It Didn’t Work for Me (Part 4)
With this post I want to close a brief series on possible reasons that people conclude that Christianity hasn’t “worked” for them. My general drift has been to encourage a biblical and sustainable approach to Christian living. Specifically, I’ve discussed misunderstandings about grace, skewed perceptions of sanctification, and unrealistic expectations regarding emotions.
No doubt many other elements can play a role in people’s unsatisfying experiences with Christianity. Wrong teaching may well have created the misunderstandings in the first place. In addition, negative examples, an unhealthy home or church environment, and abusive treatment often discredit the gospel and turn people away from it. So when someone chooses to abandon Christ, believers around them should assess soberly and deal righteously with whatever we may have done to contribute to the problem.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Without minimizing other factors, we cannot escape the bottom-line question concerning those who think Christianity hasn’t worked for them: have they experienced regeneration to begin with? I’m not dealing here with whether a person can remember the date when he first professed faith in Christ. Nor am I addressing honest doubts about biblical historicity or other apologetic concerns. I’m talking about the fruits of perseverance and holiness that are the necessary result and confirmation of the new birth.
Scripture is rather blunt about this. First John 2:19 comes to mind:
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.
Similarly, the New Testament regularly and strongly declares that genuine Christians endure in faith. Colossians 1:21-23 provides just one example along these lines (emphasis added):
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard. . . .
Such statements do not imply sinless perfection. They do, however, speak of a basic devotion to Christ and his lordship. Other passages highlight growth in godliness as a mark of regeneration and a means of assurance (e.g., 2 Pet 1:3-11).
We’re not dealing with a simple matter, however. Actually, it turns out that one of the most foundational aspects of the Christian life can also be one of the most difficult to help people with: assurance of salvation. And the difficulties surrounding assurance fall on a broad spectrum. On one extreme, hyper-sensitive people obsess about it and experience overwhelming obstacles on the path to peace. Those on the other end seem unbothered by sin and lulled to complacency by a false sense of security. The most challenging situations are the ambiguous ones that lie at various points along the spectrum.
With some regularity, counselors, pastors, and other disciplers struggle with how to handle assurance-related cases. Perhaps more often than we want to admit, we find ourselves frustrated and thinking, “It shouldn’t be this hard to get a regenerate person to obey God’s Word and do the right thing!” That represents a legitimate concern, but it’s tempered when we recall our own sins and the seasons of spiritual coldness we’ve experienced. Not to mention the severe failures of Bible characters like David and Peter.
Yet the Bible also includes 1 John 3:9: “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.” What, however, indicates that repeated sin is “a practice of sinning”? This question can’t be avoided, yet the Bible doesn’t specify an amount of sin or a line that’s crossed to differentiate believers from unbelievers. And given the infinite graciousness of Christ in dying to free us from sin, focusing on where the line is seems like the height of inappropriateness and ingratitude.
At the same time, as we strive to apply 1 John 3:9 to individual people we encounter any number of complicating factors that would appear to mitigate matters to some extent: personality weaknesses and predispositions, unbiblical patterns of thought and behavior ingrained through years of bad upbringing, the power of long-term pre-profession habits, addictions to physical substances, the influence of current negative environments, general immaturity in the case of younger people, etc. At some point, however, concentrating on such factors starts to sound like we’re making excuses and engaging in eternally risky business.
A PATH FORWARD
If the last few paragraphs leave you feeling confused and troubled, I share the feeling. What then to do? For starters, recognize that human beings cannot give each other assurance of salvation. The Spirit is the one who bears witness with our spirits that we are God’s children (Rom 8:16). But what elements does he employ in that process? And in what direction can we point those who lack assurance?
Click here for a discussion that captures something of the mysterious process God uses to minister assurance to his people. More broadly, following are some core principles that I have come to again and again in dealing with myself and with others. They don’t yield an air-tight step-by-step formula. Nor are they novel or sensational. In fact, they overlap with some of the points I’ve already made in this series. Nevertheless, I believe that they reflect the Bible’s basic approach to questions concerning the dynamics of regeneration, sanctification, perseverance, and assurance.
- Appreciate the struggle. Sanctification is a lifelong spiritual battle, an ongoing conflict between the flesh and the Spirit (Gal 5:16-17). Though we may lose individual battles, a sustained struggle to resist sin and honor the Lord is itself a sign of spiritual life. So are grief over and hatred of our offenses against God.
- Use the means of grace. Spiritual disciplines like Bible-reading, prayer, and church attendance do require the exercise of the will, but don’t view them as mere disciplines. View them as ways through which God ministers his sanctifying grace to you. You cannot increase your affection to Christ or decrease your desire for sin. But you can diligently draw near to the instruments through which God himself works within you. You may not realize just how regularly you need these means of grace or how the Lord is gently using them. Consider the influence of fellow believers, for example. Hebrews 3:13says, “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (emphasis added).
- Deal ruthlessly with sin. Do whatever you can to eliminate sources of temptation (Matt 5:29-30). This may require significantly reorienting the patterns of your life. And as soon as you become aware of having failed, confess it to the Lord and ask him to cleanse your conscience through the blood of Christ (1 John 1:9). If you find it difficult to repent, pray through penitential passages like Psalm 51. For more specific guidance on resisting sin, I’d highly recommend the writings of the Puritan John Owen (click here, or for a more accessible resource click here). Recognize, however, that Christian living isn’t just about mortification. Replace sinful patterns by nurturing the corresponding virtues of godliness through the power of the Spirit (Eph 4:25ff).
- Keep the long term in view. Given what people have going against them, substantial fruit of regeneration may take considerable time to develop. Don’t evaluate yourself in terms of hours or days or weeks but in terms of months and years and perhaps even decades. God often works on a timeline different from ours. Part of the sanctification process is learning to depend on him and wait patiently on him to work even while we plod along in our pursuit of growth. At the same time, take note of and celebrate every “small” victory you experience through God’s enabling (Phil 2:12-13). You may be growing more than you realize.
- Concentrate on Christ. Justification comes by faith in Christ alone (Rom 3:21-26). Sanctification involves divinely enabled effort, but it comes fundamentally through a growing relationship with Christ (2 Cor 3:18). Likewise, the assurance process includes self-evaluation (2 Cor 13:5), but it comes primarily as we look to Jesus. The whole book of Hebrews is designed to make this point. Yes, it includes scary warnings, but its main method for nurturing perseverance and assurance is to unfold the glories of the person and work of Christ. And if it turns out that someone isn’t regenerated, what else would God use to help him realize that and to bring him to saving faith? Whether the saying goes back to Robert Murray McCheyne, Richard Baxter, or whomever, it’s true and it’s liberating: “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.” Or maybe a hundred.
Photo credit: Nathan Cowley, pexels.com