Having the opportunity to minister to young people for many years in the context of a Christian high school, I have counseled several recurring issues, namely anxiety, panic attacks, self-harm, morality issues, and assurance of salvation. One of the issues that seems to surface the most is the assurance of salvation.
Several reasons seem to contribute to a young person’s lack of assurance. First, they may lack confidence in the promises of God which are revealed in His Word, and this could lead to self-reliance or doubts regarding their salvation altogether. Second, there may be habitual sin in the life of the young believer which would bring about reasonable doubt to the genuineness of his repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10). Third, a young person might base their salvation upon their feelings rather than the work of the Spirit in their heart, and this causes the person to “feel” saved rather than accepting the Spirit’s testimony through the Word.
Thankfully for the counselor, the book of 1 John offers an excellent resource for counseling a believer through his or her struggles with doubting salvation, and in this post, I will point out several important ways to overcome a lack of assurance.
Direct young people back to the centrality of the written Word.
John says to those who believe in Christ, “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” (5:13). Many view this verse as the primary purpose of the book, and the focus of the verse is what John has written to the believers to help them to have confidence in the promise of God. If we look through the entirety of the book, John points to the written Word to confirm key areas for a Christian to consider using words like truth (1:6, 2:4) and His Word (2:5).
John also writes to Christians to give them confidence against the false teaching that could direct a person away from the promises of God. He says, “I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you” (2:26). This deception seems to be connected to their current knowledge of the Word that promises eternal life (2:25). Many kids pray to the Lord hundreds of times to be saved, but God promises to save forever those who believe (5:1, 13). We should remind them of the character of God and at times we can call kids to confess their unbelief to the Lord who has promised to forgive and cleanse (1:9) and believe that God will forgive.
Direct young people back to the daily walk of the Christian.
Throughout the letter, John points to several key areas for young people to examine regarding their walk with God – confession of sin, obedience, love, and belief. Two of these key areas have surfaced through the years as I have talked with young people. For example, they tend to struggle with remembering when they were saved or not remembering what they said when they believed. This could be a wrong view of what faith is: faith is not a past action or mere intellectual agreement to the facts of the gospel. But here the believer is saying, “I not only recognize the facts about Jesus and His gospel, and believe them to be true, but I believe that these facts apply directly to me, and I cling to them with all my heart, mind and soul.” John Murray helpfully challenges believers on this point. He says, “Faith is knowledge passing into conviction, and it is conviction passing into confidence. Faith cannot stop short of self-commitment to Christ, a transference of reliance upon ourselves and all human resources to reliance upon Christ alone for salvation. It is a receiving and resting upon him1John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 111..”
John also argues that our knowledge of salvation is firmly rooted in the commands to love others (2:10, 3:14, 18-19, 4:7-8). So, we can test the genuineness of our salvation by examining it with our obedience to God’s commandments, and of course, this doesn’t mean that we will have perfect obedience in this life. But the Holy Spirit changes a person, and we can ask the young person to think of a few ways that the Holy Spirit has changed him to love God, hate sin, and love his neighbors (3:17-18).
Direct young people back to the Spirit’s work in their lives.
The Holy Spirit’s work is vital for a young person to have assurance. First, it is the Spirit that causes a person to understand the truth of God. John says that we “have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge” (2:20). This anointing is a work of the Spirit that enables the believer to discern truth from falsehood (2:27, 4:6). Second, this work of illumination is a result of the work of regeneration which grants new birth and guarantees that the true believer will change and grow (John 2:29, 3:23-24, 5:1-3).
As counselors, we need to help young people understand that salvation is not a fuzzy feeling, but rather a work of the Spirit in their hearts. This can be accomplished by challenging the young person to memorize Scripture to help renew their minds in the truth. Teach the young person that feelings are a poor master, but the truth of the Word is what brings confidence through their struggle (5:13). Trust in the truths of Scripture, not the lies of your thoughts.
It is prudent as a counselor to direct one struggling with assurance to these three teachings in 1 John. Each teaching is working together to help a young person embrace what God says and thus gain assurance of salvation. The centrality of the Word encourages the walk of the believer (2:5) and reveals the work of the Spirit (2:20, 27). The Spirit helps the genuine believer to walk in obedience (2:24), belief (5:1), and love (4:12-13). Furthermore, the walk of the true believer reveals the Spirit’s work in overcoming sin (John 3:9) and walking in righteousness (2:29). Although no counselor can eliminate a young person’s doubts, he can faithfully challenge and bring the person back to these teachings in 1 John to help them take their thoughts captive, renew their minds and rest in Christ!
May the believer who is struggling with a lack of assurance come to see the glory of Christ in the pages of Scripture and listen to our perfect Substitute cry, “It is finished!”, and then say, “Amen.”