2 Peter No. 4, “Assurance”
2 Peter 1:3-11
August 26, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
We have read vv. 3-7 before, but we’ll read them again to establish the context.
v.8 Notice Peter’s point: if you have these qualities mentioned in vv. 5-7, which is to say, if you are a Christian at all, you must see to it that they are increasing, growing more visible and influential day by day. To be unfruitful or ineffective is not simply to be less than you might be. To be unfruitful or ineffective is to raise the question whether you are a Christian at all. True Christians are fruit-bearers; they are not like the seed in the Lord’s parable of the sower, seed that produces plants that either because they are scorched by the sun or choked by the weeds do not bear fruit.
v.9 Peter emphasizes the point he just made by saying that the man or woman who stands on his or her laurels and makes no effort to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord is blind. “Blindness” in the New Testament is often used as a metaphor for an inability to see spiritual realities. The translators of the ESV (and of the NIV) made an interesting choice here, reversing the order of Peter’s Greek. He wrote “blind and nearsighted” not the other way round. But how can someone who is blind also be nearsighted? So the paraphrase you have before you. There are various suggestions to resolve the problem but the point is clear: this blindness or nearsightedness is willful and deliberate; it is no accident. The person has turned his or her back on what God has done for him or her in Christ, how his or her sins were forgiven and so what life is all about and, as Peter will go on to make clear in the rest of the letter, how it will come at last under God’s final judgment. All of that has been forgotten, all of that has been ignored, and life is going on as if none of that is true.
v.10 The “therefore,” harks back to what Peter has already said in the paragraph so far – as I mentioned a few Lord’s Day evenings ago, verses 1-11 are a single sentence in Peter’s Greek – about Christ giving us all that we need for life and godliness, his great promises, the prospect of partaking in the divine nature, the obligation to supplement our faith with ever increasing measures of godliness, and, finally, the danger of allowing a creeping spiritual blindness to overtake us. Therefore, make your calling and election sure.
Calling and election are clearly, obviously, and emphatically throughout the NT divine acts, but making sure of them in our own particular case is our work. It appears that the false teachers spoke a lot of their own calling and election but turned them into an excuse for sinning, as if because they were chosen of God they could live as they pleased. [Calvin in Green83]
There are a number of interesting subjects we might explore in verses 8-11, but I want to concentrate on Peter’s summary statement in vv. 10-11. He says that if we do what he has challenged us to do – namely, work to deepen our devotion to God and to our neighbor, to increase our godliness in the various ways mentioned in vv. 5-7 – we will make our calling and election sure. That is, we will know for sure that we have a place in God’s eternal kingdom. Now, clearly enough, divine election is a sure thing. The gifts and callings of God are irrevocable, as we read in the Apostle Paul. But paradoxically we can ourselves only be sure that we have been chosen by God if we are living the Christian life with real intention and serious purpose.
People, of course, are masters of self-deception. They can assume all manner of things about themselves that are not true. We see this all the time. It’s no secret that people lie to themselves about themselves regarding a host of different things. And the Bible warns us repeatedly of the danger of thinking oneself a Christian when one is not. In his Sermon on the Mount the Lord Jesus spoke of those who would say to him on the Great Day, “Lord, did we not cast out demons in your name” only to hear the Lord reply to them, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” In his parables of the Last Judgment given to us in Matthew 25, that of the wise and foolish virgins, that of the talents, and that of sheep and the goats, the Lord is at pains to give a similar warning. He describes people who assumed they were safe only to find at the end, when it is too late, that they had all along been indulging an illusion. Many of the figures in these parables, although they addressed him as Lord, though they all were mystified at their rejection, they were at the last shut out of the great feast. They imagined themselves the people of God when they were not. Paul and now Peter from time to time in their letters worry aloud that some of their readers may be indulging that very illusion.
“Examine yourselves,” Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians, “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! I hope you will find out that we have not failed the test.” [2 Cor. 13:5-6]
There are untold multitudes of Christians sitting in Christian congregations every Lord’s Day who have never once tested themselves to see if they are in the faith. John, remember, wrote his first letter precisely to teach his Christian readers how to be sure of their salvation, how to know that they have eternal life, the very thing Peter wants his readers to know. If that were not a living question, if a mistake here were not a real possibility, there wouldn’t be so much said about it in the Word of God.
In all these places and many others biblical writers discuss what has come to be called “the assurance of salvation.” How may I know for sure that I am saved; that I will not be among those who hear the Lord say to them, “Depart from me I never knew you.” Such people thought they were saved, but they were not. How can I be sure that I am not like them? This used to be a more pressing concern for Christian people than it is nowadays, but I’m afraid the reason for that is not because Christians by and large have taken the biblical instruction regarding the assurance of salvation more and more to heart. It is because the warnings about false assurance are more and more falling on deaf ears. It is because the warnings do not strike us in the same way they stuck previous generations. We do not take them as seriously. I suspect most of us – not all of us but most of us – are aware that the culture in which we live is having an insidious effect on our hearts. Every culture does, but dying cultures and self-congratulating cultures like ours particularly have that effect. The fear of the Lord, the reality of his judgment, the seriousness of his warnings, all of this is increasingly leaking out of our conscious awareness. In an antinomian age like ours, it is increasingly difficult to get people to worry about the possibility of spiritual delusion, no matter how seriously the Bible warns us of the danger. Moreover, the culture is having a similar effect on preachers and preaching. The number of sermons preached even to Bible-believing congregations regarding this danger is vanishingly small in our day. Such is the power of culture to deafen us or, as Peter has it here, to blind us to the truth.
As a matter of fact, the assurance of salvation is addressed at length and in several different ways throughout the Bible, precisely because mistakes here can have such lethal consequences both for now and for eternity. Most religious people, after all, even if only nominal practitioners of their faith – whatever their faith may be – rather blithely assume that all will be well with them in the world to come. The majority of Muslims are nominal, as are the majority of Christians, as are the majority of Mormons, and so on. But their nominalism doesn’t worry them. There is no assurance of salvation in Islam as there is none in Roman Catholicism. And yet few of these people lie awake at night wringing their hands over the uncertainty of their future. And, in a worryingly similar way, while the Bible has some shuddering things to say about false assurance, fewer and fewer evangelical Christians seem to be taking seriously the possibility of mistaking their salvation. Not a good sign. No one wishes for large numbers of Christians to be constantly wracked by anxiety about their salvation. On the other hand, if a Christian never or hardly ever gives the question of his or her assurance a serious thought, given what the Bible says and given how often the Bible says it, that can’t be good either!
To summarize a great deal of biblical data and Christian theology, Christian assurance is usually said to resemble a three-legged stool. That is, the assurance of one’s salvation is taught to be based on three realities, the absence of any one of which can topple the serious believer into doubts about whether he or she has actually been saved, about whether his or her sins have actually been forgiven, about whether he or she is actually born again, about whether heaven or hell awaits.
The first and foremost of those foundations of assurance is the promises of God and the work of Christ. God has taught us in his Word that if we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved. If we confess our sins God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins. That we do believe, that we do trust the Lord Jesus to save us from our sins, that we count on his resurrection from the dead as the first fruits of our own resurrection at his coming again, that we are looking for the better country, all of this must mean that we are saved, because God has promised that anyone who trusts Jesus for this salvation will have this salvation. Peter here refers to Christ’s having given to those who know him all we need for life, he has made to us his precious and very great promises, and so on. Do you believe in these promises; do you trust Christ for this salvation; do you look to him for your life, now and forever? If the answer to these questions is “yes,” then you may be confident that you are a child of God and an heir of everlasting life.
But, that raises a question, a question any thoughtful, serious believer will inevitably raise. How can I know if I really believe? I mean, “I do believe in Christ, but I know only too well how often it does not really seem that I am believing. If I were truly believing, wouldn’t I sin less and serve God more? Wouldn’t my life be more godly than it is? Wouldn’t I pray more earnestly and at greater length? Wouldn’t I share my faith more boldly with those who do not believe? After all, these are the most wonderful things in the world. If I really believed them, wouldn’t they mark my life more visibly and dramatically than they do? Am I fooling myself in thinking that I am a believer?
So we move on to the next leg of the stool, the next ground or foundation of the assurance of salvation: the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. In Romans 8 Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit bearing witness with our spirits that we are the children of God. Christians know very well the experience of conviction, even certainty that can fill their soul from time to time. Think of the man in Psalm 73 whose “feet had almost stumbled” because he had observed the prosperity of the wicked and had come to envy them. As he looked around the world it didn’t seem to him that faith in God was delivering the goods. The wicked seemed to be better off than the righteous. And the more he thought about this, the more it troubled him, and the more doubt began to eat away at his faith in the Lord. Then one Sabbath day – because he was a habitual Christian; a very good thing to be – he went to the temple as he always did and whether it was the great hymns that were sung or a fine sermon that was preached or the offering of the sacrifice, in a moment conviction of the truth of God, his grace, his Word, his promises came flooding back into his soul. That day he left the church, his doubts banished, and his feet ten inches off the ground for the joy of the Lord. That is the witness of the Holy Spirit with our spirits that we are the children of God. Or think of those believers in the Bible, many of whom wrote psalms that are now part of the Word of God, who were afflicted in some way, made to endure terrible troubles, but who found themselves unable to deny the Lord, unable to throw his or her faith overboard. Perhaps they couldn’t explain it themselves, but they knew what they knew. That too is the witness of the Holy Spirit.
Some of you will remember that arresting scene in Sheldon Vanauken’s great book A Severe Mercy. He was a young Christian having come to faith in part through the influence of C.S. Lewis in Oxford where he and his wife had gone to study. All was wonderful as they both became Christians and began remaking their lives on the foundation of faith in Christ. But upon returning to the United States, Davy got sick and then died, a young woman and a young Christian. Sheldon came to think that he had been had, had been sold a bill of goods, that if Christianity were real, if God were there, if Christ had really risen from the dead, his wife would not have died. What good is a Savior who can’t even keep one of his newest disciples alive!
He fully intended to give up his new-found faith and, romantic that he was, he drove out to what had been one of their favorite spots in the country where he would formally surrender his Christian faith and drive home an unbeliever. But when he tried to do so, to recant his faith, he found that he couldn’t. He couldn’t explain it, but there it was. He was a Christian and couldn’t not be one. That is the witness of the Holy Spirit to our hearts.
But, of course, there a great many times when we cannot detect such a witness. Our doubts rise and they aren’t removed in a church service; we aren’t overwhelmed with a sense of the love of God or the power of Christ’s atonement; we don’t find our convictions an impregnable fortress. Our prayers don’t seem to make it through the ceiling. We seem to be powerless before our sins. Far from receiving some direct and powerful communication from on high, the Lord seems very far away and little interested in what is happening in our lives. Every Christian has this experience and most of us enough of the time to make us worry from time to time if anyone is actually there! Where is the witness of the Holy Spirit then?
So we move on to the last leg under the stool of the assurance of salvation: the changed life. When Christ enters a life by his Holy Spirit, things change, change dramatically from what they were or, in the case of covenant children, from what they otherwise would have been. That change is so predictable, both the fact of it and the nature of it, that it becomes evidence that salvation has occurred, that a man or woman is born again, sanctified by the power of God.
In First John, this change – one of the evidences of eternal life that John enumerates in his letter – is described both in terms of obedience to God’s commandments and the love of the brethren. In Christian theology this ground or argument for assurance is known as the practical syllogism, the syllogismus practicus. You know what a syllogism is, a logical argument created from a major and minor premise leading to a logically necessary conclusion. In this case, the major premise is “Every true Christian and only a Christian will perform works in keeping with repentance.” The minor premise is “I perform such works.” and the conclusion is “Therefore I am a Christian.” That puts it too simply, of course, but the point is certainly biblical. We are taught in many places and in many ways that God’s grace in our lives will produce a life of obedience to God’s commandments, a life of love for God and man, and a life of combat with one’s sin in the heart, in the speech, and in the behavior. Indeed, there is an immense amount of information in the Bible precisely intended to delineate the character of a real follower of Jesus Christ. So it is hardly a surprise that the Bible would argue, as it clearly does, that the signs of that character is further evidence of salvation, that Christ is truly at work in one’s life, and that eternal life has begun. As the Lord Jesus said, “By their fruits you will know them.”
But, of course, that too is hardly without its complications. How many works and which works in keeping with repentance? And what about all our sins? How do we measure our obedience to God or our love of the brethren when there is so much disobedience too and so great a lack of love in every Christian life? Paul was so dismayed by the extent of the sin still left in his Christian life that he was willing to describe himself as still a bond-slave of sin! How can a bond-slave of sin take comfort from his obedience and his Christian love? And who is to measure how much of a changed life is enough? We all know Christians who seem to be holier than we are! After all, the professing Christians to whom the Lord will say, “Depart from me, I never knew you,” had cast out demons in the Lord’s name! I’ve never done that! Have you?
As you can see, assurance is a complicated matter of spiritual life as it is a complicated doctrine. It has to be applied from many directions at the same time. It requires a sophistication in one’s understanding of the teaching of the Bible and observation of the Christian life. No wonder Christians throughout the ages have struggled to attain or keep assurance of salvation. And given the warnings we find in the Bible and the complications in the evidences of salvation, I can’t believe that the Lord didn’t expect it to be a struggle at least from time to time for almost any Christian. And certainly we know that it is more of a struggle for some than it is for others.
Now, in that context, listen to Peter once again. What he says is that progress in the Christian life is a token, an evidence, a proof of one’s being chosen of God. The way to be sure of your election, then, is to devote yourself to that progress. A Christian standing still, going nowhere, making no use of God’s gifts, is not a Christian who has a right to the assurance of his or her salvation. The way you know you are really believing the promises of God is to act on those promises, one of which is that Christ has given you everything you need for life and godliness. The way to cultivate and to provoke the witness of the Holy Spirit in your heart is to seek still greater measures of the knowledge of the Lord Jesus and to partake more and more of his divine nature. And the way to advance in those works of obedience and service and devotion that are the sign of your election is precisely to continue to grow in each of those areas by applying yourself to the cultivation and exercises of those spiritual graces.
The Christian life has these two sides: the divine side, what God has given and done for us and in us and the human side, what we are called upon to do in faith and obedience, in prayer and in work, in gratitude and in desire. The human work makes the divine work more visible, easier to detect. The election and calling are God’s doing; salvation is of the Lord. But the question is: how am I to know that I am chosen by God and that I am called to new life in Christ? You can search the Bible from beginning to end but you won’t find your name in it anywhere. How do you know its promises apply to you?
Think of it this way. You are the temple of the Holy Spirit. The Bible teaches you that. But the temple is first simply a sanctuary, a sacred space, a building. When the temple was first built that was all that it was. It became more obviously a temple when the furniture was added – the altar, the great basins of water, the incense burners, the table for the bread, the candlestick, the Ark of the Covenant, and so on. Still, even when all the furniture and equipment had been put in place, you still needed the priests and Levites, the worshippers, the sacrificial animals, the wood for the fires, and so on. Only when fully furnished and manned, and only when the worship actually began was the temple truly a temple, obviously and visibly a temple, what it had been built to be. Well there are Christians who have nothing but an empty building, there are others who have added a few pieces of furniture, but what any true believer should be after is a temple that is fully furnished, manned, supplied, and in operation, with worship being offered to God. Do you ever imagine what the temple in Jerusalem was like when it was in operation day after day after day? There were priests and Levites everywhere; there were worshippers everywhere; there were animals squealing because of the smell of the blood; there was blood everywhere; there was water everywhere as the blood was being washed away down the gutters; there was the fire burning and the smoke and smell of cooking flesh; it was a warren, a beehive of activity. Think of your Christian life that way: as a fully functioning temple, a warren of activity, God being loved, worshipped, and served wherever one looks. That is to be you, your Christian life not a blank space, but temple noisy with all manner of holy activity. The Lord’s presence will be known in such a temple! That is Peter’s encouragement.
In times of the Spirit’s power, in times of revival in the history of the church, Christians discovered that there is a very great difference between believing that one is saved and knowing it! Assurance in such times is a power in the Christian life. When a man or woman knows that his or sins are forgiven, knows the witness of the Holy Spirit, knows the changed life as a reality in his or her daily experience, everything becomes more powerful, more vivid, more impressive, and more immediate: God’s love, the greatness of sin and the wonder of forgiveness, the beauty of righteousness and the ache to have more of it in one’s life, and the anticipation of heaven. So assurance of heaven is not simply for the sake of a Christian’s peace of mind. As Peter puts it here, it makes a Christian life effective and fruitful, it makes that life more stable and impregnable to temptation, and it brings down upon you fresh measures of the Lord’s provision. The Great Awakening evangelists use to make it a practice to ask if a believer had assurance, because this was key to a fruitful, effective Christian life. Do you know that your sins are forgiven? That isn’t the same question as “Do you believe in Christ?” That question can be answered in the affirmative, indeed it will be answered in the affirmative by many who do not know but only think that their sins are forgiven. Do you know that your sins have been forgiven? That is a question that can be rightly answered only by someone who understands the question and knows on what grounds it can be answered!
But I want to end with this. Don’t miss the obvious here. Peter is telling you how to make your calling and election sure! That is, he is telling you both that you ought to make your calling and election sure and that you can by taking certain steps. Now what would it mean for someone to ignore Peter’s advice. Well, it would mean that he or she doesn’t care to know whether he or she is saved. Put it that way and it becomes obvious that there would be nothing any thinking Christian would want to know more than that he or she was certainly saved and going to heaven. More than that, if what brings that kind of assurance also brings effectiveness and fruitfulness in one’s Christian life, then assurance is to be prized and sought even more.
No false modesty here; no asking, “Who am I to know that I am definitely chosen by God and bound for the Promised Land? Doesn’t it almost seem arrogant for a pipsqueak like me to make such a claim?” NO, it is not arrogance for a Christian to make such a claim. It is God who saves, after all. And in seeking and gaining assurance we are only doing what he has told us to do and only seeking those things that are pleasing to him. A Christian who lives without assurance of salvation is under-developed, not fully grown and will never be as effective or fruitful as he or she can and ought to be. [Lloyd-Jones, 38] The joy of the Lord is our strength, we read in God’s Word and nothing brings joy like increasing measures of the assurance of salvation. And such joy and confidence empowers our witness to others and our care for our neighbor and our patience in trial. Certainty increases influence and certainty of salvation increases influence at the most critical point of human life.
What Peter is saying is simply this: the best way to obtain the assurance of salvation and the deeper experiences and influences and motivations that such assurance supplies, is to practice the Christian life, to practice it with real intention, with commitment, with zeal.
Do you know for sure? Are you living in that confidence? Do others see that assurance radiating from you? Do you want it; do you want that joy and that influence and that effectiveness? Keep Christ and his promises in the forefront of your mind; go over them again and again in your meditation, and then set to work adding to your faith knowledge, self-control, godliness, love and all the rest. Don’t assume the Christian life, live it, practice it, put it to work, and every now and then put yourself to the test. Since you are a temple of the Holy Spirit, make sure that temple is a beehive of holy activity. That is the way to be sure that when you are finished here, you will find a warm welcome in the eternal kingdom.