I remember a man from my childhood who would come to church every Sunday morning looking like he had lost his best friend. The pastor would routinely offer to pray for anyone in need after the service, and routinely this broken man would march to the front. After a few years of this pattern, I began to wonder why he needed to keep coming up. Was God not answering his prayer? Was it a new prayer request every week? Why did he look so lost?
One day, he and I were sitting in the lobby after the service, and he shared his heart with me. “I can’t seem to stop drinking. I doubt if I am saved or not. A Christian is supposed to change their ways with time, right?” Many years went by and I moved on to worship elsewhere. Recently, I learned that this same man––although worshiping at a different church––still struggles with alcohol.
What exactly is this man’s problem? He professed his faith in Christ. Wasn’t that enough for transformation to begin?
Is he even saved at all?
Many people have professed belief in Jesus Christ. Maybe you are one of them. The Bible says that a person is saved by grace through faith. Grace is getting what you don’t deserve when what you deserve is bad. God does the actual saving. He does so in such a way that has nothing to do with our good deeds or working hard to get to heaven.
But questions arise regarding this grace.
“Does He give it to everyone? Does a person literally do nothing, and it is just given unilaterally? And if so, why wouldn’t everyone be saved?”
Tough questions. Keep it simple right now; a person must do something.
The orthodox answer, the one that has been affirmed since the beginning of the church, is that we must accept the gift. A gift unopened is not a gift at all. “I believe you died for me, Jesus. I believe you rose again. I accept your gift of salvation, and today, I call you Lord.”
Also according to orthodoxy, a work of sanctification begins in the life of the believer. They start to change. They stop behaving like someone who is lost and start behaving like someone who is found. They embark on a journey of becoming Christlike.
- “Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
- “For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).
- “We all are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
- “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires” (Ephesians 4:22).
All this transformation and abandonment of sin happens by virtue of the fact that Christians have accepted the gift of Jesus.
Yet, sin still remains. So many people today who profess that Jesus is their Lord are not just committing sin, they are enslaved to it. Sexual compulsions, unresolved anger, modern-day idolatry, violent behaviour, endless deceit, abuse of money, abuse of people, rampant pride, and so on. The church is full of this behaviour and always has been.
Where is the transformation for them? Obviously, some go through it. They have powerful stories to tell. But countless others seem powerless to change their ways, even though they have declared Jesus as their Lord.
That brings us back to the original question. How does a person know if they are saved? If the evidence is supposed to be in their behaviour, attitudes, and choices, then we might jump to the conclusion that many in our churches are not saved at all.
Consider two possibilities for this sin problem:
1) Many who profess Christ are not actually saved, and
2) Some Christians are poor in spirit.
There is a past sanctification, theology teaches us, one that begins with the “regeneration” ––or re-creation, if you will––of a new believer at the moment they become a Christian. This is a work of the indwelling Holy Spirit. He moves in and begins a work of transformation. All this takes place the moment a person becomes a Christian. They have accepted the gift. They call Him Saviour. They call Him Lord. They mean it in their heart. That initial change begins.
But sin doesn’t go away. Even the apostles speak of ongoing sin in their own lives. Paul goes on about not doing what he knows to do, but that which he should not do? That he does. “O what a wretched man I am,” he declares (Romans 7:24). In fact, the struggle continues for all of us.
But nothing in Scripture seems to suggest that Paul was an ongoing, habitual sinner––a slave to its power. There is a big difference between one who still commits sin and one who is still enslaved to it. One is the ongoing reminder that we are not perfect yet. The other is a cycle of behaviour we seem powerless to stop. Two factors seem evident in Paul’s life that are not evident in the life of many struggling Christians today. Paul’s life demonstrates 1) a clear, ongoing (or present) sanctification, and 2) a freedom from habitual sin. The first is demonstrable in Paul’s life from the road to Damascus where he was a persecutor of Christians to a life as an apostle to the Gentiles. He clearly becomes a different man. The second is a conclusion based on an absence of evidence. Nowhere in Scripture does it portray Paul as a man who is still gripped by habitual sin. He still sins, but it is not a type of sin or sins that he is doing over and over and cannot stop. By God’s grace, he sheds that behaviour progressively.
But what if it doesn’t look like you are becoming less sinful? Maybe you became a Christian when you were young and now, you’re an adult, and you haven’t changed much at all. In fact, you’ve gotten worse in some ways, not better. Perhaps you’ve recently become a Christian but since you’re continuing to live like hell, you’re wondering if your declaration for Christ as Lord was legit. Read on, then, my friend.
1. Not actually saved.
In Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus says to His disciples,
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and, in your name, perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
This is a crucial passage to understanding assurance of salvation. There are so many people who seem stuck in sinful behaviour who come to church every Sunday morning, seeking prayer for deliverance, seeking counseling from the pastor, hoping that one day, the prayers of many will finally stick and they will be free from the bondage of drugs, alcohol, pornography, spousal abuse, anger, adultery, etc. They have been coming for years, even decades repeating the same pattern, never seeing the freedom they cry out for. But in the passage above, Jesus implies that there are many who say “lord, lord,” who don’t actually mean it. They want to be a servant of God, but they also don’t want to let go of their former lives. They are false disciples.
To say “lord, lord” and not mean it wholeheartedly is to not say it at all. Jesus is pointing out that true surrender leads to true deliverance. Therefore, doing the will of the Father in heaven in this context is unconditionally giving your life over to Him.
What is it to “surrender” to a person you have never seen with your own eyes? It starts with an attitude of your heart. You believe that being the captain of your fate and the master of your own destiny hasn’t been working. It means letting go of what YOU think is best and submitting yourself to the words and teachings of Jesus Christ found in the Bible. You learn them, commit to following them, commit to sharing them with others in your new life.
However, submission isn’t always easy. It isn’t always a single moment when a decision was made, and everything was different after that. Sometimes, if you struggle with (for example) gambling addiction, and you might not be able to just stop gambling on your own by sheer force of will. But total surrender means that you are letting go of trying to fix it on your own and are willing to surrender it to God and to others. This is done through prayer and confession. It’s not that you stop trying, it’s that you stop believing that trying by yourself will be successful. You need God’s help, and it starts by asking Him for it. It means you are willing to invite mature believers into their world in an attempt to break the cycle. You are willing to confess your setbacks to people you have approached beforehand who hold them accountable.
It turns out that true surrender is a lot of work! You do not give up on life; You give up on the false notion that you can break the sin cycle by yourself.
2. Poor in Spirit
So, does that mean that all those who profess Christ as Lord who have not experienced ongoing sanctification are actually evildoers bound for hell on Judgment Day?
It would be rash to formulize salvation in this way. Simple faith in Christ is just that. It is not unreasonable to conclude that some Christians will experience less of this present, earthly sanctification than others. In Matthew 5:3, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Some may struggle all their lives trying to slay their dragons, even after they have totally surrendered. But in the end, the poor in spirit have a home in the kingdom of heaven.
If you have read all of this and are still unsure, let’s break it down to one simple question: are you a false disciple or simply one who is poor in spirit? I assure you, the answer you seek will require some self-honesty.
Take the time to analyze your heart today:
- Have you truly surrendered all?
- What is it you are still holding onto that you don’t want to give up?
- Have you confessed your sin openly and verbally to God and others?
If you can’t say yes to those questions, you may need to spend some time asking what it means to do the will of the Father by truly surrendering yourself. But if you can say yes to those questions, and still, the evidence seems to say something else, do not lose heart. Rather than spend your days wringing your hands over the question of whether or not you are saved, stop and consider the facts. No matter the appearance of your life today, if you have truly surrendered, then you are truly saved. Let God transform you at His pleasure, and in the meantime, let others into your life to help you as you seek inner change. While you may not always find immediate delivery from the habits that haunt you, you will find the blessed assurance that one day, you will be free.
Could you imagine being given the job of fitting a square peg in a round hole? The idea that someone would remunerate you to perform a task that is categorically impossible seems preposterous.