Saved with a Reasonable Doubt
When people come to me having doubts about their salvation, I always see it as a good thing. It usually indicates a sensitivity to spiritual things, a willingness to ask ultimate questions of one’s soul, and a desire to be in a right relationship with God. In last week’s sermon Real Christians Love – part 4, I talked about the three Biblical tests from John’s gospel that a person should use to examine whether or not they are a genuine Christian. John’s gospel was written in part so that we might know that we have eternal life (I John 5.13). While John challenges faux Christianity, he also gives real Christians assurance of their salvation.
As I controversially stated on Sunday, real Christians can sometimes experience real doubts about their salvation. This is only controversial in our modern day. Christian theologians prior to the nineteenth century believed that having doubts about your salvation was normal – and actually good. (See David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, 42-50, for a concise history of the doctrine of assurance in modern Evangelicalism.) Doubt does NOT mean – as I have often heard preachers carelessly proclaim – that a person is not a real Christian. Sometimes we must learn to “set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us” – that is whenever we have doubts (I John 3.19-20). This is what I love about expository preaching! Phrases like this jump off the page of my Greek New Testament, creating a flurry of intellectual activity and sending me to my library shelves to scour commentaries for answers. There are times, the text teaches us, when our hearts do condemn us and when we have doubts about our own faith. This does not mean we are not REAL Christians.
In fact, the great warnings about falling away (see I Corinthians 10:1-13) were intended to create reasonable doubt for people who are overly confident in their faith. Don’t misunderstand me – I hove in the direction of Calvin’s doctrine of perseverance (or assurance). In other words, I do not believe genuine believers can lose their salvation. But I do believe with all my heart that genuine believers must persevere in their faith with the help and grace of God. In other words, I am 99 percent sure of my own salvation. If anything, the writers of Scripture warn those who never have doubts, who have “false assurance” of their faith because of the arrogance of their own hearts. Such carelessness can lead us into sin. The Biblical writers call upon apathetic Christians (?) to “examine themselves to see if they really are in the faith” (II Corinthians 13:5).
We will never get it all together in this life. We will struggle with sin. As Luther confessed while hiding from the Pope in Wartburg Castle as he was working on his German translation of the Scriptures:
I sit here at ease, hardened and unfeeling – alas! praying little . . . It comes to this: I should be afire in the spirit; in reality I am afire in the flesh with lust, laziness, idleness, sleepiness. For the last eight days I have written nothing, nor prayed, nor studied. I really cannot stand it any longer. . . Pray for me, I beg you, for in my seclusion here I am submerged in my sins.
- Martin Luther to his friend Melanchthon, 13 July, 1521
During spiritual lows, it is not unusual to have doubts. In the end, those of us who are 99 percent sure of our salvation must comfort ourselves in the knowledge that “God is greater than our hearts” (I John 3:19-20). The irony of demanding that people know 100 percent sure that they are saved with never a hint of doubt is that it often has the effect of undermining assurance of salvation. In other words, if I ever have a smidgen of doubt, I must not be saved! As I said Sunday, it’s like telling people “Don’t think about pink elephants!” If we have God’s Spirit, confess faith in Christ, and have genuine love in our lives, we can find assurance even when our hearts condemn us. I love Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Greek Text: “My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality. It’s also the way to shut down debilitating self-criticism, even when there is something to it. For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves” (I John 3:19-20, The Message, italics mine).