The immediate practical benefit of understanding that we are saved by grace is that we have assurance of salvation. Assurance is not the same as “once saved, always saved.” It is a confidence in our present security in Jesus Christ. Ask yourself the question, “If I were to die right now, or Jesus were to return right now, would I be saved?” Assurance is being able to say “YES!” to this question, and every Christian should be able to do this, because of grace.
The problem is that many Christians do not have this assurance, because they do not understand what it means to be saved by grace. Even as they sing the old hymn, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!”, in their hearts they are thinking, “Maybe—I hope so—I’m not really sure!”
In this lesson we are trying to help these doubters get over their uncertainty. There is a specific way to do this. When I teach my seminary course on grace, on the first day of class I tell the students that I can sum up the whole course in one sentence: “A right understanding of justification by faith is the key to assurance of salvation.” Let’s see how this works.
I. ONE: There is just one way to know you are saved, and that is to know you ARE JUSTIFIED. As Paul says in Romans 5:1-2, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.”
In Lesson 3 above we explained the meaning of justification. It is the same as having the debt of penalty for your sins forgiven. It is a legal term. It refers to standing before the Judge of the universe in the divine courtroom and having him declare, “NO PENALTY FOR YOU!” This happens not only on the future Judgment Day. It is happening now, and will be happening throughout our lives as believers. This is why we have assurance of salvation. We know we are justified; we know our sins are forgiven. It is not a question of how good we are, but how forgiven we are. It is hearing God say, “No penalty for you! No condemnation for you (Rom. 8:1)! No hell for you! No fear for you!”
The next question is this: exactly what is the basis for this confidence?
II. TWO. There is just one way for a sinner to be justified, and that is BY THE BLOOD OF CHRIST. As Paul says in Romans 5:9, we have “been justified by His blood.”
Actually, theoretically, there is another way one might be justified, namely, by the law system. Under law we could hear the Judge say “No penalty for you”— if we have never sinned. A totally innocent person would be justified because he is 100% good.
But in fact this will not work for us, because we have all sinned and come short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). We are sinners. The question then is: can God justify even a sinner? The answer is YES! See Romans 4:5: God justifies even the ungodly! This is the amazing thing about grace!
But on what basis can God justify sinners—forgive their penalty—when they actually deserve eternal punishment in hell? Because under grace God does not treat us as we deserve. Under grace we are not justified by our works (by being 100% good), but by grace—because we are 100% forgiven by the blood of Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:24; 5:9).
Under grace, regarding the question, “Are you saved?”, the answer depends not on how good you are but on how powerful and efficacious the blood of Christ is. In lesson 4 above, we saw the answer to this question. We saw that Jesus’ death on the cross was a work of redemption, and a work of propitiation. Because of his sinless and divine nature, Jesus suffered the equivalent of eternity in hell for the whole human race. He has already paid the penalty for our sins.
So if we are under the blood of Jesus Christ, our sins are covered; they are in a sense “hidden” from God’s sight (Rom. 4:6-8). When God looks at us, our sins are hidden from his sight in the sense that he does not count them against us (2 Cor. 5:19). Thus he can say, “NO PENALTY FOR YOU!” He can treat me “just if I’d” [justified!] already spent eternity in hell and paid my penalty. [He does NOT treat me “just if I’d never sinned.”]
This leaves one more step in our quest for assurance:
III. THREE. There is just one way to be under the blood of Christ, and that is BY FAITH. As Paul says in Romans 3:28, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” That is why he says in Romans 5:1, “Having been justified BY FAITH, we have peace with God.”
Justifying faith includes two elements. One is called assent, because it is an act of the MIND as it gives assent to the truth of specific statements about Jesus and his salvation. It is what the Bible describes as “believing THAT” certain things are true. For example, John 20:31 says God has given you the testimony of Scripture “so that you may BELIEVE THAT Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” Also, Romans 10:9 says that if you “BELIEVE in your heart THAT God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”
The other aspect of faith is called trust, because it is an act of the WILL as directed toward the person of Jesus Christ. In Biblical language, this trust is called “believing IN” and “believing ON” Jesus (e.g., John 3:16; Acts 16:31). It means entrusting our very eternal existence into Jesus’ hands, the way one trusts his health into a doctor’s care or her children into the hands of a babysitter.
To be justified by faith means that this faith in the saving works of Jesus (rather than faith in the worthiness of our own works) is the connection point in our lives into which the power line of justification is plugged. This is true in two steps.
First, we BEGIN to be justified BY FAITH, when we initially come under the blood of Christ in baptism. The Bible is clear that this connection with the blood of Christ begins in the moment of baptism (Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom. 6:3-4; Col. 2:12). But baptism is just the TIME we were first justified (forgiven), not the MEANS by which the justification is received. As Colossians 2:12 says, we were united with Christ “in baptism,” as the time; but it was “by faith” as the means. (Note: “by faith” is not the same as “as soon as you have faith.”) Even in baptism, what God is looking for is the faith in the sinner’s heart.
The second step is that, after baptism, we CONTINUE to be justified BY FAITH. We initially became justified by faith (in baptism), and we STAY justified by faith. We continue to live in a forgiven state, not because we do not sin, but because we are constantly trusting in the sin-covering blood of Jesus Christ. Failure to understand this point is a main reason why many lack assurance. I will discuss this further in the next lesson.