Today we continue our series on Gospel Convergence concerning the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith; each week I will reflect on a chapter of the Confession. I would encourage you to pick up a copy of the confession and read along with me.
A Tricky Business
The topic of assurance is indeed a tricky business, and the Confession openly acknowledges that this is the case. It is possible, argues the Confession, for unregenerate men to ‘vainly deceive themselves with false hopes and carnal presumptions of being in the favour of God and state of salvation’ and yet for them to find that this ‘hope of theirs shall perish’ (pg. 79). Nonetheless, it is also possible to be certain of our salvation and have assurance of eternal life with Christ. The Confession puts it this way:
[Y]et such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavouring to walk in all good conscience before Him, may in this life be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed. (pg. 79)
This is why it is such a tricky business, because some people who enjoy assurance are simply deceiving themselves, while others are not. If we are assured of our salvation which camp do we fall into? How can we tell?
First John is perhaps the place to turn in order to test whether our assurance is legitimate or not. Toward the end of his letter John reveals that the purpose of writing this letter is so that his readers ‘may know that you have eternal life’ (5:13). This is achieved by a checklist of sorts.
First, John tells his readers that a holy lifestyle is evidence of a legitimate assurance. He writes ‘if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin’ (1:7). Again, ‘you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.’ (2:29); then it is stated negatively, ‘No one born of God makes a practice of sinning’ (3:9).
Second, and undoubtedly as part of this holy living, those who enjoy legitimate assurance obey God’s commands. John tells us ‘by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments’ (2:3).
Third, legitimate assurance is evidenced by true love for Christian brothers and sisters. ‘Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling’ (2:10). Later in the letter, John then urges ‘Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God’ (4:7).
Fourth, assurance can be confirmed by the presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s life. This is not necessarily evinced by speaking in tongues, delivering prophecies or orchestrating miraculous healing. Rather, John, speaking of the Holy Spirit, writes ‘But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie – just as it has taught you, abide in him’ (2:27). Twice more John explains to his readers that we know God abides in us because of the Spirit he has given us (3:24; 4:13).
Fifthly, assurance can be trusted when we live with a clear conscience. John writes lovingly, ‘Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God’ (3:21).
Finally, in this brief race through 1 John, we are told that assurance can rest on a right doctrine also. John explains that a right confession about who Jesus is offers us assurance. ‘By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God’ (4:2). Indeed, ‘[w]hoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God (4:15). Finally, it is true that ‘[e]veryone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God’ (5:1).
This is by no means a comprehensive survey of 1 John, and it is not a case of picking and choosing the elements which suit you. Rather, if all of these things are true of you then you ‘may know that you have eternal life’ (5:13).
We return to the Confession again. It is possible after reading the above ‘checklist’ that we may be fooled into thinking that our assurance rests on all the things we do and believe, but that would be a mistake. Our assurance can only be assurance when it is based on the object of Jesus, rather than our subjective feelings based on our ‘spiritual performance’ this week. The Confession makes clear:
This certainty is not bare conjectural and probable persuasion grounded upon fallible hope, but an infallible assurance of faith found upon the blood and righteousness of Christ revealed in the gospel (pg. 79).
That being said, assurance is not a golden ticket that has booked us a seat in heaven despite our lives here on earth. Our sin: wounding our conscience, submitting to temptation, negligence in spiritual disciplines all contribute to a diminished and shaken assurance (pg. 81). And rightly so, lest we presume on Christ’s sacrifice for sin we still revel in!
Moreover, even though it is certainly founded wholly on Jesus sacrifice, we do have the responsibility of making our calling and election sure so that our ‘heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance’ (pg. 80).