The Doctrine of Assurance Part 1



As I mentioned before we closed our study of the book of Revelation, I wanted to take an opportunity to address some topics that you all wished to be addressed.

One that seemed especially pressing from several of you was the doctrine of the assurance of salvation.

How can I KNOW, that I am saved? How can I be sure I am one of Christ’s and belong to Him?

How can I be sure my sins are forgiven and that I am fully accepted by God.

The question is a right and good one.

It is the single most important question someone can ask.

In fact, those who never ask this question concern me far more than those who who might anguish over it.

When Paul can write to those in Corinth: 2 Corinthians 13:5a / “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.”

It behooves us all at times to go back and reassure our hearts Biblically. I might even say we are commanded to do so.

And if you’ve NEVER questioned your salvation – I would say you especially need to hear this series along with those who are struggling in it.

In fact, answering this question is one of the 5 reasons why the Apostle John says he wrote this letter.

Let me give you a word about my approach to this.

Over the years I have read numerous books, essays and articles on this topic – and the one thing I am really concerned about is not just tossing out pat answers.

For those who are the main target for this series – which I’ll explain in a minute – lack of an assurance of one’s salvation can be a crushing and paralyzing experience.

Many sound believers throughout the centuries have suffered under the darkness and weight of seasons filled with doubts about their spiritual state before God.

One notable case would be that of the hymn-writer and close companion in ministry to John Newton – William Cowper.

You would think that someone who could pen such hymns as:

“There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains”

Would have no issues here.

Or listen to these wonderful lyrics of his:

Or: 1 GOD moves in a mysterious way,

His wonders to perform;

He plants his footsteps in the sea,

And rides upon the storm.

2 Deep in unfathomable mines

Of never-failing skill,

He treasures up his bright designs,

And works his sov’reign will.

3 Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy, and shall break

In blessings on your head.

4 Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

But trust him for his grace;

Behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.

5 His purposes will ripen fast,

Unfolding ev’ry hour;

The bud may have a bitter taste,

But sweet will be the flow’r.

6 Blind unbelief is sure to err,*

And scan his work in vain;

God is his own interpreter,

And he will make it plain.

A man so confident and wise and able to encourage others in hymns like these, nevertheless suffered so horribly in seasons of doubt, he attempted suicide 4 or 5 times and was institutionalized more than once.

To those of you who may be suffering, I really do not want either to be trite, nor over-burdensome.

But this is not shallow subject to be tossed off easily.

My plan is to lay out a fairly complete introduction this week, along with John’s 1st tool for helping us gain the assurance that belongs to every Believer – and take a few more weeks to tease out the other 7.

All of which are rooted in one concept: Relationship. 8 relationships to be exact. This, I hope, will be exceedingly clear as we move on.

I want to be thorough enough to be of genuine help, without at the same time making the issue more complicated than it already is – or making it too obtuse.

All of the tools or means by which assurance is Biblically grounded, are found in the 8 relationships John bids us to consider in this short letter.

You’ll see what I mean pretty quickly.  That said, this is where we’re going today.

  1. Two Complications
  2. John’s Introduction
  3. Fellowship
  4. Relationship #1

I. We need to note that the question of assurance is complicated on 2 major fronts.

First, because of the different people who may or may not be asking this question.

4 Come immediately to mind.

We get them from the reasons John explicitly says he wrote this letter.

a. Those who do not yet know Christ savingly.

John states it in 1:3 / “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

If you do not know Jesus as your sin-bearer – or as John says it here: If you are not in “fellowship with us” with other genuine Believers; and in “fellowship” with God and His Son Jesus Christ – then of course you cannot have any sense of a secure salvation.

I’ll explain that word “fellowship” more as we go, it is vitally important to understand.

But the bottom line is, we cannot be assured of something we do not possess.

No one can be nor SHOULD BE assured of a salvation they do not have.

And no one has salvation who rejects the Bible, the Gospel, or denies the fundamentals of Biblical teaching.

b. Maybe you are one of those who profess to be Christ’s but in truth you are in an apathetic and compromised state.

John says he is writing to you too. 1 John 2:1a – “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”

There are those who know the Gospel and claim to be Christ’s but who are not challenging sins in their lives and living in willful neglect of holy things and what the Bible teaches.

These MIGHT? be saved, but they have no right to an assurance of it.

Christ did not save us to leave us in our sins – but to save us from them.

And if we live at cross purposes with the core reason for His incarnation, life, death, burial and resurrection – how can we imagine we have true “fellowship” with Him?

We can’t. And if this is you, you have no right to believe you are saved. And, no right to an assurance of salvation.

The Holy Spirit through John has written to you. And as the writer to the Hebrews addressing professing Believers says: Hebrews 2:3 / “how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard”

Genuine salvation must be attended to. It cannot be “neglected.”

c. Those who are deceived  At least 2 groups fall into this category:

Those who THINK they are Christ’s and already imagine an assurance of salvation simply because they walked an aisle one time, said a prayer, were raised in a Christian home, or just feel it to be so.

Those who make mere pledges or one-time decisions which do not go on to produce the fruit that attends genuine salvation are self-deceived. John 15:2a–6 / “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

This will bring us back to consider the importance of that word “fellowship” – which explains what it means to “abide” in Christ. We WILL come back to this in detail.

Another dangerous deception is seen in those who are NOT Christ’s but assure themselves they will have salvation anyway.

Sky and I spent New Year’s Eve with a gal and her family that Sky led to Christ years ago.

As we talked she recalled vividly how back then Sky had asked her if she were to die that day, would she go to Heaven? She replied – “of course!”

And Sky asked the all-important follow up: “Why? Why do you think that?”

And as this gal took a few moments to be honest with herself, she admitted she didn’t really have a reason to believe it. She just did.

It was this the Holy Spirit used to show her her need and what eventually brought her to faith in Christ.

Many think this, either because they simply choose to believe it, or because they’ve bought into a false religion or belief system.

They have an invented – or trust in – an invented doctrine of salvation, apart from the need for and trust in the substitutionary atoning death of Jesus on the cross.

They assert their salvation in the face of passages like Acts 4:12 / “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

d. Those who ARE Christ’s but for various reasons struggle with full assurance

These folks genuinely ARE Christ’s and take great pains to serve and seek Him, but for some reason struggle with a full assurance regarding their salvation.

John expressly writes to you as well: 1 John 5:13 / “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.”

These are my primary audience, though what we will cover applies to all those we’ve mentioned above.

Perhaps this is you.

You are a Believer as best you know, but at times you really wrestle with whether or not that is true – whether or not you really DO have eternal life – NOW.

I pray what we cover in these next few weeks begins to take hold in your heart and bring you great relief.

I am convinced you do not have to remain in any doubt.

So this is the first part of what makes this topic a bit complex.

The second complication is the tendency to make assurance a matter of pure subjectivity.

Usefully, John will open up for us both Objective and Subjective means of grasping the reality of our state.

Objective and Subjective proofs

On the subjective side, there is the problem of basing our assurance either upon feelings, or on performance.

Do I “FEEL” saved?

Do I “DO” enough of the right things?

Do I reject enough of the wrong things?

But as I said, John provides 2 kinds of proof for salvation.

OBJECTIVE PROOFS – “What does the Word say?” Or better yet, what does God say?  AND –

SUBJECTIVE PROOFS – Things which can be detected by observation.

We need OBJECTIVE proofs to keep us from depending solely upon feelings and speculation.

As we all know feelings wax and wane, come and go.

They are indicators of what I think, but not necessarily of what is true.

At the same time we need SUBJECTIVE proofs to keep us from denying what the Bible says are the things which accompany genuine spiritual life.

What right does someone have to believe they are saved based upon what the Bible says a saved person is and does?

What are the things Scripture tells us can be relied upon for drawing that conclusion?

How can I be sure?

So it is John tells us his 5th reason in writing this letter, and why he preaches the Gospel in the first place: 1 John 1:4 / “And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”

John finds a marvelous joy in 4 things: Bringing people into fellowship with God through Jesus Christ; disabusing them of deceptions about true salvation; helping Believers overcome sin and helping Believers find a sound and solid assurance of their salvation.

So he writes how this impacts his joy.

II. John’s Introduction

That takes us right back to the beginning of this letter then: 1 John 1:1–3 / “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

Making John’s introduction part of our introduction, we need to take note of some vital information here:

  1. The “proclamation” or preaching of John and the Apostles was about “eternal life”. (2)
  2. The eternal life they preached was not some abstract idea or substance or anything of the sort – but is in fact a person – Jesus Christ.
  3. Who this eternal life is, is identified by referring to:

“what we heard” (1);

“seen with our eyes” (1);

“touched with our hands” (1);

is called “the word of life” (1);

“was made manifest” (2);

“was with the Father” (2);

In other words, this is clearly Jesus Christ. The words take you back to the opening of John’s Gospel: John 1:1–2 / “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”

And John 1:14 / “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

That the aim, the goal of preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ by the Apostles was this: 1 John 1:3 / “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

III. Fellowship

The Apostles’ mission in preaching the Gospel was so that people might have fellowship with them. Which fellowship also includes fellowship with God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ.

Which brings us to a very critical point – something upon which the whole of this letter hangs:

What does “fellowship” mean?

To our modern ear, and maybe because of how the Church has misused the term over the years, we tend to think of fellowship mostly as a social thing.

For us, to have fellowship is to sit down and have a meal together and easy conversation. It is the life of friends.

And while that element is part of what John is referring to here, it is by no means the core of what the Bible is after in using that word.

We can see the problem immediately when we look at John’s words here again: 1 John 1:3 / “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

The social idea of fellowship works when we think of one another. But how does it fit when we think of having fellowship with the Father and Jesus Christ?

That is another story altogether. Especially when we consider that John says here that entering into this fellowship is directly tied to the proclamation of God manifest in the flesh in Jesus Christ.

So what in the world is he saying?

koinonia/fellowship – As the Bible uses the word koinonia, or “fellowship” as it is most often translated – it’s referring to a close relationship that involves sharing and participating in things together. Having common property and life in the way you do when you are married to someone – when you have not just an emotional bond, but one that even spills over into being a legal one as well.

A committed relationship of mutual care and concern and goals.

Acts 2:42 uses the word to describe how the early Church drew together, especially in the face of opposition.   “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

Notice the term here isn’t that they devoted themselves to “fellowship”, but to THE fellowship.

The band of Believers knit together by the apostles’ teaching, prayer and the practice of communion or the Lord’s Supper – were denominated: “The Fellowship.”

In 2 Corinthians Paul uses the word to describe what Christians CANNOT have with idolators or false religion.  2 Cor.  6:14 / “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?”

We’re not on the same page with all religions – with their goals, worldview and practices.

In Galatians Paul uses the word to describe how he and Barnabas were accepted by the leadership of the Church in Jerusalem as true partners with the apostles in the ministry of the Gospel and not competitors or peddlers of a false Gospel.

Galatians 2:9 / “and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.

And here we really start to get to the key idea.

Let me give you one more reference which I think really captures what we need to grasp here: Philippians 1:3–5 / “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.”

The word that brings the Bible’s idea of fellowship into focus and becomes so useful for us in this is –


What does it mean to be in fellowship with God’s people, and with God the Father and Jesus the Son?

It is to be in a close personal relationship, in which we share the most vital things in common, and are bound together in partnership with God in His plans and purposes in the world and in our lives.

It is this partnership relationship that John is after.

This is the heart of true fellowship with God and His people.

The Gospel brings people into partnership with God.

And it is here that we begin to unpack the 8 relationships John will appeal to in helping Believers come to a solid sense of the assurance of their salvation.

And so the first relationship upon which this fellowship is based is addressed by asking ourselves –

IV. Relationship #1

#1 What is my relationship to the Word of God?

John begins his letter appealing to the witness of the Apostles to the incarnation of Jesus Christ – and that salvation, or “life” as he puts here, is wrapped up in believing the truth about Jesus.

1 John 1:1–3 / “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

Whether we are talking about salvation in general, or someone’s personal assurance that they are saved – we must begin here.

What is our relationship to God’s revelation in His Word?

Look at what God Himself says in this regard: Isaiah 66:2b / “All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the Lord. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.”

For if we do not have some authority, an infallible authority above our own feelings or observations to make our salvation concrete, we are forever left to passing thoughts, variable feelings, randomly interpreted events or the opinions of others.

So I must ask myself first, “do I believe the Gospel?” Have I believed the Word of God in its proclamation of who Jesus is, and how He brings salvation? Do I tremble at His word?

And we are by no means the first to be drawn back to this crucial starting point.

This was the question for the Ethiopian eunuch in the book of Acts.

Do you remember his situation?

This man who was a court official of Candace, the Queen of the Ethiopian nation – had come to Jerusalem to worship.

Since the account takes place right after Pentecost, he was probably there for the whole festival beginning with Passover and stretching for the entire 7 weeks.

Luke says that while he was returning home, he was reading the book of Isaiah: Acts 8:32–33 / “Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”

Led by the Spirit, Philip approaches the man hearing him read Isaiah aloud and engages him.

And so the Eunuch asks Philip – who in the world is the prophet referring to here? Himself, or someone else? Acts 8:35 / “Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.”

In that moment, this man’s relationship to the Word of God took a radical turn.

He knew the Bible was something special. He was reading it hoping to understand it.

But until he came to see that its great subject matter is the revelation of Jesus Christ and his saving work on the cross – it had no saving power.

Once Christ is revealed in it, and Jesus is embraced as the Savior by faith – salvation comes!

We have a similar account with Peter and Cornelius in Caesarea.

This man Cornelius is described in a wonderful way: Acts 10:2 / “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.”

But he wasn’t saved! He could have no assurance of his salvation even though he was such a devout and good man.

When Peter recounts this whole event to the Elders in Jerusalem later he says of Cornelius: Acts 11:13–14 / “And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.”

And what message did Peter bring to him?  Acts 10:39–43 / “And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Look at that last sentence: Along with Peter’s own eye witness, he showed Cornelius that the Old Testament Jewish Scriptures also bear witness that everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins through His name.

This then is the very first question everyone must answer: What is my relationship to the Word of God?

Do I believe it?

Do I accept it as God’s Word?

Do I tremble at it so that it has final authority in my life?

And as is typical of John’s style, he will come back to this point over and over in this letter.

1 John 2:3–5 / “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him:”

Do you see how assurance is tied to keeping God’s commandments and Word?

And let me unpack that word “keeping” here, because it has been a stumbling block to many.

If by “keeping” God’s Word one imagines flawlessly obeying and performing it in every detail you will forever be in doubt.

Of course, to obey is part of the idea, but it is more completely understood in terms of cherishing, revering, guarding, protecting and honoring.

Paul uses it in 1 Cor. 7 for how a young man would keep his intended bride pure because he treasures her and does not take her virtue lightly. He wants to protect her.

No one can keep God’s Word or commandments so as to be in any way acceptable before God – the Scripture itself tells us that in Romans 3 and the book of Galatians most pointedly.

No, the question is – do I treat and handle God’s Word for what it is – God’s Word?

Is it precious to me because in it my God is addressing me? Revealing Himself to me.

What is my relationship to it? Do I believe all it teaches and hold that as the final answer in my life?

For unless I trust God’s assessment of what constitutes salvation and my assurance of it, I will never find stability.

John comes back to this again in 2:7-8 1 John 2:7–8 / “Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.”

What I am writing to you, John says, is the same Word of God, but now brought to its fulfillment in Jesus.

That being the case – 1 John 2:24 / “Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father.”

We stay grounded IF we stay in the Gospel we have heard.

1 John 3:11–12 / “For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.”

And this Word, this message authoritatively calls us into a way of walking in life with others who are His. Something we’ll unpack later.

1 John 3:21–24 / “Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.”

Treasuring, cherishing and honoring His Word gives us confidence before Him – even as we see how it draws us to trust in Christ, and love those who are His. It lets us live KNOWING, truly knowing, not guessing, He abides in us.

The Word alone can give us the infallible proofs we need to settle our hearts and minds.

And so John can go on to assert: 1 John 4:6 / “We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”

Do you hear that? Whoever does not listen to the witness of the Apostles and the Word, is not from God!

And if you will not accept the Bible’s verdict on your salvation but continue to look for something else, you are in danger of rejecting God’s Word and you are in serious trouble.

But if we DO listen, if we DO cherish and revere God’s Word:  1 John 5:2–5 / “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

The one who keeps – knows, treasures, protects and cherishes God’s Word, who finds the Word delightful and not burdensome – this one finds the faith that overcomes the World and its deceptions.

This one KNOWS he or she is a child of God. For we love His Word because it is – His Word to us. And we love Him.

If you are one struggling with whether or not you are truly saved – this is the starting point.

Let me be really clear here: If God’s Word is not precious to you, you have very good reason to doubt you stand in right relationship to Him.

Who loves someone but disregards them in making themselves fully known to them?

But if you DO treasure God’s Word, if you seek to know it and know Him in it, even if parts are difficult to sort out and even troubling, even if you have difficulty reading it – you have good reason to believe God is at work in your heart.

And when this relationship to His Word is coupled with the other things His Word will have to say on the subject, you are on the way to finding a true and settled assurance in Him.

What is my relationship to the Word of God?

If I cherish it, tremble at, and am willing to submit to ITS assessment of me, and IT tells me I am saved – then I can have the utmost and absolute assurance that I am.

And if I have no love for it, no desire to know it and Christ in it – I have real reason to doubt that I am a true Christian.

And now is the time to seek God to give you that revelation of Himself in the Word – and by His Spirit to birth that love and reverence for it, and to know the truth of salvation in Jesus Christ that permeates it.

Many a professed Christian has little or no regard for God’s Word, interest in it, love for it or desire to know it.

By this they demonstrate they are indeed just “professed” Christians.

And many are true Christians who for various reasons struggle to read, study and understand God’s Word, who nonetheless desire to know it, look to it, accept its revelations about Jesus, live by it and receive it as it really is – God’s Word.

These have a most reasonable indication they belong to God in Christ. Here is where assurance begins.

Now is a good time to begin to examine your own heart on this crucial question.

Lets’ pray.

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