[ theologia ]
Theologia Cross Logo
Apologetics Bible Church History Miscellaneous Sacraments Soteriology Sermons Worship



Mark Horne

Copyright © 2002

Faith and assurance are recurring subjects of controversy in Evangelical circles. We all agree that we are saved by the righteousness of Christ reckoned to us, which we receive through faith alone. Jesus lived and died and rose again as the representative of his people so that all of them will be openly acknowledged and acquitted, rather than rejected and condemned, at the Final Judgment.

But what counts as faith? How does such faith relate to our assurance that we will be vindicated on Judgment Day? Some have said that any sincere claim to “believe in” Jesus counts as true faith, even if, say, the person is living with his pregnant girlfriend out of wedlock. The problem with this is that Paul warns professing Christians that they will be eternally condemned if they go on living this way.

Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary (Galatians 6.7-9).

On the other hand, some traditions (this pops up in Presbyterian history from time to time) stress that faith and assurance are so distinct so that a person can be saved and yet be in complete uncertainty whether or not he is headed toward eternal glory or eternal condemnation. There are some churches where a new pastor will be called by a handful of “members” of the church and a great many “adherents” who have been baptized but who are not permitted to partake the Lord’s Supper because they are not sure if they are really promised anything by God.

But in the Bible, trusting God means trusting him to fulfill his promises to you—not trusting him to forgive somebody somewhere of their sins, but to forgive your own sins. The problem here is that God has spoken definitively in the Bible and yet he has not written down our names in that book saying that specific individuals are to be saved from the wrath to come.

The Bible solves this problem by giving us criteria so that we can identify to whom God will grant resurrection in glory rather than damnation. For instance, it says “whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10.13). That’s why many Christian tracts end with an appeal to the reader to pray “the sinner’s prayer” which asks God to forgive him. The tracts are not teaching that one is saved by faith in addition to the good work of praying to God. Rather, the prayer is a manifestation of true faith and immediately grants assurance, since the person who prays to God in that way has met the criterion that marks out those whom God will deliver from Hell.

Of course, there is always the danger that someone might treat a written “sinner’s prayer” as a kind of fire insurance contract that means you can do whatever you want and escape punishment. However, no insurance company will pay a claim to an arsonist, and Jesus states that there are other criteria as well: “it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved” (Matthew 10.21b). Those who abandon the Christian Faith cannot expect to inherit what is promised. Jesus warns against being found among those “who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away” (Luke 8.13).

Given the fact that what God has promised is of far more value than anything else, the only reason one could cease following God’s way is because of unbelief. One falls away because he has decided that God is not trustworthy to keep his promises, or that God has dishonestly exaggerated the value of what he has promised, or that God is lying when he warns us against rejecting him.

My own denomination’s Westminster Confession explains the nature of true faith this way:

By this faith, a Christian believes to be true whatever is revealed in the Word [the Bible], for the authority of God himself speaking therein; and acts differently upon that which each particular passage thereof contains; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threats, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come.

Of course, such obedience, trembling, and trusting do not earn anything from God. Jesus is the one who gives his people title to eternal life by his life, death, and resurrection. So the confession goes on to state that the primary “acts” of trusting God “are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.”

But understanding how faith works with the conditions set out in the Bible, we solve several problems at once.