I sometimes struggle with doubts about whether or not I am loved and saved.
Are you shocked? I am, after all, a seminary student.
Yet I doubt.
I struggle with these thoughts when I have transgressed one of God’s laws, or when I feel particularly sinful (whether or not I have done anything wrong), or in times when I just don’t seem to measure up to the standards of those around me.
Recently I was on a holiday trip with family and I got an epic nose-bleed which resulted in an ER visit. As I lay on the gurney with nose calipers, an icepack, and Afrin up my nostril, I couldn’t help but think that God was punishing me for my sinfulness. It wasn’t true, of course, but I was surprised at how easily the thought came into my mind, like an old acquaintance. Like a rotting corpse of bad theology, resurrected to cause me misery and doubt.
In part this is a product of my legalistic church background where we were constantly taught that everything really did depend on us in order to be saved. Even though we tipped our hats to God’s grace, in reality we acted as if everything rested on our ability to obey. The slightest sin could send us into paroxysms of guilt and self-loathing. Our souls seemed to hang by a thread over the pit of Hell.
But the self-loathing I experienced actually had God as its focus rather than me. While on the surface I thought that I was simply un-savable, what I actually believed in my heart of hearts was that God would not—or could not—save me. That he was either malicious or impotent.
This was an insidious lie which Satan used (and still uses sometimes) to promote anger and resentment toward God, and a sense of fatalism in me. It is worth spending some time on this because I suspect that other Christians struggle with similar distorted thinking about God.
What do I mean when I say, “God doesn’t love me”? Doesn’t the Bible say that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8)? Which type of love is this complaint talking about?
The Love of God
D.A. Carson’s book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God shows that there are four different kinds of love which God has for people:
- God’s providential love over all that he has made (Gen 1; Matt 5:45)
- God’s salvific stance toward his fallen world (Jn 3:16; 1 Jn 2:2; Ezek 33:11)
- God’s particular, effective, selecting love toward his elect (Deut 7:7-8; cf. 4:37; 10:14-15; Mal 1:2-3; Eph 1; 5:25)
- God’s love is sometimes said to be directed toward his own people in a provisional or conditional way – conditioned, that is, on obedience (Jude 21; Jn 15:9-10; Exod 20:6).
So while my complaint that “God doesn’t love me,” might be countered by recalling that God loves the world which includes every person in it, past, present, and future (Jn 3:16), this is really not the issue implicit in the statement “God loves others but he doesn’t love me.”
My true complaint (and the reason for my doubts) might better be stated explicitly as “God loves other people by choosing and electing them for salvation, but he clearly doesn’t love me because I am a sinful, hurting mess and I feel unsaved or unsavable.”
This is thorny and brings up the whole area of a believer’s assurance in Christ. Is it true that just because I feel “unsavable” that I am unsaved?
After all, if what I believe is not true, then what I feel is not real.
For example, I could believe that green elephants are about to crawl into my bed, with resulting feelings of terror. But since green elephants don’t exist, my feelings are not proper responses to reality. Make sense?
So what does the Bible, the source of ultimate Truth, tell us about the assurance that believers have in Jesus Christ, regardless of how we might feel on a given day?
Assurance in Christ
The Bible essentially creates a three-legged stool of assurance, where there are three main “legs” of supporting evidence that help to indicate whether a person is genuinely saved. These are:
- God’s promises (Jn 1:12; 3:36; 5:24; 14:1; Acts 10:43; 16:31; Rom 8:1; 10:9; 2 Cor 4:16-18; Heb 10:10, 14, 18-23, 35-36, 39; 11:6; 1 Jn 5:13; etc.).
- The inner witness of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life (“The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” Rom 8:16; cf. also Eph 1:13; 4:30; 2 Cor 1:21; 5:5; 1 Jn 2:20, 27; 5:7-11).
- The evidence of spiritual fruit in a person’s life (“We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands” – I Jn 2:3; cf. also Jn 14:15, 21, 23; 15:1-17; Gal 5:22-25; Eph 4:22-24; 5:8-12; Jas 2:14-26; 1 Jn 1:6-7; 2:3-6).
Because it is ultimately only the promises of God which act as a final resting place for our assurance.
This is because our inner climate may be full of conflicting voices which drown out the Spirit’s quiet witness (leg #2), and our lives are often conflicted in our struggle against sin (leg #3, cf. Rom 7, for example).
In the final analysis we must “Trust in the Lord and do good” Ps 37:3, whether we feel like it or not, believing that God “exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb 11:6b).
This is faith not in ourselves but in the gracious and merciful character of our wonderful God who has made every provision for our salvation and who did not spare his own Son but joyfully gave him up on our behalf (cf. Is 53:10 – The word translated “will” in the NIV is actually “delight” or “joy” in the Hebrew. It was God’s “delight” to crush his Son in order to accomplish our salvation).
Therefore, our hope and confidence is ultimately grounded in God’s character and in his promises. And we know that God’s promises are certain and unchangeable because God’s character does not change and it is impossible for God to lie (Heb 6:13-20). We have this hope as an anchor for our soul, firm and secure (Heb 6:19).
While you and I may still muddle around in Romans 7 as we struggle with our sin, we must always remember that Romans 8 follows with its confident assurance in the gracious character of our God:
“What, then, shall we say in response to [these doubts]? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 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 8:31-35, 37-39).
Put your faith in the character and promises of God, not in your own ability to obey or in your transitory feelings.
If you have believed in Jesus Christ, then you may rest in God’s promises and receive his blessed assurance.