Many professing Christians struggle with doubt about salvation, or to put it another way, wondering whether they have truly been saved and are in right standing with God. A genuine Christian who has trusted in Jesus for salvation may still have doubts about their salvation at times. And sometimes feelings of doubt may arise from a person’s realization that they have never truly trusted in Jesus for salvation. Feeling doubt about salvation is not uncommon and certainly not something to feel guilt or shame about. God’s Word gives us clarity around these issues. We hope this resource will be beneficial to readers struggling with doubt about personal salvation, and also helpful to those leading and shepherding others who may be in a season of doubt.
Does doubting my salvation mean that I am not a Christian?
Some people struggling with doubt may believe that the mere existence of their doubt is a sign that they are not a true believer in Jesus. This is not true. Doubt about salvation is not a definitive indication that a person is not a true believer in Jesus. Perhaps the most beautiful and reassuring scripture about “unbelief” is found in the gospel of Mark. Jesus is speaking with a father who is pleading with Jesus to heal the father’s demon-possessed child.
And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Mark 9:21-24 (ESV)
After the father expresses his simultaneous belief and unbelief, Jesus goes on to compassionately heal the child. Jesus does not refuse to heal the child because the father’s belief is seemingly incomplete. While this scripture does not deal directly with personal salvation and right standing with God, it does show us a beautiful prayer and plea of a man who does, in fact, believe in Jesus, and at the same time still struggles with unbelief. Some true Christians who have genuinely placed their trust in Jesus will still have doubt about their personal salvation at times.
“Unbelief” and “doubt” can be distinguished from “disbelieving” or animosity toward God’s love and truth of scripture. Questions of faith arising from a person’s desire to better know and understand God and the scriptures can ultimately be productive. Cynicism coming from a place of willful disbelief or animosity, is different, and more likely indicates that a person has not trusted in Jesus for salvation and right standing with God.
Having doubts about salvation can even be a positive indication that the person who is wrestling with doubt may be appropriately exploring the depths of his/her faith and taking what the Bible says very seriously. Exploring deep questions of faith and working through those questions will often lead to a deeper, more resilient faith in the long run. Some of Jesus’ harshest critiques recorded in scripture are given to the religious elite who were seemingly very confident in their standing before God (for the wrong reasons), not because of faith in Jesus, but because of self-righteous works void of humility and compassion.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself prayed this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to Heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14 (ESV)
Along these lines, the Bible tells us that there will be some who believe they are following Jesus but are surprised to learn that they are not true believers and have been trusting in the wrong things for salvation. Perhaps, these people did not ask enough questions of themselves or examine their faith closely enough.
Not everyone who says to me” Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” Matthew 7:21-23 (ESV)
These words of Jesus show us that there are “religious” people who are depending upon their religious activity to make them right before God, instead of depending on faith in Christ. Do not let these words of Jesus discourage or alarm you, but rather let them encourage you to put all of your faith in the finished work of Jesus and to cultivate your relationship with Him.
You may also feel that doubting is an indication that you are “far away” from God. However, doubt is not reserved for those “far away” from God. Even one of Jesus’ twelve disciples had doubt about the risen Jesus.
Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” John 20:24-25 (ESV)
For Thomas, his doubt was answered by physically seeing Jesus. For us, Jesus says to Thomas:
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John 20:29 (ESV)
Even John the Baptist (of whom Jesus said that there was no one greater born of women) had times of doubt.
Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Matthew 11:2-3 (ESV)
There are many examples of true believers in Jesus who have struggled with doubt. Struggling with doubt is not necessarily an indication that you do not have genuine faith in Jesus. It can even be good, at times, to wrestle through doubts and difficult questions, resulting in a more resilient faith in time.
Why do we doubt?
While doubt may come from a place of true realization about lostness, it is also true that genuine believers in Jesus may doubt as well. Why is this? Why doesn’t God cause all true believers to be certain of their faith at all times?
Living in a Fallen World
Jesus ushered in the beginning of His everlasting Kingdom during His earthly ministry 2,000 years ago. At the same time, until Jesus returns again, we will continue to live in a fallen, broken world, tainted by sin. We have imperfect minds and imperfect hearts. Sometimes a true Christian’s doubt about salvation may come from these imperfect in mind and heart, or simply from living in a sinful, broken world.
We see, throughout scripture, stories of the evolving faith of many believers. While there is a certain point in time when believers in Jesus “cross the line of faith” to become believers and are “saved,” the journey of the Christian faith is just that, a journey. Along this journey, it is not uncommon, in our current and imperfect human condition, for doubt about our salvation to creep in.
In his book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis provides a very helpful description of “faith” in light of the ups and downs of life and the long journey of the Christian faith.
Now Faith, in the sense in which I am using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 140.
Lewis’ point is that a person is not always going to feel the same way about things in their life, including spiritual matters. Part of faith and belief is clinging to the things you know to be true, even during times when it is difficult to do so.
Some Christians may also doubt their salvation because of sin in their life. The Bible has many, many narratives of people that trust God and also make terrible mistakes and sin. The apostle John acknowledges to his readers in 1 John that believers will, in fact, continue to sin.
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 1 John 2:1 (ESV)
The same writer, just one chapter later, warns strongly against habitual and unrepentant sin.
You know that he [Jesus] appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. 1 John 3:5-6 (ESV)
How do we reconcile these two passages of scripture? The first passage is an acknowledgment that believers will sin, at times. The Bible is crystal clear that we will not be perfect (sinless) until we are fully sanctified and with Jesus. The second passage is a teaching that Jesus did not come so that we will continue sinning, but so that we will fight against sin. If you are a professing Christian who is in a struggle with habitual sin, please seek counsel from a trusted pastor. These issues are often deep, nuanced, and very complex, and may take time to work through with pastoral wisdom.
Comparison to Others
Some true believers may also doubt their salvation because they fall into the trap of comparing their salvation experience and journey with the salvation experiences or journeys of others that they know or have heard of. Some believers have very compelling testimonies about significant life change and freedom from bondage almost immediately upon trusting Jesus for salvation. Praise God for what He has done in the lives of these people. Other true believers may have a testimony of a long faith journey where change is slow, and doubts are many. Praise God for what He has done in the lives of these people.
God is glorified by all redemption experiences of His people. It is truly beautiful that God saves people in different ways.
Conversion experiences are not alike. Luke records one of the most unique conversion stories for us near the end of his book.
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:39-43 (ESV)
This account of Jesus and the thief on the cross reminds us that the beauty of our conversion story does not lie in the strength of our belief, but rather in the grace and mercy of God.
Personality type can also be a factor in a person’s propensity to doubt. Some people are naturally confident and self-assured (in a good way). Others can be naturally insecure or self-conscious. It is likely that a person with the latter type of personality could be more susceptible to struggling with doubt about salvation. God made us, and while our personalities are flawed and subject to our sinful natures, God knows us and understands the intricacies of our personalities. Your faith journey will not be identical to anyone else’s, and that is a good thing.
How do I know if I am really a Christian?
Scripture tells us that true beleivers will produce “fruit” of the Holy Spirit. The apostle Paul reveals to us in Galatians what this fruit is.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Galatians 5:22-23 (ESV)
Please do not read this to mean that you should doubt your salvation if you are not producing all of these various types of fruit all the time. Even true believers will continue to sin until Jesus returns. Until then, your fruit will not be perfect nor constant. When you examine the fruit of the Spirit in your life, consider whether you are growing in this fruit over periods of time and/or seeing spiritual fruit as more desirable and more beautiful as you grow in your faith.
Also consider 1 John 5:11-13 which says:
And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the same Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. 1 John 5:11-13 (ESV)
There is not a specific formula or phrasing of words that needs to be said or thought to gain salvation. You just need to place your faith for right standing before a Holy God in Jesus’ finished work on the cross and nothing else, and also be willing to let Jesus work in and through you, although that work will likely be slow and imperfect.
What can I do to stop doubting?
While doubting salvation is not uncommon, it is important to address your doubts. If doubt comes from a place of genuine realization that the doubting person has never really trusted Jesus for salvation, then, of course, it is imperative to work through this and be reconciled to God through trusting in Jesus for salvation. If a genuine Christian is struggling with doubt, even though that person is already in right standing with God, the doubt can create a significant stumbling block to Christian growth and needs to be dealt with so that the believer’s faith can flourish.
What are some practical steps to take to address doubting salvation? There is no substitute for spending time in God’s Word and learning to love Him more. Immerse yourself in God’s Word. In her book, Women of the Word, author Jen Wilkin says beautifully:
“The heart cannot love what the mind does not know.”
Also, spend time around other believers. The Christian life is not meant to be lived in isolation. There are many opportunities within the church Body to encourage one another around the fruit of our salvation. Someone may see (and tell you about) fruit in your life that you are unable to see. The Body of Christ benefits the believer in so many ways, including by building assurance of faith in one another.
Love other people. Serve other people. Spend time in prayer. Think about the beautiful things of Christianity. C.S. Lewis, again, provides helpful insight to this point.
The first step is to recognize the fact that your moods change. The next is to make sure that, if you have once accepted Christianity, then some of its man doctrines shall be deliberately held before your mind for some time every day. That is why daily prayers and religious readings and churchgoing are necessary parts of the Christian life. We have to be continually reminded of what we believe. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 141.
If you will really commit to do these things because you want to know and love God more and want to love and serve others well, even in the midst of your doubt, you may find that, over time, your doubt begins to melt away.