practice evil works are called evil men. Fruit is the ultimate indicator concerning a person’s true condition to whether or not they are actually righteous. John writes, “Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous” (1 John 3:7). Righteousness is not merely a condition which people enter into through repentance and faith, but rather it is a condition that becomes reflected in their outward actions. John the Baptists explains this truth about repentance in Matthew 3:8-10 when he exhorts those that were coming to him: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance…The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” People who repent produce good fruit and if they want to experience true assurance before God they can no longer continue practicing certain actions. Paul denotes several these actions when he writes, “The works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21). Those who practice the works of the flesh and think they are secure, have a self-originating assurance that doesn’t come from God and in the end will experience the fires of hell.
Truth #2 – False assurance often originates from a perspective concerning past experiences.
So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall! (1 Corinthians 10:12)
The second truth that we will examine is that there is a false assurance which is self-originating from man. Solomon alludes to this false assurance when he writes, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12). This way seems right to many people because they are putting their confidence in their own perspective. When someone’s perspective is not in line with God’s perspective it will always result in false assurance.
Paul writes several things that can help us to identify false assurance. In 1 Corinthians 10, he warns us of how the Israelites had spiritual experiences with God and yet, they were still destroyed for complaining and living according to sinful passions. Paul concludes in verse 12 that those who have had real spiritual experience with God can fall if they become like the Israelites. Paul even acknowledges that this danger applies to himself when he writes, “No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:27). He also warns the Romans that they stand by faith and that if they stop believing they will be cut off (Romans 11:19-22). Overall, Paul teaches us that a person who has had real spiritual experiences with God is not secure if they turn away from Him.
Other New Testament writers affirm this same truth that those who turn from God and think they are safe have a false assurance. In 2 Peter 2:20-21 we read, “If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.” Likewise the author of Hebrews also drives home this point about turning away from God, “For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned” (Hebrews 6:4-8). Assurance must never come from a course of life we once walked or some previous spiritual experience.
Though this truth may seem disturbing to many that hold to particular doctrines about the security of the Believer, it need not be troubling. These scriptures synthesize nicely with the rest of the Bible. Such verses don’t state that a person is who is chosen or elect can become ‘un-chosen’ or ‘un-elect’. They simply state that those who are living sinful lives will go to hell. God’s solid foundation stands firm and it is sealed with an insightful inscription. This inscription gives us both sides of the coin concerning election and those that live in sin: “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from unrighteousness” (2 Timothy 2:19). Though it may be hard for us to truly know who God has chosen at times, we can be sure that departing from unrighteousness will lead us down a path toward assurance.
Truth #3 – There is a specific path on which people find true assurance from God.
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)
The next truth we shall examine is that the path to assurance is in the pursuit of knowing Jesus. This path is a development of spiritual growth and maturity. As we grow spiritually we come to know God more fully and in this knowledge of Him we find assurance. The apostle Peter describes this path when he writes, “…make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:5-8). We develop these qualities in our pursuit to know Jesus and if we steadfastly continue in them we will find an open door into the God’s kingdom: “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:10-11). By steadily adding to our faith and growing up in the Lord we will continually walk on the path of assurance.
Truth #4 – True assurance is does not come from our performance.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
The truth we will now explore concerning the topic of assurance is that no one gets real assurance from the things that they do. Trying to be perfectly conformed to the image of Jesus is definitely the goal in the Christian life, but it is a path of growth to that end. As a result, if we try to find assurance based upon perfection to what we have not yet attained (Philippians 3:12) we will live our life either attempting to justify our sin or wallowing in condemnation because of it. Many, if not most people, who seriously pursue the Christian life have fallen into at least one of these two ditches. These destructive ditches will either produce self-righteousness or depression, and will prevent those who do not climb out of such ditches from ever spiritually connecting with God. When we are looking for assurance that we are children of God, we will find that it is not based upon our performance.
To say that we must not attempt to determine our condition before God on the basis of our performance seems like a contradiction to the previous three truths that we have examined. It for this reason that many who know these three truths often fall into the ditches previously described. However, these truths are necessary to establish when laying a foundation for real assurance because they guard us from being confused into thinking that our relationship with God is unaffected by the things we do. Though transformation in our thoughts and actions doesn’t produce true assurance, it will always accompany true assurance (1 John 3:2-3; 9-10).
Truth #5 – True assurance comes from the Holy Spirit’s Testimony.
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, (Romans 8: 16)
True assurance comes from experiencing fellowship with God through the Holy Spirit. This source of assurance is described in 1 John 4:16-19, “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.” Assurance comes from abiding in love. God has demonstrated His love for us while we were yet sinners by dying for us, but this fact alone is not a source of assurance. It is only when we abide in His love that we come to know assurance. Abiding in love can also be defined as dwelling in God’s presence. We are able to dwell in God’s presence through the spiritual connection of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:18). One of the primary tasks of the Holy Spirit is to pour out God’s love into our hearts (Romans 5:5) and bring testimony about our relationship with God: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:14-16). Apart from being enlightened by the Holy Spirit’s testimony and out pouring of God’s love, we will never come to true assurance.
Those who have found true assurance in the Holy Spirit will be compelled by God’s love to walk obediently before Him. Nevertheless, there are many people today who think they can enjoy sweet fellowship with God while openly rebelling against Him. Such people are deceived and have no basis for true assurance before God. God has provided something for such rebels and it is called fear. The fear of hell is necessary to drive them to find true assurance. We should never try to assure those who are fearful, but rather point them to the Holy Spirit who is the only one able to impart true assurance. All who desire true assurance can easily find it by simply asking for the Holy Spirit and continuing to yield to its leading.