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No doubts about it

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Matthew 7:21-23

Sometimes God must wonder about the human race, and for good reason. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Compaq computer company is considering changing the command “press any key” to “press return key” because of the flood of calls asking where the “any” key is located. A Dell customer called to say his computer would not fax anything. Turns out the man was holding a piece of paper in front of the monitor and hitting the “send” key. A confused caller to IBM reported that his computer could not “find” the printer, even though he turned the monitor to face it. And a person called technical support for help with fixing the computer’s “cup holder.” The caller put a cup on the CD-ROM drive drawer and broke it off.

God wonders about us, and we wonder about him. The most common question I have been asked across my pastoral ministry is “How can I know that I am a Christian?” In recent weeks, very serious and urgent church members have come to me with this very issue. 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 their own doubts?

Don’t trust in religion

First, don’t trust in religion. That sounds strange in a religious service, I know. But it’s exactly the warning Jesus gives us today: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 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.”

Many will say the right words, calling Jesus their “Lord.” They will have the right urgency, repeating their affirmation of faith.

And they will have the right works:They will “prophesy” or preach “in your name,” representing Jesus, claiming to speak his words and carry his message.They will “drive out demons and perform many miracles.” Religious works of the highest magnitude and worth.

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. As we will see shortly, this is the only basis for admittance to heaven, for assurance of eternal life. God must know us.

It’s not enough that we know about God. If Cowboys coach Bill Parcells were to walk into the sanctuary this morning, you’d know him. But would he know you?

Jesus makes clear the fact that performance is not the basis for assurance. Saying the right words and doing the right works are the essence of religion. And yet they are not enough to know that you will be in heaven, to be sure of your faith and eternity.

I once read of a 90-year-old preacher who became a Christian.

A new pastor drove by his church one evening to see a crowd assembling. He stopped and asked someone what was happening. The man said, “They’re meeting to pray for the conversion of their new pastor.” The man went to the meeting, and came to saving faith in Jesus.

No seminary degree can give assurance of salvation. No words preached or works performed are enough. Don’t trust in religion—it will fail your soul.

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” (v. 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. We will walk on the road to abundant life, 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.

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.

Bruce Wilkinson, in his new book The Life God Rewards, explains salvation this way. Draw a line in your mind. Write “totally evil” on the left end, and “totally good” on the right. Put an X to mark how close to “totally good” a person would have to be to get into heaven. Where did you put your mark?

Let’s say you put the X at 70%. What if God requires 71%? You’d be lost. Where does he put the X? At 100%. His heaven is perfect, and can only stay that way if only perfect people are admitted. The pack of gum I stole at the age of five was enough to keep me out. Romans 3:23 includes every one of us: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” All.

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.

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.

Jesus promised: “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. You have it right now. You will never perish. When you breathe your last here, you breathe your first there. Jesus said, “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:26).

Now Jesus says of you, “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).

God’s word states, “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.

But we have questions.

Someone will say this morning, “I don’t feel close to God.” 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. I didn’t feel anything when I first asked Christ to be my Savior, and thus doubted my salvation for many months. 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.

Someone else will ask, What about free will? If we choose to trust Christ, can we later choose not to? 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.

And someone else will ask, What about my sins? I have failed the Lord. I have fallen so short of the person he wants me 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.

Conclusion

Are you sure that you’re sure? Are doubts plaguing your soul this morning? If so, there can be only two reasons.

One: you have trusted Christ as your Savior, but Satan wants to paralyze your spiritual growth and ministry. He knows that if you’re not sure about your faith, you’ll be hard-pressed to share it with anyone else. It will be a struggle to pray, to read God’s word, to worship, to minister, if you keep coming back to this most essential of all questions.

So settle this issue with me, right now. Remember the time you asked Jesus Christ to forgive your sins and become your Savior. Realize that it takes as much faith today to believe he saved you as it did to trust him then. Drive a stake into the ground. And the next time doubts knock at your door, answer them with this fact: you are the child of God. And will be his child eternally.

Now you can dedicate your life to giving this gift to others. Make your work your mission field. Pray for your lost friends by name. Seize every opportunity to give what God has given to you. They will be grateful for all of eternity.

The other reason for doubts this morning may be that you’re not sure you have ever met Jesus personally. You’re good and believe in God, but you don’t remember ever asking Christ to forgive your sins and save your soul. You have no assurance of salvation, because you have not received it as God’s gift. You can receive it with me, this morning.

If you’re far from the blessed assurance of faith, come home. You can, right now.

An English minister named Robert Robinson was a gifted preacher, poet, and hymn writer. After many years in the ministry, he began to drift in his spiritual life. He left the ministry, traveled to France, sank further into sin, and lost his assurance.

One night he was riding in a carriage with a Paris socialite who had recently become a believer. She was reading some poetry to him and asked, “And what do you think of this one?”

Come thou Fount of every blessing,

Tune my heart to sing thy grace.

Streams of mercy never failing

Call for hymns of loudest praise.

When she looked over at him she saw him cry. “What do I think of it?” he asked in a broken voice. “I wrote it; but now I’ve drifted away from him and can’t find my way back.”

“But don’t you see?” said the woman quietly. “The way back is written right here in the third line of your poem: ‘Streams of mercy never ceasing.’ Those streams are flowing even here in Paris tonight.”

Robinson recommitted his life to Christ and regained his blessed assurance. That stream of mercy now flows in Dallas, to your soul today. This is the promise of God.