I have often said that it is easier to tell when someone is a true Christian than to tell if they are not. In other words, some people wear their conviction on their sleeve. The power of the Holy Spirit could not be clearer. Their passion, understanding, grace, humility, and faith are clearly evident in everything they do. I know and can state with a great degree of confidence that they trust in Christ and are saved. They are in the race and they are running. Others, however, it is hard to tell. They may say they are saved, but I am not convinced with the same degree of conviction. They may be convinced, but I am not. I am not saying they are not saved, I just don’t know. Some live in a perpetual state of doubt, failure, and terrible sin. They may be in the race, but they are not running. However, even when they are at their worst, I cannot say with the same degree of confidence that they are not saved than when I can say someone is saved.
I have a lot of people contact me because they are scared they are not saved. They want assurance and they want me to provide it. My background, training, and tradition all push me to attempt to alleviate people’s doubts and fears, assuring them that they are secure in their salvation and can never lose this security. After all, I believe that without security, we have never really embraced the fullness of the Gospel message.
But there is another side to this coin. And it is this other side that I wish to address.
I have someone who I can’t figure out. Conversations with him are always very frustrating. I just want to crack his head open and see what is inside. I want to gaze where only God can see. What I want to know is does he really know Christ? My heart says “I hope” but my mind says “I don’t know. I doubt it.”
If you were to look at the life of this friend, you would not suspect that he has ever broached the throne room of God. You would not expect that he has ever humbly bowed at the cross, understanding his own condition and asking for mercy. I have never seen him read his Bible and I have never heard him honor Christ with his words. His life is one of constant pursuit of what the world has to offer and it completely controls his emotional state. Comforting him with spiritual talk is useless as you will get the gaze of ridicule and quickly share in the humility of having your conversation cut short by awkward silence.
Yet, when push comes to shove, this guy will give you his testimony. Every once in a while he will tell you why you don’t need to be worried about his spiritual condition. He will confidently tell you of the time when he was twelve years old and walked the aisle at church to accept the Gospel. Once his tale is complete, he has exhausted his ability to have a spiritual conversation and the awkward silence ensues.
Is this guy saved? Can it be that he truly walked the aisle so long ago and has not flexed a spiritual muscle since? Why is he so secure in his salvation?
In his office, there is one spiritual relic. It is an old piece of paper that hangs prominently by his desk titled “The Believer’s Security.” On it are listed all of the passages of Scripture that give assurance that a believer cannot lose their salvation. This unqualified doctrine was something that he was taught immediately after his saving experience. This is what he banks on every day.
I have changed quite a bit over the years with regards to the doctrine often called “eternal security” or “once-saved-always-saved.” Don’t start squirming fellow Calvinists, there are not many things I believe in stronger than the ultimate security of salvation. But I believe that there are some people who do need to squirm. I believe that there are some people whose eternal destiny depends on their own insecurity.
I am going to tell the “Parable of the Race.” You may have heard it before, but I am going to modify it quite a bit for our purposes.
“In a town of ultimate boredom called Mundane, there was a great announcement. It was the announcement of a race. A great race that all could enter. A race that would rescue them from boredom. Most people did not believe that such an event would be held in Mundane so they scoffed. Others immediately prepared with great enthusiasm and joy.
Both the scoffers and the enthusiasts arrived at the appointed place on the day of the race. The scoffers sat and watched while the others prepared to run by stretching and making sure their shoes were tied. They lined up looking ahead with the intensity, fear, and excitement that accompanied such an event.
The gun sounded and off they went. Yet something very curious and unexplainable happened. They all stopped running after they had passed the starting line. Not only this, but they acted very peculiar. One person fell on his knees crying, thanking God that he crossed the starting line. Others gave each other high fives and hugs shouting, “Hooray, we are now race runners, we are now race runners.” Some shook hands and congratulated each other. One group relaxed and complemented one another on how well they crossed the starting line. Five or six others all gathered together and formed a prayer circle. They prayed that others would cross the starting line as they had.
Many others wanted to experience this joy so they decided to start the race as well. They were immediately stopped by the well-wishers who had started before them. They decided to stay as well. After a few days, there were people handing out pamphlets along with a certificate to all those who crossed the starting line. The pamphlet told them that once they had started the race they were guaranteed to finish. The certificate was to recognize their achievement in finishing the race even before they finished. It became very high on the agenda of all the race runners to make sure that people who had started knew of their assurance of completion. So much so that there was a printing press built right at the starting gate which produced millions of the pamphlets.
After a few months, there were so many who had crossed the starting line that they decided to build a town right there. They called this town “Starting Line Village.”
The spectators were confused. “I thought a race had to be finished,” they said to one another. They interviewed the people of Starting Line Village. “Why did you start the race and not continue?” they would ask. This made the people of Starting Line Village very uncomfortable. They would immediately show their certificate saying that they were guaranteed to finish. When people would encourage them to run the rest of the race, they would be ridiculed for not trusting the pamphlet. They were called legalists and were accused of trusting too much in their own ability to finish the race rather than the words on the pamphlet.
Finally, many of the watchers in the crowd became fed up with those in Starting Line Village and decided to run the race themselves with the intent to finish. They refused the certificates and left the people of Starting Line Village to hand out the pamphlets alone.”
This parable illustrates a problem that we have in the Church today. There are many people who are very comfortable in their profession of faith they made so long ago. So comfortable are these people that they never make any further moves in their walk with God. Like my friend, they rely upon the “once-saved-always-saved” doctrine that they were taught immediately upon conversion. They have crossed the starting line, but are not running the race.
I don’t have a problem with teaching once-saved-always-saved, but I think we need to qualify it a great deal. I know, qualifying our own security seems very counterproductive. Let me be plain and clear: The doctrine of God’s grace is radical. It is absolutely radical. It is unbelievably radical. God gives us an unspeakable gift free of charge. We don’t owe God anything for it. Neither is it on layaway. In fact, it would be very offensive to God for us to even try to pay for it. It is priceless. Yet this gift, from a human point of view, is received by faith. Faith is the evidence of our salvation. It is the instrumental cause of our salvation. Faith is the evidence that we have entered into the race. But what we fail to emphasize is often more destructive to the Christian faith than not telling the Gospel at all. We fail to tell people that there is a false kind of faith. There is a faith that crosses the starting line, but never completes the race. There is a faith that does not save.
Paul encourages the Corinthians:
“Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you– unless indeed you fail the test?” (2 Cor. 13:5)
The author of Hebrews says:
“Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.” (Heb. 4:1)
In Revelation, it is only those who overcome who are promised eternal life:
“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” (Rev. 2:7)
James speaks about a faith that does not save:
“What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” (Jam. 2:14)
Remember in the parable of the soils in Matthew 13, there are three types of seeds that sprout (start the race), but only one truly takes root (finishes the race).
And time will fail us if we are to recount all the false prophets of false hope in the Old Testament. These are the ones who were continually telling the Israelites of their own security when destruction was right around the corner.
I believe that once a person is truly saved, he or she will never lose that salvation. Yet I think we need to warn people that not all faith is true faith.
If you have crossed the starting line, great! Bravo, hooray, and congrats. But, from a human point of view, this is no guarantee that you will cross the finish line. I am sorry, but I do no service to you by trying to immediately tell you that your faith is true. I don’t know if it is. The doctrine is not really called “Once-Saved-Always-Saved,” but “Perseverance of the Saints.” I think that we need to get away from calling it “once-saved-always-saved.” I don’t like it. From God’s point of view, your salvation is protected. You are his child, elect of God, and nothing can change that. But from our perspective, you are his child if you are trusting in him. Is your faith persevering? It is not about whether you can recount a time in the past when you trusted him once. It is about whether or not you are in his family and are trusting him now. We are called believers, not because we believed, but because we believe.
We all need to question whether or not our faith is the kind of faith that saves. We do a great disservice to the Gospel to make it a priority to immediately alleviate any anxiety or doubt of salvation in those who profess faith. We may be giving them a false sense of security that they will take to their grave. This may be what happens to my friend. I fear the worst. On the day of judgment they will say “Lord, Lord, didn’t I cross the starting line? Wasn’t I a race runner?” He will respond, “Depart from me. I never knew you.”
There is a healthy tension concerning our salvation that should follow us our entire Christian walk.
If you are saved, part of the Gospel message is that you can be assured of your salvation (1 John 5:13). God wants you to know it. However, I don’t want anyone to be assured of something that is not true. And I believe that there are a lot of people who are.