Many theological debates come and go, but some remain. From the time of my childhood I can recall questions, debates and discussions surrounding the question, “Can a believer truly know they are saved?” Theologically this is often called the doctrine of eternal security, and it is asked by at least three different types of people:
- There’s the person genuinely seeking confidence of salvation. They want to know because they wish to overcome doubt and grow in faith.
- There’s the person seeking assurance in order to excuse unconfessed sin. They want to be told that their sin is in no way an impediment to assurance.
- There’s the person trying to reconcile the all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus for sin with biblical calls to perform good works. They are asking because they desire to reconcile biblical teachings on grace with biblical teaching on works.
So prevalent is this question, that it is addressed by almost every Christian denomination. Responses include: (1) Those who teach that you aren’t secure and can forfeit salvation through apostasy or lack of good works. (2) Others that teach you are secure if you have the right beliefs regardless of your good works. (3) Others teach that you can know through correct belief and evidence of good works. (4) Others teach that security has little to do with correct belief or good works and is attained by baptism or a covenantal relationship.
In many of the churches I grew up in, the question was answered this way: Yes, you can know; if you have the correct belief. Belief and only belief were sufficient for the full assurance of salvation. This seemed to square with the clear biblical teaching that salvation was by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works (Eph. 2:8-9). If salvation was not from ourselves, did it not follow that assurance must result from faith alone? Works-as I understood them-were encouraged but had absolutely nothing to do with eternal security.
Making the Question Personal
It may seem subtle at first, but part of the problem lies in the use of the word “security”, which can be defined as being free from any threat or loss. But I don’t think that’s what people are really asking. They aren’t asking, “Am I free from the potential threat or loss of my salvation?”, but they are asking “How can I KNOW if I am free from the potential threat or loss of my salvation?” This second question goes beyond the question of our status/standing/position with God (which the word security seeks to answer) to the very personal question of assurance.
Assurance is actually the word that appears in the Scriptures when the question at hand is being discussed, especially in Heb 6:11; 10:22 and 11:1. The Bible offers assurance to those seeking it. John prefers to use the words know, sure, and confidence (1 Jn. 2:3; 2:28; 3:14; 4:2; 4:17; 5:2; 5:13; 5:18); but with the same purpose: so that you can know that you are saved! Security is an attempt to describe the biblical concept of assurance, but it’s not actually a biblical word and can slightly shift the conversation away from a question that is innately personal to a question that is more about what God knows than what we are seeking to know.
Of course God Knows!
Obviously, if God is omniscient, God must know who is truly saved. And since salvation is a gift (Eph. 2:9), it is false to teach that one can earn it. Further, Jesus said,
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (Jn. 10:28-30).
Therefore in the mind of God, it must be true that the truly saved are truly secured by God, and those truly secured can never be snatched away. However, this still does not directly answer the very personal question, How can I know that I am saved? After all, we do not have full access to the mind and knowledge of God, and the Bible warns: Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 7:21a).
Many Scriptures bring clarity to this question, but few focus on this question to the degree that the book of 1 John does. This five-chapter epistle deals extensively with the theological question of eternal assurance and then offers pastoral direction for how to find it. Here is what John teaches:
- Eternal assurance requires correct belief in the person and work of Jesus (1 Jn. 2:22-24; 4:2-3; 5:20). Anyone who does not accept the deity, incarnation, or Messiahship of Jesus is a liar and has no assurance of salvation. But correct belief is not sufficient for full assurance. John makes it clear that:
- Eternal assurance is only available to those that love instead of hate (1 Jn. 2:9; 3:10; 3:14; 3:17; 4:20). If we do not display love-especially for fellow believers-we prove that we are not children of God. When we receive love from God, we must and will show love to others.
- Eternal assurance is only possible if we walk in the light, or keep his commandments (1 Jn. 1:6-7; 2:3; 2:6; 2:9; 5:2). Disobedience will happen, but a person who walks in the realm of darkness/lives like an unbeliever loses the assurance that is otherwise available.
- Eternal assurance is only available to Christians who admit their sin (1 Jn. 1:8). While we must avoid sin, to claim sinless perfection is a slight to the work of the Saviour who came to free sinners from their transgressions.
- Eternal assurance is only available to Christians who avoid habitual sin (1 Jn. 3:6; 3:8-9; 3:10). We have a choice to abide in him or keep on sinning (1 Jn. 3:6). Both expressions beg the question: what characterizes my life? A person’s assurance then is not defined in the moment but through an examination of his habits. Holy habits reveal that a person has seen and known him (1 Jn. 3:6).
Helpfully, John’s language is these texts are very abrupt and clear. He refers to those who reject these teachings as liars (1 Jn. 2:4), and false prophets (1 Jn. 4:1) and calls upon his audience to not be deceived (1 Jn. 3:7). There is no arguing his conclusions!
We can confidently affirm then, that correct belief about Jesus and his work is required for eternal assurance; but love, obedience, admission of sin and the avoidance of habitual sin are also necessary proofs of saving faith, without which assurance evaporates.