edit: Cleaned up and reformatted 4/18/17.
I told a story when I was teaching Sunday School once that I heard in Systematic Theology class: A girl said that when she was on an airplane, she was talking to a guy next to her who informed her that he was a Bible teacher. The conversation went something like this:
“Oh, so you’re a Christian.”
“Unfortunately, the Holy Spirit told me that I am not elect. So I’m not saved and I’m going to Hell.”
“Uh… so why are you a Bible teacher?”
“I want to help other people find out if they’re elect, even though I am not.”
While there is something rather noble about his attitude (“Well, stinks for me, but I’ll try to help other people”), it’s also terribly misguided. I told the students in Sunday School about the danger of emphasizing some speculative, mysterious, and secret election by God in eternity past over faith and repentance. And as much fun as it sometimes is to needle overly sensitive Calvinists, I know that most Calvinists would readily agree that the man above was sorely mistaken because, in their view, faith is evidence of one’s prior election.
Scripture says that whosoever believes will have eternal life, not whosoever is secretly elected by God (John 3:16), and it also says that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and has resurrected, you are saved (Romans 10:9). The reason I told this story was to show the primacy of faith and how it assures a believer of inheritance. In other words, faith and election should never be separated, and the former should never be demoted to satisfy our human systems. The fellow above, if he truly believes that Christ is Lord, will be pleasantly surprised when he dies and finds Jesus waiting for him but face-palming at his wacky theology.
However, apparently some students identified more with the man in the story than the surprise of the girl, and several of them, due to some cursory introductions to Calvinism that they have gotten elsewhere, were struggling a bit about the genuineness of their faith. Basically, it was the exact opposite of what I wanted to convey.
That said, I will not sit here and just blame what I believe to be problematic issues within Calvinism. This is a question that is difficult for all Christians, even those Christians who ultimately reject “once saved, always saved” (their biblical case is more robust than people give them credit for). I personally believe in assurance, but I also do not think that it is taught in a way that encourages an easy believism. There is always a stress on the works and righteous life that follows faith, because if it is true faith, there should be a general turning away from sin.
In essence, assurance is not fire insurance; you don’t just sign your name on a dotted line and you’re good to go after that. Assurance, in an almost paradoxical way, should be tested by the life of a believer. Thus, Scripture itself seems to intentionally teach a live tension within the idea of assurance.
How You Know You Abide in 1 John
I think the Apostle John highlights the tension between having confidence in assurance yet testing it. While he is the author of two of the more famous passages used to support the doctrine of eternal security, John 10:28-29 and 1 John 1:19, his first letter is also filled with warnings against sin. On some surface level reading, it may sound like this:
1. Jesus Christ died as an atoning sacrifice for your sins, so confess them. And you have definitely sinned before and will do it again (1 John 2:2).
2. But anyone who keeps sinning (which, let’s face it, sounds like everyone) does not know him and is more the child of the devil than of God (1 John 3:6, 9, 10).
3. Thus, everyone has sinned and will probably keep sinning, yet those who keep sinning do not know Jesus. Huh?
Isn’t the whole purpose of this epistle to give assurance that believer’s have eternal life (John 5:13)? It’s not an easy thing to figure out, but I don’t think John intended assurance to be easy. What John is concerned about is a lifestyle of change. In Greek, the present tense often conveys the idea of a continual, habitual action. This is why the NIV, among others, translates this as “keeps on sinning” and “continues to sin.” In other words, whoever makes a lifestyle of sinning without confession shows himself to be a false believer. John is not simply talking about a believer falling into sin for a time. What he’s identifying is a constant and unrepentant lifestyle of sin as evidence that someone is not saved. Thus, those people who left the church and clearly did not love their brothers in 1:19, causing division in the church as well as teaching false doctrine about Christ, were never a part of the faith to begin with.
The actions of these false teachers and apostates seems to have confused and discouraged the Christians to whom John was writing, and he wanted to assure them that their belief guarantees them eternal life. How can a believer truly know? In 1 John 4:11-15, I believe John provides some tests of assurance. It sounds a bit counterintuitive to test assurance, but we have to let Scripture speak and not try to force-feed it through our theological lenses. Here is the passage:
11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
13 We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.
Verse 11 states a command as a reaction to God’s love. The “so” is similar language used in John 3:16, not quite meaning “so much” but “in this manner (although, obviously, manner and amount are hardly mutually exclusive). What manner is this? It refers back to 4:10, which states that God sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Based upon this self-sacrificial love, we should also love one another in a similar self-sacrificial way.
Verse 12 seems to start with a non-sequitur, “No one has seen God.” John is repeating a typical Jewish proverb about God to argue that if we love one another, whom we can see, we show ourselves to have an intimate relationship with God, whom we cannot see. This is confirmed later in verse 20, which states that anyone who hates his brother, whom he can see, cannot love God, whom he cannot see. If we love like Christ, then we “pass” this test, and a godly kind of love is made complete in us. That is not to say that we can’t mature in our love anymore, but that the intentions of God love–to come from above and to go outward from the believer–is fulfilled.
The above is what I call the “practical test” of true faith. Next is the “subjective test,” and that is the Holy Spirit in verse 13. The Holy Spirit is in every believer and His inner-testimony confirms a believer’s knowledge of God’s continual abidance with them. Obviously, since this is subjective, it is hard to test for an outside person other than looking for things like fruit (Gal. 5:22-23), but it is nonetheless very important for each individual to understand that they have the Spirit of God. Obviously, if you can sense the Holy Spirit in your life, you have God; if you cannot, then it is not safe to assume.
The third test is the “objective test.” I believe the conjunction “and” links the last verse to the previous dependent clause introduced by “because,” so it adds more ways we can know that we abide in God and He abides in us. These ways are seeing and testifying. This may sound odd because John just said that no one has seen God, but that does not mean no one has seen the activity of God, and the obvious activity here is the sending of Jesus to be Savior of the world. Now, none of us physically saw that and most, if not all, of the church that John was writing to physically saw Jesus either, but we can affirm the eyewitness testimony given by the apostles. Furthermore, if we testify to it–if we believe it fully and share it–we have reason to believe that we are saved. This whole idea of believing faith and testimony is further confirmed in verse 15: If we acknowledge the Son of God, we have a relationship with God.
Thus, we have the practical test (godly love), the subjective test (Holy Spirit), and the objective test (faith and testimony). If you have these, you are saved, though none of this means that you will never struggle. What it does mean is that believers will have certain beliefs, experiences, and actions that evidence God’s dwelling within them. It is not something that we should try to use to be judgmental, although to a certain extent, we should test others who teach genuine heresies (1 John 4:1), but it is definitely cause for some serious self-reflection.
For those wanting fire insurance, this is not what they want to hear. They want to hear that a “spiritual moment” at a retreat gave them a pass to live as they see fit. For those wanting a “surer” assurance, this isn’t what they want to hear either because they may feel like it doesn’t give an easy answer to their feelings of insecurity. I understand the feeling, but I believe the tension is there in Scripture and there on purpose. Thus, assurance is tied to faithfulness, and faith is not mere, flippant intellectual assent to certain propositions but a real trust in Jesus that leads to transformation. Faith alone is how we are truly saved, and our love, the Holy Spirit, and our testimony show us to have true faith. This perspective should dismiss errors of speculating on God’s mysterious election as well as eliminate a reliance on a cheap faith that is not transformative.