It has been a common practice among some who call themselves “free grace” believers who teach the doctrine of OSAS [Once Saved Always Saved], to make the conferring of assurance on their evangelistic conquests a part of the evangelistic process. The purpose of this article is to examine not only that practice but also the biblical doctrine of assurance itself.
Let me say at the outset that I unequivocally believe the doctrine of OTSAS [Once truly saved, always saved]. Once a person is truly saved, that person is secure for eternity, but a person must be once saved to be always saved. The assumption among many evangelicals is that once a person confesses faith in Christ (They usually refer to this as “deciding for Christ,” “letting Jesus come into their hearts,” “praying to receive Jesus,” or some other utterly non-biblical expression), they are secure for eternity no matter what happens subsequently. The ones with whom I have corresponded have actually told me they believe once a person has made a decision to receive Christ he is eternally secure even if he does not love God or continue to trust Christ to save him. He may convert to Islam or become an Atheist and still be saved.
This is not the first time controversy has arisen over the relationship between faith and assurance. In the early part of seventeenth a controversy erupted in the Church of Scotland over a book entitled The Marrow of Modern Divinity. Those who were called the “Marrow Men” taught that assurance was of the essence of faith so that it was impossible to have faith without having assurance.
We could perhaps obviate much of the disagreement that swirls around this issue by distinguishing between the different “assurances” about which the New Testament speaks. For a more extended treatment of this question, I would refer you to an excursus I wrote on assurance in my commentary on Hebrews. For our purposes here, suffice it to say that there is an assurance or a confidence (παρρησἰα; πληροφορἰα) that accompanies faith (see–Hebrews 10:22) and belongs to every true believer, and there is an assurance that comes only through diligent perseverance in well-doing (see–Heb. 6:11). Before we can have a meaningful discussion about assurance, it will be necessary to identify to which of these types of assurance we are referring when we use the term.
Like faith, one of these types of assurance focuses on God’s revealed truth. The focus is on God’s faithfulness. The believer simply trusts God’s promises that if he is truly resting solely on the merits of his great priest, his full acceptance in God’s presence is guaranteed. His task is to be certain he is clinging to Christ and trusting only in him.
Like hope, the other type of assurance focus on the future inheritance and, because that inheritance is not yet seen, we must wait for it with patience/perseverance. The question we must ask here is not whether everyone who belongs to the household of faith will inherit the blessings God has promised. That question is settled in every believer’s mind. The question I must ask is whether I belong to the household of faith. I am convinced that if God is for me, no one can prevail against me. What I must establish is that God is indeed for me. This understanding is not necessarily mine because I have begun my journey well. The focus of the Scriptures is not on the beginning of the race but on its end. Since I have not yet finished the race, it is necessary for me to examine my walk from time to time to discern whether it is characterized by “the things that accompany salvation.” This kind of examination is especially necessary when a person’s walk is contrary to his profession. When a person is living in a way that is contrary to God’s revealed will, God uses such exhortations as a means to produce the needed correction in the believer’s life. The warning and exhortation passages of the New Testament Scriptures are not intended to settle questions about whether or not a true believer can loose his salvation. They are intended to be used as the necessary means to bring about the diligent perseverance in faith without which we will never see God’s face in peace.
It is important to notice that in Hebrews 6:11-12, the “full assurance of hope” about which the writer speaks requires diligence. Faith requires no diligence at all. Why would he suggest that his readers need to be diligent if assurance is of the essence of faith? Instead, he expresses a strong desire that they will continue to be diligent in the path they have been following so that they might obtain the full assurance of hope and he desires that they follow the path diligently to the end. If they are going to inherit the blessings God has promised they must imitate those who through faith and longsuffering inherit what God has promised.
There are several important observations we need to make here:
- In neither of these passages is the issue one of trusting our works, our obedience, or our perseverance as the basis of our right standing before God.
- In neither of these passages is there any suggestion that we should take our eyes off of Jesus as our only hope and our highest prize and begin instead to trust our evidences that we have been born of God.
- Nowhere in the New Testament Scriptures are we forbidden to pursue works of obedience to Christ. In fact, we are commanded to diligently pursue such a course of obedience. It is not doing good works but trusting those works to any extent that the Scriptures forbid.
- The bases of the assurance of faith and the assurance of hope are different. The basis of the assurance of faith is God’s faithfulness (Heb. 10:23). Our full assurance of faith and our confident confession of our hope are firmly founded in God’s work for us and have nothing to do with our obedience to him. Our full assurance of hope rests on the confidence that we belong to God’s true people because he continues to work in us to will and work for his good pleasure. That we continue to pursue diligently the manifestation of his glory in our lives is the evidence [the things that accompany salvation] that we are among that blessed company who can say, “God is for us.”
- One of the characteristics of the faith of God’s elect is that is continues. It is though faith and longsuffering [patience] that we are to receive what God has promised. To say that it does not matter what occurs after one has made an initial confession of faith one must deny, or ignore a mountain of biblical passages like this one.
- The assurance of hope is not intended for and will not be granted to those who are deliberately walking in disobedience to God.
Before we begin a discussion about assurance, it is important that we specify what kind of assurance is in view. Is the child of God assured that Jesus is able to completely save all who come to God by him? Absolutely! May he (and should he if he acting disobediently) from time to time question whether he actually belongs to the company of those who have come to God through Jesus’ priestly work? I believe the Scripture answer with and unequivocal “yes!” John Brown wrote,
. . .though the perseverance of the saints is certain, let us recollect that it is the perseverance of the saints that is thus certain. Many who seem to others to be saints, who seem to themselves to be saints, do “fall away.” and let us recollect that the perseverance of the saints referred to, is their perseverance not only in a safe but also in a holy course of disposition and conduct; and no saint behaving like a sinner can legitimately enjoy the comfort which the doctrine of perseverance is fitted and intended to communicate to every saint acting like a saint . . . (Brown, 1970, 296).
If assurance were of the essence of faith, John would not have written to those who were believing in Jesus’ name they they might know that they have eternal life (see 1 John 5:13). Would they not have known already? Additionally, we need to understand that “these things” refer not merely to the immediately preceding verses, but to the entire epistle. Again John Brown wrote,
It is as believers of the truth that we are secured of eternal life; and it is by holding fast this faith of the truth, and showing that we do so, that we can alone enjoy the comfort of this security. ‘The purpose of God according to election must stand,’ and all His chosen will assuredly be saved; but they cannot know their election—they cannot enjoy any absolute assurance of their salvation—independent of their continuance in the faith, love and obedience of the Gospel (Brown, 1970).
As we shall see in greater detail when we discuss the biblical doctrine of repentance, a denial that we should expect a behavioral change in those who have truly been converted betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of God’s saving work.
Now, let us return to the question, Is the conferring of assurance part of the evangelist’s work? There are several considerations that would cause us to answer this question negatively.
- The most obvious reason is that there is no evidence of such a practice in early New Testament evangelism. If they did not assure those who confessed faith in Christ that they were eternally secure because they had responded positively to the gospel call, why should we?
- It is impossible to know infallibly that another person’s faith is genuine. The New Testaments bears sad testimony to the fact that all who began well did not finish well. We must not assume that all professed faith is genuine faith.
- Though God may grant an assurance of hope to true believers, he will not give us such an assurance about another person.
- It is the work of God’s Spirit to bear witness with our spirits that we are sons of God, and he does so in conjunction with the God pleasing works of obedience he produces in our hearts.
We have every reason to assure those who have confessed faith in Christ that if they are truly and fully resting on him and his merits, they have been declared righteous and have been granted full access to the Father’s throne, but that is altogether different from assuming that their faith is real and conferring on them an assurance that is never to be questioned no matter what happens subsequent to their confession.
Consider just a few examples of the way in which biblical writers couched their statements concerning the salvation of their readers. “. . .and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain” (1 Cor. 15:2). “And we are his house[hold] if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope” (Heb. 3:6). “For we have come to share in Christ, if we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Heb. 3:14).
We must never forget that Jesus’ promise “. . .and I give to them eternal life, and they shall never perish,” was not made to goats. It was made to his sheep whom he describes as those who “hear his voice and follow him.” We should never think this promise belongs to those who persist in their rebellion against God and ignore his voice speaking in the Word.
Βrown, John. The Epistle to the Hebrews, (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1972).