It’s Friday and today we have a question from Pete Killingley in the UK. “Dear Pastor John, thank you for your ministry — I’ve listened to every one of your APJ episodes, and have found them to be a great blessing. My question: I understand the Bible to teach that a true Christian is one who perseveres to the end, and in the sad circumstances where someone professes faith but then falls away, they were never a true Christian. For myself, I fully believe that I have been saved by Christ, and I see the fruit of this in my life. However, as a long-time pastor, I am sure you know of people who would also have been convinced that they were truly born again, would have appeared to bear fruit in their lives, but later showed that they were not truly saved by abandoning the faith. So if my salvation is only truly and finally evidenced by my perseverance, how much weight can I attach to God’s promises? My favorite Bible verse is Philippians 1:6 — ‘He who began a good work in you will see it through to completion at the day of Christ Jesus.’ But how can I know that this is true for me, when it is only when I have run the race set before me that I will truly know that I did persevere and therefore was truly saved?”
I think what Pete says in that last sentence is, as he worded it, such a truism that he probably means something more — and the more that he means I don’t think is true. In fact, I would say that God is at pains in the New Testament to show that the more that I am going to draw out, I think, the more that he implies in that last sentence, is not true. God is at pains to show it is not true. What he says is this: It is only when I have run the race set before me that I will truly know that I did persevere.
“God means for us to enjoy the power of the Holy Spirit and the assurance of our salvation.”
Of course, only after you have persevered can you know that you did persevere. You can only know that you did something past tense after you do it. That is a truism. But I think what Pete is really saying is that you can only know truly that you are saved after you persevere to the end and prove that you are a Christian by your perseverance. In other words, he is deeply concerned that on this side of perseverance, when we haven’t finished it yet, that there can be no “true” — he says — “true” knowing, “true” knowledge, “true” assurance that we will persevere. And that is what I think God is at pains in the New Testament to show is false. That is not true. But Pete is absolutely right to point out that all the promises of God’s preservation assume that we know we are included in those promises. That is right. That is a true concern and that is the question. How can we know that?
But I would ask, Pete: Do you think God gave all those promises to his church to keep them guessing? Was that the point? Do you think all those promises are pointless? The promises I am talking about are one’s like this:
- His favorite is Philippians 1:6, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
- Or 1 Corinthians 1:8–9, “[God] will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son.”
- Or 1 Thessalonians 5:23–24, “May your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.”
- Or 1 Peter 1:5, “By God’s power [you] are being guarded” — kept — “guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
- Or Romans 8:30, “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” No dropouts between justification and glorification. All the justified make it to the end.
- Or one last one, “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:38–39).
So, Pete’s question now is: How can I know I am in the “us”? How can I know I am in all those promises? That is the crucial question he is asking. But if you come with that question to the New Testament with suspicion that you can’t know, then what is the point of all the promises? Is God just tantalizing us?
I think the clear implication of all those promises that I just recited is that God intends for his children to take heart from them. That is the point. He wants us to be encouraged. He wants us to lay down our heads on the pillow at night absolutely confident that, if our heart stops beating at 2:00a.m. while we are sound asleep, we will wake up in heaven. We will. He doesn’t want us to put our heads down — I try this night after night: Put your head on the pillow and say, “Wow, I wonder if I die if I am going to heaven.” Christians shouldn’t feel that way.
“The Bible wants us to enjoy assurance. That is why all the promises are there.”
So, I am saying that, however we do it, the Bible wants us to do it. The Bible wants us to enjoy that assurance. That is why all the promises are there. So, let me give a couple of texts: one to show that, yes, God wants us to experience that, and the other to show how. Second Peter 1:10, “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election.” See, he is telling Pete, “You have got to do this. You have got to get there.” This is the Bible telling us it is possible and calling us to do it. Make firm, make strong, make unshakable the calling and election that you have experienced.
Peter is recognizing how crucial Pete’s question is. You have got two Pete’s here. You have got to keep them straight about whether we can know we are among the called and the elect when those promises are made to us. And the biblical Pete, the biblical Peter is saying to the Pete that wrote to us: “Confirm your calling and election. Make it firm.” He assumes it can be firm and sure and that we can know we are among the called and among the elect. Now, how? So, here is the key passage. It is not the only one, but it is the key one: Romans 8:13–16.
I will just say this straight to Pete, not the biblical Pete: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” — that means, eternally live. “For” — hear the argument — “all who are led” — that is, led into that kind of warfare with sin — “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”
So, the bottom-line answer to Pete’s question about being assured or being confirmed that we are among the elect, we are among the called, is that the Holy Spirit testifies, bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God. And that witness, that testimony of the Spirit, is not — I say emphatically — is not a whisper in our ear, “Hey, you doubt you're among the elect? You are among the elect. I am whispering. I am telling you.” It doesn’t work that way. Nobody gets whispers like that.
“If the Holy Spirit is leading you to fight sin, this is the testimony that you belong to God.”
What witnesses do in a courtroom is give evidences. And two of them are mentioned here. What the Holy Spirit is doing in us, creating the evidence and the testimony is number one. He says, “All who are led by the Spirit are sons of God.” And the logic between verses 13 and 14 makes crystal clear what he means. He doesn’t mean you have to have God’s leadership as to whom you are going to marry or what job you are going to take or where you are going to live. That is not at all in Paul’s mind. He says, all who are led by the Spirit are the sons of God, and that is the ground for the fact that you will live if you make warfare with sin. And so the point is: If the Holy Spirit is leading Pete into warfare with his sin so that he hates sin and looks to the Spirit to fight sin, this is the testimony of the Spirit that he belongs to God.
And the second evidence of the Spirit’s testimony is that he is crying from the heart, “Abba! Father!” Now think about that. A computer can be programmed to say, “Abba! Father!” We all know that. There is nothing in the words that prove anything. And Paul knows that. The point is when this cry — Daddy, Father — arises from a heart with the authentic, humble need of a helpless child, craving and desperately in need of a Father’s wisdom and a Father’s care and a Father’s provision and a Father’s rescue, a ready heart, ready to submit like a trusting child, that is the work of the Holy Spirit. No human being feels those affections for, “Abba! Father!” except the Spirit-wrought. Paul said: You can’t say Jesus is Lord, let alone God is Father without the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 12:3).
“When we cry to God, ready to submit like a trusting child, that is the work of the Holy Spirit.”
So, in the end, assurance that we belong to God, we are his child, we are in the promises, we are among the elect is a gift of God. It is a miracle. But as with other miracles in the Christian life, we don’t lie around on our sofa waiting for a bolt of lightning called assurance. We do what Peter says. We confirm our calling and election. This is war. There are reasons. There are seasons of doubt, reasons for doubt, seasons for doubt in the Christian life. That is why Peter said what he said when he said: Fight for it. Don’t coast. Confirm your calling and election. That is why Paul said: Fight the good fight of faith. That is why Hebrews 3:13 says: Exhort each other every day lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief. This is war. But God does not want his children to fight and fail in the war. He means for us to enjoy the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit and the assurance of our salvation.