Every born again child of God who places true faith in Jesus Christ will struggle with assurance in various degrees over the course of their lives. It's in this context that what we call "the signs of grace" are so helpful to the soul. These sign are means by which we may know whether we are in a state of grace or not. This is also a subject takes wisdom to handle so as to avoid doing yourself spiritual harm.
God’s sanctifying grace produces a supernatural life within us. It's the infused principle of a holy life, a new creation produced by regeneration (2 Peter 1:4; 2 Cor. 5:17), and a spiritual resurrection from the dead. This supernatural, permanent principle becomes part of the Christian’s inner constitution and produces effects and signs that people can see. This is a holiness in the heart that produces holy actions.
The Bible speaks of some marks of grace that others may see and know that we belong to God, and some marks that we may see in our own hearts. For an example of the first, consider John 13:35, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” Thus the work of the Spirit in Christians is said to make them into “an epistle of Christ” (2 Cor. 3:3), for people around them can see evidences that they are saved. But the reality of salvation is in the hidden things of the heart that a man may know only about himself.
The signs of grace given in Scripture belong only to the godly. It is not that the godly have more of them than the wicked, but that hypocrites do not have them at all. There are positive signs and negative signs, and the positive signs are more important. It is deceitful and futile to argue that you are saved just because of what you do not do (Luke 18:11). The positive signs appear in the Bible’s descriptions of the properties of true believers (Gal. 5:25). For them to function as signs, a Christian must see them and see past them to their causes in God’s election, justification, adoption, and regeneration. In other words, the signs point beyond themselves to Christ and the Spirit in the soul.
There are a few cautions to keep in mind regarding these signs:
- First, we must be careful that when we look into ourselves to find graces in our hearts, we do not forget to keep relying upon Christ alone for our justification. This is one reason why some people oppose using the signs of grace. Christ is better than all the graces within us.
- The Bible attributes salvation to several signs, and if a godly man sees any one of these signs in himself, he may conclude that he is saved and justified. Temptation may hinder us from seeing all the signs in ourselves.
- Do not let the dreams of hypocrites discourage you from using the signs. The fact that they have a false confidence does not mean that we cannot have a true confidence based upon the Scriptures.
- Do not demand perfection in the signs. The graces of a truly saved Christian are not perfect, and neither are the signs of grace perfect. Do not doubt your salvation just because you find some hypocrisy, wrong motives, or coolness of zeal in the signs of your graces. Comfort comes from seeing that grace is real in your soul, not from trying to make it the cause or merit of your justification before God.
And so it is right to seek evidence of our justification by signs of our sanctification. This is the order laid down in 1 John 2:5, “But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him.” We must first be in Christ before we can see fruits of being in Christ. We grasp hold of Christ out of a sense of our guilt and unworthiness. No preacher should say, “You may not rely on Christ for justification until you have evidence of grace in your heart.” Scripture calls people to Christ who are burdened, not those who are assured (Matt. 11:28). Nor should a Christian in great temptations, doubts, and darkness search for grace in his soul. It is hard to find treasure in muddy water. In such cases the godly man must throw himself upon the promises and invitations of God.
This is not legalism. The duty of Christians to look for evidence of their salvation in the signs of their sanctification should never been an attempt to live up to the perfect standard of the law. Nor should it be done apart from God’s Spirit, for the Spirit seals the believer (Eph. 1:13). Nor should it be a quest after finding the cause or merit of our justification in ourselves. It is rather finding certainty about our regeneration by the fruits of holiness flowing from it.
The Bible commends this method of seeking assurance when it gives us descriptions of the characteristics of true saving grace in distinction from counterfeits. For example, Christ does this in the parable of the soils (Matt. 13:1–9, 18–23), or the parable of the sheep (John 10:4–5). Other Scriptures command us to examine ourselves and our works (2 Cor. 13:5; Gal. 6:4) and to make our calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10). We have examples of godly believers who used their graces as comforting signs of God’s love to them (2 Kings 20:3; Neh. 13:14, 22; 2 Cor. 1:12; 2 Tim. 4:7–8).
Our Savior lays down this principle, “the tree is known by his fruit” (Matt. 12:33). If this is true of knowing each other, how much more can a man’s spirit know himself (1 Cor. 2:11)? So also the Bible contains many promises to those who have particular graces (Matt. 5:3–10), which would be for nothing if a man could not recognize those graces in himself and by logical deduction apply the promises to himself by the help of the Holy Spirit.
In a time when so many find their confidence in their opinions, disputing about doctrine, or special revelations from God, the true power of putting sin to death and living for God is completely neglected. Our Savior did not describe the branches in Him by their leaves or blossoms, but by their fruit (John 15:1–8). Let us not rest in head knowledge; let us look for holiness.