At a practical level, people who are struggling with their assurance of salvation often approach me and ask, “How can I know I am saved?” In response, I ask them three questions.
First I ask, “Do you love Jesus perfectly?” Every person to whom I have asked that question has responded candidly, “No, I don’t.” That’s why they are not sure of the state of their souls; they know there are deficiencies in their affection for Christ, because they know that if they loved Christ perfectly, they would obey Him perfectly. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). So as soon as we disobey one of His commandments, that’s a signal to us that we do not love Him perfectly.
Second, when a person acknowledges that he doesn’t love Jesus perfectly, I ask, “Do you love Him as much as you ought to?” The person usually gives me a strange look and says, “Well, no, of course, I don’t.” That’s right; if the answer to the first question is no, the answer to the second question has to be no, because we’re supposed to love Him perfectly, but we don’t. Therein lies the tension that we experience about our salvation.
Third, I ask, “Well, do you love Jesus at all?” Before the person answers, I usually add that I’m asking about his love for the biblical Christ, the Christ whom we encounter in the pages of Holy Scripture. Why do I say that?
Many years ago, I taught at the Young Life Institute in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and I did a lot of work in those days with and for Young Life. When I was training staff in Colorado, I said:
Let me warn you about one grave danger of this ministry. I don't know personally of any ministry to young people in the world that's more effective than Young Life at getting next to kids, getting involved in their issues, getting involved in their problems, ministering to kids where they are, and knowing how to get them to respond. That's the greatest strength of this organization—and it's also your greatest weakness. Because Young Life, as a ministry, makes Christianity so attractive to kids, it would be easy for kids to be converted to Young Life without ever being converted to Christ.
In just the same way, it’s possible to love a caricature of Jesus rather than Jesus Himself. So when I ask people “Do you love Jesus at all?” I’m not asking whether they love a Christ who is a hero for kids or a Christ who is a good moral teacher. I'm asking whether they love the Christ who appears in Scripture.
Now if someone can say “Yes” to that third question, that’s where theology comes in. Consider this question: “Is it possible for an unregenerate person to have any true affection for Christ?” My answer is no; affection for Christ is a result of the Spirit’s work. That is what regeneration is all about; that is what the Spirit does in quickening. God the Holy Spirit changes the disposition of our souls and the inclination of our hearts. Before regeneration, we are cold, hostile, or indifferent (which is the worst kind of hostility) to the things of God, having no honest affection for Him, because we are in the flesh, and the flesh does not love the things of God. Love for God is kindled by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, who pours the love of God into our hearts (Rom. 5:5).
So if a person can answer “Yes” when I ask whether he has an affection for Christ, even though he may not love Jesus as much as he ought to (I.e., perfectly), that assures me the Spirit has done this transforming work in his soul. This is so because we do not have the power in our flesh to conjure up any true affection for Jesus Christ.