Though I will never gain a full understanding of it until I see Him in glory someday, my appreciation for how great and mighty the Lord really is has grown immensely over the last year, so I’ve written this post to talk about the things that led me to this understanding. I know it’s long-winded, but I hashed out the details of it all because I know that many people in my social circle have never heard the things that I believe, and I figured that it would make more sense if I told the whole story. The last few years have easily been the hardest of my life, but I would not trade the trials in them for anything now.
I first began questioning my relationship with God during the spring of 2013, my sophomore year of high school. A pastor preached a sermon challenging people to consider whether our relationship with Christ was built on emotions or built on a true heart of intent, or something along those lines. That day, what I had known for a while but had refused to acknowledge hit me: I hadn’t been putting even a halfway decent effort into obeying God. I compared myself to my Christian friends and saw my lack of real enthusiasm for the Lord. I began to feel remorse. Eventually, I asked myself the biggest question of all: was I eternally saved? In other words, would I go to Heaven when I died? I had considered myself eternally secure since I was 8 years old when I had “asked Jesus to come into my heart,” but I began to wonder if I had really meant it. I saw all the sin in my life, and I realized that someone who had truly submitted to the Lordship of Jesus and repented of their sins couldn’t have been so indifferent for the few years that I had been, and I thought that submission/repentance/“giving your life to Christ” was what was required in order for me to be given eternal salvation. If I had actually done these things, how could I be so lukewarm in my pursual of God for so long? Maybe I had never properly accepted God’s offer of salvation, I thought to myself.
I put the thought to the back of my mind and went on with daily life. By November, I had decided not to play basketball that season, partially so I could go on a church youth retreat that occurred during the first weekend of practice. I knew that I had to confront my questions eventually. At the retreat, I tried to convince myself that I had submitted to the Lordship of Jesus and turned from all my sins and was therefore eternally saved. I told my friends about it, but the nagging feeling didn’t go away.
During that winter, our youth group met on Sunday nights for an in-depth study series. A youth leader prefaced it on the first week by saying that some of us would probably question our salvation during it, and if we did, to come talk to him. Great. As if I wasn’t already worried enough. Essentially, the videos we watched made me feel even more like I wasn’t saved, like I wasn’t showing enough evidences of my salvation to prove that I had truly secured it for myself. It left me feeling like if I wasn’t empowered and inspired to die for the gospel, then I hadn’t been genuine enough in my commitment to Christ in order to be eternally saved.
I wrote in a journal on June 11, 2014, “Why do I rededicate my life to Christ so many times but never seem to change my habits? If you dedicate your life to Christ, but then fall off the path, were you really genuine in the first place and are you really saved? So many Christians talk about peace, and I don’t feel I have it.” On June 12, I wrote, “I think, last night, I truly accepted Jesus, but whether it was for the first time or not, I’m unsure. My prayer now is that God would take away all uncertainty within me regarding my salvation.” These years were filled with lots of these occurrences — praying extremely long prayers in which I would remind myself of all God had done in an attempt to humble myself enough to be eternally saved. I would reach a point that I liked to pretend contained enough repentance to obtain salvation, but deep down, I knew that the effort I had given to get myself to Heaven just wasn’t good enough for a holy God.
At summer camp, I continued to be faced with these doubts. I was still wondering whether or not I had repented enough to be saved, and by the end of the week, I was so overcome with fear that I talked to a pastor and his wife about it. I asked them to give me a basic presentation of the gospel, and I tried to figure out how to know if I was saved or not. I prayed with them, went back and told my friends I had “accepted Christ” (for the 18 millionth time), yadda, yadda, yadda. But, I felt no different. For nearly the entire four hour bus ride home, I still remember trying to submit to Him and repent in order to grant my salvation if I didn’t already have it. On July 21, I wrote, “Why does the Bible say things like Matthew 10:32 about acknowledging Jesus before men, when the Bible also teaches that there’s nothing I can do to earn salvation?” See, my entire life, if someone would have asked me, “Can I earn my way into Heaven?” I would have answered with a resounding, “No.” However, the doctrine that I believed at that time said otherwise.
One night in late August, I went to a friend’s house for a movie night with a group of people. The movie decided on was Devil, which I knew was not God-honoring, but, however, failed to say something about. Someone asked what the premise of the movie was, to which one of the girls replied, “One of the people in the elevator, they think, has like, the devil inside of them,” as if the devil was some mythical creature. That’s when it hit me that a lot of people didn’t understand that Satan is real; however, what bothered me even more about this occurrence was my presumption that most of the people there would be spending eternity separated from God in a place far darker than the one in the movie because I had failed to persuade them to come to Jesus. It really shook me up and only compounded my helpless thoughts that I might still be going to Hell. This was a huge turning point, but not in a good way. That fall, everywhere I looked, all I saw was someone who I thought was saved or someone who I thought was not. It got extremely depressing; these thoughts haunted me day and night. I didn’t want other people to go to Hell, and I certainly didn’t want to, either! I would lay in bed wondering what would happen to me if I died that night. Try as I might, I could not convince myself that I was eternally saved — I could clearly see my sinfulness and thought that there was no way I had genuinely committed to following Christ and therefore gained eternal salvation if I was still coming up so short.
On November 30, 2014 a pastor preached a sermon on James 2 about faith and good works. The gist of it was that good works come after salvation (which is true), but that if good works were not present in someone’s life, there’s a good chance that they did not secure salvation in the first place and needed to do something to ensure that they would go to Heaven when they died. I could see some good works in my life, but what was the required amount of good works to prove the saved from the unsaved? It seemed so ambiguous. Anyway, this was the last straw in my fear complex. By the end of the sermon, I was almost fully convinced that I was not eternally saved. Before the altar call started, I got the feeling that comes when you know you’re about to have to do something unpleasant. I hesitated — I did not want to go up in front of the church and talk to someone. Regardless, I asked my friend to come up there with me. We met with a deacon and went in the hallway. I was explaining my struggles through hysteric tears when a few people came out there. One said that he didn’t need to tell me what to say — that I already knew — so as I continued to bawl, I prayed out loud with five or six people around me, asking Jesus to be my Lord and Savior and saying I wanted to follow Him, thinking that these things that I did were enough to grant me access into Heaven. This prayer was no different than the ones I had prayed a thousand times before. My mom and dad came out later and we told them what was going on. When my mom asked if I finally felt better, I gave her a strained “Yeah.” It was a total lie. I was so discouraged; I had gone in front of the church, had opened up to a group that included a few strangers, and had been vulnerable before the eyes of watching people in the congregation but still didn’t feel any peace.
The next week a pastor presented me in front of the church as having “accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior” and thus as having been saved. People were happy and relieved for me, but I wasn’t.
A few days before Christmas, I was sick to my stomach with worry. I remember being hung up on Romans 10:9, which talks about confessing with your mouth the Lord Jesus. I prayed for probably an hour, trying to convince myself of all the good God had done and why that was worthy of my undivided devotion. At the end, I thought, “Okay, one last thing to seal the deal — declare with my mouth that Jesus is Lord.” I went downstairs and said it twice to my brother. He said, “Cool.”
I told myself I felt better, but who was I kidding? A few weeks went by before I Googled a question about faith/salvation. The search led me to a website with what I thought were Biblical answers. The website proclaimed that repenting of sins, acknowledging Christ as Lord, committing to following Him, etc. were all things that we should do, but were not necessary for salvation. It did, however, still place one condition on salvation — one had to believe the gospel in order to have salvation applied to them. At the time, I didn’t see a problem with this. I was relieved to hear that repentance, committing to follow Christ, and all the other things I had struggled with were not necessary for salvation. My fears resided but were not completely gone.
Basically, during this time, I was just kind of waiting, thinking, “Ok, I’ve heard ‘the gospel,’ but do I really believe it?” I tried so hard to believe that Jesus would take me to Heaven on the sole condition that I believed in Him. But, I just couldn’t seem to settle that idea in my mind. I concluded that if I had to force myself to believe and that that belief was what gave me salvation, then I was actually just working for my salvation. I thought, “Aren’t I actually trusting myself to get to Heaven if I’m relying on my faith to obtain that salvation?”
This went on for many months, and I really didn’t know what to do about it. Summer camp occurred during this time, which, so far as I can recall, was probably the hardest week of my life. I felt so alone in my thinking, in my questions, and in my doubts. I felt like a broken record ranting to my close friends, and I wondered why I was seemingly the only one amongst my peers who had ever doubted their salvation.
Eventually that summer, I was led to the idea of predestination. I first entertained the thought back in April upon reading Romans 8:28-29 but hadn’t given it much thought since then. After realizing that forcing myself to believe would mean relying on myself, I was pretty confident (but not fully) that if I believed the gospel, that it was a gift of God and that all who believed it had been chosen by God to receive salvation. At this time, though, I still thought that belief in the gospel was a precursor to salvation, so I was confused as to how it all worked. How could God ensure that certain people would have eternal salvation, yet still place a condition on their salvation that they had to meet? Couldn’t I screw it up, then? I got so defeated by the thought that maybe I didn’t have salvation because I wasn’t one of God’s elect and was just out of luck. I wanted to be saved, but maybe I couldn’t be, I thought.
I moved to Alabama for college in August and was still unsure of my salvation, still trying to get myself to believe that I could go to Heaven if I only trusted in Jesus to get me there. But wasn’t I trusting in myself, then? It just didn’t add up. I wondered if I had faith in my faith or faith in Christ.
On the evening of August 27, our campus organizations fair occurred. I was still looking for a church, desperately seeking someone who agreed with me that repenting, accepting, committing, etc. was not necessary for salvation, but also someone who affirmed predestination. I still thought that belief in the gospel was a precursor to eternal salvation. I went around to different churches and campus ministries that had booths there and listened to their interpretation of the gospel. None of them was what I was looking for.
I stopped halfway through to go eat dinner and then came back to visit more organizations. There was one booth that caught my eye that I almost passed up, but something told me to go up and talk to the ladies at it. They were Primitive Baptists, and I did not know what that meant — I had never heard that term before. I asked them what they would tell someone if they were to ask how they could go to Heaven. They told me they believed in predestination (Woohoo! I was leaning that way, too). They told me that God chose a people to receive salvation before the world began (Romans 8:28, 1 Peter 1:2), that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, paid for their sins in full when He died on the cross (1 Peter 3:18, John 17:2, Hebrews 9:12), and that He secured salvation for all of His chosen people (Matthew 1:21). I had heard these things before. Next, though, I heard the Good News that I had longed to hear for so long. They then explained to me that there is no condition that God’s children must meet in order to go to Heaven. At some point in their lifetime, all of His children are regenerated, or given spiritual life (“born again”), after which they are able to believe the gospel. They said that His children believe because they already are saved, but they are not saved because of their belief.
I considered these things. At first, I had a lot of objections, though I didn’t voice them. I had heard my entire life that salvation was contingent on what I did or did not do or believe; I had never heard any differently from any Christian. How could so many Godly, upstanding people be misunderstanding the most important tenet of the Bible, and if these things about God’s sovereignty in salvation were true, why had I never heard them before? Did the people going to Heaven really not have to do anything to get there?
I’m ashamed to admit it, but the word “primitive” scared me at first, too. Maybe my friends back home were right about people in the South who hide out in the backwoods, eat roadkill, and marry their cousins. I now know that this could not be further from the truth. “Primitive” just means original or underived from something else.
I needed to have things explained to me in light of Scripture, so I went back and read articles online from other Primitive Baptists. The things they said made a lot of sense. The first verse that really stuck with me was John 19:30, in which Jesus says, “It is finished.” I had heard this verse so many times before, but in the light of their proclamation that Jesus truly saved His people, instead of making them savable, this took on a whole new meaning. His work left nothing unaccomplished.
Matthew 1:21 also really challenged my former beliefs. The angel did not tell Joseph that Jesus would offer His people salvation, or that He would do half of the work of salvation that they had to finish by believing in Him, but looking ahead, the angel said, “He shall save His people from their sins.” That seemed pretty definitive to me.
I slowly began to believe more fully that what the two ladies had told me that night in August was the truth — that man can do absolutely nothing, including believing the gospel, to merit his eternal salvation. I eventually learned that if God merely offered salvation to man, not a single person on earth could accept it because we are totally depraved, dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1, 2:5) before God changes us. Before a person is born again, God defines them as this: “corrupt,” having done “abominable works” (Psalm 14). The Psalm continues, saying, “They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” For as long as I could remember, I had known that people were sinners and that God was holy, but for most of my life, I had thought that all people, by nature, had enough good left in them to choose to “invite Christ into their heart.” The more I read my Bible, the more I saw that this was just not true. Not one of us, by our nature, has the ability to choose to receive salvation, for, “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him” (1 Corinthians 2:14). God must do the choosing.
I have heard it explained this way: a dead man does not come back to life by his choice; he really has no say in the matter. When we are dead, we have absolutely no way to bring ourselves back to life; similarly, a spiritually dead person (Ephesians 2:1) cannot choose spiritual life for himself — God must grant it. Romans 9:16 says that, “So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.”
I came across a few other verses during this time that really made me think. Galatians 5:22-23, a Scripture I knew by heart, lists the fruit of the Spirit, one of which is “faith.” I had always thought that faith was what granted people the Spirit. According to that verse, faith was only possible if the Spirit already resided in a person. There was no other way I could explain that verse when I read it in this new light. Faith does not give someone the Spirit, but rather, the Spirit is what allows faith to exist in a person.
Secondly, I came across John 3 in which Jesus discusses man’s necessity to be born again before he can see the kingdom of God. In verse 8, He tells Nicodemus that, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” I read a great analogy for this somewhere: when you are born, you are passive. You don’t choose who your parents are, and you cannot stop yourself from being born. Eventually, you come to recognize who your parents are and the fact that you are alive, but you did absolutely nothing to bring yourself to life. That is why Jesus used the terms “born again” to describe someone with spiritual life in them. They didn’t give God permission to be their Father, but his children can eventually recognize that they are his child.
So, okay, this left me wondering who God’s elect people were. What sets them apart, and how do his people know they are his? Scripture is full of evidences of those in possession of spiritual life, but there were a couple that stuck out to me the most. First came John 5:24. It states that anyone who believes on God hath eternal life. It didn’t tell me that all who believe on God will gain eternal life, but that all who believe on him already have it! 1 John 5:1 reads, “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him.” The verse does not say that if I believe, I will be born of God. It says that if I believe that Jesus is the Christ, that I am already born of God (as in it happened before I first believed). I thought about all the altar calls that had pressured me to secure my salvation during those few years that I had been doubting it. I was told that if what you heard in that message had touched your heart, then you should come down and talk to someone about how to get saved. But I could see now that if the true things you had heard about Jesus had touched your heart, then you already were saved!
I soon saw that all who desire to serve God and to do right in his sight were saved before they desired these things. This is “zeal of God” (Romans 10:2). You cannot do these things without the Spirit, and thus, they only occur in those whom God has given spiritual life. Someone not born again does not fear God (Psalm 36:1); accordingly, if you fear God, you are born again! The recognition of our depravity and subsequent need for God to save us does not exist in someone not born again, for these are things “of God” (1 Corinthians 2:14). The only way to desire salvation is to already be in possession of it.
I thought back to those times that last summer when I was so upset thinking that maybe I just wasn’t one of God’s elect. By God’s grace, I had wanted to be saved; I knew I was a sinner; I was seeking after Him; I knew God was Holy and that Jesus was his Son and had died on a cross after living a sinless life and was later resurrected, but maybe I just wasn’t one of the lucky ones who got to go to Heaven. That was simply not true. All those things my heart desired were put there by God and were evidence that I was already his. Those convictions, commitments, pleadings, and prayers were not precursors to gaining spiritual life and being eternally saved; rather, they showed me that God had sovereignly given me spiritual life (which caused me to pursue him) at some point already before I ever asked him for it. Though I never would have admitted it in a million years, my old way of thinking told me, “I was responsible enough to take care of my debt to God, and I am, therefore, better than everyone who hasn’t done so.” I’d like to shake my former self for ever thinking these terrible, self-righteous, holier-than-thou thoughts. They’re inevitable when you think that eternal salvation is man’s choice.
Through all of this reading and study (and believe me, there was a ton of it), I still wasn’t 100% confident in this doctrine, though — I wanted to be absolutely certain that Scripture taught that spiritual life is given before belief in the gospel and not after. There were Bible verses that still tripped me up. What about John 3:16? Ephesians 2:8-9? I needed to talk to an actual human to have some of my questions answered. In January of this year, I began attending a Primitive Baptist church each week. I was absolutely amazed at what I experienced. I saw that people were coming together to encourage one another and bear each other’s burdens as opposed to checking this thing off their to-do list called church. I’m not claiming that these good things don’t happen at other churches I’ve been to, but rather that this church was exceptional.
On some day between mid-January and March 6, it occurred to me that I no longer had any doubts about predestination/election/sovereign grace. It was something that my heart had known for a while but that my mind had just needed to be convinced of. I had decided to trust my King James Bible, and after that, these things were as plain as day to me in Scripture. I knew for certain that belief in the gospel was not a condition for salvation but was instead an evidence of it. My days of striving to obtain salvation were over! I knew that Christ had already obtained it for His people. I absolutely should believe in Him, repent of my sins, follow Him, etc., but these things show my appreciation for salvation instead of my attempt to gain it. I joined the church on March 6 and was baptized three weeks later. I praise God for all of this.
One thing that sets this doctrine apart from all others is that it gives all the glory in salvation to God alone. I can in no way credit a choice I made or a belief I held. All other systems say that man is able to muster some good in himself in order to do the right thing or make the right decision or believe the correct statements in order to “make it.” Sovereign grace proclaims that God is able to do anything, and without him I am able to do absolutely nothing. I sometimes can’t believe how much time I spent thinking that I could do what only he can.
I think the biggest hangup I had in that first semester of college was totally getting over the popular idea that predestination is unfair. I eventually realized that, for one, God is sovereign over my emotions, and, secondly, that predestination is not unfair of God, anyway. Man chose to sin in the Garden of Eden, and it is not God’s fault that we got ourselves in this mess. He would be perfectly just to send every person (Romans 5:12), myself included, to Hell because we deserve it. There was no one on Earth begging God to save them, no one who wanted anything to do with him (Psalm 14, 53). It is only by his grace that he chose to bring some people to himself in order to spare them from the eternal consequences of their sin. Romans 9:18 told me that God will have mercy on whom he chooses. Verses 22 and 23 told me that he did not choose everyone to be saved in order to “shew his wrath, and to make his power known” and to “make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy.” Additionally, just as God’s children long for him, those who have not been born again still want nothing to do with him, anyway (1 Corinthians 1:18, 2:14; Psalm 36:1, 10:13; Romans 3:8). He is simply leaving them as they are. For however long I lived before God sovereignly put his Spirit in me, I, too, hated him. Everyone does. I recently came across this quote from Charles Spurgeon that struck a chord with me: “I must confess that I never would have been saved if I could have helped it.” Ain’t that the truth? I can think of absolutely no reason why God would choose to give eternal life to me specifically, but there are endless reasons why he shouldn’t. I am thankful every day that He saved me in spite of myself, and I will always wonder, “Why me?”
The gratitude I feel is incredible. I can sleep at night knowing that I can’t screw up my salvation or anyone else’s if the Lord has purposed it. I no longer feel the burden to administer salvation to others because I know that I just can’t do that. Obedience became so much more genuine (and, honestly, so much easier) once I understood who God really is and the fact that his power is not subject to my approval of him. Though I couldn’t put it into words, deep down, I used to view Jesus as kind of a pathetic person just begging me to let Him save me. Well, he already did that 2,000 years ago! There is no need for Him to plead with anyone. He didn’t die on Calvary hoping that people would accept Him — He did it to ensure that some of the people who would never accept Him on their own would have salvation anyway. His blood actually saved people, not just made it possible for them to be saved, and that brings a peace like no other. God is so much more sovereign, so much more powerful, than I had ever thought him to be. As Peter wrote, “To him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.”