The being in a state of grace will yield a man a heaven hereafter, but the seeing of himself in this estate will yield him both a heaven here and a heaven hereafter; it will render him doubly blest, blest in heaven, and blest in his own conscience.
Over 350 years ago, Thomas Brooks referenced the doctrine of assurance and rightly understood it to be one of the most precious blessings available in the Christian life (A Puritan Golden Treasury). Indeed, for the child of God to have certainty concerning his union with Christ invariably leads to an abundance of related blessings—an increased intimacy in prayer, an increased joy in worship, an increased zeal in service and an increased humility in fellowship, to name but a few. However, coupled with the riches of assurance is the truth that it is also one of the most complex issues in the Christian faith. Many are often left wondering, “how can I know if I’m saved?” It is a multi-faceted concept and for this reason, one that can often escape the well-intentioned believer.
Its complexity stems in part from the fact that we all have a history—we have experiences and influences in the past that affect the way we understand our relationship with Christ now. Furthermore, we all have personality traits—we have tendencies and dispositions which can color our understanding of what it means to be saved. Finally, we all face a set of present-day circumstances—we endure the reality of life in a broken world and that can easily cause us to ask questions regarding the nature of our standing before God. Although assurance is available to every believer, it is not promised. It is a complex issue and it is often absent in the Christian’s life.
A Knowledge of Eternal Life
The apostle John addressed the issue when he wrote to a group of Christians who were experiencing turmoil, false teaching, and the departure of some in the congregation. With pastoral skill and theological precision, the Beloved Disciple penned 1 John “to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). His aim was to instill confidence in a group of disciples—confidence that they were indeed secure in Christ, in the midst of teaching that had undermined the true and saving gospel. Though we may not be facing the same historical situation as these Christians, John’s first epistle is the fullest articulation of the doctrine of assurance in the New Testament. It serves to give us a certainty concerning our union with Christ in light of a multitude of issues that could rob us of such joy today.
As we survey the contours of the letter and John’s strategy in writing, it is instructive to note how the apostle begins. He does not call the believers primarily to examine themselves, nor does he question their fidelity to the word. Contrary to our tendency to set the discussion of assurance within the framework of obedience, John begins his letter by simply setting forth Christ. “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” (1 John 1:1).
At this point we might ask, what is John’s method? Why does he start his discussion of assurance in this way? He does this because assurance is a fruit of faith. Assurance grows out of our trust in the Savior, and it cannot be properly considered apart from this fact. As such, if we want to grow in confidence of who we are in Christ we must—as a matter of priority—nurture our faith.
We delight ourselves in the one who saved us. For this reason, John begins his letter to this group of unsettled disciples by exhorting them to pursue a larger view of Christ.
Ten Looks at Christ
As John continues to address the issue of assurance he discusses what it looks like to live a transformed life in Christ. God is light and if we are in communion with him then our lives will testify to that relationship. John explains what evidences of this relationship he sees in the Christians to whom he is writing, and the apparent absence of such fruit in the false teachers. As he seeks to comfort his readers in this way it is notable how John continually seeks to bring the cross of Christ into view—“the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7), “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9), “he is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:2).