Finding the Truth: Do We Have Assurance or Must We Merit Salvation?

I need to address two issues:

  1. I raised a lot of concerns by what I said about works.
  2. How do we determine whether what I taught is true?

One of the concerns raised to me was:

It seems to me that an over emphasis on works for assurance can easily lead to fear, bondage, and despair.

Okay, let’s assume that’s possible. The problem is, we don’t get to determine what’s true based on what we think the consequences might be.

The question is not whether a teaching might possibly lead to fear, bondage, and despair. The question is: Is it true?

In the several emails I got in response to my post, no one presented a refutation of what I said. I took that to mean that I what I taught was so clearly Scriptural that it was undeniable.

That’s not surprising to me. It’s not the result of clear thinking on my part. It’s simply the result of believing Paul’s statement that the church is the pillar and support of the truth. The apostles churches had an even greater emphasis on works than I did.

Thus, my concern is not that I have over-emphasized works, but that I am under-emphasizing them out of a lack of understanding of God’s power.

Speaking of God’s power, let me address the concerns I was asked about. Most of  those who asked did so out of a legitimate concern, not out of an argumentative spirit.

Do You Believe There Is Such a Thing as an Assurance of Salvation?

I do … on the basis of 1 John, which was written on that subject.

I have written 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 Jn. 5:13)

In evangelism class as a good fundamentalist, I was taught that this means that everyone who believes on the name of the Son of God has eternal life just because they believe.

In a sense, of course, that’s true. Eternal life does come just out of belief. However, the “these things” of 1 John 5:13 is a reference to all the things he wrote in that letter, and those things tell us what real belief produces:

This is the way that we know that we know him: if we keep his commandments. He that says, “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. (2:3-4)

A faith that changes your life is a real faith. A faith that doesn’t change your life has something wrong with it. Such a faith cannot save you. John continues:

Little children, let no one deceive you. He that practices righteousness is righteous just as [Christ] is righteous. (3:7)

James says something very similar:

Of what benefit is it, brothers, if a man says he has faith but has no works? Can faith save him? (Jam. 2:14)

The answer to that question, of course, is no. If the rhetorical nature of that question is not clear, James says it directly  for you:

So you see that a person is justified by works and not by faith only. (Jam. 2:24)

That verse, you may be interested to know, is the only occurrence of the phrase “faith alone” or “faith only” in the entire Bible.

These sorts of verses make it clear that “assurance” hinges on works being produced in your life.

Are those works produced out of faith? Of course they are. The hope will always be that those who seek to produce works out of their own strength will fail, and in their failure, and in their certain knowledge and expectation of judgment, they will turn to him alone who can save, Jesus, our Savior and Redeemer.

But surely there is no passage clearer on the subject of atonement than 2 Pet. 1:10-11:

Be diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you do these things, you will never fall. For in this way an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Will this produce despair in those who do not have works or who find it difficult to turn away from sin and live in obedience to God?

Hopefully! But whether it does or not, it’s hard to say that assurance depends on doing something any clearer than Peter just said it.

I say “hopefully” because if you find that you cannot turn away from sin and live for God, then you haven’t believed the Gospel. If you are under grace, says the Scriptures, then sin will not have power over you (Rom. 6:14).

Thus, if you do not have this power, you need to find out what the real Gospel is, believe it, and obtain that power.

Paul despaired in exactly that way. He cried out, “Oh, wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24).

Paul, however, had an answer. That answer was Jesus Christ. The Law could not deliver Paul from sin, but “what the Law could not do, God did, by sending his Son … ” (Rom. 8:3-4). The result was that “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2).

The Necessary Caveats or …

Explaining Things  for Modern Christians

Does this mean we have to be perfect?

No.

John adds:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 Jn. 2:1)

James, too, knows that we all sin:

For we all stumble in many things. (Jam. 3:2)

Nonetheless, both these men make it clear that we are expected to obey God, and if we do not, then we will not be saved.

God is a just Judge. The accusation that God must send people to hell if  they sin even once is not true and makes a monster out of God.

How can we know we’re being obedient enough to merit salvation?

Merit is like a cuss word to modern Christians. We can never “merit” salvation. In fact, we shouldn’t “merit” salvation.

At least that’s what people say.

What they say is both true and not true.

It is true in the sense that the reason salvation is by grace (not by faith, but by the grace that faith obtains) is so that we would not be able to boast. We, in ourselves, cannot be worthy. It is by the Spirit that we put to death the deeds of the body, and it is this fact that eliminates boasting. We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.

But it is not true in the sense that the Scriptures say we must be worthy.

Sorry.

You have a few names, even in Sardis, that have not defiled their garments, and they shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy. (Rev. 3:4)

That’s merit being specifically discussed in so many words.  But it’s said indirectly as well:

I discipline my body and bring it under subjection lest, having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified. (1 Cor. 9:27)

How can we be obedient enough? – Part 2

Actually, yes we can. For two reasons:

One we’ve been talking about. God has the power to keep us from stumbling and to present us faultless before his throne by his grace (1 Cor. 1:7; Jude 24). The other is over emphasized in modern Christianity, but it needs to be addressed in this blog.

We’ve already mentioned that God is merciful, but we need to say it further.

To him that does not work but believes on him that justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Just as David describes the man to whom God imputes righteousness without works, “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.” (Rom. 4:5-8)

The man who is in Christ, who does not walk according to the flesh, can indeed inherit these promises. They are true. There really is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.

But you have to be in Christ Jesus!

John puts it well:

If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 Jn. 1:7)

If we want to receive these promises of mercy; if we want to walk in no condemnation; if we want to experience a continual cleansing from sin by the blood of Jesus, then we must walk in the light; we must walk by the Spirit.

John warns us not to be fooled about this:

My little children, do not be deceived. He who practices righteousness is righteous just as he is righteous. (1 Jn. 3:7)

Do you possess the righteousness of Christ? You can only possess that righteousness if you are practicing righteousness yourself. I’m not speaking of earning that righteousness, but I am saying that the same effort to walk in the light and walk by the Spirit that allows you to experience continual forgiveness and the the righteousness of Christ will also produce practical, visible righteousness in your life.

One early Christian, writing around the year 150, explained it very well:

If they repent, all who wish for it can obtain mercy from God, and the Scripture foretells that they shall be blessed, saying, “Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin” [Ps. 32:2]. In other words, repenting of his sins, he may receive remission of them from God. It’s not as you [Jews] deceive yourselves … who say that even though they are sinners, yet know God, the Lord will not impute sin to them.

The proof of this is the fall of David … which was forgiven when he mourned and wept, as it is written. So if even to a man like David no remittance was granted before he repented, and only when this great king, anointed one, and prophet mourned and conducted himself as it is written, then how can the impure and utterly abandoned–if they don’t weep, don’t mourn, and don’t repent–entertain the hope that the Lord will not impute sin to them? (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, A Jew, ch. 141)

I apologize that this post is so long, but I’m trying to answer questions. I hope that it’s the heart of a teacher that wants to answer thoroughly.

I’m trying to paint a clear picture that will help you see and understand, but you have to have an open heart yourself. You have to search the Scriptures; you have to want truth.

Be assured, though, that whatever you come to must pass one test. It must be the doctrine according to godliness. Grace is not a license for sin, and it is possible to deny God by your works and thus become abominable.

Let us be able ministers of the New Testament. Let us be students of the Scripture, learning from it, not reading into it.

And let us test ourselves by the churches of the apostles. Let us test ourselves by the results we produce. The true Gospel is the power of God to salvation, and it will produce and reveal the righteousness of God. If your converts are not living fruitful lives, giving up their own souls that they may receive them back from God, safe and secure in his hands, then you are preaching the wrong Gospel, and you need to change.

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