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Can We Have Assurance of Salvation? Three Tests for the Heart

Over the short course of my Christian life, many times, I’ve been troubled by the question of whether or not I was truly saved. In the early days of my salvation, this terrifying question led me to stand for nearly every call to salvation and repeat the sinner's prayer time and time again “just to be safe.” 

Later on in my Christian life, however, this question began to trouble me even more. Instead of feeling compelled to stand for a call to salvation, my questioning became more of a private matter. 

The conversation in my head would go something like this: 

"Does your faith truly produce good works, or do you just do good deeds for the praise of others?”. 

"Well, I think God has produced good works in my life.”

"But what are the real motives of your heart?”

  "Well, I don’t know, my heart is so wicked that I’m not sure…Maybe I am completely deceiving myself.” 

I’d continue to interrogate myself, asking, "And do you truly believe that Christ died for you? Haven’t you had doubts before?” 

"Yes, I have had doubts…I think I am deceiving myself. Maybe I’m not a real Christian,” I’d respond. 

After these questions came the hypothetical scenarios that demanded absolute certainty.

  "If you’re a real Christian, you would die for the Gospel. Would you do this? Are you absolutely certain?”. 

"I don’t know. I pray I would…but my faith is so small…maybe I wouldn’t… I’m not a true Christian, then. I don’t feel certain. How can I be certain?” 

This terrible spiral would produce feelings of despair, and no answer could satisfy my troubled heart. If another believer encouraged me, I questioned if I should trust their words because they didn’t know the depths of my heart. They weren’t as acquainted with my sin as I was, and even I didn’t know the depths of my heart. Even worse, I couldn’t. 

To this day, I still believe all this is true. While a genuine Christian’s life produces good works, we are still tainted by sin. Not even the person closest to us has a grasp on how sinful we are. They don’t know every evil thought of ours or all the mixed motives of our hearts, and neither do we. We are so prone to glance over our sin, and even if we could see all our sin, we couldn’t understand how wicked it is to the degree that God does. 

Now, perhaps I’ve started a spiral of despair in your mind. How are you supposed to have any assurance of your salvation? How can you know if you are truly saved or not? While these are not all the tests for the heart, I believe this question can be answered be looking at the words of the disciple Peter. 

As Jesus was teaching a crowd of people, saying, "I am the bread that came down from heaven,” the crowds found this to be a hard saying, and many of them turned away. As many of His followers desert Him, Christ turns to His disciples and asks, "Do you want to go away as well?”. Peter responds, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:67-69).

Many within the crowds followed Christ for the excitement. He fed thousands of them with just a few fish and loaves, He raised the dead, cast out demons, and healed the sick. It was clear to any person that this man was extraordinary, yet few were willing to call Him divine. They abandoned the rabbi who once thrilled them because His teachings were controversial, yet Peter was not like these. 

Look at Peter’s words again: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” These words reflect the heart of a man whose being has been transformed by his Savior. There are many good works a person can do to prove themselves a Christian before others, but no person can truthfully utter these words and be found apart from Christ. Non-believers can act as faithful servants by attending church services weekly, reading the Scripture daily, abstaining from gossip, and dressing modestly, but no false convert bears the heart of Simon Peter as he spoke these words. 

These words should invoke one of two feelings in a person – comfort or condemnation. For a Christian, these words can comfort their troubled soul in times when they doubt their salvation. Yet, for a false convert, these words can only further condemn their heart when they consider their standing with the Lord. Whether or not these words resonate with our heart reveals the state of our soul. It reveals what we truly believe about Jesus Christ. If it is true that “out of the abundance of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” then only a redeemed heart can speak these words in spirit and in truth (Luke 6:45b). 

What sort of feelings should these words invoke in our hearts? Comfort because we are saved or condemnation because we are not? Since this question is so incredibly important, we must look beyond the outward good works and examine our hearts. There is a healthy way to do this, and there must be since Scripture commands us, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Cor. 13:5a). But why should we not just consider the good things we do like attending church and reading Scripture? While these two things are absolutely good works that should be present in a Christian’s life, we must not forget that Christianity is a religion of feeling. That may sound so unbiblical to us, but what is our faith without feelings? Of course, our feelings should always be in submission to our faith, but our faith is always accompanied by a feeling of deep love for God that flows from our knowledge of Him. 

We are saved by hearing the Gospel and loving what we hear because we love the God whom we hear of. While examining our works can be helpful, we must look deeper into the feelings of the heart. After all, the first and greatest commandment is that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. What does our heart love? Let’s look once again at the words of the disciple Peter. From his simple words, we find three tests for the heart that can help us answer the daunting question of whether or not we are truly saved.

To whom shall you go?

Peter’s first response when asked, “Do you want to go away as well? was, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”. What makes this phrase so powerful is not the fact that Peter called Christ Lord but that He did it with sincerity. The ability to call Christ the “Lord” doesn’t make a person a Christian, and that is why, on the day of judgment, He will cast out from His presence many who call on Him, saying ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ (Matt. 7:21-23).  It makes no difference in a person’s eternal destiny whether or not they believe in the existence of God since even demons do this. “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19). 

What makes the difference is that a person deeply feels that they have no one, no place, and no thing but Christ. To whom shall you go? When the whole world departs from Christ, including those dearest to you, will you go with them? Will you follow them down the road of destruction? Will you seek satisfaction and excitement elsewhere? If it is true that you love the world so much, I am grieved to say that these words are to your condemnation if you do not turn to Christ.

But maybe that is not true of you, so would you cling to Christ when the crowds turn away? Perhaps, like me, you may answer, "Well, I don’t know what I would do!”. Before you let the panic sink in, ask yourself: What do you feel about Christ now? Do you have any joy apart from Him? If you were to be found apart from Him, would it devastate you? Not because you fear the punishment of hell, but because you love your Lord so deeply that you do not want to be apart from Him? Do you feel this attached to Him? If it is true that He is your good and your joy, then rest assured these words are for your comfort. 

Are His Words your Gladness or Grievance?

Now, look at the next words of Peter. He says, “You have the words of eternal life.” This isn’t only how Peter describes the words of Christ, but this is exactly how Christ describes His own message, saying, "Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life” (John 5:24). Jesus even goes so far as to claim that He is life saying, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25).

Do you believe that the message of Christ is a message of eternal life? Is it at the center of your life? Does it affect the feelings of your heart? Does it bring you joy to possess the words of eternal life? Or is it a burden to hear the words of life? Do you, like the crowds, find them to be a hard saying? Are the words of Christ your gladness or your grievance? If Christ's words are your grievance, then these words are to your condemnation if you do not turn to Christ, but if His words are your gladness, then these words are for your comfort.

What do you believe about Jesus?

Lastly, Peter says, “We have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.” Peter believed – that is why he had no place to go but with Christ. He believed that "In him, the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). This belief changed everything about his life – how he acted, where he went, and what he felt about Christ.

Do you believe that Jesus is the Holy One of God? I don’t ask, "Did you believe this?” because we may be tempted to place our confidence in a time we said a prayer "accepting Christ,” and our hope cannot lie in an experience we had years or months ago, so I ask: Do you believe this? What do you believe about Jesus? Does your heart scream, “He is the Holy One of God!”? Or does it simply answer this question with apathy while repeating theology it has learned over the years of being in church? If the posture of your heart is one of apathy or resistance when you hear that Christ is the Holy One of God, these words are to your condemnation if you do not turn to Christ. Yet, if He is to you the Holy One of God, these words are for your comfort. 

I write so bluntly this way because this is an important matter. To be in Christ yet wrongly fear that you are not saved is an important issue because it deeply troubles the one for whom Christ died. Likewise, to think you are in Christ and be to be wrong is an important matter because it leads to eternal death. 

I’ll circle back to my own experience. As I’ve questioned my standing with Christ, I found little comfort in examining my outward works. At the end of the questioning, I said words similar to the words of the disciple Peter. I would eventually cry something like this, “Lord, I do not know the depths of my heart, but I love you, and you are my good. Without you, I have nothing and am nothing.” Saying something as simple as this gave me peace and assurance. Our assurance shouldn’t come by questioning whether or not we sin on a daily basis or if we attend church at least twice a week; it should come from what we feel and believe about God. If we feel and believe rightly about God, our outward works will attest to the feelings and beliefs of our heart. May our heart be pure before our great God so that He may assure us of His work of grace in our lives.

"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


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