Sunday, September 10, 2006

Doubts about Salvation

I've had thoughts swirling in my head for some time now on this topic. For months, literally, I've wanted to write a bit on doubts concerning salvation, but in my case, it is helpful, even necessary, to first tell my testimony and discuss altar calls et al. Now that I've gotten that out of the way, I want to focus on doubting.

There are some issues that Christians struggle with that are visible for all to see. But often the most difficult struggles in the Christian life are the silent ones. I think struggling with doubt is one of those silent struggles. I struggled off and on for years with doubts, and I did so mostly in silence. Often when I tell my own past struggles with doubt, people will tell me that they also had the same struggles, and sometimes they are still struggling with those silent doubts.

As previously mentioned, I never walked an aisle when I became a Christian. There was no pomp and circumstance. Quite simply, I believed. I knew I was a sinner and needed Jesus to pay the price for my sins. Throughout elementary and middle school, the gospel was presented to me many times via altar calls, with entreaties to me to come accept Jesus by praying a sinner's prayer. These exposures to altar calls threw me into years of doubt concerning my own salvation. As a child young in the faith, being told that I hadn't gone through the right channels was a real stunt to my spiritual growth and to my assurance of salvation. I already chronicled going back to the Bible and confirming that I must repent and believe. I confirmed the Gospel message with God's Word.

But then I struggled with plaguing doubts. I confirmed that I had rightly understood the Gospel, but by seeking to confirm that I had rightly understood, I was admittedly doubting whether I was indeed saved. Why else would I feel the need for confirmation? I then postulated that if I was doubting if I was saved, then perhaps I was not saved. And so went the viscious cycle!

Many people, including many with whom I have spoken, have at times put on a real front when it comes to confidence in their faith, often hiding plaguing doubts for fear of "second class" status as Christians, or even rejection as "true believers." I've been to many churches where during the altar call, it is strongly implied that the set of all Christians and the set of all people who "know without a shadow of a doubt" that they are saved is one and the same.

To comprehend the Gospel, we must trust on Christ for our salvation. There is no other way to be saved. But that does not mean that our trust never waivers or falters. We are still fallen humans in a fallen world. Walter Marshall says it well: May not one that truly believeth, say, Lord, help my unbelief? Yes! That is what I wish I had grasped through my years of doubting. One can doubt and still be a Christian. Unlike the song, being a Christian does not mean you are happy, happy, happy all the time. And it doesn't mean you are always bubbling over with confidence.

I love Stepping Heavenward, by Elizabeth Prentiss, because the heroine, Katy, in all of her utter sinfulness, is remarkably similar to me. I figure if there was hope for her, there is hope for me. I identify with her acutely because she also struggled in her youth with wondering if she was "truly saved," since she had not formalized it with a sinner's prayer. Her story comes full circle when, years later she is able to use her own experience with doubt to counsel her sister-in-law. Helen spent years of doubt, trying to figure out if she was a Christian, and with a few wise words, Katy dispelled her struggles: Doubt everything, but believe in Christ. . . Suppose for argument's sake, you are not a Christian. You can become one now.

The following day Helen recounts the effect of Katy's simple words:

Katy, God taught you what to say. All these years I have been tormenting myself with doubts as to whether I could be His child while so unable to say, "Thy will be done." If you had said, "Why yes, you must be His child for you professed yourself one a long time ago and ever since have lived like one," I should have remained as wretched as ever. As it is, a mountain has been rolled off my heart. Yes, if I was not His child yesterday, I can become one today; if I did not love Him then, I can begin now."

It was only after I learned to rejoice that I was currently a Christian, rather than wonder when I became one, that I was able to rest in the peace of my faith. Not everyone has a neat and tidy testimony, with all the blanks filled in with exact dates and times. The story of Christianity is about a lifechange, though, not a stress on the exact moment that the change started. I know I am a Christian, and I do now believe "without a shadow of a doubt," but I only had that confidence after I stopped berating myself for searching and questioning, when I realized that if I was not His child yesterday, I can become one today.

Do you realize that some of the most prominent characters in the Bible were plagued with doubts? One of the turning points in my struggle with doubts was a sermon I heard on John the Baptist, from Matthew 11. Here is the man who was sent to prepare the way for the Messiah, and he is plagued with doubts as he is languishing in prison. John questioned whether Jesus was even the Messiah! Should we expect someone else? John was regenerated by the Holy Spirit while in his mother's womb, was specifically charged with paving the way for the Lord, and he, in a time of doubt, questions if Jesus is indeed the Messiah. Yes, one can doubt and still be a believer!

And look at Jesus' response to John. Condemnation? No. Disgust? No. Anger? No. Jesus showed him compassion. He gives him physical evidence that He is the Messiah: Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. And then look what he does further. He turns to the crowd and confirms that John was the new Elijah, and he says that among those born of woman, there is none greater than John the Baptist.

If you struggle with doubts concerning salvation, you may, like I once did, visualize God frowning down on you, impatient that you "don't have enough faith." Just as Jesus had compassion on John the Baptist, though, so He has compassion as you cry out to Him: Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!

The message of the Gospel is simply this: you are a sinner and need a Savior. Christ came to be that Savior, if you will repent and turn to Him. If you truly believe these simple (yet profound!) truths, you are His child! And if you were not His child yesterday, you can become one today.


Lydia said...

Thank you for this thoughtful post, Susan. I, too, doubted my salvation deeply at one time in my mid teens. I think my doubting was legitimate though, because I was not walking in Christ and I was seeking to please myself rather than seeking to please the Lord. I was greatly depressed and considered ending it all but my one big deterant was knowing in my heart of hearts that I was not a Christian and would therefore go straight to hell if my life ended.

This caused me much soul searching and crying out to God for mercy. My doubts were not resolved until I came to the end of myself and my own desires and instead took God at his word to have faith in Him (Heb. 11:6). From that time on I have not doubted my salvation because 1) My faith is in the work of Christ and not something I did myself such as praying a prayer or walking an aisle and 2) I can look back on the years and see God's faithfulness to me in conforming me to the image of His Son, (i.e. sanctification). I realize that I am growing in grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Some of the worst methods commonly taught today for assurance of salvation do not get at the root causes of doubt. One I have seen is writing the date and time on a rock or stake and driving it in the ground as a remembrance of the point of salvation. New believers are told to go back to that place where the date was recorded to assail any future doubt about when they became believers. While there is nothing wrong with doing such of itself, the idea of putting our trust in a date or particular moment of salvation takes the focus off of the object of our salvation which is Christ.

Scripture makes it clear that we know we are His children if we love him and obey His commandments (1 John 2:3-11, 4:7-17, 5:1-5) and others know we belong to Him by the display of good fruit in our lives (Matthew 7:16-20, John 15:1-8). Nowhere are we told to trust in a point in time, an action on our part apart from His work, or a magic prayer in bringing us to salvation.

My second salvation experience was heavily tied to a particular date and place while my third (and what I see to be true conversion) was not based on a date or experience at all but rather on knowing that God had done a work in my heart. I had put off the old man and put on the new man in Christ and was being conformed to His likeness day by day. I had three separate "conversion experiences" at different points in my youthhood but only one was my true point of salvation. I think of the two prior as "awakenings" but not true conversion. I certainly do not agree with the idea that a believer can lose his or her salvation. This goes against the clear teachings of scripture and implies that salvation is dependent on something we do rather than on God who has called us and completes His work in us (Phil. 1:6, 2:12,13, Heb. 12:1,2)

Anyway, those are my rambling thoughts about salvation, doubting, santification and how to know one is a genuine believer. I didn't mean for them to be so long. :)

I enjoyed this series you have done. Thank you for sharing from your heart of the struggles you faced in doubting your salvation. I think you made a good point in that some of God's own people doubted Him or what they were called for (e.g. John the Baptist, Peter, Thomas). This does not negate their worth but places greater focus on Christ who is the source of our faith rather than on fallible, failing man.

One last thing:
I think often times when a believer doubts his or her salvation it is a result of the Devil causing us to stumble, or be fearful, or not have faith in God for our salvation. We are told that he is "the accuser of the brethren" and that there are "wiles of the Devil" (Rev. 12:9-11, Eph. 6:10-13, 1 Peter 5:8,9)

I hope others who are struggling with doubt will be encouraged by what you have shared here. May we all keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the "author and finisher of our faith."

sherrin said...

It is sad that people place their assurance upon an event, rather than seeking the means God gives us for assurance. As Lydia said, these are knowing we have trusted Christ and that we are growing in him. The Bible is clear that if we are growing in godliness we can have assurance that Christ is working in us. In contrast, it says nothing about altar trips giving assurance :)!!

Susan said...

Lydia, the bits you've shared about your own early struggles always interest me. Sometimes doubts about salvation are grounded in truth, as probably in your case. The wrong way to counsel doubters, of course, is to just tell them they are a Christian. They may be, they may not, but either way, they need the Gospel right then :).

I've heard many people (myself included) express how difficult it is to speak with someone if you're not sure if they're a Christian. My pastor's wife made a good point, though, that we all - Christian or not - need to here the Gospel. An elder at my church says to "preach the Gospel to yourself everyday." The message of the Gospel never grows old and is never irrelevant. . . Hmm, this would tie nicely into a discussion of communion (specifically frequency) :-D.

zan said...

Oh, yes, Susan! Do a communion post please!!!

Susan said...

I'm going to graciously reject your request, Zan. I am definitely not qualified to give the issue full treatment :). I will say that for about a year and a half now I've leaned towards weekly communion. Interestingly, my pastor (who was installed in January) favors weekly communion, though our church currently takes communion once a month.

Yesterday (9/10) and next Sunday (9/17) the sermons are on communion, as we have reached the Last Supper in our journey through the book of Mark. If you are interested in views on communion, and are sorely disappointed that I'm refusing to do a post ;), you can listen to my pastor's sermon from yesterday when it is loaded onto my church's (greatly outdated) website in the next few days. And next week's sermon should, of course, be eventually posted, after it is delivered :). Next week is also touching on the question of wine in communion, which should be interesting. Here is an interesting article on that issue. I agree with most of the author's points, but not the extent to which he takes them.

zan said...


I will live even though you don't post about communion. : (

I am actually glad that you admit that you wouldn't be able to do it justice. I have been getting a little irritated with some blogs where these young girls act like experienced theologians when they are like, my age. Your modesty shows humility which can be lacking in the blog world. Really, it is a breath of fresh air. I guess that is why I keep coming back.

I am leaning towards weekly communion, too. I used to go to a church where they used wine and grapejuice because some of the members did not feel they were actually getting communion unless it was wine.

Maybe I will try to listen to the sermons. I always have difficulty downloading stuff, though. Don't know why.

Anyway, good post on doubting. I have had doubts about my salvation, as well. I especially liked how you brought up John the Baptist. I had NEVER thought of him in that way.

Lydia, your posts are so encouraging. I am always so inspired to do better when you share about your Christian life.

I am so blessed to have such wonderful blog friends!

Radagast said...

Great post!

Susan said...

Yeah, you know, the more I learn, the more I realize I don't know :). There have been a number of times I've posted on topics, and later wondered if I was speaking out of ignorance and presumption. My favorite topics to write about are the ones to which I have a personal tie, like the last few on altar calls and doubting. Those topics are very personal to me, and I've studied them because I've had to! Anyway, I'm humbled that you see my posts in a modest light, Zan, as I know they are sometimes far from that in my heart-of-hearts. I am learning, though, slow as it is!

Jessica said...

Again I was late reading this...but great post, Susan! That's funny that you should mention that part from Stepping Heavenward because I remember the huge impact that exact phrase had on me in a similar way several (or more) years ago...

Susan said...

I'm glad others have benefitted from Stepping Heavenward. That book has had some great impacts on me, and every time I read it, I glean so much! My last read was this summer in a book study with some women at my church. It was so neat to discuss it in a group setting, and it was interesting to see all these "modern" women identifying with Katy. Truth never grows old.

Adrian C. Keister said...

Comment on "Doubts about Salvation."

I suppose there are many different things people look to for assurance of salvation. For me, it's doctrine. As someone once said, "Calvinism is 'the little family secret.'"

The doctrine I cling to more than anything else is the following: the Holy Spirit convicts me of sin. Now, the devil accuses me of sin to make me despair, but the Holy Spirit convicts me of sin in order to drive me back to Christ. Since my salvation belongs to my God, and not to me, the question is not, "Can I lose my salvation?" but "Can God lose my salvation?" Put like that, it becomes rhetorical. Just read John 17. Ergo, the Hound of Heaven will keep after me, making me more and more like Christ. And the conviction of the Holy Spirit is one of His chief tools, at least so I've found in my life.

That simple doctrine has kept up hope in me when all else failed.

In Christ.

Susan said...

It's interesting you should tie Calvinism into this post on doubting. Since this post was a recollection of my journey through doubting, I didn't include any overt Calvinistic references, quite simply because I wasn't a Calvinist at the time of my struggles. I was a fence-sitter :-D.

But you're right, of course, that Calvinism is the comforting truth to a doubting believer. In fact, Paul very often speaks of God's sovereign choice to encourage the New Testament Christians that their salvation is secure. If my salvation depended on me, then woe to me! But if it rests in God, than I am secure.

I've heard before that Calvinism is a hideous truth to unbelievers, but a beautiful comfort to Christ's sheep. . . At least it would be if people properly understood it :).

My favorite hymn about assurance:

My name from the palms of His hands
Eternity will not erase;
Impressed on His heart it remains,
In marks of indelible grace.
Yes, I to the end shall endure,
As sure as the earnest is given;
More happy, but not more secure,
The glorified spirits in heav'n.

Those last two lines stop me cold every time. To think that our salvation is as sure as the salvation of the glorified spirits who are already in God's presence. Wow.

Adrian C. Keister said...

It's funny you should mention that hymn, as my former pastor could never pass up the chance to explain those very last two lines every time we sang the Indelible Grace version. Even Chris H. has been struck by them, and explained them practically the same way. They are good, to be sure.

Shall we TIOC?

In Christ.

Susan said...

Certainly we may TIOC :).