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Over the course of my years of pastoral ministry and teaching, I have begun to notice something about people who struggle with assurance of salvation: almost all of them grew up as covenant children and made a profession of faith at an early age. They had never gone the way of the Prodigal and come back through a “dramatic conversion.” Outwardly conscientious and faithful, they’d been regarded as the “good boys” and “good girls” in their families and friend circles. Inwardly, though, it seemed to their own eyes a different story—a story of a mind still mired in sin, of shameful and unholy feelings, and of a will that just never seemed to close the gap between what they knew they should do and what they actually did.

I enjoy these pastoral conversations, because that is my story. A covenant child who made a profession of faith at age six, I never went the way of the Prodigal. But I did ask Jesus into my heart at least a hundred times because, “What if . . . ?” Each time I prayed the sinner’s prayer, I hoped to rise the next morning an indisputably new man, one able to look back on that moment—that pleading and answered prayer—as the definitive marker of my salvation. It never happened.

Years later, I came to see that I was looking for assurance in all the wrong places. Under some faithful preaching and teaching, I finally laid hold of the precious gift of having “confidence before God” (1 John 3:21). In subsequent years of ministry, it has been a joy to help other believers, especially those who grew up as covenant children, look in all the right places to discern the reality of their salvation.

Yes, all the right places, for there is not one place only, but at least three taken together, that believers should look for assurance of salvation. G.K. Beale helpfully presents them as the triangle of assurance.1 If you often struggle with assurance of salvation, I would encourage you to consider these three sides to assurance: faith in God’s promise, feeling our sin, and fruit in our lives.

1. Faith in God’s promise

“If I’m a Christian, why does my faith feel so weak?” I’ve heard that question spoken across the table and rattling in my own mind. The question assumes that if we were to “take a peek under the hood” and look at the inner workings of our faith, we should be impressed by what we see. But an honest look at our faith rarely makes a favorable impression. Why?

Biblical faith isn’t supposed to look like a six-cylinder engine powering our lives. Rather, it looks more like the small accelerator pedal on the floorboard—unimpressive and utterly powerless in itself but designed for connection with the true source of power. Just as we wouldn’t say, “The accelerator pedal of my car powered us over the mountain,” in the same way we shouldn’t say, “My faith got me through this.” Rather, faith connects us to God Himself acting according to His divine promises. Paul does not tell us that Abraham was impressed with his own faith but rather that Abraham was, by faith, impressed with God’s faithfulness and power to fulfill His promises, being “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised(Rom. 4:20–21, emphasis added).

The nature of true faith is to look not at itself, which may disappoint us, but to look away from itself to Christ, who will never disappoint us. I know of no one who has put it better than John Murray: “All the efficacy resides in the Savior. . . . It is not even faith in Christ that saves, but Christ that saves through faith. . . . The specific character of faith is that it looks away from itself and finds its whole interest and object in Christ. He is the absorbing preoccupation of faith.”2

Or, in the words of A.W. Tozer, “Faith is the gaze of the soul upon a saving God.”3

The nature of true faith is to look not at itself, which may disappoint us, but to look away from itself to Christ, who will never disappoint us.

If you often lament the weakness of your faith, ask yourself, “Do I believe that Christ is who He says He is, and that ‘He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him’ (Heb. 7:25, emphasis added)?” Lift your eyes away from your faith and fix them instead on Christ—that’s what faith is for.

2. Fruit in Our Lives

The second side of the triangle of assurance is the evidence of fruit in our lives. Beale writes that believers find assurance “as they look back at their former life and see the changes that have come about since they became a Christian.”4 Those with dramatic conversion stories can look back and mark the enormous difference between who they once were and who they are now.

Those without dramatic conversion experiences can feel unsettled when they try to “look back at their former life.” First, they’re usually not able to put their finger on a watershed moment sharply dividing the person they “once were” from the person they “are now.” Second, they can easily disparage the degree of change in their lives as small compared to that of someone who started much farther from the Father’s home. “She went from atheism, drug addiction, and promiscuity to becoming an amazing Christian mother and passionate witness to Christ. If I grew that much, shouldn’t I at least be Mother Teresa? Could this be a sign I’m not actually saved?”

It can help to remember that the New Testament not only gives us the example of Paul, dramatically converted from a persecutor of the church to become the great missionary to the gentiles, but also of Timothy, growing gradually in his faith since childhood (2 Tim. 1:5, 3:14–15). If Paul’s journey was like that of a man who began at sea level, but ended with him standing atop Mount Everest, then Timothy’s was like that of a Himalayan Sherpa, born in the high mountains and trained from childhood to scale the peaks that he called home. The fact Timothy began his life in the high mountains didn’t make him any less of a climber than Paul. And the same is true for covenant children, for whom it should be considered a great privilege, not a source of regret, to be have been brought up on the slopes of Mount Zion (Heb. 12:21–22).

This does not mean covenant children are free from struggles and slips and perhaps seasons when storm clouds hide the heights of God’s grace from view. But it is not uncommon for covenant children, through it all, to have an abiding sense that the majestic peaks of the Father’s love have always surrounded them, echoing with the words, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31). Rather than regret their lack of a dramatic conversion experience, they should rejoice that God has made the grand drama of the covenant of grace, flowing from one generation to another generation, to be the defining backdrop and heartbeat of their lives.

Looking within their own hearts, they should see changes that, though smaller and more gradual than the Prodigal’s dramatic turn, are nonetheless real. Over time—years and decades—they can discern gradual changes in their attitudes and actions stemming from a gradually growing view of God, of His grace in Christ, and of their own sin. This brings us to the third and last side of the triangle of assurance.

3. Feeling Our Own Sin

Many people doubt their salvation under the constant weight of this thought, “I don’t know how I can be a true Christian if I’m still discovering and fighting against so much sin in my life!” They imagine a true Christian would have an easier time with sin than they do. If that’s you, I have good news for you—this weighty thought may be one of the surest signs that you’re a Christian.

G.K. Beale writes, “When Christians think or do unholy things, there should be immediate conflict and dissonance with the indwelling Spirit.”5 Notice Beale’s well-chosen words: “When Christians think or do unholy things . . .” Jesus didn’t teach us to pray daily, “Forgive us our debts” (Matt. 6:12), for show—He taught us to pray that from an ever-growing sense of the holiness of the Father’s name, producing in us an ever-growing sense of our sin.

It is critical to remember that only the regenerate child of God grieves and hates sin as sin. The unbeliever may grieve and oppose particular sins or the consequences of sin.6 But to be filled with a sense of “the filthiness and odiousness of his sins” as something “contrary to the holy nature and righteous law of God” (Westminster Confession of Faith 15.2)—that’s a sure mark of true salvation.

So if you find yourself thinking, “I don’t know how I can be a true Christian if I’m still discovering and fighting against so much sin in my life,” you may need to rephrase that and say, “I must be a true Christian since I’m still discovering and fighting against so much sin in my life!” And don’t forget: it won’t last forever. Complete freedom from sin awaits us in glory, and you are one day nearer to glory than you were a day ago.

Conclusion

If you find yourself doubting your salvation because your faith seems so weak, your fruit seems so little, and your sense of sin seems so great, it may be that you’re correct about all these things but are misreading their significance. These are, contrary to your doubts, the signs of one who is safe in the arms of Jesus. And never lose sight of the fact that the most dramatic aspect of any believer’s salvation is the drama of what God has done to bring all of His elect to salvation: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

 

  1. G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old in the New (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011), 867. In what follows, I borrow Beale’s basic framework and sequence but use my own words and explanations. Beale calls the three sides (1) trusting in God’s promise of salvation through Christ, (2) good works, and (3) conviction by the Spirit. ↩︎
  2. John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 112. ↩︎
  3. A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God, ch. 7. ↩︎
  4. Beale, New Testament Biblical Theology, 869. ↩︎
  5. Beale, New Testament Biblical Theology, 869. ↩︎
  6. Herman Bavinck writes of the unbeliever’s struggle against sin that it is a struggle “waged not against sin as such, or because it displeases God, and thus it is not always and everywhere against every sin but only against some sins, out of fear of punishment, public shame, or public opinion, but not out of love of God. It is not waged perpetually but only now and then, not constantly but occasionally, only under certain circumstances, when sin would cause harm. . . . The spiritual struggle of the regenerate is altogether different and completely the opposite of this.” Herman Bavinck, Reformed Ethics, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2019), 442. ↩︎

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