Biblical faith isn’t supposed to look like a six-cylinder engine powering our lives. Rather, it looks more like the small accelerator pedal on the floorboard—unimpressive and utterly powerless in itself but designed for connection with the true source of power. Just as we wouldn’t say, “The accelerator pedal of my car powered us over the mountain,” in the same way we shouldn’t say, “My faith got me through this.” Rather, faith connects us to God Himself acting according to His divine promises.
Over the course of my years of pastoral ministry and teaching, I have begun to notice something about people who struggle with assurance of salvation: almost all of them grew up as covenant children and made a profession of faith at an early age. They had never gone the way of the Prodigal and come back through a “dramatic conversion.” Outwardly conscientious and faithful, they’d been regarded as the “good boys” and “good girls” in their families and friend circles. Inwardly, though, it seemed to their own eyes a different story—a story of a mind still mired in sin, of shameful and unholy feelings, and of a will that just never seemed to close the gap between what they knew they should do and what they actually did.
I enjoy these pastoral conversations, because that is my story. A covenant child who made a profession of faith at age six, I never went the way of the Prodigal. But I did ask Jesus into my heart at least a hundred times because, “What if . . . ?” Each time I prayed the sinner’s prayer, I hoped to rise the next morning an indisputably new man, one able to look back on that moment—that pleading and answered prayer—as the definitive marker of my salvation. It never happened.
Years later, I came to see that I was looking for assurance in all the wrong places. Under some faithful preaching and teaching, I finally laid hold of the precious gift of having “confidence before God” (1 John 3:21). In subsequent years of ministry, it has been a joy to help other believers, especially those who grew up as covenant children, look in all the right places to discern the reality of their salvation.
Yes, all the right places, for there is not one place only, but at least three taken together, that believers should look for assurance of salvation. G.K. Beale helpfully presents them as the triangle of assurance.1 If you often struggle with assurance of salvation, I would encourage you to consider these three sides to assurance: faith in God’s promise, feeling our sin, and fruit in our lives.
1. Faith in God’s Promise
“If I’m a Christian, why does my faith feel so weak?” I’ve heard that question spoken across the table and rattling in my own mind. The question assumes that if we were to “take a peek under the hood” and look at the inner workings of our faith, we should be impressed by what we see. But an honest look at our faith rarely makes a favorable impression. Why?
Biblical faith isn’t supposed to look like a six-cylinder engine powering our lives. Rather, it looks more like the small accelerator pedal on the floorboard—unimpressive and utterly powerless in itself but designed for connection with the true source of power. Just as we wouldn’t say, “The accelerator pedal of my car powered us over the mountain,” in the same way we shouldn’t say, “My faith got me through this.” Rather, faith connects us to God Himself acting according to His divine promises. Paul does not tell us that Abraham was impressed with his own faith but rather that Abraham was, by faith, impressed with God’s faithfulness and power to fulfill His promises, being “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Rom. 4:20–21, emphasis added).
The nature of true faith is to look not at itself, which may disappoint us, but to look away from itself to Christ, who will never disappoint us. I know of no one who has put it better than John Murray: “All the efficacy resides in the Savior. . . . It is not even faith in Christ that saves, but Christ that saves through faith. . . . The specific character of faith is that it looks away from itself and finds its whole interest and object in Christ. He is the absorbing preoccupation of faith.”2
Or, in the words of A.W. Tozer, “Faith is the gaze of the soul upon a saving God.”3 If you often lament the weakness of your faith, ask yourself, “Do I believe that Christ is who He says He is, and that ‘He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him’ (Heb. 7:25, emphasis added)?” Lift your eyes away from your faith and fix them instead on Christ—that’s what faith is for.
2. Fruit in Our Lives
The second side of the triangle of assurance is the evidence of fruit in our lives. Beale writes that believers find assurance “as they look back at their former life and see the changes that have come about since they became a Christian.”4 Those with dramatic conversion stories can look back and mark the enormous difference between who they once were and who they are now.
Those without dramatic conversion experiences can feel unsettled when they try to “look back at their former life.” First, they’re usually not able to put their finger on a watershed moment sharply dividing the person they “once were” from the person they “are now.” Second, they can easily disparage the degree of change in their lives as small compared to that of someone who started much farther from the Father’s home. “She went from atheism, drug addiction, and promiscuity to becoming an amazing Christian mother and passionate witness to Christ. If I grew that much, shouldn’t I at least be Mother Teresa? Could this be a sign I’m not actually saved?”