Can a person be absolutely sure that they are going to heaven? Take some time and ask a few people, “Are you going to heaven when you die?” Most people think they are—nearly 90%, actually. But when you ask them the question plainly, the normal response is, “I think so,” or “I hope so.” When pressed, most people believe they are generally good enough to get in, but, of course, can’t be sure.
We shouldn’t be surprised when members of other religions don’t know their eternal destinies as they all put some stress on human works to earn their version of salvation. Yet even with Christianity, the question of assurance is rampant. This is due, in large part, to our various theologies, which can be basically divided into three camps.
The first is the dominant view worldwide, embraced by Catholics and Arminians. It is the idea that one’s salvation can be lost. Some argue that it can be lost by falling into serious sin. Others argue it can only be lost by losing one’s faith. For some who hold this position, salvation can be obtained again by repentance (or some other such process), and yet for others, once salvation is lost, it is forfeited forever, and redemption is no longer possible. Obviously, such people have no assurance of salvation. At most, they can say, “I know I am saved now, but I can only hope I will make it to heaven.”
The second view is the one embraced by Reformed Theology and is represented by such denominations and Presbyterians and (increasingly) Southern Baptists. This idea holds to a position technically called the Final Perseverance of the Saints, which is to say, all true Christians will maintain a level of faith and good works throughout their lives thanks to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This is not to say that true Christians cannot “backslide” into sin and doubt (although some Reformed Theologians have rejected even the possibility of this). True Christians, they believe, may at times experience seasons of failure in their spiritual lives, but such states are not permanent, and these people will, if they are true Christians, be brought back to faith before the end of their lives. The trouble with this view is that no one really knows if they are true believers. Since false faith is absolutely indistinguishable from true faith until it finally fails (which could take anywhere from weeks to decades!), there is no way to know whether or not one’s faith is real until they have made it, in faith, to the end of their lives. These people are encouraged to look to their works to confirm that they are really saved, but again, at best, those works can only offer hope, not true assurance, of real salvation, since some people have had good works for a little while (however long that may be), only to later fall away and prove the insincerity of their own faith.
Despite, then, the constant arguing between Catholics and Protestants, Arminians and Calvinists, they are actually in complete agreement on this central point: a life of unbelief and a lack of works will land a person in Hell. For one group, their salvation was lost. For another, they will simply discover that they never had it to begin with. In either case, no real assurance of salvation can be offered, since on the one hand, we do not know that in the future we will not lose our salvation, and on the other, we cannot be sure that the salvation we think we have is genuine unless we maintain our faith and works until death. The assurance they offer, then, is called “moral assurance.” You can be “assured” of your salvation only insofar as you are dedicated to living out your Christian life. If you are really dedicated, you can “know” you are saved, just like you can “know” your marriage will work so long as you (and your spouse!) are really dedicated. Assurance, then, is not absolute.
The third view is holds to a position called “eternal security” and teaches that we can have absolute assurance of our salvation since it is by grace and not works, meaning that neither one’s behaviors nor beliefs have any bearing on one’s eternal destiny once salvation has been obtained. This view, I believe, is the biblical view. It takes Jesus’ words in such verses as John 3:16, 5:24, and 6:47 in a straightforward manner. He said that everyone who believes in Him has eternal life, which, by definition, is life that never ends. If we could lose our salvation, then Jesus was wrong. On the other hand, since we can know whether or not we believe, we can know whether or not we have met Jesus’ sole condition. It’s rather silly to say, “Well, I think I’ve believed in Jesus!” You know whether or not you have ever trusted Him to save you. We therefore do not need to look to external signs like our works to confirm Jesus’ promise. If we have believed, then He says that we have, right now, eternal life. If we believe He told the truth, then no matter what kind of works we do or don’t have, we can know we are saved.
1 John 5:13 says that we can know we have eternal life. Unless we are to soften John’s words so that they don’t really mean “to know” after all, the Bible affirms the fact that we can be sure we are saved, which is only possible under the third view above. Whenever, then, a person says that they “hope” or “think” they will go to heaven, we must stop to ask them which view of salvation they hold to. If we hold to eternal security, we can be 100% certain of our eternal salvation (so long, of course, as Jesus told the truth!).
Do you know you are saved? People have put up a lot of theological arguments to try to say we can’t know. Jesus says we can. Who do you believe?