Here are two very important questions to consider when we think of the faith journey; “What triggers a decision to be born again, a decision of the non-yet-Christian, or is it God’s decision?”
The second question is even more controversial, “Is belief in Jesus enough to be born again?”
The Spiritual Journey
It’s been my observation that the spiritual journey generally has these elements or stages, although they may not necessarily happen in this order.
1.We come to believe certain basic information about Jesus to be true – that he loves us in spite of our sin, that he was and is the Son of God, died for us on the cross, rose from the dead and lives today and wants to have an eternity long love relationship with us.
2. We understand in a deeper way just how sinful we are and what our sin choices have done to God, to us and others and we’re out of answers as to what to do about it ourselves. In desperation and brokenness, we sincerely ask Jesus to forgive us and change us and take control of our lives.
3. We respond with childlike steps of obedience – we stop doing some of the things we know are wrong and begin trying to imitate, or act like Jesus. We begin this dynamic and often roller-coaster relationship with Christ – learning, failing, confessing, and repenting. In addition, we are constantly experimenting with living out these new-found virtues of love, generosity, forgiveness and grace. We still sin and fail, but generally we’re moving forward.
4. At some point in this process, perhaps even before #1, God declares us righteous, because of what Jesus has done. The Holy Spirit creates a new spirit within us, the “old man”, our sinful rebellious spirit dies and we are born again. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” II Cor. 5:17
But, when does “salvation” happen?
The longer stage #3 is lived out, the more confidence one can have that #4 (being born-again), has actually happened. If we “fall away” that is, lose our love for Jesus and the desire to live for him, and obey God, then there’s a good chance this experiment with Jesus, was just that. Like the seed that fell on rocky soil in another parable of Jesus, in Luke 8, it flourished for a while but eventually died. In fact, it could well be that we do not yet truly believe and stage #4 will not happen until we demonstrate our faith, in stage #3 ways.
I believe, as do all true Christians, we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ alone. But, my definition of faith is “courageous obedience to the teachings of God”. (Including above all, believing in his Son as our Savior.) Inherent in that definition is risk taking and action. Faith that does not result in a significant change in how one lives, was probably not salvational faith in the first place. “Faith without works is dead.”
God’s choice or man’s?
While it’s clear that we must make these critical decisions along the way, it is usually unclear exactly when we are born again. This I do believe – ultimately it is God’s choice when to grant salvation, not man’s. We might like to think that we made “our decision” at an evangelistic meeting or summer camp which gave us great joy and temporarily increased our devotion to God but, that may, or may not have been the true moment of our salvation.
It could also be that stages #1, #2 and #3, happened almost simultaneously, but God is waiting to see if we truly demonstrate, or live out our faith, before he declares us righteous. While we know the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, all join together to make salvation possible, the truth is, it is a mystery exactly, and in what sequence, this happens.
Here’s why this discussion matters; when we have an evangelistic meeting, I think it’s dangerous to declare, “Today you can settle this issue forever and know that you have salvation”. Better to say, “Today you can begin a spiritual journey toward God by… and then describe the spiritual journey I described in Part I of this blog a few days ago.” Call people to a spiritual journey and do not do, what only God can do – declare them righteous, born again and his children, without having demonstrated any real faith at all yet.
Twenty years ago I was the president of the John Guest Evangelistic Team. We conducted what we then called “crusades” all over the U.S. We chose not to say, “5,000 people gave their lives to Christ”. (How could we possibly know that?) Rather we said, “5,000 people came forward indicating a desire to begin their faith journey last week”. That seemed to us a more theologically true and intellectually honest way to describe what we observed.
What about eternal security?
“But Clare. What about this passage in I John 5:13? “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” I John 5:13 Doesn’t that say we can know for certain that we have been saved?”
Please read that passage again. What John is saying, is this; if these things I’ve written in I John 1-4 are true in your life, then “yes” you can have confidence that you are in fact born again and therefore a child of God. I believe it is dangerous to give people assurance before they’ve demonstrated, by faith, that they truly belong to God.
I believe in the doctrine of eternal security. But, I worry that more people claim to have it, than should.
Question: I’d enjoy hearing your comments. What do you think?
Following Jesus in Real Life