About ten years after my conversion, I went through a period when I laid awake at night thinking that if the Bible really meant what it said, I was going to hell for sure. If you've read "Venite Ad Me, Omnes" or "The Needle's Eye," you know that that period of our lives was boot camp on steroids. When God had my undivided attention, I saw that many parts of the Bible just didn't fit into the neatly packaged, processed salvation message that is palatable to modern consumers. For the first time, I had a glimpse of what it would be like to face a holy God.
We live in a culture where "Christianity Lite" is the majority religion, where all we have to do is recite a prayer and we will be irrevocably saved, even if nothing really changes in our lives. But this is not the true gospel. God's word has to be consistent about everything pertaining to our walk of faith in obedience (and it is). And yet much of what it teaches doesn't fit into the modern conceptual framework. Every book in the New Testament says that good works are evidence of faith, and Matthew 25 makes it very clear that we will judged by our works. Without good works, we don't have saving faith. (James 2:14-26)
If we read the Bible regularly we have probably already noticed that. We will come across some very hard passages. And it can lead honest Christians to question their salvation in the lonely darkness when Christian culture recedes and they are alone with God. But I am convinced that when we wrestle with those doubts, God is at work, preparing to show us the nature of saving faith and give us a deep certainty that he who has begun a good work in us will bring it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6)
We have to be careful not to slap a band-aid on those doubts, because they play an important role in leading us to repentance. That means not listening to Christians who say that there can be faith without fruit. God talks about such people when he says, "They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, saying, 'Peace, peace,' but there is no peace." (Jeremiah 6:14) Without victory over sin, the patient is still terminal. But if our sins trouble us and make us want to despair, we are exactly where we need to be in order to receive the cure: saving faith.
If we feel like we are hopeless sinners, we are in excellent company. The thief on the cross next to Jesus was on death row, and he never got a chance to do good works. He knew he deserved to die. But Jesus said to him, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43)
Why was he saved? Because he was justified by faith, apart from any good deeds. Romans 5:1-2 says: "Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand." When we truly repent, meaning that we recognize our utter helplessness and unworthiness (Luke 18:14), we obtain our introduction by faith into a state of grace. That means we have saving faith. And that faith gives us victory over sin and enables us to trust God for our final salvation. If that thief had survived, there would have been good works.
I want to try to make that seem a little more real and practical, because we've all heard those words again and again. And yet they're just words until we actually experience it. In The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence described how he came to trust God for his salvation. He spent years convinced that he would go to hell, and then suddenly he realized that it was because he lacked faith that God would save him, and he spent the rest of his life in joy and liberty.
But he never became complacent about his salvation, he just trusted God to do his will through him. "When an occasion of practicing some virtue was offered, he addressed himself to God saying, 'Lord, I cannot do this unless Thou enable me.' Then he received strength more than sufficient. When he had failed in his duty, he only confessed his fault saying to God, 'I shall never do otherwise, if You leave me to myself. It is You who must hinder my failing and mend what is amiss.' Then, after this, he gave himself no further uneasiness about it."
Brother Lawrence recognized that God alone can save us, from the moment we are born of the Spirit to the day we die. All we have to do is surrender and trust. We have to let him empower us to do his will. Let's say the problem is that we want to keep sinning. Then we have to ask him to help us stop wanting it. Only he can help us want the right things. The more we depend on God, the more he can work in and through us for his glory.
And even then, spiritual growth takes time, so we shouldn't be discouraged when we fail. God is in charge, and he will work in our hearts and through our circumstances to bring us to our final destination. He is our Good Shepherd and we can fully trust in him.