The issue of when eternal life starts came to the forefront in our annual conference this year (Feb 27-Mar 2, 2006). Both Zane Hodges and Bob Bryant said that if a person has never been sure that he is eternally secure by faith in Jesus, then he has not yet been born again. Yet an informal survey of the conferees revealed that somewhere between one-third and one-half disagreed with this view.
I myself did not agree with this position until 4 years after I started GES! I graduated from DTS in 1982 with my Th.M. I received my Ph.D. in 1985. I started GES in 1986. I came to believe that assurance is of the essence of saving faith in 1990.
I digress. Let me return to what happened at this year’s conference. I heard two practical objections to the idea that assurance is of the essence of saving faith. These are objections that hit at the heart of this issue.
I Personally Was Born Again
Before I Believed I Was Eternally Secure
Up to half of this year’s conferees indicated that they personally were born again before they believed they were eternally secure. If that is true, they obviously consider belief in eternal security to be a sanctification issue.
My response is that this answer begs the question. How does anyone know when he or she was born again? There is no feeling that infallibly proves the moment of the new birth. Nor are there behavioral chan ges that prove a person is regenerate. We all know Mormons and Buddhists and Hindus and even atheists who are very moral and happy people. And we all know depressed and carnally-minded born-again people.
The only way anyone knows the time of his new birth is if he knows what a person must believe in order to be born again. This is the heart of the Free Grace position. We do not base assurance on feelings or on lifestyle. We base assurance on faith in the saving message.
Jesus promises everlasting life to all who simply believe in Him for it (John 3:16; 4:13-14; 5:24; 6:47; 11:25-27). He doesn’t promise provisional life. As Dr. Ryrie likes to say, “If everlasting life could be lost, it has the wrong name.” Thus if a person does not believe he has everlasting life, if he instead believes he can lose everlasting life—or if he believes that he can prove he never really had it in the first place, as Reformed Lordship Salvation people believe, then he doesn’t believe the saving message now. And if he has never believed it, then he has not yet been born again.
Consider this syllogism:
Major premise: Bob believes that he has everlasting life now, but that he can lose it by committing a major sin.
Minor premise: Bob does not believe that Jesus promises everlasting life to all who simply believe in Him.
Conclusion: Bob does not believe the saving message.
A person who has never been sure he is eternally secure by faith alone in Christ alone has not yet believed the saving message. And there is no other way to be born again except by believing the saving message.
This first practical objection is not valid. People who make this objection should, I believe, change their testimonies so they are in keeping with the saving message.
A person cannot believe his eternal destiny is in doubt and yet at the same time believe the saving message. The saving message is a message of certainty, not doubt (e.g., John 11:25-27).
The second objection is similar to the first.
I Know Many Christians Who’ve Died But Never Believed They Were Eternally Secure
Once again, this is begging the question. How do we know if another person was born again? We can’t tell by their works, their joy, their professed love for Jesus, how sincerely they sing, or anything of the kind. Mormons and Catholics and Orthodox and multitudes of people who have never believed the saving message nonetheless love Jesus, sing with conviction, read their Bibles, picket abortion clinics, pray, etc.
We use the Kennedy Questions to determine who is born again because it is doctrine, not practice, that shows us who our spiritual brothers and sisters are. We ask, “If you were to die and stand before God, and He were to ask you, ‘Why should I let you into My kingdom?’ what would you say?”
Let’s say a person said, as a good legalist would, “Well, You should let me into Your kingdom because I’m trying hard to live a good life and my good works do outweigh my bad works.” Would you conclude they believe or do not believe the saving message? Evangelism Explosion tells us that person does not believe. While I don’t agree with everything in Evangelism Explosion, I agree with their analysis of such an answer.
Yet some would say that a person who has always believed like that is born again and we know they are because of observing their lives. That doesn’t make sense. We don’t know who is born again by observing their lives. It is about what they believe.
My own Father died in 1989 and at the time he did not believe in eternal security. I came to faith in 1972, and in the 17 years before my Dad died, I spoke with him about this many times. He never affirmed faith that all who simply believe in Jesus have everlasting life.
I think it is possible that my Dad came to faith as a teen. My aunt told me he did. However, I must not adjust my understanding of the saving message in order to get my Dad into the kingdom. If he never believed in Jesus for everlasting life, then my Dad is not with the Lord now. If he did, then he is.
Obviously the saving message is what it is. My desire to see departed loved ones forever in the kingdom won’t change whether they actually will be there or not.
Say you came to faith out of Roman Catholicism. Using this same logic you might say, “I know many Roman Catholics who were born again and have died, but yet who never were sure they were eternally secure. Thus I know eternal security is a side issue and not an essential element of the saving message.”
Of course, if belief in eternal security is not an essential element of the saving message, then Catholics who believe in justification by faith plus works are indeed born again. The question is, is eternal security a side issue?
The only way these practical concerns could overthrow assurance being of the essence of saving faith would be if the Bible taught that you can identify Christians by their works, their joy, their emotions, their looks, etc. But the Bible doesn’t teach that. Indeed, it teaches just the opposite.
The Bible teaches that believers can live “like mere men” (1 Cor 3:3), or even worse than the unsaved live (1 Cor 5:1). The Bible teaches that believers can be downhearted and discouraged.
We let the Scriptures interpret our experience. We do not interpret the Scriptures based on our experience.
My challenge to each one of us is to search the Scriptures like the Bereans of Acts 17:11. Do not search your experience or the experience of your friends or departed ancestors. The Scriptures are the source of our beliefs.