The Basis of Assurance1
by Bob Wilkin
Have you ever met someone who was looking to some past experience as the basis of their assurance? They prayed some prayer and put the date in their Bible. They walked an aisle after a particularly moving sermon. They made a commitment to Christ around a campfire—all meaningful experiences at the time to be sure. But there are some problems we encounter when we base our assurance on a past experience.
Experience and Eternal Life
The first difficulty we encounter when we base our assurance on a past experience is that assurance comes from God’s Word, not from our experiences. Sadly, when asked about assurance, people point to all kinds of past experiences that have nothing to do with believing the good news.
No one would argue that prayer is an essential part of a believer’s life. But more often than not when a person is urged to pray a prayer in response to an evangelistic tract or appeal, the focus of the prayer is on giving their life to Christ, committing to serve Him, or asking Him to take control of their life. Yet none of these things are conditions of eternal life.
It’s interesting to note that there is not one account in Scripture where Jesus or His apostles ever told anyone to pray a prayer for everlasting life. Prayer is the way we as believers commune and fellowship with God. It is through this most intimate form of communication that we express our praise and thanksgiving to the Father, disclose our heaviest burdens, and make our deepest needs and requests known. But it is faith in Jesus, not praying to Him, that results in eternal life.
That brings us to walking an aisle. I think it’s safe to assume that many people go forward at churches and evangelistic rallies without ever understanding and believing the saving truth of the gospel. Now admittedly some have come to faith when they went forward because a counselor clearly shared the saving message with them. But the act of going forward never in itself resulted in anyone’s justification.
Similarly, the person who recalls committing his life to Christ is recalling a good thing, but something that carries no promise of eternal life. During my first year as a Bible College Professor, I taught an evangelism course at Woodcrest College in East Texas. One of the assignments required the students to write their personal testimonies, making it crystal clear how they became Christians.
One young man submitted a confused testimony. He spoke of a time when he committed his life to Christ and came forward at a service, but never indicated in his paper that he had believed in Christ for eternal life. I returned the assignment and asked him to redo it and make it clear this time.
A few days later I received the revision. Though the wording in places had changed, the essential content was the same. He committed his life and walked an aisle. A bit flustered, I called him into my office to discuss the matter.
“You’ve now written your testimony twice and you still haven’t made it clear that when you were born again you came to believe that Jesus guarantees eternal life to all who simply believe in Him. Why are you having trouble doing that? Am I not being clear in the assignment?”
“No. The assignment is clear. I’m just telling you what happened when I got saved.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it wasn’t until this semester in your class that I learned that Jesus gives eternal life to all who simply believe in Him. Prior to this semester I thought we were saved by commitment and that if my commitment waned, then I would lose my salvation. So when you asked me to change my testimony, I was stuck because what I wrote in my paper is what really happened when I was saved many years ago.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere. So tell me, what does a person need to do to have eternal life?”
“The only condition is to believe in Him.”
“Okay, when did you come to believe that promise?”
“A few weeks ago as you went over the gospel in class.”
“Well, then,” I asked, “when were you born again?”
“Wow. I get it now. I got saved this semester in your class!”
This young man’s experience is not unique. I have counseled untold numbers of people who share a similar confusion. They had some experience years ago when they made a commitment and went forward. They perhaps drew closer to God. This is when they say they became a Christian. But then they go on to say that it wasn’t until some later time when they came to be sure they had eternal life by faith in Jesus.
I try to help people see that regardless of what they felt when they had their experience, it wasn’t until they believed in Jesus for eternal life that they were born again. Even if it didn’t seem special, the moment they knew for sure they had eternal life by faith in Jesus is the moment they entered God’s forever family.
Don’t Live in the Past
The second problem we encounter when we base our assurance on a past experience is that we don’t live in the past. We live in the present. Since assurance is based on what I believe now, not on what I believed in the past, then if I am confused now, I lack assurance.
When I was teaching at Multnomah Bible College in Portland, the school newspaper ran a fascinating story of a recent graduate who had become a professing atheist. Upon leaving Multnomah, the young man had enrolled at a secular school. His studies in philosophy led him to reject his former beliefs, even to the point that he ceased being a theist.
The interviewer asked him if when he was at MBC he had believed he was going to heaven when he died. He assured the interviewer that he had believed in Jesus and that he was going to heaven. But now, he said, he realized all that was a fable on par with Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
We can have assurance now only if we believe the promise of God now. Even if we believed His promise in the past, if we no longer believe it, then we aren’t sure we are saved because the only way to have assurance is to believe the promise now.
Of course, loss of certainty doesn’t mean loss of eternal life. Eternal life is eternal. Once we believe in Jesus for eternal life, we are secure forever, even if we later lose assurance.
Rejoice That You Are Sure Today
I don’t know the exact day I was born again. You may wonder why. The answer is simple. I invited Jesus into my heart during High School, but continued to lack assurance that I was going to heaven when I died. During college I related this to an Athletes in Action Staff member, Warren Wilke, and asked him to help me gain assurance.
Warren thought I was a confused believer. In reality, I was a confused unbeliever because I had never believed in justification by faith alone.
Like the student in my earlier illustration, I didn’t realize that it was at the moment when I believed in Jesus for eternal life, as Warren was explaining the Scriptures to me, that I became a Christian.
I knew it was at that time I became convinced that Jesus guarantees eternal life to all who believe in Him. I just didn’t realize then, that was the day I was born again. In other words, I didn’t realize that believing in Jesus is not only the condition of assurance, but also of eternal salvation.
As a result, I can’t tell you what day or week or even month I was born again. I know it was in the Fall of 1972.
Here’s a very valuable piece of advice for all who, like me, can’t remember precisely when they first came to believe in Christ for eternal life. Give up trying to figure out when you were born again. Simply rejoice that you are sure today that you are eternally secure by virtue of your faith in Christ.
Assurance is based not on what you did or even believed in time past. It’s based on what you believe right now. So look to Jesus and His promise of eternal life to all who simply believe in Him and you will remain sure you have eternal life. It’s that simple.
1This is an excerpt from Bob’s book on Assurance entitled Secure and Sure.