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Every generation of the church asks the same question: How can we know for certain that we are saved? How can we say, without a doubt, we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and are free from condemnation in Jesus Christ? How can we have such a great confidence and say with the Apostle Paul, “There is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day”? (2 Timothy 4:8; emphasis added). 

Many things in life may cause us to question our salvation, but God wants us to be assured that we belong to him. Romans 8:16 says, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” We are told in 1 John 5:13, “I write these things to you...that you may know that you have eternal life.” Not only does this mean full assurance is possible—it actually means the giving of hope was one of John’s goals in writing his first epistle.

For an understanding of assurance, it’s vital to look at what our salvation is rooted in. Assurance of any kind must have a foundation on which it rests. I want to take some time contrasting a few ideas to encourage those who are struggling and to help identify both healthy and unhealthy foundations of assurance.

1. Good works vs. the finished work of Christ

Are we responsible for keeping check over our lives and the fruit we bear? Absolutely—we are actually commanded by God to do so! But we are not saved by our works. We are saved by our faith in Christ, and good works will become evident in our lives as the Holy Spirit sanctifies us throughout our lives. The danger comes when we look solely to our works as a basis for assurance. We are all fallen sinners, and as such we can have no hope or comfort if our assurance is found in our striving to perform good works. Rather, we must look to Jesus’s righteousness. Only he was able to live a completely righteous life. Free of sin, he kept the law perfectly. We are promised many times in Scripture that if we place our faith in Christ and his righteousness, our sins are atoned for and we are declared righteous. What a glorious, burden-lifting truth!

2. Worldly grief vs. godly grief

2 Corinthians 7:10 says, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” This, I think, is an excellent way to examine our hearts. Paul is explaining the two types of grief or sorrow we experience. One who has a worldly grief over hardship, suffering, and sin will always be consumed with and focused on the worldly aspects of their situation. Paul says this worldly grief produces death. A godly grief, however, is supernatural. Godly grief goes against our fallen nature and reorients our concerns to align with God’s concerns.
When we face disaster, is our desire that things would be fixed because we don’t like uncomfortable situations? Or do we trust in the Lord, knowing He has a purpose and He will one day restore creation to be free from pain? When you sin, do you feel guilty or sorrowful because you know you might get caught by your spouse or friend? Or do you feel sorrow over your sin because you recognize that your sin is an offense to a perfectly holy God? These questions probe the heart and may be difficult to ask yourself, but recognizing a heart issue like this can be one of the most beneficial things for the Christian walk. If your sorrow comes with a desire to see God’s will accomplished, be assured—this is the work of the Spirit.

3. Extraordinary experiences vs. the promises of God

Some of us have experienced incredible things. It may have been an overwhelming sense of God’s presence or a rush of emotions during a worship song or a radical conversion experience. But what about the people who haven’t experienced this, or those who have been Christians since a young age and can’t remember their conversion? Do these Christians have a lesser testimony? Absolutely not.
Our assurance must be biblical, resting and finding root in the promises God has made to His people. If you have placed your faith in Christ for forgiveness, you can be sure that you have eternal life. John 3:36 says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life.” Eternal life isn’t gained by experiencing a radical, life-changing event; therefore, assurance can’t be rooted in the memory of such an event. Eternal life is gained by believing in the Son, and what a precious truth that is for those struggling with assurance! There are countless places in Scripture telling us that the Lord will not abandon His people, that He will keep them until the end. We must strive to ground our hope in the promises and character of the God who saved us.

Maybe you can’t remember a specific time when God completely changed your life, or maybe you used to be a strong Christian and just feel like you’ve been backsliding or haven’t grown in a long time. Maybe you’ve been struggling with a particular sin for years. To those people who have been plagued by this worry, I understand your burden. I have been there many times.

Rest assured in this, believer: The gospel is a wonderful message. It provides hope to lost sinners and transforms the believer’s life. If you are dealing with doubt about your salvation, whatever the cause, run to Christ knowing that you can trust the promises of God—knowing that whoever comes to Him, He will not cast out.