by Larry Oats
This article appears in the current issue of FrontLine • May/June 2012. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
The church teens head off to summer camp, the Christian school invites a special speaker to a spiritual emphasis week, the youth group goes to a youth conference— and many of the church teens “get saved.” These are not the visitors who were invited, not the problem kids in the youth group, but the teens who have grown up in the church and who surely seem to be saved. Some are elated at the “salvation” of these young people. Others, however, are concerned about these repeated salvation experiences.
Causes of Repeated Salvation Experiences
There are a number of causes for the repeated “salvation” of our teens. First, some of our teens get saved because they need to. They may have been talked into a profession when they were too young. They may have done what everyone else was doing. For whatever reason, they were lost and needed to be saved. We rejoice that these teens have come to faith in Christ.
A second cause for repeated salvation experiences may be a lack of personal holiness or fidelity to Scriptural teachings. This brings conviction by the Holy Spirit and can create a frustration with sin. The person may then presume he is lost. First Corinthians 5:1–5 tells of one of the least spiritual Christians in the New Testament. A man was living in an adulterous relationship with his step-mother. Paul condemned the man’s actions and the church’s response to his actions. However, Paul did not declare the man lost. Instead, he argued for action by the church for the salvation of the man’s soul.
A third cause for repeated salvation experiences is the misapplication of Scripture. While 1 John 2:19 seems to indicate that there are unbelievers in the church, John’s purpose was to convince believers of their salvation. The next few verses are verses of assurance. A preacher who focuses on the fact that there are lost people in our churches is missing John’s message.
Doubts of salvation can be created by wrong teaching or bad theology. Sometimes teens hear a statement like, “Don’t tell me you’re saved if you’re doing _____ or you’re not doing _____.” The blanks vary from preacher to preacher, but the theme is the same. Some teens do not remember what they said when they got saved and are afraid that they may have said the wrong thing. Some teens succumb to the existentialism of the day and fear that they did not mean what they said the last time they “got saved.” This argues for an assurance of salvation based on feelings. Some teens become concerned that they did not know enough when they got saved. There is a minimal content to the gospel (1 Cor. 15:1–4). However, there is only one gospel, and it is good for children, adults, and teens. Some teens have been told that if they didn’t weep when they were saved, they probably are not saved. Some teens are concerned that they did not have enough faith when they got saved. Some teens have been told that if they are not living the Christian life, then they are lost. Then they are told that if they are living it, well—just remember, works don’t save.
These causes can be further compounded by poor illustrations. An evangelist told this writer of a deacon’s daughter who was struggling with the assurance of her salvation. She had heard the statement, “You can be a deacon’s kid and be lost,” so many times she had become convinced that she was lost. This evangelist’s response was, “You can be a deacon’s daughter and be saved.” Both are true statements, but we rarely hear anything like the latter.
A significant problem is a confusion between salvation and sanctification. A believing teen under the conviction of sin may conclude (especially under wrong preaching) that he needs to get saved. He goes forward for salvation and goes away happy. The sin problem remains, however, because he has not dealt with the real issue in his life. This may be done in ignorance; or it may be done because the teen refuses to deal with the actual problem in his life. By “getting saved” again, he will feel better, at least for a while.
A Theological Solution
How can we help our teens understand the assurance of their salvation? First, there needs to be a clear presentation of the gospel. This will bring conviction of the need of salvation to the lost and assurance of salvation to the saved. The gospel never needs to be modified for the sake of a response. There is a theological danger in having a person who does not have assurance simply go through the steps of salvation to “make sure” he is saved. If he is not convinced of his lost condition, how can he be converted? If he is already saved, the procedure may make him feel better for a time, but the real problem (whatever it was that created the doubt in the first place) has not been resolved. He will soon lose his assurance for the same reason he lost it before. For the believer, the guilt of sin should result in restoration, because we cannot lose our salvation. It is often easier for a teen to “get saved” than to deal with real sin in his life. Paul’s answer to the carnal Christian of 1 Corinthians 3 was not salvation. His solution was maturity. His declaration was not, “Get saved.” It was, “Grow up.”
Teens also need a clear understanding of sanctification. Positional sanctification takes place at salvation. First Corinthians 6:11 states, “And such were some of you: but ye are washed.” Progressive sanctification is the ongoing process of becoming like Christ. It is based on our position in Christ, and it is guaranteed, although the speed and areas of maturing differ from individual to individual. This writer is convinced that sanctification begins at salvation, but he is equally convinced that there are numerous crisis decisions that take place throughout a person’s life, especially when that person is saved at a young age. As believing children grow up, they face new problems and sins in their lives: they discover other kids (and struggle with sharing); they discover money (and have to deal with greed); they discover the other gender (and are introduced to lust); they have to choose a career (and learn to deal with ambition); and on and on. Children exercise a childish faith, which, when genuine, grows into a mature, obedient faith.
Eternal security (or perseverance or preservation) is a doctrinal truth. Assurance is a feeling, the confidence that sins have been forgiven and salvation is truly secured. Good Bible preaching that includes what salvation is and why a person needs to become a Christian, what happens to a person at salvation, and what sanctification is and how it works in our lives is important for the people to whom we minister.
Rather than focusing on our church members being lost and in need of salvation, we need to “shepherd” the flock, feeding them, protecting them, and encouraging them in their Christian life.
Larry Oats serves as dean of Maranatha Baptist Seminary.