Why do people doubt their salvation? The primary reason is theological; a secondary reason is practical.
Theologically, doubt arises when one switches focus from the object of faith to the subject of faith. The object of faith is Jesus, based on the specific word of God. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Rom. 10:17). The term used here is rhema (a particular declaration or utterance), and it refers not to the word of God in general but to a specific word. Speaking on salvation, Jesus said the one who believes on Him has eternal life (John 3:36; cf. John 3:15, 16, 36; 5:24). The object of dependence is Jesus based on His promise.
The key to faith is the object of faith and not the subject. This is a most blessed truth. The key is not us. The key is God, based on His sure word. When you believe on Jesus, you have eternal life—because He says so! Assurance comes from this focus on that which is sure.
Doubt enters as one shifts from this blessed focus on the object of faith and concentrates instead on the subject of faith—yourself. Generally, this will be a focus on personal performance and/or specifics of one’s prayer at the time of salvation.
People think, “How could I continue to struggle with [a particular sinful habit] and be saved? Can a true Christian be so defeated?” It’s tragic for a believer who has provision for victory through the indwelling Christ to be defeated. But victory is not automatic; it’s by faith (1 John 5:4; 1 Cor. 15:57). When it comes to the matter of salvation itself, salvation has never been by works, but rather by grace through faith in Christ alone (Eph. 2:8-9). However, when someone focuses on their lack of performance, they may doubt their salvation.
Some people might begin to think, “Did I pray the right prayer? Did I include the word ‘propitiation’?” I’m being facetious, but you get the point. Salvation is not based on how well one prays. That prayer is a cry for help expressed through simple faith in Jesus to save.
“Did I have enough faith?” Some may wonder along these lines, but recognize that faith is faith; dependence is dependence. If your sole object of faith is simply Jesus, your faith is whole. Faith is not a work, but dependence on the worker—on Jesus.
Practically, the reason many switch from the object of faith to the subject of faith is the result of sincere but misguided preaching. Preachers will sometimes say things like, “If you’re not living right, you need to check on your salvation.” Such a statement places the focus on one’s performance. It implies spiritual growth is automatic instead of being by faith. Without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6). We are to walk in Christ the way we received Christ—by faith (Col. 2:6; 2 Cor. 5:7). If a believer is not living right, the need is revival, not salvation. The need is to walk in the Spirit which is to walk by faith.
A preacher may say, “If you are not reading your Bible and praying, you need to check on your salvation,” but I know unsaved moralists who read the Bible and say prayers. These actions indicate nothing. The key factor in understanding that mere moralists are not saved is the continued trust in their own human works.
Others claim, “If you can’t remember the day you got saved, if you can’t remember whether the sky was blue….” Again, I’m being facetious, but sometimes it gets ridiculous. Salvation is not based on your memory but on simple trust in Christ. I was told I was born on a certain day, but quite frankly, I don’t remember. That’s a good thing! If someone is believing in Jesus now, there had to be a moment when faith in Jesus began—even if one doesn’t remember the date.
John Van Gelderen