So let’s suppose that the reason we are interested in finding assurance of salvation is not so we can feel at ease doing our own thing in the world, with only minimal and occasional glances back to make sure we’re still tethered to God. What are the other options?
Think of someone who is married. Walk up to them and ask, “How do you know you are married?” I’ve asked this question many times and after enduring looks of confusion, perhaps the most common answer is, “I was there!”
It is an odd question, isn’t it? Except in cases of amnesia it’s likely rare that anyone would ask, “How do you know you’re married?” Once married, we just live as married people.
Or suppose you walk up to a person on a baseball field and ask, “Are you playing baseball? If so, how do you know?” Again, an odd question. If one is in a baseball game one’s focus is on playing the game, not on stepping back and wondering if one really is playing or not. (Of course, if you’ve ever seen a game, realize that T-ball is an exception here. Who knows what’s going on in the minds of those youngsters.)
I want to suggest that having assurance of salvation is like knowing that you’re married or knowing that you’re playing baseball. Assurance is something we gain as we “play the game.” Salvation is not an extrinsic reward added on after this life. It is an ongoing relationship with God that starts at the moment we receive Jesus. As willing participants in his story, salvation is a life we live. Assurance comes as we live that life.
Can we do marriage poorly? No doubt about that. It is not merely doing marriage poorly that detracts from and makes us begin to doubt our relationship; rather, it can be pulling back and objectifying the marriage, thinking of it as something “out there,” instead of something in which I am intimately involved.
Similarly, assurance of salvation becomes a problem for us when we withdraw from our relationship with God, maybe not far, but far enough that we begin objectifying it. Remember Wesley’s three General Rules I mentioned the other day? The third of those would have us engage in a life with God: immersion in Scripture, prayer, fellowship, worship, communion, etc. When we disengage from these disciplines, we disengage from life with God – from the continuing life with God we call salvation. Seen this way, these and other Christian practices are not things we do in order to have a relationship with God; no, they are expressions, ways of being that come from having a relationship with God.
If this picture is correct, the point of having assurance is not so we can have God in our pocket as a safety card while we go do our own thing. No, the point of assurance becomes having the confidence and security to base our identity on Christ and to join in his mission. Because we have assurance, we don’t need to worry or fear. We can trust God; we can obey God. God will see us through.