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 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.

 

 

When you doubt your salvation.

We all doubt our salvation.

Sometimes people ask me what pastoral issues I’ve most often encountered in ministry. It is not a difficult question to answer.

By far, the greatest concern for most people in the church is the question as to whether or not they are truly saved. Assurance of salvation has trumped all intellectual doubts, ethical dilemmas (yes, even pornography) and even emotional pain in suffering. It seems odd, doesn’t it? After all, Christians believe the good news that Jesus has decisively secured the salvation of his people through his death and resurrection. So if there was any particular matter we would expect to be fairly sorted in the church it would be this one. Right? Wrong. It is far from sorted. The reality is that we all doubt our salvation at some point or another.

I’m very aware, therefore, that a little blog post like this is never going to be enough to assuage the complex and weighty fears that some may be experiencing. Instead, what I would like to do is point out some of the most simple and practical questions that are often overlooked in our self-examinations. It is important to realise that the following questions are not the most fundamental to consider interms of assurance. They are however the most neglected, which is why I want to start with them.

Are you physically healthy?

I realise that I am probably more pathetic than the average person, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that I struggle with assurance issues every time I get the flu…or even a heavy cold. Ask my wife if you don’t believe me.

God did not make us as segmented people. Our physiology, psychology and spirituality are all connected. So if you are physically unwell, or tired, you will feel the effects in your soul. It does not mean that our faith is doomed to suffer the same fate as our bodies. By God’s grace we can be inwardly renewed even though, outwardly, in our bodies, we are wasting away.

The answer to this is not simply prayer and bible meditation. The answer to these kinds of assurance issues also involves medicine and rest…as well as prayer and bible issues.

Are you mentally healthy?

Equally, if you are struggling with mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, then it would be foolish to think that it is not going to have an impact on your assurance. It is important to realise that medicine may be an important part of the solution with mental health as well.
There could well be deep issues at the root of your anxiety and depression that only the gospel can cure, but if you are suffering from heavy depression or anxiety then you are not going to be in a fit enough state to confront those issues.

So go see your pastor, and your doctor, take the medicine and don’t feel guilty about it.

Have you been watching dodgy sermons on YouTube?

It is a little-known fact that if you type your symptoms into Google, whatever they may be, even if you don’t have any, you will be convinced that you are dying. Dr Google always thinks that you are dying. Don’t listen to Dr Google, go and see an actual doctor.

Searching online for the answers to personal spiritual questions is never going to yield satisfactory results. While you may end up reading a very good article or watching a great sermon on YouTube, this result is all but certain.

So go and talk to a real person who understands the gospel and will apply it to you with truth and grace.

Are you under church discipline?

The wonderful thing about being a Christian is that you don’t have to do it alone. The church is there to help. One of the most neglected and overlooked pastoral tools is church discipline.

If you struggle with assurance issues because of guilt over a particular sin or sinful habit then go and talk to one of the pastors (elders/leaders etc) in your church. If they hear you out and don’t tell you that you have to leave the church, then you are almost certainly over-reacting. If they have told you that you must leave the church unless you repent then you are almost certainly in serious spiritual trouble.

Obviously, this assumes that the leadership of your church uphold the theology and morality of the Bible. And of course, it is by no means an infallible system. However, submission to church authorities is a God-given pastoral tool designed to comfort and to warn. So if you have confessed to the pastors, and you are still a member of your church, then you should not have any reason to doubt your salvation.

More Important Questions

Remember, these are not the most important questions to ask, neither are they sufficient to make our calling and election sure. However, they are, in my experience, the most neglected. Next week I want to delve a little deeper into the question of assurance.