Assurance, Justification & Sanctification

How do you know that you are really a Christian?

The trouble with Christians is that they tend to look at themselves too much. The trouble with looking at yourself too much is that you will eventually freak out.

Why? The longer you look at yourself, and I mean truly look at yourself, you will be forced to acknowledge the truth…that you are still a sinner. Not just someone who commits a few sins here and there, not just someone who has a few dark secrets, but a sinner. That is, someone who is very seriously infected with a bias toward evil.

There are only so many excuses you can make before you reach the inevitable conclusion. You’re a fraud. Christians should not think these thoughts, feel these emotions or act in this way. You cannot possibly be a real Christian. Can you?

Don’t Confuse Justification with Sanctification

The problem here is that we look to ourselves for assurance rather than to Christ. When we do this we confuse two categories: justification (our status before God) and sanctification (change in the way we live).

The German Reformer, Martin Luther, wasn’t kidding around when he spoke of Christians being “at the same time both righteous and sinners”. Neither was Paul confused when he described his own experience in Romans 7.

So I find this law at work: although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

The normal Christian is both righteous and sinful, wretched and delivered. How can that be possible? It is possible as long as we don’t confuse justification and sanctification. In terms of our justification, that is our status before God, we are righteous and we are delivered. On the other hand, in terms of our sanctification, the way we live our lives, we are sinful and wretched. We are changing, but we are always affected by our sinful nature.

If we look to the righteousness of our lives for assurance of our salvation we will be unsettled because our lives do not paint a very clear picture of the reality. Our justification does not depend on our sanctification. Rather than look at our ungodly selves, we need to look to Him who justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5).


Assurance & Justification

Why do Christians struggle with assurance of their salvation? In the last post I explored the Bible’s teaching about salvation generally. In this post I want us to go a little further and think about how that salvation works. At the heart of the Gospel, at the heart of salvation, is the doctrine of justification.

What is Justification?

Justification is one of the most important terms used by the New Testament in order to describe our salvation. It is a legal term, drawing its meaning from the pronouncement of a verdict in a court of law. In God’s economy, to be justified is to be declared “not guilty” of sin and therefore to be free from any fear of condemnation of judgement.

In the New Testament a person is justified by God when he or she turns to Christ in faith and repentance. Jesus’ death and resurrection effectively cleanse the Christian of all their wrong-doing and cover the Christian with Christ’s right-doing so that they are “justified” in the sight of God.

We are not justified by anything that we have done, but rather by grace alone through faith in Christ alone.

Therefore justification means that Christians can walk through this life in the full assurance that when they face final judgement at the end of time, they already know what the verdict will be. It is as if they have never sinned and always obeyed. They are justified.

This glorious reality is given to us as a gift, free and undeserved.

Justification and Assurance.

The connection between the doctrine of justification and assurance should be fairly obvious by now. If you have turned to Christ in repentance and faith then you are justified and should have no fear of being condemned by God.

So why do we fear?

At one level we fear because our faith is weak. It is one thing to clap for the man taking the wheel-barrow across the tightrope, it is another thing entirely to get into the wheel-barrow. It is important to remember that the strength of our faith may affect our subjective experience of salvation in this life (happiness) but it never affects the objective reality of our salvation. Christ is our Saviour, not faith. It is the presence of faith, not the strength of it that matters.

The one who sits in the wheelbarrow on the tightrope, with eyes closed and fists clenched may not be having fun, but he is still in the wheelbarrow. He is safe in the hands of the one who holds him, whether he knows it fully or not. One day, he will see that there is nothing to fear. For now, he just needs to sit tight.




Assurance & Faith

Saved by “Faith”?

Faith is a fairly important concept in the Bible. True faith is amongst the highest of virtues and false faith among the most dangerous of pitfalls. It seems prudent, therefore, to make sure that we understand what “faith” means. How can we discern the difference between true faith and false faith?

It won’t do to simply look it up in a dictionary because, as the old adage goes, “Bible words have Bible meanings.” During the Reformation, this became a matter of necessity because  one of the debates between Protestants and Roman Catholics centred around the doctrine of “salvation by faith alone.” The Reformers arrived at a pretty nifty threefold summary of true faith which involves knowledge, ascent and trust.

When it comes to the question of assurance, this is very important indeed. Today I want to dig a little deeper into this first aspect of faith (knowledge) and begin to find out what the Bible teaches about how it is that we are saved from slavery to sin, death and judgement.

Do we know what the Bible teaches about salvation?

Right from the outset I would like to make it plain that our salvation does not depend on having a perfect theology. The reason it is important to strive for better understanding of what the Bible teaches, is that it fills us with more confidence and joy.

One very simple way to assess your knowledge about salvation (sometimes the simplest ways are the best) is to imagine yourself at the gates of heaven. You hear a voice asking you, “Why should I let you in to heaven?” What is your answer? If your answer begins with “Because I…” you’ve not fully understood the Bible’s message about salvation. The only reason anyone will be saved is “Because Jesus…”

In other words the Bible teaches that we are saved because of what Christ has done for us, and not because of what we have done for God. It is because Jesus died for our sins and was raised for our justification that we will be saved. It will not be because of anything we have done.

Saved by Faith or by Christ?

Some might object at this point and say that you could well answer, “because I…have placed all my hope in Jesus’ death and resurrection.” And you would be right, that would be a fine answer.

However, it is still important that we recognise that Jesus is the saviour and not our faith. When we use the Bible’s phrase “saved by faith” we need to recognise that the language is a short-hand summary that was never meant to be sufficient all by itself. Faith is merely the instrument by which God applies the finished work of Christ to us, and not the instrument by which we rescue ourselves.

As someone else has said, faith is merely the empty hand that receives God’s free gift of salvation.

Next week I want to think a little bit more about the idea of justification and some possible misunderstandings of it that jeopardise our confidence in the gospel.



Assurance and Habitual Sin.

One of the greatest reasons why so many Christians today do not experience the peace that comes through the assurance of salvation can be summarised in one simple question.

Can I truly be a Christian even if I fall to the same sin over and over again?

The answer to this is “yes”.  It is possible to be a genuine Christian even if you fall to the same sins over and over again. Let’s be absolutely clear on this. Either the Lord Jesus saves habitual sinners or he does not save anyone at all. If we do not believe this is true then we strip ourselves of the only weapon that can put our sin to death.

We are all habitual sinners.

Why? Because we are all habitual sinners. Some sins are pretty obvious: drug or alcohol abuse, sexual sin and violence. Others are less obvious: gossip and slander, dishonesty and laziness. Most sins however, are barely detectable to anyone but ourselves: pride, lust, hatred, unbelief, envy and prayerlessness to name a few. Whether our inclination is toward an outward sin like drunkenness or an inward sin like lust, we all sin repeatedly. We commit the same sins again and again and again.

If we begin to feel that this experience of sin is not normal then it weakens our confidence that we are in fact true disciples of Jesus Christ.

Christians experience real change.

Reading through the last paragraph may have created a bit of tension inside you. On the one hand, you may feel as though you are able to relate to the experience of habitual sin. You acknowledge that you are guilty of repeating the same offences against God. On the other hand, you may also feel that this should not be the case.

Christians are, after all, new creations. The “old has gone and the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17) and “no-one who is born of God will continue to sin” (1 John 3:9). We are no longer slaves to sin (Romans 6:6) because we have died with Christ to our sinful nature and have been raised to a new life in Christ – a life of righteousness and holiness.

What these passages attest to is that those who have become genuine disciples of Christ should experience real transformation. Something very real, very powerful and very significant has happened to us. We have been changed, and we are continuing to be changed, into the image of Christ. This is an undeniable characteristic of new life in Christ.

Christians experience real struggle.

However, to take these verses out of context would lead to the unhelpful conclusion that the genuine Christian life is free from the constant struggle against sin. This idea, which has unfortunately taken root in some church movements is deeply misleading because it neglects another very important biblical principle about the Christian life.

That other principle is the principle of resistance from the sinful nature. For example, Paul  writes of his experience to the church in Rome (7:18-19), saying:

For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.

Again in Galatians (5:16-18), he writes:

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

So we can see that struggling with sinful patterns of behaviour is part and parcel of the normal Christian experience. The effect of our new life in Christ is to create a conflict between the influence of the Holy Spirit and our sinful human natures. As we experience transformation we also experience conflict.

The struggle is what matters.

So how does this apply to our assurance of salvation, particularly when we are struggling with habitual sin?  The answer is that it is the struggle that matters. God never said that your sinful nature would go down without a fight. God never said that it would be easy. God never said that it would be quick. You began your Christian life by faith and repentance, and that is the way you should continue.

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. (Col 2:6-7)

You are a true Christian if you are fighting your sin with repentance and faith in Christ. It is only because of the miraculous power of the gospel that you are interested in fighting, so fight your sinful habits with the full assurance of God’s love and forgiveness behind you.