Doubting Your Salvation

By John Ruiz-Bueno

Jesus tells us, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 7:21). This passage highlights the fact that numerous self-proclaimed Christians will one day discover that they are over-confident about their status before God. But this passage, among others, also gives doubt to those who should have no cause for doubt in their salvation.

When I was in high school I was the pastor's favorite. The moms in the church would make passing jokes about wanting me to marry their daughters. My youth group grew from 8 people to over 60 people in one year — most of those people directly because of my invitation and influence. I had such a great confidence in everything I knew about God and how to share it that nobody could shake me. I was the guy who everyone looked at as "the perfect Christian."

The problem is: I wasn't a Christian. I was the one over-confident in my salvation. I thought I was saved, but a couple years later, after I had my first truly heart-changing moment of repentance before God, I started to realize that the person I used to be when I was doing all of those things was disgusting. God used it for good, but I was so arrogant and self-centered in my pursuit of God that there was nothing good in me. I was simply legalistically following the motions. Praise God if you're not where I was because it's far harder to lead someone toward a genuine relationship with Jesus who is like I was — a self-righteous moral faker — than to show most other types of people how to build that relationship from scratch.

So what do we do when we're in a position of doubting our salvation?

ONE — "I need more faith"

Some people believe that "more faith" is the answer. There is a misconception among most Christians that we are meant to "increase our faith" as we mature. Is it possible to increase your faith? Yes, absolutely. And it is a beautiful thing when this happens. But it is also very rarely carried out in the way Christians mean this. In fact, it's such a bizarre thought process that Jesus actually discourages this line of thinking.

In Luke 17:1-4, the disciples are struggling with some of Jesus' more difficult teachings. In 5-6 they ask him, "Lord, increase our faith!" They desperately wanted to believe and accept what he had to offer, but they just weren't there yet. Have you been there? I know I have. And I was like them — I asked God to increase my faith to accept and understand what was being said.

Oddly enough, instead of answering their question, Jesus says: Even the smallest known living organism [at that time a mustard seed] is enough faith to do great and mighty things — even the impossible — and more. Don't worry about increasing your faith or who has more faith or how much faith you need to get by. Even the smallest amount is more than you'll ever know what to do with. Just learn to use it.

And then in 1 Corinthians 3 we see that one man plants and another man waters, but it is God who makes it grow. If God wants your faith to grow, he'll make it grow. It's not your responsibility to learn how to increase your faith. Your responsibility is to live in light of your faith.

TWO — "Maybe I never had faith in the first place"

Many people wonder whether or not they have faith in the first place. "Faith" in the biblical definition doesn't make sense if not in the context of "faithfulness." Likewise, "trust" doesn't mean anything in the biblical sense without the concept of "entrusting." The jump from an intellectual understanding toward actually handing your life over to Jesus is a long one and it typically involves three steps.

First: Inspiration. This is when you discover something new at an intellectual level and it changes your perception of the world and life. You have been inspired. You have understood a fraction of what Jesus has to offer and you want it — but you don't know how to bridge the gap.

Second: Motivation. So, you start living as if the thing you're inspired to think about is genuinely true. You change a few things around in your life and make this new concept a priority. My guess is that this is as far as most people ever get.

Third: Transformation. At some point, the Holy Spirit uses the power and message of the Gospel of Jesus to transform you into a new creation altogether. As 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, "If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation. The old has gone, the new has come."

Jumping from the second to the third step is very difficult because we have no control over it. People can inspire you with new thoughts and motivate you with powerful concepts, but only God can transform a person. It happens in God's timing. That said, we do have the capacity to facilitate an openness and receptivity in our hearts to warmly welcome the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

THIRD — "What do I have to do to be able to live my life with confidence in my salvation?"

How can we facilitate the Spirit's transformation? By releasing in our hearts any control over our own lives, contenting ourselves to be satisfied in whatever position God chooses to place us. The thing that strikes me as most crucial in hindering most people's ability to be fully transformed is that they get hung up in their own goals. They want to have a decent job with a decent family, living in a decent house and eating a decent meal once in a while. "Is that too much to ask?" we think. This comes from an American notion of self-entitlement — a matter far too extensive to address in this article alone.

I used to say the same things before I was saved. Immediately before I had a genuine heart-change I had asked my discipler to teach me about the great men of the Bible so I could learn how to be like them, in the midst of my plan (at the time) to become a neurosurgeon, earning $500,000+ per year (I got into med school, but God called me elsewhere).

Like I did, most of you have plans for your life and you're getting really frustrated because God isn't fitting himself into the direction you've set for yourself. My discipler asked me: "How would you feel if God verbally called you to live in the desert for the rest of your life — at least another 70 years, never to see another living person again and never to have an impact on your world — and that nothing else you could possibly ever do with your life would give Him more glory than this?" At first I said I'd probably enjoy the peace and quiet for a while, but obviously in the end I said I'd be crushed, bored, lonely, depressed, etc. This is what he told me was my lie: that I believed that Satisfaction in Life = God + Something Else — and even worse, this was "obvious" to me. My "priority" was even right — I still put God as higher than that "something else," but the problem was that I shouldn't have "something else" as part of the equation at all. God alone is enough to fully satisfy.

That doesn't mean that we're to give up our dreams and go into full-time ministry. It simply changes the way we approach our life ambitions and why we're pursuing them. As Brother Lawrence said in Practice the Presence of God: "Our sanctification did not depend upon changing our works. Instead, it depended on doing that for God's sake which we commonly do for our own."

Initially I took this to mean: "Okay, so I'll make a lot of money so I can give it all to missionaries and the church," but this was still me trying to take control of my life. I was really thinking, "I need to have enough to provide for myself — even in some minimal way — then I'll trust God with all of the excess." I was still saying that I would maintain control of my life and God would get whatever bubbled over my bare necessities. God told me: "No, I want everything...and then you can trust me to meet your bare necessities." This was part of what led to a genuine heart transformation in my early walk.

FOURTH — "What if I've never felt secure in my faith?"

Assurance of Salvation is a concept that is often greatly misunderstood. A person can be genuinely saved without having any assurance. Likewise, a person can feel self-assured, but not be genuinely saved (as was my case for a long time, though I now have 100% confidence in the Lord on the issue of my salvation). Here is the over-simplified version of how assurance of salvation works in Scripture.

1. Repentance is a heart-issue (Acts 8:22), just as salvation is a heart-issue (Romans 2:29).

2. "Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). We can't know what happens at a heart level.

3. Because we can't know what happens at a heart level, Jesus gave us a physical test to determine if someone is genuine: "By their fruit you will recognize them" (Matthew 7:16, 20).

4. This is not a reference to the fruit of the Spirit, as Paul hadn't written Galatians yet; nor is it a reference to general good works, as this isn't found in the context of the passage or Jesus' other teachings on fruit, and also because "good works" are too easy to fabricate toward self-delusion, as with the people in the very next passage after Matthew 7:20. Jesus was clearly not advocating a works-based false assurance or some kind of psychic reading of a person's heart.

5. The fruit, by context of the passages before and after, relates to leading someone along the narrow road. In essence, evangelism and discipleship are the fruit (see also every parable where Jesus talks about plants and producing fruit for further verification).

6. Jesus clarifies this in the form of the great commission: "make disciples...baptize...teach them to obey." This is your fruit.

To be clear, evangelism and discipleship are not prerequisites to salvation. Rather, good fruit is the tangible test Jesus gives us to help us ascertain the genuineness of a person's faith — including your own. You can be saved without ever sharing your faith or discipling another believer. But without actively making strides to advance Jesus' Kingdom, you will have no fruit to assure you of the genuineness of your faith.

FIFTH — "No one knows I'm struggling with this"

I hear this a lot. People who doubt their salvation or God Himself are often too ashamed to let other believers know they're dealing with these doubts for fear that they would be shamed or looked down on as being "weak" in their faith. This is another issue I went through. During my junior year of college my mentor lovingly rebuked me for the fact that I had been in Bible studies and small groups with him and many others for 3 years by that point but had never once confessed a sin I was struggling with. That's because I still wanted everyone to think I had all my stuff together.

But then I started seeing Paul talk about how he would boast about his weaknesses! (2 Corinthians 12:9). I thought I was doing this by saying, "I'm not very good at this. I'm going to try to improve." But that was me really deflecting the issue. I had forgotten the Gospel. I forgot that although I had been saved I still needed Jesus because I was still sinning and still rejecting my faith, though I didn't know why.

It is when I began confessing my sins openly to people — and I mean boldly openly: on Facebook, in front of all the students in my ministry, with the guys I was spiritually mentoring, etc. — only then did my heart really soften to a point where God was able to begin the work that he had started a few years before in the salvation process.

As backwards as it is, telling people about how sinful you are and how much God has saved you is the most freeing thing in the world. The first time I had to have the conversation with my mom that I had struggled with pornography and masturbation seemed like the most terrifying experience — and she was appalled. But the only reason to withhold such confession is because you want people to think you don't do the thing you would otherwise confess to.

To that end, Paul says in Galatians 1:10: "Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ." If you have trouble sharing your struggles and doubts with others, this should be your life verse for the next year or two — and partly because you yourself are one of the "people" you're trying to please. Abandon all dignity so that you have nothing left but God to rest on, and he will surely lift you up. That is a promise (unless, of course, you're doing it to test God and not because you actually believe he will do it, as that would make you the double-minded man described in James 1:8).

Published 8-2-16