There are a wide range of views of what constitutes salvation, from the Catholic view that people must work out their salvation, backing up their faith with deeds, to the Calvinist view that people cannot even know if they are saved because God determined who would be saved and who would not before anyone was actually born. My parents taught me that salvation comes only from believing in Jesus and praying the sinner’s prayer, and that we can therefore be sure of our salvation. And to a large extent I was. And yet, there were still these niggling doubts.
Even as my parents taught that we could be certain of our salvation and preached freedom in Jesus, the way to salvation was really pretty specific. The only way to be saved was to believe that you were guilty of sin and were saved through Jesus’ death on the cross, and that alone. My parents told me that Christians who believed that works of any sort were required for salvation were not saved, even if they spent their entire lives serving Jesus. Similarly, Christian individuals not sufficiently aware of their guilt were not saved. In order to be saved, then, we had to not only believe that salvation came from Jesus alone but also guard our thoughts so as not to think that our deeds contributed to our salvation or that we were actually decent people.
Given the particularities of belief, one could profess belief in Jesus and yet not be saved. Yet only that person themself could truly know if they really believed that they were saved by Jesus’ death alone, the requirement for salvation. Practically, though, my parents taught that you could generally tell a believer by the way he or she acts (though again, actions and deeds played no part in salvation). Someone who was saved would exhibit the fruits of the spirit and live a godly life. Therefore, anyone who professed belief in Jesus but lived a worldly, sinful life was not saved, because if they were really saved, they’d act like it. This meant that there were a lot of professing Christians, Christians who claimed to believe that they were saved through Christ’s blood alone, who were not really saved.
Furthermore, my parents believed that you could lose your salvation if you stopped believing. This was a frightening prospect. Belief can be a hard thing to measure. What did it mean to “believe”? To say you believed? To feel like you believed? To believe based on evidential proof? And what if your actions did not back up what you said you believed? What if you were mean to your siblings and hateful to your mother? Did that mean you really didn’t believe? “Belief” can become a very slippery concept, and I was sometimes afraid I couldn’t quite hold onto it. And the consequences of not believing were great: eternal torture in hell.
But it was even more complicated than that. You see, when someone who had once been a Christian backslid or left Christianity, my parents generally did not say he had lost his salvation. Instead, they said that he must never have been saved in the first place. This was terrifying. This meant that someone could say they believed in Jesus, believe they believed in Jesus, act like they believed in Jesus, and yet not be truly saved. I don’t think my parents realized how much this made me nervous about my own salvation. I thought I was saved, yes, I tried my best to believe and really thought I did, yes, but what if I was just imagining all that?
I prayed the sinner’s prayer so many times I lost count. I tried so very hard to mean it and was nevertheless afraid maybe I didn’t. I took my concerns to my mother, and she told me that if I was worrying about my salvation that meant I was saved, because someone who wasn’t saved wouldn’t worry about their salvation. That helped, but I couldn’t help but remember that people could completely think they were saved and turn out to never have been saved at all.
I don’t want it to sound like I lived in constant fear for my salvation. I didn’t. Most of the time I was completely confident of it and I lived my life with gusto. There were those moments, though, when the doubts would creep in. Not doubts of the divinity of Jesus, infallibility of the Bible, or truth of Christianity, but simply doubts of my own sincerity in praying the sinner’s prayer. Did I really believe I was a despicable sinner? Did I really believe my works didn’t count, and that I was only saved through Christ’s blood? Did I really believe at all, or was I deluding myself? While my parents preached confidence of salvation, the idea that I could lose my salvation or, worse, turn out to never have had it, bothered me.
I have to say, though, these concerns make sense. My parents taught that only belief in Jesus (not actions, not deeds) brought salvation, and that any who did not believe would be tortured for eternity in hell. They also said that those who were saved would live like they were saved, and that you could lose your salvation or turn out to have never been saved. This made believing the correct thing incredibly important, and it also made living a godly life important, for if you didn’t you probably weren’t actually saved, even if you thought you were. Yet even while striving to live a godly life, you had to make sure that you were completely aware of your sinfulness and never started thinking that you were actually a good person, because then you would be believing in your own works and not in Jesus. It also meant you could never be really completely sure you were saved, because it was possible you didn’t actually mean it, even if you thought you did.
For preaching the simplicity that salvation comes only through faith in Jesus, my parents actually made it amazingly complicated. Or maybe I’ve just always been prone to over thinking things.