What Do I Do With My Doubts?
“(John wrote) I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).
Many Christians experience doubts about their salvation at one time or another. The first thing to understand is that it is a very common occurrence. There is not something wrong with you if you have questioned your salvation. The objective is to get to the place where you have a deep enough understanding of salvation and of the Word of God to know what to do when the doubts come. (Notice — “when” the doubts come rather than “if” they come.)
The starting point in dealing with doubt is to understand the nature of the doubt itself. Often, doubt is based on feeling. We live in a world in which feeling is given more authority than knowledge or fact. As a result, we often evaluate our spiritual maturity by how we feel. That kind of evaluation is unreliable because our feelings can change dramatically based on our circumstances or our choices. When we do something that we know we shouldn’t do, we feel bad about ourselves. The next logical step is to think, “Wow, I feel like a bad person. I wonder if I’m really a Christian.”
Feelings are just as unreliable when we do something good. We think, “I feel good, so I know I’m a Christian.” Even though the feelings are positive, they are no more proof of a relationship with Jesus than bad feelings are proof of a lack of relationship.
If we can’t base our assurance of salvation on how we feel, what can we base it on? How can we have the kind of confidence Paul had when he wrote “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that He is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me” (2 Timothy 2:12)?
We have to base our salvation on the character of God, the work of Jesus, and the truth of God’s promises.
“(David wrote) The LORD is my light and my salvation— whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life— of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1).
Our confidence in salvation must come from the strength of God. If we try to base it on our strength, we will allow room for questions because we know how weak we are. We know how often we fail our personal standards of morality. We find ourselves confessing along with Paul in Romans 7:15, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”
Rather than trusting our own strength, we must trust the perfect strength of God. He is not like us. He is always consistent, faithful, and true. He is strong and mighty. Whatever He decides to do, He has the strength to do. If He said something, we can trust it.
In Philippians 1:6, Paul taught, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” God will not start something and give up on it. He will not embrace you today and reject you tomorrow. Once you belong to Him, you are His forever.
I have children and grandchildren. They might do things that I disagree with or don’t like, but they will always be family. Once we’re in God’s family, we are always in God’s family.
“(Paul wrote) The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…” (1 Timothy 1:15).
Jesus came into the world to save sinners. What happened on the cross was very important. As an old gospel song says, Jesus could have called down ten thousand angels to free Him from His suffering. God could have reached down and rescued His Son without any problem. By not rescuing His Son, God in fact rescued all believers. When Jesus was on the cross, He bore the punishment for sin that belonged to us. We were the guilty ones – not Him. But Jesus took the punishment and freed us from God’s wrath.
We begin experiencing the salvation Jesus accomplished for us, and its accompanying peace, when we believe that we have forgiveness and life because of the sacrifice that Jesus made for us. Our belief must be more than just a mental assent – an acknowledgment that Jesus lived on the earth and died on the cross. It must be an acceptance of His sacrifice at the mind, heart, and soul level. There are many people who believe that Jesus lived and believe that He died on the cross, but they have not found forgiveness or a vital relationship with God.
It is true that we are not saved by anything that we do – salvation is by faith alone. But salvation is faith that leads to a relationship with God and a difference in our lives. If we say that we know God, but we continue to live according to our selfish desires and ambitions, we shouldn’t question whether we can lose our salvation — we should question whether we were saved in the first place!
A biblical word that is helpful in the process of working out our salvation is “repentance”. Repentance is found in many passages about salvation. For example, Mark 1:15, “Repent and believe the Good News!”
Repentance is the realization that we are living our lives a certain way and then making a determination to live our lives a different way. The word literally means to change direction. Repentance is a part of the salvation process. We`re not saved because we change direction. We change direction because we are different on the inside and we want to please God.
Christ’s sacrifice on the cross frees us from the punishment for sin that we deserved. It also frees us from the hold of sin. We can say, “Jesus died so that I no longer have to serve my desires that can be destructive. In Him and the power of the Holy Spirit living in my heart, I can do the godly thing and not have to bear the painful consequences of sinful decisions. I am free to live a life that glorifies God.”
In addition, Christ’s death on the cross took care of all our sin – past, present, and future. After we are born again, we do not ask for forgiveness to be freed from sin again. We are already forgiven. We confess our sin – we agree with God that what we did was wrong – and our fellowship with Him is restored. Our peace is restored. We do not have to be “born again and again and again.” Jesus does not need to die for us again. His death on the cross 2,000 years ago was good for us for all time.
God’s strength is mighty. His plan is effective. His truth, His Word, is true. Because His Word is true, believers can be assured of their salvation.
Consider some of the things God said about salvation –
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).
“And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21)
“And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
Why did God include those and other statements about salvation in His Word? It is His will for us to be sure. Consider John 20:31 – “but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.” Do you, because of what is written in God’s Word, “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,” with all that is implied in those titles? If so, then you may believe that you “have life in His name” at this very moment.
Consider also 2 Peter 1:4 – “by which He has granted to us His precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature…” It is God’s expressed purpose and desire for us to have confidence in our salvation. If we believe His “precious and very great promises,” our salvation is settled forever because God’s Word is true and He is true to His Word.
The following paragraph is taken from How Can I Be Sure I’m a Christian? By Donald S. Whitney:
“In His promises, God Himself assures us of acceptance. He had these guarantees written so that they would be clear and unmistakable. Another reason He had them recorded is so that every believer at all times and in all places might have the same access to assurance. Although you and I come two thousand years after the first Christians, we may read the same promises given to them for assurance. And regardless of whether we ‘feel saved’ at any given moment, despite our present circumstances or physical condition, God’s promises and our condition remain firm and irreversible. So when we read ‘God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son does not have life’ (1 John 5:11-12), we may take this promise as direct assurance for ourselves, if through faith we have the Son” (p. 33).
It is God’s intention that we have peace and assurance about our salvation. Knowing His Word and trusting the promises contained in it will enable us to have peace and assurance.
There are some common tendencies among Christians when they question their salvation. One common tendency is to compare ourselves to other people around us. We look at someone we perceive to be more sinful than we are and say, “I know I’m not perfect, but I’m better than him. I must be a Christian.”
That kind of thinking is wrong because “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We are all sinners. The only question in terms of our salvation is whether or not we have repented and believed the good news. (Never mind that we shy away from comparing ourselves to people we consider better than we are – we only compare ourselves to people we perceive to be worse than we are.)
Another common tendency is to go to someone we perceive as a spiritual authority or leader and ask them if they think we are saved. There is nothing wrong with that approach – we all need encouragement at one time or another. We should, however, get to the point of maturity where we know and trust God’s Word so that we can remind or encourage ourselves like David (1 Samuel 30:6).
Donald Whitney tells just such a story in How Can I Be Sure I’m a Christian? For eighteen years in the early twentieth century, H.A. Ironside was the pastor of the Moody Memorial Church in Chicago, Illinois. An elderly man confessed to him desperate struggles with the assurance of his salvation. He told Pastor Ironside of his intense desire for a definite word that was beyond misunderstanding or mistake.
“Suppose,” said, Ironside, “that you had a vision of an angel who told you your sins were forgiven. Would that be enough to rest on?”
“Yes,” the man replied. “I think it would. An angel would be right.”
“But,” continued Ironside, “suppose on your deathbed, Satan came and said, ‘I was that angel, transformed to deceive you.’ What would you say?”
The man was speechless.
The pastor told him that God has given us something more reliable and authoritative than the voice of an angel. He has given us His Son and His Word.
Then Ironside asked a question each of us needs to answer: “Isn’t that enough to rest on?”
Further Confirmation – The Holy Spirit
If you are a believer, another person lives in you. I don’t mean some sort of horror story possession – I mean the Holy Spirit. When you were born spiritually, God placed the Holy Spirit in you, “And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put His seal on us and given us His Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Corinthians 1:21). The Holy Spirit was not in us before we were spiritually born. He is the “seal,” the mark of God’s authority over us and work in us. Part of the Spirit’s ministry is to communicate to believers an assurance that we are God’s children.
First Corinthians 2:14 describes what the Holy Spirit does – “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” A natural person does not have the Holy Spirit. He or she is not spiritually alive.
Once a person is born spiritually and has the Holy Spirit living within them, he or she can understand spiritual truth. For example, Jesus said, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). He is teaching that the more preoccupied we are with the comforts and delights of our present life, the less deep satisfaction we will know. We look for the next thing to bring excitement or fulfillment.
The Jesus-follower, on the other hand, is not so much concerned with the appetites and desires of the world as he is with things of the Spirit and joys of the Kingdom – loving God, loving others, and bringing honor and glory to God. That doesn’t mean withdrawing from the world – it means allowing God’s Spirit to live and work through us every day in the world in a way that honors God and draws people to Him.
Those truths are lost on a lost person. We live in a world in which the prevailing philosophies are focused on the here and now. “If it feels good, do it.” “Get all you can, can all you get, and sit on the can.” “As long as I’m not hurting anyone, it doesn’t matter.” The person without Christ cannot understand giving up something for which he might never be rewarded in this life. They may defer gratification, but only with the understanding that gratification will be delayed. The reward will come a little farther down the road.
The Holy Spirit within a believer enables him or her to lay desires down so that someone else may learn something about Jesus. The believer wants to model the love and grace of Jesus.
That little discourse is an illustration of what the Holy Spirit does in a believer’s heart. He makes the truth of scripture understandable for the believer and gives the believer the strength and wisdom to make it real. When something in God’s Word becomes clear, it is the Holy Spirit. A good word for what the Spirit does is “illumination.” He illuminates, or sheds light on, Scripture so that we can see its truth and make it real in our lives.
One evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work in assurance is a love for God that draws us to Him in an intimate way. Romans 8:15 says, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” “Abba” is the Hebrew equivalent of “Daddy.” Because of the work Jesus did on the cross, we are adopted children of God. As a result, we don’t come to God as judge or boss. We relate to Him as “Father.”
I have used this illustration before, but when I answer the phone, I know a lot from the caller’s greeting. If they call me, “Reverend McFadden,” it’s a salesperson. If they call me, “John,” it’s at least an acquaintance. If it’s “McFadden,” it’s a friend. If it’s “Daddy,” it’s one of my children. (And now, if it’s “Gee-da,” it’s a grandchild!)
The Holy Spirit not only gives me the privilege to call God my Father – He gives me the desire to be close to Him. That desire is an assurance. If I wanted no part of God or spiritual things, that would be proof that I was not a Christian.
The presence of the fruit of Holy Spirit is another way in which the Spirit assures us. The fruit of the Spirit is identified in Galatians 5:22-23, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” If a tree is known by its fruit, then a person’s heart is known by the fruit of that person’s life. If the Holy Spirit is present, His fruit will be evident in a believer. One reliable way to ensure our inward sense of assurance from the Spirit is to observe visible signs of His grace in your life.
A Final Thought
We live in a narcissistic society. By that I mean, there are many influences that encourage us to focus on ourselves. I know there are times when I need to stop thinking and do something (not just anything, but something godly and others-focused). Sometimes when the doubts are strong, we need to act on truth. We could be surprised how much more assured we are when we do something that Jesus would do.