Sincerity and Assurance of Salvation

If I were to ask you, “How do you know that you are a Christian?” how would you respond? Where do you look for your assurance of salvation? Do you look inside yourself? Do you look to the past – perhaps to an act or decision you made? Or do you look outside of yourself? I have written in the past about the doctrine of assurance of salvation, a belief John MacArthur rightly calls “the birthright and privilege of every true believer in Christ.” Today I want to tie it in to another topic that is a concern of mine. I speak of “Decisional Regeneration,” a term that describes much of what we understand by conversion in modern evangelicalism.

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Before we turn to decisional regeneration we must first define regeneration. J.I. Packer thoroughly defines regeneration as “…the spiritual change wrought in the heart of man by the Holy Spirit in which his/her inherently sinful nature is changed so that he/she can respond to God in Faith, and live in accordance with His Will (Matt. 19:28; John 3:3,5,7; Titus 3:5). It is an inner re-creating of fallen human nature by the gracious sovereign action of the Holy Spirit (John 3:5-8). This change is ascribed to the Holy Spirit. It originates not with man but with God (John 1:12, 13; 1 John 2:29; 5:1, 4). It extends to the whole nature of man, altering his governing disposition, illuminating his mind, freeing his will, and renewing his nature.” Regeneration, said simply, is the Spirit’s act whereby He gives to man a new nature which frees his will and gives him a disposition towards God. This definition is thoroughly Reformed, and thus thoroughly Biblical.

A survey of Christian doctrine would find three predominant views on when regeneration occurs. Do note that each tradition would have a slightly different definition for the term.

The first is known as baptismal regeneration. The Roman Catholic tradition, as well as that held by Anglican, and Lutheran groups, believe that regeneration occurs at the moment of baptism. When a child is baptized, the Holy Spirit immediately regenerates that person. The Catholic Catechism typifies this view: “Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte ‘a new creature,’ an adopted son of God, who has become a ‘partaker of the divine nature,’ member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit.” (Pg.354, #1265) This view has been deemed false by the vast majority of Protestants who believe it undermines the plain teaching of the Scriptures.

The second view is that the Holy Spirit regenerates a person at a time of God’s choosing. We could call it “monergistic regeneration” to indicate that it depends solely on God. This regeneration does not depend on man or on any desire or decision on his part. The Spirit moves in the person, giving him a new nature and allowing him the capacity to express faith and a desire to know and trust God. This view is closely associated with Calvinism and the Reformed faith and its high view of God’s sovereignty.

The third view is the one we are concerned with and it emphasizes a decision, hence the term decisional regeneration. This view, quite a late addition to Christianity, was popularized by Charles Finney and is now the majority view in evangelicalism. In this view man has been wooed by the Spirit to the point that is now able to have faith in God and he then expresses that faith in a decision to follow the Lord. When he makes this decision he is immediately regenerated. While the decision is internal, it is often expressed in a prayer, a physical action such as raising a hand or walking to an altar or even in something as simple as marking a decision card.

Jay Adams writes “The great theological difference between modern evangelism and biblical evangelism hinges on this basic question whether true religion is the work of God or of man. At best, the doctrine of ‘Decisional Regeneration’ attributes the new birth partly to man and partly to God.” When God and man cooperate in salvation, it becomes important to appeal to human emotion and desires and to secure a human response to what the Bible tells us is God’s work. We allow man to play the role of God and decide for his own salvation. Man allows the Spirit to enter his heart through an act of decision rather than believing that the Spirit does a work apart from the will of man. Decisional regeneration, then, suppresses the teaching that God alone is active in salvation, in giving life, and that man is utterly helpless apart from Him.

The risk we take in telling people that they have been saved after they have marked a card or raised their hand, is that we know only that they have made some type of decision. This decision may be sincere and well-intentioned, but it does not necessarily indicate that the Spirit has regenerated the person. The legacy of Charles Finney in church history is largely one of failure, of creating masses of people who believed they were Christians, but most of whom showed no evidence. They were assured by their decision which they could always regard as a milestone in their lives, but while they had raised their hand, and no doubt felt sincere when they did so, they had never turned to Christ. Why had they not done this? Because the Spirit had not done any work in them and they were, thus, unregenerate. They had attempted to make themselves believers, a task which can only be done by God. The same problem prevails today. When we tell people that their decision is indicative of their salvation, we may give them false hope. We may give them assurance that is not ours to give. The biblical reality is that God gives salvation to whom He wishes. “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will.” (John 5:21)

In the past I have focused on the outward sign of a person’s belief that he or she has been saved, whether this sign be marking a decision card or raising a hand. Recently I have become concerned with another facet of evangelical conversions. While I have struggled with this for some time, a web site I visited yesterday spurred me to write about it. To further my research on a topic I will soon be writing about I was visiting the site raptureletters.com and noted the letter the site contains that exhorts people to turn to the Lord. It climaxes with the following prayer: “Father I admit I am a sinner, and I will turn from my sin and do good. I believe that Jesus was your son and that He came here to die for me so that my sins would be forgiven. I ask you to forgive me and I will repent of my sins. In Jesus name I pray.” The author of the site then writes, “If you just prayed that prayer and meant it with all your heart, then God will know you as one of His own.”

What struck me in that letter, which is quite typical for the content of an evangelical altar call (and, in fact, I have heard many, many similar appeals) is that there is an undeniably clear human requirement for salvation. The prayer will only be effective, we may note, if the person means it with all his heart.

Now while all Protestants affirm, at least in theory, that salvation is wholly an act of God, it must be admitted that in such an appeal for salvation there is added a human requirement: sincerity. And so I return to the question with which I opened this article. When you seek assurance of your salvation, where do you look? Will you take refuge in the sincerity of your prayer? Will you comfort yourself by saying, “I meant it with all my heart”? If you take refuge in your own sincerity or in the passion you felt years ago when you prayed a prayer, you are building your assurance on shakey ground.

I will continue this discussion tomorrow with some suggestions on how we can build assurance on the solid truths of God’s Word.