The Struggles of the Believer (Part Five)

1 John 5:13

I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life (CSB).

In our series on the struggles of the believer, we are currently viewing the struggle of the believer regarding assurance of salvation. One of the great problems that anyone faces who dares to think about death and the afterlife is “How can I know that I will enjoy eternal life?” This points to the struggle of faith with a lack of assurance. What should you do if you are not sure that you are saved? First, we considered that we need to examine ourselves to see if we are really followers of Jesus Christ. If by the Holy Spirit we can claim to have put our faith in the Lord Jesus, we can still struggle. This leads us to the next reality.

Realize that true believers may struggle about their assurance. Here are three evidences that true believers do struggle about assurance or confident anticipation (hope) of eternal life.

  • The spiritual experiences of believers that are recorded in the Scriptures (Psalms 42-43; Ps 88; Isaiah 50:10). Notice how Peter spoke to this issue. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in y our knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins (2 Peter 1:5-9 NIV). If a believer (they have faith because you cannot add to it unless you have it) fails to develop positive qualities of godliness, they will struggle with assurance! Sadly, for most believers in the west, their only concept of sin is doing what God prohibits (like telling lies, sexual immorality, or theft). They fail to see that the lack of godliness is also offensive to God. For this reason, in any spiritual struggle, if they consider sin, they only examine their life about breaking prohibitions. It is a defective, partially blind concept of what the Lord requires.
  • The exhortations to believers to draw near to God with a full assurance of faith (Hebrews 10:19-39). The long passage just mentioned should make our point obvious. Why would the Spirit guide the Biblical writers to encourage God’s people to have full assurance, if every believer has assurance? It would be unnecessary.
  • The existence of teaching in the New Testament Scriptures about how you may know that you have eternal life (1 John). If we assurance was identical with saving faith, you would only be told to believe. But the Holy Spirit provides us with evidences about the reality of our faith in the Lord.

Why do some believers have severe struggles with assurance of salvation? I have selected four causes that contribute to this struggle.

  • Some suck in error with their first spiritual breath because of a faulty evangelistic presentation or follow-up. Thank God that we are not saved by a clear, pristine theology but by Jesus Christ! Yet too many new Christians are taught errors such as the possibility of falling from grace that torment them for the rest of their lives. There have been many that God has saved though they heard seemingly less than adequate or correct presentations of the gospel. But the Holy Spirit made sure of one thing — they truly repented and believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus finds his sheep in some strange places. Remember they were lost! Then he leads them on in his truth.
  • Some are never taught the difference between faith and assurance. You might see some who want to get saved every week, because they have had a struggle regarding their assurance. Thus you hear some preachers talk about “first time decisions”. Another problem is the false teaching that if you doubt, you are not saved. When I was a young minister, I saw a pastor do great damage to his flock by this error.
  • Some live their spiritual lives in an atmosphere of legalism or guilt manipulation. Beware of those who attempt to make you feel guilty in order to get you to serve God. Faith always works by love (Galatians 5:6).
  • Some have cracks in some of the “Biblical bases of assurance”. Next time, we will look at this in more detail.

Perhaps this is not your struggle, at least now. Even so, we all need to know what the Bible says about faith and assurance. Someday, we might have this struggle. Or perhaps there is a friend of yours that is struggling about this now. An excellent part of the Bible to read about this is the First Letter of John. Invest a week in reading it every day.

Grace and peace, David

Psalm 63 (Part Ten)

Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. I cling to you; your right hand upholds me (63:7-8).

The fifth vital experience of those who believe in the living God is the experience of trust. It is the starting point and the zenith of the other experiences, only to start them again. Apart from it, we cannot meditate, be satisfied, praise, or glorify God. Trust in the Lord is essential to our walk with God. He calls us to do tasks that cannot be done apart from faith. Belief in our sovereign God enables us to act bravely, going into truly scary places to seek the lost. It helps us to encourage those failing in health as they walk with the Lord into the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4). It reenergizes us in the mundane and even utterly boring tasks in which it may be our lot to glorify the Lord. It helps us sense the strength of Christ as we stoop to serve the lowly and neglected. It clarifies our vision when we realize that we will have to go through difficult and thankless events, that if everyone is honest, all will confess they dislike experiencing, in order to build up the body of Christ. When we know the glory of the living God, the spiritual response is to rest in his love and concern for us, in all the above mentioned.

David certainly knew that God was his help. This caused him to do something. He sang! Those who know that God is their helper may have such sweet joy and confidence that we sing even in desert places while pursued by our enemies.

The psalmist David provides a beautiful picture, one probably learned from his great grandparents. Boaz said to Ruth, “May the Lord reward you for what you have done, and may you receive a full reward from the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge (Ruth 2:12 CSB).  And as is written in another place, The one who lives under the protection of the Most High dwells in the shadow of the Almighty (Psalm 91:1 CSB). David had found a beautiful place of safety in the desert. He rested, more, he relaxed under the shadow of God’s wings. He was like a little chick that the mother hen protects with her wings. Let his enemies come! They will never be able to pass the wings of omnipotence that protect him!

Next, David changed the imagery slightly. He declared his intense, personal trust in the Lord. His soul was clinging to God, as a little child might cling to the legs of her mother or to the neck of his father when in a frightening situation. Here is a blessed picture. The living God, ruler of the universe, allows us to cling to him! Here is amazing love! A sinner clings to the Holy One! Ah yes, we may draw near to God. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. (James 4:8a NASB).

Not only is the preceding true, but David said we can be more confident. It is also true that God’s right hand, the hand of power, upholds his dearly loved people. What security this provides! The Almighty Lord wills to carry his people in his strong right hand. We can rest in this place of safety; a fortress of sovereign strength protects us. This reminds me of a chorus that I learned as a young child. “Safe am I; safe am I, in the hollow of his hand.”

Believer, the Spirit of God reassures us by these word-pictures that God wants us to be confident in him, to move forward in his strength. When I take walks with my little granddaughter, I often sing to her, “My Lord knows the way through the wilderness, all I have to do is follow… Strength for today is mine always, and all that I need for tomorrow! My Lord knows the way through the wilderness, all I have to do is follow.” And as I follow, I learn as his disciple that he upholds me in his right hand. Trust is a vital experience.

Grace and peace, David

Psalm 63 (Part Eight)

I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands. I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you (63:4-5 NIV).

Our focus is on being satisfied in our relationship with the holy and majestic God, the overflowing source of love, joy, and peace. This happens as we worship (declare and display the worthiness) in the fullness of life. God did not “invent worship” to make us feel miserable or to give us an emotional high. Instead, the Lord wants us to be satisfied or filled. In his book Desiring God, John Piper mentions three stages of worship that saints go through.

  • The lowest stage is that of barrenness of soul, where a person scarcely feels any desire for God, yet is repentant for having so little love for God (Psalm 73:21-22). In this stage, we have our souls focused on ourselves and the events of life. We do not think of God properly (according to how he has revealed himself in the scriptures), and we may feel frustration or perhaps even bitterness. Yet we continue to know that God is involved in life.
  • The second stage is that of tasting something of God and longing to know more of him (Psalms 42:1-2; 84:2; 143:6). The soul begins to hunger and thirst for personal fellowship with our sovereign God. We begin to experience hope and preach that to our souls. Why, my soul, are you so dejected? Why are you in such turmoil? Put your hope in God, for I will still praise him, my Savior and my God (Psalm 42:5 CSB).
  • The third stage is that mentioned in our text. We begin to rejoice in the Lord. Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! (Philippians 4:4 CSB). We are satisfied in what he is. We drink of his living water and are glad (Psalms 4:6-7; 5:11; 9:2) We taste of him with our spirits and find in our experience that he is good. Taste and see that the Lord is good. How happy is the person who takes refuge in him! (Psalm 34:8) Our hearts become stirred by a noble theme as we lay hold of the ascended Christ by faith (Psalm 45:1).

However, the experience of many evangelicals in the previous 150 years to the present has been reduced to a barren intellectualism or decisionism. They have acted like or taught that the experience of the early church (cf. Acts 2:46-47; 4:23-31; etc.) is not for today. They have become strangers to truth written in passages like (Ephesians 3:14-19; 5:18-20; Philippians 4:7; 1 Peter 1:8; 2 Peter 1:8; etc.) Since most teaching in churches concerns how to be happy personally and to solve one’s problems, God has become the missing person in most churches.

“Where is the knowledge of God? Where is the sense of awe? Where is this great thing found in the Bible, when men and women have known that they have been in the presence of the living God? Surely this is the great difference between modern evangelicalism and that older evangelicalism that obtained until the middle of the last [nineteenth] century…? Where has this sense of godliness gone, this sense of wonder and amazement and the ‘joy unspeakable and full of glory’?” (Lloyd-Jones, Enjoying the Presence of God, p. 115)

“The end God designs is, to draw our hearts and affections unto himself, and unto this end he gives unto us a glorious internal light, whereby we may be enabled to discern the true nature of the things that we are to cleave unto with love and delight. Without this we have nothing but false images of spiritual things in our minds; not always as unto the truth or doctrine of concerning them, but as unto their reality, power, and efficacy… He that believes in Christ in a due manner, who thereon discovers the excellency of his person and the glory of his mediation, will both love him, and, on his believing, ‘rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory’” (Owen, Works, Vol. 7, p. 447).

You love him even though you have never seen him. Though you do not see him now, you trust him; and you rejoice with a glorious, inexpressible joy (1 Peter 1:8 NLT). Amen.

Grace and peace, David

Psalm 63 (Part Three)

I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory (63:2 NIV).

Verses two through eight presents five vital experiences of the saints (those set apart for God, which is a basic idea about true believers.) Each of us should seek to know each of these experiences in an increasing measure. Salvation is not some kind of “fire insurance policy” but the experience of eternal life with God that begins now. Each ideally will develop in an increasing measure. The five experiences are:

  • God’s glory
  • Praise
  • Satisfaction
  • Meditation
  • Trust

Unfortunately, some approach the Bible and its message with mere intellectual curiosity. They like to hear “steps for successful living” or how to be prosperous or moral or have a happy family or whatever quest they’re into. The Bible becomes a manual that provides a philosophy for life or counsel about how to get through their problems. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones said years ago, they have “taken up” Christianity, but Christianity has never taken hold of them. To them, it is practical information without spiritual transformation. This psalm does not permit such an approach. It speaks of the person whom the true and living God has “taken up”. Against a barren assent or knowledge, this psalm tells us of spiritual experience with God as the center, as the great desire of the heart. King David’s purpose in this song is to shout out that God himself may be known!

It is important to remember that David lived during the time when the law or old covenant governed a person’s approach to God. His worship had to be through physical means like sacrifices offered at an altar at the earthly sanctuary, the tabernacle. We must think about the means he needed to use in worship. Certainly, all believers in God in all ages know God himself through faith. My point does not concern the reality of fellowship with God, or even whether any particular believer in one age of redemptive history had a greater desire for or intimacy with God than a believer in a different age. Everything is in proportion to one’s faith. But we ought to keep in mind the historical setting of this psalm.

When David wrote “in the sanctuary”, he meant that physical place chosen by God as the home of the Ark of the Covenant. Earlier in Israel’s history, this had been the tabernacle built in the time of Moses; later it would be the temple constructed by Solomon. David lived in a transitional period, and he meant the tent he had erected to house the Ark. During the law covenant, God revealed his glory in connection with the Ark. The old covenant people could see the cloud of glory arising from above the gold mercy seat of the Ark, between “the wings of the cherubim”. Part of David’s experience was very physical.

In the new covenant, believers in Jesus the Messiah are God’s temple or sanctuary. For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people (2 Corinthians 6:17 NIV; cf. 1 Corinthians 3:16; 1 Peter 2:4-5; etc.) We do not go to a place to see a physical appearance of God’s glory, but the Spirit of glory and of God rests on us (1 Peter 4:14 NIV). When we are with other believers in Jesus, we form the temple of God that we already are. The Lord Jesus is present in such gatherings (Matthew 18:20). This truth should cause us to worship together with reverence and awe! By faith we can see the Living One in our sanctuary! Since we are God’s temple, we can know his spiritual presence (which is very real; something does not have to be material to be real, witness God himself.) In our gatherings, we should see his power and glory. We should see his power in the transformation of lives. We should realize that there is shining spiritual glory in our meetings. We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory; this is from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18 CSB).

Grace and peace, David

When a Church Gathers

But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort (1 Corinthians 14:3 NIV).

The local church is a gathering or assembly of God’s people committed to the Lord and one another for worship, the spread of the good news of Christ, and the good of each other. The first century Corinthians wrote to the apostle Paul with some questions. Though they were richly blessed (cf. 1:4-9), they struggled about spiritual matters. So, they reached out for help. (Too often these aspects of the Corinthian church are overlooked. They had issues, and they knew they had some and sought help for them, even as they failed to take other issues seriously. This sounds like a typical church to me!)

Paul wrote his brothers and sisters in Christ to help them apply the instruction of the Lord to their local situation. Believers in Christ have heard the good news, yet we need the teaching of the word to know how the message ought to transform our thoughts, ideas, attitudes, and actions. We have the benefit of this instruction, but we need to listen to it carefully and to apply it to our local gatherings.

We can lose sight of the point of the above verse through discussions about the exact nature of prophecy and other related spiritual gifts. The point that Paul makes in 14:1-25 is that all verbal contributions during worship must be intelligible to all, or they are profitless and so loveless (13:1-13). Paul told them that intelligible prophecy was far superior to speaking in tongues, which required an interpreter for anyone to profit. Using prophecy as an example in contrast to tongues (14:2), Paul set forth what people ought to experience when a church gathers. I mean a shared experience. Each one is to contribute according to their growth in grace, spiritual gifts, and wisdom. We should not attend as mere consumers but as helpers of one another.

We should experience strengthening. Every local gathering is to build itself up in love (Ephesians 4:16). This requires each part of a local body of believers to function. In this chapter, Paul spoke to their failure repeatedly (14:3-5, 12, 17, 26). He told them to speak in an intelligible way that would build up the church.  We must sense that the spiritual strength of others is our responsibility. We need to look at ourselves. How has the Spirit of the Lord equipped me to make others stronger:

  • In their consecration to God (sanctification)?
  • In their participation in the mission (shared evangelism)?
  • In their communication with God (prayer)?
  • In their understanding and application of the word of God (Bible study)?

The contemporary church has “staffed these things out”, with the result that strengthening has been selectively and inadequately done. Paul did not write chapter fourteen to “the elders and the staff.” He wrote to all, and all are to contribute to strengthening. Our churches need immediate and drastic change.

We should experience encouraging. Like strengthening, encouragement requires knowledge of one another. We need to grasp the life experiences and present situation of our brothers and sisters in the Lord to be able to encourage them. This necessitates an atmosphere of trust, awareness of acceptance, and the absence of perfectionism. People sin, people fail, and people suffer. We must expect others to need encouragement from us. We come with hearts taught by grace (Titus 2:11-12) and motivated to lift others up graciously and kindly.

We should experience comfort. To comfort, we draw upon the comfort that we have received from our God and Father (2 Corinthians 1:3-11). We receive comfort, and we act from comfort to comfort. This is one reason that a close walk with the Lord is important. We have learned how the Lord reached out to us in our misery or shame, and we apply those principles to our interactions with those hurting. Some matters cannot be learned from sermons and seminars. The Lord teaches us in the furnace of affliction, and because we have felt the heat, we know what cools and calms the soul, so that it again produces fruit.

These three ought to be an important part of our gatherings as a church. Wise words, kind attitudes, and beneficial actions show forth the beauty of the glory of the Lord. Become a part of what the church ought to be and not a contributor to what it is not.

Grace and peace, David