How do I know if I’m really a Christian?
That’s an eternally important question, and yet, sadly, it’s one that many Christians struggle to answer. They may not realize that it’s possible to have assurance, or perhaps they’re looking for assurance in the wrong places or in the wrong ways. Thankfully, God doesn’t leave us in the dark when it comes to our standing before Him. He wants His children to know that they belong to Him, which is one of the reasons He gave us the book of 1 John.
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 Jn 5:13)
This brief yet penetrating book gives us evidences of eternal life to look for in our lives. Seeing these evidences should bring assurance and joy to God’s children, which is one of the reasons we’re providing a new (free) resource titled 1 John: Love Made Known Bible Study, At the same time, 1 John offers a much-needed warning to those who lack these evidences of eternal life. It is entirely possible to think that things are okay between you and God when, in reality, you don’t actually have eternal life. There are likely many people in our churches today who fit that description. (Is that you?) Of all the things to be deceived about, nothing could be worse than being deceived about where you will spend eternity.
Finding a Firm Foundation
The book of 1 John, as well as many other parts of Scripture, teaches that the lives of God’s children should look different from the world. However, this causes some professing Christians to worry about their standing with God because they don’t know how different they should look. Others assume that their standing before God is secure even though they have little or no desire to obey God. To be clear, no follower of Christ is without sin, so we should not expect anything close to sinless perfection prior to Christ’s return. At the same time, those who profess Christ as their Savior and Lord should be characterized by obedience and an increasing hatred of sin.
Since eternity is at stake, we need to have a firm foundation for our assurance. Consider the false foundations for assurance listed below and identify any that you may be relying on for your standing before God. Remember, these aren’t bad things, but they don’t necessarily indicate that someone possesses eternal life in Christ:
False Foundations for Assurance
- Religious heritage: growing up in a Christian home or attending a Christian school
- Church involvement: regularly attending and serving in the church
- A moral lifestyle: trying to be a good person and to live with integrity
- Intellectual knowledge: knowing the facts of the gospel
- Active ministry: serving others sacrificially or participating in church programs
- A guilty conscience: feeling bad when you do something wrong
- Positive thinking: being sincere in your beliefs and assuming that you are right
- A past decision: remembering a time, place, feeling, or experience when you think you became a Christian
Again, these “false foundations” are not inherently bad, but it is dangerous to base our assurance on them. Gratefully, Scripture gives us true foundations for our assurance. The questions below can help us determine whether we truly possess eternal life:
True Foundations for Assurance
- Are you trusting in Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of your sin? Are you trusting in your own good works, or are you relying on who Jesus is and what He has done—based on the teaching of Scripture—for your salvation?
- Are you obeying Jesus as the Lord of your life? Do you seek to submit your life to Christ by obeying His Word? Does your sin and disobedience bother you?
- Are you showing the love of God to others? Do you have a special affection for God’s people, and does your love lead you to care for their needs in practical, and even sacrificial, ways?
- Are you experiencing God’s love for you? Do you find yourself comforted and strengthened when you hear of what God has done for you in Christ? Do you long to know and experience more of Christ’s love?
Answering “yes” to these questions should give us assurance that we have eternal life in Jesus Christ. Of course, each of us has (a lot of) room to grow in each of these areas, so we should be looking for holy direction, not holy perfection. And we should be careful about making our obedience, or even our faith, the basis of our assurance. The basis of our assurance is God’s character and the promises He has given us in the gospel. We rely on Christ’s perfect obedience in place of our disobedience, His death as the payment for our sins, and His resurrection as the guarantee of our own victory over sin, death, and hell. While our faith may be weak and our obedience will always be imperfect, Christ is a sufficient Savior.
Struggling with Assurance
There are various reasons genuine Christians lack assurance of their salvation: exposure to unbiblical teaching on the gospel and/or assurance, a refusal to repent of known sin, an increasing awareness of one’s own sin, a natural disposition that is prone to introspection and melancholy, etc. Such struggles may be short-lived or, for some, they may linger. It’s important to walk through such struggles and questions in the fellowship of God’s people, the church. If you are not a member of a local church, commit to finding one that preaches the gospel and is committed to the authority of God’s Word.
If you struggle with assurance, ask one of your church leaders or a trusted member of your church to talk and pray with you about it. Continue looking to the promises of God’s Word and meditate regularly on the gospel. Beware of those who tell you not to worry about assurance or who flippantly offer you their own assurance of your standing with God. God often uses others in this process, but it is ultimately the Spirit who must bring assurance. For a good resource on this topic, see Donald Whitney’s book How Can I Be Sure I’m a Christian?: What the Bible Says About Assurance of Salvation.
If you conclude that you have not truly turned from your sin and trusted in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, you can ask Him now to forgive your sins and to give you eternal life. (Go here for more on the question “What is the Gospel?”) Speak with a trusted Christian friend or talk to your pastor if you have further questions. Even if you have professed to be a follower of Christ for years, this issue is too important to ignore.
—This article is adapted from the 1 John: Love Made Known Bible Study, which is based on the sermon series titled “Love Made Known” by David Platt. To download a free copy of this Bible study, go here.