From “How to become a Christian”: Chapter 21 – Assurance of salvation
Although I have said above that there are some people who struggle with doubt and uncertainly, they are much rarer nowadays. When I first became a Christian in 1981 it was common to hear sermons on assurance of salvation. That was because in those days very many more people worried about their eternal destiny and were anxious for reassurance. That was because when I first became a believer, the men leading churches had grown up in the 1930s – 1960s. They had been brought up with a much more genuine and biblical gospel. They had been taught as youngsters to fear God and to understand sin and judgment.
Thus when they preached, it frequently brought people under a strong conviction of sin. That caused many of those hearing them to feel a deep concern for their souls and a desire to know for sure that they really were forgiven and saved. However, most of the leaders of the church today grew up in a very different spiritual climate in the 1960’s to 1990s. They never received the same grounding or absorbed the same values or priorities as the previous generation had. In short, many of the current generation of church leaders grew up without ever really knowing the fear of the Lord, even for themselves. Thus they cannot pass on or communicate to others something which they have never even known for themselves.
So, in the early 1980s, the preaching was, on average, very different from what it is today. When I first became a believer, it was fairly common for people, when listening to such godly men preach about sin and judgment, to need reassurance and teaching on how to be sure of their salvation. Today, given that so few leaders ever teach or preach about sin, judgment or Hell, or even mention the fear of the Lord, far fewer people struggle with feeling any lack of assurance. That is not a good development.
Most of us in the West are never even brought to a place of being concerned about our need for salvation to begin with. In fact, there is now the opposite problem, i.e. widespread complacency and apathy. Therefore many congregations feel no need for assurance, because the preaching they hear gives them no conviction of sin, no concern for their souls, and no fear of God.
This applies to many people who are nominal Christians or liberal Christians. They tend to just automatically assume that they will go to Heaven. They give it very little thought, other than to take it completely for granted. You often hear people speak like that at funerals. They will say of the deceased “He’s in a better place now“. But he may not be! He may be in Hell.
I spoke above about there being people who are saved, but who can never feel assured of salvation. They are now a small minority. So, let us now consider another much larger group, i.e. those who automatically presume they will go to Heaven and feel no anxiety about it. That is not a good thing. This second group is in a far worse situation than the first.
The fact that so many people in the past used to feel anxious and concerned about their own sin and God’s judgment was beneficial. It had the effect of causing them to seek for God’s forgiveness and to get right with Him. Then they could, in the end, have genuine assurance. Their concern about their eternal fate led to them taking the necessary steps to deal with their sin and thus to have a basis for genuine assurance.
Today, sin and judgment are rarely mentioned in the Western world and good preaching, which brings people to a place of conviction and repentance is rare. Therefore it leaves countless people in the worst situation of all. What they really need is to be made more anxious, not less. Then they can face up to their need to repent. Instead, what they usually get is false reassurance, for which there is no proper basis. Strong, clear preaching, which produces healthy concern about one’s own eternal fate is good and constructive. That is why there is so much of it in the Bible.
Few preachers today are willing to speak frankly and tell it like it is. They fear criticism, or unpopularity, or perhaps have no adequate understanding of the truth themselves. Thus, today, many people are being taught to feel assurance of salvation when they have no proper basis for it.
In other words such people are making glib, quick “decisions to accept Jesus Christ“. But they do so without having truly repented or believed, let alone being baptised in water or receiving the Holy Spirit. They are then misguidedly told to accept that they are definitely saved and never to question it any further. But, the problem is they may not be saved.
If so, that is a very serious matter indeed, because those people are being misled on the most important issue there is. We end up with many misguided preachers wrongly reassuring and affirming people who are not, in fact, saved at all. This false assurance is preventing them ever getting to the place where they question whether they really are saved, so as to seek genuine assurance. What we all need is the real thing, not fake assurance which has no proper foundation.
The way that even king Solomon let himself down and pursued other gods, despite his great wisdom.
You might imagine that making a shipwreck of your life, or even falling away, can only happen to foolish people, not to people like yourself. However, it happened to King Solomon, and he was the wisest man who ever walked the earth, with the exception of Jesus. But Solomon was carnal. He foolishly married many wives. Even worse, many of them were non-Israelites and unbelievers. Indeed, some of them were even idolaters and worshiped false gods and statues etc.
They therefore led Solomon astray and eventually he even cooperated with his wives’ idolatry. He probably did it for a quiet life, to avoid arguments with them. The point is that in doing so, he became unfaithful to God:
4For when Solomon was old, his wives turned his heart away after other gods; and his heart was not wholly devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been. 5For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians and after Milcom the detestable idol of the Ammonites. 6Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and did not follow the LORD fully, as David his father had done.1 Kings 11:4-10 (NASB)
7Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable idol of Moab, on the mountain which is east of Jerusalem, and for Molech the detestable idol of the sons of Ammon. 8Thus also he did for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and sacrificed to their gods.
9Now the LORD was angry with Solomon because his heart was turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice, 10and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods; but he did not observe what the LORD had commanded.
If all of that could happen to someone as wise as Solomon, who was way above our league, then it could happen to you. And it could happen to me. The only way for us to avoid such wrong decisions and wrong behaviour is to live faithfully day by day, to fear God, and to stay close to Him. We do that by regularly repenting, praying for His help, and diligently reading the Bible.
NB I should add that it does appear that, in his later years, King Solomon repented of all his folly and wrong deeds. Thus, in the end, it seems that he personally was saved. Even so, that is no argument for behaving as he did, or for being unfaithful. His eventual repentance was an exception to what most people do, as was that of King Manasseh many years later. It gives us no basis for any complacency.
Those two kings, Solomon and Manasseh, both went astray but managed to repent later and find salvation. However, most of the Kings of Israel and Judah who went astray never came back to God. That is the more usual outcome and that fact needs to sober us. We cannot assume that there is an easy way back, or indeed any way back, if we fall away.
Salvation is a process as well as an event – it means travelling along “the Way”
In some ways it can be unhelpful and confusing to think of becoming a Christian in terms of passing over a line, in the sense that at one moment you are not a Christian and the next moment you are. There is some truth in that. There has to be such a moment, at some point. Our problem is that, because we are not God, we don’t always necessarily know exactly when that point is. We don’t always even know it for ourselves, let alone others.
A more helpful and more authentic way to speak of “becoming a Christian” or “getting saved”, is to use the biblical expression for a Christian, namely a follower of “the Way“. Look at this series of sample verses (there are others too) where that phrase, “the Way”, is used. I have put it in capital letters in each verse.
“The Way” is a helpful phrase which has dropped out of the Christian dictionary. That is a shame, because it is a good one. We ought to use the phrase today. It more accurately conveys what it means to become and remain a Christian. It suggests that you become a person who is on a path, or a road. It also correctly implies that you are someone who is travelling, developing and learning, not someone who has already arrived or finished:
Jesus said to him, “I am THE WAY, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.John 14:6 (NASB)
“For the gate is small and THE WAY is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.Matthew 7:14 (NASB)
1Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, 2and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to THE WAY, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.Acts 9:1-2 (NASB)
25This man had been instructed in THE WAY of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus, being acquainted only with the baptism of John; 26and he began to speak out boldly in the synagogue. But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him THE WAY of God more accurately.Acts 18:25-26 (NASB)
But when some were becoming hardened and disobedient, speaking evil of THE WAY before the people, he withdrew from them and took away the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus.Acts 19:9 (NASB)
About that time there occurred no small disturbance concerning THE WAY.Acts 19:23 (NASB)
“I persecuted THIS WAY to the death, binding and putting both men and women into prisons,Acts 22:4 (NASB)
It would have been better for them not to have known THE WAY of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.2 Peter 2:21 (NIV)
To say that we have “become a follower of the Way” is, in many ways, more accurate and more helpful than to say we have “become a Christian“. It is how the apostles spoke. It implies, correctly, that the Christian life is an ongoing process of growth, development and change, rather than an instantaneous transformation. It is very true to say that we are instantly forgiven and justified. However, we are not instantly sanctified or made mature. Neither do we instantly bear fruit.
Sanctification matters. It is an essential part of the long, slow process of “being saved”. As we saw above, the Bible says that without holiness (which is what the process of sanctification produces in us) we will never see the Lord, i.e. we will not go to Heaven. Apostle Paul also speaks of the ongoing need to be rooted in Jesus Christ, as if we were a plant. He also speaks of the need to be built up or to grow in Him over time:
6Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, 7having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude.Colossians 2:6-7 (NASB)
So, sanctification and growing to maturity as a disciple are crucially important. They are key indicators of the reality or falseness of our position. They show whether or not we truly are continuing on “the Way”. Only God knows whether another person is genuine. The rest of us can only go by what we see and hear when considering whether another person really is a Christian.
We can only tell by looking at the ‘fruit’ of that other person’s life and asking: “Are they rooted in Jesus Christ and growing, or aren’t they? Are they producing the fruit of the Spirit or aren’t they? Are they changing? Are they becoming more holy in their day to day life or not?“
That is all you or I can do to tell whether someone else is real. However, those questions are also very important in helping you to see whether you are real yourself. Ask yourself “What fruit is my own life producing?“