Many years ago a friend with whom I shared the gospel of Christ was interested in becoming a Christian. He asked me how it could happen. I suggested that he get alone with God, open the door of his life, pray and tell God what he needed God to do for him, and ask Jesus to come into his life and save him. About a week later he told me that he did what I suggested, but nothing happened. I asked, “What did you expect to happen?” He said he thought there would be some kind of lightning from the sky, some kind of feeling that God had saved him. I responded that we are not saved by some kind of feeling or bolt of lightning, but by our faith in what Christ has done for us and by faith in His promise to live in us if we ask Him. When I asked him if he sincerely invited Christ to come into his life and save him, he said “yes”. My reply was, “Then Christ must have done what He said He would do – He came into your life. Jesus said that ‘those who believe in Me…I will be in them’. (John 17:20, 23) Do you believe He did what He promised?” The last I heard, he was still persevering and growing in the faith. But how would my friend know if he was truly converted and if Christ really did save him? There may be an immediate knowing by faith, but from our human perspective, the longer term answer is that such knowledge comes about when a transformation is seen to be taking place in the person’s life. On the question of how you tell a true believer from a false, Jesus said, “By their fruit you shall know them”. (Matthew 7:13-23) Some profess to know God, but their deeds show that they deny him. (Titus 1:16) The implication being that faith is seen by how it is lived out. (James 2:14-18)
Can we know our conversion is real and that we are going to be in heaven some day? Some people think that this is not for us to know. We just have to wait and see and hope we make it. It seems to me that there are two extremes which we want to avoid in our quest for certainty about our salvation. One extreme is that, due to our desire for 100% certainty, we could become so worried and fearful and doubtful that we have no peace and rest in our soul. The other extreme is that we are not worried and fearful enough so that we may miss heaven altogether. There is reason for this concern. Jesus said that when He appears, many will say to Him, “Lord, Lord”, indicating that they believe they personally know Him and are glad He has come. But Jesus will say to them, “Depart from Me, I never knew you.” (Matthew 7:21-23) Have you ever struggled with doubts about your salvation? I have. Doubts can be good when they cause us to struggle so that we develop a more solid faith. They can be bad when they cause us to go the other way. Persons who are teetering should not give up the faith too easily without taking time and effort to search for answers to their questions.
What can cause doubts? A variety of causes come to mind. Sometimes ideas in books that we read can cause us to doubt what we believe. Another cause comes from things people say that can get us to question our faith. For example, “Religion is only a man-made crutch for the weak”, or, The Bible is full of errors and cannot be trusted as reliable”. We may think those comments to be true and thus we begin to doubt our faith. Some of us are caused to doubt by being uncertain of the facts. Did Christ really live and die and rise again to guarantee new life, or is all that stuff only a fairy tale? What if Christianity is not true? (1 Corinthians 15:17) Others may doubt that they are saved because they still see the awful things they have done in their own lives and have a hard time believing God could forgive them. What if, after all, I find out God has not forgiven me? What if I am only fooling myself? If we have doubts that bother us, how can we get past them?
The apostle Paul challenges us with an intriguing statement: “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves. Or do you not recognize this about yourselves; that Jesus Christ is in you – unless you indeed fail the test.” (2 Corinthians 13:5) I would like to explore some of the ways we can test ourselves to see if our faith is genuine and to see if Christ is in us. These can become mind-settling signs to us that we have entered God’s kingdom and will one day be in heaven. The apostle John in his first letter tells us we can know for sure that we are going to heaven (1 John 5:13) and so we will examine his letter for the ways we can test ourselves to see if we are in the faith.
But before we get to John’s letter, let’s consider what kind of faith we need to examine in ourselves to see if it is real. Since Abraham is called the father of our faith (Galatians 3:7), and is a model of faith, a brief glimpse of his life will help us to understand the kind of faith we are to have in order to be saved. God made some promises to Abraham. These included that God would give him a future land to inherit, that God would make him into a great nation, and that God would bless the whole world through his seed, beginning with a son that he would have by his wife, Sarah. (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-6; Romans 4:20-22) This seemed impossible to Abraham, especially since he and Sarah were past the age of being able to have children, but Abraham believed God and God counted his faith as righteousness. This means that God declared Abraham to be saved because of his faith. We need a faith that believes God and God’s promises, because, like Abraham, we could never bring about God’s promises by our own efforts. Examine yourself. Have you believed God and His promise that only through God’s son, Jesus Christ, can you be saved? (Acts 4:12; 16:30-31) Do you trust Jesus to save you, or do you trust your own efforts to bring it about? Do you think that because you have been a good person, God will save you? Not so. Faith means turning your life over to the care of Christ because you know you cannot save yourself. Are you convinced that only by Him can you be saved? When we say “turning your life over to Christ” we do not mean simply to believe with our minds that He is the Savior, but to actually put ourselves in His care, trusting Him that He will save us. It is like the difference between standing on the shore of a lake believing with your mind that a boat can take you across, or trusting the boat to take you across by actually getting into it and letting it take you. In this case, getting into the boat means obeying Jesus by inviting Him to come into our lives and by letting Him be the leader we follow. We commit our life to Jesus and let Him take us where we cannot take ourselves. Sometimes to trust another person is not easy because in this life our trust has been violated by abuses or failed promises. But learning to trust a faithful promise-keeping God is worth the risk.
We turn now to the first letter of the apostle John. He has written to us who believe in the name of the son of God, so that we may know that we have eternal life. (1 John 5:13) What things does he say are indicators that we are truly converted and saved and going to heaven? In the book, “Assurance”, author R. Gene Reynolds points out that John presents vital signs of God’s life in us. He likens these to our physical vital signs. Just as we check our physical selves for signs of life by checking our pulse, blood pressure, respiration, body temperature, and eye pupil dilation… so we check our spiritual life by looking at the signs of life described in John’s letter. Gene Reynolds says that he anxiously sought for freedom from his doubts until he found peace through these Scriptures. Following are the vital signs of spiritual life from the writings of the apostle John . When we see these signs in our lives we gain a sense of confidence and peaceful assurance that Christ is in us, saving us.
Let me be clear before beginning – these are signs of life, not efforts to earn life. These are behaviours we find ourselves doing because Christ has given us new life and hearts through our conversion. It is possible that a person who is not a true believer can duplicate some of these signs. In such case the motives are self-oriented rather than Christ-oriented, or if Christ-oriented, they are out of a sense of duty to earn God’s gift of life. We as true believers may have mixed motives, some out of love for Christ and others out of self interest, but God will continue to refine us. (Philippians 1:6) Here are the Biblical signs of spiritual life in us:
1. A lifestyle of willing and loving obedience to God. (1 John 2:3-6) A true believer possessing God’s Spirit has a new heart that wants to practice God’s will. God’s will is made up of His universal morals, His Spirit-communicated promptings to our inner self, and Jesus’ teachings found in the Bible. Professing believers can examine their lives to see if loving obedience to God is how they have been living. This does not mean we obey 100% of the time. (1 John 2:1) At times we may be guilty of disobedience, but when we disobey, we come to know it and seek to correct it. (1 John 1:8-9) It seems like a contradiction to read John’s words which say that a true believer does not, or cannot sin. (1 John 3:6-9 compared to 1 John 1:8-2:2) This does not say that a Christian never sins. It means that our new spiritual nature in Christ cannot sin if we are walking in the Spirit. And walking in the Spirit means that we are motivated to not continually and wilfully practice the same habitual sins that have been plaguing our lives. Instead, we find ourselves with an attitude of wanting to please God and working to overcome the wrongs in our lives. I have messed up many times in my Christian life. But the Spirit of God “bugs” me until I obey God and do my part to make those things right by learning to walk in the Spirit. A fact to consider is that these teachings about not sinning are emphatic statements that tell us we must take sin as a serious offence against God and not treat it lightly. We cannot flippantly say that it is ok to keep doing something wrong because God will forgive us. I do wrong, and no matter how many times I may repeat the same sin, it must sincerely be accompanied by remorse, repentance, asking for forgiveness, making restitutions, and putting forth a plan and effort to not repeat. The key question is: As I look at my overall life, do I see a willing heartfelt desire and effort to obey the Lord? Can I think of a number of specific times in my life when I have demonstrated that this is true? What were my motives for obeying the Lord?
One of Abraham’s specific times to see if true spiritual life was in him was when God asked him to obey by sacrificing his only son, Isaac, on an altar. Sometimes the things God wants us to do are very hard. Abraham showed that God’s life was in him by doing what God wanted him to do. (Genesis 22) Incidentally, Abraham’s act of willing obedience to God has an added instructional purpose for us. It serves as a picture to future generations of how Jesus, as the Lamb of God, would one day save all who trust Him, by substituting His life for ours. It is hinted at in the Bible that this event may have occurred at the same place Jesus would later be crucified. (Genesis 22:2 and 2 Chronicles 3:1)
2. We know that we are truly converted when we love other believers. (1 John 3:14) Because many people think of church as dry Sunday morning meetings, or people with judgemental attitudes, they have misunderstandings of what the Lord’s church is all about. Admittedly, the church is sometimes to be blamed for people’s withdrawal, but when people withdraw, they will have a hard time convincing others that they are truly a part of God’s family. (1 John 2:19) While it is true that many people, for various and often good reason, have a hard time with churches; yet the church, as defined in the Bible, is where God’s people hang out. We are commanded in the Bible to love one another. (1 John 4:7) Paul in a letter to a church commended them by saying, “the love of each one of you toward one another grows greater.” (2 Thessalonians 1:3) How is it possible for this to happen when there is little or no contact with God’s family? Our love for other Christians may be lacking at times, and there always seem to be certain individuals who are troublesome to us; but on the whole, there are many very loving and non-judgemental relationships in the church. The command to be involved with each other is plainly taught in the Bible and it is an area that Christ followers will be led to improve. Excuses that we are not “people persons” do not carry valid weight for being a loner. Understandably, some cannot get to church meetings, but they still find ways to be bless other believers. Christ’s community is all over the earth. A true believer can go anywhere in the world, and when he or she meets another believer, there is a special heart-felt bond that is present. Whenever we are with other believers, no matter where it is, we sense our oneness. Our love makes us willing to lay down our lives for each other (1 John 3:16) and to help meet our fellow believer’s needs. (1 John 3:17) Let’s examine ourselves: Do we have Christian friends? Do we sense a special love between us due to our belonging to God? Are we helping our fellow believers in their times of need? Do we encourage each other in our faith? How do I see myself loving others in the church?
3. The Holy Spirit, given us at conversion, enables us to know that Christ abides in us. (1 John 3:24) We have certain knowledge that He is present in us. And if Christ abides in us, then we possess God’s kind of life. (1 John 5:11-12) And if we possess Divine life, then that life will show in how we live.
Here are a number of other ways presented in John’s letter which show that Christ abides in us. If Christ abides in us we will experience the following:
(1) We will have the love of God the Father in us so that we do not love the ungodly ways of the world. (1 John 2:15-17)
(2) We will accept the writings of the apostles as the way to know truth and thus avoid being deceived by lies. (1 John 4:6, 26-27) Do we have a genuine interest and determination to discover what is in the Bible and to learn from it?
(3) We will confess that Jesus is the Son of God, our Lord and Savior. (1 John 4:14-15) What things do we do publicly to confess Jesus to be a priority in our life? This can be done in many ways: through our public baptism, by avoiding use of the same kind of foul language as others around us, praying before meals, or telling people that we believe in Jesus. An elderly man, who could not hear anything, faithfully attended church. I asked him why he came since he could not hear anything. His response, “I just want people to know whose side I’m on.” He was confessing Jesus as Lord.
(4) We will know and believe the love that God has for us. (1 John 4:16) To know deep within our souls that God loves us and that nothing can separate us from that love is perhaps the greatest stabilizing element we could have in life. Knowing God’s love can keep us sane and encouraged in times of trouble. (Romans 8:35-39)
(5) We will have confidence that in the Day of Judgement we do not have to fear God’s punishment (1 John 4:17-18; 2:28). Do we have any fear of God’s future judgement? Do we feel loved, forgiven, and accepted by God?
It may take awhile for all of these signs of life to take hold and grow in us, revealing to ourselves and others our faith and life in Christ. And, we will be up and down and sometimes feel we are not making any progress. But as we stay with it, we can look back and see that our lives have, and are being, changed. The ultimate change is yet to come.
What part do emotions play in one’s conversion and miracle of Divine life? Emotions vary from person to person depending on personalities, life’s experiences, and on the circumstances surrounding conversion. But think of two people who need rescuing from the water. One is able to tread while waiting for help and the other one is struggling and desperate. When the two are rescued, the struggling one feels much deeper gratitude and emotion because that person’s struggle and agony was greater. It is like Jesus once said, “a person who is forgiven little, loves little, but a person who is forgiven much, loves much.” (Luke 7:47) The miracle of being converted can feel different to different people, but feeling, or lack thereof, does not determine the reality of the conversion. It is a person’s faith and resulting godly lifestyle that determines the reality of conversion. Our sense of assurance comes from faith in Christ and His acts to save us, and from seeing the evidences in our lives that our faith and conversion is genuine.
Some believe that once a person is saved, that person can never lose eternal life. While this may be true, people can lose the assurance or confidence to know that they are saved. If they claim an experience of believing in Christ and that they are saved, but do not experience the ever growing signs of Spirit-filled life described in the Bible, then there is little reason they can be assured of going to heaven. They need to be concerned that they may not be saved and take steps to make sure. If we are genuinely converted by God’s grace through faith so that Christ Jesus lives in us, the signs defined in John’s letter will become, and be seen to be, a part of our lives.