For the first three months of 1997, I wrestled with whether or not I knew Christ on a daily basis. Every night before I closed my eyes to sleep I prayed the sinner’s prayer hoping that this would be the time I finally felt like a Christian.
The problem was I wasn’t a Christian and had no basis upon which I should believe that I knew the Son of God or have a peace which surpassed all understanding. Despite two trips through the baptistery, enrollment in a Christian university, and a “call” to the ministry, the reality of the Gospel had never become clear to me. I had never abandoned trust in religious rituals or good works and rested in Christ alone for peace with God.
On Maundy Thursday, I rode across Mobile Bay with a friend to hear an evangelist we knew preach to a community worship gathering on a high school football field. I could not recreate an outline of the sermon I heard that night, but the words “some people have just enough religion to soothe their souls” cut me to the core. That night, seated in an uncomfortable metal chair on a high school football field, I repented of my sins, trusted in Jesus Christ, and experienced what I can only describe as the light coming on.
The thrill of my early Christian assurance soon ran into the brutal reality that I was still a sinner. This led to my lack of assurance returning with fury. Wanting to turn to the Bible to find assurance, I misread the tests in 1 John and only found assurance based on how well I was obeying God. This led to an unhealthy roller coaster. A “good” day of obedience meant full assurance and enthusiasm to come before the throne of grace. A day marked by a lack of obedience often led to shame and fear which stymied my desire to pray. Then this created more shame and fear further eroding my prayer life which culminated in DEFCON 1 levels of shame and fear. The cycle had to be broken or the joy of my salvation would never be a reality.
Most people don’t expect to find the answers to their spiritual questions in a three-hundred-year-old confession of faith, but the 1689 London Baptist Confession brought light into the dark night of this young Christian’s soul. Speaking of the assurance of grace and salvation, the confession says “This certainty is not a bare conjectural and probable persuasion grounded upon a fallible hope, but an infallible assurance of faith founded on the blood and righteousness of Christ revealed in the Gospel; and also upon the inward evidence of those graces of the Spirit unto which promises are made, and on the testimony of the Spirit of adoption, witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God; and, as a fruit thereof, keeping the heart both humble and holy.” The writers of the Second London Confession said that Christians can have an immovable assurance. To discover this assurance, they point Christians to the promises of the Gospel, the fruits of faith in their lives, and the internal witness of the Holy Spirit to find it.
Many teachers use the vivid, but imperfect image of a three-legged stool to help Christians understand how to have the assurance of their salvation. Just as a person cannot sit on a three-legged stool when one or two legs are missing, a Christian cannot have the full assurance of their salvation, as well as the peace and joy which accompany it, when one of these three key elements are missing from their lives.
The formulation laid out by the Second London Confession echoes the teaching of John’s first epistle. In this letter, he wrote to Christians so that they may know they have eternal life. To show them how they might have this confidence that they know Christ, he pointed to all three legs of the stool. While many readers of 1 John most see his appeals to the fruits of the faith most clearly, he holds up the promises of the Gospel and the witness of the Spirit in a clear manner as well.
If you are a Christian who struggles with assurance, you can look to these three sources to find the joy and contentment which comes with knowing that you know Christ.
The Promises of the Gospel
Unfortunately, our three-legged stool analogy has one major flaw. One leg bears more weight than the others. The most fundamental source of Christian assurance is faith is the promises made to us in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) “My little children, I am writing these things so that you may not sin, but if anyone does sin we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:1-2) “In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he has loved us and sent his son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)
These verses reveal the basics of the Christian Gospel and remind us of important truths we must believe so that we might have assurance. 1 John 2:1 reminds us that we have an advocate with God the Father when we sin and identifies him as Jesus Christ the righteous. Ordinarily, our advocate would stand before the judge and plead our lack of guilt, but we are guilty and this guilt cannot be covered up or denied. That John identifies him as Jesus Christ the righteous gives us a clue as to what our advocate pleads before the Father- his own perfect righteousness. The Christian has no righteousness of our own to plead, but through faith in Christ he pleads his own righteousness for us.
We look to Jesus because of his perfect life, and also because of his death for us. John identifies Jesus as the propitiation for our sins. Jesus died in our place for our sins, bearing the wrath of God for us, and turning his wrath away from us. We should be judged eternally by God for our sins, and yet Jesus bore our guilt so we could go free through faith in him. Because of Jesus’ death, we have the privilege of living as the adopted sons and daughters of God who have a future and a hope through him. When the Christian does sin, we confess our sins to God and he keeps his promise to forgive and cleanse because we are in union with Christ.
The Fruits of Faith
John doesn’t only point us to Christ for assurance, but also to look at the work of God’s Spirit in our lives. In the Gospel of John, Jesus said his disciples would bear much fruit and John shows how the fruit of obedience demonstrates itself in our lives. John lays out several tests to help Christians evaluate whether their profession of faith is real.
He accomplishes this by showing the fruit that will be present in the life of a Christian. The question is not one of perfection, but of direction. The Christian will have these things in them and they will be growing. At the same time, the person who possesses a false profession of faith will demonstrate it in the lack of transforming graces.
John shows that a Christian will be a person who is growing in godliness and putting to death the sin in their lives. Both in 1:5-7 and 3:4-10, John shows the changes that will take place in the life of a Christian because of their union with Christ. The Christian walks in the light instead of in the darkness. Just as God is light and has no darkness at all in him, the Christian increasingly walks in the light instead of the darkness. The Christian does not make a practice of sinning because Jesus came to take away sin and destroy the evil one. Because these things are true, Christians should examine their lives to see if they are making progress in the faith because this is a test of the reality of their faith.
John’s teaching on love for our brothers and sisters in Christ takes up a considerable amount of real estate in his letter. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Jesus said the world will know his disciples by their love for each other. Since Christians have experienced God’s love in Jesus Christ, they will now show that love to others. The one who has been born of God and knows God loves their brothers; the one who has never been born of God does not know God. God is love, and John says those who know the loving God will love their brothers.
In the upper room discourse, Jesus said his disciples would be in the world and not of it. Building on this John says Christians will not love the world or the things that are of the world. He does not mean the people of the world or the physical creation, but what the world values and promotes. He defines these as “the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride of life.” The person who is a Christian will see an increasing hatred of the things of the world, forsaking them to pursue the things that are eternal.
The Witness of the Holy Spirit
“And by this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.” John mentions this leg of the stool briefly, but this does not diminish its importance. God gives believers his Spirit to dwell in us and the Spirit gives us the assurance that we belong to the Lord. We call this the internal witness of the Spirit and it is the inward testimony of the God’s own Spirit that we belong to him.
Paul elaborates on this for us in Romans 8 when he calls the Holy Spirit “the Spirit of adoption,” and explains the Spirit’s ministry in our lives as one of testifying to our adoption as the sons of God. Every Christian will reign with Christ in the new heavens and the new earth, but we often doubt the reality of our promised inheritance. The Spirit bears witness to the reality of our adoption and his presence in our lives is God’s pledge to the surety of our heavenly reward.
Look to Christ
The witness of the Spirit and the fruits of faith in our lives ebb and flow, but they will surely be there. The Christian will experience the Spirit’s testimony and see the increasing fruit of a maturing walk with Christ. When we don’t see or feel these realities as strongly as we have before we must resist the temptation to morbid introspective navel-gazing. Instead, we must look to Christ who perfectly obeyed on our behalf and then gave himself in our stead. Even when we don’t feel the witness of the Spirit or see the fruit of the Spirit as strongly as we think we should, we should remember the promises made to us in the Gospel. Look to Christ, and you will never be disappointed or cast away, but will find the inexhaustible joy God gives to his children through his Son.
“When a Christian Dies“
For Further Reading:
The Quest for Full Assurance by Joel Beeke