Since the March-April 2008 article on our view of assurance, we’ve had a number of questions that indicate some didn’t understand exactly what was meant.
The questions we’ve received concern the second of the two sentences which follow: “Assurance is of the essence of believing in Jesus for everlasting life. That is, as long as a person believes in Jesus for everlasting life, he knows he has everlasting life (John 5:24; 6:35, 47; 11:27; 1 John 5:9-13).”
Some have wondered if we were saying that if one’s faith in Christ ceases, then he either loses eternal life, or proves he never really had it.
That is not at all what we believe. Indeed, we believe exactly the opposite. If a person has faith in Christ, then he is born again. If he later stops believing in Christ, he remains born again (John 6:35, 37, 39-40; cf. Luke 8:12-13).
Assurance is linked to believing in Jesus. If a person stops believing in Jesus, then he loses assurance of eternal life.
Of course, eternal life is also linked to believing in Jesus. But the difference is this. Once a person gains eternal life by faith in Christ, he has that life forever, even if he later stops believing in Jesus. But if a person has not yet gained eternal life by faith in Jesus, then he doesn’t have assurance now and he never has had assurance.
A corollary is that if a person has never had assurance, if he has never been sure of his eternal destiny by faith alone in Christ alone, then he has not yet believed in Jesus in the Biblical sense. A person is not born again until he knows that what he has received from the Lord Jesus (eternal life/salvation/justification/future home in heaven) is secure.
A related question we’ve heard is this: why does your statement say as long as a person believes in Jesus for everlasting life, he knows he has everlasting life? Why doesn’t it just say, “If a person believes in Jesus for everlasting life, he knows he has everlasting life?”
Maybe we should make that change. What do you think?
But the reason we put it the way we did is because it shows that assurance (not eternal life) can be lost. We state over and over again in our affirmations that everlasting life is everlasting life. The believer is secure eternally. But assurance, the subject of those sentences, is not necessarily secure. Only if a believer continues to believe in Jesus does he remain assured of his eternal destiny.
Pastor Bob Bryant, at the 2007 Grace Conference, suggested four possible relationships between people and eternal life.1
- First, a person can have eternal life and know it. This is the born-again person who continues to believe in Jesus.
- Second, a person can have eternal life and not know it. This is a person who formerly believed in Jesus and formerly had assurance, but who has lost assurance because he stopped believing in Jesus. He remains eternally secure. But he no longer knows that to be true. (Note: a person might not even be able to remember a time when he was sure. Some people had assurance for only a few hours or days and then had it snatched away by a well-intentioned Calvinist or Arminian friend. They then plug into that type of church and years later they can’t remember a time when they were sure.)
- Third, a person can lack eternal life and lack assurance of eternal life. This is an unregenerate person, an unbeliever. This person may not even believe in life after death. Or he may believe in it and may hope to get to heaven, but he believes that perseverance in good works is required to get there. So he doesn’t believe that right now he has everlasting life that can never be lost. He hopes to get that when he dies. Or he may have given up all hope of making it, becoming convinced that he will never be good enough to make it. (Those are wonderful people to witness to since they are ripe for the grace message!)
- Fourth, a person can lack eternal life but have assurance that he has everlasting life. This would be an unbeliever who is convinced through false theology that he will be in heaven forever. Again, there are different possibilities here. This might be a universalist who believes that since God is love, everyone has everlasting life. This might be a legalist who is convinced that his works have been so exemplary for so long that he is now sure in his own mind that he will make it. It might even be a legalist who thinks that God has spoken to him and promised him that he’s going to persevere and hence he’s going to make it.
Bob Bryant’s point is that there is no necessary connection between eternal life and assurance. People can falsely lack or falsely have assurance.
If you were to die in 40 years, why should God let you into His kingdom? That is a good question because it let’s you ascertain if a person has certainty of his eternal destiny, and if so, on what basis.
Let’s say a person responds to your question in this way, “Well, I’m a sinner and I don’t deserve eternal life. But Jesus said, ‘He who believes in Me has everlasting life.’ I believe in Him. So I know I have everlasting life. He must be faithful to His promise.” You’d know that person was born again (unless he was lying to you for some reason).
On the other hand, what if someone said, “Well, if I died right this minute, I think I’d go to heaven. While I’m not perfect, I’m walking with the Lord as best I can. I go to church almost every week. I read God’s Word. I love Him. I’m a committed follower of Christ. But I don’t know about 40 years from now. It would depend on how I lived over that time. If I lived in a Christ-like way and served Him to the end, then He would let me into His kingdom because I remained faithful to my commitment to Him. If I fell away during that time and died away from Him, then I’d go to hell because I’d failed to keep my commitment.” Such a person is claiming some sort of “assurance” right now (“I think I’d go to heaven”). But he admits his eternal destiny is up in the air.2 His hope is found in his commitment to Christ, not in his faith in Christ for everlasting life.
Do you feel the need to witness to a good church person like this last person I just mentioned? Are you concerned for his eternal destiny? If not, you should be. Of course, such a person might be one of those who has eternal life but doesn’t know that any more because someone has misled him. But since we don’t know that, and since assurance is good even for the backslidden believer, we ought to share the message of John 3:16 with anyone who lacks certainty of his eternal destiny.
1. That’s why we don’t call that assurance. We believe that Biblical assurance is the certain knowledge that simply because you believe in Jesus you have everlasting life that can never be lost no matter what.