The most common question I have been asked in 20 years of pastoral ministry is, “How can I know that I am a Christian?” I struggled with assurance of salvation for more than a year after my own conversion. How can you know that you know? How can you help those who have doubts? As we focus this fall on the most urgent and significant question in life, let’s consider two biblical principles.
Don’t trust in religion
First, don’t trust in religion. Such advice sounds strange, coming from a pastor. But it’s exactly the warning Jesus gives us, in the most somber sentence in the Bible: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21). These are the right words. “Jesus is Lord” is the first and central affirmation of the Christian faith. We find it written in Greek on catacomb walls in ancient Rome. Those who are baptized in our church say first, “Jesus is my Lord.”
We can say the right words and do the right works, and still hear the most terrible statement in all of eternity: “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (v. 23). “Knew” means personal, intimate knowledge, a personal relationship, not just a performed religion.
Trust in relationship
How can you be absolutely assured that you will “enter the kingdom of heaven?” Only in one way: “only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). So it is imperative that we ask, What is this will?
“My Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40).
“The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29).
“This is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us” (1 John 3:23).
Then our words and works will reflect our personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We will bear the “fruit of the Spirit” as a natural result of branches connected with the vine (John 15:1-17). We will walk on the road to abundant life (John 10:10), and our words and actions will witness to that life. We will serve Jesus with sacrificial commitment, repentant hearts, and transformed souls. And one day, instead of hearing “I never knew you,” we will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:21), the most blessed words in all of eternity.
Knowing Jesus intimately
So let us be sure that we know Jesus in this intimate, personal way. For many years I wasn’t sure. I thought God had a scale, with the good at one end and the bad at the other. I hoped I was good enough for the scale to tip in my favor. Millions of Americans still think the same way: I’m good and believe in God, so hopefully that will be enough.
So what are we to do? Nothing. Our salvation depends not on what we can do, but on what God has done. His perfect Son came to earth and died in our place. His death did not pay off the debt of his own sin, for he was sinless. Rather, it paid off the debt you owed this perfect God. Now when you ask God to forgive your sins, he can. He can place you at the “totally good” end of the line. You can be in his perfect paradise. When you ask Jesus to forgive your failures, repent of them, and ask him to be your Lord, he answers your prayer. And he “knows” you, personally and eternally.
You can be absolutely sure
When he “knows” you, he will never forget you. You can be absolutely certain of your salvation. Not because of your words or works, but because of his. You have his word on it:
“Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). From the moment you “believed in him,” you received eternal life.
“Whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:26). You have eternal life, right now. You will never perish. When you breathe your last here, you breathe your first in heaven.
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28). You are not holding onto him—he’s holding onto you.
“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). You are a new creation, the child of God. It is not possible for you to return to where you were before you met Christ.
You are his child, and will always be his child, just as my sons will always be my sons. No matter how they feel, or what they say or do, they cannot go back and not be my sons, because they were born as my sons. You were “born again” as the child of God, and will be his child forever.
Believe your beliefs and doubt your doubts: common doubts
Asking Jesus into our lives as Savior and Lord is the essential step to eternal salvation. But many people have questions about this fact, and about their experience with faith.I don’t feel close to God:
The most common doubt I’ve heard is this: I don’t feel like I’m a Christian. I don’t feel like going to worship, or reading the Bible, or praying. I don’t feel what I used to feel about the Lord. Or, when I prayed a salvation prayer I didn’t feel anything. And so I’m not sure my experience was real. (This is what happened to me.)
The Bible replies: nowhere does God’s word say how it feels to be a Christian. Our feelings depend on the pizza we had for dinner last night, or any of a thousand other circumstances. When I became a Christian but had no emotional reaction, I immediately began wondering what was wrong with me. I heard wonderful stories about burdens lifted, great joy flooding hearts, but none of that happened for me. It was a great relief to discover that it didn’t have to. Feelings are the caboose, at the end of faith—not its engine.What about free will?
A second common question concerns our God-given free will. The Lord created us to worship him, and worship requires a free choice. And so he made us with free will, and will not violate this freedom. This is why some people never trust Christ, no matter how many times they hear the gospel, no matter how many believers are praying for them. We may be sure that the Lord is doing all he can to bring them to faith, but he will not violate their freedom.
And so some people wonder: if I choose to trust Christ, can I later choose not to? Can I be saved, then choose to lose my salvation? No more than a child can later choose not to be born. If a person claims he once knew Christ but now rejects him, I would say he never knew him. And I would do all I could to help him meet Jesus personally.What about sin?
Here’s a third reason some people doubt their salvation: they still sin. We fail the Lord. We fall so short of the person he wants us to be. The Bible replies: so did Paul. So did Peter, who denied Christ three times. So did the other apostles, who fled at the cross. So have I. So have we all.
If your assurance were based on religious performance, you’d be in trouble. Praise God, our assurance is not based on our words or works, but his. He says we are his children. His Son died to pay off our spiritual debt so we could join his eternal family. This is the word of the Lord.