Allow me to rehearse to you a few random thoughts on the subject of assurance of salvation. From the time of the Reformation assurance of salvation has always been properly understood to be distinct from salvation. It is one thing to know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior through faith in Him. It is another thing to have the assurance of your salvation that you know Christ as your personal savior.
I came to Christ on March 31, 1974 in my apartment, in Torrance, California. When I retired for the evening, I was not at all sure what had happened to me. When I woke up the next morning, I still was not sure what had happened to me the night before. I recall thinking to myself while preparing for work the next morning, “If this is real, it will somehow reveal itself.” Little did I know that God had already planned for two separate occasions in which I would be suddenly and unexpectedly called upon to speak of things I had never before in my life been called upon to speak of. First, in the presence of professing believers, and then in the presence of belligerent anti-Christian men, I found myself called upon to declare if I had any interest in Christ. On both occasions, without advance notice or preparation that I was conscious of, I declared in no uncertain terms that I was a Christian. I somehow knew this to be true. From the perspective of decades, I realize now that I then had but a bud of the flower of assurance.
Not having come to Christ as the result of any church ministry, or the conscious efforts of any believer in Jesus Christ, I was somehow left to my own devices with respect to understanding the Spirit’s development in me of the assurance of my salvation. When I was finally invited to church, and subsequent to my baptism in that same church, I unconsciously accepted as appropriate the practice of supposedly bringing a sinner to Christ by leading him to repeat something called the sinner’s prayer, after which time that supposedly newly converted person was taken to First John 5.13 and given something called assurance based upon the statement of that single verse. It did not dawn on me until many years later that what the Apostle John took almost 5 chapters in his brief letter to establish in the heart and mind of the genuinely converted person should not be, could not be, accomplished by going directly to his conclusion and ignoring by overlooking his Spirit-inspired reasoning.
I now understand that there are several kinds of what is thought to be assurance of salvation. There is assurance of salvation that is scriptural, that is fostered only in the believer’s bosom by the Holy Spirit of God, and that quite frankly comes and goes as the believer yields to and also resists and grieves the Spirit who provides the inner witness of adoption and well-being. Next, there is assurance of salvation that is not scriptural, that is not fostered in the believer’s bosom by the Holy Spirit of God, and that quite frankly does not come and go as the person (who may or may not be genuinely converted) lives his life. This erroneous personal conviction that so frequently passes for assurance of salvation can be the result of two entirely different causes. Most usually it is caused by the professing Christian remaining convinced from the time he was taken to First John 5.13 by the well-intentioned personal evangelist who led him in praying the so-called sinner’s prayer. However, the other cause of this erroneous type of assurance of salvation can frequently be found in congregations whose pastors rarely, if ever, address the issue of assurance of salvation. In such cases, the church members acquire their faulty assurance of salvation entirely from their understanding of their pastor’s conviction regarding their relationship with Christ. Without anyone in the congregation understanding the dynamic at work, the church members derive their assurance of salvation, not from the personal ministry of the Holy Spirit who may or may not indwell them, but from their admired pastor. What a travesty!
A third kind of assurance of salvation, which I will only lightly touch on now, is the assurance that other church members have concerning a person’s relationship with Christ. There is no scriptural warrant for anyone to accept as true someone’s claim to be a believer in Jesus Christ without persuasive corroborating evidence. This is why the Apostle Paul urged the Corinthian congregation to examine themselves in Second Corinthians 13.5. This is also why the Apostle Peter insisted that every professing Christian be ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within him, First Peter 3.15.
I wrap up my thoughts by rehearsing to you my concern that there are many who are not Christians whose counterfeit assurance comes not from the Holy Spirit, but from a misused verse improperly handled by a sincere but mistaken personal evangelist, or by others who are wrongly led to rely on their pastor’s confidence that they are born again. Assurance of salvation is the work of the Holy Spirit alone, and is a distinct and separate work from regeneration. Sometimes the Holy Spirit’s provides assurance quickly. At other times the Holy Spirit brings assurance slowly. Assurance that is fostered in the believer’s bosom by the Holy Spirit is a delightful and comforting confidence that arises from the Holy Spirit working in the heart of the child of God. When the Spirit is grieved or quenched by sin, He sometimes chooses to withhold the assurance which properly comes only from him.
Ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ must to be very careful to make sure they are people do not inappropriately seek to give assurance to anyone. That ministry is reserved for the Holy Spirit alone. I call upon gospel ministers to also be very careful that they do not unconsciously or inadvertently lead their congregants to base their personal assurance of salvation on the preacher’s opinion or convictions about them.