Assurance of salvation
I preached the following message, based on chapter seven of Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots by J.C. Ryle, at Grace Fellowship Church on Sunday, December 26, 2021.
J.C. Ryle was a wise man. I say that because he was wise enough to include a chapter in his book on the subject of assurance, which can be very needful after five chapters on sanctification, holiness, fighting the good fight, counting the cost, and spiritual growth. It’s needful because it would be very easy for us to walk away from all we’ve heard with a sense of doubt and uncertainty. As we examine our personal holiness and growth, we may begin to question whether we are truly saved.
The implication thus far has been that we, as believers in Christ, will care about holiness. We will pursue holiness. We will grow in holiness. Last week, we talked about examining ourselves, and when we do, we may very well experience feelings of doubt and uncertainty. After all, we are sinners attempting to measure our holiness against the standard of holiness, who is Christ. Me, holy? Not by comparison I’m not.
A few years ago, I preached through the book of 1 John. Ironically enough, I was talking with one woman in the church during that sermon series, and she confessed to me that 1 John was making her feel less confident about her salvation. I call that ironic because John’s explicit purpose for writing the epistle is so those who believe in the name of the Son of God may know that they have eternal life (1Jn 5:13). He’s writing to boost the confidence of believers. He’s writing to give them certainty about their salvation, but his words were having the opposite effect on this particular woman, at least initially.
John offers three basic tests for knowing you have eternal life. First, do you love the Lord Jesus Christ? Second, do you love his word? Third, do you love his church? While those tests are simple enough, John was originally writing to a broken, confused group of people. They had watched others, whom they believed to be their brethren in Christ, abandon the faith. These people had turned their backs on Christ, his word, and his church. I suspect many who remained were left wondering, Am I next? Maybe I’m not a true Christian myself. How can I know?
The problem is, like the woman in my former church, we may answer yes to all of John’s questions, but we may also wonder, Do I really love Christ? Do I really love his word? Do I really love his church? Do I love them enough?
The doctrine of assurance can be challenging for us, particularly for those of us who truly grasp the first chapter of Ryle’s book where he dealt with the matter of sin. Perhaps it’s a bit paradoxical, but as children of God grow in grace, they become increasingly aware of their sinfulness. As they become increasingly aware of their sinfulness, they may find it harder and harder to believe they could ever belong to the family of God. In other words, they may lack assurance of their salvation.
The subject of assurance can be very challenging. If we are saved, Scripture teaches that our spiritual lives will be fruitful. At the same time, Scripture teaches that even dead branches may appear fruitful for a while. True Christians will not continue sinning, yet they will continue to sin. To even be qualified to be a member of the Lord’s church, one must confess he or she is not qualified to be a member of the Lord’s church.
In short, all of this talk about holiness may leave us feeling less assured of salvation when the intended effect is to encourage us to pursue holiness as God’s holy people. Do you understand the potential problem here?
Unfortunately, the challenges that come with the doctrine of assurance have led some people to disregard the teaching altogether. While they may still address it at times, they have perverted the doctrine just enough to eliminate those challenges.
The Catholic Church, for example, denies assurance of salvation is even possible. I suppose that stands to reason. If you believe in a works-based system of salvation, how could you have assurance? Regardless, the Catholic Church avoids the challenges of this doctrine by teaching no one can have assurance.
On the other hand, some Christians take the opposite approach. They use grace as an excuse to avoid the challenges. This group is willing to give almost everyone assurance of salvation. For some, a profession of faith is all that’s required regardless of whether the professor bears any spiritual fruit. I’ve known others to assume anyone who shows even a measure of kindness to another human being must be saved and will happily tell him so whether he’s made a profession of faith or not.
All of these views are wrong, of course, but they have the benefit of being convenient. No one is left striving to follow Christ yet feeling uncertain or lacking confidence regarding his or her salvation. According to the errors I’ve described, either you’re not supposed to have assurance or you should ignore all of the reasons you don’t have assurance. According to these views, no one is left in that uncomfortable place in the middle where we want to feel confident about our salvation but also struggle with doubts for one reason or another.
Let me be clear about what the Bible teaches regarding assurance before we go any further. I’ll make four points, then we’ll consider each of them in more depth.
First, assurance of salvation is attainable by believers in Christ. Second, our sanctification and holiness lead to increased assurance. Third, true believers in Christ may not necessarily feel assurance. Fourth, our assurance is not based on our efforts or works of righteousness.
1) Assurance is attainable.
Concerning this point, Ryle takes a very compelling approach by citing several verses one after another. He doesn’t offer much commentary on any of them, but when you read them all together, the biblical case for assurance becomes rather obvious.
Let me do the same by reading several of these verses to you.
Job 19:25, 26: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.”
Psalm 23:4: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
Isaiah 26:3: “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you.”
Isaiah 32:17: “And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust, or assurance, forever.”
Romans 8:38, 39:
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Second Corinthians 5:1: “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
Second Corinthians 5:6: “So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.”
Second Timothy 1:12: “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me.”
First John 3:14: “We know that we have passed out of death into life.”
Collectively, these verses—and many more like them could be read—show us that certainty about salvation is not only possible, but it also appears to be the biblical pattern for God’s people. Job, David, Isaiah, Paul, John— All of these men expressed absolute confidence that God’s promises to his people would prove true without fail. Furthermore, each one of them expressed absolute confidence that he, himself, was the sure benefactor of those promises. I know I shall see God (Job 19:25, 26). We know that we have passed out of death into life (1Jn 3:14).
When the apostle Paul reached the end of his life, he wrote a final letter to Timothy. Here is what he says near the end of that letter:
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:6-8)
Do you detect even the faintest hint of doubt in these words? As Paul knows his death is imminent, he states candidly and boldly that there is laid up for him the crown of righteousness, which the Lord will award him (2Ti 4:8). The Catholic Church would accuse Paul of heresy for being so presumptuous, but Paul is certain. He will meet the Lord soon, and the Lord will count him as righteous and reward him accordingly. He has no doubts about it.
When I was growing up, I heard a lot of preachers stand in the pulpit and say things like, “If God counts me as one of his own— If I prove to be one of the elect— If Christ shed his blood for me—“ Those comments may appear humble, but they’re not biblical. While we may face doubts about our salvation, doubting and uncertainty should not be treated as the standard for all Christians. Scripture gives us a much different expectation.
Paul doesn’t say, “If there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness—” (2Ti 4:8). No, he says, “There is laid up for me the crown of righteousness.” And in case anyone thinks only an apostle like Paul could have that level of confidence, he goes on to say, “Which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.” Paul believes every last person who loves Christ and longs for his appearing will receive a crown of righteousness. In other words, they have every reason to share his assurance.
As it happens, assurance is not only attainable for us, but it’s also to be expected. Keep that in mind as we consider the remaining points.
2) Holiness leads to assurance.
Let’s back up in the text I’ve just read. Before Paul expresses his confidence in 2 Timothy 4, he takes a moment to briefly look back over his life. He says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness” (2Ti 4:7, 8).
Henceforth, hereafter, at last, so then, in turn— Paul links his past with his future. There is a clear connection between the two. He has fought hard. He has persevered. He has kept the faith (2Ti 4:7). Henceforth, he has absolute confidence about what comes next (2Ti 4:8). Paul’s years of faith—that is, years of trusting in God—not to mention the obedience, sanctification, and spiritual growth that came with it, leads him to have undeniable assurance of his salvation.
Consider the alternative. Consider those people in Scripture who lacked faith, failed to pursue holiness, and succumbed to sinful temptations. Solomon is the first to come to my mind. Despite a life full of God-given wisdom and blessings, he made a tremendous mess of things. He broke his covenant with God. He disobeyed God’s commandments. He let himself get entangled with hundreds of pagan women and yielded to their idolatrous influence. And where do we find him at the end of his life?
Suffice it to say he doesn’t leave the pages of Scripture with Paul’s clean conscience or his confident expectation of future glory. If you’ve ever studied the book of Ecclesiastes, which I believe Solomon wrote or, at least, spoke near the end of his life, you know he became a man with many profound regrets. Ecclesiastes is a fascinating book. You can almost hear the desperate tone of Solomon’s plea to young people to avoid the mistakes he’s made as you read it. And even though he acknowledges the truth of God and eternity, he never once stakes a personal claim on God’s promise of heaven.
Yes, there is a heaven, and those who have faith in God will reach it, according to Solomon, but not once in Ecclesiastes does he hint that he’ll be one of them. He didn’t fight the good fight. He didn’t finish the race. He didn’t keep the faith. Henceforth, it would seem, he lacked assurance. He clearly knew the reality of the situation, but it’s hard to read his message as one spoken from personal confidence. As true and wise as his words are, they seem to pour out of a broken man crushed by the weight of many regrets.
Just listen to the way he concludes his message:
Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 12:1, 7, 8)
On the one hand, we have Paul, who fought for holiness despite knowing it would cost him his life. But even as he awaited his execution, he knew his Lord was prepared to give him the crown of righteousness (2Ti 4:8).
Solomon, on the other hand, gave up the fight. He surrendered to sin, unwilling to pay the cost of holiness, and goes to the grave defeated and ashamed. His final recorded words are not an expression of confident expectation. Instead, he says, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Ecc 12:8).
Beyond these examples, the Bible explicitly teaches a correlation between practical holiness and assurance of salvation. Consider this verse in Romans 8: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Ro 8:14). To say we are led by the Spirit is to say we are walking in holiness because holiness is the only way the Spirit will ever lead us to walk. And if we are walking in holiness, we can be confident that we are sons of God.
I’ve already cited several verses, and there are many more like them. In short, assurance demands holiness to thrive. If we want to reach that place where we feel secure, at peace, free from fear— If we want to reach that place where our hope in the glory to come feels certain, we must be pursuing holiness, striving to be conformed to the image of Christ, and growing in grace (Ro 8:29). The more we grow, the more likely we are to experience assurance.
Having said that…
3) Believers may not experience assurance.
As I said, assurance can be a challenging subject. According to Hebrews, we should strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14). Jesus said, “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away” (Jn 15:2). The clear implication is that if we are not growing in holiness, then we must not be saved. Frankly, no honest student of the Bible can deny this fact.
Even so, assurance, much like faith, can be weak or strong. As J.C. Ryle puts it, “It is not a question of saved or not saved, that lies before us, but of privilege or no privilege. It is not a question of peace or no peace, but of great peace or little peace.”
What is the relationship between faith and holiness? No one strives for true holiness without faith. We don’t follow someone or obey his commandments unless we trust him. Only after we trust in God do we follow him, and by following him, we are pursuing holiness. Furthermore, assurance tends to increase as we grow in holiness.
In other words, if our faith is weak, our holiness will lack and our assurance will suffer.
Do I need to prove to anyone that genuine faith in Christ can be weak at times?
I’ll give you at least one example from Matthew 14. Peter provides a great illustration of someone who has faith in Christ, but it was a faith that sometimes lacked. When the disciples were in a boat, Jesus came to them walking on water.
Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. (Matthew 14:27-29)
If the story ended there, all we would talk about is Peter’s extraordinary faith. Look at him. His faith was so strong he was certain that he would be able to walk on water.
The story, however, doesn’t end there.
But when Peter saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:30, 31)
Did Peter have faith in Christ? Absolutely. First, he proved it by getting out of the boat. Second, he immediately turned to Jesus when he was in trouble. Yet, he doubted. He was, as Jesus said, of little faith (Mt 14:31).
Our faith can sometimes be weak. When our faith is weak, our joy can be weak. When our faith is weak, our peace can be weak. When our faith is weak, our hope can be weak. When our faith is weak, our assurance can be weak.
This point is important because doubts about our salvation do not necessarily mean we do not belong to Christ. Let me read to you a passage from 2 Peter 1 at length:
God’s divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, 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. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, 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 1:3-11)
We learn two crucial truths from Peter here. First, even believers can become nearsighted, or practically blind, having forgotten that we were cleansed from our former sins (2Pe 1:9). We are still cleansed, but we may not always act or feel like it. Second, the solution is to press on. We make every effort to supplement, or add to, our faith (2Pe 1:5). We continue to strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14). We become all the more diligent to confirm our calling and election (1Pe 1:10).
The Catholic Church doesn’t permit assurance. Others will gladly give assurance to people who are not diligent to confirm their calling and election (1Pe 1:10). By now, you probably see that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Assurance is not a black-and-white issue, but the Bible is clear that (1) assurance is attainable, (2) holiness leads to assurance, and (3) not every believer may have assurance, though they are saved.
Before we move to the fourth and final point, I’ll read one more passage that captures this idea of weak believers, who lack in holiness, still being saved in the end. Paul writes to the Corinthians:
No one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved. (1 Corinthians 3:11-15)
Some of us build with strong materials. Some of us build with weak materials. Yet, everyone in view here—that is, believers in Christ—are building, and they are saved in the end.
Everyone is building, or growing in holiness, and everyone is saved, though some will inevitably lack assurance because they lack degrees of holiness. Why do they lack holiness? Perhaps they lack faith in God, which brings us to our last point.
4) Assurance is not based on us.
Allow me to quote Ryle at length on this point. He writes:
It cannot be wrong to feel confidently in a matter where God speaks unconditionally—to believe decidedly when God promises decidedly—to have a sure persuasion of pardon and peace when we rest on the word and oath of Him that never changes. It is an utter mistake to suppose that the believer who feels assurance is resting on anything he sees in himself. He simply leans on the Mediator of the New Covenant, and the Scripture of truth. He believes the Lord Jesus means what He says, and takes Him at His word. Assurance after all is no more than a full-grown faith; a masculine faith that grasps Christ’s promise with both hands—a faith that argues like the good centurion, If the Lord “speak the word only,” I am healed. Wherefore then should I doubt?
Do you see the point Ryle is making here? Let me quote another author, and I apologize because I can’t remember who wrote this. Regardless, he said:
God decreed from eternity past that you would be like Christ; He put His Holy Spirit in you to make sure that it would happen; Christ prayed for you to be sanctified, and His prayers are always answered; He even promises you that He will lovingly discipline you in order to return you to holiness whenever you stray. How could we ever doubt that God means what He says, “Without holiness no one will see the Lord”?
God calls us to be holy. In Leviticus 11, God says, “For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44). This call to be holy may lead us to think we are supposed to pick ourselves up by the bootstraps and get to work. While there is some truth to that, let us not forget what Paul writes to the Galatians. “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal 3:2, 3).
We were saved by faith. We were justified by faith. In other words, we were not saved and justified because we worked hard and kept God’s commandments. We were not saved and justified because we were righteous enough. Furthermore, and this is Paul’s point to the Galatian churches, our holiness does not grow and our assurance does not increase as a result of relying on ourselves and our good deeds. No, we grow in holiness and, subsequently, feel greater assurance of salvation because we rely on God and his promises.
The Christian life begins with humble hearts and empty hands. We come to Christ because we realize we cannot possibly save ourselves. As we grow in holiness from that point forward, our assurance cannot be based on us. We continue to wholly rely on Christ who saves and purifies. We trust in him and his promises, which both motivates us to continue growing in holiness and provides the only substantial assurance one can have.
Again, Ryle says:
It is an utter mistake to suppose that the believer who feels assurance is resting on anything he sees in himself. He simply leans on the Mediator of the New Covenant, and the Scripture of truth. He believes the Lord Jesus means what He says, and takes Him at His word. Assurance after all is no more than a full-grown faith.
No matter which materials we use to build onto the foundation or how strong or shaky the structure may seem at any given moment, we must remember that no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ (1Co 3:11). The foundation is absolutely secure. The foundation is what provides us with assurance.
Is assurance of salvation attainable? Yes. If we trust in Christ and his promises, we can have confidence in what he guarantees to the believer.
Does increased holiness lead to increased assurance? Yes. Everyone who thus hopes in Christ purifies himself as he is pure (1Jn 3:3). The closer we follow our Lord, the more confident will be in his promises.
Can believers lack assurance? I’m afraid so because sometimes our faith is weak. We don’t trust the promises as we should.
Do we, then, depend on ourselves for assurance? No. We strive to keep our hearts and minds fixed on Christ, our sure foundation and hope. Just as we rely on him for salvation, we rely on him for joy, peace, strength, comfort, and assurance.
Once again in closing, I’ll leave you with a passage from Philippians 3.
Not that I have already obtained the resurrection from the dead or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. (Php 3:11-4:1)