“Comforting or Convicting? 4 Tests of Genuine Salvation” (I John sermon)

One of the most common questions people in our churches have is, “How can I know for sure if I’m really saved?” That’s NOT a silly question. If there really is life after death — and the Bible tells us there is — then there is nothing more important than knowing for sure that you have eternal life in heaven.

So how can you know?
— Some people say, “Well, if you ‘made a decision’ at some point in your life, then you can know that you’re saved. But Jesus said in Matthew 7, “NOT everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” So you can’t know you’re saved just because you’ve “made a decision” some time and claimed that Jesus was your Lord.
— Other people say, “Well, if you were baptized, you can know.” But Paul talks in I Corinthians 10 about how they were “all baptized,” but “nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased.” In other words, people are not saved just because they’ve been baptized.

So how CAN you know? Thankfully God’s word gives us the answer to this. And one of the best places where we can test ourselves and get assurance for our salvation is in the Book of I John which we read a few days ago in our Daily Bible Reading. I John 5:13 gives us the purpose of the book. It says: “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may KNOW that you have eternal life.” So John says the central purpose of this book is to give Christians the assurance of their salvation. And it does that by giving us a series of tests throughout this book, about some of the things which will be present in the life of a person who is genuinely saved. So as a person reads these tests, they should either be COMFORTED, because they see that these things are really present in their life and they are really a Christian, or they should be CONVICTED, because they don’t really see them in their life, and they will realize they are not really saved. Which is it for you? Let’s look at some of the tests God gives us here in I John, of the genuine Christian. Will this COMFORT you, or CONVICT you?

We could discuss these two separately, but since they are closely related, we’ll take them together:
— First, look at 1:6-7, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.”

— Then look at 2:3 “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ but does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”

— 3:3 has a similar test: “Everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies Himself just as He is pure.”
— Then 3:7-8 says: “the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous. The one who practices sin is of the devil.”

— 5:3 says: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments.”

All of these verses, scattered throughout this book, are saying virtually the same thing: if you really know Jesus, your life will not be characterized by sin and disobedience. You will be living a holy life; and you will keep His commandments.

We need to hear this word from God today. As I mentioned before, Jesus Himself said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who DOES the will of My Father who is in heaven.” There is NO assurance of salvation for the person who just SAYS they know Jesus, but who is not growing in holiness, or who is not obeying His word. Those things are NOT characteristic of someone who has met Jesus. When you meet Jesus, your life is different.

One of the best books I read this year was David McCullough’s book, The Wright Brothers. (It really made me want to visit Kitty Hawk. Cheryl & I had actually planned a trip there for October, but it was cancelled by the hurricane!) One of the stories told on the brothers in the book was by their niece, Ivonette, who said when they were kids they had toys, and when they got broken, their “Uncle Orville” and “Uncle Wilbur” would take those toys, and fix them up, and make them better than new — with all kinds of improvements they made from their ingenuity and mechanical expertise.

When I read that, I thought, “That is like what the Lord does with us.” When He finds us, we are like those toys, we are “broken” in our sin and disobedience. But when Jesus takes us, He “fixes” us, and makes us better than we ever were before.

The cardboard testimonies we did in our Christmas program are an example of that: one side of the sign says: “I was hooked on drugs” but the other says, “But Jesus set me free.” See, when Jesus comes into our lives, He “fixes” us; He changes us. Now, we are never going to be “perfect” in this life; NONE of our people who had those testimonies are perfect in every way — and I am not either! But if we have really met Jesus, there WILL be areas in our lives that He has “fixed” — and there will always be some others that He’s still working on — but what we will NOT do is just keep walking in the same old sins and not care anything about it. If we are still walking in the same old sins; if we keep on breaking the same old commandments; then we have every reason to doubt whether we have ever really been saved.

According to I John, there are a lot of people who quite honestly, SHOULD be worried about their salvation! Sure, they’ve “been to church,” and “made a decision,” or “got baptized,” but they are not living anything like the way Jesus commands His followers to live, and if you are not living the way Jesus commanded us to live, then you have every reason to doubt whether you are His disciple.

But if you can look at your life honestly, and say, “You know, I’m not perfect; but there are things I used to do, and I’m not doing them any more. There are commandments I used to break before I met Jesus, and I’m not breaking them any more” — then you have every reason to be comforted, and have the assurance of your salvation.
II. LOVE the children of God.

Here is another test that is repeated numerous times throughout this book:

— 3:14 “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren.”

— 4:7-8 “Beloved, let US love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God, and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God IS love.”

So here is another test of genuine salvation: do you LOVE — and especially He says, do you love the people of God? From the very beginning, Jesus said the people of God would be identified by their LOVE for each other. He said in John 13:35 “By THIS shall all men know that you are My disciples, by your LOVE for one another.”

And that’s is exactly what did happen. About 125 A.D., the Roman emperor Hadrian sent a messenger, Aristides, to spy out this new group called “Christians” to see if they were a threat to his empire. What were these people like? Here’s what Aristides wrote back to him:
— He said, they give to each other when they have needs
— they take care of their widows and orphans
— they even invite slaves to become a part of their group, and when they do, they call them “brothers” without distinction!
— when one of their poor passes away, they take care of his burial for him
— In summary he said, “THEY LOVE ONE ANOTHER.”

THAT was the identification that Aristides reported to Hadrian: “They love one another.” That is exactly what Jesus said would be the defining mark of His followers — that they would love one another.

And here John says this is true of us as individual believers as well. If you are really “born of God, and know God,” then you will LOVE — and you will especially love your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

So to test whether you might be a Christian, ask yourself: am I loving the people of God, like this says? Well, how do you know if you are loving them? John gives us some tests here about what “love” really is.
— :16 “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.”
— :17 “But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?”

John tells us here that “love” is not just a “good feeling” that you have for someone; it means laying down your life for them — and that doesn’t mean just in “big” sacrificial acts, but also and especially by “laying down your life” in little, every day acts of service.

When I visit with couples who are getting married, I often talk about Ephesians 5, and mention to the men how it says that the husband is to love his wife the way that Christ loved the church and laid down His life for it. And I will often say to them something like: now you may never have the chance, as long as you live, to literally “lay down your life” for your wife. Those circumstances just may never arise. But if you live even a DAY with her, you WILL have the opportunity to “lay down your life” in “little, self-sacrificial ways” which will demonstrate your love for her.

I got a crazy promotional e-mail a few days ago with the headline, “Don’t Fight, Flip!” It was advertising a special “coin” that was supposed to settle the argument many couples have over who has to change the baby’s diaper this time. It was saying, don’t argue about it; “flip this coin,” and whoever got the side with the baby’s picture that said, “My turn”, would be the one had to change the diaper. If it came up “Your turn,” the other person had to do it.

I thought, “What in the world?!” Some people may have to settle things like that with a flip of the coin, but we as Christians have a better way — we have the way of LOVE. We shouldn’t fight over who “has” to do one thing or another, we ought to be fighting over who GETS to serve each other in those little, sacrificial, ways. And this should be true not just in our homes and marriages, but especially in the church, too. One of the best signs that you are genuinely saved is that you love your brothers and sisters in Christ. And loving means sacrificing for them; serving them even in very little things.

But on the other hand, I John says one of the sure-fire signs that you are NOT genuinely saved, is if you HATE a fellow-believer! Chapter 4:20 here says, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar” (John is very “black & white” in this book. He just “calls it like he sees it.” He says if you call yourself a Christian and hate another Christian, you are a “liar”!) “For the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”
So John says the flip side of this “test” is, if there is someone you HATE; someone you cannot love and serve; someone you have bitterness against; it is a sure giveaway sign that you are not saved at all. So again, test yourself by this, and see if it shows that you are really in the faith.
III. Have the SPIRIT of God

— 3:24b “We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.”

— And again, this test is repeated as well: 4:13 “BY THIS WE KNOW that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.”

“BY THIS WE KNOW” means this is how we can have confidence that we really have a relationship with the Lord: that we have the Holy Spirit of God living inside us.

But again, that can be kind of subjective. How do you know if you have the Spirit of God? Some people think they have the Spirit of God because they get goosebumps when a certain song is played. (I remember in college talking with a friend at the cafeteria one time and he said something about how he “loved those Holy Spirit goosebumps”) Can I tell you, the Bible NEVER says goosebumps are an indication of the presence of the Holy Spirit?! But the Bible does give us several tests which it says DO indicate the presence of the Holy Spirit:

— In John 16:8 Jesus said of the Holy Spirit, “He will convict the world of sin, and righteousness, and judgment.” The Holy Spirit, if He is in you, will convict you about your sin. If you are a Christian, you cannot sin and “feel good about it”. In fact, someone said that one of the big differences between a Christian and a non-Christian is not that the Christian NEVER sins; because we all do; but rather the difference is that the Christian person feels HORRIBLE about their sin, while sin doesn’t bother the lost person that much. So what about you? Do you feel badly when you sin? You can’t be happy doing it? You’re just not “at rest” until you confess it to God and stop doing it? Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”! You are blessed if you mourn over your sin, because that is one of the surest signs that the Holy Spirit is in you, convicting you, and that you really belong to God!

— Galatians 5:22-23 says: “The fruit of the Spirit by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” It uses this term “FRUIT” of the Spirit because it means just like you can tell you are in the presence of an apple tree because it has the fruit of its apples — so you can tell the presence of the Spirit of God, by the fruit of the love, joy, peace, and patience that He brings in your life. Do you have that love we were just talking about? Do you have a joy in the Lord that is more than just “good circumstances”? Do you have a “peace that passes all understanding”? Are you patient with others? All these are signs that the Holy Spirit is really present in your life.

— Then Romans 8:15-16 says the Holy Spirit gives us “a spirit of adoption by which we cry out, ‘Abba, Father,’” and “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. So another Biblical evidence of the Holy Spirit is that He just gives us an inner sense of confidence that God is our Father, and that we belong to Him. There is just “something” in our hearts that makes us love God, and want to worship Him, and sing to Him. That “something” is the Holy Spirit, calling out “Abba, Father” to God.

All these things are Biblical signs that the Holy Spirit is present in your life. And if the Holy Spirit is in your life, John says you can be confident that you are really saved. If the Holy Spirit is NOT in your life, then you are NOT saved. Romans 8:9 says “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” So another of the great signs of genuine salvation is the presence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life, evidenced in these Biblical ways.
IV. Hold to Biblical Doctrine

In :6 John writes: ”We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”

When he says “US” here, John is referring to himself and the other apostles of Jesus, who had been taught by Jesus personally, and who had been inspired by the Holy Spirit to write the New Testament. He’s saying: the one who knows God, LISTENS to this teaching which he and the other apostles received from Jesus Himself. Those who do NOT hold to this teaching, show that they are not from God. So John is saying here that one of the tests of genuine salvation is whether you hold to the doctrines that Christ’s apostles have given us in God’s word, the Bible.

He gives us a couple of examples of some of those doctrines in I John:

— One of the most important is found in 5:1, “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” The first and most important doctrine you have to believe to know that you are a Christian is that Jesus is your Savior, the Messiah, who died on the cross to save us. Now this can’t be an “empty” belief; just “saying” you believe that. Like we saw earlier, it will be accompanied by the holiness and obedience and all the other things this book talks about. But you do have to have that basic faith in Jesus to be a genuine Christian. It is fundamental.

— Then He mentions one particular doctrine about Jesus in 4:2, “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” Some teachers in John’s day were saying that “physical, fleshly” things were “bad”, so Jesus couldn’t possibly have been a “real, flesh and blood” man, because then He would have been tainted with sin. But The New Testament teaches that Jesus Christ DID come “in the flesh.” John 1:18 says “And the Word became FLESH and dwelt among us.” The person who knows God, will accept the Bible’s teaching on this. He who does not know God, will reject this.

And we can say this about any issue. The mark of the genuine Christian is that he is committed follow what the Bible teaches on every issue, not just what is “popular” to believe.

In 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court voted in the Oberkfell decision that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. After that decision came out, an article appeared in which someone said that those who hold to what they called “2000-year-old ancient beliefs” are going to find themselves on an island that is growing continually smaller and smaller. I have a friend who is a minister at a church, and his pastor showed him that article, and my friend said, “That’s an island I am willing to live on.”

That has to be our attitude as Christians. It may well be that in the days ahed we are going to find ourselves on a very “small island” — if that is what you want to call it — of those who believe in the Biblical definition of marriage; of traditional sexuality; that Jesus is the only way to God; and that the Bible is indeed the word of God, on which all these other beliefs are based. We may indeed in the years to come find ourselves on a very small island of believers who still hold to those things.

But as John said, “He who knows God, listens to us. He who does not know God, does not listen to us.” One of the best tests of genuine salvation, is whether you continue to hold to what the Bible teaches, instead of giving in to popular opinion and peer pressure. If that’s so, then where does that put you?
So John gives us at least 4 tests of genuine salvation in this book. Those who are really saved:
— Walk in holiness and obedience
— Love other Christians
— Have the Spirit of God
— Hold to Biblical teachings
When you read these things, or hear these things taught this morning, what does it do for you? Does it give you more confidence that you are really saved? Or does it convict you that maybe you are not? If you are wrestling with whether you are really saved, I would encourage you to spend an afternoon prayerfully reading the Book of I John. Ask God to show you as you read it, whether the signs of a genuine believer are present in your life.

— Just because you know some date that you “made a decision” doesn’t mean you’re really a Christian if these signs are not present in you.
— Just because you get “goosebumps” during a certain song doesn’t mean you’re really saved.
— God specifically says here in I John that He gave us this word so that we might KNOW that we have eternal life. Let His word test your life, and show you whether you should be comforted that you are really saved, or whether you should be convicted that you’re really not!

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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4 Responses to “Comforting or Convicting? 4 Tests of Genuine Salvation” (I John sermon)

  1. Dan Trout says:

    I came across your web site looking for illustrations, and was surprised by this message.
    You stated, “There is NO assurance of salvation for the person who just SAYS they know Jesus, but who is not growing in holiness, or who is not obeying His word.” So then, is salvation based on a person’s works? If there is no salvation if you are “not obeying His Word” then there must be salvation because you do obey. That is contrary to so many Scriptures.
    The whole premise that there are 4 tests of genuine salvation is contrary to what the Bible says. John 3:16, Rom 4:5, John 10:28, Eph 2:8-9, Rom 5:8, etc. There is only ONE test, and that is faith! Adding works to faith, whether it is with faith or after faith as a “proof” of salvation is still adding works to the finished work of Christ and is NOT the gospel of grace.
    If salvation is proven by “obeying His Word,” How much obedience is required? When do you know when you have obeyed enough? What verses state how much is required? Who determines when you have obeyed enough? The list goes on and on.
    Salvation is based solely on trusting in Jesus Christ alone as the One who made the complete payment for all your sin. Nothing more, and nothing less.

    • Shawn Thomas says:

      Hi Dan. I believe you misunderstand me, my brother. I totally agree with your last paragraph, and if you read many of my messages you will see that faith in Christ alone for salvation is a clear and continued theme of mine.

      I believe the misunderstanding lies in the difference between obtaining salvation, and the fruit or assurance of genuine salvation. Salvation is absolutely, totally by grace, through faith alone. But when a person has been saved by faith alone, he is now “a new creation” and there will be some resulting changes, signs, fruit of that salvation. Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruit.” I John 2:3 says “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.” Jesus did NOT say “you will BECOME a Christian by your fruit.” John did not say “you will come to know Him by keeping His commandments” — rather these things are marks, fruits, signs, of those who have been saved by faith alone. If you don’t see any fruit or obedience in a person’s life, then scripturally there is every reason to believe the person has not been saved by grace through faith in Christ alone. There is no fruit. I hope you see the difference. The point of this message is that these 4 things are TESTS of whether there has been genuine salvation by faith, not REQUIREMENTS in order for them to attain salvation. It’s like a paternity test does not MAKE you someone’s child; it just reveals that you ARE. I hope this clarifies the problem for you. As I said, from your last paragraph, I believe we are on the same side here. I am grateful that you are taking God’s word seriously, and I hope some of my illustrations might be helpful to you and others. God bless you as you minister His word, and preach salvation by grace though faith in Christ alone.

      • Dan Trout says:

        Pastor Shawn,
        Thank you for your response. I do not think it is a misunderstanding. I say this in love, but it appears you are linking salvation and service to Christ together. They are two distinct and different decisions. Salvation is always by faith alone in Christ alone plus no works! Service to Christ involves faith and works. You believe what God says in the Bible and you obey it. Your “fruit tests” are a determination of a person’s dedication, NOT their salvation. There is only ONE test for salvation. Have they placed their complete trust in Jesus Christ as their ONLY hope of heaven. Nothing else! That’s it!

        Basing a person’s salvation on a “fruit test” I believe is bad teaching. First off, the passage in Matthew 7 is NOT talking about salvation, it is talking about false prophets and teachers. “Their fruit” would be the false doctrine that is contrary to the Word of God. Which is exactly what we see Moses warning the children of Israel about in Deut. 13. The teaching of “no fruit, no root” is usually based on this passage and it is taken out of context.
        Spiritual growth is different in every individual. I have seen some who trust Christ as their Savior and within weeks, they are already leading others to Christ. I have also seen other Believers who it takes many, many, many years to do this. Was the one saved and the other one not? No, it’s a matter of application and obedience. To say, “If you aren’t doing this or that then you had better check whether you are saved or not” is putting the emphasis of salvation on the person’s performance or their works. The danger and error, in setting “tests” of whether a person is saved or not, is that the focus is on living up to the “tests” (works) and not on Christ. And as I mentioned previously, how much change is required? How faithful does a person have to be to “show” they are saved.
        I hope this helps clarify what I was saying.

      • Shawn Thomas says:

        You are correct; it is not a misunderstanding as I had hoped. I do believe and constantly teach that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus alone. But the Bible repeatedly teaches that if that salvation by faith is real, there WILL be fruit of it. “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature.” You also did not address John’s teaching that “by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.” I John is FULL of such tests, as well as the rest of the New Testament. No, the fruit is NOT a work that saves; but scripture clearly and repeatedly teaches that it is an indication that there IS salvation which came only by grace in the person’s life. It’s just like the fruit on the avocado tree in our yard: that fruit didn’t MAKE it an avocado tree; it just revealed that it IS one. In the same way, the fruits of our lives do not MAKE us Christians in any way — we are saved only by grace — but they do REVEAL what we are only by His grace. Yes, we do need to be careful about rendering judgment on who we think is lost or saved by the fruit we see at any given moment; some grow faster/slower/have temporary setbacks. But over the long haul, there will be at least SOME fruit of a Christ-saved life – or there is every reason to doubt a person’s profession. OK, this isn’t one of those “argument blogs” where we get on and argue back & forth forever; so we’re gonna close this down here. I think we’ve both expressed our views. God bless you as you seek & serve Him.

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