Nearly every American who is globally minded has gone through a stage of self-deprication, simply because they're American. As an American, understanding how the rest of the world views you means that if you meet someone from another country, you are obliged to talk about how bad the United States is. Whether it's putting down the educational system, ignorance, bigotry, social and financial inequality, leadership, or anything else - globally minded Americans feel the need to preempt the insults by acknowledging their own frustration at the issues in their homeland.
There is a similar trend of self-deprication within Christianity. We Christians are often very quick to judge "religion" and "Pharisees," yet so slow to do anything about these faults in our communities and in ourselves. In the past few years, I have thought more and more about this, because there are some pretty huge implications. If the fat comedian talks about how bad being fat is and how good being skinny would be, yet does nothing about it - he's not really skinny, nor will he ever be. If the chain smoker talks about how good quitting would be, and how bad smoking is, yet does nothing about it - he's not really clean, nor will he ever be. And if the Christian talks about how "religion" isn't really Christianity, and how they need to embrace Christ rather than simple tradition and rules, yet doesn't truly follow Christ - it seems to me that logic would say they're not really a Christian.
It wasn't until I was a sophomore in high school that I came across the first truth that really helped me. The passage was Hebrews 12. It told me that Christians were to fix their eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of their faith. For as simple as it seems, it was the first time I truly realized that all along I had been relying on my sincerity and my faith to save me - not Christ. Faith in faith is not the same thing as faith in Christ. Faith in faith is faith in me. Faith in Christ is faith that resides totally outside of myself.
That truth carried me through high school and college, but it still felt as though there was something missing. It seems rather esoteric to say "just believe in Christ." I believed in Christ and everything about him taught by orthodox Christianity, but it still seemed like a very ambiguous thing. The Bible told me to work out my salvation with fear and trembling, and it told me that my heart is deceitful even beyond what I could know. How in the world could I be confident of my salvation?
It was as I was looking into Reformed theology that I found the second part of the equation. While Christ is all we need to focus on, God does not leave us without indicators as to where our hearts have truly placed their faith. True Christians bear fruit. But I had always known that. And in fact, this is what had given me false assurance in the first place. In middle school, I had "fruit," but it was all legalism. I was performing actions not because I was changed. I was performing actions because I didn't want to deviate from the social norm. But as I continued to think about this, I came across a concept that rocked me. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find this quote online, but I think it was from Jonathan Edwards. He essentially said that a Christian is most assured that they are truly a Christian when they accept God as he continues to reveal himself to them. It might not seem like a great insight, but it was revolutionary to me. Let me explain by fleshing out another question I had growing up.
When was Peter saved? Was he saved before meeting Christ? Was he saved the moment he chose to follow Christ? The moment he acknowledged that Christ was the Messiah? When he repented from his betrayal? After the resurrection, when he more fully understood who Christ was, what he came to do, and how he accomplished salvation? To me, it seemed more like Peter's salvation was a process - and likely one that continued to his death. I personally like Paul's view. In Galatians 1, he says, "15 But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being." Paul essentially says that in one sense, he was really always God's. He was always saved. In fact, Ephesians tells us that believers have, in a sense, been saved since before the foundation of the world. God has guaranteed the salvation of all believers from before the creation of the world, so even if we haven't realized that truth yet, it's as good as done. It's simply that at one point in time, just as God let Paul in on the secret, he'll let all believers in on it as well. When Christ was truly revealed to Paul in his heart, Paul knew he was "saved." When Christ is truly revealed to you, you will know it.
To show why I think this is the case and why I think the notion of revelation over time is important, I want to explore how the disciples and the Pharisees were largely indistinguishible - save for one characteristic - the characteristic that matters.
1. Both the disciples and the Pharisees thought good works obtained God's favor and bad works obtained his judgment. Now there is certainly some truth to this, as our works will ultimately be judged. But here I mean more the health and wealth sort of favor and judgment. It is the notion that if something bad happens to you in this life, then you must have deserved it. It is a belief in what we call karma.
2. Both the disciples and the Pharisees thought that one shouldn't associate with the untouchables in society. Whereas for the Pharisees this tended to focus more on the spiritually unclean (e.g. prostitutes and tax collectors), for the disciples it seems that it was more the socially unclean or lower class (Samaratin, Gentiles, Romans, and children).
3. Both the disciples and the Pharisees thought that good leadership came through power and position. The disciples, it seems, wanted Christ to bring the kingdom through physical force, and some of his disciples tried to weasel their way into high positions in the Kingdom through their requests. While the Pharisees may ultimately have enjoyed the overthrow of Rome, they focused their exertion of power by crafting laws, customs, and procedures that profited by taking from the people.
4. Both the disciples and the Pharisees were politically self-interested. The Pharisees may not have liked Rome, but they were happy to work with an immoral, overbearing leader and nation if it protected them and upheld their power structure. We see them work with Rome quite a bit in the Bible, especially as it relates to conspiring against Christ. The Pharisees were given a lot of freedom to oversee their customs and laws despite being under Roman rule. As far as the disciples, of the six known occupations among them, we know that five were fishermen. Of the 12, there was at least one zealot, and likely more. Many of the individuals who joined Christ had an interest in a kingdom that overthrew the Roman government, or at least brought about more freedoms and less taxes. They thought Christ was bringing this sort of kingdom.
I'm sure you could make some more connections, but those are a few of the obvious ones. While the outworking of their beliefs may have been slightly different, both the Pharisees and disciples thought along the same lines in many ways that deviated from Christ's teachings. The disciples could be deemed Pharisaical - except for one trait. Remember what was said earlier? The true mark of a Christian is accepting God as he continues to reveal himself. Think about the disciples versus the Pharisees. While it took some time, and while there were mistakes all along the way, the disciples gradually conformed to the very hard truths Christ was teaching. The Pharisees, while living more pristine, meticulously law-abiding lives - rejected Christ and his transformative teachings for their own ideas, rules, and regulations. While the Pharisees were likely much better than the disciples as far as overt morality was concerned, they lacked the ability to change. Their hearts were hardened.
This is the truth that now comforts me. I do not have a tearjerker testimony of all the overt sin Christ has saved me out of. But for me, it has never been the overt actions from which I needed saving. Rather it was, and is, and probably always will be the secretive inner chamber of my devious and depraved heart that needs saving. While God saved me in a sense before the foundation of the world, and while that salvation was revealed in me at a point in the past, I am in need of gospel saving every day, as the revelation of Christ implores me to be conformed more and more to his image. And really, I will always be in need of that gospel for eternity. It is only the gospel laid bare and placed tangibly before me in the new heavens and earth that will keep me in God's presence.
It is this that assures me of my salvation; I am accepting hard truths as Christ reveals them to me and I am not preserving my personal or cultural ideals that have no place in the Kingdom of God. I can look back over the past ten years of my life - and especially over the last two - and see how much God has changed my heart. It's hard, and I've got a long way to go, but I love it. I want to encourage you to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. Don't look simply at the overt actions of your life, but search your heart. Have you been challenged on your beliefs recently? Chances are that you aren't completely conformed to the image of Christ yet. That means you have some conforming to do. Ask God to reveal these areas in your life and to give you the strength to accept God's truth as he reveals it. I have listed below a number of areas that I have been challenged on in the past year or two. It might be a good starting place for you. I'd love to expound more and chat, so definitely get in touch!
My attitude on self-defense and my readiness to take life was wrong.
My attitude on politics as a means of self-preservation and moralistic imposition was wrong.
My attitude on social reform where I failed to acknowledge my biases and complicity was wrong.
My attitude on finances and my hording of physical resources is wrong.
My attitude on opposition and my willingness to treat those who oppose me disrespectfully is wrong.
My attitude on the Sabbath and my willingness to throw out a clear command and blessing for convenience was wrong.
My attitude on those who are overtly immoral and my failure to acknowledge "but by the grace of God" was wrong.
My attitude on ecumenism and my laziness in not encouraging, working with, and praying for other denominations was wrong.
My attitude towards non-evangelicals and my arrogance at thinking my denomination has a corner on the market when it comes to all Christian truths