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Archive for the ‘assurance’ Category

A repost from  two years ago…

Today I had two very different meetings with a similar theme.

One person – a really great Christian – confessed to me that they’d prayed for God to enter their life many thousands of times but never got the answer they were looking for.  I could relate – this describes the entirety of my teenage years.  (See this talk for more)

The other meeting was with some Mormons who knocked on our door.   They both told me they became convinced Mormons when they prayed for an experience of the Holy Ghost.  This apparently confirmed to them the truth of the gospel as restored by Joseph Smith.  As the little leaflet they gave me says: “The Holy Ghost confirms the truth through feelings, thoughts and impressions.”  Both of them described this as a private experience of peace and joy.  It was unclear how this brief religious feeling related to the status of Joseph Smith as a prophet and priest, or the truth of the book of Mormon.

But apparently this is the way to become a Mormon.  As with Smith himself, pray James 1:5 and something will happen.  My leaflet tells me, “This knowledge can be miraculous and life changing [Smith met the Father and the Son personally!!] but it usually comes as a quiet assurance.”

Joseph Smith 1

Clearly the missionaries I met were at the ‘quiet assurance’ end of Holy Ghost experiences.  But it struck me after they left that they had found what my friend was after, and what I’d been seeking as a teenager.  I wanted a private religious experience – shining lights, weak knees, woozy stomach.  I wanted peace and joy as I perched on the end of my bed.  I wanted some kind of numinous glow, wordless ecstasy, love and groovy vibes.  Now that I think about it – I was very much into Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground at the time.  I think I basically wanted spiritual heroin.

But again the question would have to be asked – what exactly is the link between this spiritual experience and the truth that is supposedly being authenticated?  The Mormons had a spiritual high – but that doesn’t answer the question, ‘which spirit has produced it?’  A Mars bar could give me warm fuzzies, what’s that got to do with Jesus?

Perhaps this is another case where we need to reconsider faith in more biblical ways.  We commonly think of faith as our work (a feeling to be generated) and as something related to religion in general.  On this understanding, all kinds of people have ‘faith’ because they manage to work up generic religious sentiments.

In the bible, faith is simply our receiving Jesus.  Not our work but God’s.  And its content is not ‘religious feeling’ in general, but ‘Christ and Him crucified’ in particular.

And how is Christ received?  Not perched on the end of my bed.  He is received in word and sacrament.

Ever noticed how parallel Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 are?  Well look in particular at Eph 5:18-20 and Col 3:16-17.  Being filled with the Spirit is parallel with ‘letting the word of Christ dwell in you richly.’  Want to be filled with the Spirit?  Be filled with His words.  And these words are the words of Christ – He Himself is communicated in them.

So I don’t say to my friend that spiritual experiences are unimportant.  But neither do I advocate the Mormon route.  God is found in Christ and Christ is found in His word.  We ought never to stop short of a personal encounter with the living Christ.  But we should never seek such encounters apart from where He Himself is given.  And He is freely given in word and sacrament.

It’s just interesting to me that a cult founded in mistrusting the word and trusting personal experience can foster spiritual understandings that are so close to home.  Let’s give up on looking for the spiritual heroin.  Let’s instead receive fellowship with the living Christ, not because of our own quest for experience but on the basis of His prior and utter self-giving.  The encounter is already real and true in the gospel – He is yours.  “The Son of God loved you and gave Himself for you.” (Gal 2:20)   If you’ve believed this gospel truth, you have experienced the Holy Spirit’s assurance.  If you haven’t received that word, then you must know that you’ll receive Christ in no other way.  Continue to ask, seek and knock by all means.  But return continually to the place where He’s already freely offered.  Right there you already have Him.

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I preached Psalm 18:19  a while back.  And you know my first reaction as I was preparing?

Hmmm, tricky, how on earth should we understand this…?

I hope you’re all saying: But why Glen – it seems perfectly straightforward.

Well, there’s the slightly tricky part about how we take the verse on our own lips.  Clearly it’s Christ speaking of His Father.  But once we’re all happy to sing the Psalm in Christ then I hope you’re all saying to yourselves: Glen, it’s perfectly obvious.  The Lord saves us because He loves us. What could be difficult about that?

Ah, but you see I regularly fall into a foolish and horrible error – perhaps you’re the same.  I start thinking that Jesus died so that God could love me.  I imagine that God saves in order to love.  He cleans me up a bit and then gives me His grace.  His atonement leads to love, (rather than love leading to the atonement).  Do you see my error?

And so when Psalm 18 spoke of the Lord delighting in me and therefore rescuing me?  Well it seemed backwards.  And so I really had to let the word confront me again.

Because in the Bible God loves the world and so sends the Son to save (John 3:16-17).  In the Bible it’s ‘because of His great love for us that God makes us alive’, even when we were dead in sins (Eph 2:4).  In the Bible God demonstrates His own love for us in that Christ died for powerless, ungodly, sinful enemies (Rom 5:6-11).

Do you see what these verses are saying?  God loves and so He saves.  It does not say – God saves and so He loves.

Why’s that important?  Well for one thing it means that Christ loves me – SINNER THAT I AM. It’s not a case of Christ loving the saved me (though of course He does).  But it’s the radical gospel truth that Christ has loved me at my putrid worst.  He doesn’t clean me up in order to love me.  He loves me and so cleanses me through His atoning death.

Which means when I ask myself, ‘Does God love me?’ – I can look to the cross alone.  I don’t have to check my own saved status.  I don’t have to worry whether the cleansing has taken sufficient effect to allow me entrance into His affections.  I can simply look at Christ crucified and say – God loves me.  There is His demonstration – a love for sinners at war with Him.  He has not fixed His love on me at my best.  He has fixed His love on me at my worst.

My salvation – won through His blood alone – proves His love for me.  His love is not a bonus for the godly but is specifically aimed at enemies.  Such love is the very ground of all He does. If I’m looking at the Son lifted up on the cross then I’m seeing God’s love for me because there I’m seeing my salvation.  This salvation in Christ is infallible proof of God’s immovable, inexhaustible and unfathomable love for me.

He rescued me because He delighted in me. (Ps 18:19)

Christian, God speaks that word to you right now.  Believe it.

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In 1738 John Wesley returned from the mission field convinced of one thing: He was not a Christian.  He wrote in his journal, “I am fallen short of the glory of God… my heart is altogether corrupt and abominable… alienated as I am from the life of God I am a child of wrath and heir of hell.”  (Arnold Dallimore, George Whitfield, vol 1, p179)

He was certain at this point that the only way of salvation was “by faith” – whatever that meant.  He knew he needed “faith” and he also knew he didn’t have it.

“I was strongly convinced [he wrote] that the cause of my uneasiness was unbelief, and that gaining a true, living faith was the ‘one thing needful’ for me.” (p181)

At this point the Moravians made a lasting impact on both John and Charles.  Yet the “faith” which they preached was oftentimes an internal religious experience rather than an outward-looking reliance on Christ.  This was the kind of “faith” which the Wesleys sought.

Arnold Dallimore comments “The views to which the Wesleys were led by these means became of historic importance, for these views influenced the beliefs they held throughout life.  They both spoke of ‘seeking Christ’, yet as one analyses the pertinent passages in their Journals it becomes evident that they were actuallly seeking faith more than they were Christ. Faith had become the great desideratum in their thinking, insomuch that they began to look upon it as an entity in itself.  Under [the Moravian] Bohler’s instructions they had forsaken their trust in personal endeavours and works, but faith had become a kind of new endeavour which they substituted for their former endeavours and a work which took the place of their former good works.  They had still learned nothing about receiving Christ in the fullness of His person and the completeness of His saving work, but were concerned about faith itself and what measure of it might be necessary for salvation.  Charles expected that the coming of this faith might be associated with some visible presence of Christ, and John looked for an experience which would be accompanied by an emotional response.  ‘I well saw’, he wrote, ‘that no-one could, in the nature of things, have such a sense of forgiveness and not feel it.  But I felt it not.'”  (p181-2)

They both embarked upon a tortuous spiritual path in order to discover this faith.  On the 24th May 1738, at a religious society meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, John heard someone reading Luther’s preface to Romans.  As Wesley described it, Luther’s writing was a “description of the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ.”  That in itself is an interesting take on Luther’s concern!  But, understood in this way, Wesley found himself responding to these truths.  He famously wrote in his Journal:

I felt my heart strangely warmed.  I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

This is considered by many to be John’s conversion.  Yet other factors cast doubt on it.

Within a week Wesley was, in his own words, ‘thrown into perplexity’ when a friend asserted that faith must be fully assured or it is no faith at all.  He took a trip to Herrnhut, home of the Moravians, to enquire about ‘the assurance of faith.’

But this gave no clarity.  As Dallimore writes, “since the Moravians formulated their beliefs to a considerable degree on personal experience, their answers to Wesley’s enquiry were many and vaious.  One preacher said that ‘the full assurance’ was a blessing received at the same time as justification, but another asserted that it was a separate experience to be entered into after conversion.  Another stated that it was the coming of the Holy Spirit subsequent to conversion… and still another claimed that it was no more than a rich Christian maturity and was attained simply by steady Christian growth.”

Dallimore lists the effects of this confused spiritual counsel on a perplexed Wesley:

First, it influenced him towards combining Scripture and experience in formulating doctrinal beliefs.  Secondly, it increased in him that introspective tendency.  Thirdly, it caused him to believe that the Moravians possessed something which he did not have, and therefore that (as some of them intimated) a second Christian experience was possible – an experience, he believed, which would accomplish in him that larger victory in which the experience at Aldersgate Street had failed.  By the time he returned to England, Wesley had become something of a Moravian himself.”  (p194)

And what was the result for Wesley personally?  Well in the short term he continued to be greatly perplexed about his spiritual state.  So much so that eight months after his Aldersgate Street experience, John wrote this in his Journal:

“My friends affirm that I am mad because I said I was not a Christian a year ago.  I affirm I am not a Christian now.  Indeed, what I might have been I know not, had I been faithful to the grace then given, when, expecting nothing less, I received such a sense of forgiveness of sins as till I then never knew.  But that I am not a Christian at this day I as assuredly know as that Jesus is the Christ.” (p196)

What an astonishing thing to say!  Completely assured that Jesus is the Christ.  Completely convinced he’s not a Christian.

What do we learn from this?  Class?

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Sermon Audio

Do you ever worry that you’re not a proper Christian?  Do you fear you might not be a child of God after all?

Do you ever struggle to pray?

Do you worry about friends who are caught in certain sins?

Do you wonder what to do about those who once said they were Christians and now they’re speaking against Christ?

Do you ever find your heart wandering from Christ, and falling for other things?

John is going to address all these questions as he concludes his letter.  And his answer to all these questions is to bring us back to Jesus.  If Jesus is at the heart of our thinking then we’ll be able to handle these question.

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Audio Powerpoint

A few days ago I was strolling along the beach with my wife.  We bought some amazing tropical fruit from a roadside vendor, I went for a swim and then lay down on a deckchair sipping a cold beer.  I said to Emma “This is the life.”

When have you said that phrase?  “This is the life”?  You might not like hot holidays. Maybe you’d rather go skiing with friends and then sit down by a roaring fire with a big hot chocolate, extra cream.  “This is the life.”

Or you go out and celebrate some success at your favourite restaurant with your favourite people. “This is the life” we say.

It’s funny how rarely we use that saying isn’t it?  We live for awfully long stretches of time without saying “this is the life”.  Apparently most of life isn’t “the life”.  Evidently only very rarely is life THE LIFE.  We have to stop doing everything we have been doing and fly halfway around the world before our life starts to be THE LIFE.  Is that right?  Is it the case that most of our lives aren’t really “the life”?  That would be a real shame wouldn’t it?

Because 36 hours after I said: “this is the life”, we were locked outside our house in the freezing rain, rummaging through our suitcases before concluding our house-keys were somewhere on the continent of Australia. Was this “the life”?  “The life” seemed far away at that point.

But I wonder whether for most of us “the life” seems out of reach.

But John, the author of this letter, thinks very differently about “the life.”  For John “the life” is not a time or a place.  “The life” is a person – a person who was there in the beginning.  A person with whom we now have fellowship.  Look at the first few verses of the letter:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched–this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.

This is the life.  Not a time or a place.  A person.  This is the life: Jesus.  He was there in the beginning.  There with the Father.  He came in the middle to live out “THE LIFE” on full display to the world.  John had seen THE LIFE.  He’d walked the dusty roads of Israel with THE LIFE.  When he saw Jesus saying and doing His thing, John said to Himself “THIS is the life.”  Jesus is the life.  And so John wants to tell the whole world about THE LIFE.  Verse 3:

3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

It’s John’s greatest joy to pass on THE LIFE to us.  So that you and I can enjoy THE LIFE, not just when we’re sunbathing by the pool or having drinks with friends, but when we’re locked out of the house in the freezing rain, when we lose our jobs and our health and our friends, our family, even our own lives.  We can lose everything in life and still have THE LIFE.  Because we have Jesus: the Author of Life, the Word of Life, the Meaning of Life.

In all of life we can have THE LIFE.

But it’s a different kind of life to “THE LIFE” we enjoy sitting by the pool.  THE LIFE we seek is usually pretty self-indulgent.  THE LIFE that Jesus gives is self-giving.  THE LIFE we pursue is about sitting back and relaxing.  THE LIFE of Jesus is an outgoing life.

Did you notice in these opening verses: Jesus goes out from the Father into the world.  He “appears” to the disciples who receive THE LIFE and then they go out and tell others.

THE LIFE is Jesus and it’s not a self-indulgent, sitting-back kind of life.  It’s a self-giving, out-going kind of life.

And with that as background, come now to a crucial verse in our passage – chapter 3, verse 16:

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14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder. 20 You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. 25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

As a teenager I approached a minister, full of doubts and struggles and a thousand misunderstandings.  My question was, Why doesn’t God seem to accept me?  I’ve prayed the prayer a thousand times, why does heaven seem to be silent?

He told me that I shouldn’t worry about whether I was accepted, I just needed to get on and really live the Christian life.

So I went off and tried that (or at least what I imagined the Christian life to be).  And I failed even by my own standards.  And, despondently, I slinked off from Christian things for a good few years.

What kind of faith did I have at that time?  I’d have probably articulated the gospel as something like:  God’s big.  You’re small.  Behave.

I didn’t have gospel faith.  I had demon faith (v19).  I believed God was one.  I believed Jesus was God’s Son.  But little more.

Now what would James counsel at this point?  Is James chapter 2 the encouragement to add good works to such rudimentary faith?  Is he exhorting those with demon faith to top up their merit levels until they hit salvific proportions?

No.  James is discussing the kind of faith that saves .  In v14 the word “such” (or “that” in ESV) is important.  James is not making a calculation: Demon faith plus good deeds equals salvation!  Instead this is about discerning what kind of faith is true saving faith.

And the answer is – true saving faith is the kind of faith that’s always being fulfilled in active service.  In other words, saving faith (Genesis 15 style) always leads to obedience (Genesis 22 style).

So what should that minister have said to me?  I wish he’d said this:

“Glen, I don’t think you really know the gospel.  I don’t think you could have the slightest understanding of Christ for you while harbouring these doubts.  I don’t think the kind of faith you have is really the active, life-giving, always-leading-to-loving-service kind of faith.  So let me tell you the gospel again, and drive it home to you until assured, authentic, vital faith is birthed in you.  Let me preach the gospel of faith alone to you once more, knowing that the faith that saves will never be alone.  Let me overwhelm you with the promise (Genesis 15) and then you’ll bear fruit in obedience (Genesis 22).”

I think that’s the approach to a dead faith: preach faith alone.  And I think it’s completely mandated by James chapter 2.

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If “grace” is held out as a state of affairs – God saves believers apart from their works – then faith becomes an appreciation of a doctrine – I trust that God saves people through faith not works.

What then is assurance?  It becomes something like – God has saved me because I have trusted the doctrine of grace. Where then is my confidence?  It lies in that phrase “I have trusted.”  I’m having faith in my own faith.

But what if grace was specifically the Person of Jesus freely held out in the gospel?  Well then faith is a receiving of Him.  And if I have Him my confidence does not come from me at all.  I don’t trust my faith, I trust Jesus.  And in Him I have full assurance.

In the impersonal state of affairs I build my assurance on having ‘true faith’.  But where will I find ‘true faith’?  In me?

When I know Jesus as my salvation then my assurance is based on having Him.  How do I verify this?  I look away to Christ clothed in the gospel – “Come to me and I will give you rest.”  My assurance therefore depends on His faithfulness (not on my flimsy faith).

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