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Do You Know that You Know that You Know? Finding Assurance in 1 John

September 4, 2022

Teacher: John McLeod
Scripture: 1 John 3:19-24; 5:13

Outline

  1. When your confession lines up with God’s Promises
  2. When your life lines up with your confession
  3. When the Holy Spirit pours out God’s love in your heart

Reading

1 John 3:19–24 (ESV)By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.

1 John 5:13 (ESV) — I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.

Introduction

What are you absolutely sure about? I bet your list is pretty short. You might be sure of some facts like 2+2=4, or that water molecules have 2 atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. You’re hopefully sure what your name is. You may have certainty about some events in the past, or what is observable at this moment in this room (the lights are on).

But, when we look into the future, as creatures, there are not many things we can speak about with certainty. Will your team win the game next weekend? Will your company be successful this year? Will your child choose to follow Christ? Will your aged parent make it to her next birthday? These things are out of our control. Even if we have some level of confidence about what might happen, we don’t really know what will happen.

Add to that the fact that our culture is even averse to certainty and truth claims. It is treated as a moral virtue to be unsure or to question something. Certainty is treated as a moral vice like pride or arrogance.

The culture seems to value agnosticism, applauding an individual’s journey of bravery to doubt what they have formerly treated as sure or true. It is celebrated in our culture to deconstruct and depart from your former convictions.

In contrast to our culture, Christianity is filled with claims about what is true now and what will be true in the future. The bible invites us to believe its claims as absolutely true, and promises that certain things will be true in the future as well.

Our topic this morning is assurance of salvation. The question we are trying to answer is whether you can know that you are a Christian and that the promises of the Gospel apply to you, or if you can only wish or hope that this is true about you. Thinking back to my early Christian years, we used to ask, “Do you know that you know that you know you’ll go to heaven when you die?”

Last week, Shawn Powers gave an excellent foundation for why one can never lose his salvation. Once we are adopted in God’s family, he never destroys the adoption papers; they are written in Christ’s blood. He reminded us of the wonderful truth in John 10.

John 10:27–29 (ESV) — My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.

This comforting truth helps us live with confidence because we know that if we have trusted in Christ alone for salvation, we have been adopted into his family, and nothing can snatch us out of God’s hand.

Our church treasures sound doctrine (it’s one of our core values), and we emphasize God’s sovereignty over all things, especially in salvation. We have heard a great deal of teaching on God’s election, adoption, and preservation of the saints. We know that no believer can commit a sin that would be significant enough to cause him to lose his salvation.

However, there is a different kind of doubt—a different struggle with lack of assurance that tends to plague us. In our doubts, we typically don’t look ahead to the sin we may commit that would cause us to lose our salvation, we look back in time and question whether or not we’ve ever been truly saved. Is our faith real?

This is the question we’ll be wrestling with this morning from the book of 1 John.

I want to say here at the beginning that this is a common struggle. Whenever you personally encounter a lack of assurance, it can be extremely vexing or frightening. “Where did these doubts come from?” “Why am I feeling this way?” “It doesn’t seem like anyone else is struggling like me?”

Let’s begin with a statement from our Confession of Faith. This is paragraph 4 under Chapter 20 of the Trinity Fellowship Churches Confession of Faith.

True believers may have the assurance of their salvation shaken, diminished, and interrupted in various ways. This can happen by negligence in preserving it, by falling into some special sin which wounds the conscience and grieves the Spirit, by some sudden or vehement temptation, by God's withdrawing the light of his countenance allowing even those who fear him to walk in darkness and to have no light. Yet they are never destitute of the seed of God and life of faith, or the love of Christ and the brethren, or the sincerity of heart and conscience of their duty. By the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may in due time be revived. In the meantime, by the Spirit, they are preserved from utter despair.

Book recommendation and acknowledgement

Last week, Daniel recommended a book to us, Assured: Discover Grace, Let Go of Guilt, and Rest in Your Salvation, by Greg Gilbert. I would like to commend it to you again this morning. There will be a few copies in the resource center after the sermon today.

Also, I want to acknowledge that some of the ideas and arguments of this book have influenced and helped shape the sermon for today. I want to say that up front so that if you read the book, you’re not surprised and say, “John stole from this book!” We are always learning and benefiting from the thoughts and works of others. I’m grateful for good books; I hope you are, too.

Having said that, our outline does not come from Gilbert’s book, and we’ll be spending most of our time in the book of 1 John this morning. I encourage you to have your copy of God’s Word opened to 1 John. We will be jumping around in it a bit.

Outline

  1. When your confession lines up with God’s Promises
  2. When your life lines up with your confession
  3. When the Holy Spirit pours out God’s love in your heart

Pastoral Prayer

  • the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit as we study 1 John together
  • help us to see and apply your promises to our hearts
  • make the glory of the Gospel more awe inspiring than ever. Help us see the mercy and covenant faithfulness of your promises.
  • especially for those who are currently struggling with a lack of assurance.
  • Bless us with the witness of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
  • For those who are not yet believers, may they hear and respond to the free offer of the good news that Christ died for them that they might live.

I. When your confession lines up with God’s Promises

1 John 5:13 (ESV) — I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.

Not every New Testament book has a statement like this in it. John, the author, tells us why he wrote the letter, which likely would have been written in the latter years of the first century to some of the churches in the area near western Turkey.

John the Apostle also told us why he wrote his Gospel as well in John 20:31.

John 20:30–31 (ESV) — Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

So, John wrote his Gospel that people might believe (salvation), and he wrote his first letter so that they might know that they have eternal life (assurance).

Ironically, many Christians through the centuries have struggled with John’s message about assurance in 1 John. John uses very simple vocabulary and very clear language, but communicates some very challenging truths. We’ll deal with this in point #2 about our lives lining up with our confession.

But let’s first acknowledge that John wrote this letter so that his readers (this includes us) would know that they have eternal life. Specifically, he writes that those “who believe in the name of the Son of God” would know that they have eternal life.

I don’t know your history with this verse, but it has a significant place in my Christian testimony. I rummaged in vain through a lot of my old bibles and journals trying to find where I wrote it down, but on Wednesday night, February 20, 1991, my youth pastor encouraged me to write this verse down and remember it. In a significant way, this was the night that I put my fear of God’s judgment to rest. It was the night I definitively put my faith in Christ alone for my salvation. I had been religious before this, and had tried to live a good life, but this night, in desperation, I finally trusted in Christ alone.

I am grateful for this vivid memory of my conversion, but just writing down the day you got saved with a verse is not a solid enough foundation for true ongoing assurance. There are many insufficient sources of assurance that have been tried.

Insufficient sources of assurance

  • Something I did in the past:
    • I prayed the sinner’s prayer at a church service or revival
    • got baptized
    • Do something to remember the day you turned to God (i.e. Go home and drive a nail in the fencepost and write today’s date on it.)
    • I had a significant spiritual experience
  • Something I feel in the present:
    • the love of God
    • love for God
    • devotion to God
    • closeness to God
    • gratefulness for forgiveness of sins
  • Something I do in the present:
    • participate in church
    • read my bible and pray
    • avoid certain sins
  • Comparison to others or the past you:
    • I’m more spiritual than so-and-so
    • I’m not as bad as I used to be
  • The quality of our faith or obedience
    • Is my faith genuine enough? Pure enough? Big enough? Strong enough? (Gilbert, Assured, ch. 2)
  • Answered Prayer
    • I prayed, and what I asked for happened, therefore, I must be okay.

Certainly, many of these should be true of believers, but they are not sufficient grounds by themselves for assurance of salvation.

What if I don’t remember my conversion?

For many, there is a real problem with basing assurance primarily on looking back to a transformational conversion experience when you went from death to life, from darkness to light. There are many Christians in this room today, and many more throughout the life of the church, which cannot remember the specific day or time when they first believed. In God’s Providence and mercy, many of you have believed in Jesus since you were young children, and don’t remember any single “mountaintop” or darkness to light experience of faith and repentance. Does this mean you are limited in the assurance of your salvation? No, absolutely not.

The Gospel: a sufficient source for assurance

The surest and most sufficient source for biblical assurance is present-day belief in the Gospel, the good news that God saves sinners through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is faith in these promises which provides the surest footing for our assurance of salvation.

Remember what John said?

  • 1 John 5:13 (ESV) — I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.

“You who believe” is referring to those who have believed in the Gospel. John says this in different ways throughout this letter.

1 John 4:15 (ESV) — Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.

1 John 5:1 (ESV) — Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.

1 John 5:12 (ESV) — Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.

1 John 2:2 (ESV) — He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

Or we could go back to John’s Gospel in 3:16. Let’s say it together.

John 3:16 (ESV) — “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

Important to remember that God saves sinners

It is important to remember that God saves sinners, not deserving, righteous people. When I say that our confession needs to line up with the Gospel, this is part of what I mean.

We can’t believe that we are saved by grace through faith and then get assurance by becoming deserving. The gospel means that at no time in our lives are we deserving of God’s salvation—it is always an undeserved gift.

The first and primary source of our assurance then is our current confidence in the Gospel and the promises of God.

Do you believe that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16)? Do you believe that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:13)?

Do you believe Romans 10:9-10?

Romans 10:9–10 (ESV) — because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.

Nothing else that we examine this morning can give you meaningful assurance is you can’t say, “I believe Jesus died for my sins, and I trust in him alone to save me.”

There are, however, other confirming sources of assurance.

II. When your life lines up with your confession

One of the real challenges with John’s purpose statement for his letter is in vs. 13 again.

  • 1 John 5:13 (ESV) — I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.

He says, “I write these things…” This is what I didn’t see as a 15 year old looking for assurance. I read the verse and thought, “if I believe, I can know…” But, John is telling us that his whole letter was written so that we might know that we have eternal life.

So, now we need to look at a few of the other things that John put in his letter to offer them assurance. Different commentators refer to them slightly differently. Some would say these are “tests of life.” Our TFC Confession refers to them as “duties of obedience.” Greg Gilbert refers to these as “confirming sources of assurance.”

John uses the term “know” thirty-seven times in the letter. Many of these are referring to sources of our assurance. Here are a few representative statements that most clearly connect to our assurance:

The first has to do with our obedience.

1 John 2:3–6 (ESV) — 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. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.

This next one relates to our love.

1 John 3:14 (ESV) — We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.

The third relates to the Holy Spirit being given to us.

1 John 4:13 (ESV) — By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

These three categories, along with belief, form the main basis for assurance in John’s letter. So, we have belief, obedience, love, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

There are many more specific statements throughout the letter that describe true Christian behaviors and characteristics. Here are a good many of them:

  • we must walk in the light (1:7)
  • we must admit that we are sinners (1:8)
  • We must confess our sins (1:9)
  • We must not hate our brother, but instead love him. (2:9-11)
  • we must not love the world (the desires of the flesh and the eyes, and the pride of life) (2:15)
  • we must do the will of God (2:17)
  • we must practice righteousness (2:29)
  • we must purify ourselves because Jesus is pure (3:3)
  • We must not practice or keep on sinning (3:6)
  • We ought to lay down our lives for the brothers (3:16)
  • We must not merely love in word or talk, but in deed and truth (3:18)
  • We must do what pleases God (3:22)
  • We must confess that Jesus came in the flesh (4:2)
  • We must keep God’s commandments, and they should not be burdensome (5:3)
  • We must keep ourselves from idols (5:21)

There is a real temptation to read these statements and commands and experience doubt and terror instead of assurance.

But, friend, remember why John wrote these things. He wrote them so that we would know that we have eternal life.

John is NOT saying that if we do these things perfectly that we somehow earn or contribute to our salvation. He’s not saying that we have to do them perfectly in order to experience assurance. John is attempting to help his readers recognize true believers by painting a wholistic, broad picture of what it looks like to live as a disciple.

It is misreading John’s letter if you feel that all of these statements are “gotcha!” moments. It doesn’t make sense that John would be writing in order to give them assurance, if only the best 5% of Christians (whatever that means) could even remotely consider themselves comforted.

Remember the context of John’s letter. He’s writing to the church to help them understand what’s going on. It seems there is some faction that has left the church (2:19) and is preaching some other gospel. It’s possible there were some false teachers corrupting the true teachings about Christ (4:1-3, 15). It seems that some were teaching that it was okay to ignore obedience to God’s commands and live lawless lives, but still claim to be Christians.

I titled this point with intentional precision, “When your life lines up with your confession.” I didn’t call it, “When you live a sinless life” or “When you obey God perfectly” or “when you no longer struggle with sin.” But, that’s often how we try to read these commands. To do that would mean that no Christian could have assurance.

Let’s remind ourselves what our confession contains.

  • Romans 3:10 (ESV) — as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one;
  • Romans 3:23–24 (ESV) — for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
  • Romans 6:23 (ESV) — For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
  • Romans 5:8 (ESV) — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
  • Romans 10:9 (ESV) — because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

In other words, our Christian belief excludes any trust in our own righteousness for salvation. John is not turning that on its head in his letter. He even says in Chapter 1 that if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves.

Some pastors and theologians throughout the years have worked hard to remove any idea of “fruit inspection” or “tests of life” from the discussion about assurance. I find it difficult to ignore that John wrote this book to give assurance and included all of these statements. He intends for Christian to look at these statements and conclude, “I’m sure of my salvation and eternal life.”

… when the Bible talks about the relationship between our good works and assurance, the purpose is almost always to settle believers’ hearts and consciences, to confirm them and comfort them, not to terrify them.

  • Gilbert, Assured, p. 95.

Ways we apply John’s tests wrongly

Where to we go wrong, then?

  • We compare ourselves to others. “I’m not as loving as so and so.”
  • We have unbiblical expectations for our sanctification and growth in holiness. “I shouldn’t still be struggling with temptation.”
  • We examine ourselves without helpful input from others in the church. Our hearts are still broken and affected by sin and the Fall. We often need input from others to recognize the spiritual growth in our lives.
  • We only examine one very small sliver of our Christian life, usually an area in which we are really struggling, or a period of time when we were not doing well.
  • We try to fix our failures or deficiencies in order to regain assurance. This will never work. The only way back to assurance when our actions show sinfulness is to agree with God about our failures, and cast ourselves back on the mercy of God and trust the Gospel and his promises.

One final way that we apply John’s tests wrongly is that we change John’s questions. This is one of the most helpful insights I took away from Gilbert’s book. One of the reasons we are terrified when we read John’s letter is that we actually read it and then change the question before we answer them.

One of the most striking things about John’s tests is that they are so simple and concrete and answerable. Do I affirm the truth about Jesus? (Yes!) Do I love other believers? (Yes!) Is my allegiance to the world? (No!)

So often in our search for assurance, we tend to make up our own questions. Do I love God enough? Is it the right kind of love? Is my faith strong enough, my joy large enough, my passion hot enough? If those are the questions of assurance, then God help us, because none of them can be answered in a concrete and straightforward way.

Here’s the point: Don’t make up your own questions. Use John’s. They are simple, meaningful, and above all, straightforwardly answerable.

  • Gilbert, Assured, pp. 103-104

One helpful way to apply John’s tests is to imagine the person that answers “no” to all or most of his tests. This person

  • might claim to be without sin
  • refuses to confess his sins
  • hates the brothers
  • practices getting better at sin
  • denies that Jesus really was the Son of God
  • denies that Jesus really came in the flesh
  • lives a lawless life
  • doesn’t have the Holy Spirit (or the fruit of the Spirit)
  • is clearly embracing the world’s system and desires

A person living this way should NOT have any assurance of salvation, no matter what religious experience he’s had in the past. All is not lost, however. He should repent and believe the good news that God saves sinners.

III. When the Holy Spirit pours out God’s love in your heart

So far, we have looked at two different types of assurance. The first comes from our applying the Gospel promises to our lives. This is the basic assurance that comes with believing. The second is a confirming assurance that comes with a life lived consistent with our confession.

The third type of assurance is different altogether.

John hints at it in two different verses.

1 John 3:24 (ESV) — …And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.

And again in 4:13.

1 John 4:13 (ESV) — By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

All Christians do have the indwelling Spirit, and it is the Holy Spirit which enables our belief in the Gospel and empowers our sanctification and obedience to God’s commands. There is no true fruit of the Spirit without the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

But, I think John is getting at something more than this when he mentions the Holy Spirit as grounds for our assurance. I believe he is pointing to that particular ministry of the Holy Spirit to us which gives us external evidence of our adoption. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says it this way in Joy Unspeakable:

But there is a third type of assurance, which is the highest, the most absolute and glorious, and which differs essentially from the other two. How? Like this. You notice, in the first two types of assurance, that what we are doing is to draw deductions, as we read the Scriptures, perhaps. We arrive at the assurance by a process of reading, understanding, self-examination or self-analysis. It is a deduction that we draw from the premises given; and it is right and true. But the glory of this third and highest form of assurance is that it is neither anything that we do, nor any deduction that we draw, but an assurance that is given to us by the blessed Spirit himself.

  • Lloyd-Jones, Joy Unspeakable, pp. 92-92

In my experience, and based on the testimony of many Christians that I know, the awareness of this kind of assurance ebbs and flows. Christians can go months or years without it, and encounter new seasons when it is not present. It is a much more subjective experience, but, oh what a glorious gift from God when we truly experience it.

Here are a few passages that give us a glimpse of this ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 8:15–16 (ESV) — For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,

And Ephesians:

Ephesians 3:16–19 (ESV) — that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

What we really long for is this experiential knowledge of God’s love for us.

Romans 5:5 (ESV) — …God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Oh, brothers and sisters, let us ask God to do this. Let us invite the Holy Spirit to give us this kind of assurance! Let us pray for one another that God would be gracious and do above all that we can ask or think to help us know God’s love in this way.

Conclusion / Application

So, do you know that you know that you know you are a Christian and that you have eternal life?

If not, what should you do?

First, don’t assume that this automatically means that you are not a Christian. More work is required to discover what’s going on.

We read 3:20 at the beginning today.

  • 1 John 3:20 (ESV) — for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.

There can be a situation where our heart condemns us, but Our tendency is to try to add to our fruit or live a life deserving of our confession. We want to begin with fixing our life to make it look more Christian. We will never arrive at greater assurance this way.

So, what should you do?

  1. Quiz yourself on your belief in the Gospel

What do I mean by quizzing yourself on the Gospel? These questions come from Gilbert.

Don’t miss the concrete nature of Christianity. It is not about your feelings or vague claims. (Pp. 143-144)

  • Do I believe there is a God?
  • Do I believe Jesus of Nazareth really existed?
  • Do I believe he is the Son of God?
  • Do I believe he died on the cross?
  • Do I believe that when he died he was dying in the place of sinners?
  • Do I believe he really, truly, bodily rose from the dead?
  • Do I believe I am a sinner who needs to be saved?
  • Do I believe Jesus when he said everyone who trusts in him will not perish?
  • Do I believe God when he said everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved?
  1. Invite some other believers into your struggle to help you see the fruit of God’s work in your life.
  2. Agree with your accuser when you are made aware of your failures and sins, and look to Christ
  3. Pray for the supernatural witness of the Holy Spirit.

Remember that the prayer team is here to pray with you this morning.

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