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A few weeks ago I wrote a short piece entitled How Do I Know I’m a Christian? The post flowed from a semester of preaching through 1 John. Like John Stott (and others), I see 1 John as a letter about assurance, a brief book in which the Apostle John outlines (over and over) three signs that confirm what John already knows: namely, that the recipients of his epistles are beloved children of God.

  • The first sign is theological. You should have confidence if you believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God (5:11-13).
  • The second sign is moral. You should have confidence if you live a righteous life (3:6-9).
  • The third sign is social. You should have confidence if you love other Christians (3:14).

There is nothing original about these points. Stott calls the three signs “belief” or “the doctrinal test,” “obedience” or “the moral test,” and “love” or “the social test.” As far as I can tell from the commentaries I consulted, my understanding of 1 John is thoroughly mainstream. I made clear that “These are not three things we do to earn salvation, but three indicators that God has indeed saved us.” I also explained that looking for these signs was not an invitation to look for perfection. “Lest this standard make you despair,” I said at one point, “keep in mind that part of living a righteous life is refusing to claim that you live without sin and coming to Christ for cleansing when you do sin (1:9-10).” In other words, the righteous life is a repentant life.

Surprisingly, the post elicited a strong response, much of it critical. As these things go on the web, some of the critiques were petty and personal. But others raised genuine concerns worth engaging. Because they raised questions people in my own congregation might have, I took time in my sermon on May 17 to explore several of these concerns and respond to them from 1 John. I hope to have a transcript of the sermon available soon.

In the meantime, I thought it would be helpful to engage more substantively with one particular response. After my initial article, a number of people on twitter directed folks to this post by Chad Bird as a much better answer to the question “How do I know I’m a Christian?” I don’t know Chad except that he is a contributor at Christ Hold Fast, a former Lutheran pastor and professor, and an occasional blogger at Liberate. I want to interact with his post not because it is so bad, but because it is, in so many ways, terrifically good. It is heartfelt, well-written, and points people to Christ. At the same time, by my reckoning the post evidences a number of theological and exegetical missteps (or at least, half-truths). My overarching concern is that when talking about the need for personal holiness we need to find categories besides “sinless perfection” and “filthy rags.” I hope that in taking the time to respond to this brother’s article I’m not stirring up more heat, but producing more light on these thorny and perennial issues of sanctification, good works, and assurance. I’ve reprinted Bird’s article below in bold italics, with my commentary in regular print.

There are questions about ourselves that are easily answered, and there are other questions that present more of a challenge.

If someone asks me, “Are you a husband?” I can show them my ring, present my wedding certificate, point to the woman standing next to me who shares my life and my last name. Yes, I am 100% sure that I’m married.

If someone asks me, “Are you an employee?” I can show them where I work, present my pay stubs, point to the truck with which I make deliveries. Yes, I am 100% sure that I’m an employee.

Other questions are not so easily answered. If I’m asked, “Are you a good husband?” what immediately comes to mind are the times I’ve failed my wife, acted selfishly, and been anything but a good husband. I have no real external, tangible, objective way to answer that question. I must rely on feelings and speculations. Similarly, if someone asks, “What kind of employee are you?” my mind goes to the labor I’ve put in, but also to the times I’ve slacked off yet expected a full paycheck for a half-hearted performance. What if I think I’m doing an okay job but my boss thinks different and fires me?

There are questions about ourselves that are easily answered, and there are other questions about ourselves where we have to explore our hearts to test their sincerity, take account of the good and bad things we’ve done, focus inwardly to find the answer.

What about the question, “Are you a Christian?” Does this one belong to that second category, where we must explore our hearts, test our actions, focus inside ourselves to get to the right answer?

That’s certainly what some people think. So they urge folks to ask themselves if they really believe, if they really love their neighbor, if they really live a moral life. But no matter how well intentioned such an urging might be, rather than helping, it is pouring the poison of doubt into the souls of those for whom Christ died.

Here Bird makes a direct reference to my blog post mentioning the three signs I argue are put forth for our assurance in 1 John. In these opening paragraphs we get a sense of Bird’s overarching concern: when it comes to answering the question “Are you a Christian?” we should not look at ourselves or in ourselves. We will never find confidence by looking at ourselves, only misplaced doubt. To be sure, this is a real problem for many Christians, which is why pastoral care and one-another counseling must take into account all of Scripture and all of the life for person we are trying to help. But is it right to present these three signs (theological, social, moral) as only leading to poisonous doubt? Three quick thoughts.

1. There are people externally connected to God’s covenant community who ought to doubt whether they truly belong to Christ. Isn’t this the point (at least one of the points) when 1 Corinthians 6:9 announces “that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God,” or when Galatians 5:21 warns “that those who do such things [works of the flesh] will not inherit the kingdom of God,” or when Galatians 6:8 reminds us that “the one who sows to the his own flesh” will not reap “eternal life” but “will from the flesh reap corruption”? Weren’t many of Jesus’ statements meant to disturb the comfortably religious? It is possible to say “Lord, Lord” and not actually know the Lord and enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 7:21-23). Some people honor God with their lips, but have a heart that is far from Christ (Matt. 15:8). To be sure, the purpose of 1 John is to provide comfort for believers (1 John 5:13) not pour out the poison of doubt, but doubting our salvation is not a bad things if we are not saved.

2. The call to examine oneself does not have to lead to crippling doubt and self-loathing. When Paul enjoined believers in 2 Corinthians 13:5 to examine themselves to whether they were in the faith, he fully expected them to pass the test (“Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!”).

3. While it is never a good idea to “focus inside ourselves,” it is impossible to make sense of 1 John if looking for moral, social, and theological evidence is entirely inappropriate. For example, 1 John 2:5-6 says “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” Likewise, 1 John 3:10 says, “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” We see similar “by this we know” language in 1 John 2:3; 3:14, 19, 24; 4:2-3; 4:13; 5:2. Clearly, we are meant to know something about the person by looking at what he believes, how he lives, and how he loves. One doesn’t have to be in favor of morbid introspection to understand that 1 John urges Christians to look for evidences of grace in themselves and in those who might be seeking to lead them astray.

Look inside yourself to answer, “Are you a Christian?” and you will find a heart that is deceitful above all things (Jer 17:9); a heart from which flow evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander (Matt 15:19); a conscience that testifies that nothing good dwells in you, that the evil you do not want to do, you nevertheless keep right on doing (Rom 7:18-19).

Look at your deeds to answer, “Are you a Christian?” and you will find that all your righteousness is as filthy rags (Isa 64:6); and if such be your righteousness, how dirty and defiled must be your unrighteousness. Look at your deeds and you will find that even when you have the desire to do what is right, you don’t have the ability to carry it out (Rom 7:18). Even if you did all that you were commanded, you must still say, “I am an unworthy servant; I have only done what was my duty,” (cf. Luke 17:10). If such be the response of a person whose has kept all God’s commands, then we who have broken those commands are worthy of nothing but punishment, now and forever.

Thus, to answer, “Are you are Christian?” by looking inside ourselves, or by looking to our deeds or love of the neighbor, is to drink the poison of doubt. In fact, the more Christians look at themselves to see whether they are Christians, the more they will become convinced that they are not Christians.

Let’s deal with Scripture first. Except for the reference to Romans 7, I don’t think any of these passages make the point Bird wants them to make. Jeremiah 17:9 is true for the unredeemed, but is “deceitful above all things” an accurate description of the hearts of those who have been born again? What about the promise of the law of God written on our hearts in Jeremiah 31? Or the promise of a heart of flesh in Ezekiel 36? Isn’t the Christian being renewed into the image of Christ (Col. 3:15) and created in Christ Jesus for good works (Eph. 2:10)?

Likewise, Jesus’ words in Matthew 15:19 are not describing the regular life of a born again disciple. If they were, how could we make sense of the instructions in the Sermon on the Mount, let alone the description of those outside of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:8?

I’ve written before that “filthy rags” in Isaiah 64:6 refers to perfunctory ritual obedience. The fact that Isaiah 64:5 speaks of the Lord smiling upon “him who joyfully works righteousness” proves that God does not turn his nose up at everything we ever do in his sight. Your heavenly Father is not impossible to please.

I don’t see the relevance of Luke 17:10. The discussion is not whether our obedience makes us worthy of anything, but whether obedience is a helpful (and even necessary) sign of our belonging to Christ. We are talking about the fruit of our justification, not the root.

Romans 7 is notoriously difficult to interpret, but assuming the passage is speaking about the converted Paul (which is what I think), these self-recriminating verses do not mean it is wrong to look for the sort of signs 1 John outlines. Elsewhere, Paul seems quite satisfied in his conscience that he has been walking in faith (and presumably in repentance) with the Lord (1 Cor. 4:3-4; 2 Cor. 1:12). Romans 7 expresses the very real sense of conviction and inner turmoil we can experience as Christians, which is why I would never say Christians should only look to their own lives for assurance. It is the testimony of most great saints that the closer they got to God, the more of their sin they began to see. Assurance is not a task for the navel-gazer, but a community project that relies (among other things) on evidence and on the spiritual sense of our brothers and sisters.

The answer is found not within us but within Christ. Our assurance is in his objective, external work of salvation on our behalf. Not in our hearts but in the heart and life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we receive assurance that we are the children of God.

This is the crux of the matter. Is the Christian’s assurance based on the objective, external work of salvation won by Christ on our behalf? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Are there other grounds of assurance? Also yes. The Reformed confessions (Dort and Westminster) mention three grounds of assurance: “the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces. . . .[and] the testimony of the Spirit of adoption.” On the second point regarding inward evidences of grace, Westminster lists four prooftexts:

  • 2 Peter 1:4-11 which urges us to make our calling and election sure by the diligent effort to grow in godliness and bear spiritual fruit.
  • 1 John 2:3 which testifies that we know we belong to God if we keep his commandments.
  • 1 John 3:14 which assures us that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers.
  • 2 Cor. 1:12 which speaks of rejoicing in the testimony of a good conscience.

Clearly, the Confession teaches that a transformed life is one sign (though not the only sign, and certainly not the the cause) of our right standing with God. Whether Lutheran Orthodoxy agrees with Reformed Orthodoxy on this point I cannot say, but the Defense of the Augsburg Confession does state: “It is, therefore, manifest that we require good works” (III.19).

In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19)—the world of which you are a part. In Christ you are reconciled to God, at peace with the Lord, adopted as a child of the heavenly Father. God loved the world in this way: by sending his only begotten Son to die as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And if the world’s sin is taken away, then your sins are taken away. God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us in order that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21). His worthiness covers our unworthiness.

Your name is written in the wounds of Jesus. He has dipped his pen in the crimson ink of his veins and written your name, indelibly, in the Lamb’s Book of Life. He has engraved your name on the palms of his hands. He has tattooed his name onto your soul and heart and mind and body—you are completely and everlastingly his and his alone. In baptism you did not commit yourself to Christ; he committed himself to you. More than that, in those waters he crucified you with himself, laid your body with his in the tomb, and he carried you forth into the light of life again. He who believes and is baptized shall be saved. That believing, that faith, is not a conviction you created but a gift you received. By the Holy Spirit you confess, “Jesus is Lord.”

Beautiful stuff. I think I detect a universal atonement in the first paragraph and a little Lutheran sacramental theology in the second paragraph, but outside of this these are wonderful gospel truths that I hope every Christian would warmly embrace.

Do we still struggle to believe? Of course we do, for we are far from perfect in this life. As a father once prayed to Jesus, so we also pray, “Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief,” (Mark 9:24). And he does. He enlivens and strengthens our faith by continuing to forgive us, to love us, to heal us, to give us himself. It is not our faithfulness that saves us, but the faithfulness of Jesus. For even if we are faithless he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself (2 Tim 2:13).

Setting aside the question of how to interpret 2 Timothy 2:13 (which some take to be God’s faithfulness to save us and others interpret as God’s faithfulness to judge those who deny him), Bird is being both biblically true and pastorally wise to remind us that “we are far from perfect in this life.” No one is without sin, and if we claim to be without sin we call God a liar (1 John 1:8, 10). The problem is that whenever mention is made of obeying God or pleasing God (manifestly biblical categories), some Christians–whether because they have an axe to grind or (more likely) because they have a tender conscience–hear in that language: flawless, spotless, meritorious obedience. As I said earlier, when explaining the need for personal holiness in the life of the Christian, we need categories besides “sinless perfection” and “filthy rags.” Employing this category is one of the strengths of 1 John and is necessary if we are to make sense of Hebrews 12:14, the Sermon on the Mount, qualifications for elders and deacons, the fruit of the Spirit, or almost anything in the New Testament.

We are capable of doing what is good–not perfectly, not without blemish and weakness, but truly, sincerely, and in a way that is pleasing to God. According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, our sins are not only forgiven in Christ, our works are also accepted in Christ, such that God, “looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections” (WCF16.6). It is equally a denial of Scripture and of the grace of God to say that the Christian cannot do good as it is to say that the Christian never does what is bad (1 John 1:8, 10; 2:1, 3, 12-14, 15-17; 3:2-3, 4-10; 5:1-5; 18-20).

How do you know you’re a Christian? Not because your heart is good and pure but because the heart of Christ pulses with a love for you that will never end. Not because your deeds are righteous but because he has been righteous on your behalf and clothes you with that righteousness. Not because you have lived for him but because he has lived and died and risen again for you. Not because you asked him to be your Savior but because while you were yet a sinner, Christ died for you, chose you, called you, and washed you clean in his own divine blood.

If someone asks you, “How do you know you’re a Christian?” the answer is as simple as it is beautiful: you know you’re a Christian
because Christ has made you his own
because Christ will hold you fast
because nothing can separate you from the love of God
because Christ knows you, forgives you, washes you, and will never let you go.

That’s how you know you’re a Christian.

I love a lot about these concluding paragraphs. I love the emphasis on the work of Christ on the cross. I love the focus on Christ’s never-failing love. I love the reminder that we do not hold on to Christ, but he holds on to us. I love what Bird affirms in this closing section. My concern is in what he denies. I find this to be a recurring problem in recent sanctification debates. It’s not the affirmations of grace that trouble me, but what so often shows up as the antithesis to grace. If the question was “How do I become a Christian?” then the “nots” would be well placed. But the question is how do I know I’m a Christian? In which case what we believe, what we do, and what our hearts feel is not irrelevant. What should we make of someone whose heart is bad and impure, someone whose deeds are unrighteous, someone who does not live for Christ, someone who has not asked Christ to be his Savior? I suppose in one sense–and this is likely what Bird means–we could still conclude that this person was a Christian, if we mean someone whose heart still struggles with sin, someone whose deeds are not always righteous, someone who does not live for Christ as well as he would like, someone whose confidence is not in faith itself but in the object of his faith. I assume that’s what Bird means, but by themselves these statements say too much. They claim that looking at the heart, looking at our deeds, looking at a life of discipleship, looking at a basic faith commitment has no bearing on whether you know you’re a Christian. Even if these were absent there would be no grounds for questioning your position in Christ. Is this good biblical counsel and pastoral care? Is there anything a professing Christian can say or do or fail to manifest that would suggest a profession is false?

If you can hang with me a few more paragraphs, read through this tedious but important section from (Lutheran) Defense of the Augsburg Confession:

We, therefore, profess that it is necessary that the Law be begun in us, and that it be observed continually more and more. And at the same time we comprehend both spiritual movements and external good works [the good heart within and works without]. Therefore the adversaries falsely charge against us that our theologians do not teach good works while they not only require these, but also show how they can be done [that the heart must enter into these works, lest they be mere, lifeless, cold works of hypocrites].

The result convicts hypocrites, who by their own powers endeavor to fulfill the Law, that they cannot accomplish what they attempt. [For are they free from hatred, envy, strife, anger, wrath, avarice, adultery, etc.? Why, these vices were nowhere greater than in the cloisters and sacred institutes.] For human nature is far too weak to be able by its own powers to resist the devil, who holds as captives all who have not been freed through faith. There is need of the power of Christ against the devil, namely, that, inasmuch as we know that for Christ’s sake we are heard, and have the promise, we may pray for the governance and defense of the Holy Ghost, that we may neither be deceived and err, nor be impelled to undertake anything contrary to God’s will. [Otherwise we should, every hour, fall into error and abominable vices.] Just as Ps. 68:18 teaches: Thou hast led captivity captive; Thou hast received gifts for man. For Christ has overcome the devil, and has given to us the promise and the Holy Ghost, in order that, by divine aid, we ourselves also may overcome. And 1 John 3:8: For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.

Again, we teach not only how the Law can be observed, but also how God is pleased if anything be done, namely, not because we render satisfaction to the Law, but because we are in Christ, as we shall say after a little. It is, therefore, manifest that we require good works. Yea, we add also this, that it is impossible for love to God, even though it be small, to be sundered from faith, because through Christ we come to the Father, and the remission of sins having been received, we now are truly certain that we have a God, i.e., that God cares for us; we call upon Him, we give Him thanks, we fear Him, we love Him as 1 John 4:19 teaches: We love Him, because He first loved us, namely, because He gave His Son for us, and forgave us our sins. Thus he indicates that faith precedes and love follows.

Likewise the faith of which we speak exists in repentance, i.e., it is conceived in the terrors of conscience, which feels the wrath of God against our sins, and seeks the remission of sins, and to be freed from sin. And in such terrors and other afflictions this faith ought to grow and be strengthened. Wherefore it cannot exist in those who live according to the flesh who are delighted by their own lusts and obey them. Accordingly, Paul says, Rom. 8:1: There is, therefore, now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. So, too, Rom. 8:12-13: We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die; but if ye, through the Spirit, do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. Wherefore, the faith which receives remission of sins in a heart terrified and fleeing from sin does not remain in those who obey their desires, neither does it coexist with mortal sin.(III.15-23, emphasis and paragraph breaks mine)

I find in this section so much of what is often denied by those on the “stop looking at yourself” side of the sanctification discussion.

  • We can grow as Christians (the Law being observed in us more and more).
  • As the fruit of our justification, good works are necessary for the Christian.
  • By the conquering power of Christ, good work are possible for the Christian.
  • Genuine faith in inconsistent with living according to the flesh.

As I read the books and blogs and tweets of my brothers and sisters on the other side of these debates I often find myself saying, “Yes, I love that too! But saying yes to that doesn’t entail saying no to this.” We have to deal with people in the full range of their problems, fears, hurts, and idols. We have to sing all four parts of the score and from more than our favorite oratorio. We have to be more careful with what we affirm and what we deny. And above all, we must be relentlessly biblical. If someone’s sermon or book or article makes you feel condemned or feel uneasy or feel out of sorts with God that is not inconsequential, but neither is it by itself conclusive. Maybe the message was off. Maybe the messenger was clumsy. Or maybe the fault lies with the one receiving the message. If we want to be good Reformed Christians or good Lutheran Christians (or any other kind of good Christians) we must keep going back to the Bible. We have to think carefully and speak carefully. This is an important conversation with lots of theological, personal, and pastoral ramifications. If we deal with slogans and caricatures, all will be in vain. If we talk calmly and dig deeply, much can be gained.


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Comments:


26 thoughts on “So How Do I Really Know I’m a Christian?”

  1. Charley says:

    Now do Jedi

  2. Chris says:

    Yes. Thank you, Kevin.

  3. Kevin I think these verses sum it up very well. ie Christ is more than sufficient or as Paul puts it …There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. He was talking about believers. A lot of the stuff he was pointing to was about non believer’s. The thread below is very clear.

    Rom 7

    21 I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. 22 For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. 23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24 O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!

    So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.
    Romans 8 New King James Version (NKJV)

    Free from Indwelling Sin
    8 There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus,[a] who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. 6 For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. 7 Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. 8 So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

    9 But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. 10 And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.

    Sonship Through the Spirit
    12 Therefore, brethren, we are debtors—not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 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. 14 For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.

  4. and again “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. This is how we know we are Chrisitians

  5. a. says:

    The problem is that whenever mention is made of obeying God or pleasing God…..

    some minimize and discount this, just not speaking about it the way Lord does. period . “Did God really say?”

  6. jh says:

    Dear Mr. DeYoung:

    I commented on your first post on this topic a few weeks ago. And I waited to see how or if you would respond to that slew of comments. I was so glad to see this post this morning and very grateful for your more thoughtful, more thorough insight. I am looking forward to reading your sermon transcript that details your responses to some of the comments from the first post.

    I’m not on Twitter so I didn’t see the references to the Chad Bird article you address here, but from this reading, I am also very glad you critiqued that too. Yours was a very fair and a great explanation of the biblical texts referenced and I find your points more credible. Your use of common historical Christian resources helps reinforce your analysis. And I appreciate that.

    I personally felt that the Chad Bird article was passionate, and well-meaning, but leaned too far in the opposite direction of your first post that got everyone all riled. Which makes me wonder: Mr. Bird’s was an equally unfair (or single-faceted?) perspective, albeit in a different direction, yet people were seemingly so up in arms about your post, and so embracing of his. It only makes me wonder if there was any intellectual motivation in that embracing crowd there at all, instead of a mere emotional one towards a more “feel good” message. Not that intellect is better than emotion, (we should make full use of both), but God didn’t give us thinking minds to keep them stored away in the attic either.

    In any case, because I am a person who struggles with this issue of assurance, I was wondering if there could ever be a time you might be so kind as to address a few more issues from further questions that I had from this post.

    1. From your reference to the Reformed confessions: would you elaborate on the 3rd point – what does the “testimony of the Spirit of adoption” mean, and what might it look like in real life, in a real Christian person? If I may be so bold, what could that feel like?

    2. Along those same lines, how might you practically describe what a Christian heart looks like in real life? How would a person know they possess a Christian heart? I’m not asking for the answer about bearing fruit, etc. If you want to go there, fine, but please interpret scriptural references in real life terms and language. It can be personal, and please mention that it’s a personal interpretation. I would just like to know how different people think differently – how the Christian life feels to someone.

    3. From the Defense of the Augsburg Confession: how does one differentiate the feeling of the wrath of God against our sins from just common human guilt?

    Yours were all great references and scholarly, biblical arguments. But I really wonder what they mean to a real person, using real words, and real feelings. Like you said, there are probably plenty of people who struggle with assurance, like me. And the answers to my questions may not be helpful or beneficial to all, because I understand the dangers of personal testimony. But I also believe that all those who join in the union with Christ, by the indwelling of the one Holy Spirit, should have a similar spirit underlying the various circumstantial details of each personal story. If that makes sense. Other readers who (claim to) have assurance, feel free to share your personal stories also, but I’m not talking about miraculous transformation stories. I mean, every day, ordinary, just what does a Christian heart feel like to you.

    I’ve heard all the “textbook” answers. What are some real ones?

    In any case, my goal here today was to share my appreciation and gratitude for more care and concern from you. So thank you. I have more respect for you today. This was very pastorly of you.

    Most sincerely,
    Your humbled reader

  7. Ben Perkins says:

    What a wonderfully constructive and helpful discussion. No malice, no personal jabs, just a healthy and cordial disagreement. As Christians, we’ve been burned so many times by false preaching and distorted doctrine, I’m afraid we tend to react in haste sometimes. We certainly tend to overcompensate in lieu of committing this or that heresy. That may be what is going on here.
    In reading the Psalms, we see David repeatedly appeal to the cleanness of his mouth and hands, (e.g. 17); but no one would accuse the shepherd king of piety or any other distortion. David is diligent and thorough to credit God with all of his righteousness (e.g. 4:1).
    We see above a great example of Proverbs 27:17: iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.
    Thanks for your ministry.

  8. Fred says:

    Mr. DeYoung, When you come to the end of yourself, and you will, because Jesus loves you. Chad Bird’s book Christ Alone will be available.

  9. Bruce Timm says:

    Thank you for your well-written response to Chad Bird’s article. I believe you have made clear the distinction between the Reformed and the Lutheran. While Lutherans require good works and preach them we would never look to the them as even slightest proof of our salvation, as Chad Bird clearly articulated. We look and cling to Christ alone. However, we would see the absence of them or the neglect of them as a sign of the absence of faith. (We Lutheran’s love our paradoxes). We call this the proper distinction of Law and Gospel and we learned it from a fellow called Luther and one of his sons in the faith C.F.W. Walther.

  10. Kari says:

    I just wanted to give my personal testimony of what it means to know that I am a Christian as an example for jh, as it seems he/she is looking for a more human response and not one of pure theology. For me, conversion felt rather miraculous, but externally, I doubt many would know of the internal change which had occurred. I was about 15 years old and feeling rather depressed and desperate…no reasonable excuses really, probably just hormones and the typical stresses of a teenager. I was raised in a moral home and we faithfully went to a Lutheran church and Sunday school, though my parents were not tyrannical in following church doctrines and gave me full choice as to whether or not I wanted to participate in confirmation. As a child, I always believed in God, and Jesus too. I remember standing on the front steps of our old home and delivering sermons to my dog and singing Sunday school songs with great gusto. I cannot say what brought me to such a place of brokenness or desperation other than the Holy Spirit Himself, but one evening I just cried out to Jesus (not out loud, as I recall) in my heart and said something like, “Jesus, I trust you as the only one who can save me. I give my life to You.” It was a simple and pure confession and trust in the Savior, and the next day I was a changed girl. I suddenly found myself craving His word, applying the scriptures to my circumstances, loving my classmates and family with a love that I can only describe as unconditional (as I can only imagine the Father’s love is all the time), and possessing a peace that is described in the Bible as ” passing all understanding.” I realize there are many people who call themselves Believers, who have a much different experience than mine, and I wouldn’t want to suggest that their conversion story is any less real, as I believe the Lord works in and through us in very different ways. But since my born again experience was so dramatic for me, I have held onto a great assurance of my faith in Christ. Since that time, almost 37 years have past. My personal sins and unwillingness to always submit to God’s ways have dampened the Holy Spirit’s work and voice, but I continue to know that my hope is only found in Jesus. When my conscience tells me I’m wrong, or I have the urge to say or do certain things, or when I read God’s word and I get tingling feelings of excitement or conviction, I know He is talking to me. Practically speaking, this might be my sudden urge to pray for someone in the grocery store, or a desire to help someone with a physical limitation, or to have a sense of compassion for a situation for which no one else is even aware. For instance, in the last 6 months or so, I recall sensing God wanted me to pray for an extremely overweight gal I saw in a store. It wasn’t a feeling of disgust or a thought about wanting her to go on a diet. It was a concern for her health as she was out of breath and her well being, to know that God loves her no matter what her physical presence may look like. I also spent one week with a friend of a friend whom I never met, but I found out she was dying and wanted to remain in her home, but she had few family members who could lend a hand. This wasn’t an easy or pleasant experience, but I sensed that God was telling me to go. I also reached out to young woman in my Bible study who I just sensed needed someone to help her…found out that she has been living with a physically abusive husband for the past seven years… These experiences with God remind me of the the hymn, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine, oh what a foretaste of heaven divine…” When the Bible talks about a spiritual gift that will be given to us, I was given the gift of discernment. I remember that after my conversion I was able to tell that certain things being preached from the pulpit of my childhood church just didn’t match up with the teachings of the Bible. I’m not saying this to bash any particular denomination, but only to point out that God sets the standards, for each of us, individually, and for His church as a whole. I resonate with Paul, when he talks about the scales falling off of his eyes. I hope what I’ve shared here will give just a bit of the more practical side of what it means to know one is saved. I think about the fact that even the demons know who Jesus is…that is not enough. We must believe and TRUST in Him to save us!

  11. john says:

    it seems to me your initial article would of benefited from a better title…

    “are you a Christian?” and “how can we be assured or how does GOD assure us” are actually two different questions – the first have salvific/soteriological implications and the second comes only once the first is answered, in the very definition of assurance we see “to give confidence to”.

    these are two questions which require two different answers. you were endeavoring to answer the latter in your article but your title suggested the first.

  12. Jeff says:

    Loved Chad’s piece. Loved Kevin’s. (wasn’t fond of his original crack at it.) Honestly I’m now as confused as the day is long. One thing I know: I now REALLY want to pour over Paul’s letters again for myself to see if I can get a better handle on his theology of sanctification. I mean really. Like starting this minute. Kevin is right. This is vitally important and I’d like to one day feel like I know which “side” is “right.” And it’s pretty clear who the leading voices on these sides.

    Winced a little at the end with the “if we want to be ‘good’ Christians” closing. Are there any? Not sure that the chief of sinners would be on board with that. (Perhaps just meant as a figure of speech.) at least we can all agree on this: There is indeed a good God!

  13. Neville Briggs says:

    Such complicated explanations.
    The apostle John says ” we know that we have passed from death to life if we love our brothers “.
    John didn’t have the benefit of a PhD and he was certainly unfamiliar with Confessions from Augsburg, Dort and Westminster , he just had to rely on his experience as Jesus’ disciple and the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and John found just one principle of knowledge, stated in one sentence ; brotherly love.

  14. Cody Lee says:

    You would do well to listen more carefully to the ex Lutheran pastor. You may be able to agree with him on the surface, but I suspect you are a long way off…

  15. Mark Bowen says:

    B-ros, learn calculus. The issue isn’t your present state of righteousness, but the change in righteousness. I’m gonna go all author of Hebrews on you because my thumbs are too tired to find a reference on my phone, but look in the OT swagness of the law at where it says that it doesn’t matter if a person is righteous if he chooses to sin, and that it doesn’t matter if a person is sinful if he chooses righteousness. What matters is the change in heart.

    Take the derivative of your holiness. If the slope is positive in terms if righteousness, contentment, and love for your brother, then count yourself saved. If it is zero or negative, reconsider in fear and trembling.

    Also might want to look at Jesus’ parable about the two sons asked to work it up in the fields for their dad. It didn’t matter what their previous state of response was, but what they ended up doing in the end.

  16. J. Dean says:

    I would politely remind all of us that the same St. John who writes about those assurances also says in the same epistle that “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1:8) I would also add that, in Matthew 5, Jesus states that even the tax collectors and heathen love others like them, so loving our Christian brothers, as good as that is, needs to be kept in the proper perspective.

    Nobody except the most rabid antinomian would deny that conversion will bring about change in the Christian. The danger in this are two. First, that it’s an easy step to go from “assurance of salvation” to “grounds for salvation” if we are not careful. Second, that even on our best days, our evidence of assurance will be tainted with sin.

    It is fine to ask somebody “Do you love the brethren?” But if they do not, the first place they need to be directed is back to the cross, not to the law. Otherwise, you run the risk (as I saw in American evangelicalism many times ) that I have to “make up for my sin” by doing the right thing instead of confessing my sin to God and asking for forgiveness through Jesus Christ. The cross is not something to be left in the rearview mirror after conversion. We re-visit the cross time and again to remember that it is here that our salvation was procured for us by God through Christ, and that it is here and NOWHERE ELSE that our ultimate assurance lies.

    And to ignore the second danger can result in legalistic Pharisaism. We can fool ourselves into thinking that “if we do A,B, and C on our checklists, then we’re perfect before God,” (again, Mr. DeYoung, please remember that some in your audience come from Arminianist churches that have done this). Augustine reminded us that our best works before God are “splendid vices.” And R.C. Sproul echoed this, stating that there is not a single one of us who has truly, honestly, perfectly loved God or our neighbors as we are supposed to each and every day. In light of the fact that God’s ultimate demand is perfect obedience (literally perfect, as He is perfect), that should make us very careful about how much confidence there is in our works. When Jesus said, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” that wasn’t intended to be a one time thing, and even in the areas of assurance Mr. DeYoung outlined we will ALL find ourselves failing to perfectly keep them. Does that excuse us from them? Of course not: again, I haven’t seen anybody in the comments about this topic say “live any way you want” (feel free to correct me if such a comment was made). But at the same time, not a one of us can say “I’ve done this all without fail, every day, every hour, without any trace of sin attached.”

    Finally, remember the warning by Jesus in Matthew 7: those whom he casts away run to their works and say to him “Look what we’ve done!” That should be a very sobering thought to anybody running to check on their works as to whether or not they are saved: there is a danger if it is not all in light of (and superseded by) the gospel.

    As Martin Luther said, “Ever more say ‘keep the law,’ but don’t attach that old meaning to it again.” Yes, preach about works. Yes, preach about law. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes, exhort obedience. But the law accuses as it instructs, and trying to base our assurance in that which we cannot perfectly keep is a precarious thing to do.

  17. Ron says:

    Dear @RevKevDeYoung,

    I am truly astonished, but thankful for your very thoughtful and thorough response.
    The last thing you can ever be accused of is a navel-gazer! I wonder if anyone who gave you the push back comments understand your pedigree. Context even of a person is so important before flying off on social media. You are among the most prolific writers in Reformed circles. An experienced pastor, conference speaker with an immense body of diligent work, I’m baffled by the opposing rhetoric. By the way, I believe too that Bird soinds like a Christian universalist.

    Now onto your sermon transcript. I’m certain it too will winsomely argue for the same faith as the Apostle John.

  18. Jesse H says:

    One of the problems here is we are asking a question about assurance saying this: how can I objectively know that I am subjectively saved? Or the reverse.

    Take those out of the equation. He who believes has eternal life. Do you believe the sky is blue? Do you believe that you are alive? Do you believe in Jesus for eternal life?

    If I ask if you believe something, you say either yes or no. If I ask if you love someone, you don’t tell me, “I’ve done a lot for that person.” You say, “Yes, I love.” If I ask if you believe in Jesus for eternal life, you don’t say, “I’ve passed the moral and social tests, so yes, I believe.” You should simply say, “Yes, I believe.”

    Assurance is of the essence of faith, Jesus says this, John says this, Calvin says this. We should say this.

  19. Neville Briggs says:

    J Dean, I politely point out that there is no such person in the NT as St. John…. there is a John.

    I think you are right, we must understand John’s exhortation to brotherly love in its proper context, and the context is about encouraging believers to walk in a new way, the way of the citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, the way of those who are to be resurrected to the new Heaven and the new earth.
    It is not only Christ crucified that underpins our faith ( as you rightly pointed out ) , it is also Christ resurrected.
    We expect to be brought into resurrection life also. And, as Jesus explained, our actions now were the authentication of what we would be in the Kingdom of Heaven.
    Surely we would be better off, getting away from long-winded theological analyses and learning how we can build the new kingdom relationships with each other.

  20. Amy Thom says:

    Dear Kevin,
    Could part of this issue be a stronger brother weaker brother instance? Our church is literally being torn apart because of this issue and it breaks my heart. People are leaving because they are so broken and people are staying as they get stronger in their stance on the issue. It’s so disheartening. It’s becoming a really big deal and hitting home hard. Please keep speaking truth in love to this, people are listening.

  21. J.Dean

    Thank you for your very thoughtful reply. In relation to Matt 7…… its very clear to me who Christ was talking about when he told them to depart from HIm ie ” in v:23 Jesus tells those who practice lawlessness to depart from Him, referring to no one else but the unsaved . Thus Jesus himself makes it clear I never knew you so they cant be believers. So they have to be unbelievers. Practicing lawlessness does not mean breaking the 10 Commandments or sinning: it means not being saved. Not washed clean by Christs blood and not seal by the Holy Spirit. Blessings to you.

    Father in heaven. 22 Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’

  22. Hi Amy its very distressing to hear that your fellowship is dividing. The critical issue for you it seems to me is deciding who the love of Christ abides within? As Neville rightly said its about building relationships in and through Christ. In my daily ministry as a chaplain I use a simple phrase to remind me what is important when dealing with people ie Jesus, People, Relationships. What this translates out into our lives …is an action we need to take… we get to know and follow Jesus, we interact with people in our sphere of influence and we build relationships. It you cant do this in your fellowship then it may be time to seek out another part of the ecclesia where you can. So if love does not abound where you are you may have to shake the dust off your feet and seek it elsewhere. If you ask God HE will provide divine appointments elsewhere. Its hard I know I’ve been through it myself and moving on hurts a lot. Remember God will never leave you!

  23. Amy Thom says:

    @ Grahame Smith, thank you for replying.

  24. It’s impressive that you are getting ideas from this paragraph as well as from our argument made at this time.

  25. David Steen says:

    My wife and I applauded the original article. It was a simple explanation of what we have discovered through God’s grace, that the entire canon of God’s holy scriptures points to, encourages, and blesses righteousness and holy living. It is not to make us perfect, nor can we be. It is our minimum service to a holy God that drives us to become more like Him every day, to want to please Him. Romans 12 presents that expectation that we are to be different and set apart, not to be saved by ourselves, but because we ARE saved. God bless!

  26. Bill says:

    Kevin, you have become the new Father of Legalism. You write:

    ” It is equally a denial of Scripture and of the grace of God to say that the Christian cannot do good as it is to say that the Christian never does what is bad ”

    You are getting deeper and deeper int the mud by writing this. The Heidelberg disputation written by Martin Luther clearly teaches that a Christian can never do any good, and this is the scriptural teaching. Specifically Heidelberg disputation number 6 teaches that a christian can not perform a single sinless good work, no not one, every breath a christian takes condemns him to hell. The sole reason God accepts the works of a christian is because he pardons the sin in it. How am I assured of my salvation ? Simple, I am washed by the blood of Christ,
    Revelation 1:5 :
    “And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood,”

    Do I have any other assurance ? No. My moral righteousness as Pastor Kevin suggests as the second form of assurance ? Forget it, I sin daily, my life is mired in sin. But thank God I am under grace and not under law. I look at the law of liberty as the apostle James calls it, because the law of Moses sends me to hell. My social righteousness that Pastor Kevin suggests as the third form of assurance? Forget it. I have only been to church once in the last two years from all I remember.

    You see what you are missing Kevin is that the purpose of the law is always to sends us to the cross, never to give assurance. We can talk all we want to about the three uses of the law, but the apostle Paul recognizes only one use of the law in Romans 3:20 , knowledge of sin . So there is no assurance of salvation whatsoever to be found in the moral law. I live a Christ centered, cross centered life. As a christian I do not find any assurance whatsoever on my moral or social righteousness, none, not one iotal, I only stand condemned. My assurance is solely on Jesus Christ who fulfilled the law for me and has abolished the law and all its requirements from my life Romans 10:4 , Colosians 2:14 , Ephesians 2:15 . Christ has fulfilled for me what I can not do by any means Romans 8:3 , and now the burden of the commands does not hang over my head any longer. Instead of the law of works I am now under the law of faith Romans 3:27

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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