Thursday, February 26, 2015

Who Is a Real Christian? Part II: Are You Really Saved?

Brother, Are You Really Saved?

A man enters a crowded theater and asks a patron, "Is that seat saved?" The man sitting in the adjoining seat replies,"No, are you?"* Some fundamentalists would go on to ask the man sitting next to the unsaved seat,"What were you, a true Christian, doing in a movie theater in first place and associating with an unsaved seat? Movie theater today, gambling, smoking, dancing, and behaving boisterously on public conveyances tomorrow." (During my incarceration in a Christian school I had to sign a annual pledge not to engage in those last four.) 

We have pointed to two factors that must be considered to answer the question, "What is a true Christian?". The sacramental and the doctrinal. (Who Is a Real Christian?: Part I) Both of these are objective in nature, the act of baptism and a body of doctrine. We now move to two subjective considerations, the experimental and the evidential. You may be baptized and may affirm the Nicene Creed and other creeds and confessions of faith, but that does not mean you are saved. The questions now are: (1) Have savingly experienced the faith? and (2) Are there evidences that indicate you have saving faith?

Let's consider some questions that may help us feel the force of applying these two tests of true Christianity:

Was John W. Nevin, who was much disturbed when in college he was pressed about his Christian experience, and who asserted that the normal path to Christian faith was catechesis not experience? What about evangelical Anglican poet, William Cowper, who had experiences and wrote movingly about them, but attempted suicide several times and died believing himself lost forever? What about Calvinistic author, A.W. Pink, who in his last years never attended public worship? What about L'Abri's Francis Schaeffer who had a bad temper? What about the Westminster New Testament scholar, Ned Stonehouse, who had a fatal heart attack while watching baseball on TV on a Sunday afternoon? What about Fuller's George Eldon Ladd, who perhaps more any other has shaped evangelical thinking about the kingdom of God, but who neglected his family, had an unhappy marriage, and drank heavily? What about Johnny Cash who testified at Billy Graham Crusades and fought with addiction almost his whole life? The problem with listing such cases is that, once you start, where do you stop? There is no lack of professing Christians whose experience and conduct raise questions for some about whether they were or are "really saved" or "true Christians."

What about you? What about me? 

Experimental. "Experimental" is an old way of speaking about Christian experience. It is obvious that, while baptism in an important sense makes one a Christian, it is possible to be baptized and not be a "true" Christian, unless one believes that baptism makes one (but permanently or impermanently?) a "true" Christian. Similarly saying the Nicene Creed even with understanding, or affirming imputation and forensic justification intelligently does not a "true" Christian make.

There must be some sort of personal (not leaving out the communal) appropriation of the truths confessed. In every Christian tradition, at least in the West, this appropriation is or at least includes "faith" - belief in the Triune God, the incarnate Son, in Jesus Christ as Savior . Whatever the content held to be necessary, it must be believed by you ("I believe in God the Father...etc.)   

But the question is: Faith saves, but what is the faith that saves? At this point all sorts of qualifications are made. 

Fundamentalist evangelicals are fond of putting this in terms of Jesus's coming into your heart: "Have you asked Jesus into your heart?" I heard that many times as a youngster and asked him in many times, but I am still confused as what asking Jesus into my heart is and, more important, what asking Jesus into my heart has to do with his saving me, and, still more important, where the Bible even implies that this is the response to the Gospel. With this question, faith becomes an inward experience:

If you want joy, real joy, wonderful joy;
Let Jesus come into your heart;
If you want joy, real joy, wonderful joy;
Let Jesus come into your heart.
Your sins He'll wash away,
Your night He'll turn to day,
Your life He'll make it over anew;
If you want joy, real joy, wonderful joy;
Let Jesus come into your heart.

Some emphasize the three elements that together are saving faith: Knowledge. Belief. Trust. The last two are not so easy. What if I think I believe but also have doubts? Then, if I believe, how do I know if I really trusting?

Sometimes people are urged to consider a distinction between having head knowledge only (understanding the content of the faith) and both head and heart knowledge. Heart knowledge is presented as making personal what before was intellectual: "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior? Maybe you knew he was other people's Savior. That he could be your Savior. Maybe you even thought that he was your Savior. But do you have a personal relationship with him?" This heart knowledge is often considered a transformative experience that changes the inward and outward life.

Jonathan Edwards, honored as one of America's great thinkers and also as an experimental Calvinist preacher, in his sermon A Divine and Supernatural Light (which I read and wrote a paper on for an American Lit class at the University of West Florida) speaks of a direct work of the Spirit upon the heart. This "unnatural" work is distinct from conviction of sin and understanding of Scripture which can be "natural":
This doctrine may well put us upon examining ourselves, whether we have ever had this divine light, that has been described, let into our souls. If there be such a thing indeed, and it be not only a notion or whimsy of persons of weak and distempered brains, then doubtless it is a thing of great importance, whether we have thus been taught by the Spirit of God; whether the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, hath shined unto us, giving us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ; whether we have seen the Son, and believed on him, or have that faith of gospel-doctrines which arises from a spiritual sight of Christ. 
All may hence be exhorted earnestly to seek this spiritual light. To influence and move to it, the following things may be considered. 
This light is such as effectually influences the inclination, and changes the nature of the soul. It assimilates the nature to the divine nature, and changes the soul into an image of the same glory that is beheld. 
 As Edwards says, this calls for us to examine ourselves. "Has this happened to me?" And this may become the substance of the profession of faith, both what the person professing feels he needs to say and what others may think he needs to say to indicate he is a true Christian. Faith is not, "I believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior," but, "I was illumined by the Holy Spirit," or "I have been born again," or, "I was strangely warmed", or, "Then I closed with Christ," etc. This experience also becomes the or at least a critical component of assurance of salvation.

There must be an appropriation of Christianity by faith. All Christian churches, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Charismatic in one way or another say so. But evangelicals who place an emphasis experience, whether they are Arminian or Calvinist, put such an emphasis on experience that they end up pressing people, explicitly or implicitly, to ask, "Am I really saved? Do I truly have it? What is the state of my heart?"

Tim Bayly, the worship-with-a-rock-band, paedo-or-credo-baptism-your-choice, patriarch found fault with my explanation of having my becoming an Anglican:
In that explanation, the part I thought most telling was this reason for his preference for Anglican Prayer Book worship: "It is a relief to be an observant, practicing Christian, which does not mean the heart is not engaged but rather that I can worship without being asked or being obligated to ask myself what is really transpiring internally." 
I'm certain our good Anglican brothers on this blog including, especially, Roger du Barry and Bill Mouser will cringe at this commendation of Prayer Book worship. Neither of their ministries reject the distinction between circumcised foreskins and circumcised hearts, I'm confident. But I trust they will understand when I point to these words by this recent convert to Anglicanism from the PCA as a good example of one real danger of turning away from historic Reformed worship to Prayer Book worship.
It's not enough to be "observant, practicing Christian, which does not mean the heart is not engaged...". You have to keep peeking at your circumcision. 

Evidential. You are baptized. You confess true doctrine. You believe what you confess and may even have had experiences. But there is yet another factor to be considered: whether there are evidences that your faith is genuine, and, in the case of experiences, whether they are natural or Spiritual. So you get sermons and books such as, "True Conversion: Rare and Difficult," "The Almost Christian Discovered," and The Distinguishing Traits of Christian Character.

One of the problems that looking to evidences is meant to address is hypocrisy. Like the poor, hypocrites are with us always. Hypocrites are "actors" who play the part of Christian but are not real. Some know they are putting on an act, while others may be such good actors they fool themselves. One of the ways of unmasking hypocrites is by the examination of evidences. Hypocrites "talk the talk" but may not "walk the walk." But hypocrites may both "talk the talk" and "walk the walk" but still not be real. Evidences, even if not infallible proof, are nevertheless helpful to the exposing of hypocrisy. 

Another problem addressed by an emphasis on evidences is what some Calvinists call "easy believism" or the "once saved always saved" version of Christianity. This is an evangelical version of "salvation by baptism." If some believe that all the baptized are infallibly and eternally saved, this kind of evangelicalism asserts that all  who have raised a hand, and/or walked an aisle, and/or prayed a prayer are saved no matter what one does or does not do after the act of belief. 

This is accompanied often by the "carnal Christian" teaching that there are three kinds of people - unbelievers, "carnal" believers whose lives are not changed when they believe, and spiritual Christians who have yielded to the Spirit and made Christ Lord of their lives. The issue is the second group - the saved whose lives are no different from the unsaved. An emphasis on evidences may show the "carnal" believer that he/she is not a believer at all.

Evidences are relevant not just to hypocrites and carnal Christians but to otherwise sincere and serious professing Christians. It is still possible that you are not really converted. There needs to be a closer look at the evidences in your life. Profession of the true faith is not evidence of conversion. Experiences are not evidence of conversion. A moral life is not evidence of conversion. You've got to look beneath into the motives and affections of the heart and beyond to thoroughness and permanence of obedience to prove yourself a real Christian. A closer consideration of evidences may reveal to you that you are not really saved.

It is with regard to evidences that there is an interesting intersection (or so it appears to my mind) between some who embrace the new perspective on Paul regarding justification and those who affirm the historic Protestant doctrine of justification. The intersection has to do with obedience and good works. For the new perspective, justification is not about one's standing before God but one's standing within the church. Justification is relational, not forensic, and a person who who lives out his relationship to God as a faithful member of the covenant community will live in obedience to God and perform good works which will vindicate him/her on the day of judgment. On the other hand some who, as a matter of the logic of doctrine, hold to justification as forensic declaration and to faith as the sole instrument of reception seem practically uncomfortable with it. They don't want to state the doctrine too strongly for fear that it would produce indifference and antinominaism. So they warn that saving faith can never be considered apart from the evidence of obedience and that justification must be proved by its being followed by the evidence of good works. Justifcation means you are simultaneouly righteous in Christ and sinner in heart and life, but don't rest in that too much. Check out those evidences.

The problem with evidences is that even consideration of evidences may not get the job done. You may have evidences that you and others think satisfactory yet not have the real thing.

What about me? I have said two things over and again for years now: 

(1) If I am not saved on the basis of what Christ did for me not to me, outside of me not in me, by a righteousness wholly his and not mine, then I won't be going through the pearly gates. 

(2) If the man Paul describes in Romans 7: 14-25 is not Paul the regenerate man, rather than Paul the unregenerate man, then I won't be walking those streets of gold. 

* Credit goes to my old friend and now Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Dan Morse, for reminding me of this old joke.


Erik Charter said...

Excellent stuff.

"peaking" should maybe be "peeking"?

Curt Day said...

Usually the question of is one saved carries with it an unfortunate self-focus. At this point, the believer spends more time looking inward than looking outward via the Scriptures. And in determining whether we are saved, we continue to hear the siren calls of works righteousness as we conduct self-examination after self-examnation until our self-examinations become the way we given into those calls.

What need to note that what makes any of us Christians is whether, as Paul quotes David in Romans 4, whether God has forgiven and covered our sins. And such forgiveness is communicated to us through believing the Gospel.

In the meantime, continued preoccupation with whether we are saved inhibits us both in bearing the fruit of the Spirit and from looking to love our neighbor as ourselves.