In a recent post, we discussed the notion that just because someone converts to Christianity, it does not mean they are “saved.”
The primary reason for this is salvation is a work of God; conversion is a work of man.
We know this because “conversion” can happen toward or away from Christianity, or any other religion. Every day people convert to Buddhism or some other world religion.
Conversion describes something primarily psychological. Salvation, instead, describes a unique act of God that can happen only by virtue of his having chosen you in Christ from before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4).
Of course, many (though not all) who “deconvert” from Christianity are those who don’t necessarily feel they ever “converted.” Perhaps they grew up in the Christian community and “have been a Christian for as long as they can remember.”
From that study a new question arises: If someone is not necessarily saved just because they are converted, is someone converted just because they’re saved?
A God’s-Eye View
This is related to another question of whether salvation is something that happens in a moment or it is more like a process.
The best way I know to put it is something like this: “We experience as a process what God creates in a moment.”
And fortunately, the Bible gives us words from which to structure our theology when it comes to this question:
Justification is a forensic declaration. In other words, it is how God sees you by virtue of your salvation.
When he looks at you, he sees you as justified through the blood of his Son. You are legally and judicially declared righteous because the righteousness of the Son has been applied to your account.
This happens at a particular point in time. As far as I can tell, though, it is impossible to know this exact point in time.
To paraphrase a way I’ve heard preachers put it over the years:
“I believe they “got saved” the moment they left the pew! It has nothing to do with the prayer.”
Did they get saved when they left the pew? At the altar praying? After the service when the pastor explained with more clarity what has happened to them? Three days later when it really began to take hold?
Of course, the point is: We can’t know. At some point, that person’s heart softened toward God and genuine change was created.
Sanctification is the lifelong process of your being conformed to the image of the Son of God.
It is the reason why Paul laboriously explains his propensity (see Rom. 7) to do the opposite (in his flesh) of what he wants to do (in the spirit).
Glorification is that future state during which our sanctification will be complete, and we will be as close to Jesus in body and spirit as possible.
Where Does Conversion Fit?
Based on what we’ve seen so far, I do not think it is possible for a person to be genuinely saved and not converted.
In other words, at and beyond the moment of salvation, there will be a mental ascent toward the things of God reminiscent of “conversion.”
Now—such a conversion will be imperfect. I believe it maps closely to the process of sanctification.
The beautiful thing about this process is that even when we fail God, we desire to please him. We will fail. We will succumb to sinful lusts and desires.
But we’ll also start to resist them. And we’ll always desire to resist them.
The longer we go, the process of resistance gets easier and, Lord-willing, becomes the default mode of operation.
That is a marker of God-ward orientation. And the genuine Christian will accept and deal with that lifelong battle.
The one who has merely converted (mental ascent without spiritual change) can play this game, but only for so long. It will be done by trusting in his own willpower instead of resting in the grace of Christ.
How Can I Know If I’m Merely Saved or Converted?
I feel quite unqualified to write this answer for any specific person.
Truth be told, my conviction is that only God can really know the eternal condition of a person. Growing up, I heard something like this: “You can know that you know that you know you are saved; you don’t have to wonder.”
Now—I mostly agree with that statement. Where that line of thinking runs into trouble is with Matthew 7:21-23:
Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
Two important questions rise to the surface:
- Who are the “many” referred to?
- Why do they think they’re saved, but aren’t?
The answers, for me at least, are I don’t know. And that, my friends, is a scary thought.
The context of the passage isn’t that helpful either (unless I’m just missing something, which is entirely possible). It mentions “wolves in sheep’s clothing” in the verses prior, but it seems a true wolf knows what they are. These people seem confused.
In the verses just after these, Jesus describes the wise man who builds and acts vs the foolish man who hears but sits still. And that would be helpful, except those in vv. 21-23 seem to have done some things!
So I think it’s ultimately quite difficult to know who these people are. In fact, how would you know whether you are one of them?
There are, praise God, some things by which we can examine our lives and make a fairly reasonable determination (2 Cor. 13:5).
Where Do You Look for Rescue?
A person who has converted but has not truly been saved will not feel a need for rescue.
In their heart of hearts, they will have the attitude that they are “basically good”—as are most people—and there is not a deeper problem of sin to be dealt with.
If rescue could be achieved through self-improvement, affirmation, acceptance, etc., the cross of Christ would not have been needed.
A lot of teaching gets published today that is more about self-improvement than it is about accepting the blood of Jesus on the cross and realizing that his brutal sacrifice was the necessary satisfaction of God’s justice.
By the way, I appreciate discipline, self-improvement, and personal development. But they are not a substitute for Christ’s propitiation of my sin.
A person who truly realizes their deep need for rescue and looks only to Jesus for it is almost certainly saved.
What is Your Theology of and Response to Suffering?
This is one of the biggest problems in Christendom.
Suffering should not surprise Christians (1 Peter 4:12); it is an expectation of the Christian worldview.
Jesus Christ, the first fruits of resurrection and the one whose image we are being conformed to, endured the greatest suffering known to mankind on the cross.
Suffering is not fun. Nobody likes it. But the response of a Christian to suffering is different than the response of the world. A convert can only keep up the show for so long. The benefits of the community will fade, and without God, they will feel abandoned.
A true Christian responds to suffering differently (1 Peter 3:13-22). Suffering is not fun. It is awful. But it is evidence that Christianity is true, not that God doesn’t exist.
And one’s response to suffering is a marker of whether one truly believes God is with them in their pain.
What is Your Attitude Toward Sin?
A few years ago there was a long campmeeting style revival at my former church. The preacher was a guest from Georgia. It was an amazing time, and though it only lasted around 6 weeks, it felt like it lasted a lifetime.
There is a danger at events like that, though. Oftentimes, the preaching creates a humanistic emotional response inside a person that, if they are not careful, can be confused with the conviction of the Holy Spirit.
To make a long story short: People who were most definitely saved “got saved again.” Except, they didn’t.
And a few of them came before the church and publicly apologized, admitting they knew they were saved, but the emotional conviction of the moment to make things right had them doubting.
This was such a problem, in fact, that our pastor had to preach two separate messages during that period of time on the assurance of salvation to make sure no one was confused.
In these messages, he made an important point: Even the desire itself not to sin against God is evidence of salvation.
The Bible is clear that those who don’t love the Lord and are not saved will not have the passionate desire to live for him.
Christians will sin, but they’ll hate it. And not just in the sense of “I messed again this time” but in the deep sense they’ve violated trust with Jesus, whom they love.
Thus, I believe an evaluation of your attitude toward sin will help in your assurance of genuine salvation.
Are You Compelled to Gather with Believers?
This last one is more controversial as the days go by, especially with the rise in popularity of live streaming.
Simply, though, God’s plan is the local assembly. That is made abundantly clear in the New Testament.
Congregating together with a local body of believers is not presented as an “optional, good idea.” It is presented as a necessary condition of one’s spiritual growth in the body of Christ.
Of course, there are extenuating circumstances. Maybe you legitimately live in the middle of nowhere and join a church online every week because it is the only option. Or, perhaps you’re disabled and must do the same.
Once again, it’s a matter of the heart. If the attitude is, “no church is good enough for me” or “I’ve been burned by every church” or “I don’t believe I HAVE to gather with other believers…” it is worth serious examination whether you are in the faith.
A believer—even an introverted one, like myself—will desire fellowship with his brothers and sisters in a local assembly focused on their spiritual development.
So we are not God, and we can never know what he does.
It is very likely there is a distinction between salvation and conversion, and it may admittedly be hard to tell the difference between the two.
Furthermore, the Bible is clear that some people believe they have the Lord in their lives and will find out on Judgment Day that is not the case.
A scary thought, but using some common sense and clues from Scripture, it seems a person can be quite reasonably confident they are legitimately saved and will spend eternity with Christ.