When considering assurance of salvation, sooner or later we come to the question of saving faith. The ultimate issue concerns the nature of my faith, is it genuine or spurious? If I didn’t have some kind of faith, I wouldn’t be concerned with assurance at all. I wouldn’t even consider it.
However, if I have made a profession of faith in Christ, but am troubled about the reality of that profession, what I want to know is whether my faith is true saving faith, or something less. At some point I thought I believed in Christ, but is my faith now genuine or not?
Many refuse to allow questions about the nature of faith, at least in the heat of evangelistic efforts. Just ask Christ to save you, and if you are sincere, you will be saved. Never doubt it. To doubt that God saved you is to call God a liar, or so we are told. Some go so far as to assure people that “if you ever made this decision before, you don’t need to make it again. But if you have never before made this decision, you need to make it today, and if you do, you will be saved, never doubt it.”
Others will concede that those whose lives haven’t changed were obviously not sincere. For such people, a second (or third, fourth, or fifth) decision is needed, and this time, “make sure that you really mean it.” I’ve never heard anyone explain the details of “really meaning it,” or tell how one can know if his decision is sincere or not. How is a sinner supposed to know if his decision is sufficiently sincere? What criteria measures degrees of sincerity? Are you sincere if you cry, but not if you don’t? Are you sincere if you pray “really hard,” whatever that means?
Where Faith Begins
Faith begins with the intellect. The Gospel is a message about a holy God, sinful men, a sinless Savior who died upon the cross as a substitute for sinners, and a promise that those who trust Christ will be saved. Because the Gospel contains basic information that must be understood, the main work of evangelism involves the dissemination of this message. The work of evangelism is not primarily persuasion, but information.
For faith to occur, the message must be understood. For the message to be understood, it must be clearly explained. Emotional stories are not the Gospel. Persuasive manipulations are not the Gospel. The Gospel is a message. People cannot believe something they do not understand. Too many evangelistic efforts assume knowledge of the Gospel, and begin at the point of persuading people to make a decision. But if people don’t understand the Gospel, what kind of decision are they going to make?
Where Faith Must Go
However, it is possible to give assent to the facts of the Gospel without exercising saving faith. Demons have a greater understanding of God than most people, but are devoid of saving faith (James 2:19). Saving faith involves the whole heart, including the will, as well as the intellect. Saving faith turns away from sin in coming to Christ. It renounces self- righteousness in order to embrace the righteousness of Christ alone as our only standing before a holy God. It rests securely upon Christ and His promises, not upon the word of men, not even upon the word of an evangelist.
Saving faith trusts in what Christ has done, not upon what I have done. Too many testimonies rely upon “the prayer I prayed” or “the time I went forward in church” or “the time my mother talked with me,” rather than upon what Christ did for me. How often do we place our assurance in some action of man, ours or another’s, rather than upon the work of Christ?
Saving faith contains a measure of assurance from the beginning, but it is not settled nor well grounded. Occasionally, a strong assurance is present from the beginning, as in the case of Saul on the Damascus Road, but usually faith must be tried and seasoned by conflict, doubt, and fluctuations of feeling. Remember, stony-ground hearers have joy (Matthew 13:20), so it takes time to discern if our faith is true saving faith, or simply an emotional experience.
But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself … (Matt.13:20-21)
True assurance is enjoyed by those who labor for it, seek it, and serve God patiently, even when assurance is lacking. Assurance is a reward for faith exercised. Settled assurance is not secured by mere inference or deduction. It develops along the path of obedience to God’s Word. As we trust and obey, we experience a measure of peace and joy, which is the assurance of our standing with God.
Assurance, like the new birth, is the work of the Holy Spirit. But unlike regeneration, which is instantaneous, assurance develops gradually as we continue to tread the narrow way.
When we walk with the Lord in the light of His Word,
What a glory He sheds on our way.
While we do His good will, He abides with us still,
And with all who will trust and obey. (John H. Sammis)
In our impatience, we want assurance instantly, but God seldom complies with that desire. In His wisdom, God knows that we need to struggle with doubts and fears to drive us back to Christ and His Word, else we become presumptuous.
Is it possible to be saved and know it? Yes, it is (1 John 5:13). Is it possible to think ourselves saved, and yet be lost? Yes, that is possible as well. How can I know that I have true saving faith? When my faith keeps driving me back to God’s Word to find comfort, I will come to realize, in time, that I have God-given, justifying, persevering, saving faith, a faith that is worth more than all the gold in Fort Knox.
G. N. Barkman received his BA and MA from BJU and later founded Beacon Baptist Church in Burlington, NC where has pastored for over 40 years. In addition, Pastor Barkman broadcasts over several radio stations in NC, VA, TN, and the island of Granada and conducts annual pastors’ training seminars in Zimbabwe, Africa. He and his wife, Marti have been blessed with four daughters and six grandchildren.