On occasion, I love to watch the reaction on Christian teenagers’ faces when I tell them I don’t know the exact date and time I was saved. It defies so many of their preconceptions about the standard testimony. It’s surprising. But it shouldn’t be. Far too many young Christians today have been trained – perhaps even pressured – into thinking that their conversion isn’t valid unless it’s accompanied by a special moment, experience, or epiphany when God affirmed salvation in their own minds and hearts. After all, Saul had his Damascus road, right? In denominations that affirm believer’s baptism, the conviction that our faith should be coupled with a public profession of faith often transforms into a desperate search for that special moment to secure one’s decision. For those youth pastors who neglect to counsel children regarding the truth of salvation and conversion, it leads to a myriad of unfortunate circumstances that can wreak havoc on the teenage conscience. The worst mistake a youth pastor can make is to convey the idea that one’s assurance of salvation is grounded in a moment. It’s more than bad ministry. It’s spiritual negligence. The result is a generation of believers who, when questioned about their own salvation, have been trained to harken back to an experience rather than the Gospel itself. And when the former gives way (and it always does), a sinner grappling with their own life of unrepentant sin can forget the very message of grace they professed to believe in the first place.
“How do you know you’re saved?” is a question I frequently ask teenagers. It’s quite possibly the most important question a youth pastor [and parent] could ever ask a child. It’s not meant to cast doubt. Quite the opposite in fact. Teenagers in the church today need these kinds of ultimate questions. They’ve forgotten their tricycle. Not a real tricycle, but the one of assurance. One of the best analogies I’ve ever heard concerning the issue of assurance is one of a tricycle. Scripture presents us with 3 primary ways to confirm that we’re saved: (1) The Gospel (2) the witness of the Holy Spirit (3) and the fruits of righteousness in our life. (John 3:16, Rom. 8:16, 1 John 5:13, 18) The last two – the inner witness of the Holy Spirit and His fruits – are only secondary in comparison with the big wheel in the tricycle of assurance: the Gospel itself. In fact, the last two only flow out of the first. To the question “How do you known you’re saved?” the answer must include the message of Jesus Christ dying for sinners and faith in Him. If not, a teenage Christian is resting their entire claim to salvation upon a shakable, existential, subjective foundation. In countless churches today, in countless youth camps, in countless revivals, young churchgoing adults across the country are finding that this Christ-less foundation is faltering under the weight of their guilty consciences. After all, in the midst of sin and shame, it doesn’t take long for a moment to lose its luster. Teenagers need more than an experience to ground their assurance. They need the finished work of Christ.
Inevitably, almost ever year at camp, a young Christian comes forward with tears streaming down his or her face with the unfortunate news that they’ve secretly strayed from the Lord. And that experience is all the more troubling when it’s coupled with the confusion of not knowing exactly when or if they were ever saved. In many ways, these frenzied situations are the fruits of a church culture that places heavy premiums on encounters with God without the explicit Gospel of God. As a result, countless teenagers return from their corporate worship settings on Wednesday nights or at camp not as victors in Christ, but as victims of an experiential culture inducing them into one more feeling-driven decision. The good news is that amidst the tears and worry over the legitimacy or illegitimacy of their past experience, the same Gospel presents itself as clearly as it did the first time. Parents and youth pastors have a responsibility not to let the quest of determining when they were saved override the joy of knowing that they’re saved. Was Sarah saved at camp two years ago? Was Billy saved at D-Now his freshmen year? Who knows. But Jesus still lives. And the Gospel is still free to all.