During the Reformation, the Protestant Reformers were criticized for teaching that all believers in Christ can be sure that they are saved. The Reformers’ theological opponents rejected this, arguing that if every Christian could enjoy the assurance of salvation, believers would live immorally. To this day, the Roman Catholic Church says that only a precious few can enjoy the assurance of salvation, and then only by an extraordinary revelation of God. Lacking assurance, Rome teaches, induces us to obey the Lord so that we might one day be worthy of heaven.
Scripture is on the side of the Reformers that every Christian can be assured of salvation through the right use of ordinary means. We need no extraordinary word from God to know we are saved; rather, the Lord assures us through the ordinary means of grace—the Word of God, the sacraments, and prayer—and the ordinary evidences available to all Christians, including the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit and the presence of good works in our lives (Rom. 8:16–17; Heb. 6:9–10). Moreover, the Reformers understood the teaching of today’s passage that assurance fosters godliness; it does not inhibit it.
The author of Hebrews, having commended his audience in 6:9–10 for their good works, encourages his readers to pursue the “full assurance of hope” so that they will not be sluggish but be imitators of those who inherit the promises through “faith and patience” (vv. 11–12). The inheritors of whom he speaks are the old covenant saints, whose faith-motivated obedience is praised in Hebrews 11. In essence, the author calls us in 6:9–12 to seek assurance, in part through looking to our good works as evidence of God’s grace, so that, having assurance, we will be even more eager to render the kind of faithful obedience the old covenant believers did.
If we are unsure of our salvation but seek to make ourselves worthy of heaven by our works, we will obey only because we are afraid of God’s wrath and not because we want to show God our love for Him. And if an act of obedience is not motivated by love for God, it is not truly good. But if we know that we are saved, understanding that we are worthy of heaven only by the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, we will do good works out of love for Him and gratitude for His salvation, not merely out of fear. In turn, our good works will increase, for our love of God and thankfulness to Him will only grow the longer we know Him.