For Christians Struggling With Assurance Of Salvation
By Nate Wilson
"...Unaware that the struggle Is the blood of the proof Of choosing to believe the unbelievable truth." ~Mark Heard, Orphans Of God
I seldom ran into people who questioned their salvation when I was growing up, but over the last dozen or so years, I have frequently encountered this problem among young people. My wife saw what I wrote to the most recent one and suggested it could be posted to a wider audience, so here goes.
In at least a couple of instances, it had to do with a mismatch between the audience that the preacher was speaking to (often an audience of conference-attendees who had no personal faith in Christ) and a sincere believer who liked to listen over the internet to that preacher's talks. I trust that the preachers on the recordings were reading their original audience well and challenging them appropriately to question the outward forms they had followed of nominal Christianity and consider whether they had any real relationship with Jesus personally, but for my friends who are sincere believers, it was actually harmful for them to fill their minds with doubts about their faith; what they needed was reassurance of the faith they actually had. So one thing I would recommend is for you to wisely match the messages you listen to with the actual needs of your heart. If you are associating with Christianity simply because of the good food, the good-looking guys/gals, or the good feelings you get, then more power to the Paul Washer-style youth conference messages, but if that's not where you are, then eat spiritual food that will actually nourish the faith you have. You may need to ask your pastor about what he recommends.
Certainly God's word calls us to examine ourselves, but there is a point at which self-scrutiny becomes anti-Christian when a person loses sight of Christ and focuses on whether they are believing and obeying Jesus well enough. When one's focus shifts to the quality and quantity of their faith to save them rather than the quality and quantity of Christ's power to save, then they've left the Gospel behind. One will always doubt whether one's faith is ever quite good enough; it could always be better, and if it could be better, then the doubts accumulate that it's not good enough to earn God's approval yet. But this is just another form of works-righteousness, a diabolical one which seems Godly because it is concerned with faith and obedience, but it overlooks the one thing we need to be saved and that is Christ's salvation of us. Christian faith is all about trusting Jesus to save you because you can't save yourself. Leaving that work for Him to do it is the essence of Christian faith, that is the faith that is the opposite of work, as Paul puts it in Romans 4:5.
I have seen a number of Christians get hung up on some Bible verse that seems to stand out and condemn them to the point that they become convinced that this verse proves they can never be saved. I fear that there are Bible teachers out there who misinterpret scriptures to make their evangelistic messages more emotionally-impactful, and I can’t straighten out every misinterpretation here, but as a general rule, if you think you’ve found a Bible verse that proves that people who want to be saved in this life can’t be saved, you’re misinterpreting it. Read classic commentaries that have stood the test of time and get better perspective on those passages. Notice what those commentaries emphasize and don’t go off on tangents.
Some of the passages I’ve seen people get hung up on are in Hebrews. Chapters 4, 6, 10, and 12 have serious warnings to Jewish-background believers not to abandon Christianity and go back to Christless Judaism. It’s easy to take that out of context. Interpretation can also be tricky, for instance, Heb. 12:17 sounds to some folks like Esau wanted to repent from his sins and be right with God, but God wouldn’t let him. But Jesus said in John 6:37 “….I would never cast out one who comes to me,” and Hebrews 11:6 says “God... is a rewarder of those who are seeking Him out." Esau, on the other hand, was not seeking Him, Esau was seeking “it.” What is the “it” which Esau was seeking in Heb. 12:17? “Blessing” is the closest match. Esau wanted the wealth and prestige of the blessing of the firstborn and was frustrated that he didn’t get it and that he couldn’t get his Dad to change his mind. He didn’t want to get right with God, he wanted to kill his brother. I know that my expositions of Hebrews have not stood the test of much time, but if you have further questions on those Hebrews passages, I’d recommend them to you at http://ctrchurch-mhk.org/sermon_categories/hebrews/.
1 Corinthians 15 is another passage that has been used wrongly to cause believers to despair of salvation, but it does not say that you can actually believe the Gospel in vain. What it says is that salvation actually comes through believing the Gospel, and that belief in anything else is useless. "Now, I am making known to you, brothers, the gospel: which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you have been standing, through which also you are being saved, if you hold fast in the particular word I preached to you; otherwise you believed vainly." This is not a philosophical point made in isolation; it is in the context of a passage on the resurrection, and the application which follows in vs. 13-19 is that an actual resurrection of Christ and a personal belief in that resurrection are both essential to salvation. If the resurrection didn't actually happen, then your faith in Christ isn't going to save you from sins, and if you don't believe in the resurrection, you aren't believing a Gospel that saves. I might also point out that the Greek language allowed writers to say more in their conditional statements than English allows, so, in the case of the first conditional statement, "If you hold fast," Paul combines the Indicative form of the word "if" with a present tense indicative verb, and that combination was a signal in Greek grammar that the author believed it to be a true statement (i.e. "you are being saved since you are holding fast"). The next conditional statement, however is entirely different; it contains an aorist tense verb paired with the indicative conditional particle ("otherwise/ unless you believed in vain"); this is called a "second class conditional" in Greek grammar, and was the way of indicating that the author believed it was untrue (i.e. "if not you believed vainly, and of course, you didn't believe vainly.") So the concern of Paul was not that there was some defect in the Corinthian's ability to believe, but rather he was warning against removing the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ from the body of their belief. The phrase about believing in vain should not be isolated from its context and turned into a philosophical connundrum that questions faith, rather it should be an assurance that if you believe Jesus died for your sins and was raised from the dead, you will be saved.
Belief is, of course, something every human engages in. There are many different worldviews, and everybody believes something or other religious. Even those who claim to believe only empirical science smuggle in all kinds of religious ideas about right and wrong, about purpose in life, and even about the most accurate ways of collecting knowledge. Secular Humanism and Hinduism and Islam all involve faith, but they are vain faiths. That is what “believing in vain” means; it is placing faith in any God but Jesus. Saving faith is not about achieving the right action of faith but about having the right object of faith.
I’ve also seen people trapped in the hypercalvinistic connundrum: you believe Jesus died to save His elect but you don't know whether you are among the elect, so you don't know if He died to save you or not. This philosophical rabbit trail is not found in the Bible. If you believe Jesus died for the elect's sins, then you are of the elect, because that belief doesn't exist in the unregenerate. Ephesians 2 tells us that if we believe, it came to us as a gift from God. It's a fruit of the Holy Spirit in Gal. 5; it doesn't come naturally. If you have it, you need not worry whether you are of the elect. Even the very act of worrying about it is a proof that you are no longer fleshly; you have been regenerated and sensitized to care about the will of God. Rather than insulting God by doubting His salvation of yourself when you wonder if you are really elect, it would be better instead to thank God that He has given you the spiritual life to care about spiritual things and the faith to believe the Gospel. Thank Him for saving you rather than questioning whether He’s going to save you.
The Holy Spirit gives us the faith to ask Jesus to make us right. "I'm not o.k. Please have mercy on me and make me right with you." Nobody knows how to do that perfectly; and nobody has a heart that doesn't do that without some questionable motive, so it's not a matter of offering the perfect prayer; it's not a matter of making sure that every motive was exactly perfect when you ask; this isn't the way we earn the right to become sons of God. It is our very admission that we're not o.k. and we want Jesus to save us that is that act of faith God uses in our salvation.
And whenever Satan the Accuser says, "You didn't pray the right prayer. You didn't ask sincerely enough. You forgot to confess this sin. You haven't repented of that sin...," the Christian can respond, "Yes. I'm a mess, but Jesus is taking care of all that. I couldn't do it all right, so that's why I went to Jesus to save me. He's going to save me, just wait and see!" Every time the anxiety comes of feeling that you haven't repented and believed well enough, make that a fresh reminder to pray, "God I have just been reminded again what a mess I am and how I can't get anything right. Would you please enter into this mess and save me?" I often use Psalm 119:94 as a prayer "I am Yours, save me..." Notice why he expects God to save him; it's not because of what David has accomplished, it's simply "because I am seeking..." Save me simply because I'm asking you to. “Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Rom. 10:13) He will honor that request.