I’ve spent the past few years studying at a local seminary, and come spring I’ll finally graduate. Some would be surprised, maybe even troubled, to hear that during my time in seminary I questioned my faith on a number of occasions. Not so much, “Does God exist?” More like: “Am I who I say I am? Am I really a Christian?”
Some may be thinking: “If you don’t know for sure, then the answer is obviously no. You are not a Christian.” But is it that simple? Is it a lack of faith, or even a sin, to ask such questions? Personally, I don’t believe so. In fact, I firmly believe these questions are not only beneficial, but biblical.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.” I fear many will look back at a moment in their lives when they repeated a prayer and then discontinue any “examination” or “testing” of their faith. In Matthew 7:21 Jesus asserted, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” This seems to indicate it isn’t enough to look back at a moment when we said, “Lord, Lord,” and close the book on an investigation of our faith.
It seems there’s a very real threat of deception when it comes to salvation. Take, for instance, George Whitfield and John Wesley. Both were devoted to praying privately seven times a day, fasting for 40 days at a time, taking the Lord’s Supper every day, and would even study the Greek New Testament together on a regular basis, yet both later admitted that at this point in their lives neither of them knew Christ. To borrow from Paul, neither was “in the faith.”
How many of us can say our devotion to the faith compares with Whitfield’s and Wesley’s? These men were practicing a faith not yet their own with greater devotion than many professing believers today. This isn’t to insinuate that people’s religious practices are a means of salvation. Salvation is a matter of grace and grace is a matter of mercy, not works. What this does show us is it’s possible for someone to say the right things and do the right things (repeat a prayer and walk an aisle, for example) without actually having any change of heart.
And this brings us to what I believe to be one of the pitfalls in the Church today. We have systemized and mass-produced salvation in such a way that it’s often reduced to a few gestures and sentences. “Bow your heads, close your eyes and repeat after me.”
Growing up I had a close friend who wasn’t a Christian. Most of the time we talked about his drawings, the newest movie or he’d share his latest dirty joke. But sometimes we talked about faith, and it was during one such conversation that my friend told me about the time he went to a Christian camp.
“They had a speaker and a band and a light show,” he said. “I remember feeling like they were trying too hard to be cool. Anyway, I prayed a prayer, but I don’t believe that stuff anymore.”
“Did you mean it?” I asked. “I mean when you prayed the prayer, did you mean it?”
“I guess at the time.”
“Well, I don’t think you can lose your salvation.”
All he said was “I prayed a prayer,” and instantly I assumed he was “in the faith.” I was talking about Christianity as if it were some sort of fraternity or cult. Just say the oath and you’re in. He even said, “I don’t believe that stuff anymore,” but I refused to be discouraged.
I often pray that my words have since burned away from my friend’s memory like early morning fog. Jesus said salvation wasn’t as simple as “Lord, Lord,” but I had said otherwise. I wasn’t always peddling bad theology, though. Sometimes I shut up and simply shared the Scriptures. One day, as the two of us sat in class, I leaned over my desk and said to my friend: “Jesus promised that if you seek you will find, and if you knock the door will be opened to you. I pray you find what you’re looking for.” I spoke these words convinced in my heart that something inside of my friend, something perennial and universal, was searching. I spoke these words hoping my friend’s knocking would one day be answered, that the door would swing wide to reveal Christ, and that God’s words to the exiled Israelites would prove true for him. “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
A mentor and father figure in my life recently moved with his wife and children in preparation to become missionaries to Africa. We were talking on the phone recently and I listened as he shared how he and his wife had been wrestling with their salvation.
“Since we’ve been here there have been times that we’ve asked ourselves, ‘Are we even saved?’ ” He paused for a moment and then continued: “But I think that can be good. Not to the point that it paralyzes you, but to the point that it causes you to ask important questions. ‘Am I in the Word, believing the Word, living out the Word?’ It has led us to take a very personal inventory, which led me to one conclusion: Yeah, I really do believe this stuff.”
This man—a faithful husband and loving father, a mentor and soon-to-be missionary—found himself asking: “Am I who I say I am? Am I a Christian?” I must confess it’s entirely possible for someone to write an article for a Christian publication and not know Christ. Likewise, you must confess, it is entirely possible for people to read from a Christian publication, nodding in agreement with Bible verses and pious sayings, but not know Christ. Jesus continues in Matthew 7, saying that many will come to Him reciting their resume of good deeds and religious acts, but Christ will respond, “I never knew you.” It’s not a lack of faith, or even a sin, to ask ourselves if we are in the many. Rather, it’s biblical.
If you’re a Christian, you’ll inevitably be drawn closer to Christ through the process of testing and examining your faith. “Yes, I really do believe this stuff,” you’ll say. And if you’re a professing Christian fooled by some false sense of security, such testing and examination, if born of a sincere heart, will inevitably lead you to the truth.
Sean Bess is a freelance writer living in Birmingham. He blogs at http://wastebaskets.tumblr.com/.