Regeneration, Christian Graces, and Assurance of Salvation (Gurnall)

When God sovereignly regenerates a sinner, that person is renewed, reborn, made new.  “…If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17 NASB; c.f. Gal. 6:15).  The person then walks in the newness of life (Rom. 6:4).  This doesn’t mean a regenerate person is sinless and perfect, but it does mean that his whole person is made new by God.  William Gurnall put it this way:

“As natural corruption is a universal principle of all sin that sours the whole lump of man’s nature; so sanctifying grace is a universal principle that sweetly seasons and renews the whole man at once, though not completely.  Grace indeed grows by steps, but is born at once.  The new creature has all its parts formed together, though not its degrees.  One grace may, we confess, be perceived to stir and so come to be noticed by the Christian before other graces.”

Gurnall is saying that when God renews and regenerates a person, that person is given true faith, repentance, love, fear of God, evangelical obedience, and so forth.  These things are called “graces.”  Sometimes a Christian sees one of his graces more than another, but it doesn’t mean that other graces aren’t there.  God doesn’t just give someone repentance but not godly fear or true faith.  Gurnall said that some parts of the world have been discovered before other parts of the world, but the whole world has been in existence since God created it.  So it is with Christian graces: God has given them all to all his people, even if we don’t always discover them or notice all these graces at once.

So what?  Why is this important?  Well, as Gurnall noted, knowing this fact gives relief to the Christian when he’s in doubt of his salvation.  Just because a Christian can’t immediately discern godly fear doesn’t mean he should “unsaint” himself.  If you don’t have godly fear but you do have a sincere desire to please him, be assured that God’s grace is at work in you, and in time you’ll notice godly fear.  Or if your faith is seemingly gone but you have a hearty sorrow when you sin against God, don’t despair.  Know that you are a new creation in Christ, and you will again see your faith – it is there!  Here’s Gurnall again:

“As by taking hold of one link you may draw up the rest of the chain that lies under water, so by discovering one grace, you may bring all to sight.  …This holy kindred of graces go ever together, they are knit, as members of the body, one to another.  Though you see only the face of a man, yet you do not doubt that the whole man is there.”

Here’s a good quote to end on:

“Moses would not go out of Egypt with half his company (Ex. 10).  Either all must go or none shall stir.  Neither will the Spirit of God come into a soul with half his sanctifying graces, but with all his train.”

(These slightly modernized and edited quotes are found in the beginning of “Direction Ninth” in Gurnall’s The Christian in Complete Armor.)

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

 

Feelings, Doubt, Faith

Introduction to Theology Books  Sometimes doubts arise in our Christian faith.  Some people struggle more, some people struggle less, but all Christians deal with doubt to some extent.  While I appreciate many aspects of Alister McGrath’s book on this topic, Doubting, I really liked the following words he wrote about faith and feelings:

[Some people] might suggest that we rely on our feelings and emotions.  If God isn’t felt as real, he isn’t real, they might suggest.  If we don’t experience him as present, he isn’t present.  But how unreliable our feelings can be here!  They are influenced by a huge variety of factors: our health, the weather, the state of our bank balance, our personal relationships, our work or career – just to name a few obvious ones!  God doesn’t cease to exist just because we’ve had a bad day at the office or had an argument with a friend.  Our emotions, distracted and confused by our various anxieties, may tell us that God isn’t here – but that is not a particularly reliable or informed judgment.

In the end, Christianity stands or falls with the trustworthiness and reliability of the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.  By meditating on that first Good Friday, we can remind ourselves of the unreliability of our own judgment, on the one hand, and of the faithfulness of God’s promises on the other – thus we can put doubt in its proper perspective.  For, seen properly, doubt is not a threat to faith but a reminder of how fragile a hold we have on our knowledge of God – and how gracious God is in having revealed himself to us.  For, without God’s revelation of himself, we would have been left totally in the dark concerning him and his love for us.

God is not capricious or whimsical, nor does he fail to stand by his promises or to act in accordance with his nature and character, as we know it through Scripture and through Jesus Christ.  Instead, we know a God who is faithful to his covenant, who promises mercy and forgiveness to those who put their trust in him.  Instead of trusting in our own perception of a situation, or relying on our feelings or emotions, we should learn to trust in the faithfulness and constancy of God” (p. 148-149).

Alister McGrath, Doubting (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006).

shane lems

Support For Those Weak In Faith

The Works of Thomas Brooks, 6 Volume Set In one section of his book, The Unsearchable Riches of Christ, Thomas Brooks gives some biblical examples of what it means to be weak in faith: those weak in faith have a fair amount of worldliness in their hearts, they fret and worry excessively about troubles and trials, they often think more of their sin than God’s grace, and they often judge their spiritual condition by feelings rather than facts (among other things).  Brooks followed up this section with another great section we can properly call, “Support for Those Weak in Faith.”  Brooks gives twelve “supports”; I’ll list a few of them (edited for length) below:

1) The weakest Christians have as much as interest and propriety in Christ as the strongest saints in the world.  Weak saints are as much united to Christ, as much justified by Christ, as much reconciled by Christ, and as much pardoned by Christ as the strongest saints.  A soul weak in grace has as much interest in the Lord as the strongest saint has, even though the weak saint might not have the skill to improve upon that interest.

2) The Lord will not cast away weak saints because of the weakness that clings to their persons or services.  Christ looks more upon Peter’s sorrow than his sin, more upon his tears than upon his oaths.  The Lord will not cast away weak saints for their great unbelief, for there is a little faith in them.  He will not throw them away for that hypocrisy that is in them because of that little sincerity that is in them.  He will not cast away weak saints for that pride that is in them, because of those rays of humility that shine in them.  We would not throw a little gold away because there is a great deal of dross in it, neither will God throw his people away though there is a great deal of weakness in them.  The Lord Jesus has as great and as large and interest in the weakest saints as he has in the strongest.

3) The Lord will graciously preserve and strengthen those weak graces that are in his weak saints.  Though your graces be as a spark of fire in the midst of an ocean of corruption, yet the Lord will preserve and blow up that spark of fire into a flame.  It was the priest’s office in the time of the law to keep the fire in the sanctuary from going out; it is the office of our Lord Jesus – as he is our high priest, head, husband, and mediator – to blow up that heavenly fire that he has kindled in our souls.  A bruised reed he will not break, nor quench the smoking flax (Mt. 12:27).

4) Weak Christians do not stand before God in their own righteousness, but in the perfect, spotless, and matchless righteousness of Christ.  Weak hearts are prone to be troubled and discouraged when they consider the sin that is in them and when they consider the imperfections clinging to their good deeds.  Then they are ready to say, ‘We will one day perish because of the strength of our lusts or the defects of our good deeds!’  Remember this, however, that weak Christians stand before God clothed in the righteousness of Christ, so God owns them and looks upon them as his people wrapped up in his royal robe (Jer. 23.6, 1 Cor. 1.30).  Though weak saints have nothing of their own, yet in Christ they have all, for in him is all fullness (Col. 1.19).

5) Weak Christians have a share in Christ; they are firmly united to him.  Christ shares with them in their human nature.  Christ shares with them in their afflictions.  Christ shares with them in their suffering and persecution.  Christ shares with them in all their temptations.  Weak saints share with Christ in his image, in his Spirit, his grace, his victory, his honor, and his glory (Eph. 2.6, John 14.2, 3, Rev. 3.21).

Practical theology indeed!  If a Christian is weak in faith, he should not delight in this fact nor should he despair, because the gospel is still the gospel for those who have even a little faith.  Or, in other words, the strength of our faith does not save us; the strength of our Savior does!

Thomas Brooks, The Unsearchable Riches of Christ in Thomas Brooks, Works III.60-75.

rev shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

We Ought To Distrust Our Moods

J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings (This is a repost from September 2010)

In the early 1900s, J. Gresham Machen faced intense spiritual struggles – he was asking some deep questions about Christianity.  There were three people who helped him through it: Francis Patton, Bishop Blougram, and his own dear mother.  Here’s what he said of his mother – how she helped him through his spiritual struggles.

“Another thing used to be said to me by my mother in those dark hours when the lamp burned dim, when I thought that faith was gone and shipwreck had been made of my soul.  ‘Christ,’ she used to say, ‘keeps firmer hold on us than we keep on him.’”

“That means, at least, when translated into worldly terms, that we ought to distrust our moods.  Many a man has fallen into despair because, losing the heavenly vision for a moment, passing through the dull lowlands of life, he takes such experience as though it were permanent, and desserts a well-grounded conviction which was the real foundation of his life.  Faith is often diversified by doubt, but a man should not desert the conviction of his better moments because the dark moments come.”

“But my mother’s word meant something far deeper than all that.  It meant rather that salvation by faith does not mean that we are saved because we keep ourselves at every moment in an ideally perfect attitude of confidence in Christ.  No, we are saved because, having once been united to Christ by faith, we are his forever.  Calvinism is a very comforting doctrine indeed.  Without its comfort, I think I should have perished long ago in the castle of Giant Despair.”

Found on page 561 of Machen’s Selected Shorter Writings.

shane lems

Atheism: An Opiate For the Masses?

Introduction to Theology BooksAlister McGrath, in his book, Doubting, gives Christians a way to understand, come to grips with, and fight doubt.  There are many excellent aspects of this book, but one that I want to mention here is how McGrath turns the famous “opiate” explanation on its head.  (I’m sure you’ve heard Marx’s statement before, that Christianity is an opiate for the masses to help them cope with the hardships of life).  Before I give the quote, let me address the atheists who might read this blog post based on its title.  I want to ask you to kindly refrain from nasty comments and encourage you to think through the actual quotation and the ramifications of it rather than throw it out without a second thought.  Here’s the quote.

“The atheist’s argument goes like this: you want there to be a God.  So you invent him.  Your religious views are invented to correspond to what you want.  But this line of argument works just as well against atheism.  Imagine an extermination camp commandant during the Second World War.  Would there not be excellent reasons for supposing that he might hope that God does not exist, given what might await him on the day of judgment?  And might not his atheism itself be a wish-fulfillment? This is a devastating point.  As cultural historians have pointed out for many years…people often reject the idea of God because they long for autonomy – the right to do what they please, without any interference from God.  They don’t need to worry about divine judgment; they reject belief in God because it suits them.  That’s what they want, but that doesn’t mean that this is the way things really are.”

“This point was made superbly by the Polish philosopher and writer Czeslaw Milosz, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980.  Parodying the old Marxist idea that religion was the ‘opium of the people,’ he remarks in “The Discreet Charm of Nihilism” that a new opium has taken its place: rejection of belief in God on account of its implications for our ultimate accountability.  ‘A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death – the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, [and] murders we are not going to be judged.”

“Atheism thus depends on a core belief that it cannot verify [namely, that there is no God].  Do you see the importance of this point?  Atheists live out their lives on the basis of the belief that there is no God, believing that this is right but not being able to prove it conclusively” (p. 37-38).

There is more to the argument, and McGrath goes on from there to explain the limits of science.  But the main point above is valid and cannot be ignored.

Here’s the info of the book: Alister McGrath, Doubting: Growing Through the Uncertainties of Faith (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006).

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Feelings, Faith, Emotions, Doubt, and Assurance

If you’ve been following this blog for a few years now, you’ll recognize this book (and probably remember how much I appreciate it): God in the Dark by Os Guinness.  It’s a book that takes your hand and walks you through doubts – what they are, what the Bible says about them, and how to fight them and grow in assurance of faith.  One of the many helpful points Guinness makes in this book is that sometimes unruly emotions cause us to doubt the truth of the Christian faith or some aspects of it.  Sometimes in the Christian life, emotions take the throne and reason is cast by the wayside.  This can lead to unbiblical hyper-spirituality (i.e. “I feel the Spirit’s presence so much that I have goose bumps!”) , but probably more often it leads to doubt (i.e. “I’ve sinned again; I feel like such a failure – how could God ever love me?).  Here’s Guinness’ great approach to emotions and reason in the the Christian faith.

“Subjective elements play their part in the decision to believe.  But if faith is not to be make-believe, objective considerations must finally determine whether faith is true or misplaced.  Understanding and choice are both essential to genuine belief, and they are always more important than the emotions in conversion.”

“Needless to say, conversion may be profoundly emotional because it is a complete change involving the whole person.  But however emotional it is, the emotions alone do not effect conversion.  This is not because the Christian faith is unemotional but because this is how human knowing works anyway.  The Christian faith, in fact, has a very high place for the emotions, but in coming to believe the place for understanding and choosing truth is primary and the place for the emotions is secondary.”

“…Perhaps the greatest single human factor in explaining why faith does not go on as it began is the explosive power of the emotions subsequent to conversion.”

One way to fight unruly emotions, writes Guinness, is biological – you can fight an emotional roller coaster by getting proper sleep, avoid over-stressful situations, take breaks, etc.  Another deeper way to fight unruly emotions is spiritual.

“The second part of the remedy lies in the long-term discipline of training faith so that it is not overwhelmed by moods and emotions.  …Our faith should dictate to our emotions, not the other way around.  …The quality of our emotions depends upon the quality of our faith, just as the quality of our faith depends on the quality of our understanding.  ‘Feeling must follow; but faith, apart from all feeling, must be there first.’  This is Martin Luther’s understanding of the relationship of faith and emotions, but he also makes clear that this is not our first nature, and it will be our second only if we carefully and patiently learn it.  The lesson of faith is a lesson that must constantly be practiced and rehearsed.'”

Or, as C. S. Lewis said,

“Faith…is the art of holding onto things your reason has once accepted, in spite of our change of moods.”

There’s more to this chapter (chapter 8) on faith, emotions, and doubt, of course.  You’ll have to get the book to read more.   Many – most? – Christians who are serious about the faith struggle with doubt from time to time (some more, some less).  In my own Christian life, this book has been helpful as I fight doubt and seek to grow in faith.  I’m sure it will be helpful to those of you who often pray this from the heart: Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!

God in the Dark: The Assurance of Faith Beyond a Shadow of Doubt (Wheaton: Crossway, 1996).

shane lems

The Limits of Science (John Blanchard)

Product Details   The kind folks at Evangelical Press sent me this book to review: Is God Past His Sell-By Date by John Blanchard.  It is a shorter version of his award-winning Does God Believe in AtheistsThe former is around 230 pages while the latter is around 650.  Is God Past His Sell-By Date is intended for skeptics, people who doubt or question the Christian faith, the existence of God, the person/work of Jesus, and so forth.  The book mostly deals with creation, humanity, evil, science, suffering, and the gospel.  Even though I’m not a skeptic, this book helped me think through some of my own doubts and questions I have about life in general as well as the Christian faith.  At the end of each chapter there is a short testimony written by different Christians who used to be skeptics.  I appreciated these testimonies; they were “real life” examples of how God brings people out of doubt and into [the] faith.

One section that stands out for me is where Blanchard discusses the limits of science (p. 64-5).  Drawing on several scientists themselves, he lists the following limits (which I’ve edited for the sake of space):

1) Science can tell us nothing about why the universe should have come into being.  It cannot answer the question that Stephen Hawking asked (and could not answer himself): “Why does the universe bother to exist?”

2) Science cannot explain the fundamental facts about humanity.  Even the three billion letters that make up the human genetic code can tell us nothing about the really important things in life.

3) Expanding on #2, science cannot explain the existence of each person and a unique being; it cannot answer the questions, “Who am I? Why am I here now and how did I get here – where will I go when I die?”

4) Science cannot explain why the mind exists and functions as it does.  Science can tell us much about the biological aspect of our brains, but cannot really intelligently and dogmatically explain the mind or human consciousness.

5) In spite of all the technological advances it has spawned, science can add nothing to the overall quality of life.  How can science overcome greed, violent anger, selfishness, and other harmful characteristics of humans?

6) Science cannot explain human purpose, meaning, and value.  It cannot explain the principles involved in human behavior.  It cannot give ultimate foundations for justice, good, evil, goodness, or love.

By way of summary, Blanchard quotes one atheist genetic scientist who admits,

“It is the essence of all scientific theories that they cannot resolve everything.  Science cannot answer the questions that philosophers – or children – ask: why are we here, what is the point of being alive, how ought we to behave?  Genetics has almost nothing to say about what makes us more than machines driven by biology, about what makes us human.”

This is a book worth owning and reading if you’ve not read Does God Believe in Atheists.  I’d recommend it to our readers who wrestle with the questions of science, creation, evil, suffering, and purpose in life.  Blanchard writes clearly and carefully – he isn’t out to demonize anyone, but lead them towards the living God revealed in the Word: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This book will strengthen the faith (and weaken the doubts!) of Christians, and point skeptics in the right direction.  To be sure, it is an intermediate book – not really for beginners, but skeptics who are willing to engage a detailed book that will challenge them.

Again, my thanks go out to Evangelical Press for the review copy.

shane lems