(from our mid-week Lenten series)
Do you wait for a disembodied voice to whisper in your ear: “Your spouse and children love you?” Do you sit on the edge of your hospital bed waiting for a warm sensation in your chest— a feeling confirming that your heart is indeed healthy? Will you drive home, hop out of your car, rake your yard, prune your bushes, trim the trees, supposing that your actions will produce a warm, sunny day tomorrow? Of course not! That would be absurd! When you want a sure answer, you look to a qualified source. You listen and understand the meaning of their words. You see actions reinforcing those words.
So, your spouse and your children are qualified people to say: “I love you” and then show their love in their action. A heart specialist is qualified to read your heart tests and say: “You are healthy.” The meteorologist, who reads weather patterns for a living, can point at the picture of a sun over your city (on your television screen) and say: “It will be sunny tomorrow!” These qualified people can give you sure answers. They can give you assurance.
So then, how do you know if you are saved? I remember sitting at a dining room table when a mother asked her son that question. She had brought him to worship from infancy. He was baptized. He was confirmed. To my knowledge, he still worships. His answer? “I think so.”
Is that the only assurance you have in this life? You think you are saved?— but you really do not know for sure, so you will have to wait until you die and see if you end up in heaven? Are you sifting through your feelings, emotions, or thoughts for a sure answer?
If you want that question answered, then listen to Someone qualified to speak on the matter. Understand the meaning of his plain words. Look at actions reinforcing a truthful reality. Then, Live Assured that Jesus saves you and Paradise is yours.
Gain that assurance by looking at the cross— literally. That is where our reading takes us. Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed (Luke 23:32). Two men accused of a robbery. Two men once having stood on trial before a judge. Two men who heard the gavel slam: “Guilty!” Two men sentenced to death.
One of them reaches the realization of his crimes. “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.” No excuses. No blameshifting. No justifying choices or defending them. His execution convinces him of one truth: “I did wrong.”
Maybe you can relate to that feeling. When the question: “Are you sure you are saved?” comes to mind, we think it, not because we are hardened nonbelievers. Rather, like the criminal, we recognize our failure to meet God’s demands and that fact crushes us. You cannot shake the shame of being caught gossiping. You cannot stop replaying your childish tirade on the road or at your waitress or with your neighbor. You remember how you have let your children down, how you broke well-intended promises to your spouse. You have stumbled into the habit you promised God you would never ever do again. The voice in the back of your mind blares: “You are not good! You have done wrong! Someone will hold you accountable!”
When guilt crushes you or you get caught doing wrong, what is your first impulse? Make it better. Remove the guilt. Silence the memories. Restore relationships. So, if you get caught gossiping, you speak nice to the victim for the rest of the day, hoping they will forgive you. You see the hurt your words inflicted on your spouse, so you buy them flowers or a card, hoping they will not be angry at you. Your habit flares up again, so you quickly make promises and construct boundaries so that you are not put into that situation again. You try to fix the wrong so that you can keep your life from becoming unpleasant.
Sometimes you receive that assurance. The victim says: “I forgive you.” You understand those words. You see their sincerity and recognize they hold no grudge. You live assured that your relationship with them continues on.
Yet, when it comes between you and God— well, how do you receive that assurance that you are forgiven? How do you know if you are saved? Without hearing an audible: “I forgive you,” you may fear that you will never hear it. You worry that Jesus may never forgive you.
So, in order to figure out the answer to the question, the heart searches for answers. It looks in its feelings. If you feel burden-free, then it must mean you are forgiven. It looks in your emotions. Maybe feeling happier after worship means that you are going to heaven. It looks in your actions. If guilt shames you, then worship for a while and maybe God’s anger will go away.
Do you see where you search for assurance of eternal life? Yourself! You are trying to dig inside of yourself in order to determine if you are forgiven! Doing this tries to make you the reason for eternal life. Because you will only feel forgiven if you have done something to stoke those emotions. If you are looking inside yourself for the assurance of heaven, then you are really making yourself into your own savior— because you feel you have the power to grant the assurance of eternal life. And by doing that, you will never ever have assurance of eternal life.
Do you see where the dying thief finds his assurance? He does confess: “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.” He could easily cry: “Jesus, look how sorry I am!” He could make promises: “Jesus, forgive me— and I will promise to listen to you more!” He could point to his actions: “Jesus, I was a good son… I went to Sunday School… I helped my neighbors! Give me heaven!” He does not say those things, does he? Instead says: “Jesus, remember me[.]” He grasps by faith what Jesus is capable of doing. The name Jesus means: “He saves.” That is exactly what Jesus does on the cross: “saving” people from hell.
He can do that. This man has done nothing wrong. The innocent Son of God is not suffering for his sins, he suffers for yours (and mine). Your guilt hangs on him. Your shame covers him. Your failures are heaped on him. And he removes them all.
If you wonder if your sins are forgiven, then look at the cross. See Jesus dying to save you. Because he is, you get to Live Assured that Paradise is yours.
Jesus says that much himself. [The thief] said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replies how? “No! You are much too wicked!” “No, you haven’t suffered enough!” “No, there are better people than you!” He says nothing like that! Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” Whenever Jesus says: “I tell you the truth,” he declares that his words are as valid as coming from God himself. When Jesus tells the thief: “You will be with me in heaven,” it is the almighty God declaring this truth—and he will not lie or change his mind (Numbers 23:19). So, when you hear: “I forgive you in the name of the Father, Son (+), and Holy Spirit,” it is as though God stands in front of you saying these words himself.
With the sin God hates removed, it means Paradise is yours. Jesus told the thief: “[T]oday you will be with me in paradise.” Not—“today,” as though Jesus wants you to be sure that he is speaking in the present. You do not expect me to say: “I am preaching these words in the present.” You know I am speaking at this very moment. Jesus is not telling the thief that he is currently speaking (the thief already knows this). Jesus uses a time marker to tell you when this action will happen. The dying thief will enter paradise “today.”
The word for “paradise” appear only two times in the New Testament. Perhaps the most cherished instance [of this word] comes in Revelation, where Jesus says: “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7). ‘Paradise’ pictures the perfect Garden of Eden where you dwell with every perfect thing in the presence of your loving God. Live Assured that Paradise is yours because Jesus says so and makes it so
So then, how do you know if you are saved? Where do you look for your answer? You emotions? Your feelings? Your actions? Can you only hope you are saved?— but you really do not know for sure, so you will have to wait until you die and see if you end up in heaven?
If you want that question answered, then listen to Someone qualified to speak on the matter. Understand the meaning of his plain words. Look at actions reinforcing a truthful reality.
Jesus, the One who saves you, is qualified to tell you about eternal life. See his blame-free life cover over your every wrong. Understand his clear words: “You will be with me”— and take them at face value. Jesus is not lying to you; he tells you the truth. His Words give you eternal life. His Word shapes the way you live now. So, how is it that you live? You Live Assured that Jesus saves you and Paradise is yours.