Some people believe that by doing something, they'll be saved from their sins.
Here's the way they think. What you have to do to get into heaven is to obey the law of God and to live a good life. And so people think that they have met the standard. They have a confidence that they're going to pass the exam, that they will meet the requirements and meet the standards for entrance into heaven. But that's what's referred to as works righteousness, the idea that our behavior influences God's decision to let us into heaven. There are scores of people who profess faith in Christ, but Jesus warns us on the last day that He will turn many of them away. Here's R.C.
Sproul. Again, we're going to continue with our series on the assurance of salvation. In our last segment, we looked at the four different groups of people in the world, those who were not saved and know that they're not saved. We looked at those who were saved and know that they're saved, those who were saved and don't yet know that they are saved. And then the one that messes everything up, the fourth category of those who were not saved but who have the assurance that they are saved. And so what complicates our quest for the assurance of salvation is we see that there are two categories of people here who are sure that they're in a state of salvation.
The only problem is one of them is in fact not in a state of salvation. And so those who are in a state of salvation now have to ask the question, how can I be sure that my assurance is not like the false assurance of those who think they're being saved but are not? And again, that takes us right back to the first lecture where we looked at Jesus' warning in the Sermon on the Mount where He said that many would come to Him on the last day saying, Lord, Lord, didn't we do this and so on. Obviously, these people come to Jesus fully assured that they belong to Him and He rejects them, thereby exposing their assurance as counterfeit, as false. So what I want to do in this segment is to ask the question, how can it be possible or what different ways are there that lead to a false sense of assurance?
I'm going to look at several different problems that we encounter, but they all reduce basically to two things. The first one is people have a false sense of assurance of salvation because they don't understand the requirements for salvation. They have a misunderstanding of what salvation entails. And so if you have a bad theology of salvation, that can lead you to a false assurance. And then the second big problem is that if you have a correct theology, then you have to see that it's also possible for a person to have a sound theology, a sound grasp of what it is that is required, but they're mistaken in terms of whether they personally have truly and authentically met those requirements.
So this complicates matters doubly. The first major error that leads to a false sense of assurance of salvation is the error of universalism. Universalism teaches that everybody is saved, everybody goes to heaven. And so if I am persuaded of this doctrine of salvation, it's a simple syllogism for me to go from the doctrine of universal salvation to the state of my destiny as a particular individual.
I can do it this way syllogistically. Everybody is saved. I am a buddy, therefore I am saved.
Obviously if all people are saved and I am a person, then I can be sure that I will be saved as well. This also carries with it the idea of what I call the doctrine of justification by death, which I believe is the most prevalent doctrine of justification in our culture today. The greatest controversy in the history of the church took place in the 16th century between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformers over this very question of how justification takes place. This issue of justification by faith alone or some other means became the most volatile theological dispute ever. Today, however, this is not the prevailing issue in our culture, but rather the doctrine that most competes with the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone is the doctrine of justification by death. I've already made reference to the evangelism explosion diagnostic questions.
Well, there are two of them. I mentioned one where in the discussion for evangelism, a person is asked, have you come to the place in your spiritual life or in your thinking where you know for sure that when you die, you're going to go to heaven? And then that question is followed up by the second question. Well, suppose you were to die tonight and you stood before God and God said to you, why should I let you into my heaven?
What would you say? I've asked that question to many, many, many people. And frankly, by far the most frequent answer you get to that question is what we call works righteousness, the answer where people will say to God, well, I lived a good life or I did the best that I could and so on.
But we'll look at that further in a minute. But I asked this to my son when he was a boy. And I said to him, son, if you were to die tonight and stood before God and God said to you, why should I let you into my heaven? I said, what would you say to God? And my son looked at me like that was the silliest question anybody could ever imagine. And then he says, well, I would say, because I'm dead.
Like, what could be simpler? And I thought, here he is being reared in a home that's committed to biblical theology and not only have I failed to communicate justification by faith alone to my own son, he's already been captured by the pervasive view in our culture that everybody goes to heaven and that all you have to do to get there is to die. We have so eliminated the last judgment from our thinking and expunged any notion of divine punishment or of hell from our thinking and from the church's thinking, that is now an assumption that all you have to do to go to heaven is to die. In fact, the most powerful means of grace for sanctification there is in our culture is to die, because the sin-blistered sinner is automatically transformed between the morgue and the cemetery. So then when they have the funeral service, this person is presented to us as a paragon of virtue. And all of a sudden, the sins are removed because they've died. It's very dangerous business because the Scriptures warn us again and again that it is appointed for every person once to die and then the judgment. People like to think that the threat of a last judgment is something invented by sawdust trail evangelists like Billy Sunday or Dwight Moody or Billy Graham or Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield.
No, no, no, no. Nobody teaches more clearly about a last judgment and a division between heaven and hell than Jesus himself. Jesus talked more about hell than he did about heaven, and he frequently warned his hearers that on that last day, every idle word would come into judgment. But if there's anything that we want to repress psychologically, it's that threat, because none of us wants to be held accountable for our sins.
That's our nature. And so there's nothing more appealing to human beings than universalism, the idea that all are saved. Now, the second false basis for assurance is what I would call legalism, which means works righteousness. This view teaches that what you have to do to get into heaven is to obey the law of God and to live a good life. That is, that your works and your good deeds will get you into heaven. And so people think that they have met the standard that God has set forth, and the basis of their self-evaluation of their character and of their performance, they have a confidence that they're going to pass the exam, that they will meet the requirements and meet the standards for entrance into heaven. As I said a few moments ago in the evangelism explosion program, not only did I ask those questions to multitudes of people, but I had trained over 200 people who went once or twice a week out into the community and talked to people and asked these questions, and we would correlate their answers. Ninety percent of the answers fell into the category of works righteousness, when we would say to somebody, if you were to die tonight and stand before God and God said to you, why should I let you into my heaven, what would you say? And the people would say, I've lived a good life, or I gave a tithe to the church, or I worked with the Boy Scouts, or I did this or I did that, and so on.
That their confidence rested on some kind of performance that they had achieved in their lifetime. Now, this again is a counterfeit basis for assurance because the Scriptures make it very clear that by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. If anybody embodies this false understanding of salvation, it would be the rich young ruler that encountered Jesus during Jesus' earthly ministry. You remember that narrative when the rich man came to Jesus and he came with compliments dripping from his lips. He says, good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Now, he's asking the question about what is required for salvation, but he calls Jesus good. And before Jesus answers his question about the requirements to be saved, he stops the man in his tracks and challenges him by saying to him, why do you call me good? Don't you know that no one is good but God? Because of that answer, some critics say, well, Jesus clearly is denying his own goodness here and his own deity here.
No, no, no, no. Jesus knows very well that this man hasn't a clue about the person he's speaking to. He doesn't know who Jesus is. He doesn't know that he's asking this question of God incarnate. For all the rich young ruler knows, he's talking to an itinerant rabbi, and he's asking him a theological question.
What do I have to do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus stops and says, wait a minute. This is kind of a superficial view of goodness that you're using here.
Why do you call me good? Haven't you read the Psalms? I know you haven't read Paul's letter to the Romans because it hasn't been written yet. But in that letter, Paul, citing the Old Testament, says, again, there is none righteous, no, not one. There's none who does good. Wait a minute.
That seems absurd. We see people who aren't believers doing good all the time. Well, again, it depends on what you mean by good. The biblical standard of goodness is the righteousness of God. And we are judged in two ways. One, by our behavioral conformity to the law of God. And two, by the internal motivation or desire to obey the law of God.
Now I can look at somebody on the outside, and I see people all around me who aren't believers who are performing what John Calvin called civic virtue. They do good things. They donate their money for good causes. They help the poor. They may even sacrifice themselves for somebody else. And they do all kinds of wonderful things on the horizontal level. They drive their car according to the speed limit. But they're not doing it because their hearts have a pure and full love of God.
There may be what Jonathan Edwards called an enlightened self-interest involved here. I heard the story once of a man who was an unbeliever who was standing outside in the street when this building caught on fire. And there was a rush to rescue the people who were in the inferno, and the firemen went in and brought out as many people as they could. But it was now too dangerous to go back into the building. And then they realized there was a child still trapped in the building. And out of the crowd of bystanders, this one man, ignoring the flames and ignoring the inferno, rushed into the building, and everybody on the street cheered for him. And a few moments later, he came back out alive and safe with a bundle in his arm. And the people continued to cheer until they realized he had brought out his life savings and left the child to die. Now, the question is this. Suppose the man had perished in the flames. He would have been a local hero because the assumption would be that he was risking his life to save a child, not to save his fortune.
But we have to go even further than that. I believe it's possible for unbelievers to rush into that building to save the child and lose their life in the process. That's civil righteousness.
That's natural concern, that we have one for another. But when God looks at the act, he wants to say, does this work proceed from a heart that loves God fully? Remember the first commandment, thou shalt love the Lord your God with all of your heart, all of your mind, all of your strength. And if I obey the law outwardly while my heart is not fully given to God, then my virtue has been tainted. That's why Augustine said, even our best virtues are but splendid vices. Because as long as we're in this body of flesh, there will be sin that attaches itself to everything that we do.
But again, this is what the rich young ruler didn't understand. He thought he'd met the standard. Again, Paul warns in the New Testament that those who judge themselves by themselves and judge themselves among themselves are not wise.
Because that's how we do. We look at each other's performance, and we think that God is grading on a curve. And if I keep myself from adultery or keep myself from murder or from being an embezzler and doing some egregious sin like that, I can always find people who are more sinful than I am.
And I think, well, compared to them, I'm doing pretty well. And this is the mindset of this man that comes to Jesus. You know, he thinks Jesus is a good man.
And so he stops him in his track, and he says, you know the law. Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery. And this man now reveals his superficial understanding of the law because he says to Jesus, like is that all?
All these things have I done from my youth. I've kept the Ten Commandments all my life. Now what Jesus could have done with that young man and say, well, I see you weren't at the Sermon on the Mount when I explained the deeper implications of these laws. You missed that lecture.
But instead of doing that, he used a beautiful pedagogical method to teach this man his error. He said, oh, you've kept them all, huh? He could have said, you haven't kept any of them since you got out of your bed this morning. But instead he said, okay, go sell all that you have, give it to the poor, take up your cross and follow me. Now at that point, Jesus was not giving a new way of salvation where you can be saved by donating your goods to the poor. Nor was Jesus implementing a universal mandate for people to divest themselves of all their private property. He was dealing with this man, and this man was a rich man, and this man's heart was obviously completely captured by his wealth. And so for him, his money was his God. It was his idol. And so Jesus said, you kept all the Ten Commandments? Alright, let's check number one. Those who have no other gods before me.
Go sell everything you have. And the man who had been so enthusiastic only moments before, we were told, began to shake his head. He walked away sorrowfully because he had great possessions. You see, what that whole encounter was about was about goodness. Do we have enough righteousness to satisfy the demands of a holy God? The New Testament on every page belies that premise that all of our righteousness is filthy rags, and the person who is trusting in their righteousness to be saved has a false assurance. There aren't enough works in the world that you can do to be saved.
You're an unprofitable servant. That's what the sixteenth-century Reformation was all about. Well, then there's another false method of salvation, which I'll call sacerdotalism.
Sacerdotalism means that salvation is accomplished through the priesthood, through the sacraments, and or through the church. And so people can say, hey, I was baptized, or I had the sacrament of penance, or I had the Lord's Supper, or I had last rites, whatever. I've had those sacraments, and these sacraments are means of grace.
They save me. And so I draw my confidence or my assurance from having experienced the sacraments. This is the same error that the Pharisees committed in biblical days because they assumed that because they were circumcised, that is, that they had had the Old Testament sacraments, that therefore they were guaranteed a place in the kingdom of God. The sacraments are very important. The sacraments communicate the promises of God to us for our salvation.
The sacraments are means of grace, but no sacrament has ever saved anybody. And if you put your trust in the sacraments, then you have a false assurance of salvation because you're trusting in something to save you that neither does save you nor can save you. Now closely related to this is the idea, and many people have it, is that all they have to do to be saved is to join a church. So if they join a church, they figure they're in. They're in the visible body of Christ, and they assume that if you're in the visible body, you must be in the invisible church as well.
And so their confidence is now placed in their membership. So if you're a church member, you say, are you saved? Well, certainly, I'm a Methodist. Are you saved?
Sure, I'm a Fiscopalian. Are you saved? Well, I'm a Presbyterian, of course. And again, membership in the church does not justify anybody.
And so there we have another false way to have assurance, which is an illegitimate basis for assurance altogether. Now finally, as I mentioned earlier, in the so-called evangelical world, we have other ways. Pray the sinner's prayer. Raise your hand in an evangelistic meeting. Go forward at an altar call.
Make a decision for Jesus. These are all techniques or methods that are used to call people to repentance, to call people to faith, and they're fine. But the danger is that if you say the prayer, raise your hand, walk the walk, make a decision, that you trust in that, where we've already seen that those outward professions may be deceiving, and you are not really possessing the necessary steps for salvation. Well, we'll look in the next session at how we can find authentic ways to salvation and how these counterfeit ways can be overcome. We've learned about the false reasons, the counterfeit reasons, as R.C. put it, that people have imagined that they're saved. I hope you will join us tomorrow here on Renewing Your Mind to discover the true source of assurance.
R.C. Sproul's series The Assurance of Salvation was our focus this week here on the program. I'm Lee Webb, and I'm glad you could be with us. It's good for us to stop and evaluate our standing before the Lord. In Matthew 7, Jesus said, It's vital that we understand these principles. So we invite you to request this series, The Assurance of Salvation, when you give a donation of any amount to Ligonier Ministries. You can find us online at renewingyourmind.org, or you can call us with your gift at 800-435-4343.
Dr. Sproul and his wife, Vesta, founded Ligonier Ministries in 1971 in the hills of western Pennsylvania near the town of Ligonier. The ministry has grown considerably in the five decades since and has become international in scope, but our mission has not changed. Our desire is to faithfully teach the Word of God so that His people may grow in fruitful service. It's only through your financial support that we're able to carry on this important work. So we thank you for your generosity when you contact us today to request this teaching series. Again, our phone number is 800-435-4343, or if you prefer, you can give your gift and make your request online at renewingyourmind.org. Well, I do hope you'll join us again tomorrow for another message from this series. It is so important that I be diligent in making my calling and my election sure, because if I'm sure about my being numbered among the elect, then I can be certain with respect to my salvation, not only today, but in the future as well. That's Thursday here on Renewing Your Mind. Thank you.
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