I had a funny habit when I was a kid. As a youngster in the 50s riding in the back of our family station wagon, I’d watch the traffic ahead, being alert for a possible collision so I could knock out a quick prayer of contrition to save my soul in case I died in a car crash. Weird.
Why did I do such an odd thing? Because the religious tradition I was raised in (Roman Catholicism) offered me no confidence of my salvation. Thus my vigilant readiness to toss up a sincere apology before I met my end. In fact, even now it’s considered a bit cheeky to Catholics (and many Protestants) when someone seems certain of going to Heaven since it smacks of conceit.
There’s a reason for this. If salvation depends in part on my personal merit (which is precisely what I was taught), then assurance of Heaven must be self-assurance - spiritual arrogance - since I’d fancy myself good enough for God. You can see the point, of course, if salvation is based on merit - the only loophole being that quick prayer of genuine contrition fired off at the final moment of life.
The we-can’t-know view raises a question, though. If “gospel” means “good news,” what could possibly be good about uncertainty when one of the options is everlasting torment? Any news that doesn’t completely foreclose on the option of damnation could never really be called “good,” it seems to me. Hope without certitude is not good at all when the stakes are this high.
That’s why the news of God’s grace was so refreshing to me when I first heard it. Full and complete forgiveness was genuinely good news. No doubts. No lingering fears. No more furtive glances. Rather, confidence, assurance, and peace instead.
After I met Christ, these were sweet tidings that I wanted others to know, too, especially those in spiritual communities lacking the confidence that a proper understanding of the cross provides. How could I ground them in the same grace that saved me without making them defensive by a frontal attack on their denomination?
I found three verses that did the job, passages I could link together for anyone else who faced my boyhood fear. Let’s just call it “the Gospel for believers,” since so many who identify as Christians don’t understand the great news of unfailing grace.
When I talk to a Christian who lacks confidence - he believes in Jesus, but because he’s trusting in his own merit he does not know he’s saved - I ask if he’d like to see how, according to the Bible, he can know (not just hope) that his soul is secure. Then I grab a Bible and have him read my verses aloud, explaining each one before moving on to the next so he understands every step’s significance.
The first verse corrects the confusion about merit. It’s also the first one I learned as a new believer: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Salvation is not ours to earn but God’s to give, received by simple trust (“faith”). Don’t move forward unless this foundation is in place. Add Romans 4:4-6 if necessary.
Next, I take him to John 1:12. “As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” Trusting Jesus - believing in Him - is receiving Him, making Jesus our own and making us members of God’s special family. Pretty straightforward, but again I wait to make sure he understands that step: Receiving Jesus - taking Him to ourselves by believing in His name - gives us Jesus as our own. That’s what John is saying.
The last passage is 1 John 5:11-13. It starts, “And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.” I pause a moment to paraphrase. John says that for one group of people - those who have received Christ and thus “have the Son” - the gift of eternal life (which lasts forever) has already been given.
Then I finish the section with John’s crystal-clear affirmation of the confidence Christians can have in Christ: “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” According to John, anyone can know now - currently, presently, at this moment - that they possess eternal life. If you have Jesus, you have life. Eternal, forever, and for sure.
Go back over the sequence with them if necessary. Salvation is a gift of God - not a reward we win or a payment we merit - based on simple trust. When we believe in Christ, we receive Him into our hearts. When we receive Him, we have Him, and if we have the Son, we know we have eternal life.
There it is, the “Gospel for believers” - three simple passages providing clear, straightforward, reliable confidence in Christ.