Genuine vs. False Assurance
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I knew in my head that I was a sinner and that only Christ could save. I used to say that I was saved at the age of 11 when I accepted Christ into my heart and prayed the sinner’s prayer. Then I rededicated my life to the Lord the summer after I graduated high school before I went off to college.
As I grew in my understanding of the doctrine of salvation, I changed my testimony to saying that God saved me that summer after graduating high school and not at the age of 11. Why? Because that is when I surrendered to Him as my Lord. It was then I really began to grow in Christ and have a desire to serve Him.
I remember a couple of summers ago I was at a Christian camp with my family. During lunch one day, one of the camp counselors sat at our table, so I engaged her as I often do and asked her testimony. She shared a typical evangelical Arminian testimony that she accepted Christ and then later rededicated her life. So I encouraged her to reconsider that maybe when she 'rededicated' her life is when the Lord truly saved her.
So, what is the basis of our assurance of salvation? Is the basis of our assurance a prayer we prayed or a rededication of our lives? What about those who truly are assured of their salvation, but they are not truly saved? They have a false assurance! There are many in this category. Or what about those who are truly saved but have doubts about their salvation? Let’s examine both categories and the basis of their assurance.
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)Note three things about this passage, preached from the Prince of Preachers, Jesus Christ, in His greatest sermon, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7).
First, this speaks of those who were assured that they were truly saved, but in the end it was revealed that they were not, as they heard the words of the Lord, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” Second Thessalonians 1:9 says that “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,”
I have always said it is one thing to have the attitude “eat, drink and be merry”(Luke 12:19). In other words, party now and then later party with your friends in Hell. Yet, I can guarantee that Hell will not be a party, but instead will be eternal, conscious torment (Luke 16:28) where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 8:12).
It is quite another thing, though, to actually live your entire life believing you are saved, only to find out at the end of your life that you were not!
As pastor John MacArthur wrote in the introduction of his book, Hard to Believe, “The world is filled with millions of people who think they are headed for heaven - but they are deadly wrong. Probably most people think heaven awaits them, but it doesn’t. But what is especially sad, is that many of those people sit in evangelical churches misinformed.”
Second, the basis of their assurance was that their works were done “in the name of the Lord.” I can hear others say, "but we taught Sunday School 'in Your Name'; we did counsel time at Awana 'in Your Name'; we taught Vacation Bible School 'in Your Name.'"
Third, “many” fit this category. In verse 22, Jesus said, “On that day, many will say to me . . .” (emphasis added). This is consistent with the context. Earlier Jesus said, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.”(Matt. 7:13; emphasis added)
In that same book, Hard to Believe, pastor John MacArthur highlights three reasons why people are deceived about their salvation:
1) False Assurance: “Somebody has told them that as long as they ask Jesus into their hearts, or pray this prayer, or perform this little ceremony, they’re safely in the kingdom.”
2) Fixation: “Another thing that causes people to be under the delusion they’re saved when they’re not is fixation on religious activity. They go to church, hear sermons, sing songs, read the Bible, go to a Bible study, take a class, and because they’re all wrapped up in religious activity, the illusion becomes convincing that they are believers.”
3) Fair Exchange: “Whenever this deceived person sees something wrong in his life, instead of dealing directly with it and examining whether he is a true Christian, he finds something right with his life and makes a fair exchange. It is like swapping around Weight Watchers points. “Oh, I can’t be that bad. I mean, look what I did over here!” And he is always trading off the negatives and the positives, so instead of evaluating his life honestly with integrity and saying, “If I’m a believer, should I be doing this?” he says, “Well, I know I do that, but look what else I do.” He makes a fair exchange and whitewashes the deal.”
(John MacArthur, Hard to Believe: The High Cost and Infinite Value of Following Jesus, [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003], 96–97.)
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The Puritans, with the exception of John Owen, said believers could not expect assurance until long after conversion, and only after a life of extended faithfulness. To them assurance was dependent on the believer’s ability to live at an almost unattainable level of personal holiness. This led to a widespread lack of assurance.
The Westminster Confession states:
This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be a partaker of it . . . And therefore it is the duty of every one to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure. . . (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XVIII, Section III)So even among the great saints of old, there was variance on this important doctrine.
But, the question at hand is: What are the biblical grounds of assurance? Let me offer you 4 answers.
Answer #1: Looking to Christ
This is what Spurgeon emphasized, that we are to look to Christ. Scripture is clear on this. Jesus Himself said, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life . . .”(John 6:37). The apostle Paul made it very clear to the Philippian jailer:
Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”(Acts 16:30-31)Romans 10:9 assures us that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
All these verses affirm that if a person looks to the Lord Jesus Christ alone with the eyes of faith, then he has eternal life and is saved.
Answer #2: Understanding that Regeneration Precedes Faith
God is the one who causes us to be born again, not our faith. That is why Peter wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again . . .”(1 Peter 1:3).
Since we are dead, He must give life first before we can believe.
The apostle John also wrote,
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God . . . (1 John5:1)Notice in this verse that that the one who believes that Jesus is the Christ is because he has already been born of God (for more on this, listen to the No Compromise Radio episode, "Myth-Busters: Faith Precedes Regeneration").
Answer #3 - The Work of Each Member of the Trinity in Salvation
In his run-on sentence that begins his epistle to the church in Ephesus, the Apostle Paul is very clear about this point:
- God the Father elects (Eph 1:3–5)
- God the Son redeems (Eph 1:6–9)
- God the Holy Spirit seals (Eph 1:13–14)
Answer #4 - Fruit/Evidence/Change in Life
The Apostle John states clearly the purpose for which he wrote his first epistle:
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)Throughout his epistle he gives clear evidences of salvation:
And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. (1 John 2:4–5)2) Love for the Brethren
Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him[a] there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (1 John 2:9–11)
By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. (1 John 3:10)
We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. (1 John 3:14–15)3) Righteous Living
If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. (1 John 2:29)
By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. (1 John 3:10)This does not mean the perfection of our life, but the direction of our life. After all, in the beginning John wrote that true believers readily confess and acknowledge their sin, while those who do not prove that they are not saved.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8–10)As John MacArthur wrote in his book The Gospel According to the Apostles,
The apostle is clearly not making sinless perfection a test of salvation. Nor is he making an issue about the frequency, duration, or magnitude of one’s sins. As we noted in chapter 8, all Christians sin, and true believers are capable even of prolonged and heinous sin. The issue John is raising here has to do with our attitude toward sin and righteousness, our heart’s response when we do sin, and the overall direction of our walk. The test is this: What is the object of your affections — sin or righteousness? If your chief love is sin, then you are “of the devil” (3:8, 10). If you love righteousness and practice righteousness, you are born of God (2:29). What is the direction of your affection?
(John MacArthur, The Gospel According to the Apostles, [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000], 150.)These then are the four answers to the question, “What are biblical grounds of assurance?”
Now, why do some people who are genuinely saved still have doubts about their salvation? Here are some reasons:
First, they think there should be more evidence in their lives. Richard D. Phillips addresses this in his book Chosen in Christ.
But what if there is only imperfect evidence of these things? We exalt Christ, but not nearly so much as we should. We hate sin, but we still sin. We love the Bible, but often neglect it. Our sound doctrine bears too little influence on our lives. We love others, but still there is the old, familiar love of self. Does that mean we may not really have the Spirit, that we may not be saved? If you understand the Bible’s view of humankind’s spiritual deadness to sin, then you realize that if we truly have any of these things - incompletely but genuinely - it can only be because of the Spirit’s work. No Christian will be perfect in this life, but non-Christians will not bear these true marks of the Holy Spirit, especially when they are tested under trials.
(Richard D. Phillips, Chosen in Christ, 147)Second, some lack assurance because the church they were a part of was legalistic. Legalism is the arch enemy of assurance because you can never do enough and you can never do it well enough or long enough.
Third, doubt arises in people because they forget that spiritual growth and maturity is a process. Arminians can be genuinely saved. Even if you prayed the sinner’s prayer and accepted Jesus into your heart, you can be saved, though I believe most who do are not. Make no mistake about it, those things do not save, but God can still do a work of salvation despite the false invitation to the gospel. You see, the response to the gospel may be wrong, i.e. pray the prayer, ask Jesus into your heart, but the gospel itself may be biblical and accurate, i.e. God is holy, you are a sinner, Christ is the only Savior.
If someone prays the sinner’s prayer and asks Jesus into his heart, it does not necessarily and automatically mean that he is not trusting in Jesus alone for salvation. You may be genuinely saved, but when you learn the doctrines of grace, that one is saved by the sovereign distinguishing grace of God, you have a deeper appreciation for salvation, a greater love for the Savior, and a bold confidence to preach the gospel to the lost knowing that you cannot save anyone, but only God can. After all, “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed”(Acts 13:48).
Spurgeon himself said concerning the doctrines of grace:
When I was coming to Christ, I thought I was doing it all myself, and though I sought the Lord earnestly, I had no idea the Lord was seeking me. I do not think the young convert is at first aware of this. I can recall the very day and hour when I first received those truths in my own soul - when they were, as John Bunyan says, burnt into my heart as with a not iron, and I can recollect how I felt that I had grown on a sudden from a babe into a man - that I had made progress in Scriptural knowledge, through having found once for all, the clue to the truth of God.
(Charles Spurgeon, The Early Years, 164.)In his book Christianity and Liberalism, John Gresham Machen writes:
At the beginning of every Christian life there stands, not a process, but a definite act of God. That does not mean that every Christian can tell exactly at what moment he was justified and born again. Some Christians, indeed, are really able to give day and hour of their conversion. It is a grievous sin to ridicule the experience of such men. . . . Such experience is a very holy thing. But on the other hand it is a mistake to demand that it should be universal. There are Christians who can give day and hour of their conversion, but the great majority do not know exactly at what moment they were saved. The effects of the act are plain, but the act itself was done in the quietness of God. Such, very often, is the experience of children brought up by Christian parents. It is not necessary that all should pass through agonies of soul before being saved; there are those to whom faith comes peacefully and easily through the nurture of Christian homes.
(J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 140–141.)Salvation is wholly a work of God, from beginning to end. It is obvious that it has to be since we are spiritually dead (Eph 2:1), blind (2 Cor 4:4) and in bondage to sin and Satan (John 8:34, 44; 2 Tim 2:26).
Therefore, the response to the gospel, faith and repentance, both are gifts of God (Eph 2:8; 2 Tim 2:25). Nonetheless, it is man’s responsibility to believe (Acts 16:30-31) and to repent (Acts 2:37-38). God is sovereign and man is responsible.
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