How can you know that you are saved? Assurance of salvation has been a troubling (and hotly contested) issue as long as the gospel has been around. This should come as no surprise: Thinking about your eternal salvation is pretty heady stuff. In assurance, theological reflection meets existential angst.
There are many theological issues at play here, but I think much of what is at stake can be stated this way: How does justification relate to sanctification? Let’s decode the Christianese. Justification: how Jesus’ act on the cross has legally put you in right standing (justified) you before God. Sanctification: your subsequent transformation as you begin to act more and more like Jesus (love your neighbor, lay down your own interests in humility, etc.). The Bible teaches that these two things always go hand-in-hand. As James says, “faith apart from works is dead” (ESV). True saving faith (justification) will always be accompanied not by moral perfection, but by an increasing obedience to the law of Christ (sanctification).
Without getting bogged down in the complexities of that interplay, I want to simply insist this: Assurance without love is highly dangerous. 1 John 4:7-8 reads, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (ESV). Stated differently, increasing love and care for others must make up a central part what it means for you to be a Christian.
Recently, I ran across a quote in Anna Karenina that illustrates the danger of Christian assurance without love. The character described has just had a dramatic religious experience that inspired him to completely forgive his adulterous wife. Tolstoy writes:
“He saw nothing impossible or incongruous in the notion that death which exists for the unbeliever did not exist for him, and that as he possessed complete faith – of the measure of which he himself was the judge – there was no longer any sin in his soul, and he already experienced complete salvation here on earth…[I]t was absolutely necessary for him in his humiliation [as a cuckold] to possess at least this imaginary exaltation, from the height of which he, the despised of all, was able to despise others, that he clung to his mock salvation as if it were the real thing.”
Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Trans. George Gibian. New York: Norton, 1995: 465.