Over the long history of the church, uncountable reams of paper and years of hours of effort have been spent in an effort to deal with the issue of a believer's assurance of salvation. However, no one ever gets to read all that material. So, I have decided to add my bit of paper and effort to what has gone before for the benefit of those people who will "happen" upon it and, perhaps, take the time to read over it thoughtfully.
The first thing that needs to be addressed is the question of exactly what it is about which we are writing. There are actually two sub0ects involved. The first is the issue of "assurance". The other is the issue of "salvation".
For most people, the phrase "assurance of salvation" actually boils down to the question of whether a person is confident that when he dies he will go to Heaven. But, that is too simplistic a statement of the issue. There is more to assurance than simply being confident that you are heaven-bound. When John wrote his key statement concerning assurance, I John 5:13, he did not say that he was writing so that his readers might be confident that they would go to heaven when they die. Rather, he addressed the issue of their knowledge of their present possession of a qualitative and quantitative experience called "eternal life". Obviously, if they possessed eternal life, they would go to heaven when they died, but the issue of assurance was their present possession of eternal life--not whether they were heaven-bound. Therefore, we must expand the issue beyond simple "fire-insurance".
Part of the reason for this is that "assurance of salvation" in the Bible is not a one-issue concept. Salvation is not a one-issue concept. There are at least three kinds of salvation in the Bible and they are dealt with from two different perspectives: eternal and temporal.
By way of explanation, "salvation" in the Bible always has to do with deliverance from some threatening future possibility. But, sometimes the threat is against the physical, well-being of a person (his body is in danger of harm or death). Sometimes the threat is against the soul of a person (his ability to live without significant fear, worry, and other emotional pain, is being challenged). And sometimes the threat is against the spirit of a person (his ability to see himself as a person of worth, or significance, is being challenged). Thus there are three areas in which "salvation" is a critical concern.
Besides that, there are two other perspectives that tend to stir the pot. There is the perspective that sees salvation as something secured and guaranteed to the elect of God--so that once a person "has been saved", he is forever secure in salvation. And, there is the opposite perspective that sees salvation as something which God offers only to those who live up to a certain minimum standard of godliness. The logical end of this perspective is that one is only secure in salvation once he has died "in grace". For these reasons, "assurance of salvation" is a multi-issue concept.
Then, there are three promises of salvation. There is the promise of a perfect, judicial standing before God. This is necessary because of the Law's demand for perfect righteousness. This is the promise of Justification. Next, there is the promise of a power for deliverance from the reality of indwelling sin. This is necessary because a judicial standing does nothing inwardly about the reality of human twistedness. This is the promise of the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, called Sanctification. And, there is the promise of a final deliverance from the presence of sin and its promoters. This is necessary because fullness of life is impossible as long as sin is continuing to be promoted (sin yields death). This is called Glorification.
We mentioned earlier that all three of the "kinds of salvation" are sometimes addressed to this life and sometimes they are addressed to the life to come. This means that sometimes the biblical writer has the temporal well-being of the body in mind and sometimes he has the eternal well-being of the soul in mind. Sometimes he has the temporal well-being of the soul in mind, and sometimes he is thinking of the eternal well-being of the soul. And this is likewise true of the author's interest in the spirit. Now, as if these things do not insert enough rabbit trails to keep the mind boggled, then we add the previously mentioned question of whether "salvation" is viewed as a permanent accomplishment that is immune to future events, or whether it is viewed as a temporary thing that must be accomplished over and over as the future unfolds itself, we truly have a complex issue.
Therefore, with three objects of salvation (body, soul, and spirit), three promises of salvation (Justification, Sanctification, and Glorification), two spheres of salvation (time and eternity), and two perspectives of permanence (settled forever, once for all, or temporary and dependent upon future activity in respect to future events), I think that we need to begin by identifying exactly what it is about which we are talking.
Let us begin with the term "assurance". This term alone has several features that tend to complicate the issue before us. One of the first of these is the fact that "assurance", by definition, is nothing more or less than a frame of mind in which the person who is "assured" is confident of something unseen. This effectively translates into this reality: "assurance" is nothing more or less than "present believing". In other words, if a person is believing something, he is assured of the correctness and the reality of the thing believed. This means that "assurance of salvation" is simply "believing that one is, or will be, saved".
But, here we must digress briefly. Assurance is simply the consequence of an active faith, but assurance is a frame of mind. For this cause it is a fact that reality and "assurance" do not have to be in harmony with each other for both to exist. Therefore, there is such a thing as "false assurance". In such a case, a person would have a confident frame of mind about the unseen, or future expectation, but when the unseen became visible, or the future came to pass, the "assurance" would he shattered on the hard rocks of reality.
This is the first fly that gets into the ointment. When I first began to tell others about God's promise of eternal life, I ran across a young lady who had "assurance" that she would be accepted by God when she died and stood before Him. She claimed that because she had not done many of the sins that the rest of the world had, God would accept her into his heaven. If she continues to believe this until she dies, she will most assuredly go into Hell. So, she has "assurance", but it is not well-founded, and is, thus, a false assurance. It is false because she believes in a relative comparison of peoples' merit as the basis of salvation.
Salvation in the Bible is based, instead, upon the absolute perfection of the person and works of Jesus Christ and the offer of God to give that perfection to all who will trust Him to do that.
There is such a thing as false assurance, and there is such a thing as dying while being confident that you will be accepted by God and discovering too late that you will not be (note well Matthew 7:22-23). The first fly in the ointment is, therefore, the problem of false assurance.
To complicate things a bit further, it is also true that it is one thing to possess untested confidence and quite another to retain such confidence after it has been subjected to the fire. The reasons for this are two: first, there is such a thing as untested confidence; and second, man does not know his own heart. There are many subconscious commitments in man that he only becomes aware of when they are threatened. Untested confidence is that frame of mind in which a person has a conscious confidence that an unseen thing is true, but there is nothing "at stake". It is altogether ONE thing for a person to SAY that he is confident that he is going to heaven when he dies while he is living in good health and no one is pointing a gun at him. It is altogether ANOTHER thing to BE confident when you are dying, or being threatened with death. MUCH religious truth falls into this category of untested confidence. Men easily profess to believe many things, but in the time of testing they often demonstrate that the level of confidence that they had was simply a superficial profession that had no significant substance.
Thus the second fly in the ointment is the reality of a myriad of levels of confidence. It is one thing to have "assurance of salvation" when nothing exists on the horizon to give you a sense of unease. It is quite another thing to be "assured" when you are facing a loaded gun in the hands of a lunatic. The real problem here is that no one knows his own heart well enough to know just WHAT he substantively believes until that WHAT is challenged by a threat that reaches deeply into his heart. We all claim a greater level of confidence than we actually have. When I have a few thousand dollars in the bank, it is fairly easy to claim to believe that God will meet my needs for today and tomorrow. It is quite another thing to be confident when I have spent my last dime and there are no visible prospects of more dimes in the near future. So, the second fly in the ointment is the fact that there are different levels of faith and they are tied to different degrees of challenge. So it is easier to be "assured" when there are no threats present than it is to be assured when you are about to suffer significant loss.
Not all untested confidence is false confidence, but until the test comes it is impossible to really know whether one is "assured", or simply giving lip service to a reasonable possibility.
Now let's return to the issue of faith's relationship to assurance. If believing was a static thing, assurance would be a constant frame of mind. If the promise of God was ever trustworthy, it is always trustworthy. Believing once would forever settle the issue.
But, in the fallenness of man believing is not static. This is the third fly in the ointment. Every moment of every day harbors the potential of a departure from trust. And, every departure from trust has a "hole in the dike" character so that unbelief in one promise can easily erode confidence in any other promise. If that erosion process gets away from the person to whom it is happening, it can easily be the case that NONE of the promises of God are held confidently. This seems to have never dawned upon many today who seem to think that if one has ever had assurance of salvation, he will always have it. The fact is, however, that it is more the reality that assurance comes and goes as trust comes and goes, because assurance is simply the result of a mind-set of trust.
Some, however, because they like to argue on the basis of their perception of their own experience, claim to have never doubted their salvation once they obtained "assurance". What do we say to this claim? Three things: 1) it IS possible to gain assurance and never lose it; 2) it IS possible to have forgotten those times when one did not have assurance because those times are too long past; and 3) it IS possible that the person making the claim is simply a liar.
Let us digress again to pursue these three options. Since a person becomes a possessor of eternal life at the point of belief in the promise of God, it should go without saying that at that point the person has assurance that he has eternal life. To say that one can believe the promise of God and not be confident of that promise is to "double-speak". But at that point the faith that is being exercised is VERY new and VERY fragile. It can be upset quite easily. It can be turned into unbelief by many things. But faith and assurance are tied together so that faith yields assurance and assurance testifies to the presence of faith. For instance, Galatians 4:6 says "God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! (Father!)" [all quotes are from the NASB, parenthesis mine]. Romans 8:16 says "The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God." In the first, the cry "Abba" means that the person believes that God is his Father. He is therefore assured that he is a child of God. In the second, the Spirit's ministry to the believer is a ministry of persuasion that makes him know that he is a child of God. Therefore he has assurance that he is a child of God. Now if that were all there was to it, the issue of assurance would be moot. But it isn't.
The fact is, it is possible for the assured child to go in either of two ways from that point. First, he can go forward and build upon the foundation of faith in the promise of life. If he does he will stack promise upon promise. This will make the promises at the bottom of the stack less and less vulnerable to doubt because they will be integral parts of his way of looking at life. In other words, the believer can erect a dam of faith across the waters of chaos in his life by laying a foundation of belief in the promise of eternal life and then laying upon that foundation layer after layer of additional promises believed. This will effectively dam up the chaos of his life. In such a dam, a hole anywhere is significantly dangerous because of the possibility of growing erosion, but, the foundation is always the last to go in such an event. If this is the course taken from the initial point of salvation, it is possible for that person to never lose his assurance of salvation because it is so close to the bottom of the stack of the things he believes.
But, it is just as possible for the assured child to go in a backward direction. Since initial faith is often a very fragile thing, if the person who has exercised it has too much turbulence in the waters of the chaos of his life, it is possible for him to lose his confidence in the promise of God. Such a loss means a lack of assurance. Though the issue of security in salvation is another, though connected, issue (being secure and being aware of one's security are two different things), it probably ought to be said at this point that the believer's loss of confidence costs him only his assurance and not his salvation. Nevertheless, If this is the direction that the believer takes from the point of his salvation, it will be the case that he has no assurance of his salvation. It probably ought to be said at this point that this second option is more the norm for believers than the hypothetically possible first one given above. That John wrote I John 5:13 ("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") indicates this fact. Remarkably, it is apparently possible to have a quality of experience called eternal life and not even know it! (Is this because there is so little difference between having eternal life and not having it, or is there another reason?--we digress). If assurance was automatic to faith in Jesus' identity John's words would be totally unnecessary. If our logic at the beginning holds up, assurance IS automatic to the act of believing God's specific promise of life. But men do not automatically recognize logical connections between doctrinal truths. John wrote to bring two truths together: that faith in Christ means possession of Christ, and possession of Christ means possession of eternal life.
This brings us to the second possibility that we mentioned earlier concerning those who claim to never have doubted once they gained assurance: the possibility that they have simply forgotten those old battles because they are long years away from them. It is POSSIBLE that they never doubted -- it is more likely that time has worn away the ability of the memory to recall the truth.
The third such possibility--that such a claim is simply a known lie--remains. Some men are so intent on being 'right' in theological debate that they use any means to put forth a 'winning' argument--even lies. Unfortunately this is far more common than we want to admit (the Bible says ALL men are liars), but we will spend no more time on it.
Now, let us return to the point of our digression. We made the claim that assurance comes and goes as trust comes and goes because assurance is nothing more than the consequence of a mind-set of trust. This raises the question of the problem of a trust that comes and goes. That trust comes and goes is simply a fact of life (not an excusable, nor desirable one, but one nonetheless). Trust depends upon many things simultaneously. The first of these is the personal ministry of the Spirit of God. Other things should probably be discussed as His instruments: the Word of God; the emotional-physical-intellectual state of the child of God; the truth-affirming experiences of the past (both near and far, but with the near ones having the most influence); and the presence of believing believers whose lives push their contemporaries to believe like they do.
And, to add to the complexity, trust is not an all-inclusive phenomenon. It is possible to trust one promise while disbelieving another simultaneously. This reality makes the building of the aforementioned dam possible. But, it is also true that ONCE THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN PROMISES IS ESTABLISHED, disbelief in one promise compels disbelief in all that are seen to be linked to it. This is what makes the erosion of the dam possible. Thus, there is a tension. Building links between promises (i.e., understanding the connection that exists between the various promises of God) makes the dam stronger and holds the chaos at bay more effectively. But, that same understanding can be disastrous if one of the promises comes to be disbelieved--for it will tear out all of its linked fellows if and when it goes. That could be the ruination of the dam itself. But, we are drifting...
The chief point that we want to make from the above is that assurance of salvation is tied directly to confidence in the most fundamental promise of God. As such, it has to bear the weight of the development of the dam. If it can be hindered, the dam will never be built. On the other hand, if it is established in trust, the dam can be erected upon it and gradual sanctification can be accomplished. Thus, it is a critical reality.
It is at this point that we want to take issue with both those who claim that assurance arises from the declaration of God alone, AND with those who claim that assurance arises from the presence of the dam (progressive sanctification). If assurance were the result of the declaration of God alone, John would never have written, "by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments...We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren...By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit...These things I have written...that YOU may know that you have eternal life" (I John 2:3; 3:14; 4:13; 5:13). Obviously, for John, KNOWING that you have eternal life, that you know Christ, that you have Him abiding in you, and that you have passed out of death into life was not a simplistic matter. The reason is that trust is not a simplistic matter. When doubt assails, the believer needs the Spirit of God's ministry to him AND His instruments of ministry. The Spirit seldom operates without His instruments, and the instruments are helpless without His infusion of power. The plain fact is that assurance arises from several factors simultaneously, and can stand only for a short time on only one of those factors.
Let me illustrate. Most believers become believers because the Spirit of God uses a combination of the written Word of God, the living expression of that Word in someone close to the person under discussion, and the personal experience of that person. Thus, He persuades of the truth of the written Word (as it becomes understood) by means of the personal experiences of the person under conviction and the evident testimony of the truth in the life/lives of another/others with whom that person is acquainted. It seldom happens otherwise. Thus, faith rests upon the skillful use of evidence by the Spirit. Evidence persuades of the truthfulness of the Truth, and faith says yes to the evidence.
Likewise, doubt comes into the picture when one or more of these instruments breaks down. For example, some portion of the written Word is misunderstood. The misunderstanding creates a tension between confidence and understanding. Doubt ensues. Or, some experience of the person seems to belie the statement of the written Word. Doubt ensues. Or, the believer whose influence was the Spirit's instrument in original faith stumbles, and the stumbling becomes an occasion of stumbling. Doubt ensues. Or, the composite example of many scoffers challenges the newly found faith. Doubt ensues.
The point is: both faith and doubt (which is simply faith in a contrary claim) rest upon evidences. If those evidences are strong enough, faith will occur. If the evidences seem contrary to the Truth, we call believing them "unbelief" because we believe in a lie and discount the Truth. If the evidences support the Truth, we call believing them "faith" because we believe in the Truth and discount the lies. In either case the issue is evidence as it is used by those who have access to our minds and hearts: the Spirit of God, and that spirit who works in the sons of disobedience.
For this cause John wrote I John. He wanted to give several strands of evidence so that we might have confidence (assurance). One strand upon which John built is the inner testimony of the Spirit (the same inner testimony of which Paul wrote in Romans 8). This obviously is the critical strand, but not the only one. John pointedly begins his letter with existential/experience-based terms (our hands handled, ears heard, eyes saw). For this cause we should understand that he intends to give experiential strands of evidence. Love for the brother IS a testimony to the presence of faith. Obedience to the Word IS a testimony to the presence of faith. The Spirit's tangible, inner witness IS a testimony to the presence of faith. Thus, it cannot be wrong to base assurance upon these strands of evidence.
The error comes when one tries to make the issue totally either/or. Those who say assurance comes from the Spirit's use of the Word of God without life-based evidences are technically correct in so far as that goes. The inner witness of the Spirit is enough for a while in the life of the believer. But, only for a while. That is why a new-born believer can have assurance apart from dynamic life-changes, or faith-wrought works. But, when time goes by there becomes a necessity for more than the inner witness of the Spirit. Why? Because the same gospel that originally promised eternal life also promised the presence of the Spirit, and, the same gospel that promised the Spirit also promised His inner workings to accomplish a real, present, deliverance from sin. Therefore, if there are no life changes (no real deliverance), the hole appears in the dam at the point of the promise of real deliverance. If that hole is enlarged a tad, the promise of the Spirit will come into doubt. If that occurs, the witness of the Spirit may easily become the third casualty--and at that point there is no assurance of salvation because all has been brought to doubt by the absence of something actually promised.
On the other hand it is true that the Spirit seldom uses ONLY the written Word of God to create, or maintain faith. And, those who claim that evidences in the changed life of the believer lead to assurance are correct in so far as that goes. But, they are dead wrong when they deny assurance to the person who has only the inner testimony of the Spirit (such as the new believer).
The thing that both parties seem to ignore is that faith is not static, or predictable. A new believer can have strong, or weak, faith and assurance, and an old believer can also have strong, or weak, faith and assurance. The unpredictable factor is the ministry of the Spirit and His use of persuasive instruments. In the end, a person has assurance because the Spirit communicates that to him and then builds it into his total faith-world-view so that it becomes an integral part of his way of looking at life. And a person lacks that assurance if, for one reason or another, the Spirit withdraws His confirming evidences. Thus, there is a reason for not grieving or quenching the Spirit--because sin leads to doubt.
Now, having shown that assurance is simply the consequence of a mind-set of believing, the next step is to consider the objects of that faith. This brings us to the issues involved in "eternal life". Salvation is part of what eternal life is all about. And, as we have already said, salvation considers three different scenarios of disaster. It is to these three matters that we now turn.
The first "scenario of disaster" is an indestructible body being cast alive into a lake of fire. The gospel's offer of "salvation" addresses this scenario. It promises a resurrection to life as opposed to a resurrection of condemnation (John 5:29). Thus, there is a salvation of the body. Having assurance that one has this salvation is being confident that one will go to heaven and not hell when he dies and that he will inherit the City and not the Lake of Fire after the resurrection.
But, there are many temporal scenarios of disaster for the body--not the least of which is the gradual disintegration of the body until one cannot function for oneself without the help of others. The gospel addresses this problem with a promise of "sufficient grace" (II Corinthians 12:7-10). Thus, "assurance of salvation" means a confidence that sufficient grace will be available in times of physical distress.
But, because this promise is held in derision by many today, some have created a gospel to address this problem. They call it the gospel of health. If a person has "assurance of salvation" in respect to the body in time, it means that he believes that health is always available to him through the work of God the Holy Spirit. But, this is false assurance. The New Covenant not only does NOT promise health and physical well-being, it, instead, promises a gradual disintegration of the body (New Covenant language is "our outer man (the body) is decaying": II Corinthians 4:16).
Thus, the first aspect of salvation is the salvation of the body. This salvation is only promised in eternal terms by way of resurrection. The promise of this salvation in temporal terms is an illusion and distortion of the gospel.
The second "scenario of disaster" concerns the soul. In this scenario, the emotional life of a person is threatened with such loss that fear, stress, and worry constantly eat away at the soul of a person. The gospel addresses this threat with two particular promises. The first is the promise of a City in which only joy-yielding influences are permitted. This is a promise for eternity. The second is a promise of the personal presence of Jesus Christ at all times ("I will never leave you, nor forsake you": Hebrews 13:5-6). This is a promise for time. Thus, "assurance of salvation" in this respect is confidence that we are headed for the City, and, until we get there, we will always have the personal presence of Jesus Christ with us.
Because the promise of Jesus' presence is esteemed lightly by many today, some have come up with a different gospel to address the soul's need for security in the face of temporal stresses. It is the gospel of "wealth" This gospel teaches that God wants all of His children to be secure through abundant material possessions. Assurance of salvation in this gospel simply means that one believes that he will soon become wealthy by the will of God. But, this is a false assurance and comes from a false gospel in which Jesus' presence is not valued highly enough to give rest to the soul in the face of stress and strain.
The third "scenario of disaster" threatens the spirit of man. This scenario contains the threat that man's significance and worth will be destroyed so that he will be seen and treated as a nothing and a nobody. All the talk these days about "self-esteem" is nothing more or less than a recognition that man recognizes the danger of being brought to nothing in the minds of others. The gospel addresses this scenario with two specific concepts. First, there is the concept of the death of Christ for sinners. This concept establishes the value of sinners far above all other values--for God died in their place to redeem them because of the great value that they have in His eyes. How much more important can one become than to have God die for him? Thus, the one who believes that Christ died for him must be assured that he is important. The second concept is that of an inheritance in the Kingdom of God which comes off of faithful service in this life. In this concept God recognizes the status of His faithful servants in a tangible way by openly rewarding them before all the eyes of heaven. Thus, for eternity they have significance. Assurance of this aspect of salvation means that one is confident that one day he will hear God say "Well done, thou good and faithful servant!"
Because God's promise to reward LATER is held in light esteem today some have come up with another gospel in which status in this world is promised. It is an illusion. Jesus was hated by this world and He promised those who followed Him they would be also. This distortion of the gospel focuses upon "respectability" and all of its tentacles. Those who promote it seek to build impressive empires.
To clarify, let us repeat. Hell has three threats: constant aggression against an indestructible body by fire (searing pain in a body that cannot cease to be); constant aggression against the soul by multiple and unending events which cause the gnashing of teeth in the terror of darkness (searing pain in the soul with no relief); and constant aggression against the spirit by multiple and unending events in which others are constantly demeaning and ridiculing (searing pain in the spirit caused by a total sense of worthlessness arising out of the fact that God has cast them away from his presence). The gospel makes six promises: two for the body (Sufficient Grace in time and resurrection to immortal status in eternity); two for the soul (an enduring presence of Jesus in time and an enduring City in eternity); and two for the spirit (He died in the place of sinners--a truth for time; and God intends to openly reward His servants in the Kingdom to come--a truth for eternity).
Thus, "assurance of salvation" is a concept that addresses six levels of difficulty (three kinds of salvation in two spheres: body, soul, and spirit in time and eternity). This is why "assurance of salvation" is no simple matter.
Now, the next area of our pursuit of this subject is the interrelationship between the six areas of difficulty in respect to the problems of assurance.
The six areas are interrelated. Body, soul, and spirit are integrally related to each other. Problems in one area can easily lead to problems in another. For instance, when a person gets physically ill, it often causes him to think that God is upset with him. This is the body's impact on the spirit. And, often illness causes one to begin to fear for the financial future. This is the body's impact upon the soul. By the same token, often health is taken to signify divine pleasure. This is the body impacting the spirit. And, just as often, physical health tends to a spirit of optimism about the future. This is the body impacting the soul.
Likewise, worry in the soul can produce illness in the body. And, a sense of worthlessness in the spirit can produce anxiety in the soul and sickness in the body.
Thus, the issues are interrelated. And, "assurance" is tied to them all. If, for instance, a physical appetite gets out of control so that sin is accomplished (gluttony, adultery, drunkenness), the result is often a loss of the "assurance of salvation" simply because the unbelief that permitted the physical appetite to get out of control spills over into the soul and spirit with the result that one ceases to believe that God loves (a truth for the spirit) or that He is present (a truth for the sou1). Thus, the sin of the body has led to unbelief across the board.
Likewise, if a soul-appetite gets out of control so that sin is accomplished (greed, fearfulness, anger, etc.), the result is often a loss of the "assurance of salvation" simply because the unbelief that loosed the soul to its licentiousness spills over into the body and spirit so that one ceases to believe God's promises in those realms just as the promise in the realm of the soul is disbelieved.
And, if a spirit-appetite gets out of control so that sin is accomplished (boasting, approbation-lust, man-pleasing, etc.), the result is that "assurance of salvation" is lost because the unbelief that allows one to seek status somewhere other than in God's love also spills over into the body and soul and unbelief reigns uncontested.
Thus, "assurance of salvation" is tied to behavior as it springs out of faith or unbelief. The reason is not that salvation is dependent upon behavior. Rather it is that assurance is dependent upon faith -- and sin destroys one's ability to be believing. In the final analysis, the Spirit of God generates faith. And, He often withdraws from that task when He is grieved or quenched; spending His time and effort upon conviction of sin and attempting to bring one to repentance instead of creating a sense of security.
Therefore, we can say that assurance of salvation is confidence in the promises of deliverance that God has made. But, whether one has that confidence or not depends entirely upon the ministry of the Spirit of God to him. And, that ministry is not automatic, nor impact-permanent (He does not always solve a problem completely once for all).
Now we must address the issues of the promises which lead to salvation. There are three. There is a promise of justification that leads to salvation from the guilt and eternal-state penalty of sin (Hell). There is a promise of gradual (for time) and ultimate (for eternity) sanctification that leads to salvation from the power of sin in one's life. And there is a promise of glorification that leads to salvation from the presence of sin altogether. These promises must be addressed because they are the content of the faith that leaves us "assured".
Let us first consider justification. This promise is a promise that God will consider the sinner as if he were His Son, Jesus Christ. God has made Christ, who knew no sin, to be made sin for sinners, so they could be made the righteousness of Christ before God's eyes: II Corinthians 5:21. This promise is given in view of heaven's requirement that all who inherit the Kingdom of Heaven be absolutely perfect in righteousness. Since this is impossible for man as sinner, it must be accomplished for him by a sinless One who then gives, or attributes, His perfection to the one who believes: Romans 3:22-26. Assurance of salvation in this regard means that one believes, and is assured, that he possesses the righteous standing of Christ before God. Those who have justification will go to heaven when they die.
Next, there is gradual and ultimate sanctification. Sanctification simply means being set apart from sin unto God. In time, that is a process that gradually occurs by faith in the Spirit of God, the Great Sanctifier. In eternity it occurs instantaneously when the believer is caught up to be with Christ. This is a promise that sin will no longer have power over the believer. It is made in light of the law of the harvest in time and in light of the enduring quality of a sinless kingdom in eternity. The law of the harvest in time means that you will reap as you sow. Gradual sanctification means that you will become more and more submissive to the Spirit as the days go by. Ultimate sanctification means that when you see Him you will be like Him: sin will no longer have any power over you. The result of sanctification is that sin loses its power. To have assurance of this aspect of salvation is to believe that God is at work in you to give you power over sin's impulses in your body, soul, and spirit. It IS a PROCESS. Ignoring this fact causes much loss of assurance of salvation because defeat by sin often clouds the vision to the reality of gradual growth in power over sin. The picture is seldom as bleak as it looks in the midst of failure. Those who have sanctification will have a place in the City of Servants.
And, finally, there is the promise of glorification. This is the promise that one day we will be caught up to be in a totally righteous kingdom where sin will not be permitted to be. This promise deals with the ultimate establishment of our hearts in righteousness so that sin is not even present. Assurance of salvation in respect to this promise means that you are looking forward to the day when sin's impulses will not exist in you or in any of those around you. Those who have glorification will inherit positions of service in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Now there is one final matter: the perspectives of eternal security and its alternative, temporal insecurity. In some ways this is the question of whether a person who is not walking by faith CAN have assurance that he is Heaven, City, and Kingdom bound.
On the one hand, there are those who claim that the Bible teaches that once you have been justified, you are permanently saved so that nothing can keep you from God's eternal kingdom. On the other hand, there are those who claim that the Bible teaches that you can move backward from justification so that you lose that judicial standing before God.
Interestingly, both of these groups believe that it is possible for a person to have "assurance of salvation". There is a difference, however, in what is considered "assurance of salvation". Those who believe in once-for-all justification consider "assurance of salvation" the confidence that one is heaven-bound no matter what. Those who believe in the possibility of the loss of justification consider "assurance of salvation" the present confidence that one is heaven bound because he is presently walking in faith. The key word is "present". According to those who say you can lose your justification, if a person is walking in faith in the present, he is presently confident that he is heaven bound. Should he cease to walk in faith, he will cease to have confidence in his heavenly destiny because he will not have such a destiny.
Here it is helpful to remember two major points in our argument: 1) assurance is a frame of mind that is not necessarily tied to reality; and 2) assurance is the consequence of present believing. The reason this is helpful is that the two positions on justification are actually two different gospels with a confusion regarding the biblical doctrine of assurance.
Let me explain. Let us take the "eternal security" position first. This position's gospel is that justification rests upon a person's having once believed the promise of eternal life through the Person and Works of Jesus Christ. The strength of this position is that it minimizes the human element of faith and maximizes the divine element of Jesus' Person and Works. This issue is a matter of focus. A focus upon faith diminishes the focus on Christ's Person and Works whereas a focus upon Christ's Person and Works diminishes the focus on (but not the necessity for) faith. The weakness of this position is that it often argues that a person can have assurance of salvation when that person is walking apart from faith. This is a patent confusion of the realities of assurance. ASSURANCE FLOWS FROM PRESENT BELIEVING. IT DOES NOT FLOW FROM EMBRACING A DOCTRINE OF ETERNAL SECURITY. If a person believes in a doctrine of eternal security when he is walking in faith, he is simply assured that Christ's Person and Works are, and always will be, sufficient to deliver him from eternal death. But, if such a person ceases to walk in faith, having formerly believed in eternal security does not mean that he presently has assurance of salvation. The reason? Simply that unbelief has an inescapable eroding impact on doctrines formerly held in faith. The matter that caused the person to cease to walk by faith also has the ability to cause the person to doubt that the doctrine of "eternal security" is trustworthy. The fact is, "eternal security" is only a comfort to the one who is presently believing--but it is present believing that gives that comforting assurance.
On the other hand, let us consider the position of those who believe that justification is a conditional judicial decree. This position is actually a different gospel than the one we just considered. This position's gospel is that justification rests upon the continued believing of a person in the Person and Works of Jesus Christ. The problem here is that the requirement of a continued believing shifts the focus FROM the Person and Works of Christ TO the human requirement for faith. This effectively translates into a gospel of faith in the human ability to believe. Thus, it is a false gospel. BUT, it has a valid perception of assurance because its position is that one can only be assured while one is believing.
Thus, what we have is a true gospel with a confused concept of assurance arising from doctrine instead of faith, and a false gospel with a legitimate grasp of the reality that assurance arises from active believing. This is enough confusion to drive most people in either of two directions: either they will retreat in confusion to previously held dogmas (and cease to grow in their understanding); or they will pursue the truth through the confusion so that they come out with greater understanding and more confidence in the God Who brought them through. Retreat is, obviously, not the best route.
Actually, the question of eternal security versus temporal insecurity is the question of whether God is the author of salvation or man--and, as such, is a different question than the question of the assurance of salvation. If man believes strongly enough in himself, he will have an "assurance of salvation" even though it will ultimately prove to be an illusion. On the other hand, even if God is the author of salvation, if a man is not actively believing that, he will not have any assurance that he will be saved.
Assurance of deliverance. Do you have it? If you do it is because you are believing in a specific promise of God. If you do not it is because you are rejecting a specific promise of God. However, you cannot conjure up the faith to believe what you do not believe. So if you are without assurance there is only one thing you can do: "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!"