I have often thought myself a believer, however, I have recently heard there are many things I should be feeling in my heart that I don’t. Since I’m not sure, if I’ve ever felt this heart change, am I truly saved?
When I was in elementary school, the Left Behind books hit the evangelical world like a hurricane. Growing up going to a private Christian school, I was always surrounded by people reading the New York Times bestsellers. Those books along with more kid-friendly, “Junior Novelizations,” described people who were roughly my age living through the rapture and the tribulation. What most haunted me about those books was the fact that many of the characters thought they were Christians only to find out when Jesus came back that they actually weren’t. So began my great childhood phobia of finding out that I wasn’t really a Christian because I was left behind.
I really empathize with this question, because it’s so similar to the one I asked myself every time my teachers showed the Kirk Cameron movie adaptations in my elementary school class:
How do I know that I’m really saved?
Right up front, I want to affirm the goodness of this question. The very fact that someone is troubled about their salvation is a sure sign that they take these issues seriously. I am far more concerned for the person who never grapples with this issue rather than the one who occasionally struggles to feel confident in their security. So, the question still remains, how do we know that we’re saved, where do we turn for confidence?
Don Whitney is right to say, “we must begin by looking for assurance in the right places.” As far as the right places go, examining our hearts isn’t necessarily bad. Especially since the role of the Spirit is to convict the world about sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8-10). When we wonder about our salvation, it’s worth it to ask, “Do I feel convicted about my sin?” That’s not to say that you will always feel this way, or that it may not take time to feel conviction over particular sins. However, we are all growing into the image of Christ, and that takes time, but no conviction at all should give us pause.
On the more positive side, Paul describes for us the fruits of the Spirit, which should accompany our salvation (Galatians 5:22). We should look for these in our life as a sign that the Spirit of Christ is at work sanctifying us. Of course, real fruit does not grow overnight, nor does the fruit of the spirit. So, it’s important to recognize that we may not notice the change that God is working in us if we measure in weeks. Instead, we should seek to discern how God has matured us in these areas over the course of our salvation.
Anyone who’s spent more than five minutes alone with their thoughts knows that feelings are fickle. Scripture teaches that our hearts are deceitful above all things because of the stain of sin. And as we go through different circumstances, how we feel can shift radically from one moment to the next (Jeremiah 17:9). So, if we rely too strongly on how we feel inside, our confidence will be perpetually in flux. In fact, John seems to indicate that we can have confidence in our salvation in spite of our feelings even when our hearts condemn us (1 John 3:20). With that being said, I think we should start somewhere else.
A better place to start is to look outside of ourselves because that’s where redemption originates in the first place. Salvation does not come because we have first loved God, but because God first loved us. Because of that, we look to God’s character rather than our own(1 John 4:10). Doing this we find that, “He who calls you is faithful” and that He has sworn to keep us, “blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he assures them of something similar, “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Sam Storms is right to summarize, “God will do whatever it takes to uphold the Philippian's faith in Jesus and you in your faith in Jesus.”
So while reflecting on our sense of conviction, and the fruits of the Spirit are all helpful grounds for assurance, it should never rest solely on those things. If we look for our assurance in our own hearts, and how we feel at any given moment, we will be tossed back and forth.
Look instead to Christ and his character, find the anchor for your soul, and the foundation upon which to build your confidence.
Some further resources to consult:
Sam Storms: Kept for Jesus
Donald Whitney: How Can I Be Sure I’m A Christian