Doubting, fearing, trembling as a Christian. It’s okay… In fact. If our doctrine of “grace alone” is summed up only in the position that there is no merit in the things we do after coming to Christ, this view fails to understand the height of the law or the depth of our sin. It’s a failure to understand that even after coming to Christ we’re failing at the perfect fulfillment of law by our commission (what we do) and omissions (what we fail to do) daily, hourly, even every second.
Yet today there is still a lot of confusion even in Reformed churches. There are people teaching and people who are trying to get their primary assurance from their internal perception of their obedience to the law in places like 1St John, and other places of spiritual testing, because to them this is the first place, they look for Christian assurance.
It is true that assurance is strengthened or weakened by our pursuit of, or failure to pursue obedience to God’s laws, but this fruit of the work of the Spirit and is to be considered secondary. It’s not the first place to set your eyes of Christian faith. The first place we set our eyes is on Christ, and the sufficiency of His accomplishments for us, and promises to us in the gospel for just believing. This is our hope and confidence. To look first to what we do is a short-circuiting of the path to assurance putting the wrong things first.
If our perception of our law obedience is the short-circuited path to our assurance, this naturally leads to a self-righteousness. A sort of elevated view of the self, which also naturally includes a looking down on others who we perceive are not as good as us. What happens is that since so much weight, the very weight of our assurance before God is put on these evidences, it leads to self-delusion.
So, in this process of assurance looking primarily to the inner feeling that we are meeting the biblical spiritual tests, there is a sort of skipping over of Christ. This process skips looking to Christ and resting our hope on His righteousness promised to us first. However, we should look first there for assurance! This is why the gospel is so important for Christians, every Sunday! People who don’t appreciate the importance of the gospel every Sunday probably have not understood these things.
This is why our Presbyterian confession sends us back to the full weight of the law, for the purpose of driving us see our need of Christ. Christians are no longer under the law as a “covenant of works” for our justification, but the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that Christians should “examine themselves”, by the law for this purpose: That we may “come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin, together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of his obedience” (WCF 19:6)
This is the “First use of the law” for Christians. First, the law convicts us to see all the more our need of Christ, second as a warning to protect us from the bad consequences of overstepping the law, and third as a guide for a life of gratitude for our salvation in Christ. All three uses of the law are important, and there is an important reason the first is not listed third, and the third is not listed first. Because of the negative consequences of short-circuiting the first use of the law out of our theology.
There is a reason that every Reformed and Presbyterian church has a time of confession in the liturgy. The fact that we’re not pulling off God’s law as we should. It’s supposed to be an integral part of our understanding of our Christian theology. But have you ever been to a church where it just feels like an isolated ritual that has nothing to do with the Christian life or the theology of people who are super good and getting better?
How can we be humble if our very confidence that we are Christians at all depends directly on the fact that we are pulling off the law pretty well? What do we confess in silence? That we are not even more awesome than (by God’s grace) we already are? What does of living a life of daily repentance look like in that?
We should instead take the whole law and the weight of it seriously. The life of gratitude comes after seeing our sins and misery, how we have been set free from our sins and misery, and then how we are to live lives of gratitude to God for that.
To diminish any one of those is an error, and yet that is exactly what making our perception of our obedience the basis of our assurance does. Again, our relative obedience can and certainly feed our assurance, but a proper understanding of the holiness of God and the high standard of His law should also direct us back around to the first use of the law that the Westminster Confession tells us of, or to that first thing listed in the Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 2
- What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?
- Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.
We cannot forget what the scriptures and our confession teach us. That even now we are still wretched sinners who deserve condemnation, and yet because of Christ we get life and blessings instead. This is what makes grace so amazing even to the end of our lives. Not simply that he plucked me out of humanity to save me, but that even after that, even after I was not a good deal, God’s grace continues, and even after a lifetime of sanctification, I’m still not a good deal, but Christ’s righteousness is my hope and standing.
Finally, we should understand our “grace alone” theology through the example of the Pharisee and the tax collector. It is important to note that the Pharisee did see that he was who he was because of God’s grace. He acknowledged in his prayer by thanking God that he was not like those others…
Luke 18:9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
So, this person is like those people who say “salvation is by grace alone” yet when it comes to themselves, you only hear things like they can’t take credit for how good they are, but that is by grace. Have you ever heard that? Have you ever thought that?
They also have a view that the sinners, the bad people, they’re out there, they aren’t like me, and like us who’ve receive grace. That’s the theology of the Pharisee. They may think they are being humble by not taking credit, but these men lack true humility that they would beat their breast and cry out that they still need mercy.
Certainly, God can save those of tender conscience, and self-assured self-confident people too. Although, the scriptures do teach that one path is humble and the other is not, and so it’s not the doubter of self who beats on his breast and claims “have mercy on me a sinner” who’s in danger of not being justified. It’s the confident guy. The one who says “I am what I am by grace, but thank you God that I am so good now.”
There is absolutely a place to look for God’s work in our life, and mainly the fact that we feel guilt for our sin and look to Christ are good evidences that we are Christians, but after we have been assured by resting our hope on Christ alone for the forgiveness of sins, and importantly for the imputation of His righteous record of obedience to us. This is sole basis of our justification before God.
Those who have that short-circuited path will hopefully in time find a higher view of God’s holiness and his law. That fact God still requires perfection that we can’t provide, and then Christ and His gospel will be even more beautiful to them as well. The one who looks first at his own obedience for his assurance simply can not find the gospel to be beautiful, but it becomes more of a detail that will show up in what they like to think about, talk about, or if they are a pastor, preach about.
Christian, doubt in yourself, and look to Christ. Men faileth, but God availeth! You’re not doing what you should, or doing something you shouldn’t. Repent of it and then look to Christ. In a healthy church, if it’s gross sin your elder will probably come to you and graciously, and prayerfully point that out. But ultimately don’t let those who might exaggerate others sins, but overlooks their own shape your own theology. It’s actually they who have lowered the law who put too much hope and weight on what they think they are pleasing God by doing. In a time when it seems like there is an obsession over antinomianism (whcih antinomianism is indeed a problem), the theology of the Pharisee flourishes unfettered. Remember, from the biblical text the Pharisee would also say “of course I am what I am by Grace alone”, so what we mean by “grace alone” should be distinct from the Pharisee.