Doubtless, every Christian minister has various defining moments. For me, one of those moments was a conversation that I had with a young student who was attending my church. I can remember sitting on the front steps of the church chatting to her about her problem of doubt. In trying to discover her particular difficulty, I mentioned to her several causes of doubt, such as the miracles of the Bible, or whether or not other religions will save people, or the problem of suffering. But to all these suggestions she answered "No."
Her doubt was whether God would accept her. Although she was a Christian, she was deeply concerned about her acceptability to God. She was in despair about it. I myself had been troubled with intellectual doubts, but the question of whether or not God would accept me hardly crossed my mind. I realized then that there were people who had different doubts. My question at that stage in my life was, "Where is the true God?" But her question was, "Where is the gracious God?" In her experience of the Christian life, she was conscious of sin, she was conscious of guilt, she was aware of the judgment that lay ahead. And she had responded to her doubt with attempts to be good.
Plenty of people are in exactly that situation. Their consciences are very tender and sensitive, and therefore their joy flickers on and off. They feel themselves to be failures as Christians. Although they know that they belong to the Lord Jesus, they worry about their continued acceptability to him. A Christian psychologist once said to me: "In your preaching, you certainly afflict the comfortable. But I wish you would also comfort the afflicted as well, for after you preach the lines outside my room on Monday mornings are doubled." The fact of the matter is that many of our people are indeed the afflicted.
Today, through the impact of postmodernity, there is a new focus. It's not as though the intellectual problems have disappeared or that the problems of guilt and sin have gone away. But the focus has shifted, and Christians now sense that they are weak, vulnerable, and powerless. They are being asked to hold on to a faith that the vast majority do not have. The question today is not so much "Where is the true God?" or even "Where is the gracious God?" but "Where is the living God?"
I suspect many believers have this problem. But I would say that it is those who minister the Word of God and their wives who are most conscious of the weakness of the church, of the powerlessness of the Christian, and who know something of the despair of being in an institution in decline. From their hearts comes the cry, "Where is the living God?" To minister for years in a small congregation and see nothing happening makes one ask, "Where is the living God?" Such people ask God to give them an experience which will confirm their faith, which will give them power, which will make them bold, which will, as some say, release the Spirit's energy into the world.
For over a hundred years now, through books and conferences, one suggested answer is that by following certain rules or taking certain steps, our weakness can become power. We have become involved in what I call the quest for assurance.
Of course, some observers do not have my view of the way things are in the churches. They are buoyant and optimistic about the state of Christianity and would point, as evidence for their optimism, to the renewal of Christian music and to the megaconventions. To my mind, however, as I try to analyze what is going on, it seems that a lot of the excitement has to do, not so much with the idea that God's great power is being released in the world, but rather with a quest for personal assurance. What we are seeing is not a huge outburst of spiritual energy and revival throughout the world, but a renewal of confidence that God does love "me" despite the experiences "I" have had. People are looking for their weak faith to change to an assured confidence that God does love them, longing for the boldness and freedom that will bring. But are they looking in the right place?
In the seventeenth century in England, there developed amongst English-speaking Christians a sharp distinction between Christian faith and Christian assurance. It was understood that saving faith need only be a mustard seed of faith in order to be saving. But it was also suggested that between such a saving faith and assurance there could exist a gap, perhaps of some years. It followed from this that the Christian life was largely made up of the move from faith in God to assurance that God was indeed the gracious and accepting God. So, for many, the Christian life became a quest for assurance.
The reality of one's faith could be shown by keeping God's Word. A person could demonstrate the reality of faith and therefore possess assurance as long as he was obedient to the Lord. So the move from faith to assurance ran along the path of the good works which demonstrated the reality of one's faith. This idea was strangely parallel to, although not the same as, the Roman Catholic belief of salvation by God's grace and human good works. And, interestingly, there was a substantial interest in those days in Catholic devotional literature to help people move from faith to assurance. True, they removed the references to the Mass and other obvious blemishes, but the heart of this devotional literature remained. In particular, there was an interest in the various techniques that people could use. One example was meditation, by which a person, when reading about the life of Jesus, could, by so concentrating on the life of Jesus, move his affections on to the next stage and release himself for various good works.
This type of Christian literature resulted in an impressive flowering of devotion that was extraordinarily legalistic and burdensome. But it was not a growth in the understanding of the Christian faith. Instead, it was a shift away from the Reformed doctrines which had cleared away such burdensome things and left individuals face-to-face with the law of God in all its strength and power. In this new movement, the law of God was being continually split up into tiny parts, so that people could keep this element or that element. Why was it necessary to do that?
The answer is that any system which incorporates human obedience as a necessary element will fail to reassure. It may give assurance for a little while, but the more human elements there are in any system, the more sensitive consciences will recognize that even the smallest amount of human effort is flawed by sin. Assurance can never be gained by such efforts. They will lead either to Pharisaism, in which people think they have actually obeyed the law, or to despair even more profound than that with which they started.
I was interested in the light of this to read a reflective book called Charismatic Renewal, by Tom Smail, Andrew Walker, and Nigel Wright (who, I understand, have all been touched by the renewal). Nigel Wright tells how, during his university years, he was challenged by some who had already entered into the experience, and he discovered "the gift of tongues." Wright's comment on what happened is significant: "On reflection I see that this experience had more to do with assurance of salvation than with spiritual power." I think he is absolutely right. The "charismatic blessing" which he is talking about is only one of a number of possible routes to seek reassurance. Wright goes on:
I am of the opinion that the experiences which are often called Baptism of the Spirit might properly be understood within the context of the doctrine of assurance. They are heart warming moments when the knowledge of salvation wells up within the heart. To know that I too was not excluded from God's grace but made its object, did a lot for me, giving me a spiritual importance which was to lead me to a vocation in the ministry on completing university.
Wright has pinpointed what seems to be happening in so many lives. People may tell us they are looking for power to serve Christ, but the underlying issue is a matter of assurance. However, that leads us to ask if they have understood assurance properly.
The experience-based assurance of today has these features:
Let me make some theological comments on this quest.
First, the quest for assurance, as I understand it, is thoroughly legitimate. Christians should be joyful and have a confidence in their standing before God.
Secondly, the method stems from a valid insight. We can become more conscious of the love of God from Christian experience. For example, an answer to prayer, the experience of the love of the brethren, a spiritual high point, and so on, come frequently enough for us to have learned that we can draw great consolation and comfort from them.
Thirdly, although the quest itself is legitimate, some words of caution are needed. The need for experience-based assurance can divert attention from Christ to ourselves, to techniques, to gurus, to introspection.
Fourthly, it underestimates human sinfulness to suggest that we can secure the Lord's response through the steps which we take. Whenever human effort is given a key role, it fails. However much we put into the effort, it is never good enough and it leads to either despair or hypocrisy.
After I was converted, I read the books of Watchman Nee and other similar authors. Their books informed me that if I followed a particular technique, I could have the victory over sin. I actually experienced a kind of "second blessing." For the next three years, I worked hard for the promised victory, but to no avail.
The problem is that this type of teaching underestimates the sinfulness of sin. Also, it reduces God's sovereignty to the strange and the bizarre and the striking. It locates God in dreams and tongues and miracles, but it doesn't locate him in the ordinary-in Bible study, for example. In doing so, it unintentionally reduces the sovereignty of God so that he becomes a God of the spectacular gaps. It fails to see that all such spiritual experiences are human as much as they are divine. For these things happen to non-Christians as well as to Christians. Therefore they cannot be said to show that God loves "me."
What of the fact that many people are blessed through such experiences? Do we need to deny that they are blessed? No. I was blessed through my experience of "the second blessing." But in the end it took me years to work it through and to put it behind me. Although there were many ill features of it, there were blessings in it as well. For example, it was after I had received "the blessing" that the Lord first used me to lead a person to him. And there are many who will testify to how such experiences have unlocked spiritual blessings in various ways.
The recent "Toronto Blessing" appears to me to have been ridiculous. I was saddened to see the Christian church diverted into something that seemed so ludicrous. Yet what are we to make of the fact that many were blessed through it, that it watered the dry ground of their spiritual life, and that it caused them to read their Bibles more, to pray more, to witness more? It would be foolish to say those benefits did not happen. But we need to observe that non-Christians had the experience too. The phenomenon was not uniquely Christian; it was really a human phenomenon which occurred within a Christian context. Undoubtedly, many have taken it to be the strengthening hand of God upon their lives. When faith is strengthened, then of course good things happen. But, overall we may still come to view the effects of such teaching as unwholesome and not useful, just as were the effects of the teaching I received from writers like Watchman Nee.
The Toronto Blessing will be replaced by something else in a few years' time. In the 1980s, it was signs and wonders; in 1991, it was prophecy; in 1995, it was the Toronto Blessing. The reason is that experience-based assurance can never ultimately satisfy. For that is not the way in which true assurance comes.
So where may we find true assurance of faith? In 1979, Billy Graham was interviewed on television in Sydney. The interviewer asked, "Do you believe that you are going to heaven when you die?" Billy replied, "Yes." That conversation jammed the switchboard, prompting more angry calls than anything prior to it. Most people believe that we cannot say we are going to heaven. They think that we get there through our own good works and experience, and our good works are never good enough. The most that they are prepared to say is, "I hope that I am going to heaven when I die." When they heard Billy Graham say he knows that he is going to heaven when he dies, they assumed his assurance was there because he had preached to millions of people and had been the advisor to presidents and so on. In other words, they thought he was proud and full of himself. But Billy Graham's assurance was based on the Word of God, on what it teaches regarding salvation from sin through faith in Christ.
That is assurance. It is based not on some word from within ourselves, but on the word of the gospel which comes from outside us and speaks so powerfully of what Jesus has done.
Such assurance assumes the grace of God. On the other hand, experiential assurance seeks something within us, be it a moral success perhaps, or a second blessing, or a path of spirituality. Whatever it is, it is an event that has occurred to us, and experiential assurance uses it as the ground for deducing that God does love us after all. But the Word of God assumes our total incapacity, our total depravity. The Bible emphasizes the verdict of God that we are totally corrupt and unable to please him. It is only when we realize our complete lack of any capacity to please God, even as Christians, that we find true assurance by clinging to the cross. The gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ says that the ground of our assurance is our justification.
In Romans 5:1, Paul writes that "since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." Faith in Jesus Christ has given us access "into this grace in which we now stand" (vs. 2). We do not stand in any experience which we have had, we do not stand in any progress which we have made, we do not stand in our success in the battle against sin-we stand in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which he has justified us.
So, despite adverse circumstances, "we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us" (Rom. 5:3-5). It is possible for us to read this as meaning that God has given us love in our hearts, that is, the capacity to love others, but that is wrong. This text is saying that it is the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our hearts which convinces us of the love of God for us.
I think a number of translations are wrong to begin a new paragraph after verse 5. Verses 6-8 describe how the Holy Spirit convinces us of the love of God for us:
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
The ground of our assurance is the grace of God expressed in the love of Christ in his death for us on the cross. To weak, foolish, helpless, and incapable sinners, that is Christian assurance, for it does not rely on us at all, but on the great power of God. Christian assurance turns again and again to the story of the cross of Christ. Believers never graduate beyond the cross; they are always returning to it and take their stand there.
When we have received this assurance of the love of God through the cross of Christ, not based on anything in ourselves, but on what God has done for us in Christ, then we understand the world for what it is and we can trust in the sovereignty of our Father.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Rom. 8:28-30)
We who belong to the Lord Jesus, we who have the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, focusing us again and again on the cross, are assured of the love of God towards us. We may say that the good things and the bad things, the extraordinary answers to prayer and the deep sufferings, all work together for our good. But we need to understand the word "good." In the context, the good is to become like Jesus. Those who cling to the cross have such a view of the sovereignty of God that suffering itself is our servant. Sadly, faith based on experience will never be rugged enough to cope with that. It will always be looking for the next experience to refresh and revive. But faith based on the cross will never weary, for the cross never changes. Such assurance is not based on our capacity or our experiences, but simply on what God has done for us and what he is now doing in us.
Paul asks the question: "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" (Rom. 8:35). In his answer he says, "No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us" (vs. 37). If you had been writing that verse, you would never have written what Paul wrote. Under the influence of the modern church's teaching, you would have said, "In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loves us." That is what people want-to know that God does love them despite everything.
Why does Paul use the past tense? Because he could never get away from the cross. Of course, he knew himself to be the object of the ongoing, unceasing, sustaining love of God. But he understood that if he wished to be reassured, he would have to go back to the cross. It's on the basis of that cross that he then goes on to write:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:38-39)
Faith is amazing! Faith is wonderful, not because it is anything in itself, but because it is faith in Jesus. It brings us into touch with Jesus.
How should I have helped the student who came to me with her problem of doubt? I could have said to her: "You are simply not old enough to have committed the really big sins. The sins that are weighing on your conscience are just not big enough for God to be angry with." If I had given her that advice, it would not have been at all helpful.
Or I could have said to her: "I'm glad you mentioned this, because I had exactly the same problem when I was a teenager. And I found that by praying for a special blessing of the Holy Spirit, along with complete repentance and absolute faith, I found the victorious life pouring forth." She could have had an experience right then, and it may have felt great for a while.
But what I would have to say to her is this: "Your conscience is telling you the truth when it points out your sin to you. But it is not telling you the whole truth. If only you knew what you look like to God, you would be really horrified. Yes, you are a sinful person, and the only hope for you is the grace of God expressed in the cross of Christ. It is there that you will find the peace of God."
Where is the living God? Why, he is exactly where he has always been: in the gospel. The modern church seems to have lost confidence in the gospel. It allows that we can start with the gospel, but then we have to go on to something else. But the living God is in the gospel. We will do well to cling to the cross, to minister the gospel of the love of God in Jesus Christ who died on the cross. We will do well to preach that gospel with all its ramifications, not holding back on sin and its sinfulness, but making sure we exalt the Savior. If we do so, our people will rejoice every day in the living God who is Jesus Christ our Lord.
The author is the archbishop of Sydney of the Anglican Church of Australia. This article and the other two articles this month are reprinted (with slight editing) from the book Preaching the Living Word: Addresses from the Evangelical Ministry Assembly, edited by David Jackman. We thank Christian Focus Publications for their kind permission to use these articles. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2003.