Friday, January 18, 2008

“So That You May Know That You Have Eternal Life”

“These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 John 5:13)
One of the most profound questions that man can ever contemplate is, “What must I do to be saved?” This question doesn’t come out of thin air, though. To ask it, you must first understand that you are in need of a savior. It is the Law that shows us God’s standard and our inability to live up to that standard, but it is the understanding of God’s justice that shows us that we need to be saved from His righteous and holy wrath.

The Bible gives us a clear picture of how man is saved and made right before God. The clearest way to articulate it is that man is saved by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone (cf. John 14:6 and Ephesians 2:8,9). Saving faith, other than being a gift from God, is not merely a mental assent or an understanding or affirming of certain doctrines; it is much more than that. Part of saving faith is the affirmation of key doctrines as well as mental assent to the truths of the Bible, but there is another word that characterizes this major factor in genuine saving faith, and that is trust.

If faith is believing that a chair will hold me and not collapse when I sit down, it is only put in action when I actually sit down. Until that time when I sit down and allow myself to be upheld by the strength of the chair, I have only assented to what the chair could or should do, but I have not shown that I truly have faith in, or trust, the chair. Trust is faith in action. However, true saving faith is not merely a trusting in the promises of God for salvation through Christ alone. True saving faith incorporates a singular trust in Christ as well as a repentant heart in light of personal sin against God.

In the same way that true faith is not merely mental assent but rather faith displayed as trust, repentance is not simply an agreement (mental assent) to the statements of God concerning the general sinfulness of man. True repentance is putting this attitude of agreement surrounding my own specific sin into action. Specifically speaking, that action is one of a turning from the practice of sin and a turning to the practice of righteousness. The puritan, Thomas Watson, gave six ingredients for true repentance.
“Repentance is a grace of God's Spirit, whereby a sinner is inwardly humbled and outwardly reformed. Repentance is a spiritual medicine made up of six special ingredients: (1) Sight of sin, (2) Sorrow for sin, (3) Confession of sin, (4) Shame for sin, (5) Hatred for sin, and (6) Turning from sin. If any ingredient is left out, it loses its virtue.”1

The truth of what salvation is and what a Christian truly looks like seems to have been lost in the manifestation of Christendom in America and the rest of the west. In light of this, the ranks of all facets of Christianity, especially those who consider themselves born again or evangelicals, have become bloated with those who believe that they are Christians if, for no other reason, they have prayed the sinners prayer with a televangelist or at a local service. The popularization of the doctrine of backsliding and the preaching of easy believism have swelled the numbers of those who would believe in their heart that they are saved, but may not truly be.

In order that we don’t become too mesmerized by the bloated nature of some churches and the artificially inflated numbers of conversions that are reported from evangelists or local churches, we must always remember that whether or not someone has true faith and true repentance will not be truly verifiable right away even for the individual person involved. We need to keep this fact in mind because, if for no other reason, Christ has told us that the majority of people who are inside of Christendom and have even been really involved with Christian ministries will not go to heaven because they are not truly saved (cf. Matthew 7:17-29; Luke 8:4-21).

If the question “What must I do to be saved?” is the most vital question that can be asked by those people who have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, then the most important question that anyone who has heard and responded to the gospel of Jesus Christ can ask might be, “How can I know that I have been saved?” It could also be phrased in the language of John’s letter, “How can I know that I have eternal life?” And it is this exact question that John seems to be laboring to answer in a complete and thorough way in his first epistle.

It may be shocking to many modern Christians, but the Bible doesn’t tell you to simply remember the day that you repented and trusted in Christ and believe that it was genuine for the basis of your assurance. Nor are we admonished not to investigate this question if it is plaguing us. I have heard some teachers condemn this type of introspective investigation as “doubting God” or “calling Him a liar”. Nothing could be further from the truth as far as the Bible is concerned. We are to make our calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10) and examine ourselves to see if we are truly in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5). Relying on the testimony of my own heart is also unwise because the Bible informs us that our hearts are deceitful and desperately wicked and cannot be trusted (Jeremiah 17:9). Furthermore, I should especially question my heart’s testimony when the actions of my life don’t match up to what I believe is the testimony of my heart.

John labors greatly in order to answer the question about how Christians can be sure that they have eternal life. While doing that, he also provides many ways to indicate whether you are a false believer who has not yet been saved and is still under the wrath of God.
23 This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us. 24 The one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.” (1 John 3:23,24)

I think that these two verses sum up the major ways that John gives us for checking our lives to see if we are in the faith. Generally speaking, John’s admonishment centers around a true love of other people, a belief in the true Jesus, and obeying His commandments. He makes this point and illustrates it in other ways, but the essence of the test is boiled down to these three. A quick list of the standards by which we can examine our lives that John gives would include that a true believer walks in the light (1:7; 2:6), confesses sins (1:9), keeps God’s commandments (2:3,5; 3:23), loves his brother (2:10; 3:23; 4:7,8,12,16,21), does the will of God (2:17; cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:3), practices righteousness (2:29), does not continue in sin (3:6-10; cf. 5:16-18), believes in the Jesus as the Son of God (3:23; 4:15; 5:1), has the Holy Spirit (4:13; cf. Galatians 5:16-26), listens to the apostles teaching (4:6), and loves the Father (5:1).

It is by self examination in light of these criteria that we may have confidence that we are saved. And this letter from John is only a small portion of the Biblical testimony to the truth that there are certain things that a true and genuine believer will do or believe whereas a false brother, an apostate, and a false teacher will not.

Christians pass from death to life, condemnation to salvation, from wrath to peace, and from guilty to innocent at a particular moment in time. This transition is done once and it cannot be undone or lost. That is not what is at issue with this doctrinal pronouncement. The issue at hand is that we can only find assurance that we are saved if our lives have been transformed and are continually showing greater and greater conformity to the person of Jesus Christ.

As a parent, a deacon, a preacher, a husband, a father, a son, and a friend I cannot ever, in good conscience, encourage someone to be confident that he has been saved by God if the only “proof” is that he prayed a prayer as a child but has had no spiritual growth or even an actively pursued desire to grow in Christ in recent memory. We are saved by grace through faith unto good works (Ephesians 2:8-10), and we must not forget that.
“It is by faith alone that man is justified, but the faith that justifies is not alone.”

1 Thomas Watson, “The Doctrine of Repentance” 1668.

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