Fanny Crosby was born on March 24, 1820, and by six weeks old she lost her eyesight. But through her life, the loss of her physical sight did not prevent her from fixing the gaze of the eyes of her heart upon the Lord Jesus. In 1873, of the 3,000 hymns she wrote, she penned her most famous one, “Blessed Assurance.” The hymn opens in this way,
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine! Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of his Spirit, washed in his blood. This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long. This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long."Blessed Assurance"
She wrote out of the conviction and the solace she had found in the Lord, “blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!” There is no greater or more blessed reality than to know that Jesus is yours and that the Lord holds you in His hand (cf. John 10:27–29). What a comfort and relief it is to know with certainty that you abide in Christ and that He abides in you (cf. John 6:56; 15:4, 5). How glorious it is to have, as we read in Heb 6:11, “the full assurance of hope.”
As I write this, I recognize that some of you who will read this, do not have a settled resolve that you do belong to the Lord. For some, it might be because you do not actually belong to Him, whereas for others, you do belong to Him, but you lack assurance of your salvation. In ministry one of the most common topics that is brought up to me concerns the assurance of one's salvation.
If you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Scriptures are clear that the Lord desires for you to have assurance concerning your salvation. Put differently, if you belong to Him, He wants you to be confident in that reality. We know this from 1 John 5:13, where John says concerning what he wrote in his letter, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” John wants the church to be confident in the eternal life that they possess. If that’s John’s desire, which is God’s desire per 2 Pet 1:19–21, then how is his purpose statement accomplished? How can believers be confident in their eternal life? That’s what we’re going to speak about in this article.
If God desires for you to have full assurance, but you do not always, then the question becomes… why? Why don’t you always have, from the moment of salvation, a complete resolve that you belong to the Lord? The direct reason for the lack of assurance is sin (which will be explained). That’s why in 1 John, John writes to promote and encourage faithfulness to the Lord, seen in following after Him. The direct answer to having assurance is obedience which flows out of the gospel that you have been marvelously saved by.
Within the context of assurance, we are not speaking about someone truly losing or gaining salvation based on obedience. Both of those are distortions of the gospel. Jesus gives eternal life, not the potential of it, to all who believe in Him (cf. John 3:16–17, 36; 10:28). All who come to Jesus by faith, He will never cast out (cf. John 6:37). The reason someone is saved is that God has graciously caused a dead sinner to be born again, therefore, while our assurance most fundamentally is knit to the heart of the gospel––in God’s work, our assurance is then lived out in walking in good works (cf. Phil 2:12–13; Eph 2:10). The finished work of Christ is our hope and the guarantee of our assurance, but our faithfulness to Him, or lack thereof, can affect our confidence of belonging to Him.
While the root of lack of assurance is due to sin (in disbelieving the promises of God to one degree or another), there are many reasons that a person might lack confidence that he or she belongs to the Lord. It could be that you see others who are more zealous for the Lord and thus feel convicted and question, “if they are doing x, y, and z… and I am not, how can I be a Christian?” It could be that a brother or sister came along and made a comment calling into question the legitimacy of your salvation. It could be that you look at the faithfulness of the saints in the Scriptures in your private devotion and you see how they love Jesus and hate sin and you begin to wonder about your standing before the Lord. It could be that you have misread God’s word leading to concern, or are living in a season Lord seems to be more distant relationally, and you are not trusting in His word. Another possibility is that there is a sin that you have just committed or a string of sins during a season of life which causes doubt in you.
Enter 1st John. John is writing to show what authentic Christianity looks like. We won’t look at the entire book, but there are key passages that shed light on how John sees believers having confidence in their eternal life. Keep in mind, John is writing to those who have been saved by the gospel (1 John 5:13a), who may have doubts due to incipient Gnosticism, as a shepherd who desires that they would have resolve in the promises of the Good Shepherd (1 John 5:13b).
He begins after his introduction in 1 John 1:5–7 by saying,
“And this is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not do the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.”
I think it can be easy for us at times to sidestep verse 5 and look directly at verses 6–7. But John begins by directing our gaze upon the Lord. That’s vital. In a conversation about assurance, particularly for the one who’s lacking it, the solution begins by looking to the Lord. It begins by reminding ourselves of who God is.
Paul says in 2 Cor 3:18, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” We are a people who are to be consumed with beholding the Lord with our mind’s eye. He says in 2 Cor 4:17–18, “For our momentary, light affliction is working out for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” Twice in two chapters, there’s an expectation that we are looking upon the Lord. In Col 3:1–2, Paul writes, “Therefore, if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.” We are to have our minds set on Jesus. That’s confirmed in Heb 12:1–2 which says, “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, laying aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us, let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Christians are to be a people who have their gaze fixed upon Jesus. And who or what is more desirable to dwell on than Him?
Oftentimes, the reason for lack of assurance comes because a person's gaze isn’t fixed on Jesus, but on him or herself. To be clear here, I am not calling for a lack of watchfulness in the Christian life. We are to keep an eye on our life and teaching (cf. 1 Tim 4:16). But if you dwell on your sin, you are sure to commit more and become weary concerning your salvation. Robert Murray McCheyne once said, “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.” That’s a great model. We should be aware of our sins, but they should drive us to Jesus. We are called to dwell on Him, not sin… over and over in the Bible.
John begins his treatise on assurance by speaking about the Lord. God is Light. He is the radiance thereof, in His holiness. There’s no darkness or waywardness in Him. Then John says that there should not be a lifestyle of waywardness in God’s people. What John is teaching is that the people that the Lord has redeemed reflect Him. They image Him forth in this world. If God is light, then so too are His people (cf. Matt 5:14). We are to represent and display Him on the earth. But when we walk in sin, we are not doing that. When we walk in sin, we are going against God’s design for us. That can be a cause for questions about the topic of assurance.
In Rom 8:14–17, Paul writes,
“For as many as are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons by whom we cry out, 'Abba! Father!' The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, also heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.”
If you belong to the Lord, the Spirit testifies and bears witness within you that you belong to the Lord. That occurs in the moment of salvation and is designed to occur throughout the rest of your life. However, if you are walking in sin, you will oftentimes hear the sweet sting of conviction from the Spirit, even over the testimony of your sonship. The Spirit will not affirm us in our sin, He will spur us in the side, to deliver us from it. Praise the Lord for that! Then we once again hear His internal testimony.
John also goes on to say in verse 8, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Christians are not perfect in this life. While the word “saint” means “holy one,” we are not perfectly holy until we see Jesus and are like Him (cf. 1 John 3:2). What that means is while we are positionally holy in salvation because of God’s justifying work, we are becoming more of the people who we’ve been declared to be, day by day in progressive sanctification (cf. Rom 8:29–30). Christians are not sinless and won’t be until glory, but over time we should become more like the sinless One that we follow.
So far, we have seen that to have assurance of salvation, you must dwell on the Lord. You must think much about the One you have been saved by. We have also seen that you must live a life following Him. If you are seeking to live for the sins of the world and for Jesus, do not believe you will have assurance. In 1 John, we see that God doesn't promise you that. What we do see is that we do not earn salvation, therefore we cannot do anything to lose salvation. That lies in the hands of the Sovereign who made you, which should be a comfort for believers.
The pattern continues as we read on. 1 John 2:1, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” We are called to not sin, to live in that which put Jesus on the cross. But, when we do sin, building upon 1 John 1:8, 10, then who do we dwell upon and run to? Jesus. Our loving Father and our dear Savior welcome us back. Sometimes in sin, there’s a temptation to believe that God’s love has changed toward you, as though His posture has changed so as to stiff-arm your return to Him, but nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus stands ready, at your aid and defense when you do sin. Call to mind the picture of the father of the prodigal son who, when his son returns after living in sin, runs out to him “and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him (cf. Luke 15:11–24).” The Lord welcomes His own with open arms. We are called to confess our sins and run to the Lord (cf. 1 John 1:9).
As John goes on he explains that those who know and love God, keep His commandments. That’s building upon Jesus’ words in John 13:15, “If you love Me, you will keep my commandments.” What that looks like, as John goes on, is walking like Christ, loving your brother, avoiding the sins of this world out of a superior love for Jesus, and being taught of the Holy Spirit, which implies a study of God’s word.
Then in 1 John 3:2–3, we read, “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not been manifested as yet what we will be. We know that when He is manifested, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.” John continues to beat the same drum. God’s people are to dwell on Him. That’s what we were designed for. Apart from Him, we can do nothing (cf. John 15:4–5). We are to dwell on Jesus and turn away from sin. Jesus came to take away sins and destroy the works of the devil (cf. 1 John 3:6, 8). How can we live in that which Jesus came to set us free from (cf. Rom 6:1, 15)? Again, this is a call to live a lifestyle pattern of obedience.
John goes on to explain how those that love God love others, they cry out to God in prayer, they are discerning, and they dwell on the gospel. He says in 1 John 4:9–10, “ By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” After which, John says in verses 16–18, which again pertain to assurance,
“And we have come to know and have believed the love which God has in us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this, love has been perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment, because as He is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.”
If you have believed in the gospel, you are loved by God, and you need not fear judgment because of the work of the Son of God on your behalf. John says in 1 John 5:12, “He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have that life.”
If you have truly believed in Jesus’ sinless life of obedience to the Father, His substitutionary death on the cross, and His resurrection to life… if you have trusted in Him for the salvation of your soul, for eternal life, and you have turned away from living for sin to follow Him, you are saved (cf. Rom 10:9–10). Maybe in reading this far, you realize that the reason for the lack of assurance is because there are no grounds for it to begin with, in that you’ve never believed in the good news of the gospel. If that’s you, believe in Jesus Christ for the salvation of your soul. You must.
But I reckon, some of you may have been disturbed with doubts because you have been walking in sin. My encouragement to you is the same as John’s, dwell on the Lord, and forsake sin. You will once again hear the sweet song of the Spirit in your soul confirming you belong to the Lord. Cry out to the Lord in prayer for this confirmation.
God desires for you and has designed for you to have assurance. The Christian life is one of walking by faith and not by sight, trusting in the promise of God’s word, even at times, over our feelings. Feelings can be misleading, but God’s word will not mislead you. In Heb 11:1, we see a definition of faith, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is tied to assurance. If you have believed in the gospel, then seek to live a gospel-saturated life, resting and trusting in the finished work of Jesus for your salvation, and walking like Jesus as you live on this earth.
I want to close with two final considerations. First, oftentimes when someone comes to me concerning the topic of assurance of salvation, there is a concern from the individual that he or she doesn't belong to the Lord. In such a case, I will remind them of Paul’s words in Rom 3:11 in speaking of unbelievers, “There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God.” Unbelievers do not genuinely seek after the Lord because they love Him and don’t want to offend Him. It doesn’t happen. Dead sinners do not have spiritual life or desire for God, only for following Satan (cf. Eph 2:1–3). If you have a fear of offending the Lord, so as to be separated from Him, in some ways, that’s actually a good sign. Unbelievers do not care about offending the Lord or being separated from Him. They fear hell, sure, but not the displeasure of God. That’s a sign of God's work in your life.
Second, because God loves us, when we do sin against Him, He will often discipline us. Do not mistake God’s discipline as a reason to doubt that you are saved. Instead, it should stand as a validating marker that you are. In Heb 12:5–7 we read,
“'My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, Nor faint when you are reproved by Him; For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, And He flogs every son whom He receives.' It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?”
God brings about discipline so that we will be more satisfied in Him, and less desirous of the sins of the world.
My hope is that after reading this either you have a more settled assurance in the Lord or that this is a resource that can be an aid to you as you seek to provide counsel to others concerning this topic. Our Lord desires that you would know that you have eternal life and that you would have the blessed assurance of knowing that Jesus is yours forevermore.