A Shaky Assurance
I wonder if you can relate to any of this. One of the first things God the Holy Spirit did for me after I had come to faith in Christ was to give me a deep settled assurance of salvation. Romans 8:16 tells us that “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God…” This inner witness brought me the sure knowledge that despite my many flaws and failures, I was in fact His – His for all eternity. As I read the Scriptures, the wonders of this great salvation become clear – God had saved me, I was His, and Christ did indeed love me and had given me eternal life. Heaven sent joy and peace flooded my soul. I knew I could say, “I am my Beloved’s and He is mine.”
But then, somewhere along the way this settled peace was disturbed. The wonders of His grace, wrought through Christ and His atoning work became obscured… not because I read some book countering Christianity and was swayed by the arguments, but because I came across Scriptures that at least at first glance, seemed to show that my salvation was a lot more flimsy and shaky than I first imagined. Perhaps you can identify with this.
Here’s what I mean: I read Scriptures such as “nothing can separate us from the love of God” (Rom 8: 39) but then read “the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matt 24:13)
I read, “…whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16) and then read “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.” (1 Cor 15:1,2)
I thought, “which is it God? If someone believes, You say that they have eternal life, but here it says that someone can “believe in vain.” How could both statements be true?”
Completing the Work in Us
I read about how God started the work in us and would in fact complete it (Phil 1:6) and that “these whom He justified, He glorified” (Rom 8:30) showing me that none of His truly justified saints fall through the cracks, but all end up saved. I cannot for a moment imagine Jesus failing to fulfill the will of His Father, and in John 6:39 He makes clear what the Father’s will actually is: “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”
These Scriptures, and many others like them gave me great assurance that I was saved by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, but then I read other Scripture verses that would say things such as, “without holiness no one will see the Lord.” (Heb 12:14)
That was a verse that terrified me, plaguing my conscience continually. As holy as my life was compared to what it was before, (I now had a great love of the Scriptures and spent many hours each day studying them, even as a young teenager), I knew I never measured up to even my own standards, let alone God’s.
If I prayed for 20 minutes, the thought came to me, “if you were a real Christian, you would have prayed longer.”
Where did that kind of thought come from?
Doubts from the Enemy
I knew it was probably the enemy, but I had little with which to fight those thoughts. If I shared my faith with a friend, my conscience would point out to me that there was a guy walking down the street I could have stopped and witnessed to also. I could never do enough to assuage my conscience.
I heard sermons where the preacher talked about the difference between conviction of the Holy Spirit and condemnation (which comes from the devil) and although understanding this distinction certainly helped, my conscience still screamed that I was not as holy as I should be, and lurking at the back of my mind was the constant pounding of that haunting Scripture “without holiness, no one will see the Lord.”
The poisoned lies of the enemy were like fiery darts that assaulted my mind. The enemy can quote scripture (Matt 4:5). Looking back I can see that he was taking advantage of my lack of knowledge. Verses that were meant to add to me, to bless me, to inspire me and comfort me, became the source of great confusion and anguish of heart.
So what happened to change this ever deepening cycle of despair? My answer came by doing a lot of thinking. “Thinking?” you might say. That does not seem too spiritual.
Comforted by Truth
Perhaps you thought I might say that I had some sort of “experience” – that I went to some conference and experienced a vision of glory – or maybe I was taken up into heaven and given the privilege of seeing my name written in the Lamb’s book of life before returning back to earth. Well that’s not what happened. What happened was, I thought!
I knew that contradiction was not the hallmark of truth but of falsehood. I knew that God was not a liar and that His word was true. That was a conviction that never left me during this whole process. But what I came to understand was that there was a way to reconcile all of these statements in Scripture and make sense of them all.
The remedy came by understanding a simple concept – something I had been taught in school in an English class – the difference between the prescriptive and the descriptive.
“What? You are telling me that the enemy was put to flight through an English class. That doesn’t sound too spiritual to me either.” Well maybe so, but the truth became clear to me when I understand that there were two ways of looking at the second set of statements mentioned above. One way left me in great confusion, the other way brought everything into clarity.
The first set of Scriptures are very clear.. the one who believes has eternal life… whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved… and so on… The second set of Scriptures, which talk of the need to persevere, to continue in faith could be viewed as prescriptive (they tell us to do something) OR they could be viewed as descriptive (they describe actions being done). When seen as descriptive, all of them make sense.
Here’s what I mean. Lets take the Scripture “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt 24:13). We could interpret this as saying “well, you never can have assurance of salvation unless you first endure to the end.. case closed.. no one can ever have assurance…” That is one way to read the words and many in fact interpret the verse that way. However, that understanding would set itself in total opposition against the whole reason for an entire book of the Bible, namely First John.
John wrote “I have written these things to you that you might know that you have eternal life.” (1 Jn 5:13) John (and of course God, who inspired the words) wrote to make his readers assured of their salvation.
So again which was it? Is it “no one can know” or “God wants us to know”? The fact that God wants us to know we are saved is a clear statement of Scripture. There was no other way to understand the words. So the way to reconcile both statements became clear. The verse on the need to endure to the end is descriptive rather than a prescriptive.
Enduring: The Mark of a True Christian
Yes. A true Christian NEEDS to endure. In fact, he MUST endure.. all the way to the end. But here’s the truth that helped me so much: Saving faith endures, demonstrating it to be supernatural in its origin. The true Christian WILL endure. Matthew is describing the character trait of the true saint, namely endurance. If you see someone endure to the end, it is the evidence of the fact that they are a truly saved individual. The one enduring is a saved person.
The Apostle John made it clear that those who do not continue in the faith were never truly genuine disciples. 1 John 2:19 reads, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” Once again we see that the true Christian WILL endure – the enduring one is a saved person.
Oh how this helped me! I could then see that there is a false kind of faith that looks a lot like the real thing but is not genuine. Those who have this kind of “faith” will not last – they endure for a while, but when pressures of life and the cares of this world come, they fall away.
Doesn’t that sound a lot like one of Jesus’ parables? Yes, exactly – the parable of the sower (Matthew 13, Mark 4). Those who have the word planted in the soil of the heart do endure. Endure they must and endure they will! This understanding allows me to look at any of the Scriptures and believe them.
A Settled Peace
“But wait,” someone might say, “you haven’t yet endured to the end, so how can you be sure you will?”
Oh that comes back to the first thing I mentioned.. the settled peace that the Holy Spirit gave me when I first came to Christ. He gave me the assurance that I was His, and now asks me to examine myself to see if I am in the faith.. asking things like, “are you still enduring, even in troubled times?” The answer is “yes” – and the good news is that because He is the source of my faith (its not the product of my own fleshly carnal unregenerate nature) … because it is He who started this work in me, I can be confident of this – He will complete the whole process.
“But what about holiness John – are you as holy as you should be?” Well I have to admit, God’s standards are perfect, and I come short of the mark each and every day I live.
“Well then John, that means you can have no assurance of salvation, right?”
No, not at all, because I do sense some holiness, I do see growth in sanctification, being set apart to God.. but my standing with God is based on being justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and the wonderful truth is that Christ Himself IS my sanctification – though the process has begun in me of making me more like Him and many times I still fail to honor the Lord as I should, progress is being made.. I do want to be holy, I do wish to live free from sin… yet my standing in holiness is the very holiness of Christ.
“And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and SANCTIFICATION and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor 1:30, 31 – emphasis mine)
“Lord, make me more like You, help me to hate my sin more each day and love Your ways instead, and draw me closer to You, not to try and gain salvation by my works, but because I am a saved man, wanting, desiring, longing for more of You.”
The saved man endures, strives, presses and perseveres.. He must do so, and he will do so. Why? Because I am confident of this very thing – that the One who has begin the work in me He will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ. None of His true sheep will be lost. Hallelujah, what a Shepherd. Hallelujah, what a Savior!”