The Key to Understanding, Obtaining, and Retaining the Assurance of Salvation
(As Considered In Its Proper Immediate, Lexical, and Systematic Context)
By Maurice C. Wildy III
Dear reader, please understand that in writing what I am about to write, I have no desire to puff myself up, gain a following, force my opinions on others, etc. All I want to do, out of love for God, His word, and His people, is put forth what I truly believe the Bible to declare, backing it up with scriptural proof-texts, tracing out my reasoning in light of it (so that you can affirm, correct, or refute it as needed), all unto our collective/united edification.
Lately, I’ve been writing quite a bit about the subject of assurance; it absolutely saddens me to see the words of men so often put forth as doctrine (often with little if any scriptural referencing or backing) over and above the words of God, or even more commonly, in the place of the word of God altogether. Men love to share quips, quotes, soundbite commentary, and memes, but they do not always have an equal appetite to rightly exegete and expound upon the word of God in a truly holistic, systematic fashion. They really do echo chamber their own opinions, reinforcing them over and over, rather than challenging their own paradigms, by searching the scripture daily, and diligently, to see whether their doctrinal stances are really so.
Not wanting to walk in the same manner or error, I would like to take a relatively quick, but hopefully thorough and accurate look at perhaps the most important verse on the subject of one’s assurance of salvation; with that verse being:
Romans 8:16 “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God:”
Romans 8:16 Considered, In Its Immediate, Systematic, and Lexical Context
Note that the text given in verse 16 is not given to us in verse one; in other words, we do not find it at the beginning of chapter eight. This suggests to me that somewhere between verses one and fifteen, we may very well find something vital to our right understanding of verse 16. Why? Because nothing indicates that verse 16 was spoken in a vacuum; nothing suggests that the Holy Spirit bears witness with our spirit in a vacuum, i.e., apart from anything else. I submit to you that His blessed witnessing to our spirit is absolutely tied to something — it is tied to the rest of the God-breathed words pertaining to the matter, both as found in Romans chapter eight, and as found everywhere else in Scripture.
The fact is that when you read Romans 7, and then read the transition into Romans 8:1-15, it becomes clear that due to our spiritual deliverance (in light of the objective, finished work of Christ), we have been set free from (1) being under the law, (2) being slaves to sin, (3) being utterly unable to walk in the Spirit; and from (4) always walking in conjunction with our own fleshly lusts, thoughts, opinions, doctrines, and desires. Likewise, we have been set free to (1) walk in and after the Spirit (though not without struggle, being in this body of death); (2) keep the commandments of God (guarding them in our heart so as to do them); and to (3) walk obediently towards God in light of his Holy word and the extant commands, reproofs, and admonitions found therein. If you doubt this, consider Romans 7:21-25 to Romans 8:1-5 in its full context:
Romans 7:21-25; 8:1-5: “I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. 22 For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: 23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? 25 I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin. 1 [There is] therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: 4 That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. 5 For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit.”
So again, by the Person and finished work of Christ, and the salvation He wrought and established for the elect at Calvary (including His perfect righteousness, justification, and sanctification both imputed to us, and imparted to us, seeing that He is all such things to His people, and that He is eternally and vitally yoked to them after the inner/inward man), we war! We Strive! We struggle! We Fight! After the inward man, we love and serve the law of God (not the Mosaic law but the spiritual law, consisting of all of God’s extant commands for us today). We can neither love this law nor serve it perfectly but we, by His grace love and serve said law, nevertheless. Likewise, we do not love God, His word, and His people perfectly in some manifest sense but we do after the inner man. We also walk in the Spirit always after the inner man but that doesn’t always manifest itself in our day to day walk. A consistent, manifest, upright walk has to be cultivated; we must grow in that area; we must be led in that area; we must be given God-wrought strength, grace and effectual power to walk in, and after, the Spirit consistently. Yet God gives His people such grace and enabling, in due time at least, and to one degree or another. Yet, we are to strive continuously to walk in the Spirit manifestly, to increase in said walk, denying ourselves, bearing our cross daily, and mortifying the deeds of the flesh, of this body of death. This is not mere opinion; it is biblical fact. This war is discussed in both chapter seven and chapter eight of Romans. Consider the wording of both again:
Romans 7:13-25 “Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. 15 For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. 16 If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that [it is] good. 17 Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. 18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but [how] to perform that which is good I find not. 19 For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. 20 Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. 21 I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. 22 For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: 23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? 25 I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.
Romans 8:6-8 “For to be carnally minded [i.e. to serve the law of sin, to live after the flesh] [is] death; but to be spiritually minded [i.e. to serve the spiritual law of God, to walk in the Spirit, to live by the Spirit] [is] life and peace. 7 Because the carnal mind [is] enmity against [i.e. at war with, hostile to, struggling against, striving against] God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. 8 So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God [note: but the implication is that the spiritual mind IS subject to the law of God, and those who are in the Spirit can please God as a result, via God-wrought faith, agape love, grace, effectual strength, etc.].”
Now, this next part is really key, it’s really vital… because it takes us right up to verse sixteen, right up to the fact that the Spirit of God witnesses with the spirits of His quickened saints, to give them (i.e. to work in them) assurance of their salvation. Consider Romans 8:12-15, and then also the rest of the following, all of which serve as sister passages to Romans 8:1-16:
Romans 8:12-15 “Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. 13 For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do MORTIFY THE DEEDS OF THE BODY, ye shall live. 14 For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. 15 For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear [i.e. if one is walking in the Spirit, serving the law of God, living in the Spirit, being led by Him, and mortifying the deeds of the body as we are commanded to, and as God enables us to, then we will have no cause for fear, because the Spirit’s very Divine Being, work, and presence in us is designed to (amongst other things) eliminate such fears, testifying that we are His children]; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.”
Colossians 3:1-11 “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. 2 Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. 3 For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, [who is] our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory. 5 MORTIFY THEREFORE YOUR MEMBERS WHICH ARE UPON THE EARTH; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: 6 For which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience: 7 In the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived in them. 8 But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth. 9 Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; 10 And have put on the new [man], which is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him that created him: 11 Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond [nor] free: but Christ [is] all, and in all.”
Ephesians 4:17-24 “This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, 18 Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart: 19 Who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. 20 But ye have not so learned Christ; 21 If so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus: 22 That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; 23 And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; 24 And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.“
Galatians 5:13-26 “For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only [use] not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another [i.e. (1) serve the Law of God, (2) perform labours of agape love, (3) walk as God has commanded us to walk, (4) obey the law of God > towards one another]. 14 For all the law is fulfilled in one word, [even] in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 15 But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another. 16 [This] I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. 17 For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would. 18 But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law. 19 Now THE WORKS OF THE FLESH [i.e. THE DEEDS OF THE BODY] are manifest, which are [these]; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, 20 Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, 21 Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told [you] in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, 23 Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. 24 And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. 25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. 26 Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another.”
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. 25 And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they [do it] to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. 26 I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: 27 But I keep under my body, and bring [it] into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.”
Romans 6:15-23 “What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid. 16 Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? 17 But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. 18 Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness [i.e. ye serve the law after the inner man, because ye walk in the Spirit, you are led by the Spirit, you live in the Spirit]. 19 I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness. 20 For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness. 21 What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things [is] death. 22 But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life. 23 For the wages of sin [is] death; but the gift of God [is] eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Ephesians 5:3-12 “But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; 4 Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks. 5 For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. 6 Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience. 7 Be not ye therefore partakers with them. 8 For ye were sometimes darkness, but now [are ye] light in the Lord: walk as children of light: 9 (For the fruit of the Spirit [is] in all goodness and righteousness and truth;) 10 Proving what is acceptable unto the Lord. 11 And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove [them]. 12 For it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret.”
Titus 2:11-15 “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, 12 Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; 13 Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; 14 Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works. 15 These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no man despise thee.”
1 Peter 2:11-12 “Dearly beloved, I beseech [you] as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; 12 Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by [your] good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation.”
Galatians 6:7-10 “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. 8 For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. 9 And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not. 10 As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all [men], especially unto them who are of the household of faith.”
Romans 8:14 “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.”
Isaiah 48:17-18 “Thus saith the LORD, thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel; I [am] the LORD thy God which teacheth thee to profit, which leadeth thee by the way [that] thou shouldest go. 18 O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments! then had thy peace [i.e. the objective peace with God that Christ established but also that subjective/experimental peace that is felt, that is part and parcel with the assurance of one’s salvation] been as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea:”
Psalm 143:9-10 “Deliver me, O LORD, from mine enemies: I flee unto thee to hide me. 10 Teach me to do thy will; for thou [art] my God: thy spirit [is] good; lead me into the land of uprightness.”
Proverbs 8:20-21 “I lead in the way of righteousness, in the midst of the paths of judgment: 21 That I may cause those that love me to inherit substance; and I will fill their treasures.”
Can it be any clearer? Is it not one hundred percent plain to see that it is within the immediate and collective context of…:
- Being delivered from being under the law, under sin, and from being a slave to sin;
- Being set at liberty by the Spirit, to live by the Spirit, and to walk in/after/by the Spirit
- Being delivered from living after the flesh, serving our carnal lusts exclusively (though we still sin whilst in this body of death)
- Being delivered to serve the law of God, to serve the brethren in love, after the inward man, by the effectual working of the Holy Ghost; and
- Being set at liberty to mortifying the deeds of the body (though never unto perfection), to mortify our members, to put off concerning the former conversation the old man, etc.
…that we read in Romans 8:16
“The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God”
It is not within the context of mere notionalism; it is not within the context of mental assent alone; it is not within the context of accepting biblical syllogisms pertaining to the preaching of the cross; and it is definitely not within the context of the kind of easy-believism that pervades many grace circles. No! The Holy Spirit witnesses with the spirit of His people that they are the children of God within the strict, and very clear context of (a) loving and believing Christ (and the Triune Godhead of whom He is the fulness bodily); (b) loving and believing His word; (c) loving and believing His people; (d) walking in, living in, and being led by the Holy Spirit; (e) mortifying our members and the deeds of our flesh; (f) walking in newness of life having our minds renewed daily; (g) denying ourselves and bearing our cross; (h) making use of the scriptural means He has provided to stir up such things; and (i) otherwise serving God and His people in agape loving, keeping (guarding) His commandments, and striving/struggling/fighting to obey His word, all as He both enables and manifestly works out in us.
Let no one deceive you; the only way to obtain and retain assurance of your salvation is for you to (1) Be saved by the Person and work of The Lord, i.e. by the blood of Christ, as the Holy Spirit makes it effectual in our quickened lives; (2) Have God-wrought faith and God-wrought love for Christ, His truth, and His people; (3) Have God-wrought obedience to the Lord’s word, keeping/guarding His commandments in your heart; and (4) having the Holy Spirit witness with your spirit, speaking clearly to your spirit by faith, that you truly are a child of God. Let no man tell you that “faith alone,” or “mental assent alone” is the sole biblical ground, or the only acceptable means or basis for assurance. Such empty opining and pontificating edifies no one… it only misleads, comforts the lawless and/or disobedient, and sets the very clear word of God at nought. Simply put, if you lack assurance pray for it, beseech the Lord for it, and ask Him to work in you powerfully, and consistently, all of the things that the Bible declares must accompany it.
But please heed this warning! Do not look to yourself for assurance; do not count your good deeds (or your bad); don’t satisfy yourself with doing this thing or that and saying “see, I have all the more reason to be assured now;” but also, do not trust in your faith either! Instead, wait on the Lord; look to Him; read his word; hear it faithfully proclaimed and expounded; pray mightily; strive/labour/struggle/fight to guard (keep) His commandments in your heart; eagerly and diligently endeavor to obey His word; meditate upon it; war against yourself (deny yourself, bear your cross daily, mortify the deeds of the flesh, mortify your members, put away youthful lusts, etc.) all as He enables, all to the degree that He has afore-ordained, respectively, for each of His saints. In so doing, He will work that assurance out in you, and for you, so that you do not have to try to obtain it (take it) prematurely for yourself.
Yet, many do just that… they fall back on mental assent alone, thinking that false presumption (based upon their carnal reasoning) amounts to true assurance of salvation. In many cases, perhaps even very many cases, it doesn’t. Do not be fooled/misled by such a frightful error. Do not presume to take for yourself what the Lord hasn’t yet truly given you. I cannot stress enough, wait on the Lord, wait for Him. Wait for His peace, comfort, and assurance, and do not trying to rush His operations. If He is leaving you without assurance for a season, or for many seasons; if He is withholding that witness with your spirit that you are His child, it is for a very, very good reason… Either it is because you really aren’t born again (and He doesn’t see fit to leave you under the delusion that you are) or it is because you are saved (you are regenerate, you are one of His), but He is working to get your attention, to set your focus aright, to bring you back to what is important — namely Him, His glory, and a right, experimental, personal relationship with The lord. Don’t rush that; just submit to it, bow to it, and pray for grace, seeking it, and seeking the only God and Saviour who can provide it, earnestly.
To God alone, be the glory, in Christ Jesus — forever and ever. Amen!