decisions, decisions

What if you don’t recall the hour of your “decision for Christ”? Or, as this old article at Christianity Today asks, “How can I know I’m a Christian if I can’t remember when I first responded to the gospel?”

The question reveals, I think a faulty view of salvation and assurance of salvation. In light of our recent discussion of revivalism here, I thought the article asked an interesting question.

The whole idea of a “decision for Christ” is largely a revivalistic phenomenon. As the article says:

Much of American Protestantism has been influenced by revivalism, which places great emphasis on "making a decision for Christ" in a public, definitive way. These "moments of decision" often become the crucial evidence that one is saved. Other Protestant traditions, less influenced by revivalism (including some Reformed and Lutheran churches), may be content to leave the conversion experience unclearly identified, putting the focus on identification with the church. Both of these traditions have benefits, as well as potential problems.

In a recent comment, our e-friend Tracy makes a good point, I believe:

If I’m preaching to lost folks, I preach Christ crucified and call for them to close with Christ immediately and publicly. Before I close, I tell them if they have any questions, either they can come to the front at the invitation time or they can see me after the service. I always stress that Christ desires their immediate salvation. So I declare the gospel, spell out its terms, and call them to close with it.

I agree with that. We need to call folks to decisions.

But what about some who can’t remember the specifics of their decision? (Perhaps it was a long time ago, perhaps it was when they were very young, perhaps they remember bits, or perhaps they remember nothing at all.)

Sometimes we have the phenomenon of people (often young children) doubting their salvation ‘decision’. Did I really trust Christ then? Am I really saved? This can lead to multiple decisions – where someone suggests that there is nothing wrong with making sure of one’s salvation right now, so a new prayer is prayed and a new hope of assurance is formed based on a new decision. Or it can lead to someone assuring the concerned based on a past decision: Don’t you remember that prayer you prayed? Did you mean it then? Did God hear your prayer?

Both of these approaches, though well meaning, may lead to other problems. Some believers become very confused over multiple decisions and fail to progress because of a very unsettled mental state about their salvation. Others rely on their prayer as if it is almost a magic formula. As long as they ‘said the right words to God’, they are good to go.

The CT article concludes this way:

For those who question their salvation, the best evidence is not the memory of having raised a hand or prayed a prayer. Nor is it having been baptized or christened. The true test of the authentic work of God in one’s life is growth in Christ-like character, increased love for God and other people, and the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-25; James 2:18). A memorable conversion experience may serve as an important referent to God’s saving work in one’s life. But the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in making a person more like Jesus is the clearest indicator that one has been made a new creation in Christ.

This is reasonably good advice, but I think more should be said. One searching question to ask is this: What are you relying on in order to have salvation? To put it another way, “If you were to stand before God right now and he were to ask you, ‘why should I let you into my heaven’, what would you say?” (To coin a phrase!!)

Why is this question relevant?

It is relevant because if one’s assurance is based on his works – his character, his visible love for God, his love for the brethren – is he relying on Christ or on his own works?

Or if one’s assurance is based on the prayer he prayed (the decision, or the memory of a decision), is he relying on the fact of having said the right words to God (a work) or is he relying on Christ?

For myself, I remember praying for salvation from sin on a certain occasion. My father told me that it came after weeks of spiritual turmoil and an inability on my part to understand that I was a sinner and needed to be saved, just like anybody else. (I wasn’t old enough to be that bad, or so I must have thought.) But at some point, I came to understand that I, even I, was a sinner and had no right to stand before God. I understood that I needed the work of Christ alone to save me from my sin, so I prayed to receive it.

Following that decision, I at times doubted my salvation. This usually came at points where I found myself under conviction for the presence of ongoing sin or under the periodic depressions associated with growing up.

Personally, I found assurance of salvation in two sources. First, in the promises of God in the Bible. The Bible says, “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Did I call? Yes. Then God’s promise is salvation. I depend on God’s word, not my own experience. Second, in answer to the question posed above, I would say I am trusting in the finished work of Christ alone, nothing else for my salvation. My answer to God’s hypothetical entrance examination is, “Jesus died for me.” I have no assurance based on my own experience. I have seen too many failures in my life and others to have much confidence in that route.

To answer the question of the CT article, “How can I know I’m a Christian if I can’t remember when I first responded to the gospel?” my answer is: Jesus Christ and the promises of God. Are you trusting in Jesus Christ alone to save you from sins? Then rest assured. The promises of God say you have eternal life.

don_sig2

Comments

  1. Brian Ernsberger says:

    Thanks for the article Don. Timely reminder for all of us.

  2. Chris Rea says:

    The older I get, the more I run into this – those who have no “moment of decision” but rather came to Christ through a gradual process over many years and can’t pinpoint the moment of their conversion. It is an interesting dilemna for a “four spiritual laws” and “pray this prayer” evangelical. The scripture seems clear that we only control one moment of time, and that’s right now. Put your faith in Jesus right now.

    • It is unlikely that people come to Christ through a ‘many year’ process. I would want to closely examine such folks for a more clear understanding of salvation.

      I should make it clear that I oppose the use of the ‘four spiritual laws’ entirely. They are an extremely flawed method of presenting the gospel. Many of those who ‘make a commitment’ or ‘pray this prayer’ based on their use have never been taught the gospel. They don’t understand that they are a sinner. To use Facebook parlance, they have ‘friended’ Jesus, but they haven’t turned from their sin to the Saviour in many instances.

      I also repudiate the term evangelical. While it does refer historically to things that I believe in, in current usage it identifies people with a ministry philosophy I am entirely opposed to.

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  3. Keith says:

    “It is unlikely that people come to Christ through a ‘many year’ process.”

    How, why, by what standard?

    I’d say it’s actually the most common, normal way that people come to Christ. It’s only unlikely when we define away the possibility and expect some sort of crisis. When we do that, then what do you know, everybody comes up with a crisis. Even those that have been raised in the church.

    Now, you return the questions back at me . . .

    The problem is from what perspective are we talking? The time OF God’s decree? Well then, everyone came to Christ before they were formed in their mothers womb. The time WHICH God decreed we would be regenerate? A definite time even though perhaps not clearly recognized by us. The time when we became conscious of our faith? For some at a crisis point, for some a time lost in the haze of early childhood.

    There are many, many Christians who — when free to say so — never remember a time in which they did not believe. Of course, they recognize that their understanding and maturity in the faith have grown. However, from before clear memories they have understood and believed “enough.”

    • Hi Keith

      I won’t quibble with you about the process of time question. I recognize that many Christians never remember a time in which they did not believe. I think that I would fall in that category, although I do have memories of various experiences before I came to believe. I also do remember a crisis experience as I wrestled with understanding what it meant to be a sinner and why Jesus had to die because of my sins. When I understood, I consciously put my faith in Christ to save me from my sins. I was five years old and the memory is as vivid as yesterday to me.

      In any case, the point of my post isn’t what I or someone else remembers. My assurance isn’t based on my memory of that experience. I might forget the experience some day. My assurance is based on God’s word and Christ’s work. Nothing else. I rely on that exclusively.

      I think a lot of people get hung up on trying to remember the experience or on trying to live the life to show the fruit so that they can be assured of their salvation. Those ways are full of trouble. Who can say how genuine one’s experience is? Who can say if I am really showing fruit or just conforming to expectations? Better to trust Christ and His word and press on living for him.

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  4. Keith says:

    Amen.

  5. Jerry Bouey says:

    No one can be saved “gradually.” If there was never a point when they were faced with the Gospel and with their own sin, how can they be saved? Believing there is a God – even the God of the Bible – is not the same thing as trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ alone for salvation. There are many religious people out there who have always “beiieved in Jesus”, but are they really trusting in His finished work on the cross? Often, it turns out that these “believers” are at the forefront of the ecumenical movement, watering down the Gospel and yoking up with those who do not hold to the truth/the faith.

    • Hi Jerry

      I basically agree with you, but I think it is possible for some who were truly born again at an early age to have a fuzzy recollection of the events. Also, due to the way the gospel is preached by some, some people make multiple ‘decisions’ and can never come to assurance as to which one was the right one… I ask them what they are relying on, their own ‘magic words to God’ or the cross of Christ?

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

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