Different people ask this question in different ways:
- How can I be sure that I am going to heaven?
- How can I know if my sins are truly forgiven?
- What is the character of a true Christian?
- What are the marks of saving grace?
- What is the difference between a sincere believer and a self-deceived hypocrite?
- Does a real Christian struggle with sin as much as I do?
- How can I find assurance that I am a child of God?
These are important questions. If we make a mistake here, and presume that we are Christians when actually we are not, there will never be an opportunity to correct it in the fires of hell, not through all the endless ages of eternity. And Scripture itself lays upon us the duty of self-examination. “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” (2 Cor. 13:5).
The Bible is full of help to settle these issues:
- Some parts of Scripture are written with this express purpose, like the First Epistle of John. He explained: “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). His letter is full of marks which distinguish the true children of God from unbelievers.
- The historical portions of God’s Word are full of characters on both sides of the question. For example, in the Old Testament there is the contrast between Saul and David, the first two kings of Israel. Although Saul was given “another heart” (1 Sam. 10:9) which enabled him to rule over the people, his sad story shows that he never obtained the new heart of a true believer. David, on the other hand, was “a man after God’s own heart” and a true child of God, even though he was guilty of grievous sin. In the New Testament, among the disciples of Christ there is the difference between Judas Iscariot and Simon Peter. Judas enjoyed many privileges, but was never converted. In the end he betrayed the Saviour, and instead of repenting and turning back to Christ for pardon, he fell into despair and hung himself. Peter was subject to a number of grievous falls, especially denying his Master three times, but being a truly gracious person he turned back to Christ in renewed faith and repentance.
- The experimental (or experiential) parts of the Bible, especially the Psalms, express the desires and delights, the trials and discouragements, of the true child of God. Souls should examine themselves whether the Holy Spirit produces the same exercises in their souls too.
Even with all these guidelines in the Word of God, still the Holy Spirit is needed to enable souls to reach right conclusions about themselves. “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God” (Rom. 8:16). Our own hearts are “deceitful above all things” (Jer. 17:9), and too ready to reach comfortable, but unfounded conclusions. Let self-examination be conducted, then, in prayerful dependence on the Spirit’s help. “Examine me, O Lord, and prove me; try my reins and my heart” (Ps. 26:2).
A very clear answer is given to these questions in a book by a Scottish minister of the 17th century named William Guthrie, called The Christian’s Great Interest which can be read at the link. This has helped many troubled souls to clear up their interest, or otherwise, in Christ. You can click on the link to read it online or you can purchase a copy from our Bookshop. To read a more detailed introduction to and summary of this classic book, see this overview.
Another work, which shows how far a false believer may go in a Christian profession without truly possessing Christ, was written by Matthew Mead, an English Puritan in the 17th century. His book, based on Acts 26:28, was called The Almost Christian Discovered. It can be read online by clicking the link. Careful reading of this would prove an effective antidote to the soul-deceiving and soul-destroying poison of “easy-believism” which has spread through so much of Christendom. It should be kept in mind that Mead was not writing to comfort the trembling, true believer. He was rather seeking to expose the self-deceived hypocrite. There was a particular need for that in his day, as there is in our own, when preachers and people alike are often far too presumptuous about Christian profession.
Rev Keith M Watkins