Big Words: Assurance

In our current sermon series, we’re looking at some Big Words that aren’t necessarily part of our common vocabulary and so they are sometimes difficult to understand. But these “big words” are the language of our faith that communicate what we believe as Christians. They form the doctrine, or teaching, of the Church.

Throughout the series, we’ve pointed out that, as Methodists, most of our theological views are similar to other denominations, but in some areas we differ. Some of our differences are highlighted in an article I recently came across called, “How Many Christians Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb?” 

Pentecostals: Ten. One to change the bulb and nine to pray against the spirit of darkness. 

Presbyterians: None. The lights will go on and off at predestined times.

Baptists: At least 15. The pastor to change the bulb while three committees are formed to approve the change, figure out who to blame for the burned out bulb, and decide how to pay for it.

Episcopalians: Three. One to call the electrician, one to mix the drinks, and one to talk about how much better old one was. 

Lutherans: None. Lutherans don’t believe in change. 

Amish: What’s a light bulb?

Mormons: Three. One to screw in the bulb and two to knock on your door and ask if you’ve seen the light.

Methodists: Undetermined amount. Whether your light is bright, dull, or completely out, you are loved. You can be a light bulb, onion bulb, or tulip bulb. Please bring a bulb of your choice to the church-wide lighting service and a covered dish to share.

Methodists are known for their love of covered dish suppers but originally, we were known for the “big word” we’re going to explore today – assurance. 

According to many scholars, assurance is “the fundamental contribution of Methodism to the thought and life of the church.” Our founder, John Wesley, called it “the main doctrine of the Methodists.” 

What is assurance? It is being sure of your salvation, knowing you are saved. 

It is realizing that what the Apostle John claims in his first New Testament letter is true:

And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:11-13 NIV)

So John tells us that, as believers, we can know beyond a shadow of a doubt we have eternal life and, in the words of the hymn writer, are “safe and secure from all alarms.”

Yet, I find that many Christians wonder if they are really “saved.” Assurance of salvation seems to be lacking from many believers’ lives as they question whether or not they’ve truly experienced conversion and salvation. When asked, “How’s your relationship with the Lord? Are you sure you are saved and going to heaven?,” many folks reply, “I think so” or “I hope so” or “maybe so.”

For many years, I felt the same way. I spent the early part of my life questioning my faith and my standing before God. I wondered what would happen to me and where I’d find myself, eternally speaking, if I were to die. 

But thankfully, in my early adult years, I received assurance of salvation and my heart was set at peace. The passage from 1 John 5 became my “life verse” and it is Scripture I hold very dear for I now know that I have eternal life. 

The reason assurance has such a prominent place in Methodist theology is because, like me and many others, John Wesley spent a good portion of his life without it. 

On one occasion, the young Anglican minister was asked, “Do you know Jesus Christ?” and he responded, “I know he is the Savior of the world.” He was then asked, “But do you know that He saved you?” and replied, “I hope He died to save me.” When questioned further, “Do you know that yourself?” he mumbled, “I do,” but later confessed in his journal those were “vain, or empty, words.”

Later, Wesley had a significant encounter with God while at a Bible study held on Aldersgate Street in London, England on May 24, 1738. 

Listen to how he described that life-changing experience: “About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

From that point on, Wesley preached assurance and showed how his experience confirmed the teachings of Scripture. He commonly preached from 1 John about how we become sure of our salvation. But his favorite text on the subject came from Paul’s Letter to the Romans:

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs — heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ… (Romans 8:14-17a NIV)

How do we find assurance so that we know that we are saved? “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”

To testify, or witness, means to give evidence or proof that something is true. So assurance is given to us through the testimony of two reliable sources

Assurance is given through…

1) The Testimony of GOD’S Spirit

The Spirit himself testifies… (Romans 8:16a NIV)

Assurance is at God’s initiative, not ours. The Lord makes the first move, it is not something we do. Like the entirety of the Christian faith, it is a result of God’s grace. 

So to be confident of one’s standing before God is not to be considered prideful or presumptuous. 

The Early Church father, Augustine, once said: “To be assured of salvation is not arrogance. It is faith. It is not presumption. It is God’s promise.”

Assurance is not saying, “Look at what a great Christian I am.” Instead, it is a witness, “Look at what a great Savior I have.”

So assurance is not something we achieve through our own good works. Instead, it is something we receive by faith through God’s grace. And this comes through the testimony, or witness, of the Holy Spirit. 

Assurance is not simply a warm, fuzzy feeling. It is a deep, heart-felt conviction. Wesley stated, “Assurance is an inward impression of the soul, whereby the Spirit of God directly witnesses to my spirit that I am a child of God; that Jesus Christ has loved me, and given Himself for me; and that all my sins are blotted out, and I, even I, am reconciled to God.”

As a conviction, it may or may not be accompanied by feelings of joy and gladness. Wesley promises that we “may know that we have eternal life” (vs. “feel”).

In the biblical sense, “know” means “certainty based on experience.” Assurance is a reliance on God’s promises even when our feelings may say otherwise. 

As Martin Luther stated, “Our feelings may say, ‘You are a sinner,’ but we may reply, ‘I know I am a sinner, but Christ forgives sinners.’”

How does assurance happen? Ultimately, it’s a mystery. 

If you’ve ever fallen in love, how did you “know” it? You just knew, in a usually inexplicable sort of way. Assurance is the same way, you just know it when you’ve got it. 

And it is the testimony of God’s Spirit that gives it. It’s all about God!

If you don’t have it, the starting point is to ask the Lord for it. 

2) The Testimony of OUR spirit

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit… (Romans 8:16a NIV)

The testimony of our own life confirms the testimony of the Holy Spirit. While the Spirit’s witness is subjective (not measurable), ours is objective (and can be measured against Scripture). 

Through his sermons, Wesley gives four scriptural marks that identify genuine Christians: 

Repentance 

The Bible makes it clear that the Kingdom of God is entered through repentance and faith:

“Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” (Mark 1:15 NLT)

“Repent and be baptized…in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38 NIV)

If we have repented of our sins and trusted in Christ, then we can be assured we’re saved. 

Vast and mighty change in our life

The Bible makes it clear that if we belong to Jesus, we should give evidence of it: 

“…called out of darkness into his wonderful light…” (1 Peter 2:9 NIV)

“We know that we have passed from death to life…” (1 John 3:14 NIV)

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation…” (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV)

Is our life different than it was before we became a Christian? If so, we can have assurance that what we profess is real. 

New Character – Righteousness

The children should act like their Father: 

“You may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of Him.” (1 John 2:29 ESV)

“The Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23 NLT)

Do we exhibit these traits? Then we must be a child of God and heir of eternal life. 

Desire to do God’s will

If you truly love someone, you want to please them:

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15 ESV)

So obedience is a testimony of the authenticity of our faith. And conversely, disobedience should cause us to question our relationship with God. 

So what is assurance and how is it found? 

It is the testimony of God’s Spirit (inward conviction), combined with the testimony of our spirit (outward conduct). 

John Wesley claimed it is “the privilege of every believer.” But it is not necessary for salvation. You can be saved and not know or feel it. 

Assurance is something our Heavenly Father wants to give to all His children. He doesn’t want us to live with fear or uncertainty, or doubt our place in the family of God. 

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry “Abba, Father.” (Romans 8:14-15 NIV)

Our Abba Father wants us to know and be secure in His love. God asks, “Do you know how much I love you?” and tells us, “You should, after all my Son has done for you. And if you believe in him, you can be confident you are eternally safe and secure in my arms of love.”

In contrast, Satan sows seeds of doubt to rob us of our joy and peace. Why? Because assurance is great motivation for growth in grace and deepening our relationship with God. 

Love and security enable us to grow spiritually while doubts and worries rob us of energy and give us less time to invest in our relationship with the Lord.

Consequently, Wesley claimed that the lack of assurance is the #1 reason for the absence of power among believers. Why? Because without assurance, we are unsure of where we stand with God, so we are unwilling to take risks in the relationship for fear of being rejected. 

Maybe we’d see a whole lot more work being done for the Kingdom of God if we quit living with the fear brought by our “hope-so, think-so, maybe-so” faith and instead, knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God has us and holds us securely. 

God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life…I [say] these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:11-13 NIV)

Salvation asks the question, “Do you know Jesus as Lord and Savior?”

Assurance asks the question, “Do you know that you know Jesus as Lord and Savior?”

If you can answer, “yes,” then you understand the big word of assurance because you have it. And if so, it’s because…

The Spirit you received brought about your adoption…and by him we cry “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. (Romans 8:15b-16 NIV)