How do I know that I’m saved?

by Richard on September 23, 2007

It was an anguished question. A woman with little self-worth who’d been struggling to find meaning, purpose and contentment. She needed to know that she meant something. She longed for faith but no matter how much she prayed, how many pages of the Bible she read, how many church services she attended she just couldn’t find any certainty. And she didn’t expect it to be that way. What she wanted - what she’d been led to expect - was to “feel better” (her words), and it hadn’t happened. “How do I know that I’m saved?” she asked me. The only answer I could give was “Because the Bible says so”, but it wasn’t enough for her.

Somewhere along the line we began to accept that Christian faith is a branch of therapy, the purpose of which is to make people feel better about themselves. Following Jesus, it is sometimes claimed, is a panacea for all ills, whether they be spiritual, emotional or even physical. Faith is “sold” on the basis of the benefits to the individual. Some of those benefits are long-term to be sure, but what’s important is what faith will do “for you”. Because of this, many Christians are given to periods of intense introspection, even self-absorption. I’ve been there myself.

I wouldn’t want to say that faith never brings benefit to the individual, still less that there’s no place for emotion in the Christian faith. If the Incarnation - “God amongst us” - means anything, it is surely that there is no aspect of our life with which God is not engaged. But to expect faith to mean a permanent sense of well-being and certainty is to ignore the evidence of scripture and the experience of Christians through the generations. Being a Christian has never meant any such thing.

The deeper issue here is whether an emphasis on individual benefit distorts the content of the Christian gospel. Remember how Jesus warned his followers that to be his disciple means to take up a cross? This is hardly a therapeutic image! In fact, it’s remarkable to me given the way the church operates today that Jesus doesn’t appear to have done any “selling” at all. More often than not we find Jesus trying to put people off. “Take up a cross”, “sell all you have”, “count the cost” are not the most obvious advertising slogans. A hymnwriter put it this way:

Believe not those who say
The upward path is smooth

Following Jesus means a journey of challenge, discovery and service. It is a life directed outward towards the world in service and compassion. Without denying the importance of feeling, what is more important is the objective truth of the promises we have received. Moments of introspection are inevitable and even helpful, but to be permanently engaged in soul-searching is to miss Jesus’ point. Don’t follow Jesus because of how it makes you feel. Follow him because he is the way.

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }


Kim 09.23.07 at 10:00 pm

The introspective turn and the search for certainty - from the 17th century Descartes philosophically, the Jansenists, Puritans, and Pietists theologically. The magisterial Reformers knew better: no peace in looking inwards, only an over-scrupulous conscience issuing either in soul-worry and despair, or in moral rigidity and self-righteousness.

Thus Luther’s emphasis on the extra nos of salvation. Here is Luther’s advice to the fastidious Philip Melanchton: “If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world.”

And here is Calvin, who discouraged too much self-examination because it “does not so much strengthen the spirit in secure tranquillity as trouble it with uneasy doubting.” “We shall not find assurance of our election in ourselves,” Calvin continued, but only in Christ, “the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election.”


calvin 09.23.07 at 10:04 pm

What I learned recently is that my faith is not about me. It isn’t about rewards in some afterlife if I believe the right things, it’s about doing the right thing now, in this life, because that is how Jesus lived and is simply the right thing to do.

Since we can’t talk to the dead, I don’t know how anyone can be sure there is an afterlife; I have no idea, and this question doesn’t really concern me. I trust that God will take care of things for me, I leave my fate in God’s hands. Meanwhile, there is so much despair and awfulness in this life that rather than worrying about my own fate, I spend my time making others “feel better.” If it’s just weeding the church walkways, signing up poor kids for free back to school backpacks at the local food pantry, or doing my other deacon duties, I find great happiness in making others smile, and putting a little joy in others’ lives. After many years of wondering why God wasn’t going to magically make my whole life great just like that, simple acts of kindness in everyday life is more rewarding than I had ever imagined, and I “feel good” being of service.

Put another way: you are saved from bad feelings by saving others into feeling good. Turn the whole past paradigm inside out. I think that’s what Jesus was trying to say all along.

…ben in Redmond, Washington, USA


Pamela 09.24.07 at 9:07 am

Thank you!

That could have been written just for me. Or just about me!

It’s nice to know sometimes that you’re not alone, that others feel and think the same things as you sometimes.
And it’s nice to get gently pointed in a new direction of thinking.

Thank you.


sally 09.24.07 at 3:00 pm

an excellent post.


dh 09.24.07 at 3:12 pm

Richard, I really enjoyed your post here. The final sentence I really liked was this: “Don’t follow Jesus because of how it makes you feel. Follow him because he is the way.” It kind of reminded me of what Jesus said: “I am the Way the Truth and the Life no one comes to the Father but through Me.” The more I read Scripture the more I realize that it is both about what God has done for us AND the desire that God wants us for Himself by having Faith in Him and what He has done in His life, death and resurrection. Doing “good things” is not the answer but still important. “Not by works of righteousness which we have done…”

I understand what you said here Richard: “The only answer I could give was “Because the Bible says so”, but it wasn’t enough for her.” My only question I would ask the woman, if I was faced with the similar situation as you Richard in this case, would ask the woman “Have you ever asked Jesus into your heart? Have you given your entire heart, soul and mind to Christ?” If she hadn’t that might explain her “desire for certainty” that she seems to relay?

Richard, there had been times after Conversion where I questioned “Am I saved?” It wasn’t until I looked back at my conversion and the life changing emotional experience (not that Salvation is based on emotions) and realized that I HAVE been Saved. I am a Christian when at a young age I gave my entire life to Christ and I haven’t been the same since.
Thanks Richard for the wonderful post.


PamBG 09.25.07 at 10:04 am

Because of my background, I’m actually incredibly uncomfortable with the orginial post. I don’t think that the only reason people feel insecure about their salvation is that they think Christianity is a form of ‘therapy’. I know I spent years in agony over this question (perhaps not necessarily for the same reasons as the woman used as an illustration) and it wasn’t because I was looking for a quick fix.


Jonathan Marlowe 09.25.07 at 12:30 pm

PamBG, that is a very interesting comment. I wonder if the woman Richard is talking about was not looking for the kind of ‘certainty’ that Richard rightly challenges, or even the kind of ‘therapy’ that Richard also rightly questions. I wonder if she was looking for something else. PamBG, I wonder how you might have responded to that situation. This is not just idle curiosity for me, because as a male pastor, I have had several experiences with just the sort of woman Richard is talking about. I have sensed that there is a lot more going on than what appears on the surface. I have also been aware that I don’t need to be alone with the woman - there needs to be someone else at least in the building.


dh 09.25.07 at 2:20 pm

Jonathan, I never thought about those concerns but I agree with them. Thanks for pointing that advise out. It is so important when consulting with one of the opposite sex that one have another person of the same sex of the consulted at the meeting.


PamBG 09.25.07 at 6:53 pm

Jonathan, I think my discomfort is that Richard seems to be making a sweeping statement about the reason that most people are unsure of their salvation most of the time. He may very well be right about the woman he was with, but I’m not sure about the generalisation.

I actually have a woman like that too, but since I’m a woman minister, there isn’t anything nefarious about the situation.

Of course, it depends on your instincts about the individual person but depression is a condition where many sufferers think that ‘the world’ or ‘the universe’ is against them. I think ‘The universe is against me’ can also manifest itself as ‘I’m not sure I’m saved / I’m not sure God loves me.’ Generally speaking, this is the first thing I’d suspect.

In my particular case, I just grew up in a very strict Christian envirionment where I was constantly told that I didn’t think I was a sinner and that I wouldn’t be saved until I did; the people telling me this seemed cock-sure of their own salvation and they didn’t seem to think they were particularly sinful either!

I’m not going to ‘diagnose’ your woman on the internet, but from what you say, it sounds like you think that she’s using the issue in order to get your attention (I think Frank Lake called this ‘hysteria’ and his followers seem to think that every woman church member is a potential hysteric). That is, I think, a completely different kettle of fish and the ‘lure’ could be any issue, really. Certainly I’d follow my own instincts if they told me not to be alone with someone!


Jonathan Marlowe 09.25.07 at 7:11 pm

Oh, I’m not saying she’s trying to seduce me. Sorry if I left that impression. The reason I made the comment about not being alone with her is that I wouldn’t want to be alone with any woman, esp. one feeling particularly vulnerable - when I’m a male authority figure — trying to ‘help’ her — it is just asking for trouble.

I actually wonder (and I don’t have any particular woman in mind right now, it’s just an amalgamation of 2 or 3 women I have known) if the woman is being physically or emotionally abused by a husband or boyfriend or someone else.

Theologically, I am on the same page with Richard. But with the women I have known in that situation, I just wonder if there is some abuse going on somewhere.


dh 09.25.07 at 7:16 pm

While, one can go overboard on this like you experienced Pam, but isn’t it a fact that one truly can’t become “saved” until one realizes they are a sinner? Even Scripture says “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I can’t see how one accepts Christ as their Savior without recognizing ones sin as part of that. While I’m sure they knew of their Salvation, I would venture to guess they knew that they still sin. All Christians sin it is the recognition of that sin and the repentence from the heart after one sins that is the issue.

Love from God and Salvation are two different things. God loves all people but not all people are “Saved” that is by Faith in Christ alone by ones Faith in Christ life, death and resurrection.

Your post seems to somewhat contradict this. I personally believe that much of ones insecurity of ones own Salvation is either due to conviction of ones own sin that they are doing even though they are actually a Christian, conviction of ones sin due to not being a Christian, depression, etc.


PamBG 09.25.07 at 9:59 pm

I actually wonder (and I don’t have any particular woman in mind right now, it’s just an amalgamation of 2 or 3 women I have known) if the woman is being physically or emotionally abused by a husband or boyfriend or someone else.

As I’m sure you know, people who are violently abused by family members are often made to feel that the violence is ‘their fault’, so this is a possibility. I know a woman who still isn’t convinced that her divorced and now dead husband’s violence wasn’t somehow her fault. I could see this manifesting itself as something like ‘I can’t be saved because I’m such a bad person.’

A survey done by the British Methodist Church a few years ago showed about 20% of members admitting to being the subject of violence by a family member; so violence in the church isn’t as rare as we’d like to think it is!

I hope you have the opportunity to ask the question and I hope that you have support from your wider church structures in how to care for vulnerable adults if violence is actually the problem.


dh 09.25.07 at 10:18 pm

While, I agree Pam that this is a possibility, one still shouldn’t have a reaction that was relayed that it isn’t due to people looking for the certainty of Christianity. To me that may not be the majority but it sure is a great number of people. I also believe it can be people overwhelmed with the guilt of ones sin and the depression of feeling “unworthy” for things that aren’t their fault. However, to feel “uncomfortable” about people who actually are looking for certainty when Christ is the certainty seems to be a great number of people.

Also, we can’t forget that satan can also attack people who have accepted Christ as their Savior by getting them to think they aren’t Christians. The reasons why people question if they are “saved” are several and all of them have many, many people within each category. I personally don’t feel “uncomfortable” with any of the possibilities. I personally am not in “denial” of what are actual possibilities of why people question whether or not they are “saved”.

What I have told people is if a person checks in their heart multiple times and believes they aren’t “saved” to ask Jesus into their heart again. Worst case it is like a “renewing of vows” and in the best case the person received Christ in all actuality for the first time. Just some additional thoughts I realized after thinking about it again.


PamBG 09.25.07 at 10:49 pm

dh, I’m sorry, I really don’t understand what point you’re trying to make.


Richard 09.26.07 at 12:04 am

An interesting and, I think mostly useful conversation. I’m sorry that I haven’t been around to take part in it!
You’re right Pam. It would be wrong to generalize from one woman’s expression of doubt to go on to make a make a general point about people’s therapeutic expectations. Except that this particular lady did have those expectations and was clearly disappointed that they hadn’t been met.

I don’t think my central point, which is that there is no guarantee that faith will ‘make things better’ is controversial. Is it?

The issues raised about how you handle pastoral meetings between men and women are very real and important ones. Something for another post there!


PamBG 09.26.07 at 8:53 am

I don’t think my central point, which is that there is no guarantee that faith will ‘make things better’ is controversial. Is it?

I don’t think that’s controversial, no.

I thought your central point was something like ‘The problem with Christians today is that they think Christianity should be a quick fix.’ :-)


Ian 09.26.07 at 5:31 pm

Looking in on this blog, because of a recommendation by a ‘Methodist blogger’, I noticed this very interesting discussion. This is a Methodist blog?

Whatever happened to the doctrine of assurance?! If you don’t want to read everything Wesley has to say on the subject, try J.C. Ryle’s book ‘Holiness’ chapter 7. It’s an excellent article and pastorally sensitive.

What do they teach ministers these days?


Richard 09.27.07 at 12:06 am

They teach Methodist ministers what Wesley taught — namely that while assurance is a common gift given to believers, it is not experienced always and everywhere. Lacking the gift of assurance does not mean lacking salvation.


Ian 09.27.07 at 12:56 am

I never said that lacking assurance meant a lack of salvation. I said assurance was the answer to the question,’How do I know I’m saved?’ We can read the scriptures and the theology, but until we hear the Holy Spirit crying, ‘Abba, Father’ we don’t know that we are saved - but it doesn’t mean that we are not.

Leading people into assurance can be a slow business, but as a minister you should know this. It’s part of the cure of souls.


Dave Warnock 09.27.07 at 1:39 am

Ian, thanks for your contribution.

I am sure that the lady who had little self worth, who had been taught that faith meant that life would always be wonderful and who was not sure of her salvation would have found your pastoral care wonderful.


Richard 09.27.07 at 7:26 am

I’m grateful, Ian.

But I’ve been hanging around blogs for a good few years and I’ve discovered that it is nearly always a mistake to assume that one post represents the limits of someone’s knowledge or that it is all there is to say on a subject.


Ian 09.27.07 at 11:20 am

… it is nearly always a mistake to assume that one post represents the limits of someone’s knowledge …

As a trained counsellor, I have had to deal with slow and difficult situations. Sometimes we fail to help someone, other times we see something quirte miraculous - and everything in between.

That doesn’t alter the fact that assurance is still the answer to ‘how do I know I’m saved?’ It’s the prayer and the teaching and the counselling and the working out of our salvation that gets complicated.


Kim 09.29.07 at 3:15 pm

In 1766 Wesley went through a period of deep depression when, doubting that he had ever been a true Christian at all, his doctrine of assurance cracked. He recovered, but thereafter he recognised that our pilgrimages are too complex and varied, and faith too fluctuating, to expect full assurance at all times.

It should be remembered that Calvin (too) said that “assurance is the essence of faith”, but as a disciple of Luther he well knew that you cannot gauge faith simply by the presence or absence of assurance. In any case, my main point (above) stands: assurance comes by looking to Christ, not to self; or, in Wesley’s (and Calvin’s!) terminology, not from self-testimony but from the inner witness of the Holy Spirit.


Zilla 07.11.12 at 2:41 am

Not sure if this page is still manned or if you will get a reply. I am conflicted in one thing. I have read your post and yes, the bible says all those things about my salvation.. .but it also says… ‘Depart from me, I do not know you” to those that were spreading the word and working for his glory.. how do I know that wont happen to me? Even the demons believed in God and quaked in fear, but they are not saved.

many believers talk about having their heart changed and knowing they were saved - none of that has happened to me. From my readings and learnings I truly believe the second coming will happen soon, and I dont think I will be invited to that party… any thoughts?


Richard 07.11.12 at 7:33 am

I can’t do any other than urge you to trust in God. Look to him, his promises, his faithfulness, rather than your own feelings. When Jesus said “For God so loved the world…” he was including you.

I’m rushing this morning, but I’ll gladly come back to this conversation if you want to.

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