Most of my life I have attended and ministered in churches that were associated with the Southern Baptist denomination. I have always enjoyed our missionary zeal, the doctrinal clarity in our confession, and the autonomy for individual churches. Growing up there was a single phrase that most all good Southern Baptist knew. The phrase was, “once saved, always saved.” Plus, I could quote John 3:16. That is all I needed to know on the subject right? It wasn’t until I got into my early 20’s that the phrase itself became troubling to me. To be clear, its intention is to promote the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, or eternal security. To this I whole heatedly applaud and stand in agreement, but I have seen many a person claim “once saved, always saved” and yet live like the devil. They believe that since they said a prayer, they are good with God.
One of the recurring questions that I get often in the ministry is “How can I be sure that I am saved?” John Piper recently touched on this subject while preaching at “The Cross Conference” (which I would commend to you) and I was just recently asked this question again by a young lady who seems to exhibit every outward Christian quality you could hope for in a teenager. It is a genuine question that many have asked and I believe to answer it all we need to do is to take a deep look…
Look to the Word:
The first place a person needs to look for this answer is God’s Word. You may have been taught a doctrine when you were small, but all doctrines need to be tested by Scripture. Does the Bible teach that a person can have eternal and everlasting life? Does Scripture teach that a child of God can have eternal security? I believe it most certainly does. John 3:36 says, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life.” Later in John’s Gospel he writes, “ . . . the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37). He even illustrates it in John 10 by saying, “and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.” Paul’s letters are filled with such great assurances as well. We find them in, Ephesians 1:3-13, Ephesians 4:30, Philippians 1:6, and many more places. However, my favorite is found in Romans 8 where Paul exclaims, “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified . . . who can bring a charge against God’s elect?” If God calls and God saves, then God also keeps. To be glorified is something that will not happen until we get to heaven. If a person who is saved is promised that he will be glorified one day, then it is a promise from God. It is apparent when we look to the Word, that a true child of God can indeed have eternal life and a security in it by looking at God’s promises from Scripture.
Look to the Witness:
In the same chapter in Romans, Paul makes an astounding statement. He says in Romans 8:16, “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.” Here we see that the Holy Spirit is our inner witness that we are one of God’s children. There are two witnesses here, however. First, the Holy Spirit bears witness that we are children of God, but secondly we also have a role in bearing witness as well, as verse 15 indicates. We (our human spirits) cry out, “Abba, Father.” Both we and the Holy Spirit are testifying to God the Father that we are His children. We can see the fruit of this in verse 26, which asserts that when we pray the “Holy Spirit intercedes for us.” Only one that is a child of God can have the third person in the Trinity bear witness for them. So, if you are ever struggling with this common question of assurance, one of the best ways to help find comfort is to ask the Comforter and Witness Bearer for help.
Look to the Work:
The third place we should look is at our work. By this I mean both internally and externally. Do you hate sin? Do you repent of your sin when you sin? Do you love to worship the Lord and to see Him glorified? If these are true, then these are all signs of the Spirit’s work in you. An unregenerate person cannot have these qualities (Romans 3:10-11). Galatians 5 lays out what it looks like for us when Paul lists the fruit of the spirit. Are these fruits bearing in your life? These are all works of the Spirit in you. One of the evidences that He is indeed at work in you is that it flows from the internal into your external life and work as well. In I John he writes to the believers giving them a test for their assurance. If these things are true of you as well, then the test of works should help you rest assured that you are a child of God.
1 John 1:5-7 (Walking in the Light)
1 John 1:8-10 (Confession of Sin)
1 John 2:3-4 (Obedience)
1 John 2:9-11 (Love for the Brethren)
1 John 2:15-17 (Hatred for the World)
1 John 2:24-25(Perseverance in Doctrine)
1 John 3:10 (Righteousness)
1 John 4:13 (Spirit’s Testimony)
We must keep in mind that even an unbeliever can live “well” by a legalistic list of rules. Unbelievers can exhibit self control, longsuffering, and many other fruits. If they are only external qualities and not internal then it could be easy to have a false sense of security as the Pharisees did. However, when you have both the internal work (you heart is for God and the Kingdom) and it over flows into external change (Love for your brother, obedient living, transformed life) then this work is evidence of your salvation.
After looking at these three areas you should be able to do as Peter said in II Peter 1:10, “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.” There is nothing mystical about having assurance. You don’t have to climb a mountain and camp for a week eating only fruit and drinking water while in a constant state of prayer like a monk. God’s Word, God’s witness, and godly work are all evidences that you are a child of God. There may be times in your life when you sin and you ask yourself “How could I really be a believer and continue in this sin?” This is a good question to ask. It may be that you never really have believed in the Lord. It may be that you have outward signs of faith, but no inward witness. If this is the case, then repent and believe. The gospel is for you. However, if you simply need a check because you have been seeing some sin creep up in your life, then I encourage you to repent and look at these three areas. The Lord is not in the business of hiding Himself from His children. He has given us the Holy Spirit as our Comforter and Guide. It would be my encouragement that if you seek assurance of your salvation, to seek these areas to help you rest assured that you are in Him, and that He is in you.
Soli Deo Gloria,
Adam B. Burrell