How Do I Know I'm A Christian?

Kevin DeYoung recently wrote a brief article entitled, "How Do I Know I'm A Christian?" He wrote it to offer pastoral help for believers looking for assurance of their salvation. I find it wanting theologically and pastorally.

I grow weary of Evangelicals who continually set forth "tests of the faith" as a means of attaining assurance. Such an approach to assurance has its roots in pietistic nomism (i.e., continual introspection; searching for marks of spiritual life as a means of attaining assurance). I have a certain disdain for such an inward-looking piety. For years, this approach to assurance led to ever-increasing doubt, confusion, despair and uncertainty.

There certainly is a place for genuine self-examination and personal introspection (i.e., fruit inspection; taking a spiritual inventory). But, it must be done for the purpose of sending us back to Christ. Self-examination must be done in such a way that it strengthens the struggling believer's life of faith rather than hinders or destroys it. Too often, Evangelical Christians trust in their self-examination rather than in Christ. Too often, self-examination is done in such a way that one has to doubt whether or not Christ will be merciful and forgiving.

As a pastor, I see this often. I was guilty of practicing this type of piety for many years. Trusting in self-examination is a soul-killer. Such legal examination and doubt is the great sin of unbelief, which is always missed in self-examination! When a believer, even a struggling believer, engages in self-examination he or she is to do so with confidence of his or her heavenly Father's favor because of the free promises of the gospel (Note: Contra DeYoung, there are no threats and exhortations inherent in the gospel; see: "10 Errors to Avoid When Talking about Sanctification and the Gospel"). This confidence can be present even when a struggling believer sees little to no shining light of his or her own qualifications. The fact is believers continue to struggle with sin their whole life (Romans 7). This struggle is a sign of salvation because only believers struggle with sin. Scott Clark writes, "your conscience will continue to testify against you all your life. That’s just the way it is. If your conscience does not so testify then you are an unbeliever or confused. The believer says to himself, “Yes, conscience that is all very true but something else is true. God the Son has accomplished all righteousness for me and that is enough, so be quiet.”

Assurance lies in the very direct act of faith as one is presented with Christ, the object of faith, to whom the writer of Hebrews exhorts his hearers to draw near (Hebrews 10:22). Such focus and assurance is in opposition to one’s own reflections on the work of the Holy Spirit within (the reflex act of faith). Michael Horton notes that inward-looking piety has more in common with modern Evangelicalism than its does with Reformation piety (Highly recommended reading: Christ the Lord: The Reformation and Lordship Salvation).

The reflex act of faith can support the believer's profession (see Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 86) but it cannot become the ground of the believer's assurance (see Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 62). John Calvin rightly states that our acts of obedience are of value only when taken a posteriori (i.e., after the fact, Institutes, 3.14.19). Assurance must be found in the direct act of faith (i.e., the gospel, God's mercy given freely to us for Christ's sake). John Calvin states, “If they [believers] begin to judge their salvation by good works, nothing will be more uncertain or more feeble; for indeed, if works be judged of themselves, by their imperfection they will no less declare God’s wrath than by their incomplete purity they testify to his benevolence,” (Ibid).

According to Calvin, good works are “testimonies of God dwelling and ruling” in believers inasmuch as they first cast their full confidence upon God’s mercy not upon their obedience. Calvin argues,

…under God’s judgment we must not put any trust in works, or glory in any esteem of them. The agreement lies in this: that the saints, when it is a question of the founding and establishing of their own salvation, without regard for works turn their eyes solely to God’s goodness. Not only do they betake themselves to it before all things as to the beginning of blessedness but they repose in it as in the fulfillment of this. A conscience so founded, erected, and established is established also in the consideration of works, so far, that is, as these are testimonies of God dwelling and ruling in us. Inasmuch, therefore, as this reliance upon works has no place unless you first cast the whole confidence of your mind upon God’s mercy, it ought not to seem contrary to that upon which it depends, (Institutes, 3.14.18).

One doesn’t have to react to the threat of antinomianism by driving believers back inside themselves, away from Christ. John Calvin, discussing assurance, counsels, “. . . the consciences of believers, in seeking assurance of their justification before God, should rise above and advance beyond the law, forgetting all law righteousness. For since, as we have elsewhere shown, the law leaves no one righteous, either it excludes us from all hope of justification or we ought to be freed from it, and in such a way, indeed, that no account is taken of works. . . If consciences wish to attain any certainty in this matter, they ought to give not place the law," (Institutes, 3.19.2).

According to Calvin, good works serve as “signs of the divine benevolence” toward believers. In this regard, good works may serve to undergird and strengthen one’s faith provided these gracious “testimonies” direct the believer outside of himself to contemplate the source (i.e., Holy Spirit) of those good works. Calvin explains,

Therefore, when we rule out reliance upon works, we mean only this: that the Christian mind may not be turned back to the merit of works as to a help toward salvation but should rely wholly on the free promise of righteousness. But we do not forbid him from undergirding and strengthening this faith by signs of the divine benevolence toward him. For it, when all the gifts of God has bestowed upon us are called to mind, they are like rays of the divine countenance by which we are illumined to contemplate that supreme light of goodness; much more is this true of the grace of good works, which shows that the Spirit of adoption has been given to us [cf., Rom. 8:15], (Institutes, 3.14.18).

Like Calvin, we give place to good works in strengthening a believer’s faith. But, just like the rays of the sun, which always lead us back to their source, so good works are intended to take us back to their source, namely the gift of the Spirit who has been given to us for the sake of Christ and all of His saving benefits (Gal. 3:14).

Thus, 1 John 2:1-2 (along with the sacraments- baptism and the Lord's Supper, see Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 65) serves as a much better starting place to take believers who are looking for assurance (Note: In directing believers to 1 John for assurance, DeYoung's article doesn't reference a single gospel text from 1 John). The gospel and sacraments (baptism and the Lord's Supper) are the primary sources and ground for the believer who is looking for assurance.

"My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world."