I’m concerned about my salvation as well as some family members. How can a person really know that they’re saved?
First, let me commend you for evaluating your spiritual condition. The Bible commands us to do just that so we aren't self-deceived into thinking we’re truly saved when we’re not. Paul says, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?” (2 Cor. 13:5). And Peter says, “Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you” (2 Peter 1:10).
This question is very common today and has also been asked often down through history. For example, during the first Great Awakening in America that occurred between 1725 and 1750, many people responded to the preaching of powerful theologians such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. However, about six years afterwards, critics charged there was nothing real about the Awakening because many people who claimed to have been converted showed no evidence of it.
To respond to the Awakening’s detractors, Jonathan Edwards (perhaps one of the keenest minds ever in American history) took up his pen to write his famous “A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections” that outlined his thoughts on discerning the true spiritual condition of a person who claimed to be a Christian.
The opening line of Edward’s work reads: “There is no question whatsoever, that is of greater importance to mankind, and what is more concerns every individual person to be well resolved in, than this: What are the distinguishing qualifications of those that are in favor with God, and entitled to his eternal rewards?”
Both the Bible and Edward’s work correctly state that being a true believer is tied to more than simply signing a card, walking an aisle, being baptized, and participating in religious activities. Personally, I had done all those things at an early age and I know for a fact that I was no more saved than atheist Sam Harris is today.
So what does comprise a true salvation experience?
First, there is a personal recognition of one’s sin, a willingness to repent of sin, and a submission to the truth of Scripture that says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31) and “Whoever calls on the name of the LORD will be delivered” (Joel 2:32). A person that has done this is born again (John 3:3) and is regenerated by the Holy Spirit (John 3:5) so that they no longer reject God’s ways, but eagerly and willingly follow Him.
Two pieces of evidence will accompany this genuine saving experience: (1) Godly affections that (2) bear Godly fruit. Of the first, Edwards says, “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.”
This is certainly true in my case. Although I had gone to church all my life, I never voluntarily read the Bible, exhibited any desire to serve the church, or had any real attraction to the things of God. But once I was saved at age 19 through the teaching of Bible prophecy, that all changed. I picked up the Bible and it was a new book to me. I couldn’t get enough of it. I used to drive down to school early just so I could listen to Chuck Swindoll and other Bible teachers on the radio. I genuinely loved listening to Christian music. And on it went.
Simply put, I had a new appetite that I didn’t have before. And so does every other true believer. The new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) has new affections and has a hunger for genuine spiritual food.
These new affections then exhibit themselves in the life of the believer in some form or fashion. James asks, “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14).
The answer James expects is, “no”. Real saving faith, says James, will manifest through a person’s life. Or as one of my professors once said, “We are saved by faith alone; but the faith that saves is not alone.”
Edwards puts it like this: “The principle evidence of life is motion; so the principle evidence of saving grace is holy motion.” What he means is that you can tell someone is physically alive by the fact that they breathe, move, and act. In the same way, you can tell someone is spiritually alive by their movement toward the things of God and the spiritual fruit that appears. Jesus simply said, “The tree is known by its fruit” (Matt. 12:33).
Does this mean a true Christian won’t struggle with sin? Not at all. Paul makes this very clear in Romans 7 where he outlines his battle with his old nature. However, while a Christian who struggles with a sinful habit is to be expected, a professing Christian who comfortably lives with a blatantly sinful habit and doesn’t think it’s sinful shouldn’t be.
We don’t need to wonder if we’re saved. A submission of the will to Christ will be followed by holy affections that consistently manifest in a new spiritual life. If you have these things, then God is saying to you through your life and His Word: “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).