How can a person be sure of his or her salvation?

Chris —  September 11, 2009

In the appendices of Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds, I address common forgiveness questions such as:

Is it appropriate to forgive God?

Must a person always remained married to his or her spouse?

What if I cannot forgive myself?

The first question in this appendix is, “How can I be sure that God has forgiven me?”  The answer is below.


How can I be sure that God has forgiven me?””

This is the most critical forgiveness question. Indeed, it is the most critical question, period. Nothing can be more important than knowing that God has forgiven your sins and that you will spend eternity in perfect fellowship with him and his people.

We must be careful that we do not falsely assume we are forgiven by God when, in fact, we are not. As I said in the introduction, Jesus taught that there are a group of people who have a false assurance of salvation. Similarly, James said that there is a kind of faith that is “dead” faith (James 2:14-16).

But don’t be discouraged. Even as the New Testament exhorts us to evaluate our salvation, it also teaches that there is a proper basis for assurance of salvation. You can be sure that you will not be one of the people who hears, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” Indeed, God wants his people to have assurance of eternal life. The entire book of 1 John in the New Testament outlines the proper basis for assurance of salvation.

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.

~ 1 John 5:13 (emphasis added)

So, how can you be sure that are truly a Christian? You can evaluate whether you are forgiven by God by asking yourself three questions. Each of these three questions is of vital importance. Don’t ask yourself just one of them, but all three:

First, do you presently have faith in the Lord Jesus for salvation?

Do you presently trust in Christ, and him alone, for eternal life? You may be able to identify a time when you turned in faith to Christ. Looking back on that point when you put your faith and trust in Jesus ought to be a great blessing. But the more important question is, “Do you trust Jesus today for eternal life?” True, saving faith is not something that comes and goes. If we truly have faith, then we will continue to have faith (1 Corinthians 15:1-2, Colossians 1:23, Hebrews 3:14). Wayne Grudem writes:

Therefore a person should ask him or herself, “Do I have trust in Christ to forgive my sins and take me without blame into heaven forever? Do I have confidence in my heart that he has saved me? If I were to die tonight and stand before God’s judgment seat, and if he were to ask me why he should let me into heaven, would I begin to think of my good deeds and depend on them, or would I without hesitation say that I am depending on the merits of Christ and am confident that he is a sufficient Savior?”

This emphasis on present faith in Christ stands in contrast to the practice of some church “testimonies” where people repeatedly recite details of a conversion experience that may have happened 20 or 30 years ago. If a testimony of saving faith is genuine, it should be a testimony of faith that is active this very day.[1]

Second, does the Holy Spirit testify with your spirit that you are a Christian?

The Bible says in Romans 8:16:

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

~ Romans 8:16

If you are truly a Christian, then the Holy Spirit will give you an inner confidence that you know Christ.

This question is the most difficult to answer. You could drive yourself crazy asking, “Is that the Spirit testifying with my spirit? Do I truly have a sense of the presence of Christ in my life?”

Yet if you are a Christian, then the Bible says that God has poured out his love into your heart (Romans 5:5). Douglas Moo wrote:

The confidence we have for the day of judgment is not based only on our intellectual recognition of the fact of God’s love, or even only on the demonstration of God’s love on the cross…but on the inner, subjective certainty that God does love us…and it is this internal, subjective, yes, even emotional, sensation within the believer that God does indeed love us—love expressed and made vital in real, concrete actions on our behalf—that gives to us the assurance that ‘hope will no disappoint us.[2]

If you are truly forgiven, then you are a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:16-17) and the Spirit will testify with your spirit.

Third, does my conduct give evidence that I am a Christian?

If you are truly a Christian, then you should act like it. John said,

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.

~ 1 John 2:3-4

Now, let us be clear. Acting like a Christian does not make you a Christian. However, true Christians do act like Christians. As I said in Chapter 10, Quacking doesn’t make you a duck, but ducks do quack. Holding pears in your hands does not make you a pear tree. But pear trees do hold pears. And acting like a Christian does not make you one. But Christians do act like Christians. Even a child makes himself known by his acts, by whether his conduct is pure and upright” (Proverbs 20:11).

Whatever you profess to believe, and whatever experience of God you may think you have had, if your conduct is not honoring to Christ, then you should question your salvation. Let’s say you profess to be a Christian, yet you are content to live your life with no consistent local church involvement. Let’s say you are unwilling to identify with Christ in believer’s baptism, or perhaps you persist in habitual sin. If these things characterize you, then you should seriously, seriously question whether you are truly forgiven by God.

So, in order to evaluate whether or not you are truly a Christian, ask yourself those three questions:

(1) Do I have present faith in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation?

(2) Does the Holy Spirit testify with my spirit than I am a Christian?

(3) Is there evidence in my life that I am different because of my faith?

Now, perhaps at this point, you may be saying, “Well, I’ve tried to evaluate myself in each of those three areas, and yet I’m still unsure. What do I do next?”

First, I would encourage you to talk with someone who is a mature, Bible-believing Christian. Beyond that, the best thing you can do if you are unsure about your salvation is get busy living the Christian life. Don’t sit around thinking yourself in circles. Get involved in a Christ-centered, Bible-believing church. Start reading the Bible. Pray consistently. Ask God to give you confidence in your salvation. Take Jesus’ yoke upon you and learn from him.[3]

[1] Grudem, 803.

[2] Douglas Moo, Romans 1-8, ed. Kenneth Barker, The Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 312-313.

[3] Jonathan Edwards said, “And although self-examination be a duty of great use and importance, and by no means to be neglected, yet it is not the principal means by which the saints do get satisfaction of their good estate. Assurance of salvation is not to be obtained so much by self-examination as by action.” Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1746; reprint, 1997), 123, emphasis his.

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