From the Editor

What Assurance of Salvation Can a Seventh-day Adventist Christian Have? Should he depend on self? on Christ? or a combination?

J.R. Spangler is editor of Ministry.
Articles in this section often deal with complex, sensitive issues, and we would be the first to emphasize that by no means do we consider the thoughts and opinions expressed in these areas to be the final voice of authority. Rather, we are searching, under God, to learn what is truth, what our duty is, and how to do it. We seek unity, not division. We en courage our readers, therefore, to share the results of their study with us. Comments, ideas, and additional light are not only welcome but coveted. —THE EDITORS.

He had been a worker in the church for many years. Now retired, and seriously ill, he had requested prayer and anointing. As we gathered around the hospital bed, he told us the inner longing of his heart. His natural concern for healing was overridden by a deep concern for salvation. He urged that our prayers be not so much for physical restoration but for an increased ability to make fuller and deeper commitment to Jesus Christ. As he looked over his past life, the shortcomings and numerous failures brought an uncertainty into his mind as to whether the Lord had accepted him. His voice cracked and tears began to flow as he continued expressing hidden fears about the assurance of salvation.

Of course only God has a correct and intimate knowledge of this dear soul's heart. He alone knows the true record of his life. Those of us who knew him could only speak words of highest praise. His life style, personality, and service record recommended him as one of God's true saints. The fruits of his life were untainted with rebellion; his loyalty to Christ and His church was unquestioned. But somehow there was a misunderstanding of what I consider to be a most important facet of God's great plan of salvation. Such a misunderstanding is by no means peculiar to this dear Christian. I have come to believe seriously that a great many in our churches fail to understand fully the basis for God's acceptance of an individual for salvation. I believe that this is one of the key points in the current discussions of righteousness by faith.

I can testify that this truth, through the influence of the Holy Spirit, has come as a fresh new revelation to my own heart and life during the past several years. To me, the assurance of salvation is a precious truth that needs to be handled properly and with care. In this area, perhaps as in no other, is misunderstanding so easy and so fraught with disastrous results. The doctrine of salvation is not one that can be handled carelessly or foolishly; it is the most solemn matter for the human mind to consider. As we speak and write on such exalted themes, we must be ever careful to avoid exaggerated statements and far-fetched illustrations, for Satan will seize upon all such to distort God's truth and perplex souls.

The subject of the assurance of salvation is one that our church has talked little about. The vast majority of our books and magazines say almost nothing about it. Most of the sermons that I have heard in my three and a half decades of ministry have never referred to it. And as a result there is much misunderstanding on the subject within the church—and much uncertainty regarding salvation.

The central point in an assurance of salvation is to be found in an under standing of the basis on which God accepts sinners. Looking back on my own personal experience, I have always understood that as a sinner I came to Christ without any merit of my own, totally in need of salvation. There was no question in my mind on that point. Ephesians 2:8 and 9 said it plainly: "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." My sinful self deserves the death penalty. I have nothing by which to recommend myself to God. How often I have preached that point to thousands who have attended my evangelistic meetings! How often I have quoted during college Weeks of Prayer the statement from Steps to Christ, "How many there are who think they are not good enough to come to Christ."—Page 31.1 have urged my listeners, "Come to Jesus just as you are." Remember the song "Just as I Am"? Beautiful, isn't it? So the basis of my acceptance with God, as I have always understood it, was solely the merits of Christ—not my merits. I believe all those within our church see eye to eye on this tremendous truth.

But what takes place after a person comes to Christ? Here is where I wish us to center our thoughts. I knew and believed that a sinner, coming initially to Christ, must depend entirely upon the merits of the Saviour for acceptance. But now note the subtle switch. After coming to Christ, and after starting on the road of sanctification, I based God's acceptance of me—consciously or unconsciously—partially or even wholly on my performance. I did not consider such an attitude as salvation by works. I still held that salvation is by faith alone. But recently I have begun to examine this subject carefully, and frankly I am convinced that my former opinion actually tied my acceptance by God and my assurance of salvation to my works—my performance.

I am aware that at this point the subject becomes quite slippery, easily leading to antinomianism and the idea that a man once saved is always saved. But such a perversion of the assurance of salvation need not be and will not be the case for those who are truly converted. It will be the case for those who love to cavil and argue. It will be the case for those who know nothing of the new-birth experience. It will be the case for those who can talk only about the cross and justification to the exclusion of sanctification—God's work of grace on the heart. It will be the case for those who are lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God. But we cannot and must not minimize or hold back this precious truth simply because there are those who will misinterpret and misuse God's plan of salvation to replace liberty with license. Correctly understood, this concept actually leads to fuller commitment to Christ.

Back to our point. Does the basis of my acceptance and assurance change after I come to Christ? Never! The basis of my acceptance and assurance is and forever will be the merits of Jesus Christ and never mine.

The description of John Wesley's experience in this matter is helpful. Ellen White, in The Great Controversy, pages 255 and 256, summarizes Wesley's experience in the assurance of salvation.

She describes how his encounter with some German Moravians aboard ship during a violent storm while crossing the Atlantic deeply impressed Wesley's mind. He admired the Christlike spirit of these people who gave continual proof of their humility in performing servant duties that the English would not under take. They helped others with no thought of remuneration, " 'Saying it was good for their proud hearts, and their loving Saviour had done more for them'" (p. 255). As Wesley observed their sweet spirit even when pushed, struck, or thrown down, he came to the conclusion that they had an experience with God that he knew nothing about. During the terrible storm, when most of the passengers were screaming and crying in terrible fear, the "'Germans calmly sung on.'" Mystified, Wesley later asked whether they were afraid. The simple reply was, " 'No; our women and children are not afraid to die.' "

On Wesley's return to England, he came to a clearer understanding of Bible faith under the instruction of a Moravian preacher. It was at this point that Wesley "was convinced that he must renounce all dependence upon his own works for salvation and must trust wholly to 'the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.' "

Following this experience, he attended a Moravian meeting in London, where a statement was read from Luther, describing the change that the Spirit of God works in the heart of the believer. As Wesley listened, faith was kindled in his soul. " 'I felt my heart strangely warmed,' he says. 'I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation: and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.' "

After reciting this thrilling episode, Ellen White describes Wesley's experience prior to his full conversion. As you read the next paragraph, perhaps you will see elements in his experience that have been repeated in your own or in that of some of your sheep. I fear that many of our precious people have gone, or are going, through a struggle similar to Wesley's.

"Through long years of wearisome and comfortless striving—years of rigorous self-denial, of reproach and humiliation—Wesley had steadfastly adhered to his one purpose of seeking God." Does this sound familiar? Here is a man who scrupulously obeyed every ray of light that came to him. But note that these were "long years of wearisome and comfortless striving."

Finally, Wesley had a profound con version experience. "Now he had found Him [God]; and he found that the grace which he had toiled to win by prayers and fasts, by alms-deeds and self-abnegation, was a gift, 'without money and without price.' "

This comment says to me that although I live the most rigid Christian life possible, including endless praying and fasting, plus the humbling of myself every minute of every day—none of it in any way merits salvation. In no way will such strivings influence my Lord to accept me as His child. I am His child through the merits of His Son alone, the Lord Jesus Christ. "Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God" (1 John 3:1). Are we called sons of God because we merit it by our own good works? Never, never, never! Do we start the Christian life by becoming the sons of God through the merits of Jesus Christ and then switch to remaining sons of God because of our meritorious sanctified works? Never, never, never! Salvation begins with Christ and ends with Christ. Salvation is through grace by faith alone in Jesus Christ at the beginning, the middle, and the end of our Christian life span.

Ellen White, in continuing the account of Wesley's experience, makes the point unmistakably clear. "He continued his strict and self-denying life, not now as the ground, but the result of faith; not the root, but the fruit of holiness. The grace of God in Christ is the foundation of the Christian's hope, and that grace will be manifested in obedience. Wesley's life was devoted to the preaching of the great truths which he had received— justification through faith in the atoning blood of Christ, and the renewing power of the Holy Spirit upon the heart, bringing forth fruit in a life conformed to the example of Christ."

Notice two important aspects of this paragraph. Wesley's assurance of salvation was based on the merits of Christ alone. This was the "grounds" and the "root" of his assurance. This point is one that needs to be clarified in the thinking of our people. If our sense of acceptance with God is based even partially on our performance, how can we possibly have the joy and gladness that should fill our soul? How can I, knowing and experiencing that the closer I come to Jesus, the more imperfections and defects I see in my own sinful self, ever have any shred of assurance of acceptance if my works form even part of God's basis for accepting me? If works, even sanctified works—the works Christ performs in me—are part of the reason God accepts me as His child, then how many works do I need before I can have assurance of being accepted? Or to put it another way, what level of sanctification must I reach before the Lord accepts me? Since sanctification is the work of a lifetime, and since I, as a Christian, should grow and mature spiritually on a daily basis, what point must I attain, even by His grace, to have the assurance of acceptance? This question is precisely what Wesley faced in his experience. It was precisely this uncertainty that made the years of his strivings so "wearisome and comfortless."

But there is a second important point to consider, and this is where many undiscerning followers of Christ can so easily be tripped. Note carefully that Wesley "continued his strict and self-denying life," as the "result of faith," the "fruit of holiness." Note the balance in the one sentence: "The grace of God in Christ is the foundation of the Christian's hope [justification], and that grace will be manifested in obedience [sanctification]."

"By their fruits ye shall know them," the Saviour warned (Matt. 7:20), and certainly the test holds true in this matter before us. What is the fruit of depending on Christ's righteousness for our assurance of salvation? Is it more devotion, greater spirituality, more faithful obedience? If so, we may be sure that we have correctly understood and appropriated the righteousness that comes solely by faith. Is the fruit carelessness in spiritual things, self-confidence, laxness in obeying God's will? Then we may be equally sure that we have not at all understood the righteousness that is by faith. Such an attitude is not righteousness by faith, but unrighteousness by presumption.

The apostle John cautions in blunt, unmistakable terms, "Let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he [Jesus Christ] is righteous" (1 John 3:7). It is not that those who do righteousness become righteous, rather it is that those who are righteous through the merits of the Saviour alone will be doing righteousness. The test is still, "By their fruits ye shall know them." It is my conviction that if this point is understood as it should be there will be a latter-rain revival and a reformation in our midst that this church has never experienced. With our assurance of salvation established upon the merits of Christ alone, like Wesley, our souls will burn with the desire to carry the glorious gospel of God's free grace to everyone.

One of the greatest hindrances to our entire evangelistic outreach is, I feel, a lack of assurance on the part of our people. How can we share our faith in Christ unless we know that God has accepted us as His son or daughter? And how can we know we are His child unless we base our acceptance solely on Christ's merits alone? This is the foundation on which our love for Christ and motivation for His service are built.

How can anyone lower standards when the Holy Spirit presses this concept home to the mind? How can a per son nurture the lust of the flesh and at the same time claim this assurance? How can anyone flaunt the grace and mercy of God by willfully walking in the muddy ruts of sin, when he understands that his hope is based on the merits of One who willingly went to the cross to make it possible for him to be accepted? Such a person is the victim of a strong delusion.

I close by drawing your attention to these soul-stirring words by Ellen White: ''Hanging upon the cross Christ was the gospel. Now we have a message, 'Be hold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world.' Will not our church members keep their eyes fixed on a crucified and risen Saviour, in whom their hopes of eternal life are centered? This is our message, our argument, our doctrine, our warning to the impenitent, our encouragement for the sorrowing, the hope for every believer. If we can awaken an interest in men's minds that will cause them to fix their eyes on Christ, we may step aside, and ask them only to continue to fix their eyes upon the Lamb of God. They thus receive their lesson. Whosoever will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. He whose eyes are fixed on Jesus will leave all. He will die to selfishness. He will believe in all the Word of God, which is so gloriously and wonderfully exalted in Christ.

"As the sinner sees Jesus as He is, an all-compassionate Saviour, hope and assurance take possession of his soul. The helpless soul is cast without any reservation upon Jesus. None can bear away from the vision of Christ Jesus crucified a lingering doubt. Unbelief is gone."— The SDA Bible Commentary, Ellen G. White Comments, on Gal. 6:14, p. 1113.

"Not the labors of my hands

Can fulfill Thy law's demands;

Could my zeal no respite know,

Could my tears forever flow,

All for sin could not atone;

Thou must save, and Thou alone.

 

"Nothing in my hand I bring,

Simply to Thy cross I cling;

Naked, come to Thee for dress,

Helpless, look to Thee for grace;

Foul, I to the fountain fly;

Wash me, Saviour, or I die."

J. R. S.


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J.R. Spangler is editor of Ministry.

February 1979

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