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 & 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.