As a result, I had a few people raise this question: “But wait a minute…once God saves us and the Spirit begins his renewing work in our lives, shouldn’t that work of inward renewal become a source of our assurance? Isn’t that at least one way we can know we’re right before God?”
To be sure, the sanctifying work of the Spirit in the life of the Christian bears fruit (Galatians 5:22-23). God grows us in the “grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In Christ, we have died to sin and been raised to newness of life (Romans 6:4). And this new life shows itself in new affections, new appetites, new habits. We begin to grow into our new, resurrected skin.
But when the Bible specifically speaks about the grounding or the source of assurance, it’s addressing the question, “How then can man be in the right before God?” (Job 25:4). Assurance has to do, in other words, with the conscience’s confidence in ultimate acquittal before God. When we are talking about assurance we are talking about final judgment–what God’s ultimate verdict on us will be. Our assurance depends on how certain we are that God will say at the final judgment: “Not guilty!”
The Bible is plain that God requires moral perfection. It tells us unambiguously that God is holy and therefore cannot tolerate any hint of unholiness. Defects, blemishes, or stains-to the smallest degree-are unacceptable and deserving of God’s wrath. And just in case I’m deluded enough to think that my Spirit-wrought moral improvement since I became a Christian is making the grade, Jesus (in the Sermon on the Mount) intensifies what God’s required perfection entails: “Not only external actions but internal feelings and motives must be absolutely pure. Jesus condemns not only adultery but lust, not only murder but anger-promising the same judgment for both” (Gene Veith).
In Matthew 5-7, Jesus wants us to see that regardless of how well we think we’re doing or how much better we’re becoming, when “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” becomes the requirement and not “look how much I’ve grown over the years”, we begin to realize that we don’t have a leg to lean on when it comes to answering the question, “How can I stand righteous before God”? Our transformation, our purity, our growth in godliness, our moral advances and spiritual successes-Spirit-animated as it all may be-simply falls short of the sinlessness God demands. And since a “not guilty verdict” depends on sinlessness, assurance is ultimately contingent on perfection, not progress.
So, if God requires perfection and there is no definitive assurance without it (God isn’t grading on a curve, after all), then what hope do I have, imperfect as I am?
The New Testament answer to this question is singular:
For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:17)
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:23-25)
And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. (Romans 4:5)
The conscience is given assurance only as living faith is created by the Spirit through the Gospel announcement that God justifies the ungodly. The righteousness we need comes from God “through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” (Romans 3:22)
The life we live, we live by faith in “the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). So faith is the only touchstone for assurance-the God-gifted miracle of believing the impossible reality that God forgives me and loves me because of what Christ accomplished on my behalf. Assurance happens when the God-given, Spirit-wrought gift of faith enables me to believe that I am forever pardoned, that Christ’s righteousness is counted as my own, that in Christ God does not count my sins against me (2 Corinthians 5:19). We are justified (reckoned righteous) by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. God’s demand for moral perfection has been satisfied by Christ for us (Matthew 5:17). Therefore, assurance can never be found by my looking in. It can only happen by faith-believing in him who was “delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” (Romans 4:25)
Martyn Lloyd-Jones is helpful here:
We can put it this way: the man who has faith is the man who is no longer looking at himself and no longer looking to himself. He no longer looks at anything he once was. He does not look at what he is now. He does not even look at what he hopes to be as the result of his own efforts. He looks entirely to the Lord Jesus Christ and His finished work, and rests on that alone. He has ceased to say, “Ah yes, I used to commit terrible sins but I have done this and that.” He stops saying that. If he goes on saying that, he has not got faith. Faith speaks in an entirely different manner and makes a man say, “Yes I have sinned grievously, I have lived a life of sin, yet I know that I am a child of God because I am not resting on any righteousness of my own; my righteousness is in Jesus Christ and God has put that to my account.”
True assurance, in other words, is grounded not on some word or work from inside us, but on the word of the gospel which comes from outside us and convinces us of what Jesus has done. Our assurance is anchored in the love and grace of God expressed in the glorious exchange: our sin for his righteousness. John Calvin wrote, “Faith is ultimately a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Institutes, 1:551 [3.2.7]). And since our faith is always weak and wavering, we need to be reminded of this good news all the time as it is communicated through preaching and confirmed in the sacraments. There must be a clear, continuous, and unqualified pronouncement of the assurance of salvation on the basis of the fullness of the atonement of Christ.
In the February 2003 issue of New Horizons, Peter Jensen writes:
The gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ says that the ground of our assurance is our justification. In Romans 5:1, Paul writes that “since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Faith in Jesus Christ (which is itself a gift from God) has given us access “into this grace in which we now stand” (vs. 2). We do not stand in any experience which we have had, we do not stand in any progress which we have made, we do not stand in our success in the battle against sin. We stand in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which he has justified us.
What we have to keep remembering is that “before the throne of God above” we are (and in ourselves always will be) imperfect-so, no assurance by looking at ourselves. But, “before the throne of God above, I have a strong and perfect plea”-and that strong plea is not my imperfect transformation by grace, it is not my love for God and neighbor, it’s not how much I’ve grown over the years. That strong and perfect plea is Jesus Christ-sola!
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me.
So, “when Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the guilt within”, if I look in I’m in big trouble. But, if “upward I look and see him there, who made an end of all my sin”, then by the miracle of faith, I can say to the accuser who roars of sins that I have done, “I know them all and thousands more, Jehovah knoweth none.”
It is for this reason (and in this context) that I told the story of the old pastor who, on his deathbed, said to his wife that he was certain he was going to heaven because he couldn’t remember one truly good work he had ever done. His assurance was grounded by faith where only true assurance can ever be grounded: Christ’s perfect work for us, not our imperfect work for him. Similarly, the great Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck was asked on his deathbed if he was afraid to die and he replied:
I have my faith, and in this I have all.
Rest assured: Before God, the righteousness of Christ is all we need; before God, the righteousness of Christ is all we have.