Are you sure you’re saved? All of us, I suspect, have asked ourselves this question at some time or another. If you’re anything like me, you might have prayed the “sinner’s prayer” a few dozen times just to make sure that one of your salvations “took,” kinda like sending that sweater through the wash again just to be sure that stain’s out.
We’ve been talking this week about “abiding.” Abiding means staying close to Jesus, to immerse ourselves in his character and his teaching. So how can we be really sure we “abide?”
YOUR OWN PERSONAL JESUS
No one, not even the Beatles, will ever be more famous or more widely known than Jesus Christ. He is the central figure of all human history. Even our calendars are organized around the periods of “B.C” (“before Christ”) and “A.D.” (annulus Dei, the “year of our Lord”).
But who is this man? What do we say about him? As much as religion has been pushed to the corners and margins of our society, it’s a pretty safe bet that your friends and neighbors might echo many of the cultural assumptions that circulate about Jesus. From the “Jesus fish” on your minivan to the “Jesus is my homeboy” t-shirts sold at Urban Outfitters, Jesus stands somewhere between fashion statement and cultural icon. Rapper Kanye West famously appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine with a crown of thorns, promoting his hit song “Jesus Walks.”
Years ago the question we were asking was: “Should we believe in Jesus or not?” High-minded academics used to describe themselves standing at the edge of “an ugly broad ditch.” On one side was the Christ of history. On the other stood the Christ of faith. They could believe in a historical man named Jesus, but…miracles? Resurrection? These proved too difficult to believe. But today’s world has made the jump, it seems. We’ve leapt across the ditch only to find ourselves in a hall of mirrors. Everyone has “their own personal Jesus,” a personalized savior for a nation of rugged individuals. And so we find ourselves like the Roman guard of Oscar Wilde’s play about the life of Christ: “[Jesus] is everywhere,” he tells King Herod, “and we cannot find him.”
ABIDING AND BELIEF
We can’t possibly say enough about the similarities between our world and the ancient one. John was writing from the city of Ephesus. But even the believers living in the city understood only the teachings of John the Baptist:
And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. 2 And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” (Acts 19:1-3)
They had the part, not the whole. Paul had to explain to them that John’s baptism only pointed toward someone greater—Jesus himself. It was this sort of halfway-religious world that John found himself in, though John would see both Peter and Paul die while he carried on. Perhaps motivated by this, perhaps urged on by friends, John penned a biography of Jesus that we now know as the gospel of John. But John wrote other parts of our Bibles as well, such as the enigmatic book of Revelation and a series of letters we know as “1, 2, and 3 John.”
The first letter John wrote was about this exact topic. The people in John’s world believed in Jesus, yes, but their image of Jesus was shaped by cultural forces and personal expectation. If you read 1 John, you see that much of what John writes is a swirling meditation on the unity between proper belief and Christian conduct.
13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. (1 John 4:13-15)
You’ll notice, of course, that John uses the same image here of “abiding” in Christ. And what evidence does John give for knowing we abide? Because we have the Spirit, he tells us; the same Spirit the believers that Paul had encountered didn’t even know about. But John continues. He emphasizes that proper belief in Jesus is the key to abiding. To believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man—this is, according to John, the starting point of an abiding relationship with God.
Christianity is a religion of belief, not works. We know this, and yet we may often feel tempted to think ourselves unworthy of God’s love because we lack the right credentials, or because we just don’t feel spiritual enough. Maybe we even wrestle with repeated sins, feeling disqualified from active faith because we can never seem to get it right. All of these things are worthy to address as we mature in our faith. But they are not the measurements of our faith. The assurance of our salvation is not the quality or quantity of our faith; it’s the object of our faith. Understanding who Jesus is—that is, knowing him to be God in human skin—this is the essential foundation of our faith. Why? Because only God could go to the cross to offer an infinite sacrifice to pay our infinite debt, and God must do this as a human being to atone for the sin of Adam.
Faith produces confidence. Theology—the act of studying and learning about God—isn’t just an exercise of ivory-tower academics. It’s for all of us. Just as food means more to those who are hungry, just as air means more to those who are choking, so does faith mean more to those who are doubting. For doubt is not the opposite of faith. No, the opposite of faith is actually speculation, the art of bending the truth to fit our own private assumptions and felt needs. Doubt is not the opposite of faith, but its absence. And so in the darkness of our mind’s eye, Christ’s truth shines with clarity, with radiance, with beauty.