Without an understanding of saving faith, the Scriptures and, therefore, the Christian life can be confusing and frustrating. So, we will explore some areas for practical application of the concepts that we have developed.
The Bent of the Life
The life for a newly “born-again” Christian is often, but certainly not always, a time of excitement and great expectation. There is a lot to learn and to experience. I have found with myself and others that God provides a special grace during this time, as he abundantly provides for His newborn children.1 Life-dominating habits such as alcoholism and swearing may suddenly disappear and never be a problem again.2 Some time later, however, to our dismay we find that we are quite capable of serious sin and even a repetition of some sins of our past life. This realization can bring on a time of severe stress and testing. An application of the correct concept of faith, however, will minimize the effect, even strengthening the believer throughout the remainder of his or her life.
We have seen that faith is imperfect because we live in a fallen world in which falsehood is possible. That salvation is based upon the simple presence of saving faith, not the achievement of some level of understanding or commitment. That background, personalities and gifts are different, resulting in different strengths and weaknesses; and that the stage of salvation beyond regeneration is sanctification, a process of growth (see Appendix). From these four concepts, we gain an understanding of the Christian experience. The continuing presence of sin is a reality (Romans 7:7-25). Faith and sanctification never become perfect, because it is not God’s plan for Christian’s to become perfect on earth. The continuing presence of sin in the believer reveals this fact. At the same time, it must be realized that this presence reveals a greater depth of God’s grace, “… where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). Although a verse that follows (Romans 6:1) states that abounding grace should not be used as an excuse to sin more, the Christian should realize that all his sin is fully and completely forgiven in Jesus Christ. Whatever progress we make in sanctification is God’s work in us “to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13), while we work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).
Much more needs to be said about the believer’s difficulty with the continuing presence of sin in his life because it can immobilize and discourage them. We can, however, only deal with it as it relates to saving faith. If sin continues to be present in the Christian’s life, and there is no presence of knowledge and behavior (“good works”) that identifies one as a Christian, what does identify the Christian? The most important criterion is the direction of the life, or as it was once called, the “bent” of the life.
Let us look at the oak tree. Is an acorn an oak tree? Is the small sprout of the acorn above the soil an oak tree? Is the small sapling an oak tree? The answer to all these questions would have to be “yes.” Their appearance, however, is strikingly different according to their stage of development. Further, there are different kinds of oak trees, such as white oaks, live oaks and red oaks. What is common to the stages and the kinds? It is an oak tree by nature and design. An oak tree cannot be other than what its nature is. The same is true for the Christian. At the time of regeneration God’s nature is implanted into him or her and will be there forever after. A Christian cannot help being and growing as a Christian and has as many different appearances as the oak tree in its stages and kinds.
The oak tree analogy, however, fails at one point. The nature of the oak tree is always the same. The nature of the Christian changes from that of the “old man” to that of the increasing dominance of the “new man” and the decreasing influence of the “old man.” The oak tree is only influenced by one life-force. The Christian, however, has these two opposing life-forces that result in severe conflict (Romans 7:14-25). The outcome is not in doubt (v.25), but the conflict itself may cause confusion and doubt if what is happening is not understood. Assurance of salvation that is sought in achieving some “victory” over sin, state of peace, or some experience that another has had, is likely to end in little or no assurance. The standard of comparison for every believer is the bent of his own life and the Bible, not the life of another Christian. God works differently with different Christians.
The bent of one’s life is a comparison of what one’s righteousness now compared with some time in the past. I recommend 6-12 months because progress is usually slow, especially the longer the time after one’s conversion. The question is, “Is there a discernible difference in your knowledge and behavior that you know is consistent with one’s being a Christian, now, as compared to 6-12 months ago? Do not compare yourself with what other Christians know or achieve. Look at the whole of your life, not just one particular aspect. Especially, do not look at what is often that one besetting sin that seems to plague each of us. Progress against it will often be very slow and at times we will even regress.
Be careful with introspection and attempting to “figure” yourself out. The psychological journey into your “inner self” is a false notion and one that should onto be pursued. Notice that we are concentrating here on objective evidence: knowledge and behavior, not feelings and an understanding of cause and effect. This objectivity comes from our definition of saving faith. The subjective component (regeneration) is either present or absent, so subjective examination is inappropriate. Besides, one’s subjectivity is revealed in his objective knowledge and behavior. So often, our focus is how we feel about ourselves: do I feel like going to church? Do I feel like doing Bible study? Do I feel like witnessing? Do I feel like praying? The feeling does not matter: we must act according to our understanding of what we know of God, and what He wants us to do. What is surprising is that, the more we act on what we know, the better that we feel. It is incapacitating and self-defeating, however, to wait for the feeling before acting.
A final thought concerning perfection (holiness and righteousness) is necessary before leaving this topic. Perhaps, it is the most important point. God’s standard for thinking and behavior is nothing less than His own Holiness (Hebrews 12:14b). That goal will not be attained in this life, even though God has imputed it to us because of what Christ did in our place (Romans 3:25-26). Therefore, sin will continue to be prevalent in the Christian’s life. What should his attitude be about that continuing sin? It should be an attitude of repentance, that is, confession to God that our sin is sin, while not excusing it in any way. What is more important than always progressing against that sin is that we always call it sin, confess it, and continue to perform our good works. These actions comprise repentance.
It is often taught, and I used to agree, that repentance is a change of mind that causes a change of direction. If one has not turned away from a particular sin, one has not repented. I challenge that concept by our definition of faith and the principles that I have been presenting here.
It is characteristic of sanctification that the more one increases in personal holiness, the more he sees himself as unholy.3 If our awareness of sin increases in this manner, we cannot expect to overcome it. Then, what do we do to keep from being overwhelmed with remorse and frustration? The answer lies in confession simply stated, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).
The crucial factor in repentance is that sin is called sin and confessed as sin. There is an effort on the part of some professing Christians, especially psychiatrists and psychologists, to give reasons other than sin for the Christian’s thinking and behavior. In the words of the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” Anything that does not fully meet His standard of holiness is sin. Who has loved God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength, and his neighbor as himself each day during all his waking hours? We fail moment by moment; that is, we sin moment by moment.
If we call this failure anything but sin, we do not have a solution for it. If we call it a lack of physical energy, we seek the answer in healthful practices or a physician. If we call it a lack of understanding of ourselves, we seek a psychotherapist. If we say that our husband or wife is more than we can bear, we must wait for him or her to change before we can improve. In any way that we excuse ourselves, we seek an answer that is not God’s standard and will not meet our need to be forgiven. Being in the best physical shape will not provide sufficient energy to meet God’s commands. A thorough understanding of ourselves is really impossible with the millions of thoughts and experiences in our minds; perfect circumstances are certainly not possible in a world of sinful people (Jeremiah 17:9-10). No, perfection is not achievable in any of these areas. This fact brings us back to our starting point, failure to meet God’s standards and to call such failure, sin.4
Repentance, or calling sin what it is and confessing it to God, is more important than apparent progress in sanctification. Why? My emphasis on change and the practical Christian life seem to contradict this statement. The priority of repentance, however, is two-fold. First, we deceive ourselves as to the prevalence and depth of our sin, thereby minimizing the extent and greatness of God’s grace. We do not focus on those passages that reveal the severity of our sin (Mark 7:21-13, Romans 3:9-18). Even the sin in the most holy of Christians is sufficient to cause God’s justice to condemn that person. The greater we realize our sin, the greater can be our thankfulness for God’s grace. Our dependence upon Him is total in every way, “… apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5b).
Second, we are likely to be despondent, even to despair, because we fall so far short and really are not able to meet God’s high standards. One passage, in particular, focuses upon the contrast between sorrow and repentance (II Corinthians 7:8-12). Paul rejoices that although he made them sorrowful for their gross immorality (I Corinthians 5), they “were made sorrowful to the point of repentance” (v. 9). “For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret” (v. 10). This sorrow results in actions: “… what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong!” (v.11)
This renewal, indeed, is not accomplished in a moment, a day, or a year. But, by uninterrupted, sometimes even by slow, progress God abolishes the remains of carnal corruption in his elect, cleanses them from pollution, and consecrates them as his temples. He restores their inclinations to real purity, so that during their whole lives they may practice repentance, and know that death is the only termination to this warfare. The reader is referred to Calvin’s lengthy discussion of sin, sorrow and repentance there.5
The relationship of regeneration, faith and repentance is so close that John Calvin discusses them together in the same chapter with his central focus on repentance.6 Further, he emphasizes that evidence for the presence of saving faith and repentance is the understanding of God’s mercy toward those who have been pardoned in Christ.
Repentance, then, is primarily an attitude that is manifests itself in acts of confession and the reception of forgiveness. I am not saying that the presence of repentance does not cause change because repentance without concrete evidence of change is not repentance. My emphasis here is to explain the prevalence and depth of our sin, primarily that we offer God greater praise for His abounding grace and mercy to us, and secondarily, that we are freed from the incapacitation that occurs from “worldly sorrow” (guilt) in order to be more effective for His Kingdom work.
Continued Presence of Unbelief
Sincere Christians are often distressed by the continuing presence of their unbelief, often heard as a lament, “If I only had more faith, then I would…. (you fill in the blank.” By now, it should be dawning on you that this unbelief is to be expected because of what saving faith is: a means by which decisions are made while in this earthly existence. “We walk by faith and not by sight.” Our knowledge will remain incomplete and contain error until we enter into heaven. What is important is our attitude and behavior in response to this inadequacy.
We have seen that the subjective (personal) side of faith is not within our control. Thus, we do not overcome our lack of belief through introspection, or somehow summoning up greater power from within. That is what Christians often attempt when they are failing in some area or continuing in their besetting sin. For example, some Christians with a medical problem are told that they can be healed if they have enough faith, meaning a stronger belief that God can and will heal them. That this directive is quite cruel can be seen from our understanding of faith. Faith cannot be increased from within by our efforts, but it can be increased within us by the external action of God. (See Chapter 11, “Faith to Move Mountains.”)
A person who encounters this “have enough faith to be healed” should be directed to a systematic understanding of God’s plan for the health and healing of His people. Joni Eareckson-Tada went through this very sequence of events from the subjective approach of trying to grow faith from within to the objective approach of understanding what the Bible says about healing (knowledge of faith).7 Her biblical understanding, that is her faith, on this matter is correct. With the subjective focus, she was confused, frustrated and despaired. With the objective emphasis she has been freed to the great ministry that she has developed over the years.
We must not try to stir something up within us as “increasing our faith,” but know what is true about ourselves and about God in matters of healing. Unfortunately, most answers provided today by Christians for other Christians are not biblical because they come from a lack of systematic understanding. Concern for one’s faith is first and foremost a review or increase of biblical knowledge. Then, that knowledge will determine his or her subsequent course of action. We should not lament a lack of faith, but act through Biblical understanding to increase it objectively.
Seasons of Unbelief
Probably every Christian has experienced what he would describe as periods of dryness, even periods of rebellion and gross sin. Articles and books have been written about these occurrences in the lives of well-known, and not so well known, Christians. They are sometimes described as God withdrawing his presence from a person. Let us see how our concept of faith explains this phenomenon.
What changes during these times, the subjective dimension (the self) of faith or the objective dimension (the Bible)? We will move from the simple to the more complex. Obviously, the objective knowledge of faith does not change. Over a long period of time, we may begin to forget, but knowledge does not decrease very quickly. Less obviously, the presence of the subjective dimension of faith does not change. We have seen that saving faith is either present or it is not; it is not quantifiable; it is even beyond the control of the person. Thus, the subjective presence of faith (the state produced by regeneration), once present, is present thereafter for the remainder of a Christian’s life.8
If the objective knowledge of faith (in the mind) and the subjective presence of faith (the will) do not change, what is it that changes? All that is left of our psychological inner self is our emotional state. This so-called period of dryness is a decrease in our emotional experience, not any decrease in the components of faith. Before rejecting this proposal, consider what the alternative explanations are. You may search, but you will not find any, and if you disagree with this biblical concept of faith, you probably would not have read this far.
That these periods are based upon emotions is important, practically. If God does “come and go,” then this activity challenges some fundamental promises, primarily, “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5b). One might say that He will never leave you finally, but He may for a time. This verse, and all of Scripture, contradicts any leaving whatsoever. We could offer a lengthy proof, but knowledge that God is immutable is all that is necessary. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever” (Heb. 13:8). God’s nature is brought into question if it is He that changes.
Further, if His presence comes and goes, how can we depend upon Him? How can we expect Him to “supply all our needs” (Philippians 4:19), for certainly we need His presence daily to meet the difficulties of life. If, however, we realize His constancy, and that it is our emotions that change, then we are assured and confident, even though we may not feel it. Feelings never determine truth. I rarely feel like getting out of the bed in the morning, but the truth is that I must to carry out my responsibilities whether I feel like it or not. Throughout the day, feelings come and go. Someone compliments my work and I feel good. Someone else is critical, and I feel angry or down, because he does not understand how hard I worked.
It is crucial to realize that truth must determine our attitudes and behavior, not our emotions. Our emotions are too fragile and too fleeting to have the substance necessary to sustain us through life’s difficulties. The truth is that neither our objective knowledge nor the subjective presence of faith fades; more so, our God does not change in any way, including His presence and activity with us. We lessen His glory and render ourselves less capable for service and work if we believe that God who moves away or that there has been substantial decrease in our faith.
- Abraham Kuyper confirms my observation in The Work of the Holy Spirit, Trans. by J. Hendri De Vries, Reprint Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1900, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979, p. 135.
- It is these remarkable testimonies that are often presented at public meetings and revivals. Such testimonies can become false doctrine. “Since God worked in my life in a particular way, He will do the same in yours.” The fact is, that He plans a different life for each of us. The specific ways that He works in each life cannot be anticipated.
- An excellent, but brief account of this reality is found in: Arthur Pink, “The Christian in Romans 7,” Swengel, Pennsylvania: Reiner Publications.
- I am not saying that all these areas will not require some attention and change, but only that they will not provide the basic solution to the problem of continuing sin.
- Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Vol. I, Trans. by Henry Beveridge, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979, p. 516.
- Ibid., pp.508-531.
- Eareckson, Joni and Steve Estes, A Step Further, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978.
- This once-present, always-present, dimension of faith is called The Perseverance of the Saints.