“How Can I Be Sure I am Saved.”
Some time ago, a member of the church wrote to tell me that they were confused on the issues of works and salvation. The following is a copy of an e-mail correspondence that resulted. I wrote the e-mail to help clarify the issues of works versus grace and how they work together in the Christian life. It is a brief attempt for sure, but I thought it might be helpful to a wider audience.
A church member sent the following e-mail.
… So this is my question.
When I was in the Catholic Church I believed that I had to be good enough to get into heaven or be martyred which was supposedly an instant ticket in. Now that I am in the Protestant church, I am hearing that I need to work to be good enough to show or to prove that I truly put my faith in Jesus otherwise my faith was not real and I am not truly saved. So either way I am still responsible for working and becoming perfect—for making sure that I am saved—to be perfect enough so that I have either proof of salvation or a right to salvation. So there is no burden lifted and no future hope because either way the task is impossible. I will never be good enough to earn a relationship with God or to prove that I truly have one with Him through belief in Jesus.
What is the truth here? …
My Pastoral Response
Dear (name withheld),
Sometimes, personal anxiety, false teaching (any “work-your-way-to-salvation” approach) and bad teaching (my own fumbling attempts on Sunday perhaps) can conspire to produce brain lock in the believer. I’m sorry. Let me try again.
We cannot work our way or earn our way to heaven. I know these Scriptures are very familiar, but read the following slowly and thoughtfully.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith.
And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,
not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
”But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,
even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ
—by grace you have been saved—“
“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name,
he gave the right to become children of God,
who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh
nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Or, you could read the entire book of Romans.
Whatever you do, settle this fact in your mind: Any “working” or “earning” your salvation doctrine taught by anyone (including me!) is wrong. Any works orientation to earn your way to heaven is anathema (cursed), and another gospel (see Galatians). The Scripture is clear. God gives the gift of salvation, by his grace, to those who place their faith in Christ. That much is clear and unequivocal. Now what we need to do is first, define what the Scripture says belief and faith are in the biblical sense. Second, we need to understand what happens in a believer’s life when they put their faith in Christ.
For clearly, the Scriptures also teach that believers are changed people.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.
The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
(2 Cor. 5:17)
Notice, the text says “is a new creation,” not “becomes” a new creation.” What is the difference between these two phrases? Obviously, the biblical phrase does not mean that we have already become completely holy. All believers will struggle with the flesh all their lives until we arrive at our heavenly home. So what does “behold, the new has come” mean? And how do we make sense of the apostle Paul’s teaching to “work out our salvation in fear and trembling?” (Phil 2:12)
Or of this,
“And by this we know that we have come to know him,
if we keep his commandments.”
(1 John 2:3)
“Whoever has my commandments and keeps them,
he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father,
and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”
“For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure,
or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.”
“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!”
(2 Cor. 13:5)
This last verse is a strong encouragement indeed to examine our lives for the proof of our salvation—obedient works. How are we to put this all together?
Clearly Paul had no trouble putting the two together and with few exceptions, neither did the early church. The text itself is inspired. And the hope of the early Christians was not only undiminished, but it triumphed over their world as they believed and followed the risen Christ.
The Reformers would have put it something like this, “We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” It is accompanied by works of righteousness that flow from a heart of gratitude for a Savior who bore our sins and saved us, redeeming us from the pit and enveloping us in His love. So let’s get back to our question.
What does it mean “that all things have become new”? (NASB) It can’t mean that I have become holy in my experience because we know that all Christians still struggle with sin, including the apostle who wrote these words and the pastor who writes this letter. We know this not just theoretically but experientially. It must mean something else.
My conclusion is that the way in which “all things have become new” is in the springs of our motivation and the desires of our hearts firstly, and secondly, in the growing experience of our lives over time.
Personal Testimony Time:
“All things have become new.”
Prior to January 16th, 1974 I had no yearning for holiness, truth, righteousness, for God, for Christ, the Spirit’s work in my life. I had no desire to read the Bible, no desire to be with the people of God, no desire or drive to be in church, to worship, to sing the “praises of Zion.” There was no inclination of my heart to goodness.
Yes, I periodically did “good things,” but always for self-serving reasons, always expecting some return. My heart and desires were self-serving, self-centered and inclined away from the God of the Bible and to the comfortable God of my own imagination—the God who let me believe in Him when I wanted to and ignore Him when He and His will were inconvenient.
Then I believed. My life began to change. My motivations and desires began to change. Suddenly, I wanted to read the Bible. Where did that come from? Suddenly, I wanted to be with Christians more than anyone else? Where did that come from? Suddenly, my sin grieved me and brought me to my knees in repentance. Where did that come from? Suddenly, worship of God and expressions of gratitude went from some vague sense of duty, to heartfelt devotion and desire. All these things were new. They did not exist prior to biblical belief in Christ.
God had made “all things new.” And as a result of that work of grace by the saving God, who redeems unworthy sinners like me, my life began to actually exhibit, over time, the fruits of repentance. I began to become a person who delighted to do His will (even with many stumbles along the way), and whose food became the will and word of God. These began and continue to energize my life. They are the “proof” of my salvation.
But what if I fail to continue? What if I fail to persevere in the truth? What if this was a momentary, albeit, nearly 40 year self-improvement program? [now 48 year] What should we say then?
We should say then, that “All Marty’s actions were an illusion. He went out from us.” That is why the apostle John writes in his first letter:
“They went out from us, but they were not really of us;
for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us;
but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us.”
(1 John 2:19 NASB)
This is why Paul can say that we are to “work out our salvation in fear and trembling” and yet have a hope that allows us to not despair like the gentiles do. Nothing I do earns my salvation. But what I do proves that I have truly believed.
When the heart moves to the beat of the distant drums of heaven when before it moved to the beat of hell, when the actions that issue from the new heart of flesh, begin to reflect the inward change that only God can bring to our stony and desperately sick hearts—then we can have the assurance of His presence and the embrace and comfort of His forgiveness.
He (Christ) becomes, in the heart that is made new, the strong magnet that irresistibly draws us to Himself like metal filings on the table top. We rush to Him, because He has forgiven us and in rushing to Him we begin to do the works of God, because the closer we get to Him the less we desire to do works that would displease Him.
We are on a journey, after we come to faith. Our backpack, so to speak, on this journey of faith, begins to be emptied of the dross of our former affections and the behaviors that accompanied them, and begins to be refilled with new affections and behaviors worthy of the King whose presence we are progressively approaching.
I want to urge you to give up on the idea of ever earning heaven. It is impossible. It is wholly a work of grace. It is God’s gift to those He calls to believe. But the grace that calls and saves, energizes us to the work of becoming holy.
There are a couple of resources that I think might be helpful for you and others who might struggle with these things.
One, you might listen to the messages I did on Ephesians 2:1-9 from the Ephesian series.
Two, J.I. Packer’s little book, Growing in Christ, would be an excellent resource to consult.
Three, consider getting involved in a one-to-one discipling relationship with one of our disciplers in the church. You will love it and it will give you more time to dig into these issues in a deeper way.
My prayers are with you as are my thanks for all that you do for the Lord and for our church family. I continue to lift you up in prayer and trust that God will be greatly glorified in your life. Take care my sister. I hope this is helpful.
Unworthy of His grace,