Assurance, Justification & Sanctification

How do you know that you are really a Christian?

The trouble with Christians is that they tend to look at themselves too much. The trouble with looking at yourself too much is that you will eventually freak out.

Why? The longer you look at yourself, and I mean truly look at yourself, you will be forced to acknowledge the truth…that you are still a sinner. Not just someone who commits a few sins here and there, not just someone who has a few dark secrets, but a sinner. That is, someone who is very seriously infected with a bias toward evil.

There are only so many excuses you can make before you reach the inevitable conclusion. You’re a fraud. Christians should not think these thoughts, feel these emotions or act in this way. You cannot possibly be a real Christian. Can you?

Don’t Confuse Justification with Sanctification

The problem here is that we look to ourselves for assurance rather than to Christ. When we do this we confuse two categories: justification (our status before God) and sanctification (change in the way we live).

The German Reformer, Martin Luther, wasn’t kidding around when he spoke of Christians being “at the same time both righteous and sinners”. Neither was Paul confused when he described his own experience in Romans 7.

So I find this law at work: although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

The normal Christian is both righteous and sinful, wretched and delivered. How can that be possible? It is possible as long as we don’t confuse justification and sanctification. In terms of our justification, that is our status before God, we are righteous and we are delivered. On the other hand, in terms of our sanctification, the way we live our lives, we are sinful and wretched. We are changing, but we are always affected by our sinful nature.

If we look to the righteousness of our lives for assurance of our salvation we will be unsettled because our lives do not paint a very clear picture of the reality. Our justification does not depend on our sanctification. Rather than look at our ungodly selves, we need to look to Him who justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5).

 

Assurance & Justification

Why do Christians struggle with assurance of their salvation? In the last post I explored the Bible’s teaching about salvation generally. In this post I want us to go a little further and think about how that salvation works. At the heart of the Gospel, at the heart of salvation, is the doctrine of justification.

What is Justification?

Justification is one of the most important terms used by the New Testament in order to describe our salvation. It is a legal term, drawing its meaning from the pronouncement of a verdict in a court of law. In God’s economy, to be justified is to be declared “not guilty” of sin and therefore to be free from any fear of condemnation of judgement.

In the New Testament a person is justified by God when he or she turns to Christ in faith and repentance. Jesus’ death and resurrection effectively cleanse the Christian of all their wrong-doing and cover the Christian with Christ’s right-doing so that they are “justified” in the sight of God.

We are not justified by anything that we have done, but rather by grace alone through faith in Christ alone.

Therefore justification means that Christians can walk through this life in the full assurance that when they face final judgement at the end of time, they already know what the verdict will be. It is as if they have never sinned and always obeyed. They are justified.

This glorious reality is given to us as a gift, free and undeserved.

Justification and Assurance.

The connection between the doctrine of justification and assurance should be fairly obvious by now. If you have turned to Christ in repentance and faith then you are justified and should have no fear of being condemned by God.

So why do we fear?

At one level we fear because our faith is weak. It is one thing to clap for the man taking the wheel-barrow across the tightrope, it is another thing entirely to get into the wheel-barrow. It is important to remember that the strength of our faith may affect our subjective experience of salvation in this life (happiness) but it never affects the objective reality of our salvation. Christ is our Saviour, not faith. It is the presence of faith, not the strength of it that matters.

The one who sits in the wheelbarrow on the tightrope, with eyes closed and fists clenched may not be having fun, but he is still in the wheelbarrow. He is safe in the hands of the one who holds him, whether he knows it fully or not. One day, he will see that there is nothing to fear. For now, he just needs to sit tight.

 

 

 

Psalm 15: Who will live on the holy mountain?

Psalm 15 New International Version – UK (NIVUK)

I want to live on the mountain

Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
    Who may live on your holy mountain?

Every Christian longs for this don’t they? We long to see God face to face. We long to be nearer to Him. We yearn to experience more of his presence. Our deepest desire is to know God more fully and live forever with him in glory.

So when the psalm asks the question in v1, “Who will dwell in your sacred tent? Who will live on your holy mountain?” my attention is captivated. There are few answers in the world that I care more about.

I can’t live on the mountain

The one whose way of life is blameless,
    who does what is righteous,
    who speaks the truth from their heart;
whose tongue utters no slander,
    who does no wrong to a neighbour,
    and casts no slur on others;
who despises a vile person
    but honours those who fear the Lord;
who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
    and does not change their mind;
who lends money to the poor without interest;
    who does not accept a bribe against the innocent.

Whoever does these things
    will never be shaken.

As I read on through the psalm, I find that something unexpected happens. Instead of the elation I was anticipating, I start to feel hope draining away.

I once entered into a bodyboarding competition at my school. After the competition, I was told that I had come first. Great! However, a few minutes later they realised they had counted the scores incorrectly and that I didn’t even make it onto the podium. Not so great.

This is what happens to me when I read on from v1. I go from the elation of a dream come true to cold hard reality of knowing that I can never experience that dream.

It is not as though I don’t think the psalm is fair or right. (It is perfectly legitimate for a morally pure God to forbid all but those who are “blameless” to dwell in his presence.) I desperately want to be the sort of person described in this passage. But when I look at that list of qualifications I cannot, no matter how hard I try to convince myself, claim this as a consistent and perfect description of my life:

  • blameless way of life
  • righteous deeds
  • speaks sincerely and truthfully
  • never slanders
  • never does wrong
  • never maligns
  • hates all the evil of people
  • honours God’s people
  • always keeps their promises
  • gives generously to those in need
  • not susceptible to corruption

Frankly, I would be surprised (note my use of classic British understatement) to find that there is anyone alive today who meets that description. I cannot draw any other conclusion: I will not live on the Lord’s mountain. I will not be accepted into his presence. Right? Yes and no.

I will live on the mountain

It is true that if my hope of living in the presence of God is dependent on becoming the sort of person described here then I have no chance. However, the psalmist would also be aware that long before God gave his people the promise of reward through obedience to the Law, he gave them the promise of blessing through an oath he swore to Abraham. The psalmist’s hope would not be based on the law, but on the promise; not on himself but on God. I will do the same:

  • I know that although I have failed to meet God’s standards in the law, he will nevertheless keep his promise of grace.
  • I know that Jesus, the Son of God, is the only one who has ever lived up to these standards. He is the only one to ever fulfil the righteous requirements of the law.
  • I know that Jesus, though he was blameless, suffered the penalty of death and judgement that his people deserved leaving them blameless in God’s sight.
  • I know that he transfers his perfect obedience to those who trust in his promise to bless his people through Jesus.
  • I know that I will dwell with God in his presence forever because of the sheer grace of God.

I will strive to live like one who belongs on the mountain

So my dream will come true. If your desire is to see God, and you place your trust in Jesus to give you what you cannot earn, then he will give you the desires of your heart. And until that day, I will strive to live like the person Jesus has made me. I want to be like Him. I want to live like one who belongs… because I do belong.

Before the throne of God above
I have a strong, a perfect plea
A great high Priest whose Name is Love
Who ever lives and pleads for me
My name is graven on His hands
My name is written on His heart
I know that while in heaven He stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart
No tongue can bid me thence depart