The Bible promises that we can attain assurance of our salvation, but that not all saints do. In fact we are commanded to seek such assurance. Therefore it is possible to be saved and still be unsure about it, just as it is also possible to be unsaved and think you are. Fortunately the Bible offers us much guidance in this area.
The entire book of first John is devoted to helping one distinguish between true salvation and a false conversion, with it's focus towards giving assurance to the true believer. It is written to the believer and can be interpreted in that context. I read an article by John G. Reisinger that asserted that there are nine tests of true salvation that 1 John gives us, but I could not find his other article detailing them, so I decided to make a stab at it as an excercise where I might learn something.
As Reisinger points out, Romans 8 contains assurance of our salvation. Romans is focussing on assuring the struggling believer, first John is much more about revealing the false believers and shaking them awake to their awful state. If you need assurance, go to Romans 8:1, but if you want to take the Biblical test for a true believer then read on. Be warned it is a tough test and only Christians of a certain maturity will "pass" it.
Before we go into first John however let me give you the Philadelphia Confession of Faith's threefold decription of our assurance of salvation (paraphrased from Reisingers description of it):
Reisinger points out that all three contribute to a balanced view of assurance, focussing too much on any one to the exclusion of the others creates imbalance.
Reisinger also points out that one's view of salvation is critical to whether one can ever develop assurance about it. If you have a works view of salvation then you will never have assurance. Assurance is only possible if you understand that salvation is a free gift from God, and is entirely His work in you. Assurance is about correctly determining whether this gift has been bestowed upon you. Watching the grace of God develop in your life becomes one of the primary means of determining if you are truly saved.
Jonathan Edwards wrote much on this topic in his work "A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections". In this powerful work he sets a very high standard, it is unlikely a tare could read it and honestly claim to be a Christian. Edwards focusses on what he calls graciousness, a single word that seems to sum up the fruits of the spirit manifesting in a believer. He also goes through a catalog of false evidences for conversion, he attacks false religious zeal, highly religious attitudes, and many other things. He then catalogs a list of true evidences, including a meek humble gentle gracious character that comes from above and is not self-manufactured. It is an amazing piece of work and highly recommended for further study on this topic.
If you find a lack of true evidences in your life, and are convicted that you are a victim of a false conversion, then by all means pray to God to have mercy on you a poor sinner and to save your soul. Jesus in John 6:37 tells us that He will never refuse anyone who comes to Him. Thus a study of what it means to be truly saved can be evangelistic as well as edifying and comforting.
John gives us a summary of the main points he will develop in more detail at the begining of the book:
jo1 1:4 And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.
John's purpose in writing on this topic is that our joy in Christ may be secured.
jo1 1:6 If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth:
The meaning of darkness is a bit unspecific here, so I will take a stab at it and assert that the rest of the book essentially affirms this to be walking in willing sin. John is affirming this as a form of self-deception: to walk in sin and believe one is saved.
jo1 1:7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.
To walk in the light is to walk with a heart that is pure in regards to sin and is also to walk with love for the brethren. John develops this more fully later, but his main point here is that while believers fall into sin, they do not ever embrace sin willingly, the saved person neither embraces sin, nor denies that he has trouble with sin. Notice that the blood of Jesus is proactive in cleansing us.
jo1 1:8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
If we claim that we are totally free from sin, living a totally holy life, we are in deception and are essentially not in Christ. This also applies to our particular sins. It is one thing to intellectually admit that technically before a perfect and righteous God that we are "sinners", but it is another thing altogether to acknowledge our particular sins, and recognize them for the terrible crimes against a mighty God that they are. How hard it is to admit that we personally have rebelled against a righteous and holy God, and how much harder it is to admit our pride and arrogance and humble ourselves before our Lord God and King. In fact, this is only possible with the Holy Spirit, we can't even recognize our grievous sinful state without His convicting power.
jo1 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
The sins that do befall us however, if we confess our sins Jesus is faithful to forgive us and totally cleanse us. It should be noted this is not about a legalistic requirement that we must remember every sin. John has already stated the blood is proactive in cleansing us.
John is talking is about a state of heart, he is warning about denying our sins (saying we have no sin) in our heart, which would be evidence we don't know Christ at all.
It would not be possible for example for us to correctly identify every sinful attitude and to confess all of them as we yield to them during the day. Rather we don't deny that we have these problems, and when we pray, we confess our sins (just as Jesus taught us to), and we have assurance that our sins are forgiven.
Remember, we were justified (forgiven) the moment we were born-again. John is writing about the attitude of a repentant heart that hates our sin as evidence of a true believer, (hating other people's sins is not evidence of a true believer). John is not talking about a risk that if we somehow forget to confess something that we will be temporarily unforgiven and thus be on our way to hell until we do.
jo1 1:10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
This appears to be about initial salvation, sin is in the past tense, if you as a believer didn't really recognize your wretched sinful state when you converted, then your conversion was probably a false one.
Here is a hint, do you think the following verse applies to you?
luk 7:47 Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.
Do you think of yourself as someone who sinned a little, or one who sinned a lot. The answer is very telling on your true understanding of the wretched state of all mankind. Pride (self-sufficiency), unforgiveness, rebellion, these things are in all of us, thinking of yourself as someone who only sinned a little is either a sign of immaturity in Christ or of not knowing Him at all.
A humble heart, conscious of your total dependence upon God, of your own woeful inadequacy, but at the same time rejoicing in His total sufficiency is evidence of both maturity in Christ and of His grace in you.
That completes John's introduction and sets the stage for the ideas he is going to develop.
The Main Idea - True Converts are Obedient to Christ.
jo1 2:3 And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.
jo1 2:4 He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.
John gives us the overarching description of his main theme. Those who are in Christ are loyal to Him in a way that manifests in obedience. John tells us what kind of obedience he means a few verses later in the first test.
Note that the popular doctrine of the carnal Christian, one who professes Christ but still lives for self, is a completely false idea. See John G Reisinger's "The Carnal Christian" Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
It is also important to note that obedience is the evidence of a true conversion. It is not that we must obey in order to be saved. This is a very important distinction that is at the heart of John's discussion.
Test One - Love for Others, Especially the Brethren.
jo1 2:10 He that loveth his brother abideth in the light,
and there is none occasion of stumbling in him.
jo1 2:11 But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes.
John is clearly referring to the two greatest commandments that Jesus talked about which is to love God, and to love our neighbors.
mat 22:37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all
thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
mat 22:38 This is the first and great commandment.
mat 22:39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
mat 22:40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Specifically this test however is focussing on love for the brethren, for the body of Christ. This love will manifest in many ways, including a desire to fellowship with them.
jo1 3:14 We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death.
John repeats the theme of love for the brethren as one of the primary evidences of true conversion throughout his epistle.
Since true believers will want to serve (in love) their brethren and their neighbors, I recommend looking for churches that help provide opportunities to do so.
Test Two - Love not the World.
jo1 2:15 Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.
If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
jo1 2:16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.
Loving the world means to covet the things of the world: money, wealth, power, success, this comes from a self-seeking mindset that is evidence of living for self. When the verse refers to the love of the Father I believe it is not referring to your love of the Father but rather to the Father's love of you. And this love is absent or failing to manifest if you are loving the world.
If you covet worldly things then cry out to God in fear and desperation that He may take mercy on you and save your soul. Part and parcel of that cry must be repentance from that thinking.
How many people do you know that profess Christ, but complain constantly about their lives, not enough money, their house is too small, their car is too old, their relatives don't treat them well, they don't have any friends, and on and on. All of these things come from a covetous heart. Coveting by the way is analogous to bitterness against God because one's life is not what one wants it to be.
And have you ever met someone like that who when confronted with it denies vehemently that they have done anything wrong and adamantly justifies their behavior?
I am reminded of the verse:
mat 12:37 For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.
On the flip side, do you know those who work hard for Christ, appear to be wonderful Christians, but if questioned, they secretly hate the doctrine of election? This is because they are trusting in works to save them. Being told their works mean nothing is offensive to them, and thus they testify that they know not Christ at all because the pride of life is the focus of their living.
jo1 2:17 And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.
The opposite of loving the World, is being content with what you have with an "attitude of gratitude" and focussing on obeying Him.
It should also be pointed out that worldly entertainment is a pitfall, and is a gray area that I cannot offer any hard guidelines about except if it glorifies sin it probably doesn't belong in your life. Neither does an obsession with entertainment itself, the Christian life is to be characterized by service to God in everything we do, and moderation (a kind of lifetime fast) in all things.
Test Three - Acknowledges Jesus is the Christ.
jo1 2:22 Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ?
He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son.
jo1 2:23 Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father: (but) he that acknowledgeth the Son hath the Father also.
There are many ways to deny Christ was truly the son of God, the Messiah, God's anointed one. Belief in any of these doctrines is evidence one is not in Christ. This is a bit touchy however, a true convert can be deceived, but will yield when confronted with the truth of God's word. A tare will not yield, I have had people look me in the eyes and say "I don't care" when confronted with clear Biblical proof that some doctrine they were following was heretical (threatening to salvation). And they were by all appearances zealous Christians. In truth they were cult members and didn't know it.
Denial of God's word as the infallible inspired word of God is also a form of denying Him. What sense does it make to say I believe in Jesus if I don't believe what He said? What kind of God would command us to obey Him and not give us an authoritative record of those commands?
On the positive side, can you remember dearly held beliefs, that when you found out the Bible contradicted them that you gave them up? And it hurt to do so because it was a humbling experience? Rejoice in your salvation then.
Test Four - Looks Forward to the Return of Christ.
jo1 3:2 Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when
he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.
jo1 3:3 And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.
The key elements are expectancy and purification.
Notice that any true expectation of Christ's return will result in one seeking further sanctification, a mindset that resists sin, and seeks to become more like Him.
I have often wondered if this verse was meant to teach an interest in Bible prophecy. Personally I think it does so only weakly, as Bible prophecy is chiefly concerned with the circumstances surrounding Christ's return. I believe the expectation of His coming, (and certainly the belief that He is physically and literally coming again) is sufficient to claim as evidence for this verse.
People often wonder why one would purify oneself in the hopes of Christ's return. Well guess what Christ is bringing with Him when he returns:
ti2 4:1 I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom;
So if you find your attitude to the second coming one of apathy (means I don't care because I don't have to), then you have cause for questioning your attitudes or perhaps your eschatology.
Test Five - Does not Sin.
jo1 3:9 Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin;
for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because
he is born of God.
jo1 3:10 In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother.
This verse parallels Paul's account of sanctification in Romans. John is talking about willing sin. No Christian can sin without it producing grief and godly sorrow that leads to repentance. Put another way, sin ain't fun like it used to be, you may try to get the old pleasure from it, but it doesn't work as well as it used to. And when you learn about God's definition of sin, it grieves your heart when you sin because you have sinned against the one you love most (Him).
Sin is never against just onseself or others, it is always against God primarily, for it is He who is most offended by such things, and loyal little children of God never willingly offend their loving father. Temptations will come, and you will yield to them, sometimes for prolonged periods of time, but God is always there, drawing you back to Him.
Also, a pure heart does not set out to sin. it is an easy rationalization to live a life of sin, and justify it by admitting it is sin, and continue on without any intention of stopping. This pretense is not evidence of a pure heart at all.
If you can sin with impunity, that is lie, cheat, steal, complain, be angry, swear and curse, engage in drunkenness or sexual immorality, or any other sin listed in the Bible, and do it without regrets then Christ is not in you.
Conversely, if you are used to the small prick of conviction everytime you sin, and you willingly and lovingly pray "Lord forgive me", and you are constantly seeking more sanctification, you groan waiting for the day you are no longer in a body bound to sin, that is evidence of God within you.
To develop this theme a bit more, We are not meant to travel into deep guilt and shame when we fall into sin, that is wordly sorrow and is a trap from the Devil to make you miserable. God intends that we rejoice in Him. We are not saved by our works or our ability to stop sinning, those are gifts from God just as our salvation is. And sanctification is gradual not immediate. "There is no condemnation in Christ." If you struggle with shame, and believe that your sins blacken you so much that you cannot possibly be saved, nothing could be further from the truth.
Test Six - The World Will Hate You.
jo1 3:13 Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you.
This one is not popular with those who seek to live a "blessed" life, the self-seeking life that treats God as a wishing well to make their lives go better.
When we are conformed to Christ we will be hated by the world. We are fortunate in America that governmental persecution against Christians is not widespread (although it seems to be trending upwards). I believe that the world's hate manifests in hating what you stand for. I do not believe this verse is teaching that every non-Christian will hate you. They may whisper in ridicule that you are one of those "Christians" who actually believes the Bible. They are mostly ok with that as it is not threatening to them. The false Gospel message that God loves you (and devoid of anything else of substance, notably repentance and the awful sinful state of the natural man) is not offensive to the world either.
But if you start to tell them God's definition of sin and that they are going to Hell unless they repent, then the sparks will fly. The thinly veiled hatred of God and His righteousness will become very visible very quickly. Sadly, many tares (those who profess Christ falsely) will also persecute you as too religious and too holy.
Often the attack will be in the name of intolerance or judgementalism - you will be accused of hate crimes when in fact it is their hatred of God that is really in evidence and you are engaged in an act of love, namely warning them about Hell and the sole means of avoiding it.
Digression - Assurance in the Heart and the Results of Obedience.
Here John digresses briefly to a few important related topics:
jo1 3:18 My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.
jo1 3:19 And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him.
jo1 3:20 For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.
jo1 3:21 Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God.
He stresses that love of the brethren is not a mouth confession but is reflected in our conduct. He also points out that even if we do not have assurance in our heart that God is greater than this and we are still truly saved.
Notice he points out that our deeds of love give us assurance that God has placed such things inside of us.
Lastly, John points out the result of obedience, of living a life filled with deeds of love:
jo1 3:22 And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him,
because we keep his commandments, and do those things
that are pleasing in his sight.
jo1 3:23 And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment.
jo1 3:24 And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us.
Answered prayer is the direct result of obedience. Here John reminds us of the first of the two great commandments: Love God, and he shows that to love God is simply to believe on the Son for salvation.
John repeats both assertions later, here is where he mentions salvation again:
jo1 5:4 For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world:
and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.
jo1 5:5 Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?
It means that believing on the Son produces salvation which is by definition overcoming the world and its sin and resultant death. But it only is the kind of belief that produces obedience.
Test Seven - Tests the Spirits.
jo1 4:1 Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.
Avoiding false prophets is never more important than today as the waves of false teaching are an overwhelming typhoon beating at the door of every believer. How to avoid them is interesting:
jo1 4:2 Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth
that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:
jo1 4:3 And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.
John repeats himself here, as test three was if you deny Christ, here in this test the description of denying Christ is similar except he is referring to false teachers and false prophets.
I believe this teaching can be generalized to testing all teachers and prophets against God's word. We are called to reject all false prophets and false teachers. Blind acceptance of all who profess the name of Christ is not of God.
This can be further generalized to a loyalty to God's Word in general. Certainly this concept was stressed by Jesus in Revelation, as His only commendation to the church of Philadelphia (one of the two "good" churches) was for holding fast to His word.
As Jonathan Edwards points out, false professors can manifest great zeal and religious behaviors. They can talk a good talk and be highly charismatic. But the fruits will be missing, or they will not be loyal to His word, or both. Only knowledge of sound doctrine will allow you to spot false doctrine. Bad fruit is a bit easier to spot, but again sound doctrine (knowing the true meaning of what is bad) is important.
Test Eight - Idolatry.
The very last line of the epistle gives us the last test:
jo1 5:21 Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.
In the New Testament an idol is anything you love or desire more than God. Again idolatry is not of God, and persistent unrepentant idolatry is a sure sign you are not His.
But if your life has followed a pattern of God prying one dead worldly thing from your fingers after another, slowly weaning you from the world and increasing your dependence upon Him, then rejoice at the work He is doing in you.
John summarizes the major points of his book near the end of it:
jo1 5:18 We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he
that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not.
jo1 5:19 And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness.
Again let me remind you he is talking about a heart that takes no pleasure in sin. A heart that is grieved because sin has wounded the very God one loves most.
The tests listed above are not like a quiz where you have to get say eighty percent of them right to pass, each test clearly states that failure means God is not in you. So they are all essential. Since some of them are fruits of the Spirit, they will take time to develop in the believer, so assurance is not immediate with salvation at all.
Also throughout this book is the idea of humility, it is not stated explicitly, but the underlying theme is that we are to look for these things as evidence of God working in us, not to try to work these things up in self-righteousness and pride.
I would also like to say that a perfect pass of this test is not possible, it is ok to tremble a little bit and acknowledge that without God's help you are in trouble. That is in fact the intended effect of the text. Paul describes the correct attitude we are to have as Christians:
phi 2:12 Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.
Assurance is neither apathy nor brazen confidence, but a certain knowledge that without Him we have no chance, and that with Him we cannot lose. This text is writtten for the purpose of telling us what to look for as the true evidence of God working in our lives. Every Christian will manifest these things to some degree. That is all it is saying, that if you are a true Christian, and you look for these things, in time you will find them all. Our greatest assurance however is simply the cross itself.
Here John summarizes why he wrote the book and again reminds us of the results of obedience.
jo1 5:13 These things have I written unto you that believe on the name
of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life,
and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.
jo1 5:14 And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us:
jo1 5:15 And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him.
John wrote so that we may know we have eternal life, and we may have confidence that He hears our prayers and answers them (according to His will). Hallelujah and Amen!
How do I become a Christian?
I anticipated that some people may have been convicted by this study, so I put this section here.
Kneel before a righteous and Holy God, humble yourself and ask (beg) Him to save you in full realization that you cannot save yourself. You can't become a Christian at all, but He can make you into one. Repent of your sins, get baptized in water (this only needs to be done once in your professing Christian lifetime, even if it was premature, before the heartfelt true conversion), read your Bible, and follow Him. Praying the classical sinner's prayer is not necessary, nowhere in the Bible does such a thing exist. It is about believing in Him, and following Him, just as we have learned in this study.
For a much richer answer to this question see:
Come to Me! An Urgent Invitation to Turn to Christ - Tom Wells.
Three Ways of Assurance, John G. Reisinger
Assurance of Salvation: Can I Really Be Sure?, John G. Reisinger
Which Way to Heaven? John MacArthur gives a very clear (and long) description of the false vs. the true way to Heaven.