Anxious about whether he was really saved, North Carolina pastor J. D. Greear kept asking Jesus into his heart—it must have been several thousand times, he says—until he came to put his faith in the truth of the gospel instead. The difference is subtle but fundamental, and Greear does a real service by getting it across clearly in Stop Asking Jesus into Your Heart: How to Know for Sure You Are Saved (B&H Books).
Asking Jesus into your heart by praying some version of the Sinner's Prayer, in which you acknowledge your sin and need of salvation and then accept Jesus as your Savior, has become something of an evangelical ritual. It can mark the moment of salvation—"the hour I first believed," as the great hymn says. But like any ritual, we can wonder whether we've done it right—whether we were sincere enough and really meant it. At that point it becomes a kind of good work, something we do to get saved. And like every good work, it's not good enough to assure us of salvation.
Greear is not saying it's wrong to ask Jesus into your heart. He's saying it's not the same thing as believing the gospel. And if we want to be assured of salvation, it's believing the gospel that actually counts. We are saved by faith alone, not by doing a good enough job praying the Sinner's Prayer.
The Heart's Posture
It was reading Martin Luther that brought the difference into focus for him. Greear speaks in very Lutheran terms when he says, "Saving faith looks outside of itself to what Christ has done, not back onto itself at what it has done." For the gospel is not about us and the decisions we make—not even our decision to choose Christ—but rather about Christ himself, his finished work on the cross and his sitting on the throne of heaven, where he himself is our all-sufficient righteousness before God.
Of course, we do make decisions, and they have their importance. Some people can narrate a specific moment of conversion, and such a moment may have included praying the Sinner's Prayer. But other people, Greear recognizes, grew up in a Christian home and learned to believe the gospel at such a young age that they cannot remember any decisive "moment of salvation," and they are none the worse off for that. What matters is believing the gospel of Christ, not remembering when you first believed.
Greear provides a helpful analogy here. He asks us to think of faith as a kind of "heart posture." Like the physical posture of sitting, it began at a specific moment. But if you want assurance that you really are sitting, do you try to remember when you first sat down, or do you make a point of noticing where you're resting your weight right now? Well, faith is resting the weight of your soul on Christ and his finished work. It's not totally irrelevant to remember when you first rested your weight in that posture, but it's not the most helpful question to ask. Just as you may truly be in a sitting posture without remembering when you first decided to sit down, you may have true faith even if you can't remember making a decision for Christ.
This is helpful, but of course it does not solve every problem. It's always possible to worry whether your current posture really is one of faith and repentance—those two inseparable biblical requirements that Greear aptly summarizes as belief in the gospel and surrendering to the lordship of Christ. What if you have not repented and do not truly believe?
Faith That Perseveres
This is an important matter, as Greear emphasizes by rejecting the perverse new version of the doctrine of eternal security, according to which salvation is a moment of decision that compels God to save you even if you later abandon the Christian faith altogether. Here Greear affirms, with the Calvinist tradition, that true saving faith is necessarily a faith that perseveres. The life of faith involves ongoing struggles with sin and doubt, and may include periods of backsliding as well, but it is always a life that ends in faith, not unbelief. This is the original Calvinist doctrine of eternal security: It is true that we are "once saved, always saved," but this is precisely because saving faith is always faith that perseveres to the end.
As John Calvin himself put it, there is a difference between saving faith and temporary faith. This difference, which Greear doesn't explicitly mention, is the source of Calvinist anxieties about the assurance of salvation. The assumption is that these two sorts of faith are fundamentally different, and that there is some way of telling them apart, at least in your own case. To see the anxieties this generates, imagine asking yourself, "How do I know that my current posture is going to last? I am sitting now, but is there any decision I now make that will guarantee I keep sitting? I am resting the weight of my soul on Jesus now, but how can I be sure that I will keep doing this until the end of my life?"
What makes Calvinism distinctive within Christianity is its conviction that this question can actually be answered. According to Calvinism each one of us, in our own case, can have assurance of eternal salvation because we can know whether we have true saving faith. This is, of course, tantamount to knowing we are predestined for salvation—another issue Greear does not raise. Here is where Calvin parts company with Augustine, his great predecessor: not in the doctrine of predestination itself, but in the conviction that we can know we are among the elect, eternally saved in this life because God has predestined us for salvation. And we can know this precisely by knowing that we have true saving faith, not the temporary kind.
All the Way with Luther
This conviction is meant to be reassuring. But it can also just as easily cause anxieties. These are addressed by a distinctively Calvinist tradition of pastoral care, which focuses precisely on the problem of assurance of salvation. Great books have been written on this topic, such as Jonathan Edwards's Treatise on Religious Affections. But it is helpful to recognize the distinctively Calvinist setting of the problem. Other traditions, with other assumptions, end up with different anxieties and a different set of pastoral problems. Catholics, for instance, have traditionally worried about being in a state of mortal sin—a problem addressed by the practice of sacramental confession. And Luther urged people in times of trial and doubt to stay away from all thought of predestination, returning instead to the promise of Christ in their baptism.
Greear's book goes about as far in Luther's direction as is possible for a committed Calvinist. The price for going all the way with Luther is dropping the notion that you can know in advance that your faith will persevere, and joining Luther (as well as Augustine) in believing that salvation is not complete until our faith actually does persevere to the end. What you get, for that price, is the freedom for faith to continue to "look outside itself" at Christ alone and not "back onto itself," not even for the sake of telling the difference between temporary and saving faith. What you lose is eternal security, the assurance that you are already saved for eternity.
Every tradition has its distinctive anxieties, the price it pays for its distinctive convictions. For my part, I go all the way with Luther, for I think Christian faith puts faith in Christ alone—and not even a little bit in itself. And I think we should pay any price for such faith.
Phillip Cary is professor of philosophy at Eastern University, and author of Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don't Have to Do (Brazos Press).
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