By Donald S. Whitney
It is normal for a Christian to have occasional doubts about salvation. Persistent doubts, however, are a source of major concern. And although no doubts should be ignored, chronic worries about salvation must be resolved.
Conversely, it is typical for non-Christians to think they are safe when they are not and for them to have a vain hope—a false assurance of salvation.
Where do we turn for assurance? Oddly enough, even though we learn about God and Jesus and salvation in the Bible, Christians are tempted to go to other things for assurance of biblical salvation. They will look to experiences or rituals or parents or pastors for assurance. But the Bible not only tells about salvation, it tells us where to look for assurance of salvation.
The Bible tells us that assurance of salvation rests primarily in the character of God, the work of Jesus Christ, and the truth of God’s promises.
Beyond that, Romans 8:16 tells us that assurance of salvation may be experienced partly through the internal work of the Holy Spirit convincing Christians that they are children of God.
Although this is a biblical and precious experience available to Christians, it is sometimes problematic. That’s because, by nature, this type of assurance is inward, subjective, and individual. We can easily deceive ourselves into thinking we have heard the Spirit’s voice. And it is also easy for some Christians (such as those who struggle with depression or those who have never had the assurance of much human love) to doubt if they’ve really heard the voice of the Spirit assuring them of God’s love. So Scripture tells us of another source of assurance:
Assurance may be experienced partly through the presence of the attitudes and actions the Bible says will accompany salvation.
If you are concerned about the assurance of your salvation, the book of the Bible you want to read and reread is the first letter of the apostle John. As we noted earlier, the expressed purpose of this letter is to help believers gain the assurance of salvation. “I write these things,” says John, “to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). In 1 John we are told of at least ten attitudes and actions that consistently characterize Christians only. So if you want to know if you are going to Heaven, examine yourself in the light of these evidences of true Christianity.
1) Do you share the intimacies of the Christian life with other believers?
We read the following in 1 John 1:6-7:
If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
Particularly note verse 7. It says two things are true of us if we walk with God in the light. The second one is that we are forgiven of our sins. But before that it says, “We have fellowship with one another.” One mark of people who walk with God and are forgiven is that they have fellowship with other Christians.
The word fellowship comes from the Greek word koinonia, which means “to share together with.” In the New Testament it means that followers of Christ talk about and live the Christian life with other Christians. It goes beyond mere socializing, although Christians do a lot of that, too. Biblical fellowship includes discussing and participating together in the intimacies of Christian living, such as prayer, Bible study, ministry, and especially discussion about God and the things of God. It involves verbalizing spiritual victories and failures, sharing scriptural insights, and asking questions of each other’s walk with God.
Does this describe you? If you love exchanging insights about the Bible and Christian living, if you hunger to learn from other believers so you can grow in grace and get closer to Christ and live more in obedience to Him, then you are a believer.
Non-Christians certainly aren’t like this. They emphasize how their faith is a private thing. They believe one’s relationship to God is too personal a matter to discuss openly. On almost all occasions—even at church—they’d rather talk about the news, work, sports, politics, their children, or their hobbies than about Christian living or how the Bible relates to these things.
2) Do you have a deep awareness of your sin against the Word and love of God?
In 1 John 1:8, 10, we read the following:
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. . . . If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”
Everyone will admit to not being perfect, but that’s not what these verses mean. This involves more than just a willingness to acknowledge that on occasion we have been wrong. Growing Christians are scarcely able to do or think anything without seeing their sin in it. They know that if sin were blue, everything they said, did, or thought would be at least some shade of blue.
They recognize the selfishness in their hearts, even when they do the best and most benevolent of deeds. They know the sinfulness of their thought lives right in the midst of some of their most Christlike actions. They are aware of the darkness of the sin inside them when they outwardly model goodness and light. They know that even when they are closest to Christ and most like Christ, sin is still splattered over them like mud.
Christians feel this way because God’s Spirit lives inside them. The illuminating Spirit progressively opens God’s pure law to them, and they increasingly see their inconsistency in keeping it. The convicting Spirit shows them that their sin is more than just human failure; it is sin against the Word and the love of God. The glorifying Spirit gradually draws the veil on the character of a Holy God to them, and they discover just how far short of God’s glory they are.
Richard Baxter, another English Puritan and contemporary of John Bunyan, wrote a famous and still-printed book about Heaven called The Saints’ Everlasting Rest. In it he said this about the awareness of sin as a sign of salvation:
I think, if I could stand and mention all the other marks of grace, . . . it would appear that the life and truth of all of them lieth in this one.[i]
Does the Spirit of God make you aware that your sin violates God’s revealed Word? When you sin, do you feel like children who grieve, not because they’ve done wrong and may be disciplined, but because they feel like they disappointed their Father? If so, then you are a Christian. Strange as it seems, those who feel sin most deeply are those who feel most forgiven (see Luke 7:36-50, especially verse 47; 1 Timothy 1:13-15).
3) Do you live in conscious obedience to the Word of God?
Conscious obedience as evidence of salvation is found frequently in 1 John, but is most clearly expressed in 2:3-5:
And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.
A woman told me a relative of hers had died. I asked if he was a Christian. She said, “Oh, yes, he made a profession of faith and was baptized at age seven. He never went back to church or read the Bible in the seventy years after that, but I’m sure he was a Christian.”
Such a claim is astonishing in light of the statements in these verses. We “know him if we keep his commandments.” No one but Jesus has ever perfectly and consistently obeyed the commands of God; nevertheless, obedience to the Word of God characterizes the lifestyle of a disciple of Jesus. And anyone who “does not keep his commandments is a liar” about being His disciple.
Just as coming to Christ is done consciously, so is living daily in obedience to God’s Word. What the apostle John refers to in this passage does not happen accidentally or unintentionally. Those who know Christ aren’t aimless; they purposefully obey Him. They become learners of His Word and set out to obey it. Despite frequent failures, they persevere.
I often hear new and growing believers talk about obeying God. Sometimes they’ll say how they’ve come to realize that something they’ve done (or not done) for a long time was disobedient to God’s Word, but now they are consciously obeying. Or they’ll say how much they want to obey God’s will in a situation but aren’t sure yet what it is. Concern for obedience to God is Christian; carelessness is not.
Do you seek out the Word of God, and do you find yourself compelled to obey it? Do you consciously and intentionally try to live out what you encounter in the Bible? Then in the words of 1 John, know that you have come to know God.
4) Do you despise the world and its ways?
Notice 1 John 2:15: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”
When this verse speaks of “the world,” it’s speaking of the world system and not God’s creation. It refers to the world without God: the ungodly ways and things that characterize the world.
Unbelievers love the world and plunge into it because it’s all they know and have. And the more they realize they won’t be here forever, the more they immerse themselves into the world to find meaning, hope, pleasure, and satisfaction. They discover, of course, that the world can’t fill the holes in their hearts, but they keep trying because they don’t have anything else (unless they come to Christ).
Despite their endless dissatisfaction, worldly people (that is, non-Christians) do love the world. Their greatest loves are in things where God is not central. These things may be cultured and refined or they may be lewd and base, but they are pursued without thoughts of God. Non-Christians will love sports, sex, money, property, work, travel, retirement, children, hobbies, television, education, politics, computers, art, grandchildren, collecting, reading, music, shopping, or any number of things more than God. The world finds the church and the things of God the most boring things imaginable. At best it finds them much less meaningful than other things. And the people of the world can’t understand why we don’t get as excited as they do about the things that delight them (see also 1 Peter 4:3-4).
Christians, however, feel less at home in this world the more they grow spiritually. They also look increasingly toward their true and eternal home, the Celestial City.
5) Do you long for the return of Jesus Christ, and do you long to be made like Him?
In 1 John 3:2-3, John spoke of the second coming of Jesus:
Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.
Christians can hardly wait for Jesus to fulfill His promise to return to the earth (Matthew 24, 26:64; John 14:3). The ones who know Christ often think, I wish He would come today. Trying to imagine the glorious place where they will spend eternity, Christians daydream about what life will be like in “a new heaven and a new earth” where Jesus reigns (Revelation 21:1). Like a bride anticipating her wedding day, so those who are part of the bride of Christ—the church—expectantly await their union with Jesus at His return.
Part of the believer’s expectancy about seeing Christ is in becoming “like him.” At that moment, the Bible says, “we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52). The same chapter talks about the splendor, glory, power, and immortality of the new spiritual body to be given to God’s children. With it will come the complete and final deliverance from sin’s presence that the Christian groans for.
The result of anticipating the return of Jesus, according to 1 John 3:3, is that the believer “purifies himself as [Christ] is pure.” I remember hearing as a child that I shouldn’t do anything I would be ashamed of if Jesus returned and found me doing it. Such talk must sound old-fashioned today, for I haven’t heard it in years. And of course, the Lord knows now, not just at His return, when we do something wrong. Still, this attitude should represent the heart of a Christian, young or old.
Do you sometimes look at the clouds and visualize Jesus’ triumphant arrival? Have you mused about looking into His radiant face and being transformed? Do you ever longingly wonder what it will be like never to think another sinful thought or commit another sinful act? If you do, take heart, for unbelievers don’t often or seriously think of these things. These things are the Christian’s dreams.
6) Do you habitually do what is right more and sin less?
John wrote the following in 1 John 3:7-8, 10:
Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. . . . By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.
All people do some things they would consider righteous and some things they wouldn’t. So it’s easy for most people to believe they are righteous because they do some things that appear righteous. But much of the meaning of these verses turns on the word practices. Each time it’s used here, it’s in the present tense, referring to patterns and habitual action. So “Whoever practices righteousness is righteous” doesn’t mean that a Christian can never commit acts of sin. Instead it means that Christians are those who, throughout their lives, habitually do what is right more and sin less.
This life change is not found merely in the power of Christians’ own resolve—it is because of the work of Christ for them and the power of the Holy Spirit within them. “We know that our old self was crucified with him,” wrote the apostle Paul in Romans 6:6, “in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we should no longer be enslaved to sin.” When people give their lives to Christ, those people instantly are forgiven of the guilt of sin, and the enslaving power of sin is broken so that it gradually loses its grip on their lives. Complete liberation from the presence of sin doesn’t occur until death (or the Lord’s return, whichever is first), but an overall tendency toward obedience is present now for the children of God.
Pastor and author John MacArthur explains the difference between the Christian who “practices righteousness” but sins frequently and the non-Christian whose life is a pattern of sin:
I frequently receive letters from anguished Christians who doubt their salvation because they can’t seem to break a sinful or unwise habit. They most often write about smoking, overeating, and masturbation. They fear their struggle with such things means they are locked into a pattern of sin. But John is not saying that the frequent occurrence of one particular sin in a person’s life means that person is lost. . . . A person who rejects God’s authority doesn’t care what God thinks about his habits, and is obviously not a Christian. A Christian, however, has a drastically different way of relating to God. . . . A true Christian can still sin, and may even do so frequently, but sinning frequently is not the same as practicing sin. In 1 John we see that a true believer can do the first, but not the second.[ii]
If you hope you are a Christian, look at your life this way: Over the past few years, has it been your habit to do what is right more and more and to sin less? Can you point to specific things and say, “I believe I am living by God’s Word more than I was some time ago; I know I customarily do more of what I know God says is right than I used to. And I think that overall, the habits of my life are less sinful than they used to be”?
Notice that the emphasis in these verses isn’t on what a Christian does not do—the emphasis is on what he does. Some people, as we said before, feel spiritually secure primarily because of the things they do not do. But when the Bible talks about assurance, it emphasizes what’s on your “to do” list as much as what’s on your “not to do” list—what’s on your list of loves as well as your list of hates.
- Where some would say, “I don’t miss church,” John would ask, “But do you habitually seek God in Scripture and prayer privately during the week?”
- Where some would say, “I don’t cheat on my taxes,” John would ask, “But does your giving please God?”
- Where some would say, “I don’t break the law of the land,” John would ask, “But do you obey what God says about the use of the tongue, about dealing with bitterness, about forgiving others?”
- Where some would say, “I don’t run around on my spouse,” John would ask, “But are you a loving husband or wife?”
- Where some would say, “I don’t skip work,” John would ask, “But are you faithful in serving God through His church?”
- Where some would say, “I don’t hurt or hate anyone,” John would ask, “But whom do you help and love for the sake of Jesus?”
Which of these two types of attitudes describes you? As you look back over the past few years, if you can honestly say that you habitually do what is right more and sin less, then you are most certainly a Christian.
7) Do you sacrificially love other Christians and want to be with them?
Few marks of a true believer are as underestimated as the one in 1 John 3:14: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers.”
Although it is true that love for all people should characterize followers of Jesus, this verse specifically refers to loving “the brothers,” that is, other Christians. Surely, no professing Christian would claim to not love others in God’s family, but the love John requires of believers entails more than that. This love is more than just a fondness or preference; it’s a sacrificial love.
At the very least it is a love that makes you want to be with other Christians and willing to sacrifice to do so. Do you have that kind of love? If you do, you’ll want to be with the children of God when they are together to worship their Father, talk to Him, and learn what He has said.
To “love the brothers” is much more than this, but it is at least this. When we have Christ’s love for each other, we meet needs in the family of God, we help those who hurt or are weak, we “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), etc. Behind all this Christian family love is the sacrifice of our time, starting with the time required to gather when the family gathers.
Many have been deluded about whether they love the people of God. They think they love them when they don’t, and they prove they don’t by relinquishing little or nothing for them. Their “love” is limited by convenience; the Christian’s is liberated by sacrifice.
A member of our church, even in the midst of job stress and moving from one apartment to another, has been showing up unannounced to mow the yard for me on occasion so I would have more time to write this book. This person often gives up privileges and preferences in similar ways for others in the church family, not just for me. That’s love.
There are countless ways, of course, to show the love of Christ to your brothers and sisters in Christ. Even giving financially can be a way to express love to believers in other lands. But followers of Jesus will sacrifice—even profits and pleasures if necessary—because of the depth of their love for their family and Father. Do you do this?
8) Do you discern the presence of the Holy Spirit within you?
Observe what John wrote in the last half of 1 John 3:24 and in 4:13:
And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us. . . . By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.
This is very much like Romans 8:16. But even those who have difficulty discerning the testimony of the Spirit within them should be able to discern the fruit of the Spirit’s presence within them. Just as sap rises within a tree so that it eventually, but surely, produces fruit, so God’s Spirit within a person produces fruit.
In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul listed several qualities he called the fruit of the Spirit. We’ve talked about the first on the list—love—so let’s consider the next one: joy. Are you aware of a joy in God? This is a fair question for all professing Christians, even children and teenagers. I see many people who claim to be Christians give the impression that they never have moments of sheer joy in knowing God. But if you have occasions (such as in public or private worship) when you are thrilled with God because He is God or just because you are His, that is excellent evidence that you know God. Those who truly know the infinite and holy triune God cannot help but have moments where they find sheer delight in Him.
The Holy Spirit of almighty God cannot live in a human being without making Himself known. Whenever there is a human spirit in a body, that spirit makes itself known. It moves the body, it communicates through the body, and it gives evidence that there is life within that body. When the Holy Spirit is in someone’s body, He will make Himself known also. Whether it is speaking assurance in the person’s mind or causing the person to love God or hate the world, to look forward to Christ’s return, to sacrificially love other Christians, or to become overjoyed sometimes just in thoughts of God, the Spirit will give evidence—fruit—of His presence. And the Christian should be able to observe some of this fruit and conclude, “The only explanation for this is the Spirit’s presence, and that means I am a child of God.”
9) Do you enjoy listening to the doctrines the apostles of Jesus taught?
This is the proof of the faith given in 1 John 4:6:
We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
John could say matter-of-factly and without arrogance that he and the other apostles of Jesus were from God. There was clear evidence of that. He knew that those who knew God would listen to him and the other apostles and that those who were not from God would not listen.
The apostles were all dead by about AD 100, John probably being the last of them. So here is how we apply this test of a Christian today: Do you enjoy listening to the doctrines the apostles of Jesus taught? If you do, this probably means you are a Christian.
I say “probably” because there are some who take a mere academic and philosophical interest in apostolic doctrine. But if you from your heart love their teachings and listen to them so you can obey them, you are a Christian. Conversely, if you have no appetite for these things and don’t care to listen to them even when they are faithfully and earnestly presented, that shows that you are not a real believer.
After the Day of Pentecost, notice what was first on the list describing these new Christians: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). Just as a baby is born with the desire to eat, so every person born spiritually has a natural hunger for “every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
Do you desire more than just how-to Scripture studies? Do you find that, after a while, sermons that are little more than long strings of stories fail to feed your soul? Are you hungry to hear the Bible taught in depth? Do you love to discuss the Bible at length with other Christians? These are good signs. Unbelievers rarely have anything that even comes close to desires like these.
10) Do you believe what the Bible teaches about Jesus Christ?
Notice the first half of 1 John 5:1: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.”
The Old Testament told of a Messiah (the Old Testament word for “Christ”) who was to come. The New Testament tells us that Jesus Christ is that Messiah, that Anointed One of God (Mark 8:29; John 1:41, 4:25-26; Romans 9:5). Jesus was the One (and only One) sent by the Father to do all that was needed to bring His people to Himself. All that Jesus spoke and did was in fulfillment of His role as the Christ of God. The Christian is one who believes all that the Scriptures say about Jesus.
The Bible does not ask us for unthinking credulity regarding Jesus Christ. Instead, it feeds the mind with nutritious evidence for faith. The greatest evidence of all is His resurrection from the dead. There is not room here to state the many and indomitable arguments supporting Jesus’ resurrection. I simply want to note how insurmountable the evidence is. What could God have done to provide a more powerful validation of the claims of Christ? If He had inscribed, “Jesus is My Son, Believe in Him!” permanently in the sky, people would have still been skeptical and searched for human explanations. If He had written, “Jesus is God!” with the stars of the heavens, it would be dismissed as a Christian conspiracy using lasers, satellites, or another high-tech method, if not sheer coincidence. But something as incomparable as Jesus’ resurrection from the dead never to die again is the perfect foundation for faith. How could God have been more convincing?
As a result, we may believe that all the other claims made by and about Jesus also will be fulfilled, including His promise to save and take to Heaven all who believe in Him.
Christians do not believe that Jesus was merely a “great teacher” or an “ascended master.” They confess that, just as He claimed, He is “the way, and the truth, and the life” and that there is no other way to God the Father but through Him (John 14:6, emphasis added). They do not doubt that He is the “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16).
Whether it is the prophecies about Him given centuries before or the testimony about His miraculous virgin birth, His sinless life, His miraculous power, His substitutionary death, His bodily resurrection, or His second coming, Christians believe what the Bible teaches about Jesus.
You’ve been reading from How Can I Be Sure I’m a Christian by Donald Whitney. Click here to read a free excerpt of chapter one.
Don is a speaker, pastor, professor, and author, most notably for the bestselling book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.
[i] Richard Baxter, The Practical Works of Richard Baxter (1649; reprint, Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1990), vol. 3, 204.
[ii] John MacArthur, Jr., Saved without a Doubt (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1992), 77–78.