Why We Can Have Assurance of Salvation

Johannes Pflaum

A believer’s assurance of salvation is a controversial biblical teaching. There are three reasons why it is justifiable as encouragement for the reborn.

First: The assurance of salvation has no basis, no starting point, in myself or my life. There is a false assurance of salvation—or, rather an apparent satisfaction when people believe that they’ve been saved because of their own life, according to the motto, “God must be pleased with me.”

Even if a person lived in complete devotion to his Lord every hour of his life for a hundred years, it can’t save him or give assurance of forgiveness of sins. Our lost condition is far too great. That is why Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

A few years ago, a woman told me about her late mother. She had faithfully attended a local church and served there. When the mother was dying, she was plagued by doubts regarding her own salvation. It made me so sad to hear how her daughter had tried to comfort her. She pointed out that her mother had always attended services and served. The mother was reminded that she had never gone dancing and had avoided every sinful pleasure. The lists then led to the imploring statement, “If anyone is saved, then you are.”

But our own emulation and piety can’t give assurance of salvation. Assurance of salvation has no starting point or basis in our own performance or life. For this reason, Romans 3:23 says, “…and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

Second: Assurance of salvation presupposes knowledge of one’s own lost condition. In the letter to the Romans, we have a New Testament book which uniquely expands on salvation solely through faith and by grace. In its eighth chapter, we find the “Song of Assurance of Salvation.” It’s remarkable how the Apostle Paul thoroughly unfolds this “good news.” From the structure of the letter to the Romans, we can recognize the way to salvation through faith, and the assurance of forgiveness of sins.

According to his introductory words, Paul doesn’t begin this letter with God’s love and mercy for all people. The first three chapters mention four completely different thunderbolts. First, in Romans 1, starting in verse 18, God’s righteous anger and judgment are revealed against the unbelief and sins of the nations far from God. Man, in his rebellion against the Creator, is involved in the sin and godlessness connected with it and therefore falls under God’s righteous judgment.

Now the moral, religious, and exemplary person might get worked up about the godlessness of the nations in chapter 1. That’s why Paul uses the first 17 verses of chapter 2, to show that even the religious and externally moral zealot has also fallen under God’s judgment. No matter how exemplary a life a person may appear to live, his lack of repentance before God and refusal to recognize the divine verdict upon his life, makes his sin and selfishness clear. It places him under God’s judgment.

In the second part of chapter 2, the apostle makes it clear that even a Jew—belonging to God’s chosen people Israel and who, in contrast to the nations, knows God’s law and even tries to keep it—is not saved by the law, but condemned.

This brings Paul to the fourth thunderbolt in chapter 3, beginning in verse 9. Because we are in danger of seeing ourselves in too positive a light despite everything that has been said, he shows once again how lost we are. All people—whether Gentile or Jew; whether wallowing in the filth of sin or straining toward moral zealousness; whether religiously Christian or of another persuasion—are under the judgment of God: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Rom 3:10-11).

The realization of one’s own lost condition—not having the slightest speck of good in oneself; unable to produce anything that could please God in the slightest—is the critical background from which genuine assurance of salvation can arise. It makes a huge difference whether I intellectually affirm the statement in Romans 7:18; whether I have truly discerned my whole being in light of the Bible, and see myself as God sees me: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh...”

It’s astonishing how much “Christian humanism” is still practiced and preached, even in circles faithful to the Bible. In theory, it’s agreed that man is a lost sinner. But at the same time, people are still trying to earn God’s favor somewhere, and do something to save themselves. The idea of merit is innate to us all. As long as this striving and mindset persist, the person in question doesn’t break through to genuine assurance of salvation.

The structure of the letter to the Romans makes it clear that the only way to be certain of salvation is to know that we are lost. Theologian Martin Kähler once put it this way: “Assurance of salvation can only blossom where there had previously been assurance of disaster.”

Third: assurance of salvation is based solely on Christ and His work. As we have seen, there is no point of contact in ourselves, according to Scripture. The assurance of salvation and forgiveness of sins is anchored only in Christ and His perfect work. The reason for my assurance of salvation lies outside of myself. As Johann Andreas Rothe (1688-1758) wrote in a song: 

Now I have found the firm foundation
Which holds mine anchor ever sure; 
’Twas laid before the world’s creation
In Christ my Savior’s wounds secure; 
Foundation which unmoved shall stay
When Heav’n and earth will pass away.

It is that mercy never ending
Which human wisdom far transcends
Of Him who, loving arms extending, 
To wretched sinners condescends;
Whose heart with pity still doth break
Whether we seek Him or forsake.

O Love, Thou bottomless abyss,
My sins are swallowed up in Thee! 
Covered is my unrighteousness,
Nor spot of guilt remains on me,
While Jesus’ blood, through earth and        
skies,
Mercy, free, boundless mercy, cries.

Though I be robbed of every pleasure
That makes my soul and body glad
And be deprived of earthly treasure
And be forsaken, lone, and sad,
Though my desire for help seem vain,
His mercy shall with me remain.

When all my deeds I am reviewing,
The deeds that I admire the most,
I find in all my thought and doing
That there is naught whereof to boast. 
Yet this sweet comfort shall abide—
In mercy I can still confide.

I’ll stand upon this firm foundation
As long as I on earth remain;
This shall engage my meditation
While I the breath of life retain; 
And then, when face to face with Thee,
I’ll sing of mercy, great and free.

The letter to the Hebrews uniquely shows us the importance of the Lord Jesus and His perfect work for our salvation. The following verse also makes it clear that the anchor of our hope and salvation is outside of us. It is found in Christ and His atonement, which He made in the heavenly sanctuary: “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain” (Heb 6:19).

Because the anchor of my salvation lies outside of myself, it remains completely independent of all subjective feelings. For this reason, the Apostle Paul begins the letter to the Ephesians with praise to God:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight” (Eph 1:3-8).

As one of Jesus’ disciples, Peter remained convinced of his own emulation and devotion for three years. That’s why he was always quick to make suggestions or interrupt his Master. He was certain that he loved the Lord a little bit more than the other disciples, perhaps even just a hairsbreadth more (John 13:37). His denial left all of that in a heap of ruins. Peter had to learn that his Lord wasn’t dependent on His disciple’s love and loyalty, but that he, Peter, was solely and exclusively dependent on the loyalty and love of his Lord. The apostle recognized that the reason for his salvation wasn’t in himself, but solely in Christ. This finding was wonderfully reflected at the beginning of Peter’s first letter:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Pet 1:3-4).

Earlier, I mentioned the importance of the letter to the Hebrews. This certainty, based solely on the perfect work of the Lord Jesus, is also reflected elsewhere in that letter:

“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Heb 10:19-23).

Christ lived flawlessly and fulfilled the righteousness that God demands of me. He paid with His blood on the cross for all my sins, as the perfect, sacrificial Lamb. That’s why biblical faith is based exclusively on what Christ did. The believer is saved only for Christ’s sake!

It’s believed that Spurgeon once said, “My entire theology can be condensed into four words: ‘Jesus died for me.’”

Martin Luther expressed his trust, which was based solely on the Lord Jesus’ perfect work, in the following words:

“Up until now I have not been able to satisfy the demands of God because of an innate evil and weakness. If I wasn’t allowed to believe that God for the sake of Christ forgives me this daily lamented shortfall, then it would be all over with me. I must despair. But that I will not. I must hang myself on a tree like Judas. But that too I will not do. I will hang myself around the neck or on the foot of Christ like the sinner. Even though I am worse than her I will hold on to my Lord. And then he will speak to the Father: this little appendage must also go through. He has never kept anything and all your commands he has transgressed. But Father, he hanged himself on me. Nothing to be done! I died also for him. Let him slip through. That shall be my faith.”

Midnight Call - 08/2021

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