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Real or Phony: “Christian Pretenders”
Tough Stuff: How do I know I’m saved?
Biblical Assurance of Salvation
Catch Me If You Can was a recent movie based upon the life of Frank Abagnale, a famed imposter and con man. During his life of crime and many exploits, Frank successfully impersonated an airline pilot, a teaching assistant, a doctor, and an attorney, all for the purpose of stealing money which he did quite successfully with forged checks and brilliant schemes. Frank was so good at impersonating others, even when those around him were confronted with the truth of his fakery, they could not accept it, he was so believable.
Just like that, there are believable pretenders in the Church. The Bible declares there are real wheat and false tares who look so similar that you can’t tell them apart–only God Himself can make the distinction at the final judgment.
Now some pretenders are intentional, which is scary–but so much sadder are the pretenders who are unintentional. Intentional pretenders are those who like hanging with Christians because they like their Christian friends. They’re fond of conservative beliefs, they enjoy Christian events, free food and good fun. But unintentional pretenders are those who think they’re saved, but are not.
Jesus said in Matthew 7:22-23, “Many [notice, not a few, not some, but many] will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’”
Could you be an unintentional pretender? Could you be a tare? How about your friends, or someone in your family or ministry? Are you sure? Are you confident, do you have Biblical assurance? You don’t get assurance from praying a prayer, walking an aisle, making a decision, being excited about God, serving in ministry, going to a good church, growing up in a Christian home, loving your family, or holding conservative values.
And because this issue is not taught or poorly taught, there are a lot of believers who struggle with their own assurance–in fact, there is a varied scale of those who battle with assurance. And there are two extremes in this struggle.
One side: real Godly types who fret emotionally–am I saved?
Other side: ungodly, never-doubt types, who prayed a prayer once
If you struggle with your assurance, you’re somewhere on that spectrum. But before you think all struggle over assurance is a bad thing, don’t forget, God lovingly commands us to wrestle with our assurance.
Write down the words “test” and “prove”.
“Test” is 2 Corinthians 13:5–the test is this: is Christ in you?
2 Corinthians 13:5, “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?”
“Prove” is 2 Peter 1:8-10–prove you’re in Christ by growing like Him.
2 Peter 1:8-10, “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins. Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble.”
So what is a simple Biblical understanding of assurance? Here it is: genuine Christians are transformed by Christ and want to follow Him in every way. If that were enough to correct the confusion and clarify the certainty, I would stop there, but it’s not. So, open your Bible and take your outline as we study a controversial topic taken from God’s Word that you rarely hear taught anywhere today. The goal is not to be controversial or divisive, but to glorify God by equipping you so you are not tossed to and fro. Today is the Biblical doctrine of assurance of salvation–is this an issue for you? It is for me.
For five years, I lived thinking I was saved but was not. I went to church, served, sang, fellowshipped, prayed. I had Christian religion, but not a relationship with Christ. So how do you know you’re really saved? And how do you help others, those confused, hurting, and wondering–and others who think they’re saved but you suspect they are not?
First Correct the Confusion
There is nothing more important than Jesus Christ and His good news–the Gospel, the message of how to be right with God. Corrupt sinner, unable to help yourself, God became a man, took our punishment for sin, died, buried, resurrected, regenerates us, which awakens us from the dead, so that we will put faith in Him and repent of our sin to follow Christ.
We look the same but are not the same, we now know Christ, love Him and hate sin–we obey His Word because we want to, we desire to please the One Who did everything for us. And there is nothing the enemy wants to mess up more than this most important good news. Some of what Satan does is make people think they’re saved when they are not, and make those who are saved, doubt they are saved. How does the enemy do this? Four main ways. Turn to 1 Corinthians.
1) Phony Christians think they can live like the lost
They think this way because they’ve been wrongly taught that a Christian can remain in intentional sin as a lifestyle and still have assurance of salvation. They’ve been taught that they’re a carnal Christian. Some wrongly teach that there are Christians, non-Christians, and carnal Christians. This is not true–yes believers can be in the flesh, but they don’t live in the flesh/carnally and have assurance.
Carnal means flesh–chili con carne, chili with meat, with flesh. No Christian lives, as a way of life, in the flesh–carnal. Galatians 5:19-21 says, “Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice [not once, not a slip] such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Ephesians 5:5 states the same thing, “For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.”
1 Corinthians 6:9-11 is written to a Church and says to attenders, if you are known for a sin, you can’t claim to be a Christian. If you are known for a type of sin–you live in sin, then God says, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” Paul doesn’t say maybe, he says if this is true, you are not saved.
Just one chapter earlier, Paul said if you claim to know Christ but are living in the flesh, carnally, you can’t know if you are saved, you are a so-called Christian, with no assurance. First Corinthians 5:11 says, if you’re living in sin but claiming to be a Christian, Paul says, “I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one.”
When someone is living in continual unrepentant sin, they leave their spouse, they desert their family, they continue to sleep with their girlfriend, they continually lie, they continually gossip, slander, divide, talk about others, listen to talk about others–they have no assurance. They’re a so-called brother or sister.
Yes, all Christians battle daily with living in the Spirit and living in the flesh. Paul actually tells the Corinthians in chapter 3 that they are in the flesh when they divide up and cause strife in the church, but genuine Christians don’t live, as a way of life, in the flesh. For when they do, God promises to spank them.
Hebrews 12:8 says, “But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.” You’re not a child of God if you’re continually in the flesh and not spanked. Don’t be confused Christian–if you live in the flesh, God will spank you. If your Father doesn’t spank you, then you are not His child. God isn’t going to let you get away with continual unrepentant sin. He loves you too much. His salvation not only saves you from the penalty of sin, but from the power of sin–He saved you to become more like His Son Jesus Christ. Don’t be fooled, there is no carnal Christian category. And those that live in the flesh, are so-called–they have no assurance.
2) Phony Christians think following Christ is comfortable
Our culture is comfortable, and because so many pulpits teach that following Christ is easy and fun, people think they’re saved since they’re satisfied. But the American Dream is not salvation, and following Christ is never comfortable. Turn to Luke 14.
We live in a culture that turns Jesus into the comfort genie. Our society tells us that Jesus doesn’t mind materialism, and would never ask us to give everything we have away. Our culture tells us Jesus wouldn’t expect us to forsake our closest relationships, or even turn away from them so that He receives all our affection. Our society tells us that Jesus is happy with nominal devotion, especially a commitment that doesn’t infringe on our comforts. Our culture tells us to avoid dangerous extremes, and avoid danger altogether, regardless if it’s the only way others are going to hear the Gospel.
We live in a culture that makes cutting edge, true Christianity bland, instead of a faith that turns the world upside down. And because of that, many think they’re saved when they are not, because they are comparing their lives with those who claim to follow Christ, but are really only following the Jesus of America, and not the Jesus of the Bible who says this, in Luke 14:26-27,33, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.”
Genuine Christians are committed–real Christians are willing to do anything for Christ, true believers pay a price to follow Christ because they want to. Don’t allow the culture to lie to you about your assurance. Christians follow Christ, which means they’re willing to give up their lives, their possessions and all relationships for His sake.
3) Phony Christians confuse assurance with eternal security
People and pastors have confused the difference between assurance of salvation and eternal security. It’s true, once saved always saved, but the problem is this–just because you looked and acted like a Christian for years does not mean you’re a born again Christian.
Remember the parable of the soils where the seed of the Gospel falls on rocky or weedy ground, and the plant shoots up and looks real? But trials and the pleasures of the world eventually choke out phony faith and show they were not saved in the first place.
People can look like the real thing for a long time but not be. Judas went out and ministered with the eleven others, shared the Gospel, and was so trusted they gave him the money box. Demas was a trusted servant of Paul until he walked away. That is why the truth of once saved always saved, the truth of eternal security, is never to be used as assurance. Eternal security and assurance of salvation are different truths.
Eternal security is a positional truth. It is based upon the work of Christ and the Word of God. From the book you read this week, it is external, objective fact–something God does for us that we can’t undo. But assurance of salvation is a practical truth, a truth that is experienced. Assurance of salvation is based on the direction of your life and the internal subjective nature of our relationship with God.
Let me state it a different way–eternal security is based upon God’s decision to save you. But assurance of salvation is based upon your direction to head toward Christ or away from Christ. If you’re headed toward Christ, then you have assurance. But if your life is headed away from Christ, you will lack assurance.
Some wrongly view assurance of salvation as a box–once I am saved, I am in the box and I can live any way I like in the box, and I will be secure because I can’t lose my salvation. But the New Testament views assurance as a direction. If I am headed toward Christ, I have assurance. If I head away from Christ, then I lose assurance, and only God knows whether I’m secure or not in the box.
Jesus tells us this fact–His sheep follow Him. He says in John 10:27, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” Our salvation is held secure because of the work of Christ, but I experience the reality of my salvation because of the Spirit manifesting Himself through my heart and lifestyle.
This is why there are repeated warnings not to be deceived into thinking I am saved, or a friend is saved, or my child is saved when they live defiantly disobedient. It’s not because they walked an aisle, prayed a prayer, have feelings for God, made a decision at camp, confess Christ or go to church. The Bible lists none of those as assurance.
Bad theology has deceived many into thinking they’re saved, when in fact they are not. Then finally . . .
4) Phony Christians think their practices save them
Again, a true Christian is born again–that means they are totally different internally. They may look the same, but they are not. They have different values, motives, treasures and loves. But sadly, many Christian practices today undermine our understanding of Biblical assurance.
Walking an aisle, praying a prayer, or signing a card do not make you a Christian. God makes you a Christian from the inside out, and when it’s real, Christ shows through–He leaks out.
Believing right doctrine does not save you–even demons believe good doctrine, and James says they fear God as well, but they’re not saved. Being dedicated to Christ doesn’t make you a Christian. There are those who will say, “Lord, Lord, we did all this in Your name.” They’re dedicated! Attending a good church like Diotrephes did doesn’t make you a Christian, nor serving a spiritual leader, like Demas did for Paul, doesn’t make you a Christian.
Even zealously running to Jesus, kneeling down and asking how you might be saved doesn’t save you, like the rich young ruler. Being a good person, a family man, a loyal wife, a happy church attender, a Bible study attendee–no, the Pharisees lived better than you, and most of them did not get saved.
The Bible even warns us that there is a phony faith and a worldly repentance that does not save you. No, God must transform you internally, and when He does, you will have a new heart that hates sin and loves righteousness. You will want to depend on Him for everything, turn from your sin and willingly follow Him anywhere He leads.
Second Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” So what does genuine assurance look like?
Second Clarify the certainty
How are we assured? How can we help those we love who are unsure? What do we say to those who are confused? And how do we help those who say they love Christ but live like non-Christians? Tell them this . . .
1) Genuine Christians have a new heart that wants to obey
Turn to Romans 6:17. My computer looks the same, but it is not the same. We changed it from Windows XP to Windows 7, and now it is a totally different and better computer. But it still looks the same. That’s what happened to you when you got saved. You look the same on the outside, but you have a totally new system internally. You may still look like a Volkswagen, but you have a Lamborghini engine.
Romans 6:17 says, “But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed.” When Christ saves you, a sinner, He gives you a new heart. You are transformed and your new heart wants to obey the Word of God. Genuine Christians want to follow and imitate Christ.
To accomplish that, true believers will rely upon the Holy Spirit. Once you become a Christian, the person of the Holy Spirit comes to indwell you, and when He does, He manifests His fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and self control. The Spirit teaches you to discern truth from error.
The Spirit creates a heart of submission and thankfulness. The Spirit creates a humility causing you not to trust yourself, but only trust in God, His Word and Godly people around you. The Spirit causes you to cry out to God as our Abba Daddy. Do you have a new heart that wants to follow Christ in all things?
2) Genuine Christians are committed
Like Rudy’s commitment to Notre Dame football . . .
Like Star Trek groupies who dress up and go to conventions . . .
Like Raiders football fans who act unruly . . .
All true Christians are committed to Christ and His work. Matthew 16:24 says, “Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.’” You cannot be His disciple unless you are willing to lose your own life and follow Christ, even unto death. That’s commitment.
When life is hard, or you’re rejected or persecuted, you still follow Him. And no matter what, you will confess Christ openly, no secret Christians. You are not on fire or radical if you confess Christ openly, you are just a normal, average, everyday, run-of-the-mill believer, because all true Christians are committed to Christ.
Matthew 10:32-33 says, “Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.”
3) Genuine Christians enjoy a loving relationship with Christ
How many of you have eternal life? If you do, then you personally know Jesus Christ. All those who enjoy assurance know Christ personally. They walk with Him and talk with Him–that’s salvation. John 17:3 says, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”
My favorite person on the planet is Jean Mueller–she’s so cute. She’s my best friend, wife, lover, counselor, critic, encourager, and so much more. She knows, no matter where I go, what I do, or who I am with, she knows I would rather be with her than anyone.
Every genuine Christian has that same feeling about Jesus Christ. Even when you fail to, true believers would rather be with Christ than anyone else, anytime, anywhere. True Christians are first overwhelmed by Christ’s love for us, and as a result, we love Him back. We love because He first loved us. Christ becomes our first love in every love. So when we compare our love for Christ to our love for our family or our friends, our love for Christ is so much greater it makes all our other loves look like hate in comparison.
No matter if you are a baby Christian or an older Christian, you will commune with Him in His Word, speak with Him in prayer, depend on Him for wisdom, rely on Him for strength, trust Him with our concerns, and walk with Him every day. You have a real, genuine, intimate relationship with Christ.
4) Genuine Christians war with sin
Genuine Christians don’t make a practice of excusing sin, minimizing it, ignoring it or indulging in it. Genuine Christians know their sin is not only an offense to God, but also affects everyone around them and all they do. Genuine Christians don’t use confession and repentance as free passes to gloss over sin, but recognize that they grieve and quench the Holy Spirit, harm their testimony, hurt their fellow Christians, and reap what they sow with their sinful choices.
So true Christians flee sin, confess sin, repent of sin, stay accountable with others about sin, and generally find themselves in a battle with temptation and sin every single day. Light and dark do not coexist–once you become a child of light, you will war with the darkness, you will not want to live in sin. Paul called himself the least of the apostles, the least of the saints, and the foremost (continually) of sinners.
In Romans 7, the battle with sin is fierce, but with it comes some encouragement Hear me, those who are always doubting–the battle and struggle with sin itself is evidence of salvation, because it makes it clear whose side you’re on. When you stop battling, give up, capitulate, say “What’s the use?“–that is when you lose your assurance. Stay in the fight, confess, repent, follow counsel or get accountable–that is evidence of assurance.
5) Genuine Christians obey God’s Word
The Word of God tells us the will of God. The Bible tells us what God wants. The Bible tells us what is best for us. The Bible shows us what is important. The Bible is the only light to His path. The Bible is the only way we can discern between truth and error. The Bible is the only route to living stable and growing mature. And obeying the Bible is the same as obeying Jesus Christ. The Bible is Christ’s words and is Christ’s commands. And if you are going to please Jesus Christ, then you are going to obey the New Testament commands. You are going to follow the teaching of the New Testament Scripture, you are going to take obedience seriously.
First John 2:3-4 says, “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” And the Bible is the window to intimacy with Christ. Real Christians don’t mess with the Bible. They don’t re-write the Bible in order to get what they want, or ignore the Bible so they can do what they want. True Christians obey the Bible, even when it hurts. And they obey, not because God is more pleased, but because God is already pleased with them and gave them a heart to obey.
6) Genuine Christians live by the Gospel
True believers see an increase of Christ and grace, and a decrease of self and sin. Genuine Christians see their own sin as worse and worse, and see God’s grace as our only hope of survival. Christians go lower and lower and Christ goes higher and higher. Christians depend less on themselves and more on Him as Christ increases and the Christian decreases. Christians increasingly see themselves as nothing and Christ as everything.
The cross is our only hope and everything else doesn’t matter. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 2:2, “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” Genuine believers are less and less comfortable here and more and more longing for heaven. Real believers can’t wait for Jesus to return and look for Him to return passionately. Real Christians love the Gospel, love hearing testimonies, are so thankful for their salvation that other issues (struggles) become less and less important. It’s not about rules but about relationship.
True Christians love other Christians because they themselves are just as sinful as other Christians who might offend them. They know they are no better or worse than others. We’re all sinful to the core of our being and need a gracious Savior. Like Paul said to Timothy, he says it to you in 2 Timothy 2:1, “You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”
7) Genuine Christians are unstoppable
As 1 John 2:19 says, “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.” There are people who walk away from Christ and they show it. They walk away from the Church, from God’s people, from obedience, from ministry, from fellowship. They come up with, “I don’t need the church, I have my faith, I prayed a prayer once . . . .” But this is the opposite of what Jesus teaches. To those who become believers in the Tribulation, Jesus says in Mark 13, those who endure to the end will be saved.
Demas didn’t endure . . . Judas didn’t endure . . . the gospel seed sown on the weedy and rocky soil didn’t endure. But true Christians endure. They don’t give up. Even when it costs them their lives, they don’t deny Christ. True believers say with Peter, “Lord, where would we go, you have the words of eternal life.”
True believers know that people will fail us, the world will hate us, Christians will hurt us, but Jesus will never let us go. Are you assured of your salvation? Remember . . .
#1 Everyone’s testimony is unique
Some know the time, date and exact details, others know the year they started as a non-Christian and ended as a Christian. God works differently, but all can be assured they are truly His.
#2 Ask every doubter to compare their life to 1 John
John told us why he wrote his first letter in 5:13, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” The major tests of this letter are OLDES: obedience, love, doctrine, endurance and spirit manifestation–read the letter if you are unsure and repent of those areas you fall short.
#3 Pursue Christ
Ask the Lord to open your heart to see your sin, to depend on Him in faith, to turn from your sin in repentance, and to get to know Christ intimately, personally, eternally, relationally forever. Christ is life.
#4 Rejoice in His grace
As God’s true child, God’s grace is available to you on your best day and your worst day–when you’re doubting and when you’re assured. That is because Christ fully satisfied God’s justice and fully paid the penalty for our sin when He died in our place. God cares when you disobey. We grieve Him, hurt ourselves, our family and our church. He disciplines us, but God’s kindness and blessings are not dependent on our performance.
Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace, and your best days are never so good that you’re beyond the need of God’s grace. Rejoice in His grace.
#5 What does Biblical assurance reveal about your salvation?
Are you a genuine Christian or a phony Christian?
Are you a real believer or a make-believer?
Are you certain or unsure?
Do you pass the test–is Christ in you?
Are you proven–is Christ growing you?
Are you a follower of Christ?
Have you been transformed by Christ?