MESSAGE FOR NOVEMBER 16, 2003
(First in a series on biblical conversion and assurance)
This morning we begin a new, comparatively brief series of messages focusing on an issue of eternal importance to both individuals and local churches. The issue we will take up is true and false conversion and assurance from a biblical perspective. That may sound a bit technical and involved and in fact it is not a simple area of study but the implications of having a sound biblical understanding of this have a profound impact that affects not only every minute of every day in this life, but eternal life as well. This issue touches on intensely practical questions like, “What does it mean to be converted to Christ?” “Can I be assured of my salvation and if so, what is that assurance based upon?” “If I at times struggle with assurance, does that mean I am not in the kingdom?” Finally, “if I do have assurance of my salvation, is my sense of assurance real and from God or is it false and I am living out a very perilous, self-deceived fantasy?” When you hear the kind of questions this touches on, it becomes clear this is NOT a frivolous matter. This is near the heart of our walk with Christ and the new life he gives.
This morning I want to begin to set the direction and tone for this topic and the tone of this study, given the kind of issues it touches must be very sensitive because these important truths if handled carelessly can actually become spiritually destructive to us. Today, we want to introduce this study by giving some very important reasons why we are choosing to treat this now. The first reason is best stated negatively. That is, we are NOT studying this to create unnecessary and destructive doubt or bring condemnation on a true child of God. The intention is NOT to cause any unnecessary doubt for the genuine, born-again believer in Jesus. We want to do this study as a search for truth about ourselves very much in the spirit of Psalm 139:23-24 where David asks God, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” Our prayer is that as we allow pertinent sections of the word of God to impact us, God will use those texts to search our hearts and lead us in the way everlasting. We want also want to take the opportunity to do healthy, biblical SELF examination as Paul commanded the Corinthians to do in 2 Corinthians 13:5, “ Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? —unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” The goal is for this to be a healthy, honest, non-manipulative examination of the Scriptures and our hearts as it relates to Christian conversion and assurance of salvation.
A second reason for discussing this issue is to encourage us to make our calling and election sure. Peter tells us to do that in 2 Peter 1:10 when he commands, “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.” Our salvation is something we can, because of our sin, be careless about and take for granted. Though I firmly believe the truth from First John 5:13 that says that those “who believe in the name of the Son of God…may know that you have eternal life,” that is very different than a person who takes the eternal state of their soul for granted. Peter in that context commands us to manifest or show the proof of our salvation through the practice of unmistakable Christian qualities and our hope is that this study will encourage us to do that. For the believer, knowing our place in Christ is very important and we seek to establish that more firmly in the stable, rock-solid truth of God’s word.
A third reason to take up this matter is to there is in the church today widespread and spiritually dangerous ignorance of this crucial doctrine. The reason for this ignorance is simple. That is, because there is a dearth of teaching on this topic. A few years ago, D.A. Carson, who is one of today’s most widely read biblical scholars wrote, “So far as I know, there has been no English-language, full scale treatment of the biblical theology of Christian assurance for more than 50 years.” There is today little material of any depth being written on what the bible teaches on issue of which I am aware. The four major sources that I have consulted outside of the bible were all written in the sixteen and 1700’s. This explains why most people in church, unlike other eras in church history, simply aren’t all that impassioned—as they should be(!) about this eternally important topic. As I have listened to people speak of their own processing of the doctrine of assurance, many of them, if they believe that Christians cannot lose their salvation, imply that this doctrine can be adequately articulated with the four words, “once saved, always saved.” That’s a bit like saying “human beings are carbon-based life forms.” The statement is, I believe true when properly understood but it says so remarkably little that it is meaningless and in fact will ultimately lead to serious misunderstanding and potentially significant error.
The doctrine of salvation and the related doctrines of assurance and eternal security are, as we will see complicated biblical teachings that require us to look at many different texts, each of which add a different shade to the overall picture. The expression “once saved/always saved” is the theological equivalent of a stick figure drawing. There is no flesh, no depth, no perspective, and no beauty. It is a gross oversimplification. When we study the scripture we should, as Paul tells Timothy, “rightly divide the word of truth.” As we divide the texts that bear on this topic we must be sure we are using a surgeon’s scalpel to extract the truth, not a butcher knife. Our failure to do use that kind of surgical precision in this area as a contemporary church has left us with scores of people who have not gone below the outermost surface of this biblical teaching. That means that many of us are therefore very vulnerable to being deceived about an issue about which we should want very badly NOT to be deceived about.
I’m convinced (and I will support this biblically as we move along) that a good portion of the non-supernatural, carnal character of North American evangelicalism can be explained in some measure by the fact that there are many in the confessing evangelical church who are simply not truly converted. They have prayed a prayer—they may be long-time church members, but at the end of the day the truth is--they do not have the Holy Spirit living within them. There are also many in the church who have looked at the very difficult texts which speak of apostasy and falling away and have tried to earnestly wrestle with what those passages mean. In their struggle, they hear other evangelicals (who have NOT grappled with them), but who are happy to articulate their four-word doctrine of eternal security “once saved, always saved” and those people who have studied those texts reject that and the doctrine it so superficially represents. I disagree with those brothers and sisters who believe it is possible for a genuine, born again believer to lose their salvation, but in many cases I appreciate their attempts to integrate ALL the teaching of Scripture on this difficult topic rather than be satisfied with an intensely superficial understanding.
Let me now give three specific areas of ignorance in the church today that justify us spending some concentrated time on it. First, there is in the church today much ignorance of the strong biblical evidence revealing our incredible tendency toward self-deception about the state of our souls. The bible repeatedly teaches that we have a strong and toxic tendency to be just plain deceived about the state of our souls. Many believers ground their sense of assurance in how they feel, or in some vague, over all sense of spiritual well-being. They root their assurance in an experience or experiences they have had. They trust in their own mental knowledge of the gospel or their ability to speak the truth of the gospel or give a short three-minute testimony of Christ’s work in their life. If that is the ground of your assurance then you are, to use Jesus words in Matthew 7:26, “building your house on the sand.” None of those things are sufficient ground for a solid assurance of salvation because ultimately they CAN all be rooted in the human heart and the Scripture teaches us to be very suspicious about trusting solely in our own heart’s witness of spiritual reality. Let’s cite several texts that plainly teach that we should be very suspicious of our own independent ability to determine where we are with God through our thoughts, feelings and experiences. Proverbs 14:21 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” One implication of that verse is that just because something “seems right” to us, that does not mean it couldn’t not only be WRONG, but what’s more, spiritually lethal, ending in death. Proverbs 21:2, “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the heart.” That speaks to our prideful tendency to unshakably believe we are fairly infallible about what we perceive about ourselves. The texts tells us that the Lord, who knows the reality of the state of our hearts can have a very different understanding of who we are than we do.
The best known text about our heart’s inability to be trusted is Jeremiah 17:9 where the prophet writes, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Jeremiah writes the heart is deceitful or literally “crooked” more than any other thing. It is so crooked that we ourselves cannot plumb the depths of its twistedness. Our hearts are critically ill. Why would anyone place their trust in their eternal destination solely on what their heart tells them? Jesus treats this issue of the sickness of the human heart many times. In Matthew chapter seven he is speaking to disciples and he says in verse three, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” Jesus is asking a pointed question that exposes our propensity to be blind to our own blindness. We are so prideful, we consider ourselves to be skillful speck inspectors, while at the same time failing to take notice of the 1”X 6” that is sticking out of our forehead. This text should deeply humble us about our own capacity to make independent, authoritative judgments about the condition of our soul.
Paul says in Galatians 6:3 “For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” At the very least Paul is saying it is possible to think we are something in the kingdom of God when we are nothing. We must let these truths about our hearts humble us about our inability to independently assess our spiritual condition. Hebrew 3:13 says, “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” The author tells us sin is inherently deceitful and it also hardens are hearts to the truth. When we consider that our hearts are filled with this deceitful, heart-hardening sin, we had best be very careful about trusting something so seriously sick. Yet this is the testimony of so many. At the end of the day, many evangelicals derive their understanding of assurance on the basis of what they feel and experience about themselves. This is dangerous when you consider that less than 1% of Americans believe they will go to hell.
This truth about the deceitfulness of our hearts is what drives people like Charles Bridges to write to the people who profess to be Christians, “Dread an ill-grounded judgment of yourself. The more confident a man is in error, the more dangerous his state. Oh! Beware of holding fast a delusion, which the word of God, closely applied, would quickly dispel. Suspect your spiritual state, at least till you have given it a probing search.” And the probing searchlight is the word of God. This is why Jonathan Edwards’ said about pastors, “‘Tis a minister’s duty to, as far as in him lies, to undeceive those that are deceived and think themselves something when they are nothing, and so guide them and help them to the knowledge of their state.” That’s a big part of why I am preaching this series of messages, so that by God’s grace this ministry of “undeceiving” might happen in our church and in my own heart.
Most importantly, the fact that our hearts are so easily deceived is part of the reason why Jesus says in Matthew 7:21-23, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'” The reason this text is so shocking as it relates to this question of self-deception is because Jesus is not sending unchurched people to hell here, nor is he sending average church attenders to hell. He is sending people who have been involved in and in His name have done ministry that would appear to virtually everyone to be from Christ(!) And what’s more, he says there will be many of those kind of people who are completely self-deceived about their spiritual state and will hear to their eternal anguish, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” Too many in a church awash in ignorance of the bible’s teaching on the sin-inspired tendency we all have toward self-deception about our spiritual state are in danger of themselves playing out this scene of future judgment Jesus describes in Matthew chapter seven.
Another area of ignorance in this area is an ignorance and unbiblical understanding of the nature of God and his relationship to sinners. Many in the church today have a view of God that on a practical level causes Him to eternally exist so He can save sinners. He exists to save people. As I have quoted before, J.I Packer masterfully relates how this misunderstanding of the character of God is seen in much of our evangelism. He says, “we depict the Father and the Son, not as sovereignly active in drawing sinners to themselves, but as waiting in quiet impotence “at the door of our hearts” for us to let them in…the enthroned Lord is suddenly metamorphosed into a weak, futile figure tapping forlornly at the door of the human heart, which He is powerless to open…Christ [is presented] as the baffled Savior, balked in what He hoped to do by human unbelief. Packer says that evangelism in this context can resemble “maudlin appeals to the unconverted to let Christ save them out of pity for His disappointment.” We mustn’t break Christ’s heart by refusing to come to Him! Elsewhere he adds, “…we do not vote God’s Son into office as our Savior, nor does He remain passive while preachers campaign on His behalf, whipping up support for His cause.”
Do we hear how man-centered this is? This kind of thinking isn’t about bringing God glory, this is about people getting saved by a wimpy deity who exists to rescue rebel sinners. If that all too frequent distortion of God’s character has in ANY way influenced us then we are open to significant deception in this area. If God is pictured in this near-desperate state to save sinners, then it is natural to assume there is surely very little involved in this business of being saved. Just pray a prayer and inspire this forlorn savior to rejoice with the angels in heaven. This understanding wrenches out of their context texts like Acts 16:31, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved…” and turns conversion into nothing more than a human decision-something to check off your list after you have mowed the lawn or cleaned the kitchen. We mustn’t forget the fact that the Philippian jailer Paul said this to had just witnessed a miracle and would have killed himself if Paul had not told him to do otherwise. He then rushed into Paul and Silas’ prison cell and “…trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas.” He has utterly humbled himself before God and is powerfully aware of his desperate need. In THAT state he then pleads with his prisoners, “Sirs what must I do to be saved?” In that context Paul responds with, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” Again, there is nothing wrong with using this statement in an evangelistic appeal, but if it is given in the wrong context, we can easily think that becoming a Christian is just another decision we have to make—like buying a certain car or purchasing a season ticket for the Vikings. There is no cost, no conflict, just a decision that may be rooted totally in an emotional response to a perhaps manipulative message.
How does Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:13-14 impact our thinking on the issue of conversion? There he says to those who are already following him, "Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. How many of us have allowed that text to inform our understanding of conversion and assurance? How does that truth correspond to this common understanding that God will save anyone who doesn’t like the idea of going to hell and who makes some sort of a “decision” for Christ?
Jesus makes a very similar point in Matthew 10:23-24. And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!” The point of Jesus’ words is not to argue for salvation by works as if there is anything we can do to earn eternal life, but rather to indicate that salvation is a miracle within a person’s heart and as Jesus says in verse 27, “…with man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” How many of us on a practical level think of the conversion of a sinner as a genuine miracle of God and if we do, then why do so many often describe it purely on the level of a personal decision? That’s inconsistent and it leads us to another area of ignorance in the church about this crucial topic.
That is, there is an ignorance of the radical nature of the Christian life as it is clearly taught in the bible. If being a Christian is fundamentally about making a decision and not about a miraculous, heart-changing, radically life-altering, saving work of God then it will be easy to overlook the fact that the bible teaches that following Christ is a radical way of life requiring a radical change of heart. All I need to do here is get out of the way and let the texts speak for themselves. Let me read just a few texts that speak of the radical nature of Christianity. Jesus says in Matthew 5:20 “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. In Matthew 19:21 we meet a rich young ruler who considered himself blameless. “Jesus said to him, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." Luke 9:57-62 says of Jesus and his followers, “As they were going along the road, someone said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." And Jesus said to him, "Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you , go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Yet another said, "I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."
Jesus says in Luke 14:26-28, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:3, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” John the apostle in his first epistle makes the following statements: 1 John 2:3, “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.” First John 2:6, “whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” Nine verses later in 2:15 he says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” In 3:6 he says, “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.” Those texts speak to far more than a person who has made a decision. This is about GOD making new creatures with new, God-bent affections. In Revelation chapter 2-3 Jesus says six separate times that heaven is reserved for “the one who conquers.” He reiterates that a seventh and final time in Revelation 21:7. Heaven is not for those who prays a prayer or go to church or who have made a decision or believe right doctrine—heaven is for God-graced conquerors! That is, those who, scorning the pain, war against the forces of the world, the flesh and the devil and by the grace of God overcomes, THAT person will go to heaven.
Again, let me reiterate this series of messages is not intended to beat people up or bring condemnation or unnecessary doubt to any true follower of Christ. But if you are here today and God knows that you have not been soundly converted but you instead believe a lie about yourself, then doubt is the best friend you can have right now. Our purpose is to shine the light of Scripture on a very important and sizable group of biblical texts that are of eternal significance to us but are seldom applied today. Our prayer is that God will use them to search our hearts and help us, with a biblical compass to “examine ourselves, to see if we are in the faith…” May God give us the grace in the weeks to come to make our calling and election sure as we study his word and walk faithfully with Christ.
Page last modified on 11/23/2003
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