Assurance of Salvation
These things I have written 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 NKJ
Question 80 of the Larger Catechism, asks, “Can true believers be infallibly assured that they are in the estate of grace, and that they shall persevere therein unto salvation?” It gives the answer, “Such as truly believe in Christ, and endeavour to walk in all good conscience before him, may, without extraordinary revelation, by faith grounded upon the truth of God's promises, and by the Spirit enabling them to discern in themselves those graces to which the promises of life are made, and bearing witness with their spirits that they are the children of God, be infallibly assured that they are in the estate of grace, and shall persevere therein unto salvation.” Last time we considered the great doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. This week we look at the comforting doctrine of assurance of salvation: that all true believers can and should know that they have everlasting life.
The Protestant Reformation is most often remembered and hailed as the time God restored the important doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone to the church. We also think of the five solas of the Reformation, which in addition to faith alone include: Scripture alone, grace alone, Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. However, during the Counter Reformation, when the Jesuit Order was founded and then employed in order to stop the Protestant movement, it was the doctrine of Assurance of Salvation that was chiefly attacked. In the latter half of the 16th century, Jesuit Priest and Cardinal Robert Bellarmine wrote in his work On Justification, “The principle heresy of Protestants is that saints may obtain to a certain assurance of their gracious and pardoned state before God.” Echoing the Council of Trent, Bellarmine understood that if Christians could be assured of their salvation by faith apart from works and the sacramental grace distributed by the Church, then the whole Roman sacerdotal priestly hierarchy would necessarily fall to the ground. Therefore, to try and snuff out Protestantism, Roman Jesuits focused their attention on the doctrine of assurance. If they could only get men to reject assurance, then all of the Protestant solas would be defeated.
Thus, today’s question defines this most important doctrine for Christians. First, notice that only true believers who live out their faith can be assured of their salvation! The doctrine of assurance does not promote antinomianism, as it has been always been slandered of doing. The Bible refutes those who say “Let us do evil that good may come,” (Rom. 3:8), or “…who turn the grace of our God into lewdness,” (Jude 1:4). Justification is by grace alone through faith alone, but not by a faith which is alone! Since the faith that justifies is a living faith, which must evidence itself in good works, all Christians who truly believe in Christ should be able to look at their lives and, as the Catechism states it, “discern in themselves those graces to which the promises of life are made.” If true and false prophets are distinguished by their fruits (Matt. 7:16-20), how much more are true and false believers? The uniform teaching of Scripture is that ordinary Christians should be able to make their “call and election sure,” (2 Peter 1:10), and that not by some “extraordinary revelation,” such as Rome teaches, but merely by looking for the infallible and certain evidences of the work of the Spirit in their lives.
Accordingly, the Scripture at the head of this article is from that book of the Bible which explicitly declares that its purpose for being written was to give believers assurance of salvation. One of the things that ministers have to do when they preach or teach the Word of God is to determine the context of the passage they are teaching. Why was this book written? What was the issue the apostle was addressing? Who was his audience? The answers to questions like these are crucial if you are going to rightly understand and apply Scripture to your life. Therefore, we love having a book like First John, which tells us its purpose! As a minister I do not have to work very hard to discern the reason why First John was written. John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, tells me: “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life,” (1 John 5:13a). God gave His Church the book of First John to teach the doctrine of Assurance of Salvation! We can and should make our calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10). And doing so will not drive us from God to embrace sin, but will draw us nearer to Him in the full assurance that comes not from an extraordinary revelation, but from simple faith (Heb. 10:22)!