Assurance: How do I know I am a Christian?
August 4, 2015
How do you know you are a Christian?
Beware of easy-to-fix theological answers to complex spiritual problems. Poor theology usually offers quick fixes (i.e., a silver bullet approach). And people love quick fixes, which is why bad theology will always remain popular this side of glory.
Very rarely does one go through the Christian life without some sort of crisis of assurance; and, indeed, a crisis of assurance can be a blessing of sorts if the proper remedies are applied. Whatever the case, we are all faced with the question: "How do I know I am a Christian?" Who would not desire a quick fix to this eternally significant question? But here, perhaps more than anywhere, we must be careful.
It has been popular for some to say something to the effect, "for the assurance of their salvation, Christians wholly rest in the joyful knowledge and full sufficiency of their free justification" (John Eaton, a seventeenth-century Antinomian preacher).
If only matters were that simple. I wish that approach worked. It would make my pastoral ministry a whole lot easier if I could solve assurance problems by telling people to simply rest in their free justification. They must do that, but assurance of faith involves other realities.
Instead, think of how a child knows his father is his father. My children have no doubt that I am their father. Why?
Because they live in the same house as I do and we eat at the same table together (cf. Eph. 2:19; Lk. 22:7-38).
Because we share a similar character, personality, and appearance (cf. 1 Jn. 4).
Because we talk to each other frequently and understand "family" language (cf. Rom. 8:14-16).
Because I tell them I love them and they tell me they love me (cf. Rom. 5:5; 1 Jn. 4:16).Because I discipline them (cf. Heb. 12:5-11).Because of how I have treated them in the past (cf. Rom. 8:28; Gen. 32:10).Because we share the same surname (cf. Matt. 28:19).Because our friends all acknowledge that I am their father (cf. 2 Cor. 3:18; 1 Jn. 3:2).Because they belong to a family with a mother and siblings, whom they love as well (cf. 1 Jn. 3:14).Because no one else would quite put up with their nonsense like I do (cf. Ps. 85:15; entire OT).Because they receive gifts from me all the time (cf. Jas. 1:17).
My children know I am their father because of a whole host of realities working together to give them the full assurance that I am their father and other men are not. If you think about those realities above, you can make the connections yourself regarding the way in which the Christian life, especially in the context of the church, mirrors family life in many ways.
In our own assurance of salvation there are both objective and subjective ways we come to know that we are a child of God. As Christians, who are weak, and naturally prone to doubt, we need all of the help we can get from God through his Word and Spirit. What are some of these remedies?
Sometimes I tell doubting believers that the elders have the keys to the kingdom and we believe you are a Christian, so believe us.
Sometimes I tell Christians that the words spoken by the Father to the Son - "You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased" - are words that the Father speaks to us because we belong to Christ.
Sometimes I tell Christians to make better use of the means of grace, especially the Lord's Supper, where the objective promises of God are sealed to us as we eat and drink by (a sometimes weak) faith.
Sometimes I ask if they have unconfessed sin that hasn't been dealt with (Ps. 32:3; 1 Jn. 1:9).
Sometimes I tell Christians they need to sing more Psalms, because then they will realize very quickly whose side they are on (Ps. 83).
Sometimes I tell Christians that they need to obey God's commandments (2 Pet. 1:5-11). But I also tell them that God accepts imperfect, but sincere, obedience.
Sometimes I ask doubting Christians whether they love God's people, which is a sign that one is a child of God (1 Jn. 3:11-24).
Sometimes I tell Christians to pray more, and continue to call out to God as Father, for the Spirit of adoption enables us to cry, "Abba, Father!" (Rom. 8:15-16).
Sometimes I tell doubting Christians that their lack of faith is a sign of belief (Mk. 9:24). After all, unbelievers don't struggle with lack of faith.
Sometimes I make the point that God's chastisement of believers is a sign of his Fatherly love (Heb. 12).
Sometimes I try to convince Christians that Jesus is more interested in justifying them, sanctifying them, and blessing them, than they are in being justified, sanctified, and blessed.
In other words, Christians need to be treated like people, not like sausages in a factory going through a conveyor belt. Each person has peculiar needs, issues, problems, etc., and as such needs to be treated accordingly.
Thus, each Christian will receive assurance of salvation, not from a pithy tweet or quote, but from living the ordinary Christian life, and all that means. To put matters another way, the Christian life is like a healthy ecosystem (i.e., a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment). Christians should have a spiritual community of interacting spiritual realities in an environment (i.e., the church) where we come to know and believe we are the children of God. Strip us from that environment and we lose our grounds for assurance.
Any one of these realities on their own usually isn't sufficient to give us the full assurance of salvation that God desires that his children should have. But, if the Bible is to be believed, none of these realities were ever intended to stand-alone in the Christian life.
Beware of the silver bullet approach. It might initially satisfy, but like any cheap drug, it never lasts.