Summer is here. One of the things that summer brings is a little extra time for reading, at least for me. There is no school to substitute in during the summer break. So I spend a little time reading the things that my friends post on the social media - particularly Facebook (the only one of those social media I have any involvement in). I was drawn to a discussion sparked by an article in a "Christian" blog ("blog" means "web log", an internet feature that allows anyone to write about anything they want, at almost any length they want, and if it attracts the attention of others, they can often comment on what was written). This particular blog posting (an article, more or less, for those who do not use the internet) was wrestling with the question of how one can know for sure that they are really a "Christian".
The answer offered in the article was a list of things that being a Christian works in a believer, as the author understood the Scriptures. It included moral reform and a sense of peace, and God filling you up, and such things as those. I tried to locate the original article, but I could not find it. Searching the internet, however, showed me a number of other responses to the question. For example, the following is part of one response. I have edited it to shorten it a bit:
• You will not walk in darkness. [I assume they meant "spiritual" or moral darkness] If you do, then you do not practice or live by the truth (1 John 1:6)
• You will have fellowship with other Christians (1 John 1:7)
• You recognize your sinful nature (1 John 1:8,10)
• You confess your sins (1 John 1:9)
• You obey and keep his commandments (1 John 2:3,5 ,1 John 3:24)
• You will not hate your brother or sister but love them (1 John 2:9,11)
• You will not love the world or the things of the world (1 John 2:15)
• You will do the will of God (1 John 2:17)
• Biblical truth will be abiding in you (1 John 2:24)
• You understand the righteousness of Christ (1 John 2:29)
• You will be practicing righteousness (1 John 2:29)
• You will not habitually practice sin (1 John 3:8,9, 1 John 5:18 )
• You will have compassion for those in need (1 John 3:17)
• You believe that Jesus is the Christ and is the Son of God (1 John 5:1)
• You abide in the doctrine of Christ (2 John 1:9)
Other questions to ask yourself are:
• Am I growing in holiness?
• What is my relationship with sin?
• Do I have a struggle with sin or do I justify it? (Read Romans 7:7-25). Struggling with sin is actually a good sign believe it or not
• Do I hate it more and more or do I try and justify it?
• Do I have a love for God's Word, the Bible?
• Do I hunger and thirst for righteousness?
• Do I embrace biblical correction from someone else?
• Do I have a concern for the lost?
The answer on-line was quite a bit longer, and there were several different articles with answers listed on the search, each having their own list and qualifications. At least one listing came from a group that was not Christian, but Jehovah's Witness. I could identify the theology of that one because the author did not believe in Sunday worship, the immortality of the soul, Christmas, Easter, going to heaven, or the Bible as the only authoritative written Word from God - each of which are Jehovah's Witness doctrines. For them, you could tell you were NOT a Christian if you believed any of those things.
The striking thing about the lists (other than the J.W. one) was that the measure of whether one was a Christian or not was largely what one did. In other words, it measured your works-righteousness. Now, if your read the list carefully, you will find that at least some of the questions and the descriptions seem to be reasonable. You have probably heard these questions in sermons or from people you would identify as Christian. They are, in many cases, grounded in Scripture, as the citations of various passages (and I shortened the number of those some, too) would indicate. They feel right. The problem I see with the lists is that they apply the law (telling you what you are to do, or not do, or how you are to be) to the Gospel. That was the issue in Galatians, and the Apostle Paul responded to the attempt to do that back then with the following words, "I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ." Galatians 1:6-7.
Part of the problem is that different theological traditions (denominations or church bodies) mean different things when they use the same words. The question, "How do you know for sure that you are a Christian?", does not define any of the terms. That allows a Lutheran to read it in a Lutheran fashion, and a Baptist to read it according to Baptist teachings, and any other kind of person to read it according to the things they have been taught to believe.
Let me illustrate: What does it mean by "how do I know"? What is meant by "Christian"? Since Lutherans understand being a Christian as the work of God through Word and Sacrament, and a Baptist-type believes that being a Christian is a matter of human choice and will, first and foremost, 'how do I know' becomes a different process for each. Being a "Christian" means receiving a gift for the Lutheran, and doing the required thing(s) for the Baptist/Protestant. One can identify the gifts of God and, because they are given in specific, God-promised ways, one can tell if those "means" have been applied or used, but if it is a matter of the human will, one has to search out whether the will has been used, used properly, applied consistently, and have accomplished the desired goal thoroughly enough.
When it comes to the measure of the human will or behavior, one always confronts what Martin Luther dubbed "The Monster of Uncertainty" (monstrum incertitudinis). You can never measure your own believing-ness or be certain that you have met that unknown measure of whatever it is you need to do to be saved. If you need to do good works, you may work very hard at doing them, but, in the end, you are never quite sure that you have done enough, or done the right things, or done them well-enough to pass. After all, this is eternal life we are talking about. This inescapable uncertainty is our sinful human nature measuring itself against the perfection of God and the demands of the Law. We are naturally aware of our inability to measure up, and as much we would like to, and try to believe that we have finally done all that we need to do to be saved, that uncertainty remains.
The devil, our ancient adversary, wants it that way, and he is always placing those doubts before us. He is the reason that Christians ponder the question of how they can be certain that they are, in fact, a Christian. Even when one understands the Gospel, and fully realizes that his or her salvation does not depend on his or her conduct or achievements or record, the doubts come. Even then, the reality of our sin (not to mention our individual sins) and the perfection commanded in the law of God calls the Christian to wrestle with the reality of the grace of God and their own fitness for it. The devil wants you to doubt.
All that works and decision theology leaves you with is a sense of how you are doing, or, in other words, your feelings. Sometimes your feelings are good, and sometimes they are not. In times of crisis and trouble, feelings tend to fail us because we feel the crisis and we sense the trouble, and our flesh (and the old evil foe) accuse us and try to insist that God is behind our trouble and judging our sins and we have failed to measure up.
So we have the question of how can we tell if we are truly a Christian or not. Searching for the answer led the Roman Church to the doctrine of Purgatory. You can never be quite sure, when it depends on you, so purgatory gives you a second chance, as it were. You work off your sins and finally you get to go to heaven, even if you don't measure up completely - and after all, who does? Jesus, the Apostles, some saints, and maybe the Pope. Everyone else has a burden to bear and must finally pay for their sins at least a little, and then they will enter into the bliss of heaven. It may take a couple thousand, or millions of years, but you'll get there.
The decision people, and the other works-righteousness people, have their lists in which they can take comfort, or find terror. They adjust their sights, tweak the expectations, and try to find a way around the monster. Ultimately they either despair or throw it all into Jesus' hands and hope in Him (which is a good thing to do).
You will notice I have spent three pages discussing the non-Lutheran answers to the question, and left myself very little room for the Lutheran answer. That was not an accident. The Lutheran answer is really very short. It is the Gospel. God knew we would not be able to carry the least part of our salvation, so He did it all. Jesus lived. Jesus kept the Law. Jesus died for our sins and in our place, taking all the wrath of God for us. Jesus rose from the grave on Easter. He has saved us and gives us eternal life and salvation. He that believes and is baptized shall be saved.
How do you know if you are a Christian - really, honest to goodness and genuine Christian? Ask yourself: Do you know the Gospel? Have you heard about Jesus and the forgiveness of sins? Are you aware that He did EVERYTHING you need done for your salvation and has given it to you by grace? Do you believe it? Do you take God at His Word and expect Him to do everything He has promised to do on account of what Jesus has done in His life, death, and resurrection? Then you are a real, honest-to-goodness, bona-fide, Christian.
Do you feel Christian at every moment? Probably not. Do your feelings change what Jesus has done? Nope. Are you able to measure up to those bullet points above? Probably not, certainly not all of the time. Does your sin and weakness disable Jesus and erase the Gospel. No Way! The fact that you might ponder the question suggests that you care what the answer is, and probably means, at least for a Lutheran, that you expect your salvation by grace, through faith! Others expect their salvation for other reasons. Lutherans expect it completely because of Jesus and what He did and suffered, and the promises of God throughout Scripture. The gifts of God in the Word and in the Sacraments fill you with the forgiveness and with the Holy Spirit, and with the grace of God. God confirms His promise to you every time He feeds you with Christ's body and gives you to drink of His blood.
Luther is said to have thrown his ink-well at the devil in a time of spiritual trial. Wrestling with the question is not a sign of no faith, it is a sign that the devil is trying to shake you and cause you to doubt and fear. Luther said that when that happens, you look away from yourself and your feelings to "the naked Word of God" and find your comfort there. Did God say that Christ paid the penalty? YES. Has God spoken to you in the absolution? YES. Has He fed you, and washed you and called you by name? YES. Can anyone snatch you out of His hand? NO.
By grace through faith: not on account of your faith, or "if you believe strongly enough", but by grace, on account of Jesus, through faith. Do I get to go to heaven? That's the real question. The answer is, Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so!
Yours in the Lord,
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