As someone who has always attended and ministered in churches that hold historic Baptist doctrines, I have a deep appreciation for these churches’ missionary zeal and doctrinal clarity. As a young man growing up, there was a single phrase that most all good Baptists knew: “Once saved, always saved.” When I was young, that was all I thought I needed to know on the subject of the gospel. It wasn’t until I got into my early 20’s that the phrase itself became a bit troubling to me. Expressions like this are intended to promote the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints or eternal security. This I whole-heatedly applaud, but I have seen many a person claim “once saved, always saved” and yet live like the devil. They believe that since they said a prayer, they are good with God.
One of the recurring questions that I often hear in the ministry is, “How can I be sure that I am saved?” Working with students for the past twenty years has allowed me to answer this question often. It is a genuine question that many have asked. It may be one that you are asking now. To find the answer, I believe we need to look at three different areas.
The first place to look for this answer is God’s Word. You may have been taught doctrine when you were young, but all doctrines need to be tested by Scripture. Does the Bible teach that a person can have eternal life? It most certainly does. John 3:36 says, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life.” Later John writes, “The one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37). He even illustrates the truth in chapter 10 by saying, “and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”
Paul’s letters are filled with such great assurances as well. We find them in Ephesians 1:3–13, Ephesians 4:30, Philippians 1:6, and many more places. However, my favorite is found in Romans 8, where Paul writes, “For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of his Son so that he would be the firstborn among many brethren; and those whom he predestined, he also called; and those whom he called, he also justified; and those whom he justified, he also glorified. . . . Who can bring a charge against God’s elect?” If God calls and God saves, then God also keeps. If a saved person is promised that he will be glorified one day, then it is a promise from God.
When we look to the Word, it is apparent that a true child of God can indeed have eternal life and security in it by trusting God’s promises from Scripture.
Again in Romans 8, Paul makes an astounding statement. He says in verse 16, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.” Here we see that the Holy Spirit is our inner witness that we are one of God’s children.
There are two witnesses here, however. First, the Holy Spirit bears witness that we are children of God, but second, we also have a role in bearing witness, as verse 15 indicates. We (our human spirits) cry out, “Abba, Father.” Both the Holy Spirit and our spirits are testifying to God the Father that we are his children.
We can see the fruit of this in verse 26, which asserts that the “Holy Spirit intercedes for us when we pray.” Only one who is a child of God can have the third person in the Trinity bear witness for them. So, if you are ever struggling with this common question of assurance, one of the best ways to help find comfort is to ask the Comforter and Witness Bearer for help in applying the promises of the Word in your life.
Finally, we should look at our work, both internally and externally.
Do you hate sin? Do you repent of your sin when you sin? Do you love to worship the Lord and to see Him glorified?
If these are true, then these are all signs of the Spirit’s work in you. An unregenerate person cannot have these qualities (Rom 3:10–11). In Galatians 5, Paul describes what this looks like for us in the fruit of the Spirit. Are these fruits bearing in your life? These are all works of the Spirit in you.
Another piece of evidence that God is indeed at work in you is that it flows from the internal into your external life and work as well. In his first letter, John provides believers tests for their assurance. If these things are true of you, then the test of works should help you rest assured that you are a child of God.
1 John 1:5-7 (Walking in the Light)
1 John 1:8-10 (Confession of Sin)
1 John 2:3-4 (Obedience)
1 John 2:9-11 (Love for the Brethren)
1 John 2:15-17 (Hatred for the World)
1 John 2:24-25 (Perseverance in Doctrine)
1 John 3:10 (Righteousness)
1 John 4:13 (Spirit’s Testimony)
We must remember that even an unbeliever can live “well” by a legalistic list of rules. Unbelievers can exhibit self-control, longsuffering, and many other fruits. If they are only external qualities and not internal, then it could be easy to have a false sense of security as the Pharisees did.
However, when you have both the internal work (your heart is for God and the Kingdom) and its overflows into external work (love for your brother, obedient living, and a transformed life), then this work is evidence of your salvation.
After considering these three areas, you should be able to do as Peter said in 2 Peter 1:10: “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities, you will never fall.” There is nothing mystical about having assurance. You don’t have to climb a mountain and camp for a week, eating only fruit and drinking water while in a constant state of prayer like a monk. God’s Word, witness, and godly work are all evidence that you are a child of God.
There may be times in your life when you sin, and you ask yourself, “How could I be a believer and continue in this sin?” This is an excellent question to ask. It may be that you never really have believed in the Lord. It may be that you have outward signs of faith but no inward witness. If this is the case, then repent and believe. The gospel is for you.
However, if you simply need a check because you have seen some sin creep up in your life, then I encourage you to repent and consider these three areas. The Lord is not in the business of hiding himself from his children. He has given us the Holy Spirit as our Comforter and Guide. If you seek assurance of your salvation, I encourage you to pursue these areas to help you rest assured that you are in him and that he is in you.