People come to faith in Christ in many ways. Some find Christ at such a young age, they can’t remember how it happened. Others, like the Apostle Paul, had a traumatic experience. Some realize that they believe during the celebration of a sacrament. Some associate the beginning of their walk with God with a sinner’s prayer or public declaration. Some are responding to a dream of Jesus. C. S. Lewis spontaneously realized that he believed while on his way to a zoo. Stories of salvation are all wonderful. If the experience leads to a credible profession of faith, it should be cherished.
The question of assurance of salvation is different. It is not, “How did I come to faith?” but instead, “How do I know that my faith is saving faith?” In my experience, many confessing Christians face this question at one time or another. Some occasionally question their own faith (I certainly have). Some question the faith of others who claim to believe, but their life makes it hard for us to take their claim seriously. These cases are intensely emotional when they involve someone we care about, and even more so if they have recently passed on.
If you are bothered by any of these concerns, I encourage you to speak to your pastor, or someone who has known the Lord a while, and who reminds you of Jesus. Here are some thoughts from me.
Do not be afraid to examine your own faith
The Christian faith is about reality, about the Living God and what he has done. We need not be afraid to examine reality. It isn’t fragile, and our questions cannot change it. If my neighbor is a member of the Flat Earth Society, and some of his arguments sound compelling, I need not worry that either of our opinions will change the planet’s dimensions. Reality can withstand examination. Jesus is real. Nothing can change him. If you believe, your faith is real, and nothing can change that. If it is not real, it is best that you find out.
The thing is, those who would most benefit from questioning their faith (because it bears little resemblance to biblical faith) are usually the last people to do so. The person who questions their own bravery has already proven themselves brave enough to ask the question. Similarly, anyone who is concerned about their own faith has already demonstrated how important their faith is to them.
Jesus said, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.”John 10:28-29
Do not be afraid to examine your faith. Jesus is not going to lose anyone.
Do not judge the faith of someone else
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”Matthew 13:24-30
I think this parable of Jesus is self-explanatory. Within Christ’s church, there will always be some who do not have saving faith. Jesus clearly implies as much. Some may be insincere, but given other things Christ said, it is more likely that they are self-deceived. They probably do believe in Jesus in some sense, but not with saving faith. Jesus warns that trying to weed out such folk before the Day of Judgment will do the church more harm than good. This has nothing to do with church discipline, which Christ commands, but rather with individual Christians judging the faith of others.
How to deal with my own assurance
A number of things could be considered, for example, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,” (Romans 8:16) and “For all the promises of God find their Yes in [Christ].” (2 Corinthians 1:20) But let me mention one factor we should not use, and three factors we definitely should.
First, we should not use the wonderful story of how we came to faith. Scripture encourages us to remember God’s goodness to us in order to stimulate thanksgiving and joy. But going through a religious experience does not, in itself, guarantee that I have saving faith. Would a person’s salvation be guaranteed if he were baptized? Would it be guaranteed if she took Communion? No. The sacraments Christ explicitly gave us are wondrous blessings when received with faith, but they were not designed to create faith or guarantee it. How much more is that true with regard to religious rituals that we have invented, such as the sinner’s prayer or responding to a preacher’s invitation? Both of those inventions have blessed many, who used them to express their new faith. But these rituals (for that is what they are) did not give us faith, or guarantee that we have the saving faith we need.
Fortunately, there is a book of the Bible wholly given over to helping us with our assurance.
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.1 John 5:13
The Apostle John gives three “tests of faith.” John did not use bullet points, and he weaves somewhat back and forth between them, but with careful reading, they aren’t hard to understand.
- The test of confession. No one is a Christian who does not confess the Lord Jesus, as he is described by the New Testament Apostles.
(cf. 1 John 2:22-23; 4:1-6,15; 5:1,10-11)
- The test of righteousness, or obedience. No one is a Christian who does not desire to obey God. (This is not about never sinning; it is about intentionally tolerating sin.)
(1 John 1:5-6; 2:4-6,15-17,29; 3:4-10; 5:3,18)
- The test of love for the brethren (Church). No one is a Christian who does not love other believers as family. (This is not about friendship; it is about caring for other believers, regardless of friendship.)
(1 John 2:7-11; 3:11-20; 4:7-12,20-21)
These tests are not about perfection, but they are about the direction of our heart. If you are concerned about any one of them, don’t ignore your concern. Simply recognize what your life tells you.
Do you confess faith in Jesus, as the New Testament describes him? You don’t have to pass a seminary exam. Do you believe Christ is the Son of God? That he died for your sins? That he rose? That he is coming again to remake the world? If you don’t believe in Jesus in this way—for example, if you think he is a great moral teacher but nothing more—then you probably aren’t saved, and you need to reconsider who you think he is.
Do you want to obey Christ? If you truly believe that he is the Son of God, how could you not want to obey him? How in the world would you not want to obey God in the flesh? How well you obey him is another matter entirely. Alas, we all sin frequently. The question is whether you willingly embrace your sin, or realize that it no longer reflects who you are in Christ, and who you want to be. Another way to ask the question: If God’s will were a target, then are you trying to hit the bullseye or are you trying to hit as far from the bullseye as possible while not missing the target entirely? Where is your heart? If you are comfortable wanting sin more than you want God, then you should reconsider whether you actually believe in Christ.
Do you see other Christians as your family? If you really believe God is your Father in Christ, how can you not see others of his children as your family? This is not about liking other Christians. Most of us have family members that we don’t particularly like—but if they had a real need, we would be there for them, because they are family. If you are unresponsive to the real needs of Christians, whether near or far, or of a particular race or nationality or political orientation, then you should reconsider whether you actually believe God has adopted you into his family, and whether you follow the one whose most famous command was that his followers love one another.
These tests may convict us about the weakness of our faith, or how we have wandered in our spiritual journey, but those who have saving faith know which way their heart is directed. It isn’t difficult for a concerned believer to gain assurance. After all, John wrote these things for concerned Christians, “that you may know that you have eternal life.”
How to help someone else deal with assurance
As an elder, it is my responsibility to evaluate spiritual health in the congregation. That aside, this is how I would approach the topic simply as a Christian:
Suppose I know of a deceased person who confessed faith but did not show any fruit in their lives that I could see. Unless they explicitly rejected any of John’s tests, I do not challenge their faith. Jesus will sort it out, correctly applying both God’s great grace and perfect justice, and we would not want it any other way.
If I discuss assurance with someone, I try to be as faithful, frank and tender with them as Christ is with me when I come to him with questions. Jesus wants us to speak the real truth, and speak it in real love.
If someone wants to discuss a third party’s faith with me, then the wrong people are talking. Either they, or I (as an elder or a trusted friend) should try to have that conversation with the person in view.
I would never tell anyone that they should avoid questioning their own faith. I would never dismiss their concern by pointing to a conversion experience. Instead, I would commend them, and I would take their concerns seriously.
I would tell them that there is no need for them to be confused, and that the Bible clearly speaks to this question. I would either lead them through 1 John, or bring them to someone who could do so with wisdom, kindness and honesty.
If they were certain that they did not believe in the biblical Jesus, or that they do willingly choose their sin, or that they reject/ignore spiritual kinship with other Christians, I would urge them to seriously study what it means to be saved, expecting that people with saving faith will change their minds. And I would follow up with them.
If John’s tests only reveal a tender Christian conscience struggling to follow Jesus, I would celebrate with them Christ’s love for us both, and see how we could help each other follow him better.