In writing about theological issues one must bear in mind that biblical truths are bound together and must be understood together. As D. A. Carson puts it, “every part of Christian doctrine is tied, one way or another, to every other part”.
So to discuss something like the assurance of the believer, one needs to look at all the related issues as well – issues such as salvation, perseverance, calling, and so on. In my earlier piece on this I looked at the topic of whether a Christian can lose his salvation. See here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2017/07/11/saved-always-saved/
There I mentioned that we must be willing to allow the tensions as found in Scripture full play. We too often just want to take one side of a biblical debate and ignore the other. It is better to let Scripture speak in all of its fullness, even if it results in some tension.
Let me first make clear just what it is that I am talking about here. Carson defines Christian assurance as “a believer’s confidence that he or she is already in a right standing with God, and that this will issue in ultimate salvation.” This topic is of course a major battleground between Calvinists and Arminians.
It was also one of the major stumbling blocks between the Reformers and the Catholic Church. Simply put, the latter thought it presumptuous to speak about certainty of salvation, but the former felt there was solid biblical warrant for this. Those historical battles I will not here get into; I will just concentrate on some biblical and theological reflections.
The tension of holding to both emphases – God’s keeping power, but our need to obey and persevere, along with warnings of falling away – are found throughout Scripture. The Gospels, the Pauline epistles, and the other New Testament writers could all be appealed to in this regard. But here I will focus on just two biblical passages: the Epistle of Jude, and the Epistles of John.
The short letter of Jude is a key example of this. There we find a clear tension between “God’s faithfulness to the believer and the believer’s obligation to continue in the faith” as Michael Bird puts it. Thus we find the book beginning and ending with wonderful promises about how God calls and keeps his own. Consider these passages:
-“Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James, To those who have been called, who are loved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ.” (Jude 1)
-“To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.” (Jude 24-25)
But sandwiched between these glorious words of promise are warnings about sin and rebellion, and calls to action. Thus we have this clear command to believers in verse 21: “keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.” We are to keep ourselves while we are being kept. As Thomas Schreiner comments,
Those whom God has called to himself are loved by him and kept until the day of salvation. The grace of God that called believers to faith will sustain them until the end. The emphasis of God’s grace does not cancel out human responsibility…. God’s grace does not promote human passivity and laxity. It should stir the readers to concerted action. Nonetheless, the ultimate reason believers will persevere against the inroads of the intruders is the grace of God by which he set his love upon believers, called them to be his people, and pledged to preserve them until the end.
Richard Bauckham also notes the tension involved:
Jude knows that the divine action in calling, loving, and keeping safe must be met by a faithful human response, and when he takes up the themes of v 1 in v 21 it is to put the other side of the matter: his readers must keep themselves in the love of God and faithfully await the salvation which will be theirs at the Parousia. The divine action does not annul this human responsibility. But in his final doxology Jude will return to the note on which he began: his confidence that the God who is their Savior through Jesus Christ can keep them safe until they come to their eschatological destiny (v 24).
David Helm speaks of the need to balance the biblical notion of effort with the biblical notion of being kept: “Being ‘called’ or ‘kept’ for Jesus doesn’t mean we don’t keep ourselves. God is not a God of presumption. But the emphasis in verse 1 is this: those who are called by the Spirit are kept for Jesus”. And again, “Humble submission to God is a mark of keeping.”
Any reader of John’s epistles knows that a main reason for their writing was to give believers back then certainty and assurance when it comes to God and his promises to them. As John Stott comments, Christians today are awash in confusion and uncertainty.
He goes on to say: “Against this background, to read the Epistles of John is to enter another world altogether, whose marks are assurance, knowledge, confidence, and boldness. The predominant theme of these Epistles is Christian certainty.”
In his helpful volume of John’s gospel and letters, Andreas Kostenberger remarks:
The point of 1 John, then, is to instill confidence in true believers that their salvation is assured. At the same time, John in his first letter, similar to Jesus in John’s gospel, couples these words of assurance with exhortations to persevere (e.g., 1 John 2:5-6). True believers must keep God’s commandments…
Everyone who is truly born of God is assured that “the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them” (1 John 5:18). Thus 1 John, in further development of Jesus’ words of assurance and exhortation in the gospel, serves as a manifesto of Christian assurance, which paints a realistic, and supremely hopeful picture of Christian discipleship and perseverance, which is ultimately undergirded, not by human efforts, but by the power of God.
At the end of Christopher Bass’ 200-page book That You May Know: Assurance of Salvation in 1 John he summarises:
This book has argued that John views the believer’s assurance of eternal life, which is grounded in the atoning sacrifice of Christ, as compatible with his or her ongoing need to persevere in righteous living. In fact, John has taught that these two ideas are inextricably tied together in that the believers’ confidence that they are children of God due to the work of Christ is set forth as a key impetus to their perseverance (3:1-3; 4:7–11; 5:18–21) and their perseverance in righteous living actually serves to bolster their assurance (e.g., 2:3-5; 3:14, 19, 24; 4:13).
And at the conclusion of his appendix “Who Keeps Whom” he says this: “Throughout this epistle, John holds in tension the idea that the believer must persevere in his faith and that he can find assurance that he is in fact saved.”
Let me finish with some more thoughts from John Stott’s commentary on the Johannine epistles. He quotes Mark 13:13 (“He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved”), and offers this helpful commentary: They are saved, “not because salvation is the reward of endurance, but because endurance is the hall-mark of the saved”.
He continues: “If the false teachers had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us. This is stated as a principle. Those who are of us stay with us. Future and final perseverance is the ultimate test of a past participation in Christ (cf. Heb. 3:14).”
Let me repeat this one more time: tensions exist in Scripture on this and other matters, and they must be maintained. As Carson puts it,
On the one hand, Paul insists that all those who are foreknown, predestined, called, and justified will one day be glorified (Rom. 8:30); on the other, he tells the Corinthians to examine themselves to see if they are in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5). Christians are given “very great and precious promises” (2 Pet. 1:4), but such promises properly function to enable them to make their calling and election sure (1:10). If the fourth Gospel repeatedly assures us that Jesus, and then the Father himself, preserve all those the Father has given to the Son (e.g., John 6:37-40; 17:6-17), Jesus’ interlocutors nevertheless are told that only those who hold to his teaching are truly his disciples (8:31).
Again, we must take the warnings of Scripture seriously, as well as the many commands to persevere and not give up. But we also rejoice in the promises of God. By way of a general wrapping up of the broader debate, the words of J. C. Ryle in his book Holiness are well worth considering:
But my answer, furthermore, to all who dislike the doctrine of assurance, as bordering on presumption, is this: It can hardly be presumption to tread in the steps of Peter, and Paul, of Job, and of John. They were all eminently humble and lowly-minded men, if ever any were; and yet they all speak of their own state with an assured hope. Surely this should teach us that deep humility and strong assurance are perfectly compatible, and that there is not any necessary connection between spiritual confidence and pride.
Yet, tensions remain, and there will be those on either side of this debate who simply will be impatient and unhappy with this idea of living with such tension. Some simply want their own point of view affirmed and they will just overlook all the passages to the contrary. But I prefer to let all of Scripture speak, even if that will result in some tension.
Note, I do not say contradiction. We simply have mystery in how these biblical truths somehow cohere. The same with other key biblical truths, such as the doctrine of the Trinity. What is affirmed there (one God in three persons) is not contradictory, but it is certainly a mystery that we will never fully fathom.
The same here. God is able to keep us, but we are called to make sure we are being kept, if we can put it that way. There is a compatibilism going on here. And as I like to say, we should let God take care of his role in this while we focus on the role we have to play.
The hundreds of imperatives found in the New Testament are not there as mere suggestions. They are commands to be obeyed. We certainly have a role to play in all these areas. But the good news is that God is more than able to keep that which we have committed to him against that day (2 Timothy 1:12).
Let me close with just a few of these wonderful promises of Scripture about how God can and will keep us:
-John 10:27-28 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.
-Philippians 1:6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
-1 Peter 1:3-5 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
-Jude 24 To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy.
This is indeed blessed assurance. As the old 1873 hymn by the blind writer Fanny Crosby says:
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long;
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long.
Perfect submission, perfect delight,
Visions of rapture now burst on my sight;
Angels, descending, bring from above
Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.
Perfect submission, all is at rest,
I in my Savior am happy and blest,
Watching and waiting, looking above,
Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.