John Calvin apparently said that while we are not saved by works we are not saved apart from works. What did he mean? Well, we should know that we do nothing to earn God’s saving grace. We come to the cross with the words of the hymn-writer: ‘nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the cross I cling.’
However, when God converts us – when we are born again – the Holy Spirit indwells us and he brings inevitable change in our lives. True conversion involves a desire to live with Christ as our king and the Holy Spirit enables us to live this life. The change that he brings to our lives offers the evidence that we have been born again.
John speaks of this evidence when he writes, ‘everyone who does what is right has been born of him’ (1 John 2:29). Jerry Bridges explains, ‘John … is not writing of sinlessness, of always doing what is right, but of our normal practice, of the dominant direction of our lives.’ He adds, ‘Sometimes our obedience is marked more by desire than by performance. So we ask ourselves: “Is my life characterized by an earnest desire and a sincere effort to obey God in all he commands?”’
Of course we continue to struggle with the sinful nature and we know what it is to be defeated. As Christians we are aware that sin is awful. So with Godly sorrow we repent. We confess it to God and thank him that he has dealt with it on the cross, and we determine to seek God’s help to overcome. It remains our desire to become more like Jesus.
One writer, Iain Murray, warns that ‘an assurance accompanied by careless living is counterfeit.’ If you think that it doesn’t matter how you live then you have sparse ground for assurance of faith; if you think that the commands of the Bible are negotiable then you have sparse grounds for assurance; if you think that you can nurse bitterness or refuse to forgive then you also have sparse grounds for forgiveness.
Before we wrap up we need to look at one special work of the Holy Spirit that directly relates to this theme of assurance. John writes, ‘we know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers’ (1 John 3:14). What is our attitude towards other Christians? Do we want to meet with them? Are we willing to make their needs our priority? Are we patient, kind, gracious, slow to anger, and ready to forgive them? Of course they can be a struggle; of course some of them will get on our wick; but as we see God giving us a desire to love them more genuinely we are receiving evidence that the Holy Spirit has caused us to be born again!
To wrap up: It is not uncommon for genuine Christians to doubt the reality of their faith; the Holy Spirit testifies to our spirit that we are children of God, primarily as he applies the gospel to our lives; we base our assurance not on our merit but on the gracious promises of the gospel; and, as we see the Holy Spirit give us new desires and enable us to become more like Jesus we witness evidence that we are indeed born again.
Finally, Iain Murray says, ‘Assurance and prayerlessness cannot belong together.’ Assurance is a great thing,, the martyr Bishop Latimer said, ‘When I live in a settled and steadfast assurance about the state of my soul then I am as bold as a lion.’ So as we seek a greater assurance we ought to cultivate a deep relationship of communion with God in prayer and seek the Holy Spirit’s strength to walk in vibrant obedience along with his beloved people.