As a pastor, I can tell you that we are so often the recipients of various questions. We are asked about current events, or our opinions on politics, or even controversies. There are some questions which are bound to a particular period and time, but there are also timeless classics that are certain to stroll in to a pastor’s study, and usually it’s when he least expects it. Let me share one of those traditional queries: Can Christians be certain of their salvation? Is it possible to have such certainty? The Reformed and Presbyterian tradition affirms this truth.
Most recently, our men’s Bible study reviewed chapter 18 of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). This chapter of our Confession deals entirely with this matter and proves a useful guide for anyone trying to understand the certainty of their salvation. In his helpful commentary, Confessing the Faith, Rev. Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn clarifies Scripture’s teaching in the clearest way he can, “Christians can really know they are Christians.” (p. 227). This is not speaking of cultural Christianity but of the significance, and inner reality of the Christian faith. Christians can know that they are heirs of life, and no longer under the wrath of God.
How can we know our standing before God? According to the Confession, those who are Christians “truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, [and are those] endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before him.” (WCF 18.1) The threefold dynamic to help Christians know they belong to Christ are found in three H’s: our Head, our Heart, and our Hands. We can be sure we belong to Christ by what we know, by what we love, and by what we do. This is the sum of the Confession’s teaching. Where did the authors to this Confession get these ideas though? They found them from the pen of the Apostle John.
Consider the following statements by the Apostle John: “And by this we KNOW that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.” (1 John 2:3 ESV); “We KNOW that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.” (1 John 3:14 ESV); “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and truth. By this we shall KNOW that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him;” (1 John 3:18-19 ESV); “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 ESV)
A careful examination of these texts reveals that the knowledge of our salvation is the aim of Scripture. Also, we learn that the knowledge of our salvation is not a mere internal reality, but is visible to others. There is indeed an invisible component to our certainty, namely in belief and love. However, what is most visible, is how we choose to live our lives.
But a Christian’s assurance of their salvation does not merely come from themselves. First, we must consider the promise of God which comes out sincerely and objectively. God’s promises and oath are unchangeable and meant to empower believers to be assured in hope (Hebrews 6:17-18). Second, there is also the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul shed light on this latter dynamic when he spoke of the unique ministry of God the Holy Spirit. Paul wrote, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God,” (Romans 8:16 ESV).
Van Dixhoorn again highlights the uniquely trinitarian component in assurance. He writes, “The triune God assures us that we are his children, bought with the blood of his Son, and sealed by his Spirit.” (p. 229) In salvation, God the Father forever welcomes us as His own children. His desire is not for us to wander in uncertainty and ambiguity. Instead, just as any loving father wishes to convey to his children, God desires for us to know that we will be loved forever.
What happens to us when we begin to know this for ourselves? The Westminster Confession points to six effects. When a Christian grows in their assurance of their salvation they have peace instead of panic, joy instead dread, love instead of loneliness, thankfulness instead of pride, strength instead of shortcoming, and cheerfulness instead of misery. How can we not be moved by such knowledge?