He was known in the small town where he grew up for breaking the county high school pole-vault record. Strong-willed by temperament, he also had a reputation for being a troublemaker.
When he let it be known at the age of 17 that he had decided to become a follower of Christ, the community took notice. The ripple effect of those who followed him into his new found faith continued over the years to change the course not only of individual lives but of several generations of families.
Yet not long ago, this friend told me that in his enthusiasm for Christ he struggled for many years afterward with the assurance of his salvation.
After several conversations about what it took for him to resolve his doubts, I asked him if he’d write some of his story in his own words. Here’s what he said.
“A few years after my conversion I began studying and worshiping with people who took salvation seriously. We were convinced that just making a decision to accept Christ wasn’t enough. We looked for evidence of genuine change of heart. We focused on our sins, confessing and repenting in our minds and hearts until we felt we had turned from all that was wrong in our lives. Together, we thought we could have the assurance of our salvation only when we were sure that we had renounced all that was unworthy of Christ, and only when we were sure we were ready to follow His lordship completely.”
He went on to say,
“What we were looking for was holiness. We believed we needed to seek God ‘wholly’ until we were holding nothing back-no sinful or vain desire, no reservation, no jealousy, no anger, no bitterness, no selfish ambition, and no pride. Our goal was to be cleansed from the very nature of sin.”
One thing that is important about my friend’s story is that it shows what can happen among those who seem to be most serious about their faith. While some make the mistake of thinking that Christ will come into an unrepentant heart, his experience shows what can happen to those who try so hard to be perfect that they actually end up without any assurance of the grace of God.
This pursuit of perfection turned out to be a side-track for my friend. While still in high school he had worked to develop his skill at the pole vault. But now, in the company of friends and teachers in the pursuit of “extreme righteousness,” he found himself with an even higher bar to clear. He goes on to say…
“Following Christ was very difficult. I remember as a young man, stopping one evening, my head hurting, with tremendous mental anguish-trying not to sin against God! This struggle took different forms. Sometimes I’d find myself plagued by the fact that I knew I had sinned. In those moments, I felt lost. I was no longer ready for His coming. I had separated myself from God again. On other occasions I would agonize, wondering whether I had been ‘good’ enough to show that my faith in Christ was real. Struggling so much with doubt and fear of losing my salvation I spent a lot of time ‘feeling my spiritual pulse’ to see if I thought I was doing enough for God to qualify for His grace.
“Looking back, one of the things I find most significant is that I went through periods of pride when I considered the list of things I had done to ‘keep’ my salvation. There were times I was convinced that I had kept my end of the bargain, so now God would have to keep His. I felt this was part of the deal. In those moments I felt that God and I were now ‘even’-and with this mutual relationship I felt I really didn’t ‘owe’ Him anything. I had paid my dues!”
“Those moments of pride always gave way to times of failure. While hiding my doubts and despondency from others, I knew I had to be honest with myself. Slowly, as I read the Scriptures and thought about them, I discovered that my friends and I had been adding our own theology to the ‘good news.’ I saw that while we said we believed in Christ as our Savior, we were trying to reach a level of ‘holiness’ that depended on our efforts. At first the answer came to me like a whisper. Then it shouted out to me from many places in Scripture. I would read verses like, ‘no man is justified by the works of the law’ (Galatians 2:16), and I would cry in relief.”
“After comparing my earlier thoughts to what the Bible actually says, I am no longer overwhelmed by my own inadequate attempts to turn from sin. Today the doubts about whether my faith is genuine and complete enough are gone. I now understand that faith is not achieving a high level of performance that qualifies me for God’s acceptance. Instead I know that faith means relying entirely on what Christ has done for me. I now rest in the awareness that His death on the cross made salvation a free eternal gift (Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:8-10). And that by trusting in Him I am God’s child forever. Relying on what Christ did for me is my peace.”
“This new confidence doesn’t free me of my desire to live for God. Now I am actually much more aware of my indebtedness to the One who has offered grace to such a sinner. I am humbled again and again by the thought that Christ saves and keeps me eternally as His own. I serve Him out of gratitude for such mercy.”
One reason I wanted you to read my friend’s story is that, in our conversations together the last few days, we’ve been trying to balance one of the many healthy tensions of the Bible.
On one hand we’ve been looking at a grace of forgiveness that is so free that it sounds scandalous. In this grace, the worst of sinners can inherit the kingdom of God by entrusting themselves to Christ and accepting the free gift of what he has suffered for us on his cross.
Yet in this grace, it is also possible to so ignore the ways of God that we end up being “saved” yet like a person who escapes a burning house with nothing but his life (1Cor 3:11-15). In this condition, we can fail to “inherit” (or practically experience and enjoy) the benefits of living under the loving rule of Christ now.
I hope we can keep comparing notes about this. Do you identify at all with my friend’s story?