Supposing that assurance of salvation is possible, how might it happen? The Bible and the Wesleyan theological tradition give us some ideas.
First, and most importantly, is the witness of the Holy Spirit. Texts that explicitly use witness language are found in Romans and I John. I John 5:10-11 uses witness language more generally: “Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” In this case, God has given testimony of the way things are. This testimony is not necessarily directed to me as an individual, but to all who will listen. Romans gets more personal. There (Romans 8:16) Paul speaks of the Spirit of God bearing witness with our spirits that we are his children. Here the sense is not just of a general fact from which we can reason for ourselves regarding our status, but the notion that Spirit speaks to us as individuals.
The Spirit speaks from within, because the Spirit is the gift of God to all who believe. When we put our faith in Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes to live within us. We see this in Ephesians 1:13-14: “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession– to the praise of his glory.” A down payment “guaranteeing our inheritance” sounds good to me. A very similar passage is found in 2 Cor. 1:21-22: “Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, 22 set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”
The Holy Spirit is the direct witness that we belong to God. Wesley also spoke of an indirect witness. The indirect witness comes from our considering the evidence before us. In this regard a good place to start is to ask, “Have I ever put my faith in Jesus?” This is not the question, “Do I know about Jesus?” or “Do I believe Jesus exists?” It is also not the question, “Have I done things in Jesus’ vicinity (i.e., participated in church)?” The faith question does have a knowledge element. We know something about Jesus and the life he offers. Often this knowledge will be very minimal. But what matters next is what we do with it.
Think of it this way. (I build here from imagery in John 1:12) You see someone standing in front of you. He is holding a beautifully wrapped gift, apparently offering it to you. You can acknowledge his presence and the presence of the gift. You can comment on the gift and study the details of the gift. But all that misses the point. The point is to receive the gift. And the way we receive the gift is with empty hands. Because it’s a gift, it’s not a matter of offering something in exchange. We come with empty hands. We don’t offer Jesus our resumes, whether intellectual, familial, moral or religious. We extend our empty hands and receive.
This is the first and most important question. Have you received Jesus’ gift of life, his gift of himself? If you have, that is a profound clue to consider.
A second thing to consider is what your life looks like following your reception of the gift. Is there a difference between before and after? One practical way Wesley expressed this was through what he called the General Rules. These are framed, even today, in epistemological terms, as a way to give evidence of where we stand with God. Put most colloquially, these three rules can be summarized as:
- Don’t do bad stuff.
- Do good stuff.
- Live with God.
The first rule means that when we look at our lives we see a sensitivity to sin, both against God and against others. We are sensitive enough that we do what is in our power to avoid that sin. We avoid breaking laws. We avoid hurting others.
The second rule approaches the issue from the other direction. We don’t only refrain from doing what we shouldn’t do, but we also dedicate our lives to doing what we should do. We love others and build them up. We seek to extend blessing near and far, as much as we can.
In these first two rules Wesley addresses sins of commission and sins of omission. Both are serious. Both keep us from God’s best. When we look at our lives and see that we are avoiding wrong and doing the right, that is a clue to us that God is indeed living within us, a clue that when we hear the voice of the Spirit we are not merely fantasizing.
Moralism alone will get us these first two rules. Committed atheists and practitioners of other ways of living will encourage us to turn from doing bad things and turn to doing good things. It’s the third rule that makes the set as a whole explicitly Christian.
When Wesley talks about living with God (that’s my language – he speaks of attending to all “God’s ordinances”) we move beyond merely the things of life that passively give us evidence – we look, we see, we discern – to that which actively gives us assurance. In other words, as we engage in certain practices, such as engaging with scripture, prayer, confession, fellowship with other Christians, worship, and the Lord’s Supper, for example, we experience grace and are built up in the faith. We gain assurance in our life with God as we actively live out that life with God. This is a hugely important point and I will return to it later.