Saturday, October 10, 2009

When We Question Our Salvation

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.

5 comments:

Cindy said...

It never occurred to me that we could ask God to help us stop wanting to sin. Thanks for the insight.

Becky said...

Good post. Becky x

Anette Acker said...

Cindy,

Yes, it took me a long time to figure that out, but it's a key point because often we want to hold onto our sin. Philippians 2:12-13 says: "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to WILL and to work for His good pleasure." We're not capable of even willing the right thing without God's help. We have to act, but only he can enable us.

Thanks, Becky!

Anonymous said...

Well, you've just repudiated the basic foundation of Protestantism. Congratulations for seeing what the Bible actually says. Now, when will you come home to Rome?

Anette Acker said...

Anonymous,

I appreciate your comment, and your adherence to what the Bible says. Even though I am quoting Brother Lawrence, I'm far from the Church of Rome for several reasons:

First, Brother Lawrence focused on faith. His entire book is about salvation by faith alone--faith that produces good works. Even though he was Catholic, he arrived at the conclusion that God alone can save him. He downplayed the Eucharist (even though he mentioned it), penances, and other requirements, preferring to go straight to God.

I have read The Imitation of Christ, and find much that I disagree with. Although Thomas a Kempis mentioned faith, his focus seemed to be on works. I've read the book several times with an open mind, and have always had a hard time accepting much of it. At one point he said that we are to "worship" God's saints. I'm sure that you and other modern Catholics think he was wrong about that, but nevertheless he said it.

Second, the Church of Rome has so many requirements that it would be easy to lose sight of simple faith. I've had some experience with "crossing the Tiber" Catholics recently, and they seem very preoccupied with the trappings of Catholicism. I believe that the more we add to simple faith in Christ, the more likely that we undermine that faith by allowing those things to become idols.

Third, I believe in the authority of the Bible over the church. When I was at Notre Dame, a professor tried to tell us that even an evil Pope is inerrant when he speaks "ex cathedra." I simply don't buy that. I think that the authors of the books of the Bible were close enough to the Spirit of God to speak his truth. That is why the Bible is inerrant.

I don't believe that God intended to place a man (the Pope) in authority over us. Christ is the one and only head over the church.

There are many other reasons I disagree with modern day Catholicism. Does that mean that I agree with everything Luther said? Not necessarily, but I do believe in the basic tenet of Protestantism, which is salvation by faith alone. But faith which is real will lead to good works.

Having said that, the modern evangelical church has definitely watered down God's word. Faith that leaves us unchanged is no faith at all. But I guess I shouldn't be surprised--our Lord said that the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it. I think those few belong to every denomination. Of course I've known deeply spiritual Catholics who live by faith.

But for me, the evangelical church gives me the most freedom to practice what I believe (salvation by faith alone), so that's where I feel most at home.

Thank you again for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

Blessings,

Anette