Most Christians can struggle at times with doubts about their walk with God. They might question if they really are Christians or not. Such internal struggles may be a good sign indeed – those who are not believers would not even think about such matters or let it worry them.
So asking hard questions and the like is always important here. Sure, one can go too far in morbid introspection, but perhaps it is better to ask too many questions about one’s faith than too few. Let me discuss this matter further, but first mention why it has come about.
A confluence of several happenings often results in a new article being written. One could put this down to mere coincidence, but I tend to look at these occurrences as God events. His divine appointments are often behind what we experience.
That is the case here. Two things recently happened that form the basis of this piece: the discovery of a new book, and a conversation with a woman concerned about her salvation. As to the book, I only just learned about it so I thought I would go check it out. (At my age one has to be a bit more careful about buying every new interesting book that comes along!)
So I looked it over at a bookstore, and as soon as I perused the notes at the end of the book, all doubts were removed. It included so many wonderful Puritans such as Owen, Baxter, Bunyan, Sibbes, Watson, and Brooks, and other heavyweights like Edwards, Spurgeon, Packer, Sproul, and MacArthur.
The truth is, there is probably no other group of Christians who looked at the Christian life more carefully, more thoroughly, more biblically, more intensely, and more thoughtfully than the Puritans. So if you see a book full of quotes by them, you know you must buy the book!
I refer to this volume: Donald Whitney, How Can I Be Sure I’m a Christian? (NavPress, 1994, 2019). The book first appeared 25 years ago, but has just been rereleased. Although brief (just under 200 pages), you can also tell it should be good just by noting the publisher – the ever-reliable NavPress.
The second episode was a lengthy personal online discussion with a gal who had numerous questions about her faith. Her opening message to me was this: “Hi I like your website. I don’t know if I’m truly born again. How do I become born again? Is getting to heaven very difficult?”
Hmm, so just how would you answer questions like these? On the one hand, it might be easy to do so, but actually it may require a more extended response. Indeed, that is what I offered her. This is what I said in my initial reply to her:
Thanks *****. A very important question indeed. The answer is both simple and complex, and the process is both easy and difficult! Briefly put, the first step (what we call justification) is quick and easy. We cannot save ourselves, so we depend fully on what Christ did for us at Calvary. We acknowledge and turn from our sin and selfishness (repentance), and put our faith in Christ alone (belief). But that is just the beginning: the rest of our lives involves becoming more Christlike (sanctification). And that does cost us everything. As Jesus said, we are to pick up our cross and deny self. Or as Paul said, we are to put to death self, crucify the old man, not give in to the flesh, etc. But God’s Spirit within us helps the born-again person in all this. So justification is what God does for us, and sanctification is what we do with God – a team effort. But see more on all this here:
As we kept going back and forth on this, it became more clear that what she was really wondering about was the assurance of her salvation, rather than how to get saved. She said this for example: “How can I have assurance that I’m trying hard enough to go to heaven? And that I’m truly born again?” I answered as follows:
Thanks again *****. The issue is not to be as sorry as you can. Repentance means agreeing with God about our sin, and seeking – with his help – to steer clear of it. If you are not sure of your justification, you can always go back to Christ and tell him. Simply asking these questions is in fact a good place to be in. Those who are not saved would likely not have such concerns. But go back to Christ and pray something like this:
“I am not sure if I have really been born again yet, but I want to be. So I come to you and confess that I am a sinner. And I thank you that the punishment I deserve for my sin you took upon yourself, so I no longer have to pay the price. I can just rest in you, and by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit seek to grow as a Christian and become more like you. Amen.”
And again, sanctification is a joint operation, so it is not so much us struggling and striving, but allowing God to work in our life and make the changes. Sure, we obey and do what we know is right. But he is ever there to help us and make it happen. We all can have some doubts of salvation, but if we were serious when we came to Christ, we can trust him to complete his work in our lives. See more here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2017/07/13/on-christian-assurance/
Plus finding a good church with other committed Christians; reading the Bible daily; and praying regularly is a main way that we can grow – and gain assurance. Blessings. I will keep you in prayer.
Later in our discussion she asked, “How do I know I’m overcoming enough, and trying hard enough?” I replied:
No one gets to heaven by trying their best – they only get there because of what Christ has done for them – again that is justification – we cannot save ourselves. He does everything, we just believe and receive. The rest is thankful obedience because of that salvation. It is not about trying real hard – just do what you know to be right. If you are missing something or getting off track, God will show that to you – often through fellow believers, or as you read and pray. At the end of the day it is the Holy Spirit who does the work, as we cooperate with him. “For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him” Phil. 2:13. So it is less about worrying and striving and trying real hard, and more about trusting, resting and having a love relationship with the Father.
But let me bring in the new book on assurance I just picked up. Even though not very long, it has plenty of solid meat. It is well worth getting and reading in its entirety, but let me quote just a bit of it here. In Chapter Eight he says this:
Below are ten questions designed to help you decide if you are entitled to assurance. Many of them have been adapted from the observations of an English Puritan pastor/author of the 1600s, Thomas Brooks….
1) Do you intensely desire assurance?
2) Do you sometimes grieve that you do not love Jesus enough?
3) Do you often wish God would change you so that you would always obey Him and never sin again?
4) Do you think salvation is more important than anything else in the world?
5) Do you ever seriously desire to trade places with a rich, famous, or attractive person you know is not a Christian?
6) Would you willingly and habitually sin against God if you could get whatever you wanted in return?
7) Which would you really prefer: God, Christ, the Spirit, grace, glory, holiness, and Heaven; or all the money, pleasure, fame, houses, lands, possessions, and anything else you could name in this world?
8) Do you admire godly people more than rich, famous, athletic, or attractive people?
9) Would you be content to live without hearing sermons, praying, reading the Bible, or worshipping God in public?
10) Would you be willing for Christ to claim you completely as His own?
That is a very useful list indeed – one which we all can run with. And let me also quote from Chapter Five – “Signs of Eternal Life”. In it Whitney refers to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and then he asks this:
How can we know the truth before it’s too late? How can we find out now if God will accept us into His Celestial City? As we saw in chapter 1, the Bible says we can be sure now if heaven’s gates will open to us (see 1 John 5:13). In fact, it commands us to seek such assurance (see 2 Peter 1:10) and to examine ourselves (see 2 Corinthians 13:5) for the biblical evidences of salvation until we find them….
In 1 John we are told of at least ten attitudes and actions that consistently characterize Christians only. So if you want to know if you are going to Heaven, examine yourself in the light of these evidences of true Christianity.
Here they are in outline form:
1) Do you share the intimacies of the Christian life with other believers?
1 John 1:6-7
2) Do you have a deep awareness of your sin against the Word and love of God?
1 John 1:8, 10
3) Do you live in conscious obedience to the Word of God?
1 John 2:3-5
4) Do you despise the world and its ways?
1 John 2:15
5) Do you long for the return of Jesus Christ, and do you long to be made like Him?
1 John 3:2-3
6) Do you habitually do what is right more and sin less?
1 John 3:7-8, 10
7) Do you sacrificially love other Christians and want to be with them?
1 John 3:14
8) Do you discern the presence of the Holy Spirit within you?
1 John 3:24 and 4:13
9) Do you enjoy listening to the doctrines the apostles of Jesus taught?
1 John 4:6
10) Do you believe what the Bible teaches about Jesus Christ?
1 John 5:1
This is a good list indeed, and these are some pretty good things that we can measure ourselves against. As Whitney says: “Christians should examine themselves for all the evidences of salvation mentioned in 1 John. Probably some evidences will be more apparent than others. But it is vital to look at this list and compare it with your life.”
He finishes the chapter by looking at two extremes to avoid:
“Beware of presumption.”
“Beware of unreasonable self-condemnation.”
As mentioned, one would need to read the whole book to get the proper biblical balance here. But I enjoyed what he had to say – especially all the wisdom from the Puritans and others. This is an important topic for all believers – one that we must take seriously indeed.
(Australians can get the Whitney book at Koorong: https://www.koorong.com/search/product/how-can-i-be-sure-im-a-christian/9781641581844.jhtml )