JD Greear teaches on how to be assured of your salvation using Hebrews 3:18-19
Series: Summer Preaching Series 2014
I released a book about a year ago called Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart. For years I struggled with the assurance of my salvation. No matter how many times I prayed what is called the Sinner’s Prayer, I couldn’t seem to get the assurance I was seeking. I’m pretty sure I could hold the world record for praying the Sinner’s Prayer the most. Every time someone gave the invitation to pray it, I’d do it. I’ve been saved in youth camps all over the nation and I’ve been baptized four times. No joke.
I used to think I was alone in the struggle for assurance of faith. But sadly, it’s epidemic in Christian circles. Did I pray the prayer right? Did I repent enough? Did I surrender enough? Did I understand grace enough? Have I fallen back into sin since I’ve prayed the prayer? How far is too far? How far can you fall before it’s no longer legit?
So this book is a lot about my own struggle to find assurance of salvation. But on the other side of the coin, I’ve become increasingly concerned for the people who seem to feel sure they’re going to heaven on the basis of a prayer they prayed that someone said would guarantee them heaven if they prayed it.
The 2011 Barna Study showed that 50% of Americans say they have prayed some kind of sinner’s prayer at some point, even though half of that number have no regular presence of any kind in church or have lifestyles or world views that in no way differ from those outside of the Christian faith. But when you talk to many of these people and tell them they need Jesus to be saved, and need to repent and believe, they say, “Oh, well been there, done that, prayed the prayer, filled out the little card. I have it right here in my Bible. I’m guaranteed to go to heaven.”
God never promised to save us because we prayed a prayer. God saves us when we repent and believe the gospel.
You might express repentance and faith in a prayer, but it’s not the prayer that saves you. It’s the heart attitude behind the prayer.
Sometimes the prayer ends up working like an immunization. When they want to immunize you against a disease they give you a dead version of the disease so that your body develops the antibodies to be able to withstand the live version of it if you ever encounter it. For many people, the ritual of confirmation, or walking the aisle, or getting baptized, becomes an immunization that keeps them away from the living gospel.
Several years ago, I was playing one-on-one basketball with a guy who didn’t look like he fit the Christian profile. He was covered with tattoos, had long hair down, and so many piercings in his face. So I began to share Christ with him. About two paragraphs in to sharing my testimony, he says, “Dude, are you trying to witness to me?” I said, “Well, yeah.” He said, “Man, that’s awesome. Nobody has tried to witness to me in like six years! I suppose it’s the way I look, but man you’re wasting your breath.” He grew up in a conservative reformed Baptist home and went to youth camp where he gave his life to Jesus and became a super Christian. He led some of his friend to Christ, listened to Christian worship music, did his daily quiet time, and went of mission trips. He had the full pedigree. But in ninth grade he discovered sex. So he decided he would put God on hold for a while because he knew he couldn’t follow God and have sex. Then in college he decided it was just easier not to believe in God at all rather than living a hypocritical life. He said, “So I’m an atheist now. But here’s what’s awesome. The church I grew up in was reformed Baptist and we believed that once saved, always saved. So therefore, when I was saved at camp, I’m forever covered! I can’t lose my salvation.”
In Matthew 7, Jesus talked about a group of people that say to him on the last day, “Lord, lord,” whom Jesus says He’s going to turn away with the words, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” Can you imagine the terror that would fill your heart? Especially when you consider what they said to Jesus, “Lord, hey, we asked you to come into our lives, we know you’re the Lord, we were involved in our church.” In fact, Jesus even describes them as casting out demons in His name. Jesus said to them, “Yeah, you prayed the prayer, you joined a small group, you got baptized, you went on the mission trip. But I never knew you.”
They go into hell with the assurance of a salvation somebody told them they had because they prayed a prayer once. It kept them from considering what the Bible really says about conversion.
I want to be clear as I get into the Book of Hebrews that there’s nothing wrong with the Sinner’s Prayer. That’s what conversion is; it’s a cry to God for mercy, it’s repentance and faith. It makes sense to express those things in a prayer.
For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Romans 10:13 (ESV)
However, it’s not the prayer that saves. It’s the repentance in the prayer and the faith behind the prayer that lays hold of salvation.
Reducing it simply to a prayer we pray has had two tragic effects. One, it keeps assurance from some who should have it. Two, it gives it to some who should not.
So let’s look at the Book of Hebrews and answer two questions. First, what is the true nature of saving faith? Second, how do you know you have it?
Does God even want us to know for sure we’re going to heaven? A lot of people would answer no. They say Heaven is like the reward God dangles in front of us, like the carrot, to get us to act right. If you remove the carrot why would people keep doing what they ought to be doing? If your professor walked in and said no matter what you do in this class you’ll get an A. Would you study for the next quiz? Probably not. So if you promise somebody they’re going to heaven then they’ll lose their edge to keep doing what God’s want them to do.
However, the Book of Hebrews answers with a resounding yes; God does want us to know. He wants us to draw close to Him with a full assurance of faith. God is a Father and any father that loves his children doesn’t want his children to be unsure about their relationship with him.
I’m a dad of four kids. When I left to come here, I didn’t get my kids together and say, “Daddy loves you, he thinks about you all the time. He’s going on a trip and will buy prizes for you and then come back and it’ll be awesome. Or maybe he’s not really your daddy at all. Maybe this whole thing is a big ruse. I’m never coming back. So sit around and think about that while I’m gone and let that compel you to become better children.” I’ve never said that. I want my children to live in security.
The heavenly Father doesn’t want any of His children unsure about where they stand with Him.
The other analogy John uses is when Jesus is getting ready to leave, He said, “I’m like your father and you’re like my children. You’re like my lover, I’m like the groom that is proposed and has gone away to get things ready.” I remember when I was engaged to my soon-to-be wife Veronica. She was a student at the University of Virginia and I was at North Carolina. The last thing I would have wanted was for her to be unsure about how I felt about her. If she were unsure then she would be open to the advances of some other guy at school. But when she was assured of the awesome sauce she had in me, then she was immune to their advances.
Jesus doesn’t want us unsure, because the only thing that gives us the capacity to withstand the draw of idolatry is when we’re surer of the joy we have in Him than we are the temptations the world puts out in front of us.
We love because he first loved us. 1 John 4:19 (ESV)
It is assurance of the love of God for us that produces love for God in us.
Martin Luther called using the idea you weren’t sure if you were going to heaven or not as a way of motivating as the Damnable Doctrine of Doubt. He said sure, it would produce some surface level obedience, people acting right so God would let them into heaven. But beneath that thin veneer of obedience is a rushing river of pride, selfishness, and self-righteousness.
So what does the writer of Hebrews say is the nature of saving faith? I’m going to give you four things.
In the book of Hebrews, faith is always synonymous with action. You can switch the words in and out all the way through.
And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19 So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief. Hebrews 3:18-19 (ESV, emphasis added)
We see they were unable to enter because of unbelief. He uses those two words interchangeably; unbelief and disobedience are the same things.
Hebrews 11, what we call the great faith chapter, lists all these great men and women of faith, but it describes every single one of them in terms of an action. Noah built, Abraham left, Jacob blessed, and Joshua fought. In the Hebrew language there is no noun for faith, it’s only a verb, which means the people in Hebrews 11 became famous for something they didn’t even have a name for.
Faith, biblically speaking, does not exist apart from action. Belief does not become faith until you act on it.
We can describe it like sitting down in a chair. If I have a chair and I’m thinking about sitting down on it, it doesn’t really matter what I say to the chair before I sit down on it. I could say, “Chair, art thou a sturdy chair. You look like you are worthy and could hold the weight of my body. I would like to invite you to be my chair.” It’s not what I say to the chair, it’s the action I take toward the chair. It’s not the prayer I prayed toward the chair, it’s the posture I take in the chair.
In the same way, it’s not what you say to Jesus. It’s the posture you take toward Jesus.
You can really only be in one of two positions in relation to Jesus. You’re either standing in control of your own life or you are seated in full surrender to His Lordship. You’re either standing in the idea that if you’re good enough you’re going to earn heaven or you are seated in the belief that Jesus has paid it all and has done everything necessary to save you.
Saving faith is a posture, not a prayer.
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. Hebrews 3:12-14 (ESV)
The writer of Hebrews tells them to be vigilant about keeping the gospel alive in their hearts, because they will be saved only if they hold on to the end.
Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. Hebrews 2:1 (ESV)
He’s using the metaphor of a harbor with a typhoon going by. These ships have pulled into the harbor to drop anchor. He’s saying, “Hey, you have to drop anchor deep, if not, you’ll drift back out into the waters of judgment.”
This is different than from how I learned to talk about eternal security. I was taught to think about the idea of eternal security, the idea of once saved, always saved, as a little deal you make with God; a ceremony you went through in which you asked Jesus into your heart and as long as you were sincere about repentance of faith, it was a contract that God could never go back on. No matter what.
This was epitomized in the way I learned to share the gospel with gospel tracts. There was the ‘no nonsense, give it to them straight’ tracts, the comic book tracts, and the fake ten dollar bill tract that said, “Here’s a real tip, trust Jesus,” that you were supposed to give to waitresses. At the end of these gospel tracts, after you led somebody to pray the prayer, you were always supposed to say something like, “Now you’re a child of God. Nothing you can do can change that. So now, because of that, you ought not to be afraid anymore.”
This is not how the apostles or the writer of Hebrews talked to new converts. They would say, “Hey, you’re saved, if you persevere to the end!”
…strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. Acts 14:22 (ESV)
Now, does that mean you can lose your salvation? No, there are too many places in the Bible that teach you cannot.
And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. John 6:39 (ESV)
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. Romans 8:29-30 (ESV)
There is nothing that gives you a chance to get off that train. Once God puts you on it, you make it all the way to the station. It’s about what God is doing in you, not about what you’re doing for Him.
Once saved, always saved. But one of the marks of true faith is that it endures all the way to the end.
Jesus told a parable of a sower who went out to scatter some seed. There was a certain kind of seed that sprung up quickly, but the sun came out and the weeds choked the seeds and it died. Did those seeds represent saved people or unsaved people? They represent unsaved people who for a while look like their saved people.
The proof of salvation is not the intensity of faith at the beginning, but it’s duration and endurance for a lifetime. That’s a very important concept to understand.
It is true, once saved, always saved. But it is also true, once saved, forever following. Those who endure to the end show they had the salvation you could never lose. Those who don’t, show they never had it to begin with.
If it’s true that saving faith is a posture not a prayer and that it endures for a lifetime, then assurance comes not from a memory of something you experienced in the past, but rather from the posture you’re in in the present.
Let’s go back to the chair. Most of you are seated right now, which means that at some point you made a decision to sit down in the chair you’re in. How do we know that you made that decision? Is it because you remember making it? No. We know you made the decision not because you remember making it, but because of the posture you’re in.
How do you know you made a decision to trust in and surrender to Jesus Christ? Is it because you remember the moment it happened? No, it’s not the past memory. It’s the present posture that shows you whether or not you made the decision.
A lot of people get caught up looking back to what happened five, ten, fifteen, fifty years ago. They begin to have doubts about whether or not they’re saved today. But that’s not where the Bible tells you to look for assurance.
Conversion is the beginning of a posture that you assume for the rest of your life.
Assurance, as it’s talked about in the Bible, is always a present tense thing. It’s based on your present posture, not your past memory. If you don’t remember saying the prayer, it doesn’t matter. Ask yourself what your present posture is.
Is it possible to be saved in a back slide, which just means you started out well, but then slid back? Absolutely. Some of the greatest Christians in the Bible spent years backsliding. King David slept with his best friend’s wife, killed his best friend and then lied about it for a year.
But one of the signs of saving faith is that God keeps bringing you back to the posture of repentance and belief.
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:6 (ESV)
When you get up and take charge of your life and you forget the gospel, the Holy Spirit brings you back down. That’s one of the proofs saving faith is at work in your heart.
For the righteous falls seven times and rises again, but the wicked stumble in times of calamity. Proverbs 24:16 (ESV)
It’s basically saying a righteous man falls morally seven times his whole life. But gets back up again. You don’t show your righteousness based on the fact that you never fall. You show that you’re saved based on what you do after you fall. He that began a good work in me completes it so when I fall away He lifts me back up and sets me down.
The believer falls often, but they always get back up and re-assume the posture!
After warning them in the strongest language of what would happen if they fell away, the write says…
Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. Hebrews 6:9 (ESV)
In other words, “I see in you evidence of the new nature. I see your new attitude towards sin. I see how when you fall away God quickly brings you back to repentance, so I am confident that what God started in you He will continue.”
One of the evidences of the new nature is that you begin to have a whole new set of appetites and changes that begin to take place in you.
Somebody this morning threw up right here in front of the stage. I know it’s gross, but just visualize a big, warm, steaming pile of vomit. There’s not one of you in here that would need for me to stand up here and say it’s against the rules for you to lick up vomit. Any of you need to hear that? No, not unless you were a dog. If you were a dog, you would need us to make that rule, because to a dog, warm vomit sounds awesome.
It has to do with your nature, not with the rules put on you. God saves you in a way where He changes your nature and appetites so you begin to desire the things of God.
Whoever says, “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 1 John 2:4 (ESV)
If the change has not happened, if there are not evidences of those changes then Jesus has not really come into your life.
Saving faith is not getting a ceremony right; it’s a new heart that constantly finds itself in the posture of repentance and faith.
We have to get this right. God told us to make clear to the world the way of salvation. We have to be so careful not to blur any of the lines. God said that Jesus paid it all and all who would repent by surrendering to His Lordship and believe He did everything necessary to save them would be saved.
I don’t want there to be any ambiguity. I want you to understand God does want you to know for sure. But the way of salvation He has made for you is through Jesus who paid it all and is Lord.
You’re in one of two positions in relation to the finished work of Christ. You’re either standing in charge of your own life, hoping you have been good enough to earn your way to heaven. Or you have realized there’s nothing you can do, He paid it all and you sit down in surrender to Him and trust in His finished work.