It is possible to know mentally that those who believe in the Lord Jesus with genuine faith are eternally secure, but what if we wonder whether we are among that number or not? How can we be sure that it applies to us personally? Are there any tests we may apply which help us to know experimentally whether we are truly those who are safe for eternity?
There certainly are some tests we may apply to ourselves, and we will look at them now. Each one of these tests is to do with our own personal reaction to the things of God. They are not theoretical tests, therefore, but intensely personal. Moreover, they are concerned with matters that cannot be counterfeited. Let us look at them now.
The desire to address God
We read in Romans 8:14, “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For we have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, ‘Abba, Father’. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit that we are the children of God”.
Notice the line of the apostle’s reasoning. He declares that those who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God. He uses an emphatic pronoun “they” to highlight the fact that those who are led by the Spirit, they, and they only, are the sons of God, and are therefore true believers, for sonship cannot be lost. The prodigal son may have lost several things by going into the far country, but sonship was not one of them, Luke 15:11-32. He went out from the father’s house as his son, and he came back as his son, and while he was away the Father thought of him as “this my son”. It was still his son that was dead and lost, for he is an illustration of a believer who lives carnally, and whose enjoyment of spiritual things has been interrupted. He was dead as far as the things of his father were concerned. But he was still the son of his father.
But how may a person be sure of this position of sonship? It is one thing to know in theory that God’s sons are eternally secure. But how can a person know that he is a son in the first place? The apostle tells us, for those who have become God’s sons have received His Spirit. That Spirit does not bring into bondage, but liberty, the liberty of those who are free to address God. They call Him “Father”, not in a merely religious way, but out of love for Him. And when this happens, the Spirit “witnesseth with our spirit that we are the children of God”.
Note that it is not the Spirit witnessing to our spirit, but with our spirit, for the believer’s spirit is witnessing, and so is the Holy Spirit. (The Spirit witnesses to the believer through the word of God). Here the spirit of the believer, as it engages in approach to the Father, thereby gives witness concerning the reality of the relationship that exists. For that approach to the Father is only possible because the Holy Spirit is within. But the presence of the Holy Spirit within is witness to the reality of the relationship. In this way there is a double, combined witness, the Spirit by His presence within, and the believer by his approach to God in the power of that Spirit.
No external experiences are involved; nor are internal emotions involved either; it is the simple response of the spirit to the Father that confirms the reality of sonship, and therefore, of genuine and secure relationship.
The belief that Jesus is the Son of God
We turn now to 1 John 5:9,10 where we read, “If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater: for this is the witness of God that He hath testified of His Son. He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself: he that believeth not God hath made Him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of His Son”.
Notice the points John is making. First, that we are prepared to accept the testimony of sane and honest men. Second, that the testimony of God is greater, not only because He in His Person is greater, but also because His testimony is upon a greater subject, namely that of His Son. Only God can adequately testify on such a subject. Third, that He testifies by the Spirit.
And if we ask what is the detail of that testimony of the Spirit, we learn from verse 6 that it is about the Son of God, who came by water and blood. The water is a reference to the river Jordan, in which the Lord Jesus was baptised by John, marking the beginning of His public ministry. So the Spirit testifies about the life and ministry of the Son of God. But John tells us that He did not come by water only, (in other words, did not only have a public ministry), but He came by blood, (that is, He came to die for sins). And the Spirit testifies of this two-fold coming of the Son of God, through the water of baptism, and through the death of the cross. This is the testimony that God has testified of His Son.
Now, as far as the natural man was concerned, Jesus was a carpenter from Nazareth. To preach that He is the Son of God, the Creator of all things, and the one who reveals God to men, is to be met with scorn and disbelief. To preach that in His death He was a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, is likewise to be met with rejection. So how is it that John can write to people who believe such things in their hearts? It is not that they believe that other people believe those things, (which would be to believe about them), but they really believe for themselves that which, as far as the natural man is concerned, is unbelievable. They believe in them for themselves because they have accepted the testimony of the Spirit of God. They have not rejected it and made God a liar, but have wholeheartedly believed the testimony of the Spirit, reckoning Him to bear testimony to the truth. It is only from a Divine person that this testimony can reliably come, and come it has. So the presence of faith in the Son of God in the heart is a sure sign that eternal life is possessed, and therefore that relationship with God has been established. Now either a person believes that Jesus of Nazareth is equal with God, or he does not; there is no possible middle ground. If he does, then this is confirmation of his eternal security.
The confidence to approach God
We turn now to the words of Hebrews 10:15-22; in particular verses 15, 17, and 22, which read, in part, “Whereof the Holy Ghost also is a witness to us…and their sins and iniquities will I remember no more…let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith”.
There are three important statements here, so let us look at them one by one, and also see their connection with one another. Chapter 10:5-14 is taken up with the supreme and final sacrifice of Christ, by which He has effectively swept away the old order of things, the animal sacrifices on Israel’s altar, and established that which shall never be superceded. In those verses we have the testimony of Christ with regard to His determination to go through with that work of sacrifice, for He said “Lo, I come to do Thy will O God”. That He was successful is seen in the fact that He has sat down on the right hand of God. But now we have the Spirit also witnessing to us, as well as Christ. He assures us of the promise of God to not remember the sins and iniquities of His people for ever. It is not that God promises to forget, even though that would be wonderful; but we might wonder whether He would start remembering again after a while. So to dispel all doubt He pledges to positively not remember His people’s sins.
Now it is with the consciousness of these things that the true believer draws near in spirit to God, and does so in full assurance of faith. The testimony of both the Son and the Spirit has been accepted, and in response the believer draws near to God. And in so doing he proves the reality of the forgiveness he has received. This is a powerful proof that there is a real relationship with God, for the natural man has no inclination to worship God, nor has he any consciousness of sins forgiven and peace with God.
The love of fellow-believers
The apostle John tells us why he wrote his gospel, for he said, “And many other signs did Jesus in the presence of His disciples which are not written in this book: but these are written, but these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name”, John 20:30,31. But he said in his first epistle, “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God”, 1 John 5:13.
Now one of the ways John tells us we may know we have eternal life is expressed in 1 John 3:14, when he wrote, “Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you. We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren”. Notice that there only two categories in those =verses. There is “the world”, meaning those who do not believe the gospel, and “the brethren”, meaning those who do believe the gospel. So we have to ask ourselves, who do we love, the people of the world, or the people of God? Are we happy and comfortable in the company of unbelievers, or believers?
The story is told about the Rabbis in Israel, who were asked to decide whether a particular bird was clean or unclean. (Israel’s dietary laws banned the eating of unclean birds). After much discussion, they were unable to decide from the look of the bird. So they let it go, and watched where it went. It immediately flew to company with birds the Rabbis definitely knew were unclean birds. So the question was settled; we are known by the company we keep. ‘Clean’ believers will not want to keep company with ‘unclean’ unbelievers. They will find their conversation, attitudes, and behaviour, to be contrary to their beliefs. Now it is true that there are many “respectable” unbelievers, who, on the surface do not appear to be unholy, but as soon as the distinctive features of Christianity are made known, whether by word or conduct, the difference becomes apparent. This is not to say that a believer should have no contact with unbelievers, but that when that contact is made, the differences between them will become apparent.
True believers, then, will long to be in the company of those of like mind, and when they do, it shows that they are truly the Lord’s, having “passed from death unto life”.
Love of the Word of God
The Lord said to some in His day who believed on Him, “If ye continue in My word, then are ye My disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free”, John 8:31,32. This, then, is another test, even the desire to carry out the teaching of the Word of God. And, of course, that involves the reading of the Word of God. After all, it is by the living word of God that life is obtained in the first place, for the apostle Peter writes, “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever. ‘For all flesh is as grass; and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: but the word of the Lord endureth for ever’. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you”, 1 Peter 1:23-25.
So the life-giving word of God is the means God uses to enlighten us regarding the gospel, and when we believe that word, he graciously imparts life to us. But not only does the word of God live, but it also abideth. It is no surprise then that those who are born again through it abide also. And this is what the Lord Jesus was referring to when He spoke of disciples continuing in His word, for the words “continue: and “abide” mean the same. Notice this does not simply mean the reading of the Bible. It involves the taking in and practice of what is read, by the power of the Spirit of God, as those who delight to do God’s will as found in His word. Peter likens the love we should have for the word of God to the eager desire that a new-born babe has for its mother’s milk. He wrote, “as newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: if so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious”, 1 Peter 2:2,3. Newly-born babies do not have to be forced to drink their milk, in normal circumstances, for it is their in-built instinct to do so. So the true believer will be attracted to the word of God so that his soul-hunger may be satisfied.
So we have see that it is possible to be sure about salvation. And this certainty comes, not from wishful thinking, or emotional feelings, (which may vary), but from the inward exercises of the believer’s heart; which exercises could not be found in the heart of an unbeliever, and which cannot be counterfeited.
Of course it is true that the spiritual exercises we have thought about will not be perfect and complete in any believer, since there is still the sin-principle within which resists the spiritual desires of the believer and his growth in Divine things. But those spiritual exercises should certainly be there, even if undeveloped. When they are present, this is a sure sign that spiritual life is there, with its consequent assurance of eternal security.