Assurance of salvation is something many believers struggle with. The Bible commands Christians to take a close look at themselves and ensure they are truly in the faith, to make sure they aren't self-deceived into thinking they're truly saved when they're not. Paul says, "Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!" (2 Corinthians 13:5). And Peter says, "Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall" (2 Peter 1:10).
The question of what constitutes the marks of real saving faith is not nearly as common today as it should be, although it has been asked often down through history. For example, during the first Great Awakening in America that occurred between 1725 and 1750, many people responded to the preaching of powerful theologians such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. However, about six years later, critics charged there was nothing real about the Awakening because many people who claimed to have been converted showed no evidence of it.
To respond to the Awakening's detractors, Jonathan Edwards (perhaps one of the keenest minds ever in American history) took up his pen to write his famous "A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections" that outlined his thoughts on discerning the true spiritual condition of a person who claimed to be a Christian.
The opening line of Edward's work reads: "There is no question whatsoever, that is of greater importance to mankind, and what is more concerns every individual person to be well resolved in, than this: What are the distinguishing qualifications of those that are in favor with God, and entitled to his eternal rewards?"
Both the Bible and Edwards' work correctly state that being a true believer is tied to more than simply signing a card, walking an aisle, being baptized, and participating in religious activities. So what does comprise a true salvation experience?
First, there is a personal recognition of one's sin, a willingness to repent of sin, and a submission to the truth of Scripture that says, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31) and "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Joel 2:32). A person who has done this is born again (John 3:3) and is regenerated by the Holy Spirit (John 3:5) so that they no longer reject God's ways.
Two pieces of evidence will accompany this genuine saving experience: (1) Godly affections that (2) bear Godly fruit. Of the first, Edwards says, "True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections." Simply put, the believer in Christ has a new appetite that they didn't have before. The new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17) has new affections and has a hunger for genuine spiritual food.
These new affections then exhibit themselves in the life of the believer in some form or fashion. James asks, "What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?" (James 2:14). The answer James expects is, "no". Real saving faith, says James, will manifest through a person's life. Or as one theologian once said, "We are saved by faith alone; but the faith that saves is not alone."
Edwards puts it like this: "The principle evidence of life is motion; so the principle evidence of saving grace is holy motion." What he means is that you can tell someone is physically alive by the fact that they breathe, move, and act. In the same way, you can tell someone is spiritually alive by their movement toward the things of God and the spiritual fruit that appears. Jesus simply said, "The tree is known by its fruit" (Matthew 12:33).
Does this mean a true Christian won't struggle with sin? Not at all. Paul makes this very clear in Romans 7 where he outlines his battle with his old nature. However, while struggles with a sinful habit in the life of a Christian can be expected, living comfortably with that sinful habit and the belief that it's not sinful shouldn't be.
We don't need to wonder if we're saved. We can have assurance of salvation. Submission of the will to Christ will be followed by holy affections that consistently manifest in a new spiritual life. If you have these things, then God is saying to you through your life and His Word: "I write 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).
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