Knowing That We Know Him: The Doctrine of Assurance
Scripture: 1 John 5:13
“I write these things to you who believe… that you may know that you have eternal life.” —1 John 5:13 ESV
In a recent Deeper Life Conference, a wonderful Christian young woman said to me, “How can I really know that I am a Christian?” This is not an uncommon question or small point of concern for a lot of Christians. We all want to know that we know Him! In fact, during my 22 years as president of God’s Bible School, the most shocking testimony to me that I heard frequently was the following: “I didn’t know you could have a personal relationship with God until I came here.”
Knowing that you know Him is crucial. You can never be a stable, joy-filled, effective Christian until this issue is settled in your heart and in your head. The Holy Spirit is not only instrumental in making us God’s children, but He is also instrumental in making us aware that we are God’s children.
When the lady asked me that specific question, I responded by quoting Romans 8:16: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (ESV). But, rather than giving her comfort, I could see that it brought a cloud to her face. Confusion.Questioning. Worry.
Confusion because of the competing thoughts in her head. When she heard that verse quoted, her tendency was to think, “That must be something mystical. This must be some highly emotional experience and I don’t have it.” It can leave one feeling short-changed or uncertain. However, the point here is not emotional but rather personal. It is deeply personal!
We must be careful not to read our experiences into the scriptural text, but rather let the text speak to what is universal for all Christians. When we do, the text tells us that the Holy Spirit is continually bearing witness to our spirit that we are, in fact, children of God.
Witness of True Assurance
What is the evidence to which the Holy Spirit continually witnesses? This is where the epistle of 1 John comes in. The whole epistle is given to the idea of true assurance—how to know that you really know Him.
John 1:1-4 says this need to know is answered in Jesus Christ:
• Christ the Word has made God audible.
• Christ the Light has made God visible.
• Christ the Life has made God tangible.
• Christ the Son has made God knowable.
He then gives three ways we know that we know.
1. Obedience: The Moral or Behavioral Test
“And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3 ESV). Maybe you have been around the church all your life. Maybe you even have a name that is associated with a specific part of our movement. It doesn’t matter.
It is not your natural tendency to obey the commands of God. We are all rebels at heart. But John says, if you know Him, you will keep His commandments. You cannot do that on your own. That is supernaturally done through you by the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we can say our obedience is evidence that we indeed do know Him.
2. Love: The Social Test
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:7-8 ESV). That is a powerful test! Do you love your neighbor?
Notice that the apostle said you have to “love” people; he did not say you have to “like” them. The fact of the matter is that there will be people you face in life that you do not like. This is reality. However, biblical love— agape love—is not a way of feeling, it is a way of behaving. It is not what you sense in your heart, it is what you do in your life.
Frankly, it is far easier to feel something nice toward somebody than to do toward that person what you ought to be doing for that person when you don’t particularly like him or her. That is supernaturally given to us by the Holy Spirit coming into our lives and transforming us. Therefore, we can say that loving like this is also evidence that we indeed do know Him.
3. Belief: The Doctrinal Test
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” (1 John 5:1 ESV).
This isn’t given last because it is the least important. Frankly, the order doesn’t even matter, because at the end of the day it does matter what you believe. It matters a lot!
I have heard speakers say, “Well, I don’t preach all that stuff, I just preach the pure gospel.” People like that scare me to death.
We all have our biases, we all have our framework, our foundation. We are all working from something. We all believe something. The sad part about it is that what we believe can be wrong. William Temple said it like this: “If your concept about God is wrong, the more religion you get, the more dangerous you become to you and others.” He is right!
You need to get it right. Some of you don’t have it right. That is why you are laboring. That is why you are at the altar every revival meeting or any time there is an altar call. There is nothing wrong with going to the altar—when you need to. But you don’t need to be hanging over it for the rest of your life. There is something better than that. You can get to the place where you can stand on your two feet and know in your heart things are where they ought to be with God. That is primarily anchored in what you believe.
I am not talking about mere intellectual assent, but about some intellectual facts and knowledge that are important. John says you need to believe that Jesus Christ the Son came in the flesh, lived among us, walked among us, died on a cross, rose again the third day, and that He has made an adequate provision for all the sin problem in our lives. You have got to believe that!
You can’t save yourself. But some try. You can be this good little boy, this good little girl, and do every good little thing you know to do, and wear yourself out, and be miserable all the time, running back and forth to the altar, never knowing for sure—“Am I doing enough? Do I need to do better?”
Let me tell you something. The Bible makes this very clear: “The just shall live by faith.” This doctrine of “justification by faith” is not based on my performance or your performance. It is based on what He has done!
“My hope is built on nothing less / Than Jesus’ Blood and righteousness; / …When all around my soul gives way, / He then is all my hope and stay.” (Edward Mote and William B. Bradbury, ca.1834)
Another hymn writer said it well: “My faith has found a resting place, / Not in device nor creed; / I trust the Ever-living one, / His wounds for me shall plead. / I need no other argument, / I need no other plea; / It is enough that Jesus died, / And that He died for me.” (E.E. Hewett, 1891)
But belief is more than intellectual acquiescence, and saving faith is not by our own works. We are not saved BY good works, but we are saved FOR good works. It all loops back around and ties together. It means that belief is never just acquiescence, although that is important. It also means that a life lived in surrender and submission to Jesus will result in living a gospel-shaped life.
The Bible says, “Hear, O Isreal: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4 ESV). When the Old Testament talked about “hearing,” it immediately connected it with “obeying.” If you weren’t obeying, you weren’t hearing.
The key word in Deuteronomy is “remember.” Remember to obey; remember to keep His covenant, etc. If you are not keeping His covenant, then you have forgotten Him. That is exactly how faith works. Faith is not all about works, but faith and behavior are connected.
Because we believe, our lives become gospel-shaped. True belief in the Lord Jesus Christ shapes our lives around the gospel and gives further evidence that we know Him.
Now when the Devil comes running along—and he will— and he says to you, “You don’t have anything. You are a total failure, a big hypocrite.” Here is what you should do. Sit down and say, “OK. Let’s get the judge and the witness stand; let’s open up the courtroom of my heart, let the Holy Spirit come along, and let Him witness.”
“Yes. I see obedience in your life. Yes. I see love in your life. Yes. Your faith is anchored in Him.” So, it doesn’t matter how you feel, necessarily. What matters is how you live and how you behave. You can’t live out this trilogy of assurance without the Spirit of God working in your heart. If you have the Spirit of Christ, you are His!
(BRE ’79) is the former president of God’s Bible School and College (1995- 2017) and its current chancellor. He and his wife Ruth (BA ’80) live in Cincinnati, OH.