Of course, I don’t have an infallible litmus test; only God does. Only God knows a person’s heart. So I gladly reserve to God the final say about whether someone has genuinely experienced his love and received the Holy Spirit in regeneration.
However, occasionally I have to pull out this admittedly fallible litmus test and use it to evaluate the authenticity of someone’s Christian faith.
But it only works in certain situations. I’m amazed, however, how often that situation arises. I’ve used this for over thirty years now whenever someone confronts me about the issue of hell.
The typical scenario falls out something like this (and it actually happened again recently):
A person who claims to be a mature, knowledgeable Christian attacks ANY idea that God might forgive ANYONE without their explicit knowledge of Jesus Christ (by name) and confession of him as Lord (by name). And the person suggests that anyone who thinks otherwise might not be a Christian or at least is not an evangelical Christian.
Because people know or suspect I’m an inclusivist (who reserves the right to interpret that my own way which is not necessarily the same as some other people’s way) they come up to me after I talk or they contact me via e-mail or whatever to assert restrictivism as the only biblical view.
Usually, somewhere in the conversation the person (as happened recently) claims that IF there is any hope of salvation for the unevangelized, that would undermine missions and evangelism. Then I pull out my litmus test question:
“If God revealed to you in a way you could not deny that, indeed, many will be forgiven who never hear the gospel from a human missionary or evangelist, what would be your response with regard to missions and evangelism?”
It’s amazing how many people who claim to be born again immediately (as recently) say something like “I wouldn’t bother with it anymore.”
My response is always to press further before making a decision (which I usually keep to myself) about the authenticity of the person’s Christianity. For example: “Really? So you don’t think there’s any reason to tell people about Jesus Christ other than to save them from going to hell?”
At that point most will pull back a little and says something like, “Well, maybe, but not enough to risk my life.” (This is what my most reason interlocutor said by way of response.)
My sad conclusion then is that such a person knows Jesus only in their head and not really in their heart. They may be forgiven, but I cannot believe they have experienced God inwardly. (Do I sound like a Pietist? Thank you. I am one. 🙂
If at this point you’re hesitating and thinking “Boy, Roger sounds very judgmental here,” let me be clear: I don’t think I’d question someone’s salvation based on that alone, but stop and ask yourself what it means to be “saved.” Is “salvation” just enjoying God’s forgiveness and that’s all? Is salvation just being forgiven so that you have “fire insurance?” Or is there more to salvation than that?
This, I think, is directly relevant to my most recent post here about “Renewalism.” To me, Renewalism is the belief that salvation involves more than just fire insurance; it involves receiving the new life, abundant life, accompanied by joy, peace and love that God imparts when someone is truly converted to Jesus Christ.
IF a person really believes that there would be no reason to risk his or her life to share the good news of Jesus Christ with people who MIGHT be forgiven without hearing the message of the gospel from a human missionary or evangelist, then I question whether that person has experienced salvation in its fullness.
In other words, I am arguing that full salvation, and therefore true Christianity, involves MORE than merely being forgiven; it involves being transformed (not perfected). This is so “everywhere” in the New Testament (and in the Psalms!) that it doesn’t even need proof texting.
Every first year Christian college student knows that “eternal life” is not just an eschatological category; it is a gift received now in regeneration, in the experience of being “born again.” It is not just “living forever;” it is receiving the life of God inwardly through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Presumably, a person can be “just forgiven” so that if they die they “go to heaven.” But that is not “true Christianity” or the full gospel. A person might repent and believe and ask God for forgiveness and never, for whatever reason, experience the fullness of what God has to give them in love, joy and peace–a transformed personal existence.
What’s my biblical basis for this? For one, the entire book of The Acts of the Apostles! It contains many examples of people who had a right relationship with God (e.g., Cornelius) who had not yet received the fullness of God’s transforming love and power in their lives. The apostles were concerned that such people receive the fullness of salvation and not settle for forgiveness.
It is one thing to be forgiven (as Wesley surely was before his Aldersgate Street experience) and something else entirely to “know the joy of sins forgiven.”
So back to my “litmus test.” It isn’t so much a test to decide whether a person is forgiven and “on their way to heaven.” It is much more a test to decide whether the person even understands the fullness of salvation. A person who says there is no particular reason to take the name of Jesus and the whole gospel to people who MIGHT already be forgiven proves he or she does not understand experiential salvation.
God does not want to merely forgiven people; he wants to change them by imparting abundant, eternal life which always manifests in a “holy personality” (Donald G. Bloesch). Whether one can experience perfection in this before bodily death is debatable. But I don’t consider it debatable whether it is what real Christianity is about.
So what if God revealed to you in a way you could not deny that EVERYONE is forgiven? On the cross Jesus suffered the penalty for all sin so that God’s “Yes” is to everyone even if they don’t know it? (Barth) Would that change your view about missions and evangelism? If it would make you less passionate about them, then I am suggesting you have not experienced the fullness of what God has provided for you. You may be forgiven, you may have your “fire insurance policy,” but you probably haven’t experienced abundant life.
I fear that American evangelicals have focused too exclusively on salvation as forgiveness (resulting in a life of striving to learn and serve) and too little on holistic salvation as experiencing God inwardly in a transforming way that results in the fruit of the Spirit if not the gifts of the Spirit.