Without a doubt, one of the most important questions one can ask is, “How can I know I’m saved?”
In many ways, this is the most basic question a person can ask! And yet, the question is actually quite complex. There are words to define, concepts to explore, and beliefs to espouse before one can really have a satisfactory answer.
As we explore a biblical answer to this question, it may be as good a time as any to reflect honestly on your answer.
Most of us grow up with the notion that there is a salvation “event” that takes place in our lives. Do I still believe that today?
My answer would be yes, but it’s complicated.
Ephesians 1:3-4 seems to describe what this “event” looks like:
In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, Which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory.
Pauls opens his letter with a theological treatise; he is underscoring what Jesus has accomplished, and will go on to draw some conclusions about a life of proper faith and practice for the Ephesian church.
Notice in this passage that Paul describes that once one “trusts” (i.e., “places their hope in”) Christ, after hearing the gospel and believing, they are “sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise,” which acts a “down payment” of their inheritance.
What’s being described here is beautiful; it is the process of reconciliation between God and man. Salvation is therefore God’s rescue, via the work of Jesus on the cross, of a sinner—and his sealing them for their final day of redemption.
There’s a natural question that arises at this point. What are we saved from?
The answer is multi-faceted. Are we saved from Satan? Our flesh? God himself?
Scripture can be leveraged in support of all of the above. And yet, a mere reflection on the nature of the world provides a sufficient answer: We all know the world is broken.
Greg Koukl beautifully makes the point in The Story of Reality:
None of us can long avoid the gnawing sense of guilt we feel for the bad things we have done. This is a good thing, of course, for a couple of reasons. For one, the person who never feels bad about doing bad things (an especially unpleasant kind of person known as a sociopath) is not likely to stop himself from doing something dreadful when it suits him. But there is another reason. It is a very small step from feeling guilty to realizing that we feel guilty because we are guilty. And that is precisely what the Story tells us. We are broken, true enough. But we are not simply malfunctioning. We are not machines that need to be fixed. We are transgressors who need to be forgiven. We have not merely “made mistakes,” like getting our sums wrong when balancing accounts. We have sinned. And with sin comes guilt. And with guilt comes punishment. The sin must be answered for. It must be paid for in some way. Atoned for, if you will.
The issue is that something is wrong with the world. It’s not the way it is supposed to be. We are separated from God, and we evidence that separation each and every day through our disobedience to our Creator.
That we are in need of rescue is virtually inarguable; Chesterton famously quipped, “The one doctrine of Christianity which is empirically verifiable is the fallenness of man.”
To be saved, then, is to place your undying trust in the Person and Work of Jesus, and to enthusiastically affirm the words of the Apostle John: “He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself: he that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son. And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. 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, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.” (1 John 5:10-13).
Bulls and goats, or something else?
One confusion that arises with folks, even some seasoned Christians, is that of Old Testament sacrifices.
A lengthy passage from the book of Hebrews brings out the issue:
For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins. Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me: In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure. Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do thy will, O God. Above when he said, Sacrifice and offering and burnt offerings and offering for sin thou wouldest not, neither hadst pleasure therein; which are offered by the law; Then said he, Lo, I come to do thy will, O God. He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second. By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool. For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified. Whereof the Holy Ghost also is a witness to us: for after that he had said before, This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them; And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more. Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin (10:1-18).
I get it. Most people fall asleep reading through the Pentateuchal passages that describe these sacrifices, and we cannot explore them with any depth here. The drive-by treatment they are usually given often leads people to think that, in Old Testament days, these sacrifices were the atonement for sin.
But it’s important that, at the very least, we grasp how the writer of Hebrews understands the role of these sacrifices.
These sacrifices were never about the atonement for sin, because it’s clear they could not satisfy the necessary conditions. And this raises another good question! Namely, why the law at all?
This question is answered by the Apostle Paul in Galatians 3:19-25:
Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one. Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.
In the above passage, Paul gives two important reasons for the addition of the law:
There are a couple of different ways to parse what is meant by “transgressions,” here. Some take this to mean that God added the law to produce/increase transgressions, but this does not seem to be the most natural reading of the text. Proponents of this take argue on the basis of Romans 5:20a, which reads “Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound.”
At face value, this may seem to suggest the law itself was “added” in order to cause sin to abound. But why think that is the case? Given that God destroyed the entire world on the basis of the proliferation of sin (see Genesis 6-8), why would God add a system designed to multiply sin? This proposal makes little sense.
Witmer’s comments on this point are quite helpful in reading this passage more carefully:
Is the statement in Romans 5:20a a purpose or a result clause? The coming of the Mosaic Law (clearly meant here in light of vv. 13–14) did result in the abounding of “the trespass” (the consequence of any law), but (also in the light of vv. 13–14 and 4:15) the Mosaic Law came in “so that” (purpose) abounding sin might be recognized as abounding trespass.
The result was that where sin increased (lit., “abounded”; cf. 5:20) grace increased all the more (“overflowed superlatively”; cf. “overflow” in v. 15). What a contrast! No matter how great human sin becomes, God’s grace overflows beyond it and abundantly exceeds it. No wonder Paul wrote that God’s grace “is sufficient” (2 Cor. 12:9). God’s goal (hina, so, introduces a purpose clause) is that His grace might reign through righteousness (the righteousness of Christ provided for people) to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Once again Paul spoke of reigning in connection with life. In verse 17 those who received God’s gift “reign in life” through Christ. Here God’s grace is personified as reigning and bringing eternal life.1
So it seems to me that Romans 5:20a is consistent in teaching that the law was added because of transgressions; sin needed to be recognized as such, but also “kept in check” as one commentator2 notes:
“…it was given because of transgressions, that is, the Law was given to be a means for checking sins. It served as a restrainer of sins by showing them to be transgressions of God’s Law which would incur His wrath (cf. 1 Tim. 1:8–11).”
Thus, Heiser is correct in noting that “Paul is consistent in both viewing the law as something positive, but also viewing it as something inadequate.”3
But the law was also a teacher. Its purpose was not only to restrain transgression, but to expose its gravity. While the blood of bulls and goats could not save, it could serve as a gruesome yet effective reminder that God is holy, and nothing less than utter purity would be allowed to broach his space.
This is really good news.
Why? Because it demonstrates clearly that keeping the law is impossible; even the strictest Jewish sects who made much of the law not could follow it consistently (see Matt. 23:15 or 12:1-8, for example). Grace is necessary.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians,
But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.
God loved you when you were dead—that is, judicially unrighteous. Unfit for the kingdom. Unfit for Glory. Unfit for him.
He made for provision for your salvation, and to claim it for yourself, all you have to do is believe that he did.
So based on the biblical doctrine of salvation, the question answers itself. You can know you are saved because you believe in the One who saved you. You cannot lose it for a moral failure because you did not earn it in virtue of moral success.
The simple answer is, God did the work. The real question is—do you believe it?
- Witmer, J. A. (1985). Romans. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 460). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books. I would personally caveat Witmer’s thoughts by saying it’s not clearly a necessary consequence that transgressions increase upon the addition of a law. It could simply refer to the increased knowledge of transgression. It’s possible he means it in this sense only, but he does not take time to clarify that. A personal anecdote may help: I once received a ticket for running a “no turn on red” light I failed to notice after moving to a new town. The mere existence of this law had no bearing on whether or not I would do the crime. It merely identified it as such and increased my awareness (knowledge) of it.
- Campbell, D. K. (1985).
- Michael S. Heiser, Reversing Hermon. It’s worth noting here that the backdrop explained in Reversing Hermon provides greater context regarding the nature of these transgressions.