I heard from an experienced pastor that the most frequent question he was asked by people was essentially this one - “How do I know I'm saved?” A new Christian, or someone genuinely desiring to become a Christian, may not be sure of what salvation “feels like”. Someone who's been a Christian for a long time, however, should know what being saved “feels like” so we might also consider why these “experienced Christians” may become unsure as well.
Romans says: The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. (Romans 8:16)
This verse is telling us that there is some kind of supernatural communication with us, directly from God, which assures us of our salvation. The question is, how are we supposed to know what that feels like? Some people say that they understand this straight away; that from the day they were saved they have had this “feeling” that, of course, cannot really be understood by anyone else. All feelings are like that – we can only communicate that we are “happy” or “sad”, for example, because we know that other people have felt happiness and sadness, and know what we're talking about. And even with those emotions, how can a woman explain the joy of childbirth, for example, to someone who hasn't had children, even though they've both felt joy over other things? Or how can a person really understand the grief a man has felt over the death of his wife when they have never lost their own wife? Feelings are a personal, subjective thing.
Now, I can only speak for myself, personally. When I became a Christian I was in my late 20s. But I had grown up in a Christian home, attending Church every Sunday with my parents, and I believed that I was saved because I believed in Jesus. Well, what happened in my life was simply that I picked up a Bible one day and decided to read it. And I think the passage of Scripture which really grabbed me was in Matthew 7. It reads:
“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.” (Matthew 7:21)
At that time, I was living with a woman out of wedlock, and getting up to all kinds of mischief besides. This verse really made me doubt my salvation. And of course, I wasn't actually saved. Sometimes when we doubt our salvation, it may be precisely what Christ wants us to do! In fact, there are many examples in the gospels where Jesus challenges those who think they're right with God but aren't. When a rich man came to Jesus, claiming to have kept God's commandments all his life, Jesus tells him that he ought to sell all he has and give it to the poor. It seems like an odd thing to tell him; it wasn't reassuring and it wasn't even a gospel message of faith in Christ. But this man thought he ought to be right with God because he lived a moral life. He needed to be shown that his faith was in the wrong thing. He first needed to doubt his standing with God; to understand that he cannot, by his own works, gain access to heaven. And he needed to be prepared to give up what was going to keep him from having faith in Christ. I believed that I was saved because I believed in Jesus; I called Him “Lord, Lord”. But did I do the will of God? Not in any manner at all!
So what of me now days? Am I doing the will of God, and that's how I know I'm saved? Well, every day is about asking myself “What is the will of God for me in this situation I find myself in?” And every day I try to obey, but every day I fail to obey perfectly. To have your salvation challenged is a good thing. However, I was chatting with a lady at Church once who said, “It's so difficult to share my struggles with anyone here, because they usually just start telling me 'Are you sure you're saved?' and preaching the gospel to me.” We know that we're never perfect and that we're saved by grace. I suppose part of the reason I am confident of my salvation is because that, every day, it matters to me whether I'm doing what God desires. It matters to me when I sin, and I want to repent of it and be sure not to fall into it again. It matters to me that my friends and family, and even strangers walking down the street, don't know Christ. It matters to me that there are poor and lonely people in my neighbourhood, and I want to help them. But even despite all these things, there's that unexplainable feeling; that “witness of the Holy Spirit.”
One atheist gentleman, who had formerly been a Christian, said “When I was a Christian I 'felt' the Holy Spirit; but you know how when you go and watch a sad movie and it makes you cry... it's the same thing; it's just emotions evoked by our own imagination! There is no 'witness of the Holy Spirit'!” But if that's his characterization of what the Holy Spirit feels like, I'm doubtful that he was ever a true Christian at all. The witness of the Holy Spirit isn't about warm and fuzzy feelings; it's about an ever-present awareness of God's will... God doesn't want me to sin, and I am always conscious of the temptations before me. God wants me to share my faith with others, and I am always conscious of the opportunities that present themselves to do so. God wants me to serve others, and again, I'm always conscious of the opportunities to do that. It isn't about feeling certain comforting emotions; it's about having the mind of God ever-present with you.
But probably the most important thing we can do to be assured of our salvation is to read the Word of God. In a sense, it's the most objective thing we can do. The Word of God showed me that I wasn't saved, and led me to genuine faith in Christ. That same passage in Matthew 7 which once convicted me no longer does. Or if you read 1 John, there are some convicting passages in there... “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.” (1 John 2:9). Most importantly, the Bible shows you what that witness of the Holy Spirit is supposed to feel like. The Bible will reveal to you whether you're saved or not. The Bible says all of these things, and it doesn't divide them up saying “This passage is for believers...” and “This is for unbelievers...” We all need to hear all of it. The unsaved will be convinced of their sins and of Christ's love for them, and believers will find both comfort and correction, even by the exact same passages.
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)