I preached a message this past Sunday on the topic of assurance (listen here). The text was from Romans 8:28-39, which describe the unshakable foundation of the gospel. Taken from the series of five rhetorical questions posed by Paul in 8:31-35, we learned that the purpose of God in our salvation is invincible (8:31), the provision of God for our salvation is inexhaustible (8:32), the justification of God’s elect is irrevocable (8:33), the work of Christ on behalf of His people is unconquerable (8:34), and the love of God for His own is inseparable (8:35). These five gospel truths form the objective basis for our assurance of salvation. God saves His people by His free and sovereign grace alone, through faith alone, because of the saving work of Christ alone.
But anyone who has struggled with doubts, anyone who has wrestled with the issue of assurance will notice a problem. I may believe that the purpose of God in salvation is invincible, but how do I know that God has purposed my salvation? I may believe that the provision of God for the salvation of His people is inexhaustible, but how do I know that I am one of those for whom Christ was delivered, to whom God will freely give all things? I may believe that the justification of God’s elect is irrevocable, but how do I know that I am among the elect whom God has justified? I may believe that the work of Christ on behalf of His people is unconquerable, but how do I know that Christ died, was raised, is seated at the Father’s right hand, and intercedes for me? I may believe that the love of God is inseparable for those who are in Christ, but how do I know that I am in Christ, such that God loves me with a love that will never end?
I not only need an objective basis for our assurance, I also need a subjective basis. I first need to understand that the benefits of Christ are perfectly sufficient for the salvation of any sinner. But I also need to know that I am included in those saving benefits. I not only need to know that all whom God foreknows, predestines, calls, and justifies will be glorified (Romans 8:29-30), that the chain of salvation is unbreakable. But I also need to know that I am linked into that chain. So how may I attain this subjective assurance I need, which combined with the foundation of an objective assurance, join together to give me confidence that I am in Christ? How can I know that He has chosen me, predestined me, called me, justified me, and will certainly glorify me?
In my experience, the key to attaining this subjective assurance is found in the biblical doctrine of total depravity, or human inability. The Bible repeatedly refers to a sinner, in his unconverted state apart from Christ, as spiritually dead. In Ephesians 2:1-3, the apostle Paul wrote, “And you were dead in trespasses and sin, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” Until a spiritually dead sinner is made alive in Christ by the regenerating power of God in the new birth, that sinner cannot do certain things. So here is a list of 5 things (spiritually) dead men cannot do:
1. Dead men can’t hear. “Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word” (John 8:43). Obviously, the Jews to whom Jesus spoke were not physically deaf; they could hear the audible sound of His voice. But while they had physical ears to hear, they lacked spiritual ears to ear. But those who are alive in Christ hear the voice of Christ in the word of Christ. “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:27). So if when you read the Bible or hear the word preached you hear that word as the very word of Christ and not just a collection of nouns and verbs, then you can be sure that you are alive in Him.
2. Dead men can’t see. “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. […] For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:3-4, 6). When the spiritually dead are confronted with the gospel of Christ, they do not see in it glory. They see foolishness, irrelevance, a hindrance to their sin. But not those who are alive in Christ, those in whose hearts God has shone the Light of His Spirit. When we are confronted with the gospel, we see the glory of Christ revealed in His life, death, and resurrection. So if you see the gospel as the most glorious, beautiful, wonderful news you have ever heard, you can be sure that you are alive in Christ.
3. Dead men can’t understand. “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Corinthians 2:14). The “natural man” (i.e., the one who is still spiritually dead) cannot understand spiritual truth. This is not to say that they cannot cognitively comprehend the words, but they do not understand it as being true and compelling. So if you understand the gospel, if you understand the purpose of the cross, the necessity of blood, the meaning of the resurrection, and see these truths as compellingly beautiful, then you can be sure that you are alive in Christ.
4. Dead men can’t believe. “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” (1 John 5:1). In the original Greek text, the verb “believes” is in the present tense, and the verb “has been born again” is in the perfect tense. According to the rules of grammar, when used in connection with each other, the perfect comes prior to the present. In other words, the new birth comes before and produces the believing. Dead men cannot put their faith and trust in Christ. Only those who are made spiritually alive in the new birth can do so. Therefore, if your faith and hope of eternity are bound up in the truth that Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior of Sinners, who lived for your righteousness, died for you iniquity, and rose again for you justification, then you are alive in Christ… otherwise you would not believe.
5. Dead men can’t love. “… because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God” (Rom. 8:7). “There is none who seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11). “If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed” (1 Cor. 16:22). Those who are spiritually dead, those who are still of the flesh and devoid of the Spirit, do not love God, do not seek for God, and are, in fact, hostile toward God. Therefore, if you have love God, love His Son, love His people, love His gospel, then you can be sure that you are live in Christ and indwelt by His Spirit.
The assurance of salvation is not the result of a decision, but of the day-in and day-out fight to anchor our confidence in the promises of the gospel (objective assurance) and the evidence of spiritual life (subjective assurance). May God bless you in your quest to “make your calling and election sure” (2 Pet. 1:10).