The assurance of salvation is in Christ, not in self.
This is mainly for Christians who are filled with doubts and are lacking in the assurance of salvation because they sincerely care about holiness, whilst they see nothing in themselves but the sin that makes their salvation necessary. If that describes you then you should actually rejoice, not that you lack the assurance of salvation, but because grief over sin and a true reverence of the holiness of God is the natural state of all true Christians, and no one will ever rely on the righteousness of Christ until they see a complete lack of righteousness in themselves. And it is only those who have the perfect righteousness of Christ who are justified, and that only comes through faith in Christ. Justified in Scripture means declared righteous. God declares us righteous through faith in Christ alone. You may lament the wickedness of your heart, and that you have not done enough to the glory of God, and I sincerely hope that you do lament such things. But remember the Pharisee and the tax collector:
“And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14
Firstly, notice the audience he intended to rebuke: “he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous“. Notice also whom the Pharisee’s God was, for he “stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee…” Does such arrogance, self-reliance, and self-righteousness characterise your walk of faith? The Pharisees were characterised by justifying themselves by the deeds of the law. They had plenty of faith in themselves, but they did not rely on God’s atonement and grace. They did not seem to see much need for the kind of grace that saves; for they that are healthy do not seek a doctor, as is the case with those who falsely think themselves to be so. But as for you, where is your faith? Remember, the sinful tax collector “went down to his house justified rather than the other”, for he simply asked for God’s mercy, knowing that he was in dire need of it; saying nothing of his works, counting them too worthless to even dare to mention. When one grasps the meaning of this parable, it becomes a solid and sound foundation for assurance; and that only for the true saint. For those who do not know Christ either reckon themselves good enough as they are, or else they genuinely do not care; but the saint is so grieved over his sin that he sees no option but to cling to the mercy of Jesus Christ; this is saving faith! As James White often says, “theology matters”. It is practical, and not some ivory tower subject for some fictitious exalted level of sainthood. In this way, I hope that this truth will be helpful to some.
If salvation depends on the strength or purity of one’s faith, then the statement “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief”, and the subsequent gracious response of Christ, are at best misleading, and at worst, heretical; see Mark 9:23-25. That man did nothing to warrant a kind response from Christ; he didn’t even have a pure faith, but a faith mingled with doubt. But again, it is neither the strength nor the purity of one’s faith that is of importance; but rather, it is the object of one’s faith; that is what matters. For saving faith is depending solely on the person and finished work of Jesus Christ. If I willfully dilute my faith for the justification of my soul with anything other than the person and work of Jesus Christ, then the wrath of God abides upon me. That is to say, I must not mingle my faith in Christ with any confidence in anything that I can do; or in anything that any other person can do; whether they be a saint or not; whether they be living or dead. Salvation, as taught by Scripture alone, is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. Any other “gospel” than that is no Gospel at all, for it damns and cannot save.
Furthermore, as far as a justified soul (temporarily and foolishly) allows his faith to be diluted with anything other than the person and work of Jesus Christ; to that same degree will his sanctification, his peace, and his assurance be undone; for he knows in a profound way that cuts right to his heart that he is not righteous in and of himself, but altogether wicked.
However, once justified, we are to strive to mortify sin and to live holy (Romans 6; 8:13; Colossians 3:5). We are obligated to do this because we are commanded to do so, and this pleases God; He is worthy of such love. We should also do so because of the fact that the new nature we possess, as born again regenerate souls, does not delight in sin, but delights in God, and in the fruits of His Spirit; see Galatians 5:22-23. This we ought to do, not so as to earn salvation (for all of our good deeds are as filthy rags in His sight; Isaiah 64:6); but in gratitude for His grace towards us, for we are already saved (Titus 3:3-8).
This is the cart and the horse in the right order. They must never be reversed. For sinners, holiness can only ever follow on from God sanctifying us; and the last thing the thrice Holy God desires from us is our bartering for His favour with however many piles of filthy rags our righteousness can produce; see Isaiah 6:3; 64:6-7. He wills for sinners to submit to His gracious offer, which is to accept the righteousness of God which is by the faith of Jesus Christ! It can only ever be a free gift, for God will never owe you any good thing for any virtue that is native to your sinful heart. And God detests those who go about to establish their own righteousness, for by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in His sight; for the law was never a means for man to show himself righteous, but rather it is God’s means to show man his wickedness. The just shall only live by faith! See Romans 3:20; 10:3-4; Galatians 3:11; Philippians 3:9. See also Ephesians 2:8-9.
Our rest and our assurance then must always be founded upon the cross of Christ, to which we must so often return our minds for any peace we desire; or else we will faint in our minds and suffer the torment of our sinfulness; see Hebrews 12:1-3; cf. Romans 7:24-25. For sin powerfully grieves the saint in his heart (Romans 7:14-25; cf. John 3:19-20); and he both loves and fears the Lord (1 John 4:7-8; 5:1; cf. Jeremiah 32:40); and he understands in his heart that he could never commend himself to God even for one moment (Isaiah 64:6-7; Romans 3:9-19; Philippians 3:3-9). And so, as far from the cross of Calvary as a saint lets his mind wander, so far does he wander from peace and into torment.
Furthermore, the only ones who truly sanctify themselves are the ones who have the hope of full and final salvation; the glory of the sinless perfection which awaits us in heaven (1 John 3:2-3). And the only ones who have a right to this hope are those who know and trust that it could only ever have been earned for them by the life and death of Jesus Christ, whose blood grants them the forgiveness of their sins (2 Peter 1:5-9; cf. Romans 3:20-28). If you seriously reckon that you must achieve a state of sinless perfection here, or even that you can, and that by the works of your own hands, then I must ask you: How could you possibly know the same Holy God whom Paul knew, given the testimony of his constant battling against his sin, which never in this life left him alone! Again, see Romans 7:14-25. Are you constantly grieved over indwelling sin? Would you sooner cut off your right hand than continue to do what you hate? If so, good! For there will be no peace when the saint surveys his own heart, or recounts his words and actions; not without looking to the cross.
And so, for holiness as well as for peace in our souls, we must look both to the cross, and to the glorious future which God promises through it; looking only to ourselves (sparingly) to remind us of just how much we need the grace of Christ, and how worthy of praise He is for His grace; for in my flesh dwells no good thing (Romans 7:18); but thanks be to God, for I am in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17-21), in whom is all of my righteousness (Jeremiah 33:16; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Philippians 3:9); as His name powerfully declares in Jeremiah 23:5-6 “and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.”
As Robert Murray McCheyne famously said:
“For every look at self, take ten looks at Christ.”
I hope that those who lack the assurance of salvation will gain it; and that those whose assurance of salvation is weak will have it strengthened.
Soli Deo Gloria
Grace by Charles Spurgeon, which is apt to build up the believer’s assurance of salvation by expositing the utter freeness of God’s grace.
Heaven on Earth by Thomas Brooks, part of the Puritan Paperback series, and a treatise on the assurance of salvation.