Suppose Jack claims to have become a Christian at the age of 16, and for some time his walk with God was fairly consistent. He seemed to really want to love God, love others, tell people about Jesus, be actively involved in church, care for the poor, etc.
But at the age of 23, Jack’s Christian life becomes very rocky. He still claims to be a Christian, but he no longer obeys God consistently, he drops out of church, stops telling people about Jesus, and cares less and less about the things that God cares about. Some Christians would describe Jack as ‘backsliding’. This period of ‘backsliding’ might be for weeks, months or even years.
Because these situations are not all that uncommon, typically the question is asked: “If Jack was to die, where would he spend eternity?”
Will Jack make it to heaven?
People asking this question are usually not trying to imply that Jack has to earn his way to heaven. They firmly believe that Jack is saved because of Jesus’ finished work on the cross. But they also believe that if a person was really a Christian, then they wouldn’t live the kind of life that Jack is living.
Some wonder if Jack has lost his salvation? Others wonder if he was ever saved to begin with?
So what’s the answer? Unfortunately the situation is not as clear cut as we might like. There are actually two possibilities…
Possibility #1 – Jack is definitely a Christian who will go to Heaven
At the age of 16, Jack really did become a Christian. He came to a place where he realized that he was a sinner under the judgement of God, unable to change himself or save himself. He cast his entire life and eternity into Jesus’ hands, trusting Him to save him. As a result, Jesus did two things for Jack…
Jesus paid for all of Jack’s past, present, future, deliberate and accidental sin by His death on the cross.
B. HOLY SPIRIT
Jesus gave Jack the Holy Spirit who came into his life to wage war against his sinful nature and change him from the inside out.
Once Jack became a Christian at 16, he began to walk with God. The Holy Spirit worked powerfully in Jack’s life to make him more like Jesus.
But at the age of 23, something changed. It might have been that Jack got led astray by the wrong people. Or perhaps his girlfriend died in a car accident and Jack became angry with God. Or maybe Jack just got busy at work and overtime he got distracted.
Regardless though, if Jack is really a Christian, then his eternity is secure because Jesus has paid for his sin in full.
Possibility #2 – Jack is not a Christian and he will not go to Heaven
At the age of 16, Jack thought he became a Christian because he did two things…
Jack made a commitment to try and obey God’s commands. He figured that if he could obey, or at least try and obey, that God would accept him into heaven.
Jack started to conform to the church culture. He talked the talk. He behaved the right way. He even got into church leadership.
Because Jack made a commitment at the age of 16 to try and obey, he did everything he could not to put a step wrong. Outwardly it looked like Jack had a close relationship with God. But the truth is that Jack was terrified of God. He had no sense of peace. He felt constant pressure to perform. He was always worried that God might take away his salvation if he failed to keep his commitment.
So at the age of 23, Jack had finally reached a point where he could no longer stand it and he walked away. He wasn’t necessarily angry with God. He wasn’t even necessarily upset with the church. He just couldn’t keep walking closely with God if heaven and hell hung in the balance every time he sinned.
So unfortunately Jack would not go to heaven, not because he sinned too much, but because he never trusted in the finished work of Jesus on His behalf.
How do we know the difference?
In comparing Possibility #1 to Possibility #2, there are various things that could be looked at. Here’s a couple…
A. IS JACK TRUSTING IN JESUS’ FINISHED WORK ON HIS BEHALF, OR IS HE TRUSTING IN HIS COMMITMENT TO OBEY JESUS?
Ephesians 2:8-9 says: “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast”.
Our salvation rests on what Jesus has DONE, not on what we have to DO. A true Christian is saved by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone!
B. HAS JACK RECEIVED THE HOLY SPIRIT?
Galatians 5:16-17 says: “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other”.
Here we find that if Jack is truly a Christian, the Holy Spirit will be waging war against his sinful nature. Sometimes Jack will be led by the Spirit, and he will love God and love others and hate sin. Other times Jack will be led by his sinful nature, and he will love sin and crave sin.
This means two things. Firstly, over time, we should be able to see fruit of the Spirit in Jack’s life. Secondly, when Jack does sin, or begins to ‘backslide’ as some Christians call it, the Holy Spirit will be at work in his life calling him to confess his sin and walk with God.
The key is not to expect an absence of sin or even an absence of sinful desires (for Jack still has a sinful nature that loves sin and craves sin), but rather to look for evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in Jack’s life.