Most of my childhood memories are fuzzy at best. Trying to remember the earliest years of my life is like searching for channels on an old analog television set. Occasionally, I’ll get a signal, but it’s usually obscured by white noise and static. I do recall, however, my first theological intrigue with remarkable clarity.
How do I know I’m saved?
For reasons unknown to me, a decade of sermons ran through my head while at a sleepover with a friend. I couldn’t have been much older than ten as I reflected on statements I commonly heard from preachers week after week. God loves you. Christ died for you. Jesus saved us. I didn’t know much about the Bible, but I knew enough to realize those comments weren’t true for everyone. Inexplicably, I suddenly felt fearful that they may not be true about me. How could I know?
My friend happened to be a pastor’s kid. Surely, I thought, he’ll have some insight into the matter. I’m also the son of a preacher man, but the gaps in my spiritual knowledge were quickly becoming evident. So I asked him about it.
“How do you know whether you’re saved?”
“I think I’ve heard my dad say if you love God, you must be saved,” he answered.
“Oh, okay,” I said. “Well, I love God.” Though I didn’t verbalize it, I distinctly remember amending my reply as I thought, I think I love God anyhow. Again, how could I know?
That brief moment from twenty-five years ago stuck with me. For a long time, I questioned whether one’s salvation can be anything more than a guessing game. Even if objective evidence could be found, it seemed almost arrogant to assume I’m a member of God’s chosen race … a people for his own possession (1Pe 2:9). It didn’t help that I was taught to believe most of humanity is saved without even knowing it. I had learned a quasi-universalist, hyper-grace soteriology that muddied the waters to say the least. But that’s a matter for another day.
Little did I know, the subject of assurance is an age-old debate. Roman Catholicism has long denied the possibility of assurance because, according to the Catholic Church, no one but God can know whether a sinner has fulfilled his end of the bargain. God has done his part to save people, of course, but sinners must do the rest themselves. The Council of Trent determined a “believer’s assurance of the pardon of his sins is a vain and ungodly confidence.” You can’t possibly know you are saved until you stand before the judgment seat and hear God’s verdict.
In the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation restored hope to believers once burdened by Catholic dogma. The Reformers recognized that confidence in one’s salvation is the very essence of faith. To trust in Christ for eternal life is to believe the promises of Scripture that God’s love is unfailing. His powerful, providential hand will not allow even one of his redeemed children to be lost. As Jesus tells his disciples:
“I give [my sheep] 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.” (Jn 10:28-29)
Within a hundred years, Reformed theologians honed the doctrine of assurance, carefully choosing language that couldn’t be misinterpreted as condoning antinomianism. No one, they thought, should be led to assume he won’t struggle with doubts about his salvation nor should he think a mere profession of faith will give him total confidence. Both the Westminster Confession of 1648 and the Baptist Confession of 1689 agree:
This infallible assurance does not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and struggle with many difficulties before he be partaker of it; yet being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of means, attain thereunto: and therefore it is the duty of every one to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance; so far is it from inclining men to looseness.
In short, assurance of salvation is not only possible, but it is to be expected, assuming the professing Christian is diligent to confirm his or her calling and election (2Pe 1:10). Only then will there be richly provided … an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2Pe 1:11). After all, those sheep whom Jesus promised eternal security will, he says, “Hear my voice … and … follow me” (Jn 10:27).
Writing to believers, John takes on the challenging task of providing his readers with confidence in their salvation while trying to avoid any notions of antinomianism. It can be a difficult balance to maintain.
On the one hand, God removes the transgressions of his people as far as the east is from the west (Ps 103:12). It stands to reason we should have assurance. If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (1Jn 2:1). Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Ro 8:39).
On the other hand, those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal 5:24). If we say we have fellowship with God, while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth (1Jn 1:6). How can we who died to sin still live in it? (Ro 6:2).
Do you see the delicate nature of this topic? Bend the doctrine of assurance too far in any direction, and it’ll break.
Deny the possibility of assurance altogether, and we strip faith itself of any meaning. What is faith but the assurance of things hoped for? (Heb 11:1). Believe that belief itself is enough—never mind one’s lack of moral obedience—and we may as well presume the demons will join us in heaven one day (Jas 2:19). Even they believe—and shudder! Assume one has been set free from sin without bearing the fruit that leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life, and we likely give false hope to children of the devil (Ro 6:22; 1Jn 3:10).
John won’t allow any of these theories to pass as apostolic doctrine. Though we may have theological certainty in the propitiation for our sins, Jesus Christ, we cannot know that we have eternal life until we also have a reasonable degree of moral certainty (1Jn 2:2; 5:13). Put another way, if we keep the Lord’s commandments, then and only then can we know that we have come to know the Lord and Savior (1Jn 2:3).
Rubber meets the road here as John shifts his focus to the primary purpose of this epistle. It would be an ideal place for a paragraph break if Bible publishers were so inclined to add one. “And by this,” John begins, offering a new test by which we can evaluate our spiritual condition (1Jn 2:3). The introduction is over. Preliminary remarks are finished. It’s time to put ourselves under the microscope in search for assurance, not that you’ll need a microscope. The evidence of eternal life is right in front of you.
We don’t talk much about the doctrine of assurance these days. The Catholic Church thinks of it as heresy. They’ll mention it only to deny it. Many others on the Protestant side of the divide don’t believe assurance is possible to any meaningful degree since they don’t believe in eternal security. You can’t offer someone assurance if he may lose his salvation.
Universalists, who claim everyone will be saved, and those minorities now riding the trending wave of hyper-grace, who assume most people will likely be saved with or without knowing Christ—”I can’t judge somebody’s heart,” Joel Osteen said, contributing his celebrity voice to the movement on Larry King Live—may speak of assurance plenty, but it’s a cheap knockoff of the real thing. They’re offering confidence to people to whom the Bible doesn’t.
Working part-time for a local funeral home, I see it quite often. Mourning families assume the deceased is in heaven because he “was a good person” or probably “believed there’s a God.” Heaven is not the default destination of sinners, and Christ alone is the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to God the Father except through him (Jn 14:6). But, of course, you can attract more flies, or goats as the case may be, with artificially-sweetened honey than the plain truth of the gospel (Mt 25:32). It certainly makes evangelism easier.
Perhaps the most widespread problem we face today is easy-believism. Arthur Pink noticed its dreadful rise among evangelicals more than seven decades ago, saying:
Many people who profess to be Christians but whose daily lives differ in nothing from thousands of non-professors all around them … are rarely, if ever, found at the prayer-meeting, they have no Family Worship, they seldom read the Scriptures, they will not talk with you about the things of God, their walk is thoroughly worldly; and yet they are quite sure they are bound for heaven! Inquire into the ground of their confidence, and they will tell you that so many years ago they accepted Christ as their Savior, and “once saved always saved” is now their comfort. There are thousands of such people on earth today, who are nevertheless, on the Broad Road, that leadeth to destruction, treading it with a false peace in their hearts and a vain profession on their lips.
I’ll give them credit for at least upholding that one is justified by faith [in Jesus Christ] apart from works of the law (Ro 3:28; 22). Sadly, everything falls apart after that. Once a person has prayed the sinner’s prayer or asked Jesus into their heart, they assume all is well forevermore. Maybe it is or maybe it’s not. They seem to have missed one of the most terrifying warnings in all of Scripture. As Jesus brought his sermon on the mount to a close, he preached:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'” (Matthew 7:21-23)
Those four words send chills down my spine: “I never knew you” (Mt 7:23). When uttered by the Lord himself, they mean final doom for the sinner. There can be no redemption despite one’s profession of faith. He may have claimed the Lord Jesus as his own and even attempted to do works in his name, but he will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 7:21). Yet he should have known something was amiss long before Christ says to him, “Depart from me, you worker of lawlessness.” Theoretically, he could have examined his life and observed his failure to do the will of God.
According to James, faith which doesn’t lead to a godly change of behavior isn’t genuine faith at all. Can that kind of false, masquerading faith save him? (Jas 2:14). There are countless reasons why a person might be drawn to Christianity without being authentically drawn to Christ. Family tradition and cultural norms probably top the list of possibilities. But so-called faith apart from works is dead (Jas 2:26). It doesn’t exist because a regenerated heart produces good just as a tree is known by its … fruit (Lk 6:45; 44).
Long before Jesus came to this earth, God promised his people:
“I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
Paul seems to echo that promise when he tells Christians in Ephesus, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10). In the book of Romans, Paul follows up his teachings on justification with the doctrine of sanctification, and he does so for a reason.
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3-4)
Inevitably, sanctification flows from justification. The born-again person who is in Christ … is a thoroughly new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2Co 5:17). The love of Christ controls us, dominating our heart and conscience, so we no longer live for ourselves but for him who for our sake died and was raised (2Co 5:14-15). Ultimately, Christ reconciled us to himself (2Co 5:18). He points our heart in his direction, and our feet can’t help but follow.
Jesus, James, Paul, John—the entire Bible rejects easy-believism. John, in particular, specifically writes, “Whoever says, ‘I know Christ’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him (1Jn. 2:4). In case you didn’t catch it the first time, he repeats, “By this we may know that we are in Christ: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked (1Jn 2:6). Evidently, John paid close attention when he heard his Lord say, “The one who does the will of my Father [will enter the kingdom of heaven]” (Mt 7:21).
Clarity is vital here.
First, our obedience can’t save us. 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 (Eph 2:8-9).
Second, we can’t expect regenerated Christians to become impressively holy overnight. Despite God’s sovereign work in our heart, we will still find ourselves praying, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24). We will still discover evil lies close at hand (Ro 7:21). We will delight in the law of God, in our inner being, but … see in our members another law waging war (Ro 7:22-23). At times our sinful flesh will win the battle, yet our soul knows enough to cry out, “Wretched man that I am!” (Ro 7:24).
The point is, assurance is possible, but it happens to be an exclusive privilege. John doesn’t offer it to just anyone. He can’t give it to the Muslim, the Hindu, the Buddhist, the atheist, the guy who’s kind to strangers, or even the person who religiously sits on a church pew every Sunday while living like a godless heathen every other day. The hope of eternal life requires a series of practical tests, and the first among them is our desire and willingness to keep God’s commandments (1Jn 2:3).
John uses the word know four times in this passage. He repeats it twenty-six more times throughout the epistle. Perhaps his vocabulary is limited, or maybe he stresses what he perceives to be a key word of his message. Given his rhetorical method of amplification, I believe it’s the latter.
By keeping the Lord’s commandments, we don’t think that we have come to know him (1Jn 2:3). We don’t wish. We know, present tense. Our obedience supplies us with continual awareness of the personal, intimate fellowship we share with God our Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1Jn 1:3). Though the relationship began in the past for believers—”we have come to know him,” John writes in the perfect tense—our union with him as well as our knowledge of it continues in the present, assuming we keep his commandments.
Despite what the Gnostics claimed about secret spiritual mysteries understood by only an elite few, John invites every professing believer to embrace the certainty of eternal life by walking in a manner worthy of the calling to which we have been called (Eph 4:1). We must bear the fruit of the Spirit as those who belong to Christ Jesus will (Gal 5:22; 24). If we don’t, our claim to salvation is questionable at best. Assurance is impossible.
I understand the temptation to comfort everyone we meet with the hope of heaven, especially when they possess a vague sense of God and perhaps the afterlife. Keep in mind, though, the Jews in Christ’s day had even more than that. They had a zeal for God, yet Paul’s prayer … for them was that they may be saved because they weren’t despite their assumptions to the contrary (Ro 10:2; 1). John the Baptist looked them square in the eye and preached:
“Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ Do not assume you are redeemed merely because you are a Jew. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:8-9)
Speaking of some of the Cretans to whom Titus was ministering, Paul asserts, “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works” (Tit 1:12; 16). John speaks of many antichrists who at one time had been seemingly ordinary members of the church but eventually proved to be false believers (1Jn 2:18). They couldn’t hide the true condition of their hearts forever. The evil person out of [the] evil treasure [of his heart] produces evil (Lk 6:45).
According to John, assurance won’t be found unless we keep God’s commandments (1Jn 2:3). More than just learn and follow them, he implores us to guard them as we would our most prized possessions. Doing just enough to retain your status as a Christian won’t cut it. John excludes nominal Christianity altogether. God-honoring, assurance-giving obedience is a matter of genuine love for Christ. Fifty years earlier, John heard these words from the mouth of the Savior himself: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15). This entire epistle is practically John’s exposition of that one statement.
Please don’t misunderstand John’s brazen attitude. He’s not attempting to strap an unbearable yoke around the believer’s neck or promote some form of legalism. He’s not suggesting we must obey to be saved. To the contrary, he says, “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father” (1Jn 2:1). It’s just that the new covenant God made with his people guaranteed a profound change in our hearts. Through Jeremiah, he promised:
“This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel … I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33-34)
Of course, a change of heart is a change of nature. Despite the sinful shell of flesh we still carry, Christians are born again into a new life where, though we may sin, sin becomes a struggle for us (Jn 3:3). That is because we begin to serve in the way of the Spirit, set free from sin, becoming slaves of righteousness (Ro 7:6; 6:18). For the first time in our depraved life, we receive the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God (1Co 2:12). We inherit the mind of Christ, which craves the truth, desires righteousness, and abhors sin (1Co 2:16).
Put another way:
No one born of God makes a practice of sinning—note that phrase makes a practice of—for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God. (1 John 3:9-10)
We don’t obey to be saved. We obey because we are saved.
So whoever says “I know the Lord” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him (1Jn 2:4). Any claim to fellowship with God is completely unfounded if the one making the claim lives in continual, unrepentant disobedience. Jesus says, “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (Jn 18:37). God writes his law … on our hearts (Jer 31:33). Authentic Christians possess the mind of Christ (1Co 2:16).
If God’s word, which is supposedly in us as his people, has no meaningful effect on our behavior, how can we presume to have an intimate relationship with the Heavenly Father or his Son? It would be like saying to a starved, poorly clothed person, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body (Jas 2:15-16). Our claim to know him would be empty and vain (1Jn 2:4). Frankly, it’s a lie according to one half of the Sons of Thunder (Mk 3:17).
On the other hand, whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected (1Jn 2:5). The preposition of doesn’t exist in John’s original writing. English translators have supplied the word to better complete the sentence, many of them choosing of rather than, say, for. They are intentionally vague to allow readers the chance to interpret for themselves whether John means our love for God or God’s love for us. Personally, I believe it’s both.
The love of God is one coin with two sides (1Jn 2:5). On one side, we see our love for God. Isn’t that implied by the context? “If you love me,” Jesus said, “you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15). On the other side, though, we see God’s love for us. In fact, we love him because he first loved us (1Jn 4:19). Plus, John uses the passive voice when he says this love … is perfected. It is initiated and accomplished by something, better yet, someone other than ourselves. God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, which becomes our love for him (Ro 5:5).
We can’t separate our love for God from our love for his word any more than we can separate his love for us from our love for him. If he loves us, we love him. If we love him, we instinctively love his commandments. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk, that is, pattern his behavior, in the same way in which Christ walked (1Jn 2:5-6). Jesus is the vine; his disciples are the branches. Whoever abides in him and him in them, he it is that bears much fruit (Jn 15:5). If we have a saving, supernatural connection to Christ, the life he supplies us will bear fruit, though we’ll still need the occasional pruning.
I call John brazen, but he’s no less bold than Jesus. Jesus warns, “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit God takes away. … The branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (Jn 15:2; 6). Judas Iscariot is a perfect example. Like him, some presume to have a relationship with Christ, but eventually prove otherwise. Whatever attracted them in the first place loses its appeal, and their hearts reveal rocky ground rather than good soil for the word (Mt 13:20; 23).
The Bible’s message of assurance has been known to have the opposite effect. Readers of 1 John, in particular, may feel more troubled than reassured, worrying that they may not be as obedient to or in love with God’s commandments as a Christian should. Frankly, some people ought to feel that way.
If following Christ seems like an undesirable burden to you, not to be confused with the believer’s constant struggle against the flesh, then perhaps you should be fearful. If you deem yourself saved but care very little about truth and holiness, you have every reason to question your supposed salvation.
If, however, you love God, believe that Jesus is the Christ, and show that you do by guarding his commandments as the most valuable things you own, I suggest you take a deep breath (1Jn 5:1; 2:3). As you slowly exhale, examine your heart as well as your life.
You’ll notice that your love, faith, and obedience are far from perfect, yet you’ll still feel peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Ro 5:1). You’ll still rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Ro 5:2). You’ll smile as you hear the voice of your Savior whisper, “I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt 11:28-29).
Then, your soul will not respond, “What yoke? What do I have to learn? What other obligations do I have to fulfill?” Instead, it’ll gladly say, “Lord … you have the words of eternal life. I’ll follow you anywhere” (Jn 6:68).