READ : Romans 8:14-17, 28-30
The American statesman Ben Franklin once quipped that the only certain things in life were death and taxes. But he was wrong. If you believe in Jesus Christ, you can be sure of something far better.
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him . . . We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Romans 8:14-17, 28-30, NRSV
As I’ve been thinking lately about the subject of assurance, the words of an old pop song have been running through my head. “How can I be sure, in a world that’s constantly changin’; how can I be sure where I stand with you?” Those lyrics are not a quest for knowledge; they’re an expression of doubt. The world being like it is, and human nature being what it is, you can never be sure of anything, the song says. There’s just too much inconstancy. Sometimes others let you down, people you loved and trusted. Sometimes you let them down. How can you be sure of your future happiness and security in a world that’s constantly changing? How can you be certain that, even if things are going well for you at present, they will continue that way indefinitely? How can you know that the relationships you depend on will endure, and that there will always be someone to love you, to take care of you, to meet your deepest needs? The song says you can’t. There is no assurance of anything; nothing’s guaranteed.
The Bible says something different. We can be sure, sure of love, sure of happiness, sure of our future. Christians are given a wonderful gift called assurance, and they’re given it through the gospel. One historic Christian statement puts it this way: As a believer, my only comfort (or source of strength, or assurance) both in life and in death is that I belong to Jesus Christ, and
because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly ready and willing from now on to live for him.
Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 1
THE GIFT OF ASSURANCE
The Christian’s assurance of salvation is both a gift from God to us, and the result of the work of God in us. Based on my own constancy of character and strength of will, I can’t even be sure I’ll like my friends next week, let alone that I’ll love God forever. In and of ourselves we are weak, fickle, changeable, untrustworthy. If it’s up to us, then the song is right – we can never be sure of anything. But our assurance is derived from God, and God is utterly dependable!
Assurance is based first on one’s relationship with God. It’s because we belong to him that Christ assures us of eternal life. Assurance is the fruit of a living relationship with the Lord Jesus. It’s a wonderful gift he gives when he grants eternal life and promises eternal security to those whom he knows and who know and love him. Jesus said:
I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me . . . my sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.
If Jesus is both willing and able to keep his promises, then nothing can take this gift from us. Our salvation is as certain as the power of God. It’s not that there aren’t other powers that would like to snatch us from the Lord’s hand, it’s not that there are no threats to our security, it’s not that we never have doubts and fears. On the contrary, most of us struggle with unbelief all the time, including many mature Christians. But God is stronger than every threat, stronger even than our fears and failures. He has promised, and he is faithful. The only way that anyone who belongs to Christ could be lost would be if God either broke his word or met an enemy that was stronger than he. How likely do you think that is?
THE SPIRIT’S MINISTRY
It would be nice to know a little more, though, about how assurance works. How does a Christian actually come to feel that he belongs to the Lord Jesus, or to be convinced in her own experience that she has the gift of eternal life? The apostle gives the answer in Romans 8.
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him . . . We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
vv. 14-17, 28, NRSV
Assurance is a function of the presence of the Holy Spirit within us. Many Christians are a little vague about the nature and work of the Spirit, but a careful study of this chapter in the book of Romans will go a long way toward correcting that.
The first thing to take note of is that all Christians, without exception, have God’s Spirit living within them. Just before the passage quoted above, Paul wrote, “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ” (v. 9). A Christian by definition is a person who belongs to Christ, and one in whom Christ lives. Through the parallel expressions Paul uses in this passage (referring interchangeably to the “Spirit,” “the Spirit of God,” “the Spirit of Christ,” and just “Christ,” vv. 9-10), he makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is the one through whom we come to Christ and through whom Christ indwells us. When we receive Christ, it is actually the Holy Spirit who takes up residence within us; more than that, it’s the Spirit whose work in our hearts enables us to receive Christ in the first place. So the Spirit dwells within every Christian right from the start; in fact, no one can even become a Christian apart from the presence of the Holy Spirit in his or her heart.
Next, Paul says, everyone who is led by the Spirit (that is, who is indwelt with the Spirit’s presence and is living under his influence and guidance), is the child of God (v. 14) because the Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of adoption” (v. 15). The Spirit enables us to believe in Christ, and this faith works a change in our status so that we become God’s children, his adopted sons and daughters. John Wesley, one of the great Christian leaders of all time, said that despite his early religious training, despite his good works, despite the fact that he was an ordained minister, he only really became a Christian when he “changed the faith of a slave for that of a son.” There is a spirit of slavery that sees God only as a fearsome authority, but the Holy Spirit, when he comes into our lives, opens our minds and hearts to the truth that if we are in Christ God is our loving Father. He speaks to us on a level deeper than words or arguments, driving home the understanding that despite our sinfulness we are loved by God and accepted in Christ, and a filial love floods our hearts in response, so that we cry out to God, “Abba, Father.” Then we truly know ourselves to be God’s very children, and as children we experience God differently. We have access to God and intimacy with him; we are comfortable in his presence. There is a famous photograph, made over 30 years ago, of President John F. Kennedy in his office in the White House. The President is standing, conversing with an aide, while at his feet his young son is playing hide-and-seek under the desk. The change that the Holy Spirit works in us is like the difference in that picture between the aide and the little boy. One is a servant, on duty, tense. The other is a child at home with his daddy. As God’s children, we have security in our relationship with him; we are sure of our identity and status, sure of his love.
ASSURANCE FOR THE FUTURE AND THE PRESENT
The final point is made with logical precision in verse 17. If we are God’s children, then we must also be his heirs, for naturally children will inherit their parents’ possessions in the normal course of events. We are not God’s only heirs, of course, for we are not his only children; we have been adopted into his family alongside Jesus, his only begotten Son. But we can expect to share with Christ as co-heirs. And what can the heirs of the God of all the universe look forward to inheriting? The answer, in one word, is glory. It’s true that the way to future glory involves present suffering. If we are led by the Spirit, we will have to put to death our sinful nature and its misdeeds, and that is painful. It’s also true that we groan along with the rest of creation as we wait for the redemption of our bodies. And presently we share Christ’s sufferings. The same kind of opposition and persecution he had to endure is usually the lot of his followers. But of this we are unshakably certain: if we share Christ’s sufferings, we will also share his glory.
The assurance God gives us is of a future glorious existence of joy without tears, light without shadows, delight without pain, gain without loss, life without death. But it is also an assurance for here and now, in the present, a certainty that enables us to endure whatever suffering does come to us. Listen again to Paul’s words:
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28).
What a marvelous truth that is! Notice, it’s not that all things are good in themselves – we know they’re not. It’s not that everything somehow works out for good, that, to use the sarcastic words of the French skeptic Voltaire, “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” No, our faith is not in things, or in a process; our faith is in God. The best doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the worst does. But we have the assurance that God is able to turn even the worst into glory in the end. One of my closest and dearest friends in all the world lost his wife, his mother, and his little daughter in the same horrible automobile accident. Now, three years later, he does not believe that the suffering he and his family have endured and continue to endure is good. He doesn’t see that what happened is anything but evil, nor does he claim to be able to understand it. But he does believe that God is good, and he does understand that God is able to use even that evil thing in order to work out his good purpose, and he does know beyond the shadow of a doubt that this purpose of God’s is invincible and it will end in glory eternally some day.
“Ah,” but you say, “you may have that kind of assurance, but I don’t have it; I’m not sure of anything. I don’t even know if I believe in God.” It’s true that the assurance I’ve been talking about is a possession for Christians. It’s for those who are led by the Spirit of God, those who love God, those who are called by God. But don’t you realize – it could also be for you too? Don’t you hear him calling you, even now? Respond to him, say yes to him, and you can be God’s daughter, God’s son, God’s heir. You can be sure of everything that really matters.