*For a deeper and far better treatment of this topic, I highly recommend reading Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart by J.D. Greear.*
At a recent student ministry panel hosted by my local Baptist association, a student anonymously sent in the following question: “Do I have to have a big salvation experience to be saved?” As someone who asked this same question many times as a pre-teen and teenager, I was eager to answer. If I had to guess, I would say many people in our churches, especially those saved at a young age, wrestle at some point with this question of “How can I know that I’m saved?” Maybe you have. To answer this question, we first have to look at what salvation is not.
The Trap of Emotionalism
I was baptized either just before or just after my sixth birthday (I can’t ever remember which). I attended basically everything my church ever did, volunteered, participated, the whole nine yards. But I remember, around 8th grade, starting to wonder if I was actually saved. I was so young, I thought. Did I know what I was doing? Did I pray the prayer with enough feeling? Did I mean it? Did it really work? I heard often about people’s dramatic life changes after salvation, but I was so young that I didn’t have one of those. As far as I can remember, I wasn’t very emotional when I prayed with my dad or at the moment of baptism. Some very well-meaning people I knew put a lot of emphasis on remembering the very moment they were born again and I couldn’t (and still can’t) even remember how old I was. And the more I thought about it, the more afraid I became. I came back from a youth conference closed out by a powerful Paul Washer’s sermon convinced that I wasn’t truly saved. I talked with my parents and prayed another prayer asking Jesus to forgive me and save me, but I still wasn’t convinced. I remember, at several church events where a pastor prayed as others repeated after him, praying that same prayer silently and hoping this would be the time that things felt different. But no matter how many times I prayed, how often I read my Bible, how much I was involved in my student ministry, I never really felt that dramatic change I was looking for. I would recite a silent prayer, then go home and realize that I didn’t have any glorious light or angelic choir following me. I still sinned. I still didn’t understand everything when I read my Bible. I still loved the church and the things of Christ, but I didn’t feel like I thought I should. I became frustrated, upset, and terrified that for all my effort, I would miss the boat when my life on Earth ended.
Without even knowing what it was, I had fallen into the trap of emotionalism. Last week, I discussed the consequences of tying worship to our emotions. The consequences become even more severe when we tie salvation to our emotions. The problem is that we live in a culture that pushes emotionalism on us constantly. Everything is dictated by how we feel about it. Destructive behavior is justified because it feels right. Marriages end because we don’t feel the way we used to. For me, and for many, this emotional approach to salvation kept me in constant doubt because I didn’t feel like I thought I should feel. I spent too much time focusing on my emotional state and not enough time resting in God’s character and promises. Salvation is not an emotional state. Lack of tears at the moment of conversion doesn’t mean it’s not authentic. Conversely, tears and goosebumps while praying a sinner’s prayer after a great morning of worship don’t mean it is authentic. We need something more solid than our emotions to stand on.
A Posture, Not a Prayer
As stated, salvation is not an emotional state. It is also not a sinner’s prayer. I’m convinced that hundreds of people will miss eternal life because they repeated a prayer without true conversion taking place. When I taught high school, I had an autographed Auburn University football helmet on my desk. One day, a student asked if it was mine and if I played at Auburn. Never being one to miss an opportunity to mess with students, I assured him, and the now-fully-engaged class, that it was mine from my time playing running back at Auburn. After a few minutes of letting everyone think I was much cooler than I actually am, I told them the truth: I did not, in fact, play running back at Auburn. Turns out Tommy Tuberville wasn’t looking for 5’8”, 125 lb. tailbacks. My point is this: I had an entire class of high schoolers convinced that I played football at Auburn, but if anyone had checked, my name would not be on any rosters. Saying I played at Auburn, and even convincing others that I did, didn’t make it true. Saying a thing doesn’t make it so.
By the same token, simply repeating a prayer and saying, “I’m a Christian now!” doesn’t make it so. Getting goosebumps and crying with the pastor doesn’t make it so. Because salvation isn’t a prayer. It isn’t an emotional state. It is an ongoing posture that we adopt at the moment of conversion and which continues throughout our lives. Consider 1 John 5:10-13.
“The one who believes in the Son of God has this testimony within himself. The one who does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony God has given about his Son. And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. The one who has the Son has life. The one who does not have the Son of God does not have life. I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
1 John was invaluable to me as I worked through my own questions regarding salvation. Here, John says he has written his book in order that those who believe may know that they have eternal life. What John reveals in his epistle is that salvation is characterized not by emotions or recitation of prayers, but by an ongoing life of belief and repentance.
Belief and Repentance
Since I cannot explain it any better than Pastor J.D. Greear, let me here summarize what he writes on the topics of belief and repentance in his book, Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart.
Many (or most) people would claim to believe in God, but there are different kinds of belief. James tells us that there is a belief in God that does not lead to salvation. In James 2:19, he writes that even the demons believe that God is one, and even tremble before Him. We know, however, that demons will not receive eternal life. This belief, this mental assent that God exists, doesn’t lead to salvation. So if that belief isn’t the kind of belief John is talking about, then what is? Pastor Greear describes Biblical belief as “the assumption of a new posture toward the Lordship of Christ and His finished work on the cross.” This belief, paired with repentance, involves not just mental affirmation of God’s existence, but action. It involves not only believing what the Bible says about Jesus, but believing it enough to rest in Him and to trust in His work on the cross, not a prayer or my works or my emotions, for salvation.
Repentance literally means “to change one’s mind.” This is the action that accompanies our belief, not as a secondary step or an extra-spiritual attachment, but as the other side of the coin. Belief is demonstrated by repentance; repentance flows from belief. Repentance is the act of surrendering your life, all of it, to the Lordship of Christ and turning away from a life that pursues sin, selfishness, and unrighteousness. Repentance is not momentarily feeling sorry about your sin or telling God he can have a few parts of your life. Repentance is total surrender to Christ’s Lordship. It is throwing yourself on the mercy of the only righteous Judge.
It is also, as Pastor Greear writes, not “the absence of struggle, but the absence of settled defiance.” It is “not just about stopping sin, but also about starting to follow Jesus.” No amount of repentance will ever lead to perfection. We will always struggle with sin. But as John explains in 1 John, the difference between a repentant man who stumbles and a defiant man who resists the Lordship of Christ is the difference in getting back up after tripping and being content to walk in darkness. As my former pastor described it, it’s the difference in stepping out of bounds with the basketball and putting on the other team’s jersey. A life lived in a posture of repentance will not be characterized by perfection, but by continual, genuine confession of sin, trust in the God who promised to faithfully forgive, and constant pursuit of spiritual growth.
How Can I Know That I’m Saved?
So how can you finally answer your question? How can you know if you are saved? First, avoid the trap of emotionalism. Your feelings do not determine your salvation or the status of your relationship with God. In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the title character writes to his nephew, Wormwood, on how to use emotions to distort a person’s prayers.
“Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing. When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.”
Lewis’ point here is the same as mine above: Emotions are deceptive and cannot be trusted. Don’t look to how you feel to determine if you are saved. Look at your life. Evaluate yourself and figure out where your hopes for eternal life rest. Is your life characterized by a posture of belief and repentance? Are you pursuing spiritual growth and formation knowing that no work of yours can earn God’s mercy or favor? Are you resting solely in Christ and His finished work on the cross? Do you find within yourself the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5)? If you do this and still wrestle, as I did, with not being able to remember a great, big, emotional moment of conversion, remember this excellent summary from Pastor Greear’s book: “Present posture is better proof than a past memory.” What is convincing of your salvation is not whether you remember the exact date of your baptism or how you felt when you walked the aisle. It is your present posture. My wife and I are lifelong Auburn fans and she explains this idea like this: She doesn’t remember becoming an Auburn fan. She can’t point to a moment when she went to her parents and said, “I want to commit myself to Auburn fanhood.” But she does know, without a doubt, that she is a fan now. You might not remember your moment of conversion, but you can know that you are pursuing a life of belief and repentance now. And that, John writes, is enough for you to know that you have eternal life.
*This is complex thing that only you can truly know about yourself, so I encourage you, if you have been wrestling with these questions, to spend time in serious prayer and reflection. Ask God to reveal truth to you about yourself good or bad. Counsel with your pastor or another trusted advisor. No decision you make will ever be more important.*