Thursday, July 1, 2010

As Sure as the Sun will Set

Life moves pretty fast, huh? The sun is already setting again. And it will be again very soon. And again. Of that you can be sure. If you can't already tell, I really like sunsets. I really like that they happen every night and many times they make the sky beautiful and take my breath away. I like that the sun rises again in the morning, and will go through the same process in the evening. I like that I can be sure this is how it is going to happen night after night. No doubt.

Sometimes, probably like you, I feel uninterested in work and all the phone calls, emails, meetings, and projects I am behind on. I just want to play outside. Sometimes, I feel unmotivated to go do the hard thing and serve other people. I just want to go on vacation and be pampered. Sometimes, I feel uninspired by the things of God and with church. I just want to sit on the couch and watch TV mindlessly. Sometimes, I feel unconcerned with the fact that I am going to die someday. I just want to enjoy and love my family and friends right now.

This is totally normal, right? I have said for a long time that I wish I could better connect all the parts of my life together, so that transitioning from different moods, or different activities, or different excitement levels would be very smooth, and basically transparent. I just want to live, and not worry about if I'm in the mood to go to work, go to church, read the Bible, serve other people, play outside, spend time with family, or relax on the couch or on the beach. I want to be equally in the mood for all these things at the same time. Can you relate? Is this possible?

In the midst of all these "goings on" - babies and marriages and work and vacations and service and family and friends and relaxing, all of which I love (see Family and Friends blogs on the right) - I desperately want to encourage you to consider one thing in life as more important than all the rest. By saying I want you to consider this more important, I do not mean that I want you to consider everything else less important. Not at all. I want you to consider everything else even more important than you do now. More all the time. I just want you to consider this even more important yet. Increasingly. Forever.


I am talking about assurance of salvation in Jesus. I could just say that I want you to consider Jesus more important than everything else. That would be true. I could just say that I want you to consider salvation more important than everything else. That would also be true. But in this day and age, misunderstandings are like breathing, and so I say salvation in Jesus to clarify that Jesus is not just a good example for us, but he is our only hope. And I say salvation in Jesus, because we will strive in vain for salvation by any other functional, temporary means.

And I say assurance of this because I want you to know without any doubt that this is (or can be) true for you. You can be sure, and you can be sure forever, that you are saved in, and because of, Jesus. If you are not sure, or you are sure, but sure only in the fact that you do not have this salvation, this post is my plea with you to work it out. Not "work it out" like earn it; but "work it out" like figure it out. Make it sure. Look for fruit. Pray. Ask others. "Stop texting so much and get in the text. Stop facebooking so much and get your face in the book." I have a free Bible I can give you if you need one. It is how you can be sure. And once you are sure, everything else is just life, and it is all eventually and ultimately good. What a profound blessing. The struggles along the way are not worthy to be compared to the glory coming later. Believe that. It will prepare you for anything. Don't believe that, and you will be floundering for the rest of your life, unprepared for everything.

Assurance of salvation in Jesus does not mean you think you probably should go to heaven because you are a good person and hope you are right. It does not mean that your family went to church growing up and you were involved in youth group, and you plan to get "involved" again once you get married and have kids. Assurance of salvation in Jesus does not mean there is a date on the calendar when you said a prayer, or a picture in an album of you being baptized, and based on this proof you can feel fairly confident that your ongoing rebellion makes no difference. Assurance of salvation in Jesus does not mean that you feel good about yourself because you helped somebody one time or because you give money to the poor every Christmas. Assurance of salvation in Jesus does not mean that you trust in Jesus, read your Bible, love your neighbor, and hope for the best.

Assurance of salvation in Jesus means that you can know - know that you are in right standing with the a holy God despite your innate wickedness, and know that you will spend eternity with the most precious being in the universe, Jesus, and with his people, in paradise. This is possible, and it is more important than anything else going on in your life right now. Without this, everything else in your life can not be enjoyed, or endured, with the kind of confidence and joy that was meant to accompany it.


The Bible says to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, to make your calling and election sure, and to examine yourself to see if you are in the faith. In this process there are three major myths and one great tragedy I think we have to avoid. First, as an aside, please remember that what I'm saying here I'm trying to say with an urgency, relevance and excitement level that should match anything else you are doing or thinking about right now. Are you tracking with that? I started this Fourth of July weekend, in between time at the pool, breakfast outside, fireworks on the prairie, and fun with family and friends, and was still working on it in on vacation in Michigan, in between sunsets, golf, tennis, whitefish, dance parties, and sand dunes. Bad timing, right? This topic should be dry and stale to me right now. And to you. But it is not. Please hear that.

In other words, maybe you took a break from a thousand emails in the office to read this blog. Maybe you are holding and feeding your baby while reading this online. Maybe you are reading this surrounded by screaming children, flying cheerios, and breaking glass. Maybe you are on your lunch break or in the airport and are viewing this on your iPhone. Maybe you are on vacation and catching up on things on the Internet before dinner, and stumbled on this blog. Maybe you are just sitting around the house thinking about a million different things going on in life right now. Maybe you are at the hospital visiting family or a friend who is hurting, and you needed a distraction.

Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, my intention is to say these things in a way that will be instantly relevant to you, and in a way that when you finish reading and go back to whatever you were doing before, you will take these things as lasting encouragement, and be able to directly apply them to that other activity that probably seems more exciting or important right now than deep soul-searching theology. My intention is that when you stop reading you will not just say, "hmm, that was interesting", and forget about it, but that you would go back to feeding your baby or answering your emails and be able to carry with you a truth and a hope that will sustain you and give you joy all the time. Does that make sense? I will need the Holy Spirit to be able to communicate this way. Maybe the timing is bad for you right now. If so, read just a little (it is LONG), let it marinate a bit, and then come back and read more later. But please come back. I care about you and this is important.


Back to the myths. There are three myths to avoid when "working out your salvation" or obtaining assurance of salvation in Jesus. I beg you not to learn the hard way about the danger of each of these unbiblical, false myths. The first one is believing that you can reach perfection in this life, and that you will only obtain assurance once you have that perfection. Completely incorrect. So dangerous. This can bring you to the point of wanting to blow your brains out. No exaggeration.

John Owen says, "The vain, foolish, and ignorant disputes of men about perfectly keeping the commands of God, of perfection in this life, of being wholly and perfectly dead to sin, I meddle not now with. It is more than probable that the men of these abominations never knew what belonged to the keeping of any one of God's commands and are so much below perfection of degrees that they never attained to a perfection of parts in obedience or universal obedience in sincerity. And therefore, many in our days who have talked of perfection have been wiser and have affirmed it to consist in knowing no difference between good and evil." John Owen is not always easy to understand, but hopefully this is: thinking you can accomplish perfection in this life will lead to despair, will likely reveal our own pride in striking clarity, and is not honoring to a perfect God.

The second myth is that we can at one time believe and be secure in Jesus, and then at a later time, perhaps because of some action of ours, or lack thereof, we can lose that salvation. That is so wrong. We miss the whole point of the universe and make Jesus look like a failure if we accept this possibility. This is a common, and old, theological error. It comes from the belief that man contributes something to salvation, namely good works, and if those good works lessen, then that salvation can be lost. Instead, the Bible teaches that if good works lessen, the salvation was likely never real. I can't think of hardly anything more man-centered than believing that we, as sinful, helpless, and finite beings, can contribute anything to our initial salvation. And therefore, I can't think of hardly anything more man-centered than believing that we can contribute anything to our ultimate salvation. If we are truly God-centered, then we understand that God is the Author and the Perfecter of our faith. Not just the Author. Eternal does not mean anything less than forever, so if we have undeserved eternal life, we can know we have it forever.

John MacArthur says, "So where you have in Roman Catholic theology man involved in salvation, or where you have in Arminian theology man involved in salvation, you have the absence of security because man can default. But where you have in historical biblical theology that salvation is all the work of God, you have the concomitant doctrine of security which leads to assurance. The basic question involved here is whether one is saved by grace alone, or one's salvation depends in part on his or her meritorious good works. If the latter is true, one can never be sure of salvation. If, however, the former is true, as the Reformers taught, then one can be sure of salvation even though he or she may not always be in full possession of that assurance." That is good news.

The third myth is that perseverance in faith to the end of our life is automatic, and once we have assurance we can just coast until we get there and receive our reward. If we fall into this trap, we won't get there and our reward will be torment. This does not contradict the other things I just said because if we are coasting, it is probably the most clear indication that our salvation is not assured, and may not be real. Only those who are truly saved will persevere to the end, and only those who persevere to the end were ever truly saved. That isn't as confusing as it sounds, I promise. Unbelievers are saved through the Gospel, and the Gospel keeps believers saved (Romans 1:16). That is an exhortation to saturate yourself in the Gospel. Find assurance, and then confirm that assurance every day with your perseverance in faith, love for the Gospel, and good fruit. But the action of finding assurance of salvation, and then confirming assurance of salvation, will never be the source of that salvation. Is that clear as mud?

John Piper says, "The battle of the Christian life is one to believe, not to perform; to believe that moral transformation is the fruit, not the root, of justification. Settle this. Because otherwise you’re going to be knocked off balance page, after page, after page in the Bible, because there are dozens and dozens of paragraphs and sentences that make heaven contingent on believer’s obedience. They’re all over the place (i.e. 1 Corinthians 6:9). You’ve got to get this clear. If not, you’re going to be thrown off balance every time you read one of those and say, ‘I don’t know whether I believe justification by faith is really true. It looks like works are really mingled in with the foundation here, because they’re made conditions of the final outcome.’ Evidence, confirmation, fruit - get a hold of that - they're different than justification. You can only please God with active obedience that is rooted in the confidence he’s already 100% on your side. You can only please God with some kind of act or behavioral attitude that is flowing from the confidence he is already TOTALLY on your side. That is the only kind of fruit that will glorify Christ."


There also is one great tragedy that comes from this topic of assurance of salvation in Jesus. That is, that some people have false assurance. In other words, they are sure when they shouldn't be. Somewhere along the way they were told, or began to understand, incorrect things about salvation and put their hope in something short of the once-for-all atoning work of Jesus on the cross, and may have changed behaviorally for a time but never experienced Spirit-led heart change. This may be you. I don't say that to be mean, I say that because I care about you. We know this is a reality for some because Jesus says that there will be some who say to him, "Lord, Lord!" and he will say, "Depart from me; I never knew you." And we know this is true because the Apostle John said that some would depart the faith: "They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us."


This is important for you, as an overworked businessman, or a newly married couple, or a single mom of three, or a lazy high school student, or a retired widower, or an unemployed man on the street, or whoever; because you may not have this assurance and you may have never thought through the reasons you don't, which are like unknown boulders in your path to complete joy right now.


To paraphrase John MacArthur, there are many reasons that people lack assurance. One reason people (maybe you) lack assurance is that they have sat under really strong, convicting preaching about God's holiness. Convicting preaching creates doubt. Maybe you doubt because you have heard from the pulpit that God is holy and you are from it, so the chances of you living up to God are futile at best. Maybe the preaching you have heard about God's holiness has not been biblically complemented with God's mercy. J.I. Packer says, "The preaching of the Word is the supreme means of God's grace." Preaching that ignores this reality could likely leave you wondering about your condition.


Another reason some lack assurance is that they can't accept forgiveness. This gets real. Maybe knowledge of past sin, or present sins, so dominates your mind that you can't accept that Jesus paid the complete, eternal penalty for your sin - past, present, and future - and that there is no condemnation if you are in Christ. None. That can be difficult to accept. But if you (we) don't accept that, we will never get to assurance, and we will lack the joy that God intended for us, and we will likely not experience the moral transformation we so earnestly strive for on our own strength. You might not accept forgiveness because you understand the concept of justice and your conscience convinces you that you are guilty. And you would be correct in thinking that justice requires a much different fate for us than forgiveness. But if you do this, you "crown the devil king". Listen to MacArthur, "If you buy it you crown him king and you say guilt rules, condemnation rules, sin rules. Christ is not king. Grace does not rule. Mercy does not rule. Forgiveness does not rule." But Christ, grace, mercy, and forgiveness does rule. Take that to bed with you tonight.


Yet another reason that some lack assurance is because they don't comprehend the Gospel and the plan of salvation. Do you believe that you are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone? Or do you still think that you have to do something to accomplish salvation for yourself? Settle this. Reread John Piper above. "You can only please God with some kind of act or behavioral attitude that is flowing from the confidence he is already TOTALLY on your side." Do you believe that God knew you were a sinner before you were born, and he chose to save you anyway? Do you believe that your sin is completely gone? Oh, get this! Put your iPhone down for a minute and be sure of this. It matters. In a meeting, in your kitchen, on the golf course, at the pool, it matters.

Encouragement from MacArthur: "You can have security and not have assurance. A lot of people do. I say that to people who don't believe you can have assurance. They say, 'Oh, I don't know that my salvation is secure.' Well, fine, you have security, sorry you can't enjoy it. You can deny it all you want, you still have it. You can live in doubt all you want, you are still secure. Security is the objective fact that all who are forgiven by grace in Christ are forgiven forever, it is irrevocable. Assurance is the confidence that I am one of those forgiven."


A fourth reason some lack assurance of salvation is because they can't remember the exact moment that they were saved. Kids from Christian homes, please hear this! If you became a Christian when you were really young, listen! This is so encouraging. Don't get caught up with "decisional regeneration". Your life in Christ does not depend on knowing the exact moment you entered into an eternal relationship with Him. It depends on your trust in Him being the sacrifice for your sins, and your life right now demonstrating that trust by your obedience and fruit. I could paraphrase MacArthur, but instead, I'll just quote him:

"Some people lack assurance because they don't know the exact time of their salvation. They can't remember when they believed. They can't remember the moment of their salvation. And because they can't remember when it was, they don't know whether it was. Which is like saying, because I can't remember my birthday, I'm not sure I'm alive. I see. Or because I can't remember when my plane landed, I don't know if I'm here. We have made such a fetish out of decisionism, we have so isolated and identified this little formula and this little prayer that you pray at some point as being the moment of salvation that if you don't have that little moment that you signed a card or raised your hand or walked an aisle or prayed your prayer or did your little formula thing, you can't identify when it happened, so maybe it never happened.

"I had a car accident when I was a freshman in college, but I can't say that was the time of my salvation. I remember praying a prayer with my father on the steps of a church in Indiana when he was holding a revival meeting, his sermon convicted me because I had done some things that week that were not right. I don't know whether that's the moment I passed from death unto life. There were times as a little child when I prayed prayers. There were times as a teen-ager when I went to camp, I remember as a fourteen-year-old going forward and throwing a pinecone in a fire, teary-eyed and wanting to make my life right with God. I don't know when I passed from death unto life, I know I did, but I don't look for a past event to make it real, I look for a present pattern of life. There are some people at this particular point who have a false assurance because they can remember a past event, but the reality of it is there isn't any present righteousness."


Oh man, I can't do this one justice. But people don't have assurance of salvation sometimes because of the battle that still rages to put off the old self dominated by sin. Believe it or not, in this life, Jesus takes the penalty for your sin, but he does not completely take away the presence of it. That sucks, I know. But it is true, and first we have to understand that. Second, we have to see the difference with sin before Christ and sin after Christ. The real question is, have I really repented? Have I really turned away from my sin? If so, why do I keep doing what I don't want to do? Hear MacArthur quoting a pastor on true repentence in the context of Romans 7:

"Now test yourself in this way. You once lived in sin and loved it. Do you now desire deliverance from it? You were once self-confident and trusting in your own fancy goodness. Do you now judge yourself a sinner before God? You once sought to hide from God and rebelled against His authority. Do you now look up to Him, desiring to know Him and to yield yourself to Him? If you can honestly say yes to these questions, you have repented. Your attitude is all together different than what it once was. You confess you are a sinner, unable to cleanse your own soul, and you're willing to be saved in God's way. That's repentance. And remember, it is not the amount of repentance that counts, it is the fact that you turned from self to God that puts you in the place where His grace avails through Jesus Christ. Strictly speaking, not one of us has ever repented enough. None of us has realized the enormity of our guilt as God sees it, but when we judge ourselves and trust the Savior whom He has provided, we are saved through His merits. As recipients of His loving kindness, repentance will be deepened and will continue day by day as we learn more and more of His infinite worthy and our own unworthiness."


I am sorry this is so long, but aren't these things helpful? Isn't it good to hear articulated the struggles we have holding us back from true joy in the confidence that we are saved from sin, from wrath, from hell, and safe in God's hands forever, regardless of our circumstances? What is more helpful than that? Yet another reason (there are so many, blame John MacArthur, not me) we lack assurance is because we can't see or understand God's place in our suffering. There it is. You are a Christian, you experience loss of a loved one, loss of a job, a broken relationship, whatever, and you ask that dreaded question that Christians are never supposed to ask: "Why?!" Right? Why me? I love you God, why would you let this happen? You don't want to ask these questions, you know that you should know, but they come anyway. And because they come you worry that you must not be a Christian or else you would be spared this calamity.

We lose so much of the grace of God if we don't see his hand in suffering and let it create in us confident joy. I can't do this justice, and am nowhere near satisfied in my understanding of this reality. But I've seen enough that my mind is blown and my heart is soft by God's unending grace. The thing that should convince us of God's hand, and our security in it, when trials come is not that we are saved from them, but that even those trials do not separate us. Romans 8. Read it. Even though we are persecuted. Even though we are naked. Even though we are broken. Even though we are hungry. Even though we are distressed. We are not separated. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither height nor depth, neither the present nor the future, no powers, nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. We have assurance not when we are spared from trials, but when we face them and realize even they cannot separate us. That is powerful. Tell that to your children at the dinner table tonight.


Yes!! Oh, praise Jesus, yes. At the end of the day, when the world, when the devil, when your friends or family, when a stranger on the street, tells you that God is not able or willing to save you, and the heaven you think you are going to either doesn't exist for you or doesn't exist at all, there is someone who testifies that you are secure. There is one voice and one comforter that will outlast all these claims. The Holy Spirit. Oh, don't downplay the reality of the Holy Spirit to your own confusion! Through all the pain, all the mistakes and sin, all the confusion, even all the excitement and joy in life, at the end of the day the most trusted source of assurance is the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life constantly affirming your adoption as God's child saved by the blood of Jesus. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you likely are not really saved. As devestating as it is to say, many lack assurance for this very reason. "Some lack assurance because they do not walk in the Spirit and it is the ministry of the Spirit to affirm the believer's salvation." For some, they don't walk this way and don't receive this affirmation because they have not the Spirit because they are not saved.

But like Paul says, we are confident of better things in your case, things that accompany salvation. God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised. (Hebrews 6:9-12)

So then there are some who don't walk in the Spirit and don't receive this ministry of affirmation even though they possess that Spirit. Why? I'm going to go out on a limb and say the biggest reason in our culture why this happens is because people aren't reading the Bible. That's it. MacArthur says that the biggest way that the Spirit affirms our salvation is through illumination of the Word of God. If we don't open our Bible, we won't experience this illumination, and we won't receive this affirmation. Painfully simple, isn't it? For example, did you know that in Ancient Rome, adoptions required seven witnesses to be approved? In other words, because there was legitimate concern that a crook would step up after someone died and claim their inheritance as the "adopted son", there had to be seven witnesses, so that even if six of them died, there would still be someone left to testify that the adoption was real. Well, did you know that in the Book of Revelation and elsewhere in Scripture it talks about the sevenfold Spirit of God? The one who testifies to the legitimacy of your adoption to God ministers as a sevenfold Spirit. I hope the Holy Spirit blew your mind just now.


John MacArthur: "Some lack assurance because assurance is the reward for obedience and they are willfully disobedient. If you live in sin and disobedience, you will not enjoy assurance. Sin will cancel it out. There is a gulf between sin and peace, sin and joy, sin and assurance. To live in sin is to live in doubt. When you sin, coming alongside of it is doubt about your spiritual condition and the Spirit of God withholds the good gift."

Sinclair Ferguson: "High degrees of true assurance cannot be enjoyed by those who persist in low levels of obedience."

Charles Spurgeon: "Whenever I feel that I have sinned and desire to overcome that sin for the future, the devil at the same time comes to me and whispers, 'How can you be a pardoned person and accepted with God while you still sin in this way?' If I listen to this I drop into despondency. And if I continued in that state I should fall into despair and should commit sin more frequently than before. But God's grace comes in and says to my soul, 'Thou hast sinned but did not Christ come to save sinners? Thou art not saved because thou art righteous for Christ died for the ungodly.' And my faith says, 'Though I have sinned I have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous and though I am guilty yet by grace I am saved and I am a child of God still.' And what then? Why the tears begin to flow and I say, 'How could I ever sin against my God who has been so good to me? Now I will overcome that sin.' And I get strong to fight with sin through the conviction that I am God's child."

John MacArthur: "If you fall into sin and you resolutely say I will conquer that sin, Satan may pound you with these kinds of questions. You fall back on the forgiving grace of God and it will strengthen you for the battle. Whatever the cause for the loss of assurance, whatever makes you doubt, whatever causes you to lose your joy and to become useless in Christian service, empty in worship, cold in praise, passionless in prayer, vulnerable to false teachers, whatever the problems are there is a cure. The cure is to walk in the Spirit. The cure is to walk in obedience."


I'll close with an amazing final encouragement from Puritan Thomas Brooks, drawing us back to Scripture. If you've come this far, please finish.

"Manasseh is saved, O despairing souls, the arms of mercy are open to receive a Manasseh, a monster, a devil incarnate. He caused that prophet Isaiah to be sawed in the midst with a saw, as some rabbis say. He turned aside from the Lord to commit idolatry and cause his sons to pass through the fire and dealt with familiar spirits and made the streets of Jerusalem to overflow with innocent blood. The soul of Mary Magdalene was full of devils and yet Christ cast them out and made her heart His house, His presence chamber.

"Why dost thou then say there is no hope for thee, O despairing soul? Paul was full of rage against Christ and His people and full of blasphemy and impiety, and yet, behold, Paul is a chosen vessel. Paul is caught up in to the heaven and is filled with the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit. Why should you then say there is for you no help, O despairing soul? Though the prodigal had run from his father and spent and wasted all his estate in ways of baseness and wickedness, and yet upon his resolution to return, his father meets him and instead of killing him, he kisses him. Instead of kicking him, he embraces him. Instead of shutting the door upon him, he makes a sumptuous provision for him. And how then do you dare to say, O despairing soul, that God will never cast an eye of love upon you or bestow a crumb of mercy on you?

"The Apostle tells you of some monstrous miscreants who were unrighteous, fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, effeminate, abusers of themselves with mankind, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, extortioners - and yet these monsters of mankind through the infinite goodness and free grace of God are washed from the filth and guilt of their sins and justified by the righteousness of Christ and sanctified by the Spirit of Christ and decked and adorned with the graces of Christ. Therefore do not say," writes Brooks, "O despairing soul that you shall die in your sins and lie down at last in everlasting sorrow. Did it make for the honor and glory of His free grace to pardon them? And will it be a reproach to His free grace to pardon you? Could God be just in justifying such ungodly ones and shall He be unjust in justifying you? Did their unworthiness and unfitness for mercy turn the stream of mercy from them? No. Why then, O despairing soul, should thou fear that thy unworthiness and unfitness for mercy will go and stop and turn the stream of mercy as that thou must perish eternally for want of one drop of special grace and mercy?"

I pray as the sun sets tonight, you will fall asleep with a joyous confidence and assurance that God is working together all things for good for you, because you are among His beloved. So that if you wake in the morning to greater chaos, and perhaps greater pain, than you left the night before, you will be able to embrace the day, and the sunrise, with joy and endurance. Or if you begin your day happy as a clam without thinking twice about God or Jesus or salvation, I pray that an affirming voice will speak to your heart that salvation in Jesus means more than church attendance or good deeds or a prayer you once said. It means assurance that everything will be ok and that you will make it. Through the parties and the vacations and the meetings and the families and the friends and the frustrations and the hospitals. With joy. To the very end.

Jude 24-25

Romans 8

2 Peter 1

John 6

1 Thessalonians 5:23-24

1 John 5:13-15

1 Corinthians 1:4-9

Ephesians 1