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How Can I Be Sure I’m A Christian? Dr. Donald Whitney

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Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Whitney about how to be sure of your salvation.

Topics of conversation include:

  • How one becomes a Christian
  • How to respond to those who do not believe assurance is possible
  • Marks of a being a true believer from 1 John
  • Presence vs. perfection when it comes to evidence of salvation
  • Common areas of false assurance
  • The role of the church in assurance
  • Resources for further reading.

Dr. Donald Whitney is professor of Biblical Spirituality and associate dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has served for many years in pastoral ministry and founded the Center for Biblical Spirituality. Dr. Whitney has authored several books, including Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (NavPress, 1997), Praying the Bible (Crossway, 2015), and How Can I Be Sure I’m a Christian?: What the Bible Says About Assurance of Salvation (NavPress, 1994). 

 


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Intro (00:00):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

 

Brian Arnold (00:16):

There’s one question that plagues a lot of Christians—how can I be sure that I’m saved? This question usually comes after a crisis of unbelief. Or perhaps after a season of sin, or what we might think of as one big sin. It can even come when there’s a prolonged time when the spiritual flame is just a flicker. And maybe it’s just a dark night of the soul that has you questioning everything. Just the other night, I was putting my nine-year-old daughter to bed and she whispered, “I think I’m less of a Christian than I used to be.” She said that she feels distracted at church and has lots of questions. And when issues of disobedience arise, she questions if she’s too sinful for Jesus. Well, whether you’re nine or 90, I think this is a common Christian experience at some point in the life of a believer.

 

Brian Arnold (00:58):

And I imagine that there’s some people listening today who wonder if they’re even a Christian. And let me say upfront that this is a question that if you’re wrestling with, let me encourage you that you’re even asking the question. It means a lot that you care about the Lord and your standing with him. And I know you’re going to be encouraged by our guest today. So to help us understand the question of how can I be sure that I’m a Christian, we have with us, Dr. Don Whitney. Dr. Whitney is the professor of Biblical Spirituality and associate dean at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He has served for years in local church pastoral ministry, founded the Center for Biblical Spirituality, and spoken at numerous conferences on the topic of personal and congregational spirituality. Over his career, Dr. Whitney has written many books, including Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life—which I would tell you right now, if you’ve not read, you need to go out and sell a kidney if you must to buy that book and read it—Praying the Bible, and most importantly for today’s conversation, How Can I Be Sure I’m a Christian?: What the Bible Says About Assurance of Salvation. Dr. Whitney, welcome to the podcast.

 

Donald Whitney (01:58):

Thank you, Dr. Arnold, it’s great to be with you.

 

Brian Arnold (02:00):

So we always ask our guests one big question, and today the question that we’re asking is—how can I be sure I’m a Christian? This is something you’ve thought a lot about, written a lot about, and even as a pastor, had to deal with in congregations that you have led. And I think maybe to begin with, if we’re asking the question—how can I be sure I’m a Christian? It might be helpful to start with—how does one become a Christian? Because that’s going to really lay the foundation for answering the question.

 

Donald Whitney (02:25):

Absolutely, because we turn for assurance of our salvation to the one in whom we find salvation. And that is in Jesus Christ, who saves us. And he saves us from sin, and the condemnation that comes from God—the judgment, eternal judgment, we face because of our disobedience to God and choosing to go our own way and rebelling against his way. But it is believing into Christ that…when we…New Testament literally means “we faith into him.” “We believe into him.” We become identified with Christ and his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. And that substitutionary death on our behalf, the life that he lived, we get credit for when we are united to Christ. So it’s a turning from sin and living for ourselves, turning to Christ, as our only hope, and believing that his perfect sinless life, his substitutionary death, was in our place. And that his resurrection is the proof that God accepted it on our behalf. And now, through his ascension, he reigns as King overall, and is returning one day as Judge. And so that our hope is in his works, not ours. In his life, not our righteousness.

 

Brian Arnold (03:45):

So a person comes to faith. They’ve done exactly what you said. They’ve turned from sin. They’re trusting Christ. His perfect meritorious life is now—what we say is imputed—to the new believer. They get all the things that he did that was right. Our sin was imputed to Christ. And they’re born again. And now…it is just fascinating how many Christians begin to doubt at times—am I genuinely saved? Did I really mean it? Did I have enough faith? Is my faith floundering in this moment? And it even raises a question, even amongst different denominations, of—can we even have assurance? So what would you say to people who would say that we can’t even have assurance of faith?

 

Donald Whitney (04:25):

Well, and there are actually large religious denominations who take that very position. But we have one entire book of the Bible written for the purpose of assurance. And that, of course, is 1 John. In chapter five, he writes, “These things”—meaning this letter—”I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God.” So John wrote to people he believed were believers. They thought they were, but they weren’t sure, because he said “These things I’ve written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may be sure that you have eternal life.” So apparently they were unsure. They’d come to a place of questioning their salvation. But John writes and gives them 10 things to examine, as evidences of their salvation. And if you have one entire book of the Bible written to address one subject, you can be sure it is a common problem. So as you said, I believe not only is struggling with assurance a common problem—I think is normal—but I think it’s also healthy in most cases. Now prolonged, unresolvable doubts is another matter. But I think it’s a good thing when people say, “You know, I want Christ and salvation and heaven more than anything, and sometimes I’m not sure. And so I want assurance.” Well, that’s a good thing. Typically unbelievers don’t wring their hands over whether or not they’re right with God. They usually presume they’re okay.

 

Brian Arnold (05:58):

Yeah. When I was pastoring a church in Kentucky, I would get people who they would say, “What about so and so down the street?” “Oh, well he came and he prayed a prayer—t was 1977, I remember—he wept over his sin.” And he’s never been back to church. But if I were to go ask him if he’s saved, he’d say, “Of course I am! And I don’t doubt it. I was told never to doubt it.” I’m amazed how many people who don’t doubt their salvation have a lot of reason to doubt their salvation. And genuine, dear, sweet saints who wrestle with this. Like you said, it needs to be resolvable at some point. But it’s actually a healthy thing at times to say, “Why am I in this season where I don’t feel as near to the Lord as I did before?” Or maybe a season of struggle, of sin, that’s causing us to doubt those things, which pushes us back to Christ.

 

Donald Whitney (06:44):

I think—

 

Brian Arnold (06:46):

Go ahead.

 

Donald Whitney (06:46):

The devil makes…works hard at convincing Christians they’re not right with God, and unbelievers that they are. I mean, most of unbelievers don’t wring their hands, as I said, over this issue. They presume, “Oh yeah, me and God, you know, we’re fine,” kind of thing, you know, a horrible presumption. Or that they say, in regards to salvation, “Oh yeah, I’ve done that.” Which is a horrible line to use, you know, regarding salvation. “I’ve done that.” I…like, you know, that’s salvation by works. That’s a horrible thing. And yet believers, I think, are so often tempted to believe they’re not right with God. Which is actually…can be an evidence of salvation. You, the closer one comes to Christ. I once heard Dallas seminary, professor John Hannah say in one sense, the more miserable he becomes, because the closer you get to Christ, the more you mature in faith, the, the more unholy you realize you are recognize that it was in the very last thing that he wrote the apostle Paul in 2 Timothy that’s when he said, I am the chief of sinner, arguably, he was the godliest man ever at that point.

 

Donald Whitney (08:03):

Here he is at the end of his life, and perhaps the most mature, Christ-like man ever at that point. And yet he felt himself to be the biggest sinner. And I don’t think that was a rhetorical statement. I think he looked at himself and thought, “Okay, Jesus appeared to me on the road to Damascus and saved me when I wasn’t seeking him. I have had miracles come through my very hands. Jesus has appeared to me on other occasions. Angels have appeared to me. I’ve been taken to heaven, to see heaven for a brief period of time. And despite all these unparalleled blessings that no one else has experienced, I still sin. Therefore, I must be the most wicked person on earth.” He really believed that. And so I think that’s normative. I think there are times like Jonathan Edwards, you know, said—my sins are infinite upon infinite, and multiplied by infinite.

 

Donald Whitney (08:57):

I don’t think a true Christian thinks that way or feels that way all the time. Because the same Apostle Paul who said “I’m the chief of sinners” also, when chained to a prison wall in the Philippian jail, was singing praise to God. He wasn’t there beating his breast—”Oh, I’m the chief of sinners, I’m the chief of sinners.” So sometimes it’s rejoicing—”Rejoice in the Lord always, again, I say rejoice!” But other times, when you realize the depth of your sin, and the closer you come to the light, the more unlike Christ you see yourself to be, you feel more deeply sin that you didn’t even recognize as sin years before. I think that’s normal.

 

Brian Arnold (09:40):

And like you said, healthy. Striking that balance of not “woe is me” all the time, finding our joy in Christ, because we believe the gospel that our sins have been atoned for. And at the same time, recognizing that sanctification a long process. And we long for the day when it’s finalized in the state of glorification. Well, you had mentioned before that there’s 10 reasons that 1 John gives. I think our listeners are probably wanting you to work through that list to say—what is 1 John saying? If that is the place in the Bible that is trying to give us assurance of salvation, how do you help people walk through the book of 1 John to give them that assurance?

 

Donald Whitney (10:18):

Well, I mean, frankly, in my book How Can I Be Sure I’m a Christian, there are a number of things that I go to other than…or before I go to 1 John. And establishing some of the things we have already established, and you know, it’s…I don’t know that we have time to go through the entire list there, but for example, “By this, we know,” John says that—he uses that kind of terminology all throughout the book—”By this, we know that we have passed out of darkness into light, because we love the brothers.” Brothers, and sisters in Christ. And so, a love for the church, a sincere love for the people of God—that is a mark of eternal life. And that’s why a person who can neglect the church and doesn’t think fellowship with the church, or worship with the church is important—

 

Donald Whitney (11:14):

That’s biblical reason to question their salvation. Other places it talks about obedience. Do we walk in the light or do we walk in darkness? Those who are right with God should look at their sincere desire to obey God, to do what the Bible says. That’s a mark of assurance. So there are about 10 of those like that in the New Testament, but I’ve discovered this goes along with that—when people work through that, okay, do you have love for the brothers? Well, yeah, I do love my brothers in Christ. I love them deeply, but you know, every once in a while, they make me mad. Or I get impatient. Therefore, do I really love my brothers? And there is a big difference in looking for the presence of evidences and the perfection of them in your life. So do you sincerely love your brothers and sisters in Christ? Not just because sociologically you’re like them, but you know, you both love the same things. You love Christ. You love the Word of God. You love the will of God. And just because sometimes maybe you’re bored by some of the people in your church, you don’t necessarily care to be around them—does that mean you don’t love your brothers in Christ? Not necessarily. So don’t look for the perfection of these 10 things in 1 John. Look for the presence of them.

 

Brian Arnold (12:39):

That is a really profound statement, I think, and can really be a balm to those listening who worry about those things. Because there’s a lot of really tender-conscienced saints who, you know, like we’ve said, really wrestle through these things. And to recognize—none of us are going to be perfected in those. All of us are going to have periods of spiritual dryness, even, that we question whether or not our love for the Lord is genuine. And really to be able to say, “No, God’s doing a work in me. He promised that what he began he will finish. And that he is working in me, even now.” And that God can use some of those times to actually stir up faith in our hearts, and bring us to new depths with him. Well, let me ask you the flip side, because a lot of people put assurance of faith in wrong things. So if you’ve kind of looked to 1 John and said, here are some evidences of loving the brethren and fighting sin. What are some areas of false assurance that you’ve seen people put their hope in?

 

Donald Whitney (13:35):

Well, the bottom line is something that they have done. Which is relying on yourself and your works, rather than Christ. So commonly, in my circles, there are people who were raised in the church, or their parents were very devoted in the church and raised them in the church, and so they presume they’re a Christian because of that. They’re familiar with all the things of God. Or they have gone even further—in a Christian meeting, they walked forward at the time called for by the pastor. They were baptized, is a big one. People trust that their parents brought them as infants for sprinkling, for paedobaptism. And they trust in that.

 

Donald Whitney (14:23):

Or they trust in, you know, baptism they had through Vacation Bible School when they were very young, and they tend then to rely upon, not only this physical action as checking a box and therefore God accepts me, it’s also a reliance on someone else. So this is why I never, as a pastor—which I’ve done for 24 years, but also in any time I’m counseling someone—I will never say to them—even though I may know them very well and consider them to be one of the best Christians I know—I never say to anyone, “Yes, of course you’re a Christian. Yes, I know you well, yes, you’re saved.” Because it tempts them to rely on me. And we all want a spiritual authority to pronounce us “saved.” And I don’t want them to rely on me. Whether it’s someone now who’s 27, and they’re looking back on when they were nine years old and saying, “You know, I don’t think my parents would’ve let me be baptized if they weren’t convinced I’m a Christian. I don’t think that my pastor would’ve baptized me if he didn’t think I’m a Christian. So if they all thought that, I must be a Christian.”

 

Donald Whitney (15:39):

Well, that 27-year-old is relying upon something in the past, and in the opinions of someone else. Assurance of salvation should always be primarily a present tense experience. Do I love Christ preeminently now? Am I trusting in Christ alone now? And I want people to trust in Christ, not me telling them “Well, of course you’re a Christian. I know you!” So overall, it comes down to one main thing—they put their assurance in something other than Christ. And that always is a false assurance.

 

Brian Arnold (16:11):

One of my favorite eras to read in church history is the Puritan era. And I know that you and I both share a love for those writers. And it was seemingly one big, long quest for assurance. And that was oftentimes the way that they would encourage people is to say—right now, are you trusting Christ? Because if you’re trusting Christ right now, that’s what it takes to be saved. And you have great assurance for salvation. And pointing to the present. And I think we do a lot of danger in our day not warning people, or relying on past experiences, instead of the current reality of whether or not they’re trusting actively in Christ. You know, we don’t want…you and I talked about this before we even started—we don’t want a lot of legalism out there, of you’ve got to do all these things, check these boxes, and make sure that you’re then living in accordance with your profession. Therefore, because of these things you’re saved.

 

Brian Arnold (17:04):

But the danger in our day is antinomianism—is people saying, “Yeah, I got saved a long time ago. It’s something I did, now it doesn’t really matter how I live my life today.” And if you try to warn them that their life is not matching their profession, they get offended by it. And so what role do you even see the church having in the area of assurance? Because as a pastor, like you said, you don’t want to give people false assurance of salvation. But what…how have you encouraged your church to really help people who are struggling with this question? Not just as pastors, but as people in the pew?

 

Donald Whitney (17:39):

Well, first of all, clarity on the gospel. Here’s a little exercise I do. And I encourage people who are listening, who teach maybe a Bible study class to try it there. Maybe a Wednesday night gathering, some small group gathering in their church. But don’t do it when you’re discouraged. <laugh> Okay? So I would…I’m with a group, I pass out a sheet of paper to everybody, and as it’s going around, I say, “You guys are Christians, right?” “Uhhuh <affirmative> Uhhuh” <affirmative>. “Yeah, okay. How many times do you think you’ve heard the gospel in your life?” And if they’re older and they’ve been raised in church, they roll their eyes and say, “You know, I probably heard it thousands of times, you know?” “Well, yeah, that’s good. Good. All right. That piece of paper there, write down the gospel for me, would you?”

 

Donald Whitney (18:26):

And they stare at me and I say, “Oh, wait a minute. You just told me you are Christians. Right?” “Uhhuh.” <affirmative> “Okay, to be a Christian, you have to believe the gospel, right?” “Uhhuh” <affirmative>. “And you’ve told me you’ve heard it thousands of times, right?” “Uhhuh” <affirmative> “Okay—write it down. How can you believe a message you don’t know? And if you know it, just write it down, just give me a paragraph. What is the message, without knowing, you won’t go to heaven? You don’t know this message, you won’t go to heaven, because you have to know the message. And you can’t believe in it if you don’t know it. And it’s more important than knowing any computer password, it’s more important than knowing your social security number. What is the message, by which, people go to heaven?” And then the foot shuffling starts as people kind of look around.

 

Donald Whitney (19:24):

And it is astonishing how many of your best people—I mean, the ones who come on a Wednesday night, the ones who come to the Bible study class—how many of your best, most faithful people are unclear on the gospel? And if they’re unclear on the gospel, it’s no wonder they struggle with assurance. How can they know they’re in the faith when they don’t know the message by which we come to faith in Christ? So I would emphasize that above everything else. And then, as we continue to preach the gospel that destroys confidence in our good works and magnifies the work of Christ as our only hope.

 

Brian Arnold (20:05):

That’s great. Let me shift to one other area that I think is important for us to talk about in the remaining minutes we have left—is the issue of doubt. So we are in a day and age where there’s just so much room for doubt. Whether it’s coming from science areas, or social science areas, or just lots of assaults on the faith coming in. And I think some believers are saying, “Well, what if I doubt that this is true? Does that mean that I’m not genuinely saved?” So Jude tells us to be patient with those who doubt. How have you done that pastorally in your ministry?

 

Donald Whitney (20:39):

I say to people…first of all, there are two kinds of doubt. There’s a doubt that leans toward faith. And there’s a doubt that leans towards skepticism and unbelief. For example, if someone is presented with a question about the Bible, or about theology, that sort of rocks their foundation and they don’t know how to answer…they want to believe, but now their confidence is shaken because they don’t see how it’s consistent. But they’re leaning toward faith. They want an answer. They want something to confirm their faith. That’s normal. That’s a good thing. Then there’s the kind of doubt, though, that leans away from the faith. And if you do answer their question, then they…another one pops up, you know? It’s a whack-a-mole type of situation. And so it depends on the type of faith. And I try to say to people whose doubt leans toward faith—I want to assure you that the greatest minds in the history of the world have thought about this before.

 

Donald Whitney (21:44):

You know, you’re not the first person to struggle with this. And there are answers. Even if I can’t give them a satisfying answer myself right then, I assure them that there are answers. They haven’t come up with something new, nor has anyone they’ve spoken with come up with some potential problem with the gospel and the Bible that hasn’t been addressed many, many times by some of the best minds in the history of the world. So have that confidence, that by this time—2,000 years later—the church is not going to be surprised by any question like that.

 

Brian Arnold (22:22):

And the posture one begins with is important. I mean, the name of our podcast is Faith Seeking Understanding. It’s that Anselmian formula of recognizing—I may not know everything, and doubts may arise at times, but I’m going to begin from a place of faith and then seek some of these answers. And you’re absolutely right. If somebody’s listening, and they’re maybe an Arizona State University student. And there’s a lot of confusion that they’re getting from the classes that they’re in, and it seems like Christianity doesn’t have an answer for it. Some of the best minds in history have wrestled through these questions, and there’s answers to these. And that’s one of the reasons why we do the podcast. Well, let me ask you this, as we’re kind of winding down. Who has influenced you the most in your thinking on this area? Authors, books, things like that.

 

Donald Whitney (23:07):

Yeah. When I originally began thinking about this, it began as a sermon series when I was a pastor, because I pastored in an area where the dominant religious group teaches that you cannot have assurance in this world that you are right with God. So I believed a lot of our people had come out of that background. So I wanted to preach on assurance. And, you know, I couldn’t find many resources at that time. The most helpful was Heaven on Earth by Thomas Brooks, the Puritan. It’s in the little Puritan Paperback set. It’s a great resource. But that’s how I ended up writing the book in the first place. I just couldn’t find many other helpful resources. Now just very recently, probably the newest thing out there, is one by Dr. Jeremy Pierre. Pierre is the last name. And the 9marks folks have put that out. It’s a great little counseling resource. It’s almost, you know, sort of a checkbook size little book. And so that would be the freshest thing out there I know on the subject of assurance.

 

Brian Arnold (24:11):

Did you say the title of that one?

 

Donald Whitney (24:14):

I did not, but if you go to…if you just search where you get books, for Jeremy Pierre. Or if you go to 9marks.org and search his name, it’ll come up, because it’s maybe their latest release.

 

Brian Arnold (24:29):

Well, thank you for that, for those resources. Like I mentioned, we both love the Puritans. And so Thomas Brooks is very high on the list of people that our folks need to be reading. Well, Dr. Whitney, I really appreciated this conversation. I know a lot of Christians wrestle through this, and they just need that pastoral charge in their heart to be reminded of the gospel—that Christ has achieved our salvation, and in him we can know life. And even as 1 John, like you said, was written that we may be assured that we have eternal life. Thanks for joining us today.

 

Donald Whitney (25:02):

Delighted to. Thanks for having me.

 

Outro (25:04):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.

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