I had just finished preaching another message from 1 John. Very shortly after closing the service I was approached by one of our Jesus-loving teenagers. She seemed sad. I knew what she was getting ready to say…
“Mike, I don’t think there is any way that I’m saved”.
I knew what she was going to say because we had already had this conversation quite a few times. She was, as many of us are tempted to be, prone to a morbid introspection. If you gave her the “tests” of 1 John—she’d fail them every time…at least in her own mind. But if you asked everyone that knew this girl they would say that she deeply loved Jesus and didn’t have much of a concern that she wasn’t saved.
Actually this scenario has replayed quite a few times over the years. It seems that many times those that should have assurance are so sensitive to sin that they begin to question whether they are saved. But those that probably should be concerned are pretty confident that they are right with the Lord.
There are those that will read this and chalk it up to my being one of those neo-Reformed (please somebody tell me what this means) types that are deeply influenced by the Puritans and Jonathan Edwards; men who seem to get their jollies from people engaging in morbid introspection. These free-grace types will say that we should never have people question their salvation. If they made a decision to follow Jesus then they are saved.
That theology would certainly make things easier, but I remain convinced that there is a very biblical place for asking this question, “Am I Really a Christian”. After all Scripture does call us to “make every effort to make our calling and election sure”. And 1 John was written so that a group of confused and beleaguered disciples questioning whether they were saved or did the dissenting group have a monopoly on the truth.
Walking the Fine Line
It is this question, “Am I Really a Christian”, that Mike McKinley hopes to answer in his book of that title. And McKinley, as a pastor, seems to be fully aware of the danger in writing such a book. After all he does not want to give false hope to those that are not really “in the faith”. But at the same time he does not want to cause a true believer to doubt.
Throughout this book McKinley walks that fine line of pastoral sensitivity. He is not afraid of bringing the truth and saying bold things. His five things that the Bible says will accompany true conversion are certainly hard hitting. And McKinley does not pull any punches or soften the blow in the way he words things. He is not afraid to say, things like, “You’re not a Christian if you enjoy sin”.
But at the same time he also is sensitive to those that are prone to introspection and will quickly conclude that they must not be saved. In the same chapter that he says, “you’re not a Christian if you enjoy sin”, he also encourages the reader to consider their whole life trajectory.
This obviously raises a concern though. Just like the young lady I mentioned in the introduction, there are certain people that will almost ALWAYS fail these tests in their own mind. Even if you ask them to consider their own life trajectory they will magnify the bad and minimize the positive change.
There is the other end of the spectrum too. There are those that are so self-sure that they will pass every test. Even the ones that they should fail. So are these tests really all that helpful?
These five things that will always accompany true conversion are most subjective. Belief in true doctrine is perhaps the most objective—but a person given to morbidity will quickly say they must not accurately believe a doctrine if they do not live that doctrine. In their mind they will never hate sin enough, never love people enough, and never value God more than the world. Therefore, can they rightly say they believe? Can they rightly say that they have persevered?
Of course the self-confident person can check doctrine off their list. He can be deluded into thinking that he has persevered, he can minimize sin, he can magnify his love for others, and can delude himself into thinking that he has love for God and that his love for the world is only “missional”.
Furthermore, these tests typically cause the wrong response. If I didn’t pass the “love” test then I am encouraged to become more loving. But in reality what needs to happen is that my heart needs to be changed. McKinley would certainly agree. And that is really the whole point to this book; if you aren’t bearing fruit can you rightly say, “I’m a Christian”?
But often what happens when we talk about assurance is that people who “fail” the tests are sent on a quest to complete what is lacking. If I love the world too much, perhaps I should burn my cd’s. Then I can pass the test—then I can say that I’m a Christian. This of course leads to a works-based salvation—which certainly is not the gospel.
McKinley seems to be aware of these difficulties. And that really is what sets this book apart from many of the other books on assurance. In chapter eight the readers are encouraged to find their hope and assurance in the basis of their salvation; namely, Jesus Christ Himself. As McKinley says, “we can build our assurance of salvation on no other foundation except the greatness and kindness of Christ” (127). He then encourages those of us prone to morbid introspection to “stop thinking about yourself this very second, turn the eyes of your heart toward him, and trust him.” (128)
In chapter nine McKinley does what every book on assurance should—he points out the necessity of the local body of Christ in answering this question. Going back to the young lady in the introduction, what she needed was not a series of tests that she would fail. What she needed (and thankfully this is the counsel I provided) a new set of eyes to look to Christ and not herself. She needed brothers and sisters in Christ that would point out the beauty and sufficiency of Jesus. But she also needed brothers and sisters in Christ to point out her positive trajectory.
With the helpful questions at the end of each chapter this book would make a great resource to go through with a person struggling with whether or not they are saved. It may also make a good small group material to not only encourage and strengthen assurance but also cause a sleeping and nominal church out of their slumber.
McKinley does a wonderful job of walking the fine line between easy-believism and morbid introspection. He does it with pastoral sensitivity, wit, wisdom, and engaging writing. I highly recommend this book.
I got it free from Crossway in exchange for a review. You will have to buy it; thankfully you can do so for about 10 bucks. There is also a website dedicated to this book: http://www.amireallyachristian.com/