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In the past, when I have tried to help people wrestle with the theological and existential problem of the assurance of salvation, the outline for Don Whitney’s book, How Can I Be Sure I’m a Christian? What the Bible Says about Assurance of Salvation (NavPress, 1994), has been very useful. Andy Naselli recently posted on this, and I thought it might be helpful if I reprinted it as well.

1. Assurance of Salvation—Is It Possible?

It is possible, indeed normal, for the Christian to experience assurance of salvation.

It is possible, indeed normal, for a non-Christian to have a false assurance of salvation.

2. Having Doubts about Your Salvation

It is possible, indeed normal, for Christians to have occasional doubts about their salvation.

Doubting assurance is not unbelief.

The causes of doubt are many:

  • Spiritual immaturity may contribute to doubts about assurance.
  • Sensitivity to sin may cause confusion about assurance.
  • Comparison with other Christians may cloud assurance.
  • Childhood conversion affects the assurance of some.

3. The Basis of Assurance

The assurance of salvation rests primarily on

  • the character of God 
  • the works of Jesus Christ
  • the truth of God’s promises

4. An Inner Confirmation

Assurance may be experienced partly through the inner confirmation of the Holy Spirit.

How does the Holy Spirit give Christians this assurance?

  • He opens our minds to understand the Bible in ways that give us assurance.
  • He guides our thinking about the biblical marks of salvation in our lives.
  • He brings Scripture and its truths to our minds in various ways that assure us.
  • He causes an inner sense of assurance without words.

5. Signs of Eternal Life

Assurance may be experienced partly through the presence of the attitudes and actions the Bible says will accompany salvation [1 John].

  • Do you share the intimacies of the Christian life with other believers?
  • Do you have a deep awareness of your sin against the word and love of God?
  • Do you live in conscious obedience to the word of God?
  • Do you despise the world and its ways?
  • Do you long for the return of Jesus Christ and to be made like him?
  • Do you habitually do what is right more and sin less?
  • Do you love other Christians sacrificially and want to be with them?
  • Do you discern the presence of the Holy Spirit within you?
  • Do you enjoy listening to the doctrines the apostles of Jesus taught?
  • Do you believe what the Bible teaches about Jesus Christ?

6. A Spiritual Mind-set

Only those who are spiritually minded are Christians.

You are spiritual minded when you think about the things of God:

  • spontaneously and without external causes
  • more than anything else
  • with more delight and enjoyment than anything else.

You are not spiritually minded if “God is not in all [your] thoughts.”

7. Things That Erode Our Assurance

A true Christian may lose a sense of assurance of salvation because . . .

  • he or she refuses to deal with known sin
  • of spiritual laziness
  • of satanic attacks
  • of trials or harsh circumstances
  • of illness or temperament
  • God seems to withdraw a sense of his presence and blessing.

8. Common Problems with Uncertainty

Those converted as children may experience special difficulties with assurance.

Those who remember little else besides following Christ sometimes have doubts that those with adult or dramatic conversions do not.

Concrete childhood thinking differs from more abstract adult thinking.

An awareness of the Lordship of Christ must expand to cover all the ever-expanding circle of life that comes with maturity.

Stay-at-home mothers of young children may experience special difficulties with assurance.

True assurance won’t lead to spiritual carelessness.

Those worried about the unforgivable sin have not committed it.

9. False Assurance of Salvation

Sources of a false assurance of salvation

  • A public commitment or outward response to the gospel
  • Baptism
  • Involvement with church
  • A strong Christian family heritage
  • An abundance of good deeds
  • An extraordinary experience
  • A dramatic personal or lifestyle change
  • Material blessing and financial security
  • A false understanding of God
  • A false understanding of sin and hell

Characteristics of the falsely assured

  • They are either unconcerned or angry when warned about false assurance.
  • They are either legalistic or loose with spiritual disciplines and duties.
  • They are either very weak in or very confident of their Bible knowledge.
  • They have either a vicarious Christianity or an overly independent spirit.
  • They may be constantly resisting the truth or never able to come to the truth.

10. What to Do If You’re Still Not Sure

Don’t take for granted that you understand the gospel.

Think deeply about the gospel.

Repent of all known sin.

Submit everything to the Lordship of Christ.

Meditate much on 1 John.

Don’t doubt the promises of God.

Believe as best you can and pray for greater faith.

Practice the spiritual disciplines.

If you really love God, take assurance because non-Christians don’t love God passionately.

If you hate your sin, take assurance because non-Christians don’t hate sin deeply.

If you’ve never been baptized, present yourself as a candidate in obedience to Christ.

Don’t neglect the Lord’s Supper.

Don’t compare earthly fathers to your Heavenly Father.

Seek godly counsel if the doubts persist.

Pray for assurance.

Wait patiently upon God to give you a fuller experience of assurance.

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11 thoughts on “How Can I Be Sure I’m a Christian?”

  1. Inchristus says:

    Thanks for this. Also, as I’m sure you’re aware, D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge, Letters Along the Way: A Novel of the Christian Life is a compilation of letters written between a wise, elderly seminary professor and a young, struggling Timothy who is learning what it means to live out his life in Christ. Through fiction, Carson and Woodbridge have architected a manual for discipleship from which every pastor can learn a tremendous amount and in which every believer can find rich and rewarding salve for the troubled soul. The application of grace coupled with sage advice spills from every page.

    Throughout these exchanges, the good professor engages young Timothy’s concerns with eloquence and relevance. For me, one of the most penetrating and encouraging passages written by the elder are these words at a time when Timothy’s guilt and despair were at an all-time high. Listen carefully to this solidly biblical and pastorally gracious advice regarding our assurance of salvation:

    “Since becoming a Christian, you have become more and more aware of the sin in your life, and you are discouraged by it. But what discourages you, I see as a sign of life—not the sin itself, but the fact that you are discouraged by it. If you professed faith in Christ and it did not make any difference to your values, personal ethics, and goals, I would begin to wonder if your profession of faith in Christ was spurious (there are certainly instances of spurious faith in the Bible—for instance, John 2:23-25; 8:31ff.).

    But if you have come to trust Christ, then growth in Him is always attended by deepening realization that you are not as good as you once thought you were, that the human heart is frighteningly deceptive and capable of astonishing depths of selfishness and evil. As you discover these things about yourself, the objective ground of your assurance must always remain unfalteringly the same: ‘if anybody does sin we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One’ (1 John 2:1). Let your confidence rest fully in that simple and profound truth.
    What you will discover with time is that although you are not as holy as you would like to be or as blameless as you should be, by God’s grace you are not what you were. You look back and regret things you have said and thought and done as a Christian; you are embarrassed perhaps by the things you failed to think and say and do. But you also look back and testify with gratitude that because of the grace of God in your life, you are not what you were. And thus, unobtrusively, the subjective grounds of assurance also lend their quiet support.”
    (p. 23)

  2. Arminian says:

    Calvinism is logically incompatible with assurance of salvation because it holds to unconditional election and limited atonement, and that these are only known to apply to someone if he endures to the end. If someone who manifests all the signs of being a genuine believer in his own genuine estimation and that of true believers around him turns away from faith, it is held that he never had saving faith to begin with. But then how could someone ever know if he is saved, since his faith might unknowingly be false and he could end up turning from it and only then it be revealed it was false? Since false faith can mimic true faith in every *discernible* way for some time, and whether one will have true faith or not is unconditionally decided by God, and Calvinism cannot provide the assurance of salvation. This is why assurance has been a particular problem among Calvinists historically. This is not to say that Calvinists don’t have assurance of salvation, just that such assurance is despite their Calvinism rather than because of it, and more, that it is incompatible with their Calvinism.

  3. A.M. Mallett says:

    To build on what Arminian has already stated, the Calvinist would also have to repudiate what Calvin referred to as a faith from God that was evanescent . Such a false hope, which is no hope at all, would have the effect of denying any sense of assurance for any believer lest the believer think himself one of the “fooled” reprobates who are recipients of such slighted faith. How could Calvin have thought himself safe while believing what he taught others and expounded on in his own writings?

    Nor do I even deny that God illumines their minds to this extent, that they recognize his grace; but that conviction he distinguishes from the peculiar testimony which he gives to his elect in this respect, that the reprobate never attain to the full result or to fruition. When he shows himself propitious to them, it is not as if he had truly rescued them from death, and taken them under his protection. He only gives them a manifestation of his present mercy.285 In the elect alone he implants the living root of faith, so that they persevere even to the end. Thus we dispose of the objection, that if God truly displays his grace, it must endure for ever. There is nothing inconsistent in this with the fact of his enlightening some with a present sense of grace, which afterwards proves evanescent. – Institutes 3.2.11

  4. kyle says:

    As far as assurance of salvation goes, this list can really be reduced to three points: the plain testimony of the word of God (1 John 5:13), the witness of the Spirit (Rom. 8:15-16), and the experience of the divine life (specifically, loving the brothers, 1 John 3:14). These are points 3, 4, and 5 on this list. If the assurance of salvation becomes a long check list, then something is wrong (I’m not saying this list does that). The assurance of salvation is that the Bible tells you so, the Spirit tells you so, and your most basic experience of life tells you so.

    However, I think in practice this question really turns out to be two questions. 1) How can I be assured I’m saved? (or another issue, How can I know if someone else is saved?) and 2) How can I be assured that I have believed? I say this because the Bible gives no other condition for salvation except faith (you can really lump confessing the Lord’s name and repentance in there too). The issue with Calvinism becomes how do you know if it’s saving faith. This in already undercuts the Bible with a false dichotomy- saving faith and faith. Obviously there is a huge difference between faith and mental comprehension, but I think this initial distinction of two kinds of faith obscures the issue. Because then the issue becomes, how do I know that I have truly believed, instead of, how do I know I am truly saved? The answer to the first question always turns out to be a long list, like the last part of this outline. The answer to the first is extremely simple. If you have believed, then you have believed. We have to be careful not to add conditions to salvation, such as thinking deeply about the gospel. Otherwise the question starts becoming, how deeply do you have to have thought about it? Faith is always simple. Submitting everything to Christ’s Lordship is especially confusing. Doesn’t this start confusing salvation with consecration? Besides, this turns the table of salvation from receiving to giving.

  5. Andrew says:

    This list of suggestions is not good. 1 John is about fellowship with God, not about how you can know you have eternal life. That is what the gospel of John answers. It is frustrating that so many Christians believe that their works save them or prove they are saved. Works are a conditional or they aren’t a condition, it’s that simple. I understand that list above, but I totally disagree with it. Since salvation is by grace through faith, we can know we are saved by believing that Christ died for our sins and was risen. If you are trusting in Christ to save you, and not your works, you can and will have assurance. It is based on Christ, not on self. The more you trust or examine self, the less assurance you will have. That is because the Bible says that we have to believe in the Lord Jesus, and not in ourselves (Romans 4:5).

    1. ***1 John is about fellowship with God, not about how you can know you have eternal life.***

      “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).

      1. Andrew Kinghorn says:

        Matt quotes 1 John 5:13. The epistle of 1 John says we can know we have eternal life. Your reasoning (Matt) is that we can know we have eternal life if we follow all things laid out in the epistle, am I correct?

        So lets say someone does all the things in the epistle. By your argument they can know they have eternal life. Then lets say two weeks pass and they stop doing one of these things as they are laid out in 1 John. Can they know they have eternal life? You would say no.

        So is there absolutely anyway to know for sure we have eternal life? You would have to answer no.

        Tell you what I think John means? John mean we can know we have eternal life, because John has made is clear it is by faith alone in Christ alone for justification. However John does lay out in the epistle how we should behave.

        Besides John is writing to believers, note “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God”, they are already saved. Then he goes onto say that they can know they have eternal life. Why? Because they have believed. How can the epistle be a ‘test to see if they are saved’ (as some put it) if John makes it clear He knows they are saved anyway. Its illogical.

  6. The Lutherans have responded to this post and I hope that you appreciate their contribution. They’re answer is VERY different than what has been offered here.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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