True followers of Jesus can be overwhelmed by the thought, “Am I really a Christian?” Some who have embraced Christ by faith have no assurance and are plagued by fear. God doesn’t want us to question his power and grace in our lives, though. The apostle John said, “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 Jn. 5:13). Despite John’s words, many Christians don’t know if they’re truly saved and are desperate to find out how they can be sure of their salvation.
Scripture gives us three ways to assure ourselves that we truly belong to God. For this reason, I often say that Christian assurance is like a stool with three legs. Each of the legs is a different biblical “proof” that can comfort (or challenge) us. As we’ll see, two of the legs are more subjective (making them less reliable, but nonetheless helpful), and one of them is objective. This objective “leg” of the stool is the most important when it comes to stability in the Christian life. Let’s look at the two subjective legs first, and then we’ll examine the objective leg.
1. You can know you’re a Christian because you bear good fruit.
Jesus said, “A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:18-20). Throughout the New Testament, bearing the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) is one of the signs that we are attached to Jesus by faith (Jn. 15:5). Healthy fruit–good works–aren’t the cause of our salvation, but they are one of the signs we’re truly born again. John said, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death” (1 Jn. 3:14).
Did you catch that? Love for the church is one of the ways we can know we’re spiritually alive. There are many people who say, “I love God, but I don’t really care for his people,” or “I have a personal relationship with God; I don’t need an organized church.” According to the apostles, our spiritual life and love for Christ are demonstrated in our love for Christ’s bride, the church! In the midst of doubts, ask yourself, “Do I love the believers God has placed in my life?” This love is one of the Spirit-produced fruits of a redeemed individual.
Admittedly, this biblical proof is subjective. It could be that when you think about the fruit of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, etc., it’s hard for you to see how these characteristics are present in your life. We have to remember that growth in grace can be a slow process. The church can be helpful here because you may not always be able to see how God is transforming you, but brothers and sisters in Christ who have been in your life for years can!
2. You can know you’re a Christian because the Spirit testifies to you that you are.
Believers in Jesus Christ are filled with the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit reminds us that we belong to God. The apostle Paul wrote, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:15-16). Not only do our external works of love toward others demonstrate God’s presence in our lives, but there’s an internal work of the Spirit that gives us confidence we’re truly his children. This isn’t an audible voice we hear from heaven, but an inner conviction produced by the Holy Spirit that God is indeed our Father and Jesus is our savior.
Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (Jn 10:27-28). Ask yourself, “When I approach God, do I approach him as “Abba, Father”? Through Jesus’ death on the cross, we have been given peace with God (Rom. 5:1). We no longer need to fear his judgement and wrath but have been welcomed into his presence. The Spirit proclaims this peace to you in Christ, giving you a supernatural sense of your adoption.
Here again we have to recognize that even true believers won’t always have this confidence. Especially after we’ve sinned and grieved the Holy Spirit, we might really question if we are God’s children. Remember that the Bible makes it clear that Christians will always battle with sin (1 Jn 1:8), and therefore we shouldn’t give way to despair. Remember also that the Father–your Father–is good and receives you when, through Christ, you look up to him in faith.
3. You can know you’re a Christian because of God’s Word.
This is the most important but least understood proof of assurance. It’s the most important because, of all the proofs, it’s the most objective. It focuses less on what has been wrought in you(like the first two) and more on what has been done for you. It’s an external proof rooted in the promises of God’s word which belong to you as a part of the church. Writing to a group of Christians who were on the verge of abandoning the faith altogether, the author to the Hebrews said concerning hope in God’s promise, “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 6:19-20).
When we look to our personal works of holiness, it’s easy to get discouraged. “Shouldn’t I have grown more in my walk with the Lord by now?” But according to the Scriptures, the anchor of your soul–what keeps you steady–isn’t found inside of you but outside of you. When you look to God’s promise to you in the gospel that through Jesus your sins are forgiven and you are made a part of God’s family, you can receive strong encouragement (Heb. 6:18).
“Yes,” you might be thinking, “But how do I know that promise is for me?” Great question! God doesn’t just give us his promise through his Word; he stamps it on us personally in Baptism and Communion. These “seals of salvation” are like the seat atop the three legs of assurance. We can look to them and rest, remembering by faith that Jesus really belongs to us, and we belong to him! Baptism and the Lord’s Supper serve as tangible tokens of God’s grace in your life.
When you were baptized, it was God objectively showering you with his promise (Rom. 6:1-11). When you take the Lord’s Supper, it’s God saying, “The gospel, Jesus’ body and blood, isn’t just for people out there, it’s for you right here and now!” (Lk. 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24). We as God’s people have the sure Word of the gospel to sink our teeth into every time we’re plagued with doubts. We remember that the washing of baptism and the nourishment of Christ’s body and blood belong to us personally. Every time you’re doubting God’s promise of salvation for you, remember that the Triune God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–has placed his name on you. By faith you can feed upon his grace and know (even after you’ve failed for the 100th time) that it’s yours.