Q: You have studied assurance of salvation extensively. Why is this an important topic for the church to learn about?
A: We don’t have the public angst about assurance like earlier generations of Christians (probably because most people think it’s easy and common for people to become Christians). But this may change over the next years, as it becomes more difficult for people to profess Christian faith publicly. Assurance of salvation is important because in the New Testament, it is the normal state of the believer. God is utterly trustworthy. His promises of grace are sure. When we entrust ourselves to him as the Savior, our certainty should be of the same quality as his own trustworthiness.
In reality people’s assurance varies from one believer to another, and from time to time for the same believer. Some people are naturally bold; others are more timid. Too many preachers fail to urge believers to obey Christ in the power of the Spirit. Thus believers have a guilty conscience, but don’t know what to do about it (repent, and renew their faith in Christ). Then there are the sufferings we face—we know much more today about the traumas that people face, especially in their family lives. These may make us ashamed of the past and fearful of the future. I suspect more people today struggle to believe in God’s personal love for them than in many other times and places. Part of it is that we are very used to comfort in the West. When it is shaken—as it always will be—we are inclined to think ill of God’s intentions toward us. Paul was concerned to give assurance to the suffering believers in Rome. He does so in Romans 8, by teaching them about God’s predestination and the outworking of his plan, in Christ, to renew the entire cosmos.
But to return to the question, assurance of salvation, or assurance of God’s love for us, is very important because it frees us to live the lifestyle of the Kingdom of God: Jesus tells us not to try to find status and acceptance, like the Pharisees (Matthew 23:1-12). They had no confidence (faith) in God’s love for them. He contrasts the disciple of the Kingdom with the Pharisee: “But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled; and whosoever shall humble himself shall be exalted” (Matthew 23:11-12). We have that status and acceptance, as his God’s children, purely by grace. When we know that and know his love for us, we are freed in many ways, to live before him. We can be like Jesus in serving others. It’s life from the dead!
Q: What are some of the key points for Christians to understand about the doctrine of assurance of salvation?
A: The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 18, captures the necessary balance. Assurance is just faith that has grown strong. How? First, and mainly, by the believer resting in the absolute certainty of the promises of God in Scripture. Here we look away from ourselves to Christ and what God has done in his death and resurrection. We receive these promises over and over in reading, hearing the Word preached, and receiving the Sacraments. Second, we are able to see, with a fair judgment of ourselves, the work of God’s grace in our lives. (This is what John points out in his first epistle.) Third, the Holy Spirit witnesses directly to us that we are God’s children. When these three work together, a person grows in faith and confidence before God. At a younger age, I thought that assurance was largely an activity of looking inward. But introspection is a major mistake. Every Scripture I list below says that we come to know God’s love only in healthy relationships in the Church. When we serve, we get out of ourselves and begin to see God at work through our gifts. Others grow on account of our service and we grow too. We get a sober and tested evaluation of ourselves. In 34 years of marriage, Jackie and our children have given me a better sense of myself than I could possibly have attained alone. All this is from God.
Q: What bible passages would you point someone to, if they are interested in learning more about assurance of salvation?
A: Matthew 5:1-12; Romans 5:1-11; Romans 8:14-39; 1 John.
Q: What would you say to a non-believer about this topic?
A: There is certainty about all of life in the utterly sovereign God. He speaks with absolute truthfulness in the Bible. He cannot be defeated, and he has entered our world in Jesus Christ, to overcome every evil, through his cross and resurrection.
Q: If someone wanted to read more about assurance of salvation, what’s a good book to read?
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 3. This is the book that helped me see the centrality of faith in the living Christ, for the entire Christian life.
William Edgar, A Transforming Vision, The Lord’s Prayer as a Lens for Life.