Are You Saved?

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.

A Letter from Hell, and Self-Reinforcing Beliefs
My Kindergartener Knows What It Means to Be Transgender (and the Sky Hasn't Fallen)
A Matter of Patriarchy
Red Town, Blue Town
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Sara Amis

    I think that "faith not works" idea is poisonous in all kinds of ways. It reduces Christianity down to one self-absorbed question: "Will I escape hell?" Not "am I a good neighbor? am I kind?" etc. It turns the psyche inward and is its own undoing.It's true that someone can do good things for the wrong reasons if they think it's all for some celestial scoreboard. But the pragmatist in me feels that I'd rather see someone donate to a food bank or volunteer at a homeless shelter because they think it will contribute to their own salvation than not do it at all.

  • Anne —

    I always feared I wasn't saved. I prayed the sinner's prayer more often than I can count too…and would sometimes go to sleep terrified I'd die in the night and go to hell because I wasn't "good enough"…it wasn't SAID I wasn't good enough but it was definitely implied and felt (and sometimes that's stronger than words).

  • Incongruous Circumspection

    My wife and I were so very disappointed in the ending. We wanted more of a conclusion than just a teen angst thoughtfulness piece.All jest aside, we are coming to a different understanding of belief in God as we move forward. One day soon, we will be rejected by almost everyone we used to know for our heresy.Also, the meat in this post displays the circular reasoning and dire contradictions in the whole salvation message that is preached in all areas of fundamentalism. The repetition, stated in a myriad of ways was excellent.

  • Libby Anne

    Incongruous – Well, if you want more of an ending, I think I would just say that my parents thought they were making things simple and easy with the idea of salvation through faith, but they weren't. It was still complicated. I think I would have preferred the Calvinist approach to salvation – "I can't know" – or the Catholic approach – "I'm working on it." Today, I have a big problem with my parents' ideas of how salvation occurs. Why would faith matter and deeds not? What is so special about *faith*? Why would Jesus not choose to die for *everyone*? Why would he condemn people who are trying their hardest to do what is right just because they never hear his name or learn of his sacrifice? It makes no sense at all. I actually like the Catholic approach a lot better. They teach that what matters is not whether you've heard of Jesus, but rather your heart attitude. Someone who is trying to do the right thing but never hears of or understands Jesus' sacrifice will still be saved, because Jesus died for ALL. Catholics also see deeds as meaningful, something that works hand in hand with faith. This makes a lot more sense to me!

    • Stephen

      Well, we’d love to have you in the Church! Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read your description of yourself as a feminist, and I’m guessing that you disagree with many of the Church’s positions. Maybe you do already know a lot about Catholicism- but maybe not? I come to your blog trying to understand more about atheism, and see from your perspective. Far from wanting to force your conversion, I just want to hear your thoughts on Catholic doctrines. And I’m definitely not here to troll. I just want to say, there’s a lot more sound thinking where our doctrine of salvation comes from.

      • Libby Anne

        See the following links for more of my thoughts on and explorations of Catholicism: here, here, here, and here.

  • Anonymous

    I really like how you summed up the Catholic take on salvation in your above comment. My parents raised us Catholic (along with all the weird quiverful/patriarchal/dominionism beliefs that are much more in line with Vision Forum than the Catholic church.) There may have been lots of things wrong with the way my parents parented–they certainly used the bible to justify abuse and twisted a lot of the teachings of the Catholic church to make them fit what they wanted to believe and do. But I never did have to worry that I was going to lose my salvation, because it was a process to be worked toward by living a good life and doing the best you could. I've often heard others raised in other Christian faiths express that they had the same fears as you as a child. I find the belief that your parents have mind boggling, and think it would be very unsettling for a child. kateri @Dandelion Haven

  • Fina

    Keep in mind that Religion always appears simple IF you do not think about it.That's because it makes it easy to sell it as an idea – the Religions that are apparently simpler are the biggest in the world.I have no idea how many people ever start to think about their faith. The Churches certainly do not encourage it amongst the "flock", because it'd drive people away. Widespread education leads to more people starting to think, so faith-rates generally drop.At any rate you're certainly a person that loves to think and question things, and no simple faith could every satisfy such an inquiring mind. That's why we eventually invented science ;)

  • Ava

    When I was about 12 and trying to become a Christian for real (I had been baptized when I was 9 but later decided I hadn't really believed), I had panic attacks where I could barely breathe and was paralyzed with fear that my prayers for salvation were not genuine. And yes, there were lots of prayers for salvation and prayers begging God to never let me stop being saved during my 3 to 4 year stint as a very fervent Christian.

  • Incongruous Circumspection

    I agree, Libby Anne. That's pretty much where we are at this point. Jesus' sacrifice as a universal act. Great follow-up, by the way.

  • Erika Martin – Stampin’ Mama

    Oh my word….do your parents actually listen to themselves talk? What a run around for such a simple thing. So full of contradictions and holes. Yikes!

  • Jenna

    I can definitely relate to praying "the prayer" over and over and over again.I was a very quiet, shy "good" kid. Pretty much the only sin I got accused of was dishonesty and even then it was usually an accidental lie because I was so shy that I would get uncomfortable and flustered easily. Since you are not allowed to just think of yourself as a pretty good person, I was always digging for sins to confess, because if I couldn't think of any, they were probably hidden. I came up with this complex that my thoughts and motivations must be really evil inside and that I had to work really hard to identify these so-called sins so that I could confess them and get really saved.Great post – you really explain what goes into this salvation anxiety, especially for a kid.

  • Libby Anne

    Jenna – "Since you are not allowed to just think of yourself as a pretty good person, I was always digging for sins to confess, because if I couldn't think of any, they were probably hidden." This, this, this! This was me too! I really didn't HAVE any sins, beyond getting upset with my siblings from time to time, etc. I actually used to envy people who became Christians after living a life of swearing, anger, tattoos, and sex, because then they would actually have something for Jesus to forgive them for.

  • Libby Anne

    Jenna – I also like how you gave this complex a name: "salvation anxiety." I think it fits!

  • Jenna

    Libby – Totally with you there. I was so jealous of real sinners who had a good story to tell. My "testimony" was boring as hell.