Saturday, September 01, 2007

Assurance of Salvation - A Correspondence

About two months ago I received an e-mail from a Protestant Evangelical asking me just one question. “What, in your personal opinion, do you understand it takes for a person to go to heaven?” I am plenty familiar with this question as an opening to share the Gospel with someone and assumed that this was where he wanted the conversation to go to. You can never hear the Good News enough, so I answered him simply and shortly in order to find out his intentions. What followed was a conversation that ended up covering a few different topics. When you are presented with the presentation of the Gospel by a certain kind of Protestant Evangelical they invariably concentrate on two areas. One is that you must place your trust in our Lord for your salvation. That is certainly something that any Catholic should be able to say a hearty Amen to. The other one in particular seems to be where some Protestant Evangelicals get caught in a logical contradiction from which they do not want to extract themselves. That topic is the assurance of salvation and it is what I want to focus on from our conversation.

For those who subscribe to an assurance of salvation that is absolute, they seem to commit two errors. The first is they seem to say if you do not know with absolute certitude that you are saved, then you are not saved. They won’t come right out and say it (well some of them won’t), but it seems to be the general thrust of their concern for you. You will be repeatedly asked if you know that you will be in heaven. If you admit that you don’t know with absolute certitude the switch goes off and you are treated as if you are not going to heaven. The second error involves man’s depravity and man’s knowledge of his final salvation. They will admit that man is depraved and that because of this man is capable of deceiving himself, even about his own salvation. What they never seem to want to admit is the logical consequence of this possibility of deception; that man cannot know his final salvation with absolute certitude if he is capable of deceiving himself.

To show you what I mean I have included parts of our conversation below. I have received permission from the individual to post this. His words will be in red and mine will be in green. WARNING! This post is very long so click on the link below only if you have a few minutes to continue reading.

I'd love to get your opinion on something. What, in your personal opinion, do you understand it takes for a person to go to heaven?

A simple summary of what the Catholic Church teaches you must do to be saved is: Repent, believe, and be baptized. (Mark 1:15 & Acts 2:38) We repent because we are sinners in need of God’s grace and God sent his only Son, while we were his enemies, to die for us. (Romans 5:8) We believe, because it is through faith in Christ that we receive salvation. (Mark 16:16, John 3:26 & 6:40) We are baptized, because Jesus has told us that we must be born again, of water and of Spirit to enter into the kingdom of God. (John 3:5, Mark 16:16)

Based upon your answer, I am quite saved…I'm not sure you would agree with that though. So, am I missing something?

I am pretty sure that whether I agree you are saved or not does not matter.

God has made it clear that it is he who judges the hearts of men and it is before him you will stand when your judgment comes, not me. I say that with all sincerity, because people get caught up in playing the 'I am saved and he is not' game. It is a deadly game. We are not God. We (and I can not stress this strongly enough) do not get to tell God who goes to heaven. Not even in regards to ourselves.

God has revealed to man the Way to heaven and that is his Son, Jesus Christ. We can know with a great degree of certainty that we are following this Way. That assurance of heaven is a great gift, but it is not an absolute certainty. We are called to work out our salvation in fear and trembling and to pick up our cross and follow Jesus. There are severe warnings of hell in Scripture to those whose faith does not work in love and for those who commit sins unto death. Only those who persevere until the end will be saved.

That is why Catholics, do not as a general rule, talk about already being saved. It is not because it is theologically wrong, but because it is theologically incomplete. It is not the only way salvation is spoken of in Scripture. Conversion in the Catholic Church is not a one time decision, but a life-long journey. We are called to convert in every moment of every day. We are called to turn over everything to Christ, whatever our station in life. Wherever we are, in whatever we do, it must all be given to our Lord. As you can imagine this is no easy task for us sinners. But thanks be to God for his grace!

Thanks for your clear reply. I agree with a majority of what you have shared…As for the judging issue, I agree to some degree. No one knows the heart but God. I can have absolute assurance of my salvation ("I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life."1 John 5:13) and I can have pretty a good idea based upon the spiritual fruit whether someone else knows Jesus or not. Granted, only God knows the absolute truth on that but He has given me indicators I can look for.

Todd, you are not far off in your understanding (that is assuming that semantically we are on the same page) but I fear that you have missed the "extra baggage" that so many pickup from the Catholic church. In a sense, that is good because you don't need it. But the negative is that you defend the Catholic church without the awareness of what the average Catholic understands the church to teach. I witness to others often and have met many Catholics. I can honestly tell you that in the years I have done that I have yet to meet a Catholic (barring yourself) who understood and could articulate for me what it takes to be saved. They either don't have a clue, give a complete works based salvation answer, or give me some of the true gospel with extra works.

Let me clear up some misconceptions that you seem to have acquired. Maybe I have not been as clear as you credit me for.

The Catholic Church teaches that we are saved by grace through faith, but not by a faith that is alone. Scripture is absolutely clear about this point. It must be a faith that works in love (Galatians 5:6). Faith that is apart from works is dead (James 2:26). You can have all the faith that it is possible for you to have, but without love you are nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2b). Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans talks repeatedly about faith and I am sure in response to the above you might quote some of those verses. However, Saint Paul makes it abundantly clear the first and last times he mentions faith in that letter what he means by it. He speaks of the "obedience of faith" (Romans 1:5 & 16:26). Faith is not just an intellectual assent to truth.

Many who claim the Catholic Church teaches that man is saved by his own works simply do not know what the Church teaches. The Church specifically (and repeatedly) says that this is heresy. She has always condemned the idea that man, apart from God's grace, can do anything supernaturally good.

What she also condemns is the idea that it is only through faith (separated from hope and love) that we are saved. Even the demons believe... (James 2:19b) He gives us faith, hope, and love to accomplish our salvation. The Catholic Church teaches that everything that we need to go to heaven is because of God's grace which has been merited for us by the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are called to respond to that gift in love. Even this response is because of God's grace, because apart from that grace we have nothing to offer.

I would like to give you…[something]…to think about in regards to…[an]other topic that you also mention.

You claim an absolute assurance of salvation. I assume you would also agree that you are a sinner (redeemed by Christ, but a sinner nonetheless.) Is it not possible that as a sinner you could be deceiving yourself about your guaranteed entrance into heaven? If it is possible to deceive yourself then your assurance is not absolute. Remember, I do not argue against assurance, just an absolute one.

Yes and No. Yes, we are that totally depraved that we could deceive ourselves. But, I am also given a clear and absolute message from God's word on what it takes to be saved. 1 John 5:13 uses a very strong word, "know". He says you can "know". Not "hope so", "trust so", "maybe so" but you can know. I have repented of my sins, put my faith in Christ alone, and am sealed by the Holy Spirit as His. So, I do have complete, absoute assurance that I am saved and guaranteed eternal life. I know that I know that I know that I am saved. It is not based upon feeling or opinion but on the unchanging truth presented in God's word.

This is going to stay stalled here as you admit that it is possible that you as a fallen (but redeemed) human being could deceive yourself. As long as you admit to that, your assurance can not be absolute (i.e. infallible).

I readily admit to knowing one is going to heaven. I also know (in the sense that according to God's Revelation it seems I am fulfilling his requirements - repentance, faith, Baptism) that I am going to heaven. I do realize that there is the possibility that I could be deceiving myself. So although my assurance is real (i.e. I know), it is not absolute (i.e. infallible). Do I think it likely that I am wrong? No. Is there a possibility that I could be deceiving myself? Yes. That is why my complete dependence is and must always be upon the mercy of God.

I knew that was coming. :) I knew because the question really was two and I struggled to give it one answer. So, allow me to clear up my mistake.

Question one: “Is it not possible that as a sinner you could be deceiving yourself about your guaranteed entrance into heaven.”

Answer: I said “yes” in the since that it is quite possible for anyone (including me) to deceive themselves. In fact, I believe (and the Scriptures confirm) that there are many individuals of different religions, philosophies, ideologies, etc. that have deceived themselves into thinking they’ve got it right and are spiritually safe. (read Proverbs 14:12 or 16:25 for example). I also believe there are many who claim the name “Christian” who are in fact not. They believe they are okay but they are in fact spiritually dead and lost (not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” as Matthew 7:21 points out). So, yes, it is possible for anyone to deceive themselves into thinking they are okay when they in fact are not.

Question two (assumed but not stated): Is there a way to have absolute assurance that you are not deceived and that you have eternal life?

Answer: Yes. Jesus (and Him alone) can remove all doubt and give you an absolute 100% assurance that you are His and promised eternal life with Him.

-Again, 1 John 5:13, John says that he wrote his letter that we may “know” we have eternal life. Not hope, assume, gamble on, but KNOW.

- Peter writes, “Therefore, brothers, make every effort to confirm your calling and election, because if you do these things you will never stumble. For in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly supplied to you. (2 Peter 1:10-11) Why tell us to pursue something we can’t achieve. He says we are to confirm our calling and election. Why? Because when you come to that point of assurance you have the promise of entry into the eternal kingdom! Amen!

- The Word is clear that when one is in the hand of God no man can pluck them out ( John 10:28). Thus implying that there is a moment you are placed in the palm of His hand (moment of salvation) and when you are there you are sealed eternally as His.

- Jesus promises that those who come to Him will not be cast out and that they are promised eternal life. It’s not that we simply hope for it with no guarantee. It is a hope that is 100% assured of what will come. So, when I repented of my sins and placed my faith in Christ alone, He removed all doubt and fear and gave me forgiveness, freedom, purpose, meaning, and the guarantee of eternal life. I have been sealed by Him and the seal can’t be broken (Ephesians 1:13, 4:30)! Again, Amen!

-I’m reminded of the man who cried out to Jesus “I do believe; help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24). Well, which is it. Did he believe or not? In essence, what he said was “Yes, I believe” but there was a part of him that still doubted. So, he admitted it and asked Jesus to removed it. Before I knew Jesus, I had no assurance of where I would spend eternity. I had my opinion and if someone had asked me “Do you believe you’ll go to heaven?”, I would have answered “Yes” but with serious reservations. But when I came to Christ, all doubt washed away. I was free indeed and my name was forever written in the Lamb’s book of life. So, YES I have complete assurance not because I’m infallible but because He and His word is. It is a confident assurance anyone can have if they place their complete hope, trust, faith, and life in Jesus hands.

On another not, I must say, to be fair in the conversation, that you are guilty of the crime you pointed out I committed.

> You said: “I readily admit to knowing one is going to heaven.”
And also: “I do realize that there is the possibility that I could be deceiving myself. So
although my assurance is real (i.e. I know), it is not absolute (i.e. infallible).” >

Putting the words “I know” and “not absolute” in the same sentence is quite incompatible. If it is not absolute, then you don’t know. You may hope so or strongly lean in that direction. But you can’t “know”.

It does not seem to me that you have changed your argument enough for it to work.

Your definition of 'know' is patently ridiculous. I know Australia exists, but I do not know that absolutely. I know my birthday, but I do not know that absolutely. I know your name is **** ******...and you are...[located] in *****, **, but I do not know that absolutely. You can change the definition of know if you want, but this conversation is going to be a lot harder if we are redefining words as we go along.

Both of us I am sure have met those who had a genuine conversion to Christ. They loved him, served him and his people, yet fell away and no longer claim Christ as Lord. Genuine fruit was produced by these people (as far as we could tell) and yet they still fell away. People who claimed to 'know' (as you define it - infallibly) that they were saved and going to heaven. It is obvious to us now that unless they repent and return to the Lord that they (as far as we know) will end up in hell. I am bringing this up, because it is a real life example. I can not imagine that you are in ministry and you have not witnessed this firsthand at least once. I know I have. I am pretty sure I know what you might say. If they do not repent, they were never saved to begin with. If that is your answer, how does that change the knowledge that they thought they possessed about their salvation? It only places it right back where it was before. They knew, but they deceived themselves.

This really is a side topic as far as I am concerned (maybe it is not so to you) and it seems that you have not really changed your argument from before. You just moved it sideways a bit.

I really do understand your position and am baffled how you do not understand mine. This will be my final appeal on this issue. In the end, your dilemma is not with me but with the Lord Himself.

YES, man can (and so often does) deceive himself into thinking he is right with God. The heart is deceitfully wicked. Who can know it? But you would have us blind before Christ and only slightly with one eye open after Him. My proclamation to you is that when a man comes to Christ He can see. And, as the Word says, we are free “indeed”.

As for those that you mentioned who claimed to be Christians and had fruit to show. I can only give you the words of John:
“They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. However, they went out so that it might be made clear that none of them belongs to us.” 1 John 2:19 (HCSB)

They were not what they appeared. They were never saved (of us) in the first place. If they were truly saved they will in time be wooed back by the Holy Spirit that dwells within them.

You seem to have stumbled philosophically and can’t seem to get up but you’ve yet to interact with Scriptures I have shared that declare to you that you can “know” you are saved. Jesus gave promises, guarantees, and assurances throughout His messages.

As for the definition of “know”, my friend, how in the world WOULD you define it. It means to behold something. To obtain something. To grasp something. A man who says that he “knows” Australia exist and then follows that with “not absolutely” knows nothing. He has an opinion, a preference, a premonition, but he does not have knowledge. Does he “know”? Absolutely not. He’s unsure whether or not he knows. But ask the man in Australia if he knows. Of course he does.

Do I know (with absolute assurance) that I am saved and guaranteed eternal life? Yes. How can I say such? Because I stand on the land of His grace. It isn’t based upon feeling. It isn’t my opinion. It is what God said in His Word. Who am I to argue with Him? He declared it not I. He said if I came to Him in repentance and faith I would be saved and have eternal life.

And Todd, you can have this absolute assurance too. If you repent of your sins and put your total faith in Christ alone. If you claim you have done that, then stand on the promises of God’s Word. I can assure you that this issue is THE issue. I’m trying to invite you to a place where you can know you are His and you have a place with Him in heaven. He offers it to you. Will you take it?

Two quick comments as this particular discussion is quickly going nowhere.

The reason I have not interacted with the Scriptures you have put up as a defense is that I have no argument or problem with them. I agree with them, as I have explained previously my position in regards to man’s assurance of salvation. My argument is that although you admit that Scripture speaks of an assurance, you also admit Scripture speaks of man deceiving himself (even in regards to his own salvation.) Yet you refuse to apply basic logic to your argument. If a man can deceive himself, then his assurance is not infallible (i.e. without error, not absolute.) If you presented me with an argument that stated man’s ability to deceive himself is somehow abrogated, then that would be a different matter. You have yet to do so.

As to what knowledge is, you know very well that you can know something in many different ways. The example of Australia shows that my knowledge of its existence is based on my faith in someone else telling me it exists and my correct reception of that information. I have personally never been there. I have never seen it myself. In other words my knowledge is based on the experience of someone else. My knowledge…is not absolute; it is not infallible (i.e. without the possibility of error). There are many ways I can be in error, but I only need one possibility for it not to be absolute.

Knowledge does not mean absolute certitude. If you can not admit to that then I am at a loss as to how to respond to you. If we can get past this particular part, I will interact with you on your other points about assurance. If not, I think we should move on to other things.

In reference to assurance, I aggree it seems we must move on in our discussion. I agree we disagree.

I am confident I can say, "Do I know (with absolute assurance) that I am saved and guaranteed eternal life? Yes. How can I say such? Because I stand on the land of His grace. It isn’t based upon feeling. It isn’t my opinion. It is what God said in His Word. Who am I to argue with Him? He declared it not I. He said if I came to Him in repentance and faith I would be saved and have eternal life."

If you don't have the confidence to say the same about yourself, well, I leave that between you and Jesus. I have presented my plea and now I will leave it as is.

As for your comment, "And that you will come to a point in your life where you know you are saved." (This is quoted from another part of our conversation about Justification.) I know that my salvation is in the hands of the Lord and I can not think of a better place for it to be. I certainly do not believe that my saying, "I know (infallibly) I am saved" is what God requires of me for salvation. No matter how you have presented your case in regards to this it seems that is what you are saying I must do for God to save me. God's Word does not say this anywhere. In fact, there are many warnings for those who would presume such a thing. My hope is that you will rely on God for your salvation instead of relying on an 'absolute knowledge' of your salvation. The former is faith, the latter is presumption.

> "I certainly do not believe that my saying, "I know (infallibly) I am saved is what God requires of me for salvation." <

Completely agree.

> "No matter how you have presented your case in regards to this it seems that is what you are saying I must do for God to save me." <

Sorry that this was your intepretation but it is clearly not what I was saying. Your saying so would not change a thing. It isn't what you or I say but what God has or has not done in the our heart.

> "My hope is that you will rely on God for your salvation instead of relying on an 'absolute knowledge' of your salvation. The former is faith, the latter is presumption." <

Let me calm your fears. My salvation is SOLELY a reliance on God. That is WHY I have absolute assurance. Remember, "faith" is the EVIDENCE of things unseen.

This conversation is a great example of some of the typical logical errors I come across in conversations with some Protestant Evangelicals in regards to the assurance of our salvation. He repeatedly states that a Christian can be deceived, even about his own salvation. He also repeatedly states that he knows (with absolute certitude) that he will be in heaven. For some reason, unknown to me, he does not see the logical contradiction in these two statements. He also seems to stress that this knowledge (absolute certitude) of salvation is the most important issue. He seems to equate this absolute certitude with entrance into heaven. When I called him on it and said that it was what he seemed to be saying, he denied that is what he meant. He explained that it is because God's Word says that if he does what he did (repented and believed) that he would be saved. My whole and repeated point was that was not all God's Word said on the subject. He would not interact with that point though and I was forced to abandon the conversation.

Reading his statement below I find it hard to get around his equating this absolute certitude with entrance into heaven:

And Todd, you can have this absolute assurance too. If you repent of your sins and put your total faith in Christ alone. If you claim you have done that, then stand on the promises of God’s Word. I can assure you that this issue is THE issue. I’m trying to invite you to a place where you can know you are His and you have a place with Him in heaven. He offers it to you. Will you take it?

Why else is it THE issue. This statement of it being THE issue was in response to me saying that assurance, “is a side topic as far as I am concerned (maybe it is not so to you).” Why else would having this absolute certitude be so important. God’s promise is enough for me to be assured of my salvation, but it in no way draws me to the conclusion that I can no longer deceive myself. I have been around myself too long to believe that concupiscence is suspended merely because I said I know I will be saved.

Maybe I have misunderstood him. Maybe I have let the typical misunderstandings between Protestants and Catholics get in the way of giving him the benefit of the doubt (as I am required to do in charity), but he did not seem to want to explain the contradiction head on. He would only continue to repeat his original statements. In putting this together I sent him a copy of this post and asked him to write a response to the conclusions that I have drawn. He responded that he was comfortable with what I had put together and if he felt the need he would respond in the comment section. Since he is ok with it, I will conclude.

As Catholics we must place our full and undivided trust in God and the promise of mercy he has made to those who become his children. To my Protestant Evangelical friend this also means a guaranteed place in heaven. I will grant that he is correct if in fact our Lord made little robots, but he did not. He made people who are capable of rejecting the gift and unfortunately even those who are in a right relationship with him can turn away. One of the ways this is described in Scripture is that person’s name being blotted out of the Book of Life. It is not a pleasant thing to contemplate, but God has told us that it is possible. I came across a quote from Saint Augustine that I think sums up why any man who claims Christ as Lord should always hope, but never presume that heaven will be his home. “For no one is known to another so intimately as he is known to himself, and yet no one is so well known even to himself that he can be sure as to his own conduct on the morrow;...yet the minds of men are so unknown and so unstable, that there is the highest wisdom in the exhortation of the apostle: ‘Judge nothing before the time until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts; and then shall every man have praise of God.’"

P.S. I will be posting another part of our conversation soon (pending his approval) where we did seem to agree in the end. Sometimes these conversations are fruitful in clearing up misconceptions and sometimes as above they are not, but I think as long as they are done in charity they will eventually bear fruit even if it is not obvious it has done so in the present. Even though we do not agree on some things, I would like to thank my Protestant Evangelical friend for his willingness to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ and for his charitable attitude throughout our conversation.

6 comment(s):

Tracy said...

Todd, I'd like to thank you and your friend for sharing this dialogue on your blog.

ps. house is still for sale, but we are still hoping to be back up north soon! We miss y'all!

ABOUT A18 said...

Again, Todd, I thank you for your spirit during this dialogue. Thought we differ I believe our passion for the truth is mutual. Anyone interested may visit my blog at


Todd said...

Tracy - The people looking at the house know that the magnolia tree in the cul-de-sac is yours right? ;) We hope you sell it soon.

Chris - Your welcome. It takes two people to have a civil conversation and many times discussions about God devolve into shouting matches that do nothing to build Christ's Kingdom. I believe you are correct about our passion for the truth and I think we both know that it is only because the Truth himself drives us on to know him more.

rab said...

I know this an old entry in the blog, but wanted to add a comment nonetheless. It would seem that the parable of the seeds is a good one to employ here, to help explain. The farmer throws seeds on various types of ground (people)....with various results. In a lot of cases, within Christ's parable, the seed fell in a place/person where it took root...even began to grow. But some withered. It doesn't speak of 'saved seeds' that can fall on any type of ground and still survive. From the story, it can be assumed that all the seeds that sprouted were believing christians that had begun their 'journey' (not a one-time event where they grow up, on fertile ground, without any trial or setbacks)....but believing christians who had begun, but failed to continue growing to maturity. We must all continue to grow, until our death........not assume that we are full grown and fruitful simply because we believe. Our believing is an action in itself. If it isn't supported by proper nourishment and conditions, it can wither....and eventually die.

Gary said...

Many Christians have said the following to themselves during a very difficult period in their life: Am I really saved? Here are the thought processes on this issue for an Evangelical and a Lutheran:

The Evangelical's Assurance of Salvation:

1. At age ___ I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior. At that moment I asked Jesus to come into my heart to be my Lord and Savior and to forgive me of my sins.

2. But since I am currently questioning my salvation, maybe I didn't "do it" correctly. Maybe I didn't fully understand what I was doing. Maybe I didn't fully repent. Maybe I didn't really have complete faith. Maybe I did it just because my friends were doing it. Maybe...

3. I don't know...maybe I should "do it" again, just to be 100% sure.

The Lutheran's Assurance of Salvation:

1. Have I been baptized into the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, thereby receiving God's promise of the forgiveness of my sins, salvation of my soul, faith, and eternal life?
Answer: Yes.

2. Have I outright rejected Christ as my Lord and Savior?
Answer: No.

3. Am I living a life of ongoing sin in willful disobedience and defiance of my Lord?
Answer: No.

Therefore, I KNOW I am saved!

When your assurance of salvation is based on what GOD did and not what you did, it makes all the difference in the world!

Gary said...

Q: On what should we base our assurance of salvation? I know the Word and the promises of the Gospel are our rock, but how do we distinguish between real faith and mere intellectual assent? I ask this because many evangelicals make me nervous when they say that if one has doubts about one's salvation, one is probably not saved, because the Holy Spirit is supposed to provide inner assurance. (I guess this ties in to the whole Pietist problem.) But in the face of emotional ups and downs, moral failings, intellectual doubts, and confusion over doctrine, how can one know if one truly has faith in Christ?

A: Lutherans believe that faith is created and strengthened not by looking inside of one's self (to one's own faith and/or doubts) but by looking outside of one's self (to God's Word and promises in Christ). Therefore, assurance of salvation is to be sought by looking to God's Word and promises in Christ (which create and strengthen the faith through which one is saved), not by looking inward at the strength or weakness of one's own faith (which creates either pride and false assurance or doubt and lack of assurance). Anxiety regarding doubts, strength of faith and certainty of salvation are signs of faith (however weak it may be), not signs of unbelief, since the unbeliever has no concern or anxiety about doubts, faith or salvation.

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