Biblical Assurance in the Ancient Mediterranean World

The New Testament took shape in the ancient Mediterranean world. That world consisted of populations who maintained complex interactions with various deities.

Those gods and goddesses were thought of as mostly distant; they were off occupying themselves with their own escapades. But sometimes, as with natural calamities and significant events, their actions and inclinations spilled over from the unseen world to the seen one. The gods had tremendous power, but remained mostly aloof to the hopes, cares, and fears of lowly human creatures.

Therefore, if you wanted to enlist the aid of these gods and goddesses, you needed to up the ante. A sacrifice was required. The type of sacrifice, though, was dependent upon the circumstances at hand, the specific need, and the particular deity whose attention you sought.

If you lacked wisdom, you would sacrifice to Athena (goddess of wisdom).
If you headed to sea, you would sacrifice to Poseidon (god of the sea).
If you set out on a journey across land, you would sacrifice to Hermes (god of travel).
If you had your sights set on romance, you would sacrifice to Eros (god of love).
If you wanted a fruitful harvest, you would sacrifice to Demeter (goddess of agriculture).
If you planned a party, you would sacrifice to Dionysos (god of wine/festivals).

And the list goes on and on.

If things went well for you, then you were expected to sacrifice more the next time to show your gratitude for services rendered. But if things didn't go well, then you were expected to sacrifice more the next time to show your contrition for having sacrificed too little the time before. Both situations, you should notice, require more. Always more. And you never knew where you stood.

Biblical assurance, however, is presented in contrast to that shaky way of believing and practicing faith. Not only does the Bible unveil one God (a belief known as "monotheism"), but it also asserts that people can know where they stand with this one God.

Assurance is, in fact, the theme of the New Testament book of 1 John. So we read in 1 John 5:13, "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God [Jesus] so that you may know that you have eternal life."

Among the things 1 John includes to reassurance its first hearers (and present-day readers), we find three tests:

1) Obedience (The Moral Test)
"We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, 'I know him,' but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did" (1 John 2:3-6 NIV).

2) Love (The Social Test)
"Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them" (1 John 2:9-11 NIV).

3) Belief (The Doctrinal Test)
"[Y]ou have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist - denying the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also" (1 John 2:20-23 NIV).

These three tests, which I credit John Stott for highlighting (see John Stott, The Letters of John: An Introduction Commentary, 61), come together in one of 1 John's favorite words: abide (the Greek word is meno).

God abides in believers (1 John 4:16).
Christ abides in them (1 John 3:24).
God's word abides in them (1 John 2:14).
Life abides in them (1 John 3:15).
Love abides in them (1 John 3:17).
The Holy Spirit abides in them (1 John 2:27).
Believers abide in God (1 John 2:24).
Believers abide in Christ (1 John 2:5, 6, 24, 27).
Believers abide in light (1 John 2:10).
Unbelievers abide in death (1 John 3:14).

George Eldon Ladd, who taught theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, helpfully explains, "Abiding in Christ means to be living a life of love in unbroken fellowship with fellow believers. Abiding, then, means obedience to the law of love....[The law of love] means following Christ's example of love to the point of being willing to 'lay down one's life for the brethren (1 John 3:16). Love is proof that we have passed from death to life (1 John 3:14), the was been begotten by God (1 John 4:7), that we know God (1 John 4:7), that God abides in us (1 John 4:12)" (A Theology of the New Testament, 664-665).

Assurance doesn't come from sporadic attempts to appease a pantheon of gods and goddesses. That path only leads to an ever-increasing demand for more. Instead, assurance comes from a loyal fidelity and relatedness to God that is expressed through faithful love for others.

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