There is nothing more debatable in Christian theology than the assurance of salvation. Assurance is the doctrine that teaches that Christians can truly know that they have been justified by God and will ultimately make it to heaven. For certain, Catholic teaching as well as many within protestant denominations with an Arminian theological bent (Assembly of God, United Methodist, some Baptists, Wesleyan, Pentecostals, Nazarene, and others) deny that assurance is a real possibility for any believer. But when you study the Scripture deeply, you find that assurance is actually a great gift that God gives His children. It is also a necessary gift in this journey of life to ensure that we are effective. As Hugh Latimer wrote to Nicholas Ridley (two bishops who were martyred in 1555), “When I live in a settled and steadfast assurance about the state of my soul, methinks I am as bold as a lion; I can laugh at all trouble; no affliction daunts me; but when I am eclipsed in my comforts I am of so fearful a spirit that I could run into a very mouse hole.” Latimer understood the power of assurance which makes the believer bold while the lack of assurance debilitates the believer’s service.
It is clear from Scripture that not everyone is a child of God. There is a sense in which the Fatherhood of God makes all people His children and the world seems to jump on that teaching (“We are the World” song lyrics, “We’re all a part of God’s great big family.”) But Scripture really opposes this ideology teaching that there are only two groups of people in the world, those who are the children of the devil (Jn 8:44), and those who are the children of God. But the question for believers in Christ is, can we know for certain that we truly are in the right camp? Can we know for certain that we are truly sons of God?
When you look at the Apostle Paul’s encouragement to the Romans in chapter 8, you hear his definitive declarations. After laying out all that has happened to those who have put their faith in Christ in v. 1-13, he makes clear statements. First, he says, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (v. 14). Then again in v. 16 he says, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” There is no question in Paul’s mind that what has happened to believers is that they have definitively been put into God’s family and made “sons of God.” It is significant that Paul doesn’t use the phrase “sons and daughters.” The short of it is that the son was an heir. So being a son of God means that we are heirs with Christ. Daughters of Christ are also “sons of God.” If you would like to read more about this, here is a great article by Stanley on the Desiring God website.
How do we know?
These are objective statements, but the question for us who have believed is, “How can I know personally that I am truly a Son of God?” And Paul doesn’t leave us hanging. In Romans 8:14-16, he gives the very clear evidences that give every believer assurance that they are truly saved. He tells them that every son of God has three vital things that happen to him on a regular basis: Every son of God is 1) led by the Spirit, 2) liberated by the Spirit, and 3) assured by the Spirit. The whole key to the Christian life is of course the work of the Holy Spirit. When the third member of the Trinity permanently indwells the believer (Rom 8:9-11), He ensures these glorious activities.
Led by the Spirit: First, every believer is inevitably led by the Holy Spirit. Paul says, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (v. 14). In other words, those who are not led are revealing that the Holy Spirit is not present in their lives. When the sovereign Spirit indwells a person, He indwells with the purpose of leading. He doesn’t do so with violent brutality (i.e. He doesn’t brow beat those He indwells, nor does He drag us along). But the Spirit gently persuades us and moves our desires, will and emotions. And He does this primarily through the written Word of God. Jesus told us in John 16:13, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” This is the mission of the Spirit in the believer, to lead us into all the truth. And inevitably, the Spirit will use the very Word of God that He inspired the Prophets and Apostles to write (2 Peter 1:20-21). The Spirit uses the Word to lead in two ways. The first leading work of the Spirit is illumination to inform our minds to understanding. Spiritual truths are foolishness to the natural man (1 Cor 2:10-12), but the Holy Spirit anoints us so that we can comprehend the “things of the Spirit” (1 John 2:20, 27, Eph 1:17-18). This illumination inevitably will bring the Word of God to have an impact on our thinking about ourselves, our sinfulness, the glory of God, the identity of Christ, the essential work of the cross, our great purpose in the world to bring glory to God, and so much more. The Holy Spirit will use the Word to illumine the great truths of the Bible in our hearts, which serve to change our desires. The second work of the Holy Spirit is sanctification, whereby He persuades our desires and leads us to deny ungodliness and to mortify sin in our lives. Galatians 5:17 is a crucial passage describing the Holy Spirit as militating against the flesh. Paul says there, “the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh.” The desires of the Holy Spirit actually militate against the desires of the flesh in our lives. In this way God is working in us (Phil 2:12-13). The Holy Spirit jealously yearns for our spirits to be freed from the bondage of sin (James 4:5) and teaches us how to deny ungodliness (Titus 2:11-13). So here is the first way we know we are Sons of God. The Holy Spirit is leading us by His Word to understand the great truths of the Bible and to be sanctified from sin.
Liberated by the Spirit: The second evidence that we are sons of God is that the believer “did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but [has received] the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15). In short, the believer has been liberated or set free from a spirit of slavery in their sin. This is a clear description of the believer’s previous life in an unregenerate state. Before he came to Christ, the believer was in slavery, and bondage to the old sinful nature and as a result he lived in fear (Heb 2:14-15). But when the Spirit came to dwell in him, He gave the unbeliever a new Spirit of adoption. This is a glorious description of the new position we have as believers. We were once not a part of the family of God (but of Satan), but now we are placed in the family of God with full privileges, rights and blessings. Before we were believers we could not call God our Father. But when the Spirit indwells the believer, he is able to call God his “Abba! Father!” Abba is the Aramaic word for daddy or papa. There is a totally new relationship established. Sons of God are able to cry out, or pray with diligence to their heavenly Father who loves them and cares for them!
Assured by the Spirit: The third work of the Spirit that gives the believer evidence that he/she is a son of God is the assuring work of the Spirit. Paul says in v. 16, “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” The presence of the Holy Spirit constantly provides an inner testimony. The Holy Spirit doesn’t subcontract out this work with the help of an angel, prophet or preacher, but is willing and ready to assure the believer Himself. While there are external evidences of holiness that affirm the believer, there is also an internal personal witness that the Holy Spirit is willing to give. This is hard to explain, but seems to be an internal peace and deep persuasion of the Father’s acceptance and our relationship to Him. The Holy Spirit’s witness may come at different times in the believer’s life when the He brings peace, conviction of sin, affirmation of forgiveness, a spirit of praise, a willingness to serve, and so much more. While it is not necessary to have this inner testimony to be a son of God, it definitely is a joy that strengthens the believer in his journey toward heaven. Furthermore, the experiential nature of this testimony must always be validated by Scripture and particularly the other more objective validations of sanctification and leading.
Are you a Son of God?
So, the natural question to all of this is, “Are you certain of your salvation?” The Apostle Paul was not the only Apostle who believed we could be sure. The Apostle John wrote his first epistle with assurance in mind. He says he writes “these things 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). When you study 1 John you will find that John says we can “know” a multitude of times, giving us evidence that we are truly “born again.” The Apostle Peter also exhorts all believers to “confirm your calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10). In other words, make sure that you are truly a son of God. Ask yourself, is the Holy Spirit doing a work in me? Do I see and sense His leading? Do I have the Spirit of adoption in my heart and desire to cry out to God in intimate terms? Do I have an inner testimony and peace that I am a child of God? While assurance is not necessary to truly be saved, it sure makes the journey to heaven a whole lot more enjoyable and truly equips us to be bold as a lion!