I was seven years old when I told my mom I wanted to become a Christian. Delighted, she took me to the pastor of our Southern Baptist Church and he gently inquired as to my belief in the divinity of Christ. I agreed that Jesus was the Son of God and professed belief in Him. I was soon baptized and spent the better part of my childhood thinking I was a Christian, attending church regularly with my family.
Just before my last year of high school, the summer I turned 17, my family moved next to a strong, independent, fundamental, soul-winning, separated, missionary-minded … Baptist Church. I was instinctively drawn to a more aggressive form of Christianity and began to attend regularly on my own initiative.
In this environment I became very active spiritually. I began to read the Bible regularly, to go out witnessing for Christ with the youth group, even witnessing to my friends at school, losing my fear of being mocked or rejected for my faith.
However, during a week-long revival meeting a couple months into the school year, I became impressed — through striking visions during the revivalist’s captivating sermons — that I was in danger of Hell. The impressions were new to me, persistent and troubling, the paralyzing dread of Hell fire continuing service after service.
The evangelist’s personal testimony… “A Lost Preacher Saved.” He had become to faith after being a pastor for nine years. He heavily stressed repentance and the Lordship of Christ in conversion. I began to conclude that I was not a Christian: I must not have been repentant enough when I was younger and confessed Christ. Tuesday night of the revival I finally went forward during the altar call to be saved.
My youth pastor was glad to see me and we knelt together over an open Bible. We went through the “Romans Road,” a sequence of verses in Romans outlining the Gospel which I knew very well by this time. I waited patiently and restlessly until he finished — wanting all the while to just “get saved.”
He finally instructed me to call on the Lord Jesus in deep repentance, asking Jesus Christ to come into my heart and save me and making Him Lord of my life. It was what I was longing to do. I prayed earnestly and sincerely to be saved.
When I finished praying I expected to feel wonderful and secure. Instead I felt terrible, full of doubt, fear and confusion … still desperately lost. I concluded that Jesus had not saved me: for some reason Jesus Christ hadn’t come into my heart.
The pastor asked me how I felt. I told him. He seemed as astounded as I was. I continued kneeling at the altar in unbelief and confusion, desperately wanting to be safe from Hell … the service now breaking up and people beginning to leave. I had no intention of going anywhere until I was sure of my salvation.
My youth pastor gently asked if I really meant business with God, if I was sincerely sorry for my sins and willing to turn from them. I insisted I was sincere; I was visibly trembling from fear. There was absolutely nothing I was unwilling to stop doing or start doing if it would please God. I did not know what else to do.
He instructed me to call on the Lord and ask Him to save me again. Maybe I hadn’t been sincere enough. Maybe I wasn’t repentant enough. I searched all my heart. As sincerely as I could, with my whole heart, I called out to God again. Jesus still did not save me. A third time … still nothing. The pastor was stumped. I began to worry that he could not help me … that no one could.
The pastor finally concluded I actually was saved, based on Romans 10:13, and that all I needed was to grow in faith. “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” I supposed I had done that. And who was I, to argue with God?
I did believe in Jesus, as far as I knew. I believed He was real, that He had died for all people and had risen again, but I remained in open unbelief about my own eternal safety … unsure if I was really a Christian. Even so, assured by my youth pastor that I was a true believer, I was baptized again. He insisted that I was a Christian because of what I had done, that my feelings about it did not really matter, and that I should begin to read the Bible more, get more involved in the church and start serving God. He told me confidently that assurance of salvation would eventually come.
I did as he said, and began to read the Bible avidly. I loved it. I hungered for the Bible and read it all the time. I began to memorize the Bible. I spent so much time in the Bible that I saw my first B’s in school that year … I didn’t care. I began to witness more boldly. I was in church every service. I practiced witnessing in the shower, in the car, on the school bus … thinking of what I would say next if the person I was witnessing to said this or that. I was regular on visitation night. I passed out tracts at school and in stores. I preached Sunday sermons to my Boy Scout troop on our campouts. I even won the youth-group’s soul-winning award that year, leading nearly fifty young people in professions of faith.
But I never did get assurance of my salvation.
The following spring, when I confided in another pastor that I was still struggling, he told me that everyone doubts their salvation at times. He said I shouldn’t worry about it … just an attack from the devil. “Ignore it and go on serving God. We really should not be relying on our feelings anyway … just take God at His Word. If you’ve sincerely asked Jesus into our heart, you’re safe.” I wondered if this was God’s intent, if it could possibly be normal to doubt your salvation like I was, or even a little bit.
I was soon accepted into the US Air Force Academy and left home, feeling utterly lost and helpless. I soon found a similar church and attended every chance I could. I gave the church quite nearly all of the money I made as a cadet. I continued witnessing for Christ and reading my Bible fervently. I got to where I was reading the entire Bible through from Genesis to Revelation every month. I neglected my studies. The other cadets mocked me, called me “preacher-man,” and the like, but came to me for help and spiritual guidance when they were down. Me? I still felt disoriented, lost, out of place.
My commanding officer even told me I was out of place and that I belonged in a Bible college somewhere … he was not mocking me … he was quite sober about it, and could have done great damage to himself professionally by telling me what he did. It was his job to keep me there at the Academy. My spiritual commitment was pretty obvious to him, but he could not see my heart. All I really wanted was to know God, to know that I belonged to Him, to know what His will for me was. God seemed to evade me. I was hurting deeply.
Toward the end of my first year, desperate, I went to my single’s pastor for counsel. I openly admitted that I did not have assurance of my salvation. He asked if I believed that the Bible, the King James Bible, was the inspired Word of God. I said I thought it must be, but I could not say for sure that I knew it was. My pastor told me that I could not ever be a Christian unless I believed that the KJV was the very Word of God.
I was initially shocked at this, but then figured, for some reason, that he must be right. After all, something has to be perfect: there must be something we can ultimately trust. If it’s not the Bible, then what could it possibly be? And if any English Bible is actually inspired by God, it certainly would have to be the KJV. I needed something perfect … absolutely trustworthy … that I personally could trust in … that would give me the truth. Quietly and desperately I pleaded with God to give me faith that the KJV was the Word of God so that I could be saved. I knew I was helpless to make myself believe. He immediately did; God gave me faith to believe … I knew immediately that the KJV was His inspired Word to me.
I immediately turned to God for salvation, really believing that if I asked Him to be my Lord and save me now, that He would. I believed Romans 10:13 was His very Word to me now. I asked Him to save me, as sincerely and as earnestly as anyone can, and was immediately flooded with peace. I thought that this time God had really saved me. I had a momentary “assurance” of salvation. I felt wonderful … for the most part. In the joy and exhilaration of all this it was easy not to think about doubting … when I did think about it though, the doubt was still there. I was baptized that evening, still plagued with doubts about eternity, another convert for their record keeping. But I could not hang on to assurance of eternal life, not even for a moment; I continued to wrestle with doubts about my salvation. Something was just not right.
It was just too important. Going to Hell was just not a mistake I was willing to make, for anyone or anything. Everywhere I turned people were saying the same thing … Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Chuck Swindoll, John MacAurthur, my pastors… the Pentecostals, the Baptists, the Methodists, the Lutherans, the Charismatics, the Presbyterians, the Bible churches. It was on all the evangelical Christian radio stations, in all of the current Christian books, in the Christian school curriculums. All of evangelical Christianity was basically saying the same thing. No one was objecting — no one. Billy Graham even preached it. To me, it echoed like a death-call all across our land… “Jesus Christ has done all He can. The rest is up to you. Just receive Christ, ask Him sincerely to come into your heart, repent of your sins, dedicate your life to Him. Don’t trust your feelings, just take God at His Word … make the decision for Christ and go for it.” It did not work … no, not for me.
I began to study more about Hell. It was forever. What small particle of doubt was I willing to tolerate? What chance of going to Hell was I willing to take? It didn’t seem wise to ignore these doubts and sweep them under the rug, or blame them on the devil like everyone else was doing. Something was wrong.
Could they all be wrong? Was something wrong with me? Did all earnest Christians really doubt their salvation secretly? … just a little bit? Or was I the only one that did? Was ANYONE absolutely sure? Did I have all there was to find in true, Biblical Christianity? I had what they all claimed to have, and it was not enough for me. Inside I was screaming for assurance.
It just didn’t make sense to think that God intended for me to live with this doubt, or expected me to ignore it. How can one live at peace and not be ABSOLUTELY sure of going to heaven??? I could not live with my doubt, but I could not find anything better.
I thought about it a lot. Hell would never end … never, ever, ever. It was hot … hotter than anything known to Man. It was black, black fire, hotter than the sun. God hated the souls there, and punished them infinitely. It was real … it was not full yet. I wrote an article about what it would be like to go there … The Second Death … footnotes and all.
Suppose they were all wrong … suppose I was lost. Suppose they were lost too. Lots of people are deceived … what made me any different? Many would come to Him in the last day saying, “Lord, Lord!” only to hear Him say, “Depart from me… for I never knew you.” (Mat 7:21-23) He had said so plainly in His Word. If I were among them in the end, I would have no one to blame but myself.
There was nothing solid to rest in. Christ had died for the whole world but the whole world was certainly not saved. There was something about being converted that was supposed to connect me to His work … and that was the problem. I needed something to connect me to salvation. Something was supposed to happen to me. I did not know what that was. Paul had said, “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith, prove your own selves.” (2Co 13:5) Every time I examined my conversion, I got sick to my stomach. Like Nicodemus, I yearned, “How can a man be born when he is old?” (Jn 3:4) There was nothing sure under me. I was searching; I was looking.
One thing I was sure of, I did not have complete and unbroken assurance of my salvation. Living without perfect and complete assurance was insane if there was any other way. God had said I could be absolutely sure … “these things have I written unto you, that believe on the name of the Son of God, that ye may know that ye have eternal life.” (1Jn 5:13) I was not sure. Even if the whole world went to Hell, it would not make it any better for me there … even if Billy Graham himself were burning right beside me it would be no consolation. I did not want to just ignore these doubts … I wanted to hunt them down and deal with them. I wanted to search them out until there were no more … until I could not doubt.
Soon, I walked away from the security and prestige of a career in the US Air Force; I sensed it was not what God wanted me to be doing. I felt strongly that He was calling me into full-time Christian work. I did not have any skills to present to an employer; all I knew how to do well was take tests … and that didn’t pay much. I began working as a common laborer washing cars at minimum wage; I enrolled in the Bible college starting up at the church. Shortly afterwards, I felt God showing me the girl I was to marry and I did marry her in 1982. I was 21.
I kept thinking. I kept asking questions. I heard the testimony of my pastor: he had walked an aisle once in a revival meeting, got pressured into Bible college and full time service, never really sure of his eternal safety. His only assurance was in the fact that he could take you back to a rock beside some dirt road where he had repented and asked Christ to come into his heart … when he was having severe doubts about the salvation of his soul while in Bible college. Pastor had a stake in the ground. Whenever he doubted his salvation, he went back to that rock in his mind where he knew he had asked Jesus to come into his heart. That was all he knew: Romans 10:13, wrested from its context, was all he had. He had no more than I did.
The president of the Bible college … well, his wife claimed salvation because she had asked Christ to save her by accident! She had intended to pray something else. That was absurd… even I could see that. I told her it was unscriptural and she became unsettled. Her husband, my mentor, became angry … the president of the Bible College … but he had no answer. I was causing trouble. I didn’t care.
I scrutinized the tracts … the Gospel tracts we were handing out. They all ended in a prayer to receive Christ – all of them. Chick tracts, the American Tract Society, The Four Spiritual Laws, most all of them I could lay hands on. Most of them also said it was important to ignore your feelings and claim salvation if you had prayed sincerely and asked Jesus to save you. Some of them happened to point out that just saying the words would not work, but if you really meant them and you were sincere, you could bank on being saved regardless how you felt emotionally. They all seemed to agree on that basic principle. Not one of them indicated that absolute assurance of salvation was even a possibility, much less important.
I joined the Fisherman’s Club, the soul-winning class at church, and studied the curriculum. The error was blatant. The instructor and the text were consistent in maintaining that salvation could be obtained by repentance and prayer. They called it a “prayer of faith,” but it wasn’t. To them, doubting and believing could all be mixed up together. As I inquired further about it, it was clear that the church leadership was in complete agreement on this. They said I was nit-picking and splitting hairs. Eternity was at stake, we all doubted our salvation to some degree, and I was being … too careful.
A second major curriculum came along: Evangelism Explosion. It was the same old song and dance.
My eyes began to open up to what was going on. This practice of praying for Christ to come into your heart was not in the Bible. No one in the Bible was saved like that. No one in the New Testament prayed any kind of prayer to believe on Christ. No one ever encouraged them to do so either. The Apostles had simply preached Christ and encouraged people to believe.
I also learned that faith and doubt were mutually exclusive. No one can be believing and doubting anything at the same time. When a person is doubting, they are in unbelief by definition. This truth was woven throughout the entire Bible.
The facts became uncomfortably obvious: none of the men I was studying under or with understood the Gospel. Neither did I. They would not listen to me. In their mind, questions were of the devil, especially the questions I was asking. If they wanted their religion … this empty religion … they could have it. I would not go soul-winning any more with the church. I began to withdraw.
One man, Jack, did quit the church staff about that time. He said he was not saved. His wife called me and asked my wife and I over for dinner. Jack had heard about me, and knew I was on to something. I could not help him. His wife … she was sure of her salvation … she was just bubbling over … you could almost see it in her. All she could say to us was, “You just BELIEVE!” That was no help. Neither her husband nor I understood. I could not explain it … but I knew she was right. It was not long before they left the church looking for help elsewhere.
I remember once, about that time, on a private soul-winning excursion, going to an apartment downstairs from ours and knocking on the door. A man about my age answered. He looked dirty, sloppy … typical beer-drinking, partying type. I told him about salvation, about what Jesus had done, about how God had died on a cross for sinners.
… I knew it was not in the prayer … I just knew it. Evangelical Christianity must be wrong. I tossed the “gospel” tracts and inviting people to church. I was going it alone with my Bible …
His eyes got wide and wet as he listened. I told him about his sin, and about God’s love. I asked him where he was going to spend eternity. He said he would probably go to Hell … and he was serious as a dead man. I told him he needed to believe on Christ.
… I did not tell him about our church … it was nothing to brag about … I knew of nowhere to take him if he wanted a church to attend. I wondered if my pastor was even saved. I wondered if anyone in my church was saved … except Jack’s wife. I just told this man the facts I knew. I wondered what he would do …
The poor guy just stood there … amazed. I asked him what he thought. He said it was the most marvelous thing he had ever heard. He was speechless. There was no prayer, there was no dedication, no pressure. I asked him if he believed. He said he did. I asked him again where he was going to spend eternity. He said he would be spending it with Jesus Christ. I asked him if he was absolutely sure. He was … and it was obvious. He was shaking.
I wondered how he did it … I didn’t ask. God had done something. I shook his hand. I prayed for him, thanking God for what He had done. I told the man to seek after God, to follow after Him. I left and went to another door. I never saw that man again.
Life went on. Marriage was hell … from day one … to put it very mildly. Full time work in the Church was out of the question: it was far too gone to listen to my questions any more. My wife and I left the church. We moved to her home town. I was alone. I struggled.
I began to memorize the Bible more earnestly. I wrote the New Testament out on 3 by 5 cards, verse by verse, every verse … as well as the Psalms and Proverbs. I carried the cards with me. I memorized book after book of the Bible. It was all I knew to do. I could not find a good job … Mom sent me money. My marriage was a constant struggle. I applied for work in a Christian day school that was starting up.
I knew that salvation was not in the prayer. I did not know where it was. All the Bible seemed to say was … “Believe on Christ.” It seemed so simple on the surface, but I did not understand. I could not find anyone who could explain it. Jack’s wife knew somehow, but she could not help. As far as I knew, she was the only real Christian I had ever met. I kept wondering if I was one or not.
Then, so it happened, one day God showed me plainly that I was not a Christian. It was no surprise, really. Though I had asked Jesus to come into my heart and save me and was obeying Him the best I knew how, I was still going to Hell. He revealed to me for certain that I was not a Christian and that I needed to be born again. God proved it to me. I remember it well.
I was sitting in a worship meeting in a church where we all shared testimonies, prayed and worshiped God together. A brother stood up and began to share out of 1 Peter 2:7: “Unto you therefore which believe, He is precious.” God confronted me right then. I did not hear anything else the brother said.
God said to me in my spirit most clearly, “I am not precious to you, am I?”
It was a bit of a shock at first – I thought I loved Him, but when He confronted me I came up empty. It was plain. I loved the Bible, I loved church; I loved witnessing and going to Bible studies and worship meetings. I loved what God did for me, I loved His miracles, and His care for me. I loved singing the old hymns and talking about His truth. But Him, Himself? God Himself … He was not precious to me.
I was not in rebellion against Him; I was not running from Him or angry with Him … I was just cold and dead. There was no intimacy. Instead, there was enmity, alienation. I did not know how to love Him. I had never seen it before.
I said slowly, “Well, no. I guess You aren’t precious to me.”
He continued … and I could tell this was coming, “If I am not precious to you, then you are not a believer.” Simple as that: the logical equivalent of 1 Peter 2:7.
My response was a breathless, “… And?” It was nice to know for sure where I stood, lost … but I didn’t want to stay here … not one more minute. I wanted to be born again right then and waited for Him to tell me how. Instead … silence. But I didn’t panic. I knew He had chosen me. Somehow I knew He would save me, in His time.
While I was waiting for His next step with me I went door-knocking again to tell others about God. I told them what I knew … not what I didn’t know. Another man, Benito, was seeking God and became interested. I tried to help him. I told him the answer was not in “the prayer” … it was simply in believing. I did not understand it, but maybe Benito would.
Benito finally did … after a couple weeks, during a break on a church work-day, an elder at my church lead him in a prayer of repentance asking Christ into his heart!
I had warned Benito … and I objected when he told me, but he assured me that he understood what I had told him and agreed with me … he had just gone along with the elder figuring it wouldn’t hurt anything. However, to Benito’s great surprise, somehow the Lord really had given him faith to believe when he was praying. Benito was absolutely sure of his salvation and he was rejoicing in it. What could I say? God is sovereign …
I wanted desperately to ask him how it happened, how he had believed, what it was like … I had never admitted my unbelief to him. But before I could pose a thoughtful question, he joyfully insisted that I come and tell his wife how to be saved. I still did not understand the gospel. I agreed to come anyway.
I was unemployed … again … had some time on my hands. I decided to give it all I had and try to figure it out. I got out my Strong’s Concordance, I got out my Mathew Henry commentary, my Schofield, Spurgeon, my Thompson Chain, my Vine’s Expository Dictionary, my KJV, my Webster’s … and I shut myself up in my little study and began to pray and search and scribble. I was going to try and figure this salvation thing out once and for all.
I had a good little outline going … about repentance, about faith, about the blood. I was praying, I was asking. I wanted to know. The outline got longer. Something was wrong. It was supposed to be simple. Conversion was of God. Salvation was of God. I was stumped and helpless and I knew it.
I recalled 1 John 2:2. That was a good verse to put in my outline. I started thinking about what it said, “And He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” That was a REALLY good verse, come to think of it. Maybe that was all I needed for an outline. What did the word “propitiation” mean anyway? I checked Webster’s. I started thinking, pondering. He said, “for the sins of the whole world.” Something was there for me, for everyone. There was a propitiation, an atonement, available to me, available for me. What was it? What was I supposed to DO?
Then, all of a sudden… the flood lights came on!!! … I tell you. He opened my eyes. Finally, and for the first time … I could see … Jesus Christ had died … for me! He had paid for my sins when He had died! That was all I needed!
Just moments before, I had known all of the facts, … and thought I believed them in my heart. But without faith – real faith … the gift of God – the truth of the finished work of Jesus Christ actually meant nothing to me personally … so I continued in doubt … solid evidence of my unbelief in Him. There’s no other way to slice it. I had been struggling with the mechanics of receiving Him … struggling without faith, hung up on the details of accepting Him while I continued in unbelief … a dead man trying to be born again. When faith came, the doubts fled … completely!
In an instant, after years of searching, my sin stains vanished. It was sudden and complete. All I could see between Hell and me was Jesus Christ … and He was certainly enough! I could see Him dying for me personally as clearly and as loudly as if His crucifixion had just happened right there in front of me … as if His blood was still wet on the wood … and shed just for me. Salvation had nothing at all to do with me … it had everything to do with Him!
It wasn’t like before. I had always believed Jesus had died and risen, making salvation available to all men. Believing that had not helped me. Now, I could see that He had literally saved me Himself by dying for me in my place, that everyone for whom Christ died was completely safe, solely because of what He had done for them. Salvation had nothing at all to do with me … it had everything to do with Him!
I could not find a doubt anywhere in my heart. It was impossible to doubt. There was nothing left to be saved from. My sin debt was paid in full! His death itself was immaculate, powerful, effectual … saving me to the uttermost. He was already done saving me … it was all over, and I had not done anything at all. There was nothing for me to mess up. I didn’t need to ask for anything, pray for anything, do anything, take anything, dedicate anything: just believe. He had done it all … even the believing He had to give me. He breathed life into my spirit and I believed. I had faith, and it was from Him. I knew I believed. The assurance was complete, infinite, supernatural. It was a gift from God … the faith itself … and the life He gave with it.
I was overcome in indescribable gratitude to God. My heart gushed to overflowing in a deep love for Him. I tried to doubt Him and I couldn’t! I was as safe from Hell as Jesus Christ Himself!!
By the way, years later … I still am, safe as I can be, and I just love it … there’s no other way to live. “The just … shall live … by faith.” It could not have been simpler.
Even though it was simple, it was impossible. I could never have made myself believe like this. It is absolutely perfect faith … complete and flawless assurance. There is nothing I can do now to stop believing. God has begotten me with His Word, by His Spirit. I couldn’t go to Hell even if I tried.
And, finally, I can tell someone about Jesus Christ … as a BELIEVER!
What Shall We Then Say To These Things?
I am living testimony of the fact that you can sincerely repent of your sins, ask Jesus Christ to come into your heart and save you, mean it with ALL of your heart, earnestly commit your life to serve Jesus Christ, continue to serve Him faithfully the best you know how until you die — and go to Hell.
This has nothing to do with losing salvation; it has everything to do with never becoming a believer at all.
The reason this is true is that you can do all of the above in doubt, in unbelief, without faith. I did so myself (all except die, of course). If you cannot see this right now I propose that you do not yet have a working understanding of either the gospel or faith. I do think most professing Christians struggle with this … I am afraid that most continue in unbelief and are Hell-bound. Perhaps after further elaboration and some sober reflection you will both agree with me and share my concern … or at least be willing to correct me.
I believe God saved me in such a way as to make me a public example of the failure of the evangelical “gospel.” This “gospel” is equivalent to “The 4 Spiritual Laws,” what I loosely call, “The Billy Graham Gospel.” A technically descriptive name for the error is, “Decisional Regeneration.” It permeates most all I have experienced in evangelical Christianity. Part of my calling in life is to give my personal testimony of how God saved me from this error … and thereby expose it for the benefit of God’s elect.
The error can be classified as a works-based gospel, though this gospel involves only a single simple human work rather than requiring a life of good works. This one single work in the evangelical gospel is the act of … “receiving Christ.”
Suppose you are a lost sinner. You hear the good news that God loves you in spite of your sin, that Jesus died on the cross and rose again to save all men from their sins … and that God wants to have a personal relationship with you. You believe the message you hear … but this belief itself brings no joyful assurance of eternal life.
There is, in fact, something about the message itself you have just heard that leads you to respond in this way, with no assurance after merely hearing and believing the message. Those who present this “gospel” sense no closure or completion in their purpose after merely presenting truth about the Person and work of Christ. The messenger truly expects you to feel lost at this particular stage, after simply hearing and believing the message.
Such messengers have no sense that you should have any assurance of eternal life without doing something further … something in addition to believing the message, and they make this obvious throughout their presentation in one subtle way after another. You do continue in this state of being lost, unregenerate, Hell-bound … even after you hear and believe what the messenger is saying.
Since you remain lost after initially hearing and believing everything they have to say about Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice, the messenger requires some additional means to bring you into the kingdom. He finds a convenient method in the act of “receiving Christ.” He takes you to (Romans 10:13) (or (Revelation 3:20), or any other text he’d like to wrest) and says, “If you’ll repent of your sins and sincerely ask Jesus to come into your heart and save you … BOOM!! … Welcome into the family of God!” (The Purpose Driven Life, pp. 58-59)
Further, the messenger will generally conclude by assuring you that it does not matter how you feel after you have sincerely prayed this prayer; it does not actually matter what you truly believe and perceive about your current condition, what you yet sense about the safety of your eternal soul. They will, nearly universally, claim with boldness that feelings are irrelevant and that, since you have, “done what the Bible says you have to do to be saved,” you are assured a place in heaven. They feel that doubts about the eternal safety of your soul are inevitable, attacks from the devil from that point on, and should be completely ignored.
I don’t think so.
They overlook one significant detail here: there is no indication in any Bible that anyone in the Bible ever asked Jesus Christ to come into their heart … or that any inspired gospel messenger ever encouraged anyone to do so.
As far as we know, no one in the Bible who was converted to Christ prayed for anything when they were converted, or born again. They simply believed in Christ, and this was merely upon hearing the gospel message. This very believing itself affected them deeply and profoundly … when they believed, they REJOICED!
There was also an understanding in the gospel messengers themselves that moved them to anticipate such a response in people as they preached; they looked for and often observed a response of complete assurance and joy as they preached, without leading their hearers in decision-based prayers.
Further, the Bible gives every indication that complete assurance of eternal life, both knowing it and feeling it, is the norm for the saint of God. There is no hint that an earnest believer should ever be content with anything less … ever.
There is something profound here … what I am going after is not merely a technicality. Please permit me to elaborate.
When a person asks Jesus to come into their heart and save them, they are implying that He isn’t in their heart yet … that they are not yet saved. Yet we know that we are saved by faith, by believing on Christ. Therefore if a person is not saved it can only be because they don’t yet believe in Him.
Such a prayer where a person asks for salvation, asks for Christ to come into the heart, cannot be a prayer expressing faith. It expresses unbelief: the state in which one must be to pray it coherently.
We know this is true because all who do believe on Jesus Christ already have everlasting life and already have the living Christ indwelling them. Those who are actually believing in Christ are also expected to know that they already have eternal life, and they are expected to rejoice in this! This is plain from any honest reading of the Bible.
So when you first believe in Christ you cannot ask Him to save you. The only prayer that makes any sense is one of joyful thanksgiving, thanking Him because He already has saved you.
Anyone asking Jesus Christ to save them while thinking they already believe in Him is confused at best. They may have heard some facts about Christ and granted these facts intellectual credibility, but this brought them no assurance of eternal life: simply believing the truth resulted in no real change in them. There was no conversion, no assurance, no joy, no thanksgiving, no life after merely hearing and “believing” the truths presented. This is generally because the truths presented are incomplete or twisted in some way.
Rather than recognizing this condition as unbelief and seeking God for faith in Christ until they do obtain this simple, supernatural gift from God (which does indeed result in joyful assurance of eternal life), they are told by well-meaning evangelicals that they need to do something else in addition to believing: they must now “receive Christ.”
The evangelist directs the sinner to look to this “sinner’s prayer” technique as a means of “receiving Christ.” This approach amounts to a “quick fix” to finish the job and get the evangelist thinking that the sinner has now come into God’s kingdom, rather than going back to God and seeking faith, regeneration and true life from Him.
The messenger calls this completely different concept, this act of praying a prayer asking for salvation, “receiving Christ,” even though the Bible contains no such concept and indicates that believing on Christ and receiving Christ are not two concepts at all, but one and the same. Biblically speaking, one cannot believe on Christ without also receiving Him, or receive Him without also believing on Him. These concepts and phrases and terms are used interchangeably throughout the Word of God as equivalent concepts, not two distinct activities that should accompany each other. However, the evangelical distinguishes between them and places great significance on the latter concept.
Sincerely wanting the gift of eternal life, the sinner is encouraged to move from mere “head knowledge” to “heart commitment,” and agrees to take action, being lead blindly by the well-meaning messenger. However, when the sinner “prays the prayer,” there is generally no change in the condition of the mind or heart with respect to Christ and His atoning work. On the contrary, the one praying is often overwhelmed, nervous, confused, and quite emotionally vulnerable. There is most often nothing about their beliefs that change when they pray such a prayer, during the prayer itself, or shortly after they pray.
They begin to pray in unbelief, without having experienced faith in Christ, without eternal salvation and desiring salvation from God. They know that they are lost, Hell-bound and in need of a Savior. During the prayer itself they actually remain in this same state of unbelief … most often nothing changes about what they believe and know to be true about Christ and His atonement while they are praying. When they are finished praying they continue on in this same state … as they were when they began to pray … in the same state of unbelief they have always known.
Unless God intervenes supernaturally in this process, graciously granting faith to the sinner in spite of the error and ignorance woven throughout this activity (which He may very well do, but this does not appear to be the norm), the only real change in the heart of the sinner between the beginning and the end of this entire process is that there is (perhaps) a nice feeling, a bit more intellectual assent, a bit more understanding of basic biblical truth … some passion thrown in for good measure … and now they have their very own personal “stake in the ground,” an act of their will and mind and body — a work — that tells them sweetly, “don’t worry … you’re OK now.”
But they are not OK … not at all.
They have fallen pray to a lie, the subtle and devastating lie that you can mechanize “receiving Christ” into an act of the will, that you can simply make a decision and “do it” whenever you want by “praying the prayer,” and that what you actually *believe* about Christ and His atoning sacrifice is not the significant factor in receiving Christ, becoming born again, regenerated, or “saved.” Salvation — to the typical western evangelical — is not a change of belief, or a change in faith … it boils down to a human work, the act of “praying the sinner’s prayer.” It is the “prayer that will change your eternity: Jesus, I believe in you and I receive you .” (The Purpose Driven Life, p. 58)
This prayer is certainly something that anyone who is properly positioned by a well-meaning evangelist can do. It is a work, a simple act of the will, just like any other work.
In the Bible, however, we find that it is not what you do that makes you a Christian, it is what you believe. The instant that one becomes a child of God, the instant that one transitions from being Hell-bound to heaven-bound, at that instant something must change about what one believes. The transition must involve coming to faith in Christ, not asking Him to save you or committing your life to serve and follow Him.
This transition, the point of salvation itself, is not something that can happen gradually. By definition there can be no interim period between being a child of the devil and a child of God, between being Hell-bound and heaven-bound, between being spiritually dead and spiritually alive. There are only two possibilities here, only two states of being. You must be in one state or the other at any given point in time. Therefore the transition between the two states must be instantaneous by definition. It is at the instant of this transition that we focus our attention. What happens in this instant? the instant of conversion … regeneration.
God asserts that the change occurring in this instant is a change in what the sinner believes about Jesus Christ and what Jesus Christ has done. However, the typical evangelical insists that such changes in belief precede the point of salvation and technically have nothing to do with it. The evangelical asserts that the transition actually happens when the sinner “prays the prayer.” If the person merely hears the message and “believes,” but does not follow through and “pray the prayer” for some reason, then salvation is never actually realized according to the evangelical. In effect, the evangelical is presenting a different gospel.
Since such evangelicals have “prayed the prayer,” really meant it, felt good about it, learned a lot about the Bible, remained active in religious activity and (mostly) avoided the more socially unacceptable sins, such victims become comfortable in the same state of unbelief that they were in when they were lost, believing exactly as they did the moment before they prayed … in which moment they knew they were lost and without Christ.
Such folk are well-trained to call this same state “faith,” now that they have “prayed the prayer,” even though what they actually believe has not changed at all from the state they were in just before they prayed to “receive Christ,” when they confessed and knew that they were still lost. They are actually trusting in this act of prayer rather than in Christ for their salvation, and they are calling this prayer an “act of faith” even though it is prayed in confusion and unbelief.
Once in this “post-prayer” state, these “Christians” no longer seek salvation, though they have never experienced any abiding assurance and/or joy by resting in the finished work of Jesus Christ on their behalf. The doubts about their eternal safety linger on for some time afterward and they are explicitly trained to ignore them (“Don’t trust your feelings!”) rather than becoming alarmed that these doubts are evidence of their true lost condition.
To deal with these doubts they are taught to return to what they are trusting in, the act of praying to receive Christ, instead of to Christ himself. They repeatedly return to this act of prayer, this “stake in the ground,” rather than to Christ because this act of “praying the prayer” is formally what they have placed their trust is in … what they are relying upon to save them from Hell. They are not trusting in the finished work of Jesus Christ at all and their actions confirm this fact repeatedly.
Returning to this “stake in the ground” over and over and over again, remembering and reassuring themselves that they have indeed “prayed the prayer,” never does bring assurance of eternal life. It cannot. They eventually just give up and ignore the doubts and hope for the best. In short, they take a risk, betting their eternal destiny on this technique. This is all they know, they are aware of no other options, everyone they know is doing the same thing, so they quit seeking a deep and abiding assurance of eternal life. They become content to live without it. Eventually, they must be content die without it.
Who … in their right mind … can be content with this?
Such evangelical “Christians” may be delivered from drugs and alcohol and porn, speak in tongues, go to the mission field, and have profound spiritual experiences. They may see miracles, and even be an active agent in seeing these miracles come to pass, but they have yet to be truly born again. They are always looking back to this time that they “prayed the prayer” to find rest for their souls, and willfully neglect their soul’s true condition from that time forward. They do not know how to find assurance of their eternal safety in the finished work of Jesus Christ. Evangelical churches, as well as our mission fields, are, I think, quite full of such folk, all hoping they are heaven bound … but never really knowing for sure.
Billy Graham himself was apparently one of these poor souls … and confessed to it openly: he never did know for sure that he had eternal life, and he was not ashamed to say it. (1/2/00, Fox News Interview, The Calvary Contender).
There is no significant difference between these people and the non-seeking lost of Islam, or Buddhism, or Hinduism, or Catholicism. They are all content to live without faith, without hope, without Christ. If there is any difference at all between these vast heathen communities and most of the evangelical community it is that evangelicals are much more difficult to reach, much more blind to the basic truth of salvation. Blind, but like the Pharisee of old, saying “We see!” Therefore their sin remains … and it is much worse for them than if they had never been exposed to the truths of the gospel in the first place.
Great Heaviness and Continual Sorrow In My Heart
This error is simply devastating, not only to all those who fall into it (obviously) but also to all those who don’t: the true saints who do come to faith in Christ. It is impossible for a church composed of 95% non-Christians to function as it should (and I propose that a 5% regenerate population is a generous estimate of the proportion of believers in the best of our churches). When the pastors/leaders themselves are deceived, which I think is most often the case, the local church body is subject to profound turmoil.
I think this single error is the most significant and pervasive factor underpinning the nature of the terrible apostasy of these last days. I think this is also what largely underlies the scenario foreseen in Matt 7:22-3: “Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”
Napoleon Bonaparte said brilliantly: “If a million people do a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.”
Yes, it is foolish to ignore doubts about salvation, or to blame them on the devil, or on immaturity or human weakness. It is foolish to think that doubt and faith can ever be in harmony in a soul concerning a common object at the same time. It is foolish to think that we are Christians because we have asked Jesus Christ to come into our hearts and have dedicated our lives to follow and serve Him. We can do all of these things very earnestly and still spend eternity in the Lake of Fire.
“Believe in Christ,” “Trust in Christ.” “Receive Christ.” “Have faith in Christ.” Yes, these are all biblical phrases in use today. Find the reality of any one of these phrases alive in your heart and you will indeed find yourself to be a genuine Christian.
What is left out of common witness about Christ today is Faith. Faith is not something we do, it is not a decision we can make today or put off until tomorrow, it is not a commitment, or a prayer that we can pray. Faith is the work of God … not the work of Man. Faith is the gift of God … not the product of our will. If you do not have faith, don’t ignore this fact: seek God until you do have faith.
When the concept of faith is missing, when we redefine faith as the sister of doubt, or pretend it is subject to our decision making ability, we are left with nothing but a false gospel, a flimsy “assurance” that does not stand up under the slightest thoughtful consideration or scrutiny. Our errors here have resulted in a chaotic mass of religious sinners carelessly playing church on the brink of eternity, stumbling blindly about upon the very words of God. Dreadfully, I sense that is exactly what evangelical “Christianity” has become.
The Just Shall Live by Faith
The concept of faith is the concept of absolutely flawless, supernatural confidence and assurance. It is not the mindless arrogance of the “name it claim it” crowd. It is the sincere, pure, humble, altogether untouchable disposition of utter confidence and assurance that is given by God to His elect. It is unshakable. It is the utter absence of doubt. When you test this faith, when you question it, when you focus on it, it does not crumble and disintegrate beneath you, it stands strong and vibrant … alive as the God who gives it. (See The Substance)
Sure, saints can be forgetful and can at times doubt their salvation … but it is not a constant manner of life with them to be doubting where they will spend eternity. The difference? True saints can’t stand to doubt their eternal welfare, they learn to turn away from themselves and remember Jesus Christ; they learn to look past any act of dedicating their life to Christ, any act of repentance, or any attempt at receiving Christ. For the foundation of assurance of eternal life true saints look beyond any thing that they themselves have done.
Saints know and remember the Gospel. They are, as a rule, “looking unto Jesus, the Author and finisher of our faith.” (He 12:2) When a saint of God turns to Jesus Christ and His finished work again, remembering what Jesus Christ did for him or her on the cross in paying his or her personal sin debt in full, the doubts flee again, the converted soul finds its familiar rest in His bosom again … the complete and perfect assurance returns. Saints don’t have to pretend … they don’t have to ignore their feelings … they know the God of the Bible … and they know that they do.
Any soul neglecting to pursue faith in Jesus Christ in this life will burn in Hell forever. That is fact. God’s love has nothing to do with this. His love has made salvation available to those who will not settle for less. It seems very few are finding Him today. God is not flaunting Himself … if you are willing to settle for less, you just might die with less. When a soul does find Him they will NOT be doubting their salvation.
The very worst thing that any soul can do to another – or to itself — is to ignore or suppress doubts about eternal life. We can do no worse than to get comfortable in our unbelief, or to encourage another person to be content there. We might as well be crooning lullabies in a forest fire.
The presence of the feeling of doubt is proof of the absence of faith. This feeling is the evidence of unbelief: it is not something to be taken lightly. For the believer, one who once believed but has come into doubt through sin, neglect, emotional trauma or doctrinal error, dealing with doubt head-on through the finished work of Jesus Christ is healthy and important and essential to spiritual vitality. Look back to the cross, observe Jesus Christ dying in your place, and ask Him to restore your faith in Him. The only way you can be lost believing in Christ is if He fails. It has nothing to do with your works.
For the lost, ignoring doubts and pushing them aside is eternally fatal: doubts and fears about eternity are the basic wakening calls to a genuine need for salvation.
Earthly problems come and go, disappointments rise and fade, discontentments play and sleep. While it is true that all these can serve to help a person see their need for Jesus Christ … it is nothing quite like fear! “Of some have compassion making a difference… others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh… knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men.” What emotion would you care to invoke in a careless loved one … the sleepy soul dawdling in the path of a screaming truck … or giggling and stumbling about in a mine field … Love? If there were no real danger for the lost I might think otherwise. It is no secret: continuing for a moment in unbelief is extremely and eternally dangerous.
Have a lost soul step up to the edge of this fragile little life and peer out into the blackness of eternity without Jesus Christ – stained in sin – naked and ashamed before the holiness of an angry God — and let him or her tremble … tremble indeed! Don’t cover this up and brush it aside as an attack from the devil! This is not cruel, it is the merciful prompting and wooing of God. Don’t dare cover the spiritual eyes and plug the spiritual ears, embarrassed to face the unbelief.
Don’t appease fears with the love of God, or with what everyone else is thinking nowadays. Look out into the blackness of eternity without Jesus Christ until it hurts … until it moves you to desperately seeking after the eternal God. Tremble and grope and wait and seek after God until you are absolutely sure that you are safely in His arms, washed in His blood. Don’t seek for comfort or solace anywhere else … in anything else … or in anyone else. When you take your last breath, it will make all the difference.
Give Diligence to make Your Calling And Election Sure
My simple appeal to you, my dear reader, is this: if you have taken the plain truths of the Bible to heart and you are not perfectly comfortable with your eternal safety right now … PLEASE, DON’T PRETEND TO BE!!! Don’t encourage anyone else to pretend to be comfortable either. That’s stupid, frankly. Rather, keep on searching for Him! Seek after Him. Wait patiently on Him. God’s intention for mankind is, “that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after Him, and find Him.” Don’t ever cover your doubt. Deal with it properly. It is nothing to be ashamed about … the rest of the world is doubting too … all except for one small and joyous group, and we understand perfectly.
We in Christ want others to know Jesus Christ in truth, to be as sure of their eternal destiny as we are. We are also deeply concerned for the purity of the Church of Jesus Christ … I certainly don’t want the church to fill up with tares, with goats; I want the churches to be filled with saints, with true sheep, not just professing Christians.
“Seek ye the Lord while He may be found, call ye upon Him while He is near.” As you do, obviously, don’t go claiming you are saved just because you called out to God once or twice. Call out to Him to give you faith in Jesus Christ. Keep calling out to Him, waiting patiently in His presence, until He does give faith in Jesus Christ to you … and I assure you, though He may bear long with you, you won’t have to take “No” for an answer from God in this. That is the one thing you will never hear from God if you are persistently seeking Him. God never says, “No” to an earnest seeker. “He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.” I can personally attest to this fact.
When God answers you, you won’t be wondering if He really has or not, or whether you’ve really found Him for sure or not … whether you have true faith or not. You will not wonder. You will know. He might answer you the first or second time you cry out to Him, it might be after you have gone to Him a thousand times in prayer. He may even answer you when you are not calling at all … when you are just earnestly waiting … or when you are distracted by something mundane and common and are focused on something else altogether. You will know for sure that He has answered you, by definition, when you have faith — when you have assurance abiding in your bosom, when you believe in Him and you know that you do … and not until then.
When you believe in Him, you will know with absolute certainty that your sin has been atoned for and that you are eternally safe because of what He has done for you. You will know that He died for you personally and individually, shed His own precious blood to make an atonement for all of your sin, and rose again from the dead — proving that you are perfectly justified in the sight of God for all eternity. You will know that you are in Him, and that all He has and is … is yours. You won’t be worried about going to Hell any more, you will not be in doubt about your eternal welfare. Most importantly, You will not be able to doubt what He has done for you.
If there is ANY doubt at all, at ALL, then faith is absent: keep on seeking, my friend. You just can’t afford to miss this one. No one can tell you that you are a true believer, assure you that you are safe, tell you that you have arrived, or find God for you. No, you must know for sure for yourself … you must seek Him yourself. All anyone can do is encourage you along the way … and pray for you. I’ll be glad to do so … myself.
Dear Soul, if you do not know for sure that you know Him, if you are not as safe from Hell right now as Jesus Christ Himself, seek the eternal God with all of your heart; you will find Him, if you are not willing to settle for anything less. “Give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall: for so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2Pe 1:10b-11)