So You Think You're A Christian?

By Erik Thoennes Aug. 12, 2011 12:26 p.m. Ethics, Evangelism, Spiritual Formation, Theology

My favorite question to ask Christians is how they came to trust in Christ. The answers I've heard testify to the diverse experiences God uses to bring people into a relationship with himself. Most commonly, people say they trusted him as a child at camp or at Sunday school or while praying with a parent. They often follow with something like, "But my faith really became my own when I was a junior in high school."

How are we to understand this variety of experiences and the apparent two-stage process many seem to undergo in arriving at saving faith?

The term saved is popularly used to refer to regeneration and justification. But when the Bible uses the word salvation in a spiritual sense, it describes the broad range of God's activity in rescuing people from sin and restoring them to a right relationship with himself. Salvation in the Bible thus has past, present, and future tenses. A believer has been saved from the guilt of sin (justification, see Eph. 2:8), is being saved from the power of sin (sanctification, see 1 Cor. 1:18), and will be saved from the judgment and presence of sin (glorification, see Acts 15:11).

While the subjective experience of being saved may look very different from person to person, the objective state of being saved is definite and absolute. From God's perspective, there is a definitive point in time when those who have trusted in Christ pass from death into life (1 John 3:14).

Whether or not one can remember the moment of spiritual rebirth, it is a miracle that initiates a number of new realities. Through the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, the spiritually dead person is made alive in Christ (Titus 3:5). The convert's filthy rags of self-righteousness have been traded for the perfect righteousness of Christ (Phil. 3:8-9). He or she can cease striving to be justified, resting instead in the finished work of Christ (Phil. 2:8-9). As Paul writes, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1). The believer has "crossed over from death to life" (John 5:24), which means the person can "have confidence on the day of judgment" (1 John 4:17).

Much of American Protestantism has been influenced by revivalism, which places great emphasis on "making a decision for Christ" in a public, definitive way. These "moments of decision" often become the crucial evidence that one is saved. Other Protestant traditions, less influenced by revivalism (including some Reformed and Lutheran churches), may be content to leave the conversion experience unclearly identified, putting the focus on identification with the church. Both of these traditions have benefits, as well as potential problems.

The decision approach rightly emphasizes the need for a personal commitment to Jesus Christ and the idea that regeneration takes place at a specific time. The potential downside is that this view can lead to a simplistic, human-centered understanding of being saved, where one depends too heavily on the specific act of trusting Christ as the primary evidence of conversion. As a result, one can doubt the "decision" was real, leading to numerous journeys down the aisle (just in case). Also, one can depend on the walk down the aisle alone, even in the absence of spiritual fruit.

On the other hand, Reformed traditions appreciate the sovereignty of God and the role of the church in the salvation process. Yet they can leave conversion so vague that the need for personal trust in Christ and a changed life is neglected.

We must allow for the varied experiences God uses to bring people to himself. As C. H. Spurgeon said, "The Spirit calls men to Jesus in diverse ways. Some are drawn so gently that they scarcely know when the drawing began, and others are so suddenly affected that their conversion stands out with noonday clearness."

For those who question their salvation, the best evidence is not the memory of having raised a hand or prayed a prayer. Nor is it having been baptized or christened. The true test of the authentic work of God is that you have an ongoing dependence on the finished work of Christ as your only hope before God. This necessarily show up in in one's life as growth in Christ-like character, increased love for God and other people, and the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-25; James 2:18). A memorable conversion experience may serve as an important referent to God's saving work in one's life. But the gospels fruit seen in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in making a person more like Jesus is the clearest indicator that one has been made a new creation in Christ.


  • Eddie J Aug. 12, 2011 at 1:01 PM

    I'd add that for the Reformed, how one knows they are saved is as to whether or not they have any faith whatsoever. If faith is a gift of God, and therein so is regeneration, than any faith means you are one of the elect!

    Holding to this position avoids the question that would arise from your conclusion: "Do I have enough trust/faith to be saved?" Faith (even a mustard seed in size) is the fruit of the Spirit we should look for, the downpayment of our salvation.

  • Erik Thoennes Aug. 12, 2011 at 2:10 PM

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment Eddie. I think this sentence in the post might address your point:

    "The true test of the authentic work of God is that you have an ongoing dependence on the finished work of Christ as your only hope before God."

  • Chad Aug. 12, 2011 at 4:05 PM


    I agree. Glad for your post. Many times I have struggled with this question of salvation, remembering my salvation experience as a child at Vacation Bible School.

    However, the memory and a desire to remember some "sense" or "feeling" of joy or cleanliness continued to escape me, bringing me into doubt and fear. That's when I looked at my life and began to question where the fruit of the spirit was.

    I looked at my conviction over sin, how I have grown in spiritual awareness, and the love and obedience that I have demonstrated in the Spirit over the years. While consistency in my obedience waxes and wanes, I have been able to see where the Spirit works in my life, and I see how I have changed in my character over the years. I have taken this as proof of my new birth, along with my belief in Christ as the one and only way to get into heaven.

    My trust is in the work of Christ. Without Him, I have nothing and am nobody. With Him, I have everything and get more than I will ever deserve. Thank you, Jesus!

    When I stand before God, I will claim the work of Christ on the Cross. It's my only hope!

  • Eddie J Aug. 13, 2011 at 1:57 PM

    Dr. Thoennes,

    I'm having trouble reconciling the last sentence of your article with the one you quoted. If our faith is the true test, then how is living like Christ the clearest indicator of regeneration? I realize that these are not necessarily contradictory statements, but they would seem to be if your reply was responding to my point.

    Or is all of this related to the question posed in your 2nd paragraph? Where one's faith becomes confirmed, or "made one's own," by the evidence of works of the Spirit in our lives. Therefore you're not setting up two tests for one's salvation, but rather the *experience* of this salvation "becoming one's own."

    Thank you for your consistently thoughtful theological teaching at Biola. I've only heard good things about you from when you started right before I graduated!

  • Alice C. Linsley Aug. 14, 2011 at 7:17 AM

    The Apostles in their writings make it clear that unless you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the fulfillment of the Edenic Promise (Gen. 3:15), you can not be saved and you are "Christian" in name only.

  • Gandy Aug. 15, 2011 at 5:06 PM

    "But the gospels fruit seen in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in making a person more like Jesus is the clearest indicator that one has been made a new creation in Christ."

    So does this mean that the evidence of salvation is a continual upward trend of holiness, in either a linear or spiral fashion? If so, how does this relate to the Catholic view which, in my understanding, makes sanctification an aspect of justification?

  • Karl Dahlfred Aug. 16, 2011 at 10:58 AM

    Dr. Thoennes,
    This is a great post and very important for our time, both in the U.S. and overseas. In Thailand, where I serve as a missionary, the majority of Christians believe that one MUST say the sinner's prayer to be saved. However, using that as the litmus test of being a Christian confuses the very nature of saving faith.

    In thinking about this issue, I have found helpful Will Metzger's "To Tell the Truth" and Iain Murray's "Revival and Revivalism", the former more pastoral and practical, and the later filling in the historical development of revivalism and the altar call (through the mid 19th century, at least). My Th.M thesis is also on this topic, being a comparison of the nature and means of conversion in the theology of Charles Finney and John Nevin.

    Thanks again for your helpful comments on this important and relevant topic!


  • Rodd Umlauf Aug. 18, 2011 at 10:24 AM

    Knowing in ones heart, that he/she has confidence and trust in Christ's person as the Eternal Word of God who humbly became incarnate and lived and died for us and rose again to bring about the New Creation, knowing that the most important thing in our life is following His Commandments as taught in the Gospels, and loving God, walking in the Spirit and not by the can be assured that he is an authentic Christian. The continual state of Justification as we are Santified and finally glorified is the process of salvation. Those who have the obedience of faith and have faith "working in love" can be confident that they are Christians.

  • Stephen Cummins Sep. 15, 2011 at 12:14 AM

    I have a friend who genuinely tells me whenever we having a discussion about life in general, and particularly about mine he will say to me, Steve "I'm not convinced that you really know Jesus". I left off the question mark on purpose because this is not a question to me, about me, but is instead a statement of fact about his own belief concerning my status as a 'true believer in Christ'. I guess what I come away with from his assertion is this; because I have so many problems in my life, if is difficult for him to believe that I have any kind of real saving faith relationship with Christ.

    This attitude of his really bothers me on some deep 'fundamentalist' level. I think I have been judged and found 'wanting' for my lack of ability to 'measure up' to some sort of 'cookie-cutter' Christian dogma that 'real Christians' don't have man-made-up psychiatric disorders, and if they do have some sort of 'mental instability' it is because I don't really know the biblical Jesus (like the Jesus of the bible that he knows and has an intimate relationship with).

    I'm sure that he is certain if I only knew Jesus like he does, then my earthly 'troubles' would soon pale in comparison to the revelation of the unsurpassed glory of the risen Christ, manifesting within me by the presence of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Renewing me and creating a Christ centered partnership within me, a newness of hope, and joy abundant every single day of my life.

    For the Christian, the proper attitude is that we "count if all joy" when we encounter and suffer from various trials afflictions and tribulations.

    I have it all backwards, the life of ease, comfort and pleasure is not the storybook ending for a good and faithful servant. The crucible where the best real 'life-lessons' are 'drop-forged', and subsequently 'hammered out' takes place when a man figures out the difference between what is good for a man, and what is 'best' for mankind. These lessons, are best learned through toils, hardships, deprivations, job-losses, kidney stones, phlebitis, mental breakdowns and marital instability.


  • Tim Feb. 16, 2012 at 12:56 PM

    I loved this post. It cleared up a lot of things for me as I used to be one of those kids who got "saved" (raised my hand, went down the altar, prayed a prayer) many times for fear of not having "done it right" the first time.

    I would like to ask though, a clarifying question regarding the statement: "The true test of the authentic work of God is that you have an ongoing dependence on the finished work of Christ as your only hope before God."

    While I wholeheartedly agree with this statement, my only question is in regards to what follows: "This necessarily show up in in one's life as growth in Christ-like character, increased love for God and other people, and the fruit of the Spirit."

    I don't disagree with either of these statements at all, but I'm struggling to grasp how these two tie in together. How does an ongoing dependence on Christ's finished work translate into growth in Christ-like character?

  • James Darcy Jun. 27, 2013 at 9:16 AM

    How is it that everytime someone quotes Romans 8:1, they only quote part of it? It's out of context in the above article. The qualifier is left out, " who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit." Meaning very differently than presented. There is condemnation to those who walk according to the flesh!
    James Darcy

  • Rebecca Jan. 9, 2014 at 5:51 PM

    Interesting perspective.

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