by Rich Christianson
Editor’s note: The following is an actual letter written by GES Associate Director Rich Christianson in May of 1986, just weeks before the birth of GES. The letter shows Rich’s longstanding commitment to the issues for which GES stands. It has been slightly condensed and edited for publication.
I appreciate your continuing interest in trying to understand the doctrinal matters that are especially important to me. Perhaps it would be helpful for me to contrast my position on these matters with the opposing position.
It seems to me that the whole issue boils down to a disagreement concerning the proper basis for assurance of salvation. It is my conviction that full assurance is to come from simple trust in the promise of God that the one who relies on the Lord Jesus for salvation does indeed receive that salvation.
Thus, assurance is implicit in the very act of trusting Christ as Savior. In fact, the act of trusting Christ as Savior can be defined in terms of assurance: to trust Christ as Savior is to know that one is right with God through the merit of Christ. Not to know, not to be certain, is not to trust.
Calvin understood saving faith in exactly this way (Institutes 3.2.16,19, 28, 40). Zane Hodges does as well. Note his comments on Jesus’ offer of life to the Samaritan woman: “The woman needed only to ask, and Jesus ‘would have given‘ her ‘living water.’ Thus upon request, she could be certain she possessed eternal life. Not to be certain was to doubt the offer itself” (Gospel Under Siege, First Edition, p. 13). Note especially that last sentence. That’s it!
Proponents of the opposing position hold that assurance comes not from simple trust in the promise of God, but from trust plus performance. Thus one trusts in Christ at a point in time and is eternally saved, if his faith is genuine. Subsequently he becomes increasingly assured that his faith is indeed genuine by the quality of his performance.
There really is no middle ground between these two positions. They can be expressed in various ways, but any attempt to stand somewhere between the two ends up as a mere restatement of the latter position.
One common attempt to assume an intermediate stance, for example, is to say that a person can be confident that he is saved the minute he trusts Christ as Savior. But if he subsequently finds himself failing too much in his Christian walk, then he needs to question whether or not he really was saved in the first place.
In this scheme, however, the confidence which the new convert may have at the point of trust in Christ is not true, no-strings-attached assurance; it is not certainty. It is only conditional assurance—which really is not assurance at all. Since the emphasis here is on performance, this supposedly intermediate position is actually just a restatement of the trust-plus-performance position.
I object to the trust-plus-performance position for three main reasons:
First, it involves a fundamental misunderstanding of what trust is. Trust is not saying a prayer and then trying to be good to show that one really meant business when he prayed. Trust is reliance upon Christ; it is counting on Him. It thus involves certainty.
Second, post-regeneration performance is not a trustworthy basis for assurance of salvation. Scripture clearly warns against basing assurance of true relationship with God on performance. Note Matt 7:13-23, for example. The false prophets come in sheep’s clothing. Catch that—they look good! They do all the right things. They appear to be “model Christians,” pillars in the church. (Fruit here refers not to the behavior of these people but to their teaching—see Matt 12:31-37). But they’ve never trusted Christ; they have no vital relationship with Him (v 23). Instead, at the bottom line, they are trusting in themselves (v 22).
Their performance looks good. In fact it leads them to conclude that they are right with God. And yet they are deceived. They learn too late that assurance of salvation cannot properly be based on performance.
Third, any approach which makes proper living the grounds for assurance of salvation reverses the NT relationship between these two concepts. In the NT, assurance is repeatedly seen instead to be the grounds for proper living. Time and again, Paul appeals to his converts to live in a godly fashion. He does this not by threatening them with the possibility that they could be spurious Christians, but rather by the very reverse, that is, by affirming the genuineness of their conversion experience (Rom 6:12-13; 12:1-2; 13:11-14; 1 Cor 6:18-20; Eph 4:1 -3; Col 3:1-5, 12-13) It is the fact that these often misbehaving believers are genuine which is the very basis for the appeal to live in a godly fashion.
The practical implication of my position is this: when I trusted Christ as my Savior, a divinely initiated transaction took place which not only cannot be reversed but also need not be questioned. I trusted Christ and I know it. I am His child forever, no matter how lousy my performance may become at some time in the future.
Some will then say, “So why not live in sin?” But those who would pose this question assume that the only reason not to sin is so that one might avoid hell. If deliverance from hell is absolutely certain, then, in their thinking, no incentive for godly living could possibly remain.
However, it is the very fact that my salvation is so certain which calls forth from my deepest parts the strongest of desires really to know and obey the God who has drawn me to Himself and showered me with His infinite graciousness! Beyond this, I know that whenever I choose to sin, I lose out on fellowship with God, I invite divine chastening, and I impact negatively my future experience at the Judgment Seat of Christ.
There may be things I’ve said here which you don’t understand or don’t fully accept. If so, jot them down so that we can discuss them when we’re together. Thank you again for your interest in this important topic.