Safe in God: Why Assurance is the Key to Transformation

A few years ago I was contacted by a young man who was writing to me on the other side of suicide. He had recently attempted to take his life and somehow he ran into my blog and decided to email me and tell me his story. He was a good kid. Thoughtful, kind and very educated especially in history - that was his favorite subject. I don't recall his exact age, but he couldn't have been past his early twenties. And he had a desire to live for God and honor him with his life. But something had gone horribly wrong. At some point in his faith-journey, he was introduced to a very dangerous but deceptive teaching - that in order for God to accept him he had to become perfect by overcoming all of his sins. And he tried. He tried because he wanted to please God. He tried because he trusted the people who were teaching him. So he gave it everything he had. And he failed.

His conclusion? I will never be good enough for God. Of course, this didn't happen over night. This happened after months - perhaps even years - of trying and failing, trying and failing, again and again. He reached a breaking point. He simply could not take it anymore. The pressure was too high. The demands were too intense. And when he returned home he returned to a broken family. He returned to a home where he wasn't safe to simply be. The intensity of not feeling safe in his own home, coupled with his belief in a God he could not please pushed him over the edge. He wasn't safe anywhere. He wasn't wanted anywhere. And in a moment of darkness he snapped. The only solution he could see was death.

Some friends of his intervened and his life was spared. And now, some time later, I get his email. He needs help. He want's to know why he doesn't feel good enough for God. He saw some articles I had written on the assurance of salvation and on the good news of Jesus Christ and he reached out - one Adventist to another - please help. And as I heard his story, I sat there and realized, this kid sounds so much like me.

But before I tell you why I want to introduce you to a contradiction in the Bible that provides the answer we are looking for. And from there, I'll launch into my story and then we will see what we can make of this contradiction. Here it is:

You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)
For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works... (Romans 3:28)

James argues that a man is made right with God by faith and works. But Paul argues that a man is made right with God by faith apart from works. James says: Faith in Jesus + My Works = Salvation. Paul says: Faith in Jesus = Salvation. No Works necessary. As a result, the book of James has a tendency to make people feel inadequate. Many people read it and end up feeling like the guy who emailed me - like they can't measure up. Never good enough. The book of Romans, on the other hand, gives people a sense of security in their walk with God. Paul is seen as the champion of grace. James is seen as works obsessed.  Paul says Abraham was made right with God simply by faith, not works. James says that Abraham was made right with God by faith and works. What gives? Is it Jesus + My Works = Salvation? Or is it Jesus-Only?

Why are these two Bible writers, inspired by the Holy Spirit contradicting each other? Allow me to tell you a few more stories and it will make more sense.

KP Yohanan, a native and missionary in India, tells of a fellow missionary who ran into a desperate woman on a bridge. She was crying uncontrollably. So the missionary sat with her to see what was wrong. The woman began to talk about all of her sins, her failures and the difficulties in her life. She spoke of her need to be forgiven and her families need for a blessing to get them through the following year. "In order to secure the forgiveness of sin and the blessing of the goddess" she said, "I have given her the greatest gift I can give her. My six month old baby boy. I just threw him into the river."

The missionary spoke to her. He told her about Jesus. He told her how God sent his son to die for our sins so that we could receive salvation as a free gift. When he was done, the woman looked him in the eye and said, "Why didn't you come a half hour sooner? I didn't have to kill my son." And with that she ran away weeping.

The woman's understanding of salvation is a very common one in the world. Every religion on the planet has a similar system. You do something for God, and God will reward you with salvation. We call this the "performance version" of salvation. And the Bible tells us that this is false. Salvation is a free gift of God. We don't earn it via performance. We receive it only by faith.

Next story. When I was in the Army I met a guy named Kennel. He was a total rebel who eventually got kicked out of the Army for drug use. He was wild. Partied like crazy and slept with a different woman all the time. One day, I asked him, "Do you ever think about eternity?" And his reply was, "Oh yeah, I'm not worried about it. I got saved at a youth rally four years ago. So when I die, I know I'm going to heaven." This version of salvation is the exact opposite to the woman in India. It requires zero performance. All you have to do is accept intellectually that Jesus is Lord, pray a prayer of forgiveness, and you are granted an eternal ticket into heaven. You can continue to live like you want, mistreat people, dishonor your body, lie, cheat and steal because you have the ticket. And no one can take the ticket away from you. I call this the "ticket version" of salvation.

So why am I telling these stories? Because they help us understand why Paul and James are contradicting one another. Paul is addressing people who believe what the Indian woman believes. He is addressing people who think that salvation can be earned by works. And the message of all of Paul's letters is: "NO WAY!" You cannot earn salvation by your works. You cannot earn salvation by keeping the Sabbath. You cannot earn salvation by going to church. You cannot earn salvation by paying tithe, or reading your Bible, or doing good things for good people. Salvation is a free gift of God. It cannot be earned. All you can do is receive it. According to Paul, the performance version of salvation is false in every way. You cannot earn salvation by keeping the law. And guess what? You cannot keep your salvation by keeping the law either. It is by grace through faith, period. That's it.

Funny thing is. I used to believe in the performance version of salvation even though I have been raised in church my whole life. But then, one day, I was introduced to the "ticket version" and it sounded so good that I went with it. And I loved the ticket version because I didn't have any fear about my salvation. But I soon discovered a problem with this ticket. It was powerless to deliver me from the power of sin over my life. All it did was make me feel good. And I needed something more.

So I abandoned the ticket version. But I couldn't go back to the performance version because I knew that was false. And like the guy who emailed me I landed at an understanding of salvation I thought was legit. I call it the "but version" of salvation. This version of salvation is basically "What Jesus did + What I do = Salvation". It wasn't like the performance version. The "but version" was trickier. I believed salvation was a free gift, but I believed that in order to keep this free gift I had to work hard. So anytime someone spoke about the grace of God, or the mercy of God in forgiveness, or the free gift of salvation I always felt compelled to say "yes that's true, but..." In other words, I couldn't enjoy or celebrate grace. I always had to throw a disclaimer in there. "yes, grace is good, but... don't forget you still have to do A, B and C all the way to Z". Too much grace made me worry that people would fall for the ticket lie, and I wanted to make sure no one did. But then, something terrible happened. The but version began to evolve toward its logical conclusion and I ended up in a place where I felt that if I didn't confess and repent every single time I sinned that I would lose my salvation. I call this period of my life the "light switch version" of salvation. Because in my mind, God was in heaven flipping a light switch. Every time I sinned he flipped the light switch off. There went my salvation. Every time I confessed and repented he turned it back on. I got my salvation back. Repeat. Over and over again. And after living with this idea for over a year I came to a place of utter desperation. I will never be good enough for God, I thought. Like the kid who emailed me, I got so angry with God. I didn't feel safe. I felt like he didn't want me. And the pressure to be this perfect person was too great. Jesus did some of the saving. I had to do the rest. But I couldn't. It was just too big an ask.

And this is what Paul addresses in the book of Romans and pretty much all his other letters. There is a free gift of salvation. It's a gift guys. Receive it. Believe it. You don't have to perform for it. God offers it freely. It's not like going to a car lot and driving off with a zero-down deal where you can take the car home without paying but the payments begin later. No. Salvation is not a zero-down deal. It is a gift. It is free and it is always free.

I love how Ellen White puts it in the book "Faith and Works":
When men learn they cannot earn righteousness by their own merit of works, and they look with firm and entire reliance upon Jesus Christ as their only hope, there will not be so much of self and so little of Jesus. Souls and bodies are defiled and polluted by sin, the heart is estranged from God, yet many are struggling in their own finite strength to win salvation by good works. Jesus, they think, will do some of the saving; they must do the rest. They need to see by faith the righteousness of Christ as their only hope for time and for eternity (FW 25.3).
In other words, it isn't what Jesus did + what I do. Its Jesus only. His righteousness is my only hope for time and eternity. There is no point where I need to add my own righteousness. I have none.

So when Paul writes his letters he is confronting people who think they can earn salvation by good works. His message to this is simple: "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law" (Romans 3:28).

So why does James contradict Paul? Why does James turn around and say, "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone" (James 2:24)? Scholars have explored this apparent inconsistency and have discovered that James does not contradict Paul at all. The issue is that James is addressing and entirely different issue to Paul. Paul is addressing people who believed, like the Indian woman, that salvation could be earned and kept by works. So Paul emphatically declares that grace is a free gift. James on the other hand is not addressing people who think salvation is earned or kept by performance. Rather, James is addressing all the Kennels in the world - the ones who think that salvation is nothing more than a ticket. The ones who think that so long as you "agree" with the doctrine of Jesus that you are saved. And James consistent answer is "NO WAY!" You can't just agree with Jesus as though Christianity were some intellectual test. True faith isn't about agreeing with a bunch of doctrines. True faith is about trusting your entire life to Jesus. And if you have trusted your life to him, then the evidence of that new relationship is a changed life. Not a perfect life. But a changed life.

So this is why James is so harsh on his listeners. They claim to be saved, but they ignore the word of God, they are prejudiced against one another, they gossip and tear one another down, they are proud and divisive, arrogant, conceited - always complaining no matter whats going on. Judgmental and impatient. James isn't saying you have to be perfect. Hes not saying you have to add to what Jesus did. He's simply asking - are you sincere? Are you for real? If you claim to be a Jesus-follower why are you so harsh? Why are you so controlling? Why are you so hard to get along with? Why are you so judgmental? Why are you so mean? And James isn't the only one who is wondering this! Mahatma Ghandi, the hero of India, once said, "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians! You Christians are so unlike your Christ."

The best way to summarize James is like this: We are not saved by faith and works. We are saved by a faith that works. In other words, our salvation depends only on Jesus. But the result of faith in him is a changed life.

I want you to know today that you are safe in the arms of God. You don't have to impress him. He is not going to cast you away. Salvation is not something you earn or keep by your effort. Its a gift from start to end. You can rejoice today that you are a child of God and that you are safe in his arms. And from the place of safety and security you can say "God, I trust you. Please, make me more like Jesus. Let my salvation be reflected in how I treat others."

I don't know what ever happened to that young man who emailed me. We lost contact and I have not heard from him in years. But I know what happened to me once I discovered that salvation is the work of Jesus only. I was set free. I know I am safe in the arms of God. And because I am safe I can rejoice. I have discovered that your life will never experience the transformation God wants unless you know you are safe in him. Assurance is the key to transformation. You have to know you are loved. You have to know you are wanted. You have to know you are safe. And as I rejoice and daily celebrate his grace in my life I pray a simple prayer, "Transform me Lord. Let my life be a billboard of your grace. May I reflect your love in the way I treat others".

I'll close with the following quote:
Each one of you may know for yourself that you have a living Saviour, that He is your helper and your God. You need not stand where you say, ‘I do not know whether I am saved.’ Do you believe in Christ as your personal Saviour? If you do, then rejoice (Ellen G. White, The General Conference Bulletin, April 10, 1901).

Thanks for reading this article guys! I would like to take this time to introduce the latest free eBook in the bookstore. It's titled "Salvation: Plain and Simple" and is a more detailed exploration of what you have just read above. I hope you guys enjoy it and find yourselves super blessed by what it shares. Download it free below!


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