One of the saddest facts about contemporary Christianity is the large number of people who were raised in conservative, evangelical homes and have since left the faith. They can often point to an event in their childhood in which they "accepted Jesus as their Savior," and for a while, at least, appeared to be honest, sincere believers. Today they are not in the church. What happened?
Is it possible for a genuine believer to lose his salvation? Or were they not really saved to begin with? Or were they not really saved in the first place? Whatever the individual case may happen to be, we suspect that there are, in fact, many professing Christians, many of them still active members of evangelical churches, who are not genuine believers. Jesus Himself said, "Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!" (Matt. 7:22,23; NKJV).
There are a number of reasons for this state of affairs. First of all, many churches do not do a very good job of explaining the gospel clearly. Anxious to attract new members in an increasingly secularized and materialistic society, many pastors are reluctant to talk about sin, and thus leave the central issue in salvation unclear. In many cases young children, ages four and five, are pressed to "invite Jesus into their hearts" when they are probably too young to understand what the issues are. Our general observation is that people who make professions of faith at age four are generally not Christians at age twenty four. To further confuse matters, if a young person was raised in a strong Christian home, he may not have had a very strong consciousness of sin and guilt – as far as he can remember he always tried to do what was right. Sometimes young people raised in Christian homes get the impression that "being saved" or "having a personal relationship with Jesus" basically means being active in church and trying to do the right thing.
Very often young people who grow up in this environment have what amount to a second-hand faith. They know how they are supposed to think and act, and may genuinely want to please their elders. But it isn't until they have left home and are exposed to the broader world, and are forced to start thinking for themselves that their true spiritual state becomes apparent. And in all too many cases they wind up falling by the wayside.
All of which raises the question, what is true, saving faith? What makes a person a genuine Christian?
First of all, true saving faith is not a mere mental assent to a set of doctrinal propositions. "Even the demons believe – and tremble!" (James 2:19). In that sense Satan is a far better theologian than any mortal human being. He knows the truth, and yet it does him no good.
Nor is faith a blind leap into the dark – belief in something for which there is no evidence, as our atheist friends like to say. The Bible does, in fact, present rational arguments for belief in God.
Nor is faith a matter of self-effort or self-improvement. On the contrary, faith is the very opposite of works. "But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness" (Rom. 4:5).
What, then, is faith? The verse just quoted gives us the answer: "believes on Him who justifies the ungodly." Faith looks away from oneself to another – to Someone who is able to save. It is a trust and confidence in God's willingness and ability to do something to help us. Specifically, in this case, it is faith in Christ, a firm trust and reliance on Him and the merits of His shed blood to secure for us the forgiveness of our sins and make us right with God.
Paul goes on to explain, citing the example of Abraham. Abraham had been given a promise by God that he would become "a father of many nations." Humanly speaking, it did not seem possible – his wife was well past her child bearing years. But Abraham reasoned that God is omnipotent – He "gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did" (v. 17). He then deduce from this that "what He had promised He was able to perform" (v. 21).
|Abraham receives God's promise of a son.
Thus true, saving faith is based on prior knowledge – what Abraham understood God to be and what God had promised; and it resulted in concrete action – Abraham demonstrated his faith by acting on God's promise. But it was fundamentally confidence in what God would do, not an exercise of Abrahams own ability or effort.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism sums it up well when it says: "Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel" (Q. 86).