Every Christian I know has struggled, at some point, to feel certain of his or her salvation—including me. We have all walked through a season where terrifying doubt has assailed the blessed assurance we once possessed about our spiritual state. For some of us, “season of doubt” isn’t strong enough terminology to describe our experience—we’ve continually questioned the legitimacy of our faith since the moment we began to follow Jesus!
I think it’s biblically safe to say that God wants his children to know they have eternal life (1 John 5:13). He didn’t go through all of the trouble of becoming human, suffering his own wrath for our sin, dying, and resurrecting, just so that those for whom he did these things could spend their lives anxiously wondering whether or not they are really his. God is a Father to his people, and he wants them to know that they are secure in his love. But how are we to know? How can we know that we are tightly and irreversibly tethered to Jesus by the saving love of God? How can we be assured that we have actually been born again and will persevere to the end? The answer to that question varies greatly, depending on whom you ask.
If you run in Baptist circles, you may be encouraged to remember the day you walked down the aisle and asked Jesus to come into your heart. If you run in Lutheran circles, you may be instructed to find your assurance in your baptism. If you run in Pentecostal circles, you may be told your private prayer language is the rock solid evidence of your regeneration. But what does the Bible actually have to say? If we were all to remove our denominational goggles and soberly examine the plain teaching of Scripture, I think we would find that assurance of salvation has two main layers:
- “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” – Romans 8:16. There are Bible teachers I really respect who have argued that simply feeling like you are known and loved by God is not good grounds for assurance. They [ever so slightly] acknowledge verses like the one above, but they emphasize the fact that there are also evil entities whispering all sorts of deceitful things into the ears of our souls. And they’re right—there are! Satan, demons, and even our own deceitful flesh are always uttering lies, attempting to hinder us from entering into the freedom that genuine faith in Christ brings. I’m sure, at this very moment, there are ungodly forces working to assure scores of unconverted people that they are safe in the arms of Jesus—when they aren’t. However, the plurality of voices influencing human thoughts and feelings doesn’t change the fact that the Spirit does actually testify to the believer’s spirit that he or she is a child of God. There is biblical merit for gleaning confidence concerning our salvation from the feeling, in the very gut of our souls, that we have “received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”- Romans 8:15. However, I don’t think an unshakeable sense of assurance can rest solely on the inner witness of the Spirit.
- “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.” – 1 John 3:4. I work double-time trying to avoid oversimplification (which is why my blog posts are longer than those of most bloggers!), but this biblical theme is truly simple: people who love God obey God (John 14:15). Men and women who have been made alive by the Spirit cling to Jesus in affectionate dependence and bow to him in humble submission. They don’t do it perfectly, obviously. But if a person is indwelled by the Spirit, their life will be marked by 1) sorrow concerning their sinful shortcomings, 2) a resolve to pursue godliness, and 3) growth in godliness. Progression in faith-driven obedience is the objective evidence of salvation that strengthens the more subjective experience of the Spirit’s witness. The internal testimony of the Spirit coupled with observable growth in Christlikeness is the biblical recipe for rock solid assurance.
But what about those of us who feel like we have received the Spirit, yet our life is currently such a sinful mess that we can’t draw any sense of assurance from it? What if, in times past, we have seen more objective evidence of our faith, but over the last six weeks or six months or six years, fruit seems to be scarce? What if we have actually regressed and find ourselves pulling away from God and swimming in all the same sins from which he plucked us when we initially professed faith? How can those of us who think we know Jesus but also doubt we know Jesus grow in assurance that we do, in fact, know Jesus?
In early 2013—two years into my relationship with Jesus—I was making massive shipwreck of my faith. I was regularly abusing alcohol, indulging in sexual sin daily, and was even dabbling in a gay relationship. I was miserable in my sin and desired to break free from it. But I didn’t. Why? Well, partially because I was paralyzed by the possibility that I wasn’t actually a believer.
During the first year of my walk with Jesus, life was fantabulous. You couldn’t have convinced me that I was anything less than a blood-bought child of God. But year two—not so much. In the nine or ten months leading up to this shipwrecky season in 2013, my assurance had steadily diminished as I gradually gave myself over to various sinful vices. Though I made a connection between my sins and my doubt, I didn’t make the right connection. I thought my doubt about my spiritual state was the reason I was failing to fight the flesh. I didn’t think my sin was exacerbating my doubt; I thought my doubt was exacerbating my sin. And I was beyond frustrated with God because he didn’t seem too bothered about the terror plaguing my soul! Though I never would have said this, I did, in some sense, blame God for my sins. I thought that if he would just assure me that I was saved, I would stop!
I wanted, and thought I needed, a strong sense of assurance to precede my obedience. But that assurance didn’t come, and in early 2013, I snapped. I threw my Bible under my bed in a fit of unholy rage and more or less told God that I was done until he showed me I was his. I was done seeking, done fighting (not that I had been fighting much, anyway), done apologizing. Shipwreck officially commenced.
Oh, how utterly backwards did I have things! In his epistle, Peter instructs believers to make their calling and election sure by pursuing virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love (2 Peter 1:3-10). He doesn’t tell wayward, doubtful Christians to wait around for some mystical spiritual-emotional experience through which they’ll finally find some sense of eternal security. He tells us to pursue assurance by pursuing obedience—by putting on the new self (Ephesians 4:17-24)!
I would never have a strong sense of assurance while I was running from God and submerging myself in sin. I didn’t need some spiritual-emotional experience; I needed to draw near to God and repent of my sins.
By God’s grace, I finally came to the point where, though I still wasn’t sure if I was a child of God, I knew that I wanted to be a child of God. Though I couldn’t say with rock solid certainty that I knew Jesus, I was absolutely certain that I wanted to know Jesus. So I dug my Bible out from under my bed (where I had fitfully tossed it) and resolved to prayerfully saturate myself in it every day. I knew that the Holy Spirit fills and strengthens the faith of believers as they look to Jesus as he is revealed in the gospel. So I decided to do my best to turn my mind’s attention away from the paralyzing “Am I even saved?” question and set my eyes in the direction of Christ.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this—a simple yet serious pursuit of God—is the very foundation of Christian obedience! Yes, I needed to quit committing the sins that were strangling my soul. But I would never access power to subdue my sinful nature if I wasn’t actively abiding in Christ. I needed to seek him! As I hit the floor and sought the Lord every morning and evening, the Holy Spirit fanned my joy into flame and energized my efforts to repent of sin. Day after day, week after week, month after month, my heart grew increasingly tender toward Jesus—and my outward life reflected that. Sins that had dominated me began to lose their power over me. I was not (and am not) perfect. I was still (and am still) stumbling into sin. But I was no longer on the verge of giving up; I was resolved to follow Jesus. I was no longer static or regressing; I was growing. And seeing this resoluteness and growth in my life greatly solidified my confidence that I am, in fact, a child of God. A strong sense of assurance didn’t precede my obedience; it grew alongside my obedience.
If you have stopped seeking the Lord, all but ceased your fight against sin, and are terrifyingly unsure about your spiritual state, please hear me: the only way you are going to escape this prison of doubt is by growing in obedience. Don’t wait around for some mystical assurance-inducing experience—that kind of experience isn’t coming. Do you want to know you are God’s? Then pursue God. Position yourself before him. Gaze upon Jesus in the Scriptures, commune with him in prayer, and strive to keep his commandments. This is the only way you will grow to be certain, deep down in your soul, that you are truly His.