|Question: How can I have assurance that I will have eternal life with God?
This is one of the core questions believers have wrestled with throughout church history. Depending on what church you attend today, you will find a spectrum of views about assurance. On the extreme of too little assurance, I have friends who grew up in traditions where “losing your salvation” was believed to happen with a few sins. As a result, church members professed to be “re-saved” multiple times a year after their return from spiritual straying. On the extreme of too much assurance, the belief in “once saved, always saved” has been turned by some into presumption of eternal security following a recitation of the sinner’s prayer, even if there is no obedience to Jesus afterwards.
If you have read the New Testament, you probably have enough gospel instincts to know that neither of these extremes sounds right. The New Testament talks about our salvation from God’s perspective and from our perspective, and often these extremes deemphasize one or the other. Let’s consider a few scriptures on both sides and what they mean for experiencing assurance of eternal life.
First, consider our salvation from God’s perspective. In John 10:27-30, Jesus taught, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.”
Jesus gives us a great sense of assurance that his followers will remain in his care forever. In his prayer, recorded later in John’s gospel, Jesus told his Father, “While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled” (John 17:12 – we will leave the question of Judas for another article). This reinforces what Jesus taught in John 10, that God the Father is involved in bringing us into a relationship with Jesus and Jesus is committed to keeping us for eternity. This should give us a great sense of assurance! As Paul so powerfully expounds in Romans 8, nothing and no one “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 39).
Now consider salvation from our perspective. In Hebrews 3, the author presents the example of the Israelites who died in the wilderness after the exodus because they did not believe God’s promises or obey his commands. In light of this cautionary tale the warning is given, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God… For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. ” (v. 12, 14).
This is one of multiple warnings throughout the book of Hebrews. In the historical context they were given to Jewish believers who seriously pondered abandoning Jesus as the sacrifice for their sins. These warnings are real. To reject Jesus as Savior is to not have salvation. So we must “hold our original confidence firm to the end.” This does not contradict but runs parallel to God’s promise to guard us to the end. Indeed, both are articulated by Peter in one sentence: “by God's power [you] are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5). God empowers our perseverance. We must continue in our faith in Jesus.
With those perspectives in place, let’s talk about where questions of assurance hit us in real life. It could be in the throes of sorrow following painful loss, during a season of frequent caving to temptation, or amidst a “dark night of the soul.” Perhaps intellectual concerns or spiritual dryness or anxiety about your faithfulness to God plague you. Let me encourage you to begin with these three things when, for whatever reasons, you struggle with assurance of salvation:
1. Rest in the power of God to bring you home.
Latch on to biblical promises (like the ones from John and Romans above) that affirm God’s full power to save us to the end.
2. Learn this prayer: “I believe; help my unbelief!”
These words, spoken by the desperate father of a demon-possessed boy (Mark 9:24), capture the reality of our faltering faith in this life. Celebrate the trust you do have in Jesus and plead with him for more.
3. Embrace the indispensability of Christian community.
I intentionally skipped Hebrews 3:13 above, which shares the means of holding our confidence firm to the end: “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Find trusted friends in Christ with whom you can share doubts and struggles, confess sin, and have accountability for areas of temptation.
At the end of the day, our only assurance is in Christ, who was crucified for our sins and raised to give us eternal life. Fix your faith on him and may God’s Spirit bear witness with yours that you are a child of God (Romans 8:16)!