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.

 

 

 

Assurance & Faith

Saved by “Faith”?

Faith is a fairly important concept in the Bible. True faith is amongst the highest of virtues and false faith among the most dangerous of pitfalls. It seems prudent, therefore, to make sure that we understand what “faith” means. How can we discern the difference between true faith and false faith?

It won’t do to simply look it up in a dictionary because, as the old adage goes, “Bible words have Bible meanings.” During the Reformation, this became a matter of necessity because  one of the debates between Protestants and Roman Catholics centred around the doctrine of “salvation by faith alone.” The Reformers arrived at a pretty nifty threefold summary of true faith which involves knowledge, ascent and trust.

When it comes to the question of assurance, this is very important indeed. Today I want to dig a little deeper into this first aspect of faith (knowledge) and begin to find out what the Bible teaches about how it is that we are saved from slavery to sin, death and judgement.

Do we know what the Bible teaches about salvation?

Right from the outset I would like to make it plain that our salvation does not depend on having a perfect theology. The reason it is important to strive for better understanding of what the Bible teaches, is that it fills us with more confidence and joy.

One very simple way to assess your knowledge about salvation (sometimes the simplest ways are the best) is to imagine yourself at the gates of heaven. You hear a voice asking you, “Why should I let you in to heaven?” What is your answer? If your answer begins with “Because I…” you’ve not fully understood the Bible’s message about salvation. The only reason anyone will be saved is “Because Jesus…”

In other words the Bible teaches that we are saved because of what Christ has done for us, and not because of what we have done for God. It is because Jesus died for our sins and was raised for our justification that we will be saved. It will not be because of anything we have done.

Saved by Faith or by Christ?

Some might object at this point and say that you could well answer, “because I…have placed all my hope in Jesus’ death and resurrection.” And you would be right, that would be a fine answer.

However, it is still important that we recognise that Jesus is the saviour and not our faith. When we use the Bible’s phrase “saved by faith” we need to recognise that the language is a short-hand summary that was never meant to be sufficient all by itself. Faith is merely the instrument by which God applies the finished work of Christ to us, and not the instrument by which we rescue ourselves.

As someone else has said, faith is merely the empty hand that receives God’s free gift of salvation.

Next week I want to think a little bit more about the idea of justification and some possible misunderstandings of it that jeopardise our confidence in the gospel.

 

 

Assurance and Habitual Sin.

One of the greatest reasons why so many Christians today do not experience the peace that comes through the assurance of salvation can be summarised in one simple question.

Can I truly be a Christian even if I fall to the same sin over and over again?

The answer to this is “yes”.  It is possible to be a genuine Christian even if you fall to the same sins over and over again. Let’s be absolutely clear on this. Either the Lord Jesus saves habitual sinners or he does not save anyone at all. If we do not believe this is true then we strip ourselves of the only weapon that can put our sin to death.

We are all habitual sinners.

Why? Because we are all habitual sinners. Some sins are pretty obvious: drug or alcohol abuse, sexual sin and violence. Others are less obvious: gossip and slander, dishonesty and laziness. Most sins however, are barely detectable to anyone but ourselves: pride, lust, hatred, unbelief, envy and prayerlessness to name a few. Whether our inclination is toward an outward sin like drunkenness or an inward sin like lust, we all sin repeatedly. We commit the same sins again and again and again.

If we begin to feel that this experience of sin is not normal then it weakens our confidence that we are in fact true disciples of Jesus Christ.

Christians experience real change.

Reading through the last paragraph may have created a bit of tension inside you. On the one hand, you may feel as though you are able to relate to the experience of habitual sin. You acknowledge that you are guilty of repeating the same offences against God. On the other hand, you may also feel that this should not be the case.

Christians are, after all, new creations. The “old has gone and the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17) and “no-one who is born of God will continue to sin” (1 John 3:9). We are no longer slaves to sin (Romans 6:6) because we have died with Christ to our sinful nature and have been raised to a new life in Christ – a life of righteousness and holiness.

What these passages attest to is that those who have become genuine disciples of Christ should experience real transformation. Something very real, very powerful and very significant has happened to us. We have been changed, and we are continuing to be changed, into the image of Christ. This is an undeniable characteristic of new life in Christ.

Christians experience real struggle.

However, to take these verses out of context would lead to the unhelpful conclusion that the genuine Christian life is free from the constant struggle against sin. This idea, which has unfortunately taken root in some church movements is deeply misleading because it neglects another very important biblical principle about the Christian life.

That other principle is the principle of resistance from the sinful nature. For example, Paul  writes of his experience to the church in Rome (7:18-19), saying:

For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.

Again in Galatians (5:16-18), he writes:

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

So we can see that struggling with sinful patterns of behaviour is part and parcel of the normal Christian experience. The effect of our new life in Christ is to create a conflict between the influence of the Holy Spirit and our sinful human natures. As we experience transformation we also experience conflict.

The struggle is what matters.

So how does this apply to our assurance of salvation, particularly when we are struggling with habitual sin?  The answer is that it is the struggle that matters. God never said that your sinful nature would go down without a fight. God never said that it would be easy. God never said that it would be quick. You began your Christian life by faith and repentance, and that is the way you should continue.

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. (Col 2:6-7)

You are a true Christian if you are fighting your sin with repentance and faith in Christ. It is only because of the miraculous power of the gospel that you are interested in fighting, so fight your sinful habits with the full assurance of God’s love and forgiveness behind you.

 

 

When you doubt your salvation.

We all doubt our salvation.

Sometimes people ask me what pastoral issues I’ve most often encountered in ministry. It is not a difficult question to answer.

By far, the greatest concern for most people in the church is the question as to whether or not they are truly saved. Assurance of salvation has trumped all intellectual doubts, ethical dilemmas (yes, even pornography) and even emotional pain in suffering. It seems odd, doesn’t it? After all, Christians believe the good news that Jesus has decisively secured the salvation of his people through his death and resurrection. So if there was any particular matter we would expect to be fairly sorted in the church it would be this one. Right? Wrong. It is far from sorted. The reality is that we all doubt our salvation at some point or another.

I’m very aware, therefore, that a little blog post like this is never going to be enough to assuage the complex and weighty fears that some may be experiencing. Instead, what I would like to do is point out some of the most simple and practical questions that are often overlooked in our self-examinations. It is important to realise that the following questions are not the most fundamental to consider interms of assurance. They are however the most neglected, which is why I want to start with them.

Are you physically healthy?

I realise that I am probably more pathetic than the average person, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that I struggle with assurance issues every time I get the flu…or even a heavy cold. Ask my wife if you don’t believe me.

God did not make us as segmented people. Our physiology, psychology and spirituality are all connected. So if you are physically unwell, or tired, you will feel the effects in your soul. It does not mean that our faith is doomed to suffer the same fate as our bodies. By God’s grace we can be inwardly renewed even though, outwardly, in our bodies, we are wasting away.

The answer to this is not simply prayer and bible meditation. The answer to these kinds of assurance issues also involves medicine and rest…as well as prayer and bible issues.

Are you mentally healthy?

Equally, if you are struggling with mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, then it would be foolish to think that it is not going to have an impact on your assurance. It is important to realise that medicine may be an important part of the solution with mental health as well.
There could well be deep issues at the root of your anxiety and depression that only the gospel can cure, but if you are suffering from heavy depression or anxiety then you are not going to be in a fit enough state to confront those issues.

So go see your pastor, and your doctor, take the medicine and don’t feel guilty about it.

Have you been watching dodgy sermons on YouTube?

It is a little-known fact that if you type your symptoms into Google, whatever they may be, even if you don’t have any, you will be convinced that you are dying. Dr Google always thinks that you are dying. Don’t listen to Dr Google, go and see an actual doctor.

Searching online for the answers to personal spiritual questions is never going to yield satisfactory results. While you may end up reading a very good article or watching a great sermon on YouTube, this result is all but certain.

So go and talk to a real person who understands the gospel and will apply it to you with truth and grace.

Are you under church discipline?

The wonderful thing about being a Christian is that you don’t have to do it alone. The church is there to help. One of the most neglected and overlooked pastoral tools is church discipline.

If you struggle with assurance issues because of guilt over a particular sin or sinful habit then go and talk to one of the pastors (elders/leaders etc) in your church. If they hear you out and don’t tell you that you have to leave the church, then you are almost certainly over-reacting. If they have told you that you must leave the church unless you repent then you are almost certainly in serious spiritual trouble.

Obviously, this assumes that the leadership of your church uphold the theology and morality of the Bible. And of course, it is by no means an infallible system. However, submission to church authorities is a God-given pastoral tool designed to comfort and to warn. So if you have confessed to the pastors, and you are still a member of your church, then you should not have any reason to doubt your salvation.

More Important Questions

Remember, these are not the most important questions to ask, neither are they sufficient to make our calling and election sure. However, they are, in my experience, the most neglected. Next week I want to delve a little deeper into the question of assurance.

 

 

Psalm 13: Waiting for God

Psalm 13 New International Version – UK (NIVUK)

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

When my brother moved to London from South Africa a few years back, we were forced to communicate via letter. For those of you who don’t know what that is… well, lets just say that it was revolutionary at the time of the carrier pigeon. We weren’t Christians at the time but I still remember the way he likened the experience of letter writing to prayer. You write the letter, send it off and wait.

There are times in the Christian life when we are desperate for answers to our prayers. Whether they are prayers for loved ones, help in times of suffering or discernment about the future, sometimes we literally ache for God’s intervention. It is also at these times that we discover just how bad we are at waiting for anything…especially God. These are periods where we are vulnerable but they can also be tremendously fruitful.

This psalm gives us a great model of how to guard our hearts and minds as we wait on the Lord.

Pray fervently and persistently

How long, Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’
    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

If I’m honest, my greatest struggle with prayer is not doubt or despondency but apathy. It just seems like too much effort to persistently lay myself bare before God. Besides, I have more than enough on my plate at the moment! David however, is wrestler. He doesn’t let go of God. We could learn from this that waiting on God means spending time in persistent and fervent prayer.

Trust in his love

But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.

If the previous verses are about striving to keep hold of God, this verse is about remembering that it is God has has first taken hold of you. His grip of love is stronger than ours.

That phrase “unfailing love” typically is used to describe the love God has showed to us through his covenant promises. David is trusting that God will keep his wedding vows to his people. This is no passive exercise but rather a deliberate and conscientious effort to meditate on the love of God. It is also why trusting in God’s love is coupled with rejoicing in His salvation. His love has been chiefly demonstrated to us through the saving work of Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world that he gave His only Son…” (John 3:16)

God’s loving gift of salvation through faith in Christ gives us confidence and perspective: confidence, in that we know God is working for our good and that he has not abandoned us; and perspective, by putting our small sufferings in the context of his promise of eternal life in his new world.

Sing praise to God

I will sing the Lord’s praise,
    for he has been good to me.

No matter what you are going through, you still exist for the praise of his glory. Praising God is a wonderful tool with which to guard our attitudes as we wait for the Lord. It humbles us before God as we recognise again that we exist to serve him and not the other way around. It reminds us of God’s goodness as recount all he has done for us. It is also pretty difficult to stay miserable when you are singing praise songs to God.

Psalm 3: Save me from my enemies?

Psalm 3 English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)

A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.

Lord, how many are my foes!
    Many are rising against me;
many are saying of my soul,
    there is no salvation for him in God. Selah
But you, O Lord, are a shield about me,
    my glory, and the lifter of my head.
I cried aloud to the Lord,
    and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah
I lay down and slept;
    I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.
I will not be afraid of many thousands of people
    who have set themselves against me all round.
Arise, O Lord!
    Save me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
    you break the teeth of the wicked.
Salvation belongs to the Lord;
    your blessing be on your people! Selah

David was going through a rough time. His own son sought to depose him from the throne and even murder him. That cannot be easy.  Understandably, even admirably, he cries out to God for salvation from his enemies.

But how many Christians, in the West at least, would say that they have “enemies”? Should Christians even have enemies?

Given that this comes up in the Psalms pretty often I thought should probably think it through otherwise I’m going to have these questions assaulting me every morning.

So here are a few enemies that every Christian will encounter in their sojourn through this life.

Enemy 1: The World

The “world” is the word used by the Bible to describe humanity in its rebellion against God. It is the current of human culture moving away from God toward all kinds of evil. It is hard to swim against the current all the time. Sometimes we may experience this in general ways. For example, we may struggle against temptation to indulge in pornography or to believe that science is more trustworthy than God’s Word. Sometimes the enemy of the world takes a more personal form: a work colleague who openly ridicules your faith; a friend who begins to hate you because you cannot condone their actions; an extremist who threatens you and your family because you are a Christian; a senseless act of crime that leaves you reeling in shock.

Enemy 2: Your Sinful Nature

The ever-present enemy for Christians is the enemy within. Our own sinful nature is what makes the world tempting to us in the first place. But it doesn’t leave us alone when we come home from work or switch off the computer. It is an incessant urging within us to disobey God and act selfishly.

Enemy 3: The Devil

Satan and demons are still a reality in our world. I know it seems silly to believe in that these days but if we begin to buy into that then we are in real trouble. The devil is real and so is the threat he presents to health of Christians. True, he will not triumph in the end. True, he is under God’s authority even now. But he is still a prowling lion ready to devour.

Enemy 4: Other Christians

What struck me about this Psalm is that the enemy in David’s mind was not worldliness, or Satan or even his own sin. Rather His enemy was his son Absalom, who was his own family and even his own faith. To use the contemporary equivalent, Absalom went to church with David.

The influence of the world, the sinful nature and the devil on Christians means that from time to time we will be opposed in our lives and faith by other believers. It may be because they are not truly born again. It may be that they are true Christians behaving sinfully. Most of the time, these are the enemies that hurt us most.

And yes, it means that you and I are not immune to the possibility of being the enemy either.

Cry Out to God for Salvation

If you’re a little overwhelmed at the prospect of all of these foes then hopefully you will also see how wonderfully relevant this prayer is to all of us. The only one who can save us from these enemies is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God’s sustaining power and protection alone can give us peace in the face of those who oppose us and seek to harm us. This is especially true for believers living on this side of the cross because we have seen God’s triumph over his enemies through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Salvation, from beginning to end, belongs to the Lord. Cry out to Him.