I’d like to write about a particularly dark time in my spiritual journey and how I’ve gradually been coming out of it.
Soon after I became a Christian after my junior year of high school, I attended 7:22, a ministry of Passion Conferences. I immediately connected with Louie Giglio’s teaching. Over the next few years, as I struggled with finding a practical basis for my faith, Giglio’s emphasis on worship of God became foundational for me. At college, someone gave me a copy of the messages from one of Passion’s conferences. I listened to John Piper’s sermons God’s Passion for the Supremacy of God / Our Passion for the Supremacy of God, which walked through a foundational concept of Piper’s theology, Christian hedonism. This view emphasizes that God deserves the worship of our hearts, and that even though we can’t make ourselves feel love for him, we are still accountable for it. This all made sense to me.
In the meantime, some friends and I started a small group ministry at our Christian college. We got help from a couple who had been involved in Campus Outreach, a smaller campus ministry. Through their invitation, I attended a “summer beach project” for ministry training. But while I was there, I was surprised. This ministry talked about the idea that all true Christians’ lives bear “fruit,” which is to say good works. If you aren’t bearing fruit, that begins to be evidence that you may not have been truly saved in the first place. This was so new and surprising to me—as well as my friends from college who attended with me—that at first we thought Campus Outreach might be a cult. We actually managed to find Louie Giglio at a summer camp he was speaking at and asked him if this view of fruit as evidence of salvation was legitimate. Without giving his exact view on it, Louie affirmed that this view was within the bounds of historical Christianity, so we were somewhat comforted, but still not convinced of the view. For myself, my Christian background had been at North Point Community Church, a nondenominational church with a Baptist background. Their view, the one I had always heard, was that once you trust in Christ, you can know for sure that you’re saved, no matter what sins you struggle with. So I continued to hold that view.
A few years later, I was out of college and starting to take seminary classes part time. I began listening to the podcast from Piper’s church. When he preached on Romans 8:29-32, all of a sudden the idea of predestination became compelling to me. I saw the Biblical evidence for it clearly. Wanting to hear both sides, I picked up the book Predestination and Free Will: Four Views of Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom. In this book, four different theologians presented their views on predestination. The Calvinist view far and away had the best Biblical support, so I came to believe in predestination.
With this, my interest in listening to Piper’s sermons grew even more. On his recommendation, I also read Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections. Over time, as I learned from those two, their repeated themes of fruit as evidence of salvation began to sink in with me. I heard teaching on verse after verse that suggested that believers’ lives must show external evidence of their salvation. They also painted a picture of what it looks like to embrace this view of the Christian life. The picture I saw of deep dependence on God, seeking him for the strength to stand against sin, was very appealing. And because of how connected this all was to the Christian hedonism I embraced, I became convinced that fruit really was necessary evidence of salvation.
My desire to find a way to promote growth was also related to my church and ministry life at the time. I had spent two years as a singles ministry leader and small group leader at North Point Community Church, as well as being on staff as a web developer. In this time, I had had high hopes for impacting others through my ministry. But at the end of the two years, it became clear that I wasn’t seeing the kind of life change I hoped for. In particular, I wasn’t seeing the kind of results I had seen on the beach project with Campus Outreach: people who would testify that their lives were changed by Christ, who fought hard against sin and shared their faith. In comparison, it was difficult for me to even get people to show up for small group!
Around this time, I left my job at North Point for a consulting job in Texas, but returned to Atlanta after three months. I took this as an opportunity to switch churches, since I was less interested in returning to North Point because of my lack of ministry results under their model. Instead, I looked for a church that would have more of a focus on teaching doctrine. I looked around for a while and eventually settled on a small Reformed Baptist church—they shared my views on predestination and holiness.
However, getting deeply involved in this church was challenging. There were only a few dozen people who attended, and there were no ministries other than the Sunday service—due, at least in part, to the fact that the pastor had another full-time job. There were only a few other people my age, and they were all women who attended the church with their parents, and they took a very conservative view of male-female relationships to the point that any interaction with them felt like courtship. Because of this, I didn’t feel like I could really connect with anyone. Because of both my North Point and Campus Outreach backgrounds, the idea of small groups and Bible studies felt essential, and these were lacking. Not only did being at this church keep me from fellowship, but also from contributing to ministry myself. However, I didn’t feel like I could attend another church because of theological differences. This Reformed Baptist church was the closest to me theologically, but even then there were some significant differences.
I also gradually started drifting away from my friends from previous churches. I still hung out with them socially at first, but as my view on the Christian life got stricter, I started judging their own walks with God. Seeing Christian hedonism as foundational, I decided that if God is working in someone’s life, he is certainly leading them to this foundation—so if someone claimed to be learning from God but disagreed with Christian hedonism, I couldn’t believe that. So in addition to lacking fellowship at church, I lacked it in friendships too.
At this point I made what turned out to be a disastrous decision—but it was no accident, but rather a culmination of my thought processes up until that time. I decided that instead of finding a ministry or community to join, I would start my own. I figured I had enough practical ministry experience to do it. But, most importantly, I had a combination of theological and ministry views that I felt like was a better combination than others. I thought I had a sense of the strengths and weaknesses of different ministries and that I could form a better combination. I judged any ministry that didn’t agree with me in every detail.
Well, anyone who has any experience with ministry can probably guess how that turned out: of course, there were plenty of things about ministry I didn’t understand and needed to learn the hard way. But it would be a while before I realized this. Starting out, I tried a number of different things. I joined a number of Meetup.com groups to try to build relationships. I tutored computer science at a community college and started a prayer group there as well. I started independent Bible studies on worship and on Bible study methods and invited my friends to them. Yet all of these efforts yielded almost no results: no deeper relationships, no one attending.
Then I ran into a problem even being able to continue to attend the Reformed Baptist church I had been going to. They decided to begin the process of establishing formal membership, and one of the qualifications was that you agree with their doctrinal statement, which was the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (a Baptist confession closely related to the Westminster Confession of Faith for Presbyterians). However, this confession included significant points I disagreed with. In talking to the pastor about it later, he clarified that my beliefs wouldn’t have disqualified me from membership. But either way, this statement of membership showed me that my involvement at that church would always be limited because of my differences of belief. So I left that church and began searching again, but without another good church option.
In the meantime, my personal moral struggles increased, exacerbated no doubt due to a lack of fellowship support and frustration with my circumstances. One major example is anger: the anger struggles I’d always had increased, and I frequently found myself swearing and holding grudges. These moral struggles made me grapple with implications of my “fruit as evidence of salvation” theology. When I felt like I had been doing pretty well seeking God and following him it was an encouragement to me to keep seeking. But when I started struggling morally, all of a sudden this theology made things difficult. Somewhere in fruit-as-evidence circles I got the idea that just because you felt like you wanted to obey God, that didn’t mean that was what you really wanted; you might be deceiving yourself. Your actions showed whether you really wanted to obey God or not. I’m not sure I ever questioned my salvation, but I questioned at what point I should question my salvation. And whereas previously the main approach to combating sin I had been taught was to renew your mind to what God said was true of you in Christ, now I concluded that the more I struggled with sin, the less confidence I could have that any of those promises were really true of me. This feeling of helplessness led to even less resistance to sin and became a downward spiral.
Due to anxiety thinking about all of this, I started experiencing some moderate health problems as well. I had trouble sleeping, experienced acid reflux, got some sinus infections, and gained an unhealthy amount of weight. So, in total, in this period God took away many things:
- Church connection
- My walk with God
It seems to me that the reason God did this was as a warning to me. I was heading down a path of theological pride and judgment of others, and one where reliance on my own moral abilities would take over my reliance on grace. If he had allowed me to have any success in this approach it’s unlikely I would have changed course. So God took away most of my support so that I would have to question what to do.
The first thing I did was learn to relax again: I started playing video games before bed to take my mind off of theology. Then I decided to attend Perimeter Church and join their singles ministry to get some fellowship. Even though I disagreed with more things in their theology than in the Reformed Baptist church’s, I knew I needed some way to connect with other believers.
Soon after that, I decided to go to a Christian counselor for help with my anger issues. As I worked with him, he helped me narrow down my list of “essential” theological beliefs. Even just downgrading some of those beliefs into an “extremely important” category was difficult for me. Two things helped me make this transition. First, I had always agreed that salvation is based on faith in Jesus, not faith in an entire doctrinal system. And people who don’t think about theology in depth can of course be saved. So the highest-priority category of theology must only be the few things necessary for salvation. After that, I realized that even though I felt like Christian hedonism was so foundational that God certainly couldn’t be working in someone’s life unless he was moving them toward it, I realized that that belief of mine wasn’t explicitly stated in scripture. God’s ways are higher than ours, so although it didn’t make sense to me for God to work that way, I couldn’t presume to know God’s decisions. I had also heard a prominent Calvinist say that the best Calvinists and Arminians have always respected each other as brothers in Christ. If they could accept that God was working in each other’s lives despite their foundational disagreements, I needed to do the same for others.
These changes freed me up to get sleep, to be plugged in to a church, and to have the support of friendships. I didn’t have any ministry outlet, but it was clear to me at the time that I needed some more personal stability before I’d be ready for that.
I don’t remember exactly when I first started letting go of the belief that fruit is a necessary evidence of salvation, but I remember exactly what realization started it. I continued to pray about what to do with all my uncertainty about my sin struggles and if I should question my salvation. I ran across Romans 5:1—”Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” I realized that this was what had changed in my life since I started believing in fruit-as-evidence: with this belief, it was impossible for me to have peace. I knew I would always have some degree of sin in my life. And, because there was no clear Biblical direction about which kind or severity or frequency or attitude of sin is okay and which is too much, I would always have reason to worry about whether I should be questioning my salvation. That meant that experiencing peace with God was impossible. I realized that reasoning about Biblical doctrines should involve not only the passages that directly address doctrine but also the passages that describe the outcome of the doctrine. If one’s doctrine makes it impossible to live the kind of life the Bible describes, that’s a reason to question one’s interpretation of doctrinal passages.
That was the point when I decided to let go of the belief in fruit as evidence of salvation, and to return to my original belief of absolute assurance: that if you know there was a moment in time when you entrusted your salvation to Jesus, that you can know for sure that you are saved. However, my mental and emotional transition to that belief has been a very gradual process. I can remember at least three major time periods when I was reading and thinking through it in depth, and each time I thought I was convinced to stop believing in it, but each time eventually I realized I was still conflicted. Partially it’s because I haven’t been fully convinced of the alternative ways to interpret the passages that are used to suggest fruit as evidence of salvation. Partially it’s because I’ve wanted to make sure I’m not condoning sin.
My belief in Christian hedonism still remained, though. Although I no longer felt like I might need to question my salvation because of a lack of love for God, I was still convinced that God commands us to feel love for him and that if we don’t we should be seeking that love. Eventually, though, after praying everything I could think to pray and trying every kind of quiet time focus I could think of, it seemed to me that God wasn’t answering my prayer to stir up these emotions. So I gave up on seeking them. I still believe our emotions should be involved in our walk with God, but if I’m not feeling them, I no longer feel a sense of guilt about it. I seek to know and obey God, and when my emotions match with that, that’s great.
I think I’ve been hesitant to write about this before because of still feeling conflicted about my view of assurance, and in particular how to interpret some of the passages used to support the fruit view. What changed that this week was hearing about 1 John in the Bible study I’m attending. The teacher and notes said that a true believer’s life will show evidence in terms of obedience, but then they moved on without dealing with any of the thorny issues related to this view. My response showed me I’ve reached a point of feeling strongly about the importance of assurance and wanting to speak out about it. I also realized that it’s been ten years since all of these struggles began, and that seems long enough to feel confident that my new view is well-established. This made me want to write publicly about my experience in hopes that it helps someone else struggling with the guilt caused by the view that fruit is evidence of salvation.
A few books have helped me in wrestling through this topic:
- Absolutely Free!, a response to lordship salvation. That view is almost identical to the “fruit as evidence of salvation” view, with one exception: the lordship view tends to emphasize a conscious choice to submit to Christ as part of conversion, but the fruit view doesn’t require this.
- Eternal Security: more directly a response to the view that you can lose your salvation, but there are important points about grace that apply to the “demonstrating you weren’t saved in the first place” view.
- The Grace Awakening: a general response to any kind of legalism that judges people for their behavior, but the fruit view can fall under that.
- What’s So Amazing About Grace? and The Ragamuffin Gospel: less doctrinal books focused on illustrating our desperate need for grace and how liberating that truth is.