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What assurance can we have of eternal life?

Psa 139:23-24 ESV  Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!  24  And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!

My understanding of eternal assurance

It seems fairly common to conflate present eternal life and future eternal life. I have shown the notable differences in the way the words ‘eternal life’ are used in the NT here. The way we understand these words has a significant bearing on how we understand our assurance of eternal life.

I understand ‘assurance of eternal life’ in terms of a journey. I have assurance that I am on the correct path now and thus I have confidence that I will reach my destination. That is, I can have assurance about the path, and confidence about the destination

A GPS analogy

Mat 7:12-14 ESV  “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.  13  “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  14  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

To extend the journey analogy, if the GPS in my car is working and it knows the address I need to get to, I can travel with both assurance and peace of mind that I will reach my destination. If I take a wrong turn the GPS will warn me. I simply need to allow it to lead me back to the right path. If I am asked ‘When will you arrive?’, I can look at the GPS and can give an answer with certainty -‘I will be there in 20 minutes‘. Of course this is based on certain assumptions – there will be no traffic delays, the car will not break down and I keep following the GPS.  

With regards to our eternal destination, I have assurance that I am on the right path. I have this because the Holy Spirit confirms it to me (Eph 1:14) and my heart does not condemn me (1 Jn 3:21).  When I stray from the path, the Holy Spirit convicts me and guides me back. My assurance comes because my companion is the Holy Spirit of God. But unlike traveling by car where the future is unknown, I have certainty about things outside my control because God is in control. He has promised to provide me all I need to complete the journey. No accidents need stop me. 

Jud 1:24 ESV  Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy,

However, the thing I am repeatedly warned about is growing weary and straying from His path by following the flesh and not His Spirit.

Gal 6:7-9 ESV  Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.  8  For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.  9  And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.

How far can we stray before our eternal arrival is compromised? There are several passages that suggest that one may stray so far that it is impossible for him to return. But the mercy of God is broad and I imagine few people stray that far. It seems that the Lord is less concerned with exactly how far we have strayed and more concerned with how serious we are about following Him. 

Rom 8:14 ESV  For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

Finally, our spiritual journey is one where the destination is based in time, not in space. Jesus repeatedly encourages us to ‘be ready‘ to meet Him. There is not one narrow path. Rather ‘the’ path is the one that the Holy Spirit is leading us down.  As long as we allow the Spirit to lead us, we will reach our eternal destination. 

Mat 24:44 ESV  Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

Php 4:5 ESV  Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand;

A faulty GPS

Is it possible that we think we are following the Spirit but instead are following the flesh? Given the many examples and warnings about deception, this does seem a real possibility. This is the essence of deception – we believe we are doing what is right but are in fact doing what is wrong.

A surprising difficulty for Christians is that the Holy Spirit does not abandon us when we stray from the path. 

2Ti 2:13 ESV  if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.

In the same way that Jesus remained faithful for three years to Judas, even promising him a seat in heaven with the other disciples (Mat 19:27-28), the Spirit of Jesus remains vitally connected with every born again believer regardless of how they have strayed from the path. 

Herein lies the difficulty. This faithfulness gives a false confidence, not in our present and real relationship with the Lord, but in the certainty of our future inheritance. It is here that some of the many warnings in the NT become eternally life saving. For example, although Paul described the Holy Spirit as ‘the guarantee of our inheritance‘ in Ephesians chapter 1, he makes clear in chapter 5 that this guarantee was conditioned on obedience.  He also highlights the particular danger to watch out for by concluding ‘Let no one deceive you with empty words‘.  

Eph 5:3-6 ESV  But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.  4  Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.  5  For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.  6  Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.

We know our spiritual GPS is faulty when we approve of or practice things that are explicitly condemned.

Conclusion

We can assured that we are on the right path because we have God abiding with us through his Spirit dwelling in us. We can have strong confidence that we will inherit eternal life while our heart is set on following the Spirit. We may occasionally stray from the path and follow the flesh, but the Holy Spirit will convict us and direct us back to the right path. 

If we refuse to follow the Spirit or are deceived into not following the Spirit, our eternal inheritance is at risk. But the Lord will remain faithful and is ready to guide us back if we chose to follow Him. Sadly, those who refuse to follow the Spirit or fail to escape the deception they are under will inherit the wrath of God not His kingdom (Ep 5:6).

Relevant Verses

We can be certain of present eternal life (having a relationship with Jesus) by believing in Him

Joh 17:3 ESV  And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

Eph 3:17-19 ESV  so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love,  18  may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth,  19  and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Living eternally is a future promise. We do not have it now.

Eph 1:13-14 ESV  In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit,  14  who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

Mar 10:29-30 ESV  Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel,  30  who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.

We can be confident of future eternal life (living eternally)…

If we obey Him (according to John)

1Jn 2:28 ESV  And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.

Or put negatively:

Joh 15:6 ESV  If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

Or put differently, we are true disciples if we abide in him:

Joh 8:31 ESV  So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples,

John describes that abiding in Christ means loving others.

1Jn 4:11-13 ESV  Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  12  No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.  13  By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

Or keeping His commandments:

Joh 15:10 ESV  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.

2Jn 1:9 ESV  Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.

If we endure

Heb 10:35-36 ESV  Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.  36  For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.

Mar 13:13 ESV  And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

2Ti 2:11-12 ESV  The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him;  12  if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us;

If we don’t practice evil

1Co 6:9-10 ESV  Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,  10  nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

 

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