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Avoiding Legalism and License in Preaching

Jun 24, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

Wise words from John Witherspoon’s farewell sermon in Paisley, the bustling Scotland town the famous Kirk minister left for America in May 1768:

If you preach the free forgiveness of sin through Christ, without at the same time showing the necessity of regeneration and sanctification by his Spirit, it will either not be embraced at all, or it will be turned into licentiousness.

And if you preach the duties of the law, without at the same time displaying the grace of the gospel and the vital influence that flows from the head to the members, you will either build up men in a destructive system of Pharisaical religion and self-righteousness, or bring them under the Egyptian bondage of making brick through they are not furnished with straw.

The privileges and duties of the gospel stand in an inseparable connection; if you take away the first you starve and mortify the last. (“Ministerial Fidelity in Declaring the Whole Counsel of God” in Works, 2.518)

This strikes me as good biblical balance. Preach the free offer of the gospel, while also calling sinners to be born again and be holy as God is holy. And when you preach the imperatives of Scripture, make sure these same sinners know there is mercy for all their imperfections and sanctifying power in the midst of all their weaknesses.

Witherspoon was right: the privileges and duties of the gospel stand in inseparable connection.

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Monday Morning Encouragement

Jun 22, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

What we all need–black and white, moms and dads, singled and married, rich and poor, young and old, the proud and the pitiful, the strong and the weak, the religious and the irreligious–is this good news:

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15 History Books for Your Summer Reading

Jun 18, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

“Do you know of any good history books I should read this summer?”

If that’s your question, I have 15 suggestions for you. Here are 15 history books pitched at a popular level (or at least accessible to a wide audience) that I’ve read and enjoyed.

What If? The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, edited by Robert Cowley. A great example of counterfactual storytelling. The chapters on Sennacherib and Jerusalem, the Mongol invasion that didn’t happen, the fog that saved Washington’s army, Lee’s lost order, the disaster that should have been Midway are just some of the provocative “what if’s” you’ll consider in this creative and informative collection of essays.

 

Tom Holland, Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic. A complex history told very well. No footnotes, but historically robust and readable.

 

 

 

David McCullough, 1776. My favorite McCullough book, which is saying something. Start it today and I bet you’ll be finished before July 4.

 

 

 

Paul C. Gutjahr, Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy. A model academic biography that is structured in such a way as to be eminently readable. It will be hard not to like Charles Hodge after reading this book.

 

 

Thomas Fleming, A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War. Fleming argues that both sides had extremists with apocalyptic rhetoric who took all or nothing positions. Whether you agree with the thesis or not, this is a terrific history of the build up to the Civil War.

 

 

Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. Guelzo is one of the finest historians of the period, a deft writer, theologically astute, and sensitive to the religious (though he argues not born-again Christian) dimensions of Lincoln’s life and thought.

 

 

James L. Swanson, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer. Did you read the title? Read it again. It’s not an exaggeration. The book is history but reads like a thrilling crime drama.

 

 

Courtney Anderson, To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson. Easily the most inspirational book on this list. One of the missionary biographies you really must read.

 

 

Jay Norlinger, Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World. For what could be an obscure topic, the prose is remarkably light and the history much more interesting that you might think.

 

 

Eliot Asinof, . It’s summer, so read something about baseball. You’d be hard pressed to do better than this book.

 

 

 

Paul Johnson, Churchill. So many wonderful anecdotes, so much wisdom, and so short.

 

 

 

John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History. If you are under the age of 40, you are probably less interested in this book, but that’s all the most reason you need to read it.

 

 

 

Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power. This is only one of four published volumes in the series (and there is supposed to be a fifth and final installment), but this is the only one I’ve read (more accurately, am still reading). There is a lot of detail here, but a lot of insight into the best and worst of human nature.

 

Peggy Noonan, When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan. There are other more critical accounts of Reagan’s life, but none so easy to read and so well written.

 

 

 

Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, The President’s Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity. In looking at the relationship of our presidents among themselves, this book really does give a glimpse of American history that we haven’t seen before. The Gibbs/Duffy book on Billy Graham and the Presidents is also a fun read.

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PCA General Assembly Report 2015

Jun 17, 2015 | Jason Helopoulos

Guest Blogger: Jason Helopoulos

Location: This year’s General Assembly was held in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Moderator: The PCA elected Mr. Jim Wert as Moderator of the 43rd  General Assembly. Mr. Wert serves as a ruling elder at Intown Community Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He has been actively involved in all levels of the church’s courts.

2014 Numbers*:

Churches & Missions:         1,831      (increase of 23 from 2013)

Professions of Faith:           9,425     (increase of 299 from 2013)

Membership:                        358,516                 (decrease of 1,318 from 2013)

Total Family Units:             136,849 (decrease of 477 from 2013)

Long Term Missionaries:   596         (decrease of 24 from 2013)

Two Year Missionaries:      115         (decrease of 3 from 2013)

Missionary Interns              230         (decrease of 46 from 2013)

Two Week Missionaries:    4,599      (decrease of 211 from 2012)

RUF:                                      125 campuses in 42 states and in 60 Presbyteries

*The Stated Clerk noted that less than half of PCA churches report their statistics. He believes the PCA actually would have shown modest growth in 2015 if all churches did report their statistics

Major Issues/Actions of this Assembly

  1. Civil Rights: Ligon Duncan, the Chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary, and Sean Lucas, Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, brought a personal resolution to the General Assembly floor seeking to acknowledge and confess the PCA’s sins and failures during the Civil Rights era. This personal resolution came to the floor with an unanimous recommendation from the Overtures’ Committee that it be referred to next year’s Assembly.
  2. Sabbath: North Texas Presbytery sent an overture to the Assembly seeking to establish a study committee to consider revisions to Westminster Confession of Faith 21-8, Westminster Larger Catechism 117 and 119, and Westminster Shorter Catechism 60 and 61. The main concern expressed was the “recreation clause,” which prohibits recreation on the Sabbath day. As noted in the overture, many ordinands take an exception to the Standards on this point. The study committee was soundly defeated on the floor by a vote of 662-248-9.
  3. Paedocommunion: Paedocommunioin continues to be a “hot topic” in the PCA. The Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records (RPR) cited two different presbyteries for actions related to pastors being ordained or transferring into their bounds, who took exceptions to Westminster Larger Catechism 177. WLC 177 states that the Lord’s Supper should only be administered “to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves.” Minority reports were filed regarding both of these cases and the Assembly adopted both minority reports on votes of 535-245-37 and 438-315-35.
  4. Officer Trials: An overture came to the Assembly seeking to change the Book of Church Order. This change would have required officers to testify in cases involving doctrinal issues. This suggested change generated more debate than one would expect. Concerns were expressed about “witch hunts” and the fear of being required to take “the stand.” This was the closest vote at the Assembly. A substitute motion to answer the overture in the negative was adopted by a vote of 477-455-15.
  5. Complementarianism: The PCA continues to be a solidly complementarian denomination. The Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records (RPR) cited the Philadelphia Presbytery for sustaining the ordination exams of a candidate who was not “100% sure the New Testament itself teaches a universal prohibition on women eldership” (* I wrongly stated in the original post that this pastor is now moving to the RCA. He has not filed to do so and continues to be a member of the Philadelphia Presbytery. My apologies.). A minority report emerged from RPR recommending that the Assembly not cite Philadelphia with an exception of substance on this matter. The Assembly was overwhelming in its vote on this issue, rejecting the minority report by a vote of 258 in favor and 554 against.

Issues to Watch

  1. Connectional Nature: The PCA is a connectional church. However, less than half of its churches report statistics, only 1,320 commissioners attended the Assembly, and most churches do not support the agencies and committees of the denomination. Our ministry and witness would be much stronger if more churches were willing to engage in the courts of the church, support the work of the denomination, or at least report their statistics.
  2. Paedocommunion: I am concerned that a view and practice which was foreign and marginal in the PCA a decade ago has become part of the fabric of the denomination. In no way do I believe this is a majority or even a significant minority view in the PCA, however, its seeming acceptance as an allowable doctrine in the PCA is worrying. This doctrine is too important to come through the backdoor. If the PCA is going to entertain paedocommunion than a change like this necessitates much thought, study, debate, and discussion. The Apostle Paul made it clear that one must “discern the body” or they eat and drink judgment on themselves (1 Corinthians 11). We dare not wander into the acceptance of this doctrine or its practice unless we truly believe this is what the Scriptures teach. Souls lay in the balance.
  3. Debate Regarding Officer Trials: The debate regarding officers being required to testify at doctrinal trials was disappointing. Warnings about “witch hunts,” fear of repercussions in civil court, and concern about being able to adequately articulate a personal defense were the most voiced concerns. These are fine concerns to express, but not to rule the day. I fear that we live in a day and age where honesty and forthrightness are little valued. At least in the courts of the church, they must be valued and I would hope and expect that men would be more than willing to honestly and forthrightly express their views on doctrine having been ordained to an office which requires doctrinal fidelity.

Personal Encouragements

  1. Courage: Duncan and Lucas’ courageous personal resolution stirred a necessary and needed discussion in the PCA. As most southern denominations, the PCA and its churches failed and sinned in numerous ways during the Civil Rights Era. It is an issue that demands attention. Conversation throughout the week of General Assembly centered upon this resolution. Even more importantly, the debate on the floor was helpful, challenging, and encouraging. I have great hope that next year’s Assembly will seek to address our sins and failures as a denomination and begin the long process of healing and reconciliation on this front. The most important moment of the Assembly was the courageous speech made by Rev. Jim Baird, former pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi and founding father of the PCA. Rev. Baird acknowledged his own personal failings and sins during this era and asked for forgiveness. His example set the stage for an extended time of confession and prayer on the final night of the Assembly.
  2. Faithfulness: The Assembly was firm in its vote citing the Philadelphia Presbytery and their ordination of a man who was not “100% convinced” the New Testament taught a universal prohibition of women eldership. I am not aware of anyone in the PCA advocating for women pastors or elders, but this ordination was a wrong step in a direction we cannot afford to head. Once again, the PCA has stood firm on a doctrine and practice that is often maligned in our current cultural context. This speaks well of its resolve, faithfulness, and submission to the authority of Scripture.
  3. Prayer: I was thankful to be a part of an Assembly that spent extended time in prayer. Personally, I have attended twelve General Assemblies, and I can’t remember an Assembly in which we spent as much time in corporate prayer. What an encouragement to the soul and how good it is to practice what we confess and teach. The PCA is a church dependent upon the Lord, confesses such in its theology, and demonstrated such at this Assembly.
  4. New Leadership: The PCA is experiencing a transition in generations. The founding fathers are few and far between at the Assembly. The second generation of leaders is moving into the role of seasoned sages. What was increasingly observable at this year and last year’s Assembly is a coalescing strong leadership in the thirty and forty something age groups. These men are serious about the gospel, reaching the lost, and faithfulness in the courts of the church. The future of the PCA appears to be in good hands.
  5. Unity: Insiders in the PCA perennially try to label different “camps” within the PCA. No doubt, there are differences in emphasis, trajectory, and commitment among brothers in the denomination. Yet, I was encouraged to witness another year of palpable unity. The PCA still needs to define itself on a number of issues, but in many ways I think it has settled into what it is and shall be. Men are not pushing as hard in one direction or another as they were fifteen or even ten years ago. In my humble opinion, there seems to be more a spirit of unity and harmony around the essentials.

Overall

As was true of the 42nd General Assembly, so is true of the 43rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, this Assembly won’t create headlines around the world or be noted in histories of the Presbyterian Church. In many ways, I am thankful for that. It was a good Assembly as the church conducted its very routine and ordinary business. We made theological pronouncements, exercised pastoral concern, worshipped, fellowshipped, and encouraged the mission of the Church. May God keep the PCA true to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed Faith, and obedient to the Great Commission of Jesus Christ.

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Monday Morning Humor

Jun 15, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

It looks like the robots are not quite ready to take over the world.

 

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John Witherspoon on Celebrity Pastors

Jun 12, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

Okay, so the title is a little misleading. John Witherspoon (1723-94) never used the phrase “celebrity pastor,” but the distinction he makes in this ordination charge to Archibald Davidson of the Abbey Church in Paisley speaks with particular wisdom and relevance to a perennial issue in the ministry.

This leads me to exhort you in the whole of your work, public and private, to beware of the sin of man-pleasing. I do not say, beware of popularity: because, in the sense to which common language hath confided that word, it is but one half of the snare. Besides, in propriety of speech, popularity should signify only being accepted and beloved, which in itself is neither duty nor sin, but a blessing.

Man-pleasing signifies, in Scripture, having this as the end and motive of our actions, rather than being acceptable to God. You ought, indeed, for edification, to avoid displeasing any without necessity. But as in this, so in every other thing, you should have a far higher principle, than merely courting the favor either of great or small, good or bad.

There is a lot of wisdom in these few sentences. Popularity is not the goal of ministry (a duty), nor a sign of unfaithfulness in ministry (a sin). To the degree that popularity means the minister is well-regarded and appreciated, it is a blessing. Popularity, by itself, is not the problem. The problem is people pleasing. Ministers should not go out of their way to rub people the wrong way. And yet, surely we can all relate to the peculiar temptation in ministry to lose sight of our heavenly audience and end up “serving” just to be seen and stroked. The faithful minister may be favored with a loving people, but he must not make it his aim to have people love him and treat him with favors.

 

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10 Reasons I’m Thankful for the Presbyterian Church in America

Jun 09, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

PCAI’ve never attended the PCA General Assembly, but this is the first one I’ll miss as a PCA minister. I hope not to miss many more.

Our church won’t officially transfer until September, so I didn’t think I would be a PCA Teacher Elder before then. But the process moved more quickly than I anticipated and I was able to take my transfer exams at the beginning of May. Having had an overly busy spring, and not making any prior plans to attend this year’s GA in Chattanooga, my elders thought it would be best for me to sit this one out. I trust there will be plenty of General Assemblies to attend in the future.

As my fathers and brothers (isn’t that the way you put it?) gather this week to worship, laugh, pray, reminisce, and conduct the business of the church, I thought perhaps I could join in in some small way by reflecting on why I’m thankful for the PCA.

I know the PCA is not a perfect denomination. I know there are likely to be frustrations even at this year’s General Assembly. I know church bodies must keep a close watch on their life and doctrine. The PCA ain’t heaven on earth–never has been, never will be. But as a newcomer to the PCA and relative (though very interested and, I think, somewhat informed) outsider, I see much to be thankful for.

1. Growth. Numbers aren’t everything, but considering many mainline denominations continue to shrink–and have every year since the 1960s–I’m thankful that the PCA trajectory since its inception in 1973 has been up. More churches, more members, more pastors. This is good.

2. Ministers and missionaries. In healthy denominations you will two things on the rise: missionaries wanting to go and young men wanting to pastor. While it can be a challenge for those men looking for a pastoral call, an abundance of pastoral candidates means the church has a future. Ditto for missionaries. Healthy denominations look outside themselves–and not just for humanitarian work (which is good), but with a zeal for reaching the unreached and planting gospel churches.

3. Exams. I’m thankful for a rigorous examination process. Denominations will not serve the cause of joy in the world unless they are serious about examining their own pastoral candidates. I’m glad that the Presbytery of the Great Lakes did not give me or my church a free pass. I had to study and take a two hour committee exam and then be examined another 40 minutes on the floor of Presbytery. Exams should be fair, but they must be rigorous, thorough, and fail-able.

4. Standards. Although there are differences regarding certain articles in the Westminster Standards, I’ve found that nearly everyone I know in the PCA takes them very seriously. The only thing worse than a denomination always arguing about theology is a denomination that never argues about theology.

5. Unofficial motto. I love that the PCA wants to be “faithful to the Scriptures, true to the reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission.” All three are essential. Let’s boldly and winsomely be inerrantists, Calvinists, and evangelists. Wouldn’t that be a strange and glorious combination.

6. Seminary pipeline. As the seminaries go, so goes the churches. Are there important differences among the many seminaries PCA ministers attend? To be sure, but I’m willing to bet that students from RTS, Covenant, and Westminster (among others) are getting more of the same content than they are getting distinctive content. That’s good, and what they are getting is good.

7. Leaders. When people outside the PCA think about the PCA they think about leaders like Ligon Duncan, Tim Keller, and Phil Ryken. They think of authors like Nancy Guthrie and Susan Hunt. They think of pastors like Harry Reeder and R.C. Sproul. Having so many good men (and women!) to respect and admire is not a given and should not be taken for granted. With a healthy dose of authors, thinkers, leaders, and entrepreneurs, the PCA has always punched above its weight in terms of influence in the evangelical world and leavening in the broader culture.

8. Steady. The PCA has not budged on homosexuality or inerrancy or complementarianism or the uniqueness of Christ. Will the denomination always handle everyone of these issues in a way that strikes everyone as theologically robust and pastorally wise? Probably not. But is the PCA position on these issues widely known and held to with great unanimity? I believe so. Considering what kind of theological diversity exists in many denominations, the PCA runs a pretty tight ship.

9. Churches. Our 1300 congregations can look and feel very different. I doubt that any one church is thrilled with every other church in the denomination. But still, on the whole, when people ask me (as they do all the time), “I’m moving to some other part of the country, what church do you recommend?” I don’t hesitate to tell them, “Let’s start by seeing what PCA churches are in the area.” And it’s not just the big ones like First Presbyterian in Jackson, or Briarwood in Birmingham, or Tenth in Philadelphia, or Redeemer in New York City, or Christ Covenant in Charlotte, or Village Seven in Colorado Springs, it’s hundreds of lesser known churches that are no less faithful and have no less to offer by way of good gospel preaching, Christian community, and evangelistic outreach.

10. Opportunity. The PCA is a young denomination. I’ve moved from the oldest Protestant denomination in the country to one of the newest. There are always challenges that come with youth (who am I? what will I be when I grown up? how do I relate to those who have gone before me?). But there are also great opportunities too.

Like pursuing a gospel-driven diversity that listens and learns without patronizing and pigeon-holing.

Like engaging a wayward world with more theology, more conviction, more worship, and more of God.

Like showing the world that real unity can only be found in truth, that the richest doctrine leads to the fullest doxology, that the highest Christology produces the best missiology, and that staunchest Calvinists can be the most loving people you’ve ever met.

I don’t doubt that there are discouraging moments at most denominational meetings, but as a PCA outsider-turned-insider I see a whole more that makes me smile than makes me frown. So to all my PCA brethren: I’m very glad to be with you, even if for one more year I’ll be with you here instead of there.

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Monday Morning Humor

Jun 08, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

School is done for a few months, but this should keep you learning real good all summer.

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Victory in Jesus: A Sermon on 1 John 5:1-5

Jun 05, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

The following is a lightly edited transcript from a sermon I preached on May 17 entitled “Victory in Jesus” from 1 John 5:1-5. This is not an essay written for the eye, but a spoken message put to print with a few revisions to aid in understanding.

*******

Please turn in your Bibles to 1 John 5:1-5.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

Recently I put a brief article on my blog. I don’t think I have ever started a sermon by reading one of my blog posts, and I hope not to very often. But it will set up this morning’s sermon, so here it is:

Whenever counseling Christians looking for assurance of salvation, I take them to 1 John. This brief epistle is full of help for determining whether we are in the faith or not. In particular, there are three signs in 1 John given to us so we can answer the question “Do I have confidence or condemnation?”

The first sign is theological. You should have confidence if you believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God (5:11-13).  John doesn’t want people to be doubting.  God wants you to have assurance, to know that you have eternal life.  And this is the first sign, that you believe in Jesus.  You believe he is the Christ or the Messiah (2:22).  You believe he is the Son of God (5:10).  And you believe that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (4:2).  So if you get your theology wrong about Jesus you will not have eternal life.  But one of the signs that should give you confidence before God is that you believe in his only Son Jesus Christ our Lord (4:14-16; 5:1, 5).

The second sign is moral. You should have confidence if you live a righteous life (3:6-9).  Those who practice wickedness, who plunge headlong into sin, who not only stumble, but habitually walk in wickedness-should not be confident.  This is no different than what Paul tells us in Romans 6 that we are no longer slaves to sin but slaves to righteousness and in Galatians 5 that those who walk in the flesh will not inherit the kingdom.  This is no different than what Jesus tells us in John 15 that a good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.  So if you live a morally righteous life you should have confidence (3:24). And lest this standard make you despair, keep in mind that part of living a righteous life is refusing to claim that you live without sin and coming to Christ for cleansing when you do sin (1:9-10).

The third sign is social. You should have confidence if you love other Christians (3:14).  If you hate like Cain you do not have life.  But if your heart and your wallet are open to your brothers and sisters eternal life abides in you. One necessary sign of true spiritual life is that we love one another (4:7-12, 21).

These are John’s three signposts to assure us that we are on the road that leads to eternal life. These are not three things we do to earn salvation, but three indicators that God has indeed saved us. We believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God. We live a righteous life. We are generous toward other Christians.  Or we can put it this way: we know we have eternal life if we love Jesus, we love his commands, and we love his people.  No one of the three is optional.  All must be present in the Christian, and all three are meant to be signs for our assurance (see 2:4, 6; 4:20; 5:2).

John belabors the same points again and again. Do you love God?  Do you love his commands?  Do you love his people?  If you don’t, it’s a sign you have death.  If you do, it’s sign that you have life. And that means confidence instead of condemnation.

That’s what I wrote on my blog. It is basically a summary of 1 John, and especially a good summary of 1 John 5:1-2. Somewhat surprisingly, there was a good deal of controversy surrounding this blog post. I want to share some of the comments because they are indicative of what many people think, perhaps even some of you. I’ve edited some of the comments for length, and have put them into my own order. But this will give you the gist of what the comments were like.

Comment #1

I grew up in church my whole life and recently (within the past 5 yrs) understood the scriptures in a completely different way. It led me to doubt my own salvation but more than that, doubt my relationship (or lack thereof) with this holiest of holy God of the universe.

As someone who’s been struggling with this for some years, I am sorry to say this brief explanation can be so misleading. Not to be hateful. I follow your blog regularly and respect what you do. But who out there can confidently say they live without wickedness within or love their fellow “christians” without fail?

Comment #2

I have also spent time doubting my salvation. All these items can be false indicators. And they are confusing, and they leave room for human judgement. Am I my own judge? Is my brother my judge? Who will decide that I am loving well or living well or that my doctrine is correct? Certainly He is my judge. We must submit ourselves to Him and He will show us what it means to have assurance of salvation.

[Rom 8:16 NASB] 16 The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.

Comment #3

The problem with articles such as this is that definitive, objective answers are not provided.

Nobody, not even Kevin DeYoung lives a perfectly upright and moral life. While Kevin doesn’t advocate sinless perfection here, it is very difficult to know if sin that you struggle with is part of your sanctification battle, or indication that you are making a practice of sin and are therefore not saved. The question about quantifying is not to say “how much sin can I practice and still be saved?’ but rather, “I have done awful things in my life, I still struggle with sin, and how do I know if I have changed enough to be confident?” Kevin DeYoung cannot quantify this.

To the third point, absolutely we need to love others in the Body of Christ. But every person reading this, including the writer, loves his brothers and sisters imperfectly. If one is honest with themselves, they see this. How close to perfect must your love be before you have assurance of salvation.

Comment #4

Is this the gospel? After all this is the gospel coalition website. What message are they preaching?

Comment #5

TGC, please, it’s time for a lengthy sit-down interview with Kevin. This is salvation we’re talking about here.

Comment #6

As a Christian who is currently stumbling and struggling, this article is pretty discouraging. I feel hopeless in the midst of my sin, and hopeless that I have failed to live a morally upright life and I imagine myself knocking on heaven’s gates one day and being denied entrance. Even though in my heart of hearts I know that I have encountered God’s love and have known Him… Can one so easily just look at the lack of moral uprightness in my life and say that I am not a Christian? Isn’t this failure, this sin the exact reason that I need Jesus and needed Him to give His life on the cross?

Comment #7

I’m a little surprised and disappointed that Mr. DeYoung says nothing about faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross, and that he gives the appearance of leaning in the direction of trusting in one’s own works for salvation, even if he does not intend to do so.

While we do bear fruit, we bear it imperfectly, and we will always see our best works tainted with sinful actions or motivations. And Mr. DeYoung, as well intended as he may be, ultimately makes salvation rest on me and my efforts rather than on Christ and the cross.

One entire article was written in response. It was thoughtful and well written. Here’s part of it.

Some [people when talking about assurance] urge folks to ask themselves if they really believe, if they really love their neighbor, if they really live a moral life. But no matter how well intentioned such an urging might be, rather than helping, it is pouring the poison of doubt into the souls of those for whom Christ died.

Look inside yourself to answer, “Are you a Christian?” and you will find a heart that is deceitful above all things (Jer 17:9); a heart from which flow evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander (Matt 15:19); a conscience that testifies that nothing good dwells in you, that the evil you do not want to do, you nevertheless keep right on doing (Rom 7:18-19).

Look at your deeds to answer, “Are you a Christian?” and you will find that all your righteousness is as filthy rags (Isa 64:6); and if such be your righteousness, how dirty and defiled must be your unrighteousness. Look at your deeds and you will find that even when you have the desire to do what is right, you don’t have the ability to carry it out (Rom 7:18). Even if you did all that you were commanded, you must still say, “I am an unworthy servant; I have only done what was my duty,” (cf. Luke 17:10). If such be the response of a person whose has kept all God’s commands, then we who have broken those commands are worthy of nothing but punishment, now and forever.

Thus, to answer, “Are you are Christian?” by looking inside ourselves, or by looking to our deeds or love of the neighbor, is to drink the poison of doubt. In fact, the more Christians look at themselves to see whether they are Christians, the more they will become convinced that they are not Christians.

The answer is found not within us but within Christ. Our assurance is in his objective, external work of salvation on our behalf. Not in our hearts but in the heart and life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we receive assurance that we are the children of God…

How do you know you’re a Christian? Not because your heart is good and pure but because the heart of Christ pulses with a love for you that will never end. Not because your deeds are righteous but because he has been righteous on your behalf and clothes you with that righteousness. Not because you have lived for him but because he has lived and died and risen again for you. Not because you asked him to be your Savior but because while you were yet a sinner, Christ died for you, chose you, called you, and washed you clean in his own divine blood.

Reading the comments and subsequent article you can boil down the objections to five points.

  1. This is salvation by works.
  2. We should never look at ourselves for assurance.
  3. None of us really love God or love our neighbor.
  4. To think that we really love God or our neighbor is prideful.
  5. This way of assurance makes me doubt my salvation.

What should we say to these objections? Here are responses to each of these objections.

Objection 1: This is salvation by works.

You may think: “This causes people to rest on their righteousness rather than on the finished work of Christ.” Clearly that is not what I mean to say; in fact, it is not what I do say. These are not three things we do to earn salvation but three indicators that God has indeed saved us.

We are talking about signposts. How do you know you are driving on the right road in the right direction? Sometimes we need signs, especially when traveling in a foreign country where they drive on the opposite side of the road, to let us know that we are going in the right direction. These signs are not instructions on how to build the ladder to heaven, but evidence, fruit, indicators. Any notion of salvation by works or that we rest in our works rather than in Christ would be inconsistent with scripture.

Perfectionism is ruled out. It is well established in scripture that everyone sins, we all need to be forgiven, we all need to be cleansed, we all need an advocate: somebody who can argue our case before the Father and say because of what I did these sinners ought to be forgiven and made clean and counted righteous. Salvation by works is ruled out.

Objection 2: We should never look at ourselves for assurance.

Again, some people may argue, “Look, there is too much emphasis on I. What I believe, what I do, how I love, how I act. The Bible does not want us to look at what we’re doing but at the objective work of Christ outside of us.” This is one of those statements that is three-quarters true. It is true in what it states—we should look to the objective work of Christ outside of us. Where it is misleading is to say that means there is never any room to find assurance of evidence in our own life.

1 John was written in part so that we might know, that we might see, that we might discern truth from error by looking at people’s lives—what they do, what they believe, how they act. For example, 1 John 2:5, “by this we may know that we are in him.” How do you know if you are in him? Answer: “whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” That’s how we know. Are we walking as he walked? 1 John 3:10, “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil.” We are suppose to look at evidence and what is the evidence? “Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” Again in 1 John 3:14, “We know we have passed out of death into life,” how do we know that? “because we love the brothers;” verse 19, “by this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our hearts before him;” Verse 24, “whoever keeps his commandments abides in God and God in him and by this we know that he abides in us.” So we are meant to see something. Over and over we hear, “by this we know.” It sounds very pious to say we’re never meant to look at any external evidence just look to Christ. But scripture says over and over that there is evidence to know how people are living their lives.

In 2 Cor. 13:5 it says, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith.” That is a scriptural injunction, to examine yourselves. That doesn’t mean we become narcissistic and navel gazing. But there is a place to examine ourselves and see if this fruit is really evident in our lives.

This is what we find in the Reformed Confessions. The Canons of Dort say that assurance is not produced by any private revelation. Assurance, says Dort, springs from three things: “from faith in God’s promises, which He has most abundantly revealed in His Word for our comfort; from the testimony of the Holy Spirit, witnessing with our spirit that we are children and heirs of God; and lastly, from a serious and holy desire to preserve a good conscience and perform good works” (5.10). The Westminster Confession of Faith says pretty much the same thing. The “infallible assurance of faith” is “founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces . . . . [and] the testimony of the Spirit of adoption.” One the second point (evidences of grace), the Confessions lists four proof texts: 2 Peter 1:4-11, which urges us to make our calling and election sure by the diligent effort to grow in godliness and bear spiritual fruit; 1 John 2:3, which testifies that we know we belong to God if we keep his commandments; 1 John 3:14, which assures us that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers; 2 Cor. 1:12, which speaks of rejoicing in the testimony of a good conscience.

Clearly, the Confessions teach that a transformed life is one sign, not the only and not the cause, of our right standing with God. So there is a place in the Christian life to know that we belong to Christ by seeing evidence of it.

Objection 3: None of us really love God or our neighbor.

To be a Christian, you have to be willing to think carefully, to make careful distinctions. Because it is in one sense true: no one loves God and our neighbor as we should. We know we need to love God better; we are imperfect in our love; we often feel convicted of our failures. That is the normal Christian life. But if we think we have no love for God, no love for our neighbor, we cannot make sense of scripture.

1 John 5:2, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.” John is operating with the category there are people who are born of God and they love God and they obey his commandments; verse 1, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” So if you are born of God, these three things are happening in your life. You believe in the Son of God, you love God, and you love the people of God, if you are born again. If the one category—none of us really love God or love our neighbor—is an empty set, then the other category—truly born again of God—is an equally empty set. John Stott says, “The true Christian, born from above, believes in the Son of God, loves God and the children of God, and keeps the commands of God.”

The Gnostics wanted to separate morality from religion but God cannot be separated from himself. Calvin says, “He who loves him [God] must necessarily have his heart prepared to render obedience to righteousness. The love of God, then, is not idle or inactive.”

Look at this remarkable statement in verse 4, “everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world.” If you struggle and do not feel like a victorious Christian that very may well be the normal pattern of the Christian life. But if you succumb to sin, do not turn from sin, your life is habitually marked by sin, you revel in sin, then you are at odds with what scripture tells us to do and expects us to be. It is expected that those in Christ overcome the world. That means Christians set the ways of the world—the desires of the flesh, desires of the eyes, the pride of life—aside.

There is a difference in asking, “How do you know you’re a Christian?” and asking, “How do you become a Christian? How do you become right with God? How can you be justified before God?” You are not saved because your heart is pure. God does not tell us to clean up our life and then he will save us. But we are not wrong to look for good works as evidence of Christian fruitfulness in the life of a true believer—the one who overcomes.

Objection 4: It is prideful.

There is no room for boasting in the Christian life, and if you are drawn to compare yourself to others, then that is wrong. It is the new birth that makes this life of obedience possible—not because we woke up one morning and thought we would become a Christian and tried real hard to get our life together. It is by God’s sovereign work of grace that you have new life and a new spirit and a new heart. Of course there will be some evidence of this new life. When a woman has a baby, the baby is the evidence of the new life. If you never saw the baby, then you would wonder if she had really given birth.

These signs are not the cause of regeneration but the consequences of regeneration. So that our attitude toward God and his commandments changes. The commands are not burdensome, not only because of the nature of the commandments but because of our new nature. What felt oppressive has become freeing. What was dread-inspiring has become a delight. His yoke is easy and his burden is light. The victory that overcomes the world is our faith. That is a surprising twist. We believe the promises of God, fighting the fight of faith. It is not boasting to say, “I worked harder than any of them,” if you then say, “though it was not I, but the grace of God that is within me” (1 Cor. 15:10).

God’s grace saves us from our sin and saves us unto righteousness. Anything else makes Christ only half a Savior. Christ not only saves us from the penalty of sin, he also saves us from the power of sin. We need a category for obedience in the Christian life that is not meritorious or perfect, with weakness and failings and yet it is genuine, heartfelt, sincere, God-pleasing obedience. There are a lot of Christians who live their entire life thinking they cannot do anything that will please their heavenly father. And many times we think it is more spiritual to think this way. But there is a way, as God’s people, to live a life that is obedient to him, not perfectly and it is not what earns your salvation, but it is sincere and genuine. The Westminster Confession says that our works are also accepted in Christ, so that God, “looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.”

Objection 5: This makes me doubt my salvation.

This is the most personal and pastoral objection. There are some who should doubt but not those who desire holiness, hate their sin, and flee to Christ. 1 John is written in order that we might have confidence. It is not meant to make us doubt. It is meant to make us discerning, and through discernment to have confidence. John’s letter summarizes that we are children of our heavenly Father. There are false teachers out there. Don’t listen to them. I want you to be confident in your position in Christ. Don’t run after sin. Run to Christ. Walk with Christ. Then your joy will be filled to overflowing.

To those who ask, “How do I know if I am loving enough?” let me give you three words: trajectory, community and apology.

Don’t measure how you’re doing today compared to two days ago but look over months and years. Is there growth in godliness? Is there love for the things of God? Look for a long term trajectory.

Next community—assurance is a community project. The closer to get to a holy God, the more you see your own sin. We need each other to point out the fruit in our life. There are people we all know that we would like to model our Christian walk after, but none of them are sinless or earned their salvation. We don’t refer to them as sinless, but as godly. We see it in other people, but it can be difficult to see it in ourselves.

Thirdly, apology, in other words, repentance. One of the signs that you are walking in the light is that you are honest about having walked in the darkness. This doesn’t mean you do not sin anymore or that you still do not have some dark times. It means that you bring your sin into the light and are honest about it and repent and come to Christ . We are meant to have a clean conscience. Born again Christians are changed Christians—the change may be stumbling, imperfect, full of temptation, much struggle, but the change is never the less real, heartfelt, sincere and discernible.

This message is fundamentally all about Christ. Am I in Christ? Do I cling to Christ? Do I run to Christ? Am I being conformed to the image of Christ? As you are conformed to the image of Christ you will say, I love righteousness. I hate sin. I desire to please my Father. I trust his goodness. I believe that greater is he that is in me than he that is in the world. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.

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So How Do I Really Know I’m a Christian?

Jun 04, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

A few weeks ago I wrote a short piece entitled How Do I Know I’m a Christian? The post flowed from a semester of preaching through 1 John. Like John Stott (and others), I see 1 John as a letter about assurance, a brief book in which the Apostle John outlines (over and over) three signs that confirm what John already knows: namely, that the recipients of his epistles are beloved children of God.

  • The first sign is theological. You should have confidence if you believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God (5:11-13).
  • The second sign is moral. You should have confidence if you live a righteous life (3:6-9).
  • The third sign is social. You should have confidence if you love other Christians (3:14).

There is nothing original about these points. Stott calls the three signs “belief” or “the doctrinal test,” “obedience” or “the moral test,” and “love” or “the social test.” As far as I can tell from the commentaries I consulted, my understanding of 1 John is thoroughly mainstream. I made clear that “These are not three things we do to earn salvation, but three indicators that God has indeed saved us.” I also explained that looking for these signs was not an invitation to look for perfection. “Lest this standard make you despair,” I said at one point, “keep in mind that part of living a righteous life is refusing to claim that you live without sin and coming to Christ for cleansing when you do sin (1:9-10).” In other words, the righteous life is a repentant life.

Surprisingly, the post elicited a strong response, much of it critical. As these things go on the web, some of the critiques were petty and personal. But others raised genuine concerns worth engaging. Because they raised questions people in my own congregation might have, I took time in my sermon on May 17 to explore several of these concerns and respond to them from 1 John. I hope to have a transcript of the sermon available soon.

In the meantime, I thought it would be helpful to engage more substantively with one particular response. After my initial article, a number of people on twitter directed folks to this post by Chad Bird as a much better answer to the question “How do I know I’m a Christian?” I don’t know Chad except that he is a contributor at Christ Hold Fast, a former Lutheran pastor and professor, and an occasional blogger at Liberate. I want to interact with his post not because it is so bad, but because it is, in so many ways, terrifically good. It is heartfelt, well-written, and points people to Christ. At the same time, by my reckoning the post evidences a number of theological and exegetical missteps (or at least, half-truths). My overarching concern is that when talking about the need for personal holiness we need to find categories besides “sinless perfection” and “filthy rags.” I hope that in taking the time to respond to this brother’s article I’m not stirring up more heat, but producing more light on these thorny and perennial issues of sanctification, good works, and assurance. I’ve reprinted Bird’s article below in bold italics, with my commentary in regular print.

There are questions about ourselves that are easily answered, and there are other questions that present more of a challenge.

If someone asks me, “Are you a husband?” I can show them my ring, present my wedding certificate, point to the woman standing next to me who shares my life and my last name. Yes, I am 100% sure that I’m married.

If someone asks me, “Are you an employee?” I can show them where I work, present my pay stubs, point to the truck with which I make deliveries. Yes, I am 100% sure that I’m an employee.

Other questions are not so easily answered. If I’m asked, “Are you a good husband?” what immediately comes to mind are the times I’ve failed my wife, acted selfishly, and been anything but a good husband. I have no real external, tangible, objective way to answer that question. I must rely on feelings and speculations. Similarly, if someone asks, “What kind of employee are you?” my mind goes to the labor I’ve put in, but also to the times I’ve slacked off yet expected a full paycheck for a half-hearted performance. What if I think I’m doing an okay job but my boss thinks different and fires me?

There are questions about ourselves that are easily answered, and there are other questions about ourselves where we have to explore our hearts to test their sincerity, take account of the good and bad things we’ve done, focus inwardly to find the answer.

What about the question, “Are you a Christian?” Does this one belong to that second category, where we must explore our hearts, test our actions, focus inside ourselves to get to the right answer?

That’s certainly what some people think. So they urge folks to ask themselves if they really believe, if they really love their neighbor, if they really live a moral life. But no matter how well intentioned such an urging might be, rather than helping, it is pouring the poison of doubt into the souls of those for whom Christ died.

Here Bird makes a direct reference to my blog post mentioning the three signs I argue are put forth for our assurance in 1 John. In these opening paragraphs we get a sense of Bird’s overarching concern: when it comes to answering the question “Are you a Christian?” we should not look at ourselves or in ourselves. We will never find confidence by looking at ourselves, only misplaced doubt. To be sure, this is a real problem for many Christians, which is why pastoral care and one-another counseling must take into account all of Scripture and all of the life for person we are trying to help. But is it right to present these three signs (theological, social, moral) as only leading to poisonous doubt? Three quick thoughts.

1. There are people externally connected to God’s covenant community who ought to doubt whether they truly belong to Christ. Isn’t this the point (at least one of the points) when 1 Corinthians 6:9 announces “that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God,” or when Galatians 5:21 warns “that those who do such things [works of the flesh] will not inherit the kingdom of God,” or when Galatians 6:8 reminds us that “the one who sows to the his own flesh” will not reap “eternal life” but “will from the flesh reap corruption”? Weren’t many of Jesus’ statements meant to disturb the comfortably religious? It is possible to say “Lord, Lord” and not actually know the Lord and enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 7:21-23). Some people honor God with their lips, but have a heart that is far from Christ (Matt. 15:8). To be sure, the purpose of 1 John is to provide comfort for believers (1 John 5:13) not pour out the poison of doubt, but doubting our salvation is not a bad things if we are not saved.

2. The call to examine oneself does not have to lead to crippling doubt and self-loathing. When Paul enjoined believers in 2 Corinthians 13:5 to examine themselves to whether they were in the faith, he fully expected them to pass the test (“Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!”).

3. While it is never a good idea to “focus inside ourselves,” it is impossible to make sense of 1 John if looking for moral, social, and theological evidence is entirely inappropriate. For example, 1 John 2:5-6 says “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” Likewise, 1 John 3:10 says, “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” We see similar “by this we know” language in 1 John 2:3; 3:14, 19, 24; 4:2-3; 4:13; 5:2. Clearly, we are meant to know something about the person by looking at what he believes, how he lives, and how he loves. One doesn’t have to be in favor of morbid introspection to understand that 1 John urges Christians to look for evidences of grace in themselves and in those who might be seeking to lead them astray.

Look inside yourself to answer, “Are you a Christian?” and you will find a heart that is deceitful above all things (Jer 17:9); a heart from which flow evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander (Matt 15:19); a conscience that testifies that nothing good dwells in you, that the evil you do not want to do, you nevertheless keep right on doing (Rom 7:18-19).

Look at your deeds to answer, “Are you a Christian?” and you will find that all your righteousness is as filthy rags (Isa 64:6); and if such be your righteousness, how dirty and defiled must be your unrighteousness. Look at your deeds and you will find that even when you have the desire to do what is right, you don’t have the ability to carry it out (Rom 7:18). Even if you did all that you were commanded, you must still say, “I am an unworthy servant; I have only done what was my duty,” (cf. Luke 17:10). If such be the response of a person whose has kept all God’s commands, then we who have broken those commands are worthy of nothing but punishment, now and forever.

Thus, to answer, “Are you are Christian?” by looking inside ourselves, or by looking to our deeds or love of the neighbor, is to drink the poison of doubt. In fact, the more Christians look at themselves to see whether they are Christians, the more they will become convinced that they are not Christians.

Let’s deal with Scripture first. Except for the reference to Romans 7, I don’t think any of these passages make the point Bird wants them to make. Jeremiah 17:9 is true for the unredeemed, but is “deceitful above all things” an accurate description of the hearts of those who have been born again? What about the promise of the law of God written on our hearts in Jeremiah 31? Or the promise of a heart of flesh in Ezekiel 36? Isn’t the Christian being renewed into the image of Christ (Col. 3:15) and created in Christ Jesus for good works (Eph. 2:10)?

Likewise, Jesus’ words in Matthew 15:19 are not describing the regular life of a born again disciple. If they were, how could we make sense of the instructions in the Sermon on the Mount, let alone the description of those outside of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:8?

I’ve written before that “filthy rags” in Isaiah 64:6 refers to perfunctory ritual obedience. The fact that Isaiah 64:5 speaks of the Lord smiling upon “him who joyfully works righteousness” proves that God does not turn his nose up at everything we ever do in his sight. Your heavenly Father is not impossible to please.

I don’t see the relevance of Luke 17:10. The discussion is not whether our obedience makes us worthy of anything, but whether obedience is a helpful (and even necessary) sign of our belonging to Christ. We are talking about the fruit of our justification, not the root.

Romans 7 is notoriously difficult to interpret, but assuming the passage is speaking about the converted Paul (which is what I think), these self-recriminating verses do not mean it is wrong to look for the sort of signs 1 John outlines. Elsewhere, Paul seems quite satisfied in his conscience that he has been walking in faith (and presumably in repentance) with the Lord (1 Cor. 4:3-4; 2 Cor. 1:12). Romans 7 expresses the very real sense of conviction and inner turmoil we can experience as Christians, which is why I would never say Christians should only look to their own lives for assurance. It is the testimony of most great saints that the closer they got to God, the more of their sin they began to see. Assurance is not a task for the navel-gazer, but a community project that relies (among other things) on evidence and on the spiritual sense of our brothers and sisters.

The answer is found not within us but within Christ. Our assurance is in his objective, external work of salvation on our behalf. Not in our hearts but in the heart and life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we receive assurance that we are the children of God.

This is the crux of the matter. Is the Christian’s assurance based on the objective, external work of salvation won by Christ on our behalf? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Are there other grounds of assurance? Also yes. The Reformed confessions (Dort and Westminster) mention three grounds of assurance: “the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces. . . .[and] the testimony of the Spirit of adoption.” On the second point regarding inward evidences of grace, Westminster lists four prooftexts:

  • 2 Peter 1:4-11 which urges us to make our calling and election sure by the diligent effort to grow in godliness and bear spiritual fruit.
  • 1 John 2:3 which testifies that we know we belong to God if we keep his commandments.
  • 1 John 3:14 which assures us that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers.
  • 2 Cor. 1:12 which speaks of rejoicing in the testimony of a good conscience.

Clearly, the Confession teaches that a transformed life is one sign (though not the only sign, and certainly not the the cause) of our right standing with God. Whether Lutheran Orthodoxy agrees with Reformed Orthodoxy on this point I cannot say, but the Defense of the Augsburg Confession does state: “It is, therefore, manifest that we require good works” (III.19).

In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19)—the world of which you are a part. In Christ you are reconciled to God, at peace with the Lord, adopted as a child of the heavenly Father. God loved the world in this way: by sending his only begotten Son to die as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And if the world’s sin is taken away, then your sins are taken away. God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us in order that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21). His worthiness covers our unworthiness.

Your name is written in the wounds of Jesus. He has dipped his pen in the crimson ink of his veins and written your name, indelibly, in the Lamb’s Book of Life. He has engraved your name on the palms of his hands. He has tattooed his name onto your soul and heart and mind and body—you are completely and everlastingly his and his alone. In baptism you did not commit yourself to Christ; he committed himself to you. More than that, in those waters he crucified you with himself, laid your body with his in the tomb, and he carried you forth into the light of life again. He who believes and is baptized shall be saved. That believing, that faith, is not a conviction you created but a gift you received. By the Holy Spirit you confess, “Jesus is Lord.”

Beautiful stuff. I think I detect a universal atonement in the first paragraph and a little Lutheran sacramental theology in the second paragraph, but outside of this these are wonderful gospel truths that I hope every Christian would warmly embrace.

Do we still struggle to believe? Of course we do, for we are far from perfect in this life. As a father once prayed to Jesus, so we also pray, “Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief,” (Mark 9:24). And he does. He enlivens and strengthens our faith by continuing to forgive us, to love us, to heal us, to give us himself. It is not our faithfulness that saves us, but the faithfulness of Jesus. For even if we are faithless he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself (2 Tim 2:13).

Setting aside the question of how to interpret 2 Timothy 2:13 (which some take to be God’s faithfulness to save us and others interpret as God’s faithfulness to judge those who deny him), Bird is being both biblically true and pastorally wise to remind us that “we are far from perfect in this life.” No one is without sin, and if we claim to be without sin we call God a liar (1 John 1:8, 10). The problem is that whenever mention is made of obeying God or pleasing God (manifestly biblical categories), some Christians–whether because they have an axe to grind or (more likely) because they have a tender conscience–hear in that language: flawless, spotless, meritorious obedience. As I said earlier, when explaining the need for personal holiness in the life of the Christian, we need categories besides “sinless perfection” and “filthy rags.” Employing this category is one of the strengths of 1 John and is necessary if we are to make sense of Hebrews 12:14, the Sermon on the Mount, qualifications for elders and deacons, the fruit of the Spirit, or almost anything in the New Testament.

We are capable of doing what is good–not perfectly, not without blemish and weakness, but truly, sincerely, and in a way that is pleasing to God. According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, our sins are not only forgiven in Christ, our works are also accepted in Christ, such that God, “looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections” (WCF16.6). It is equally a denial of Scripture and of the grace of God to say that the Christian cannot do good as it is to say that the Christian never does what is bad (1 John 1:8, 10; 2:1, 3, 12-14, 15-17; 3:2-3, 4-10; 5:1-5; 18-20).

How do you know you’re a Christian? Not because your heart is good and pure but because the heart of Christ pulses with a love for you that will never end. Not because your deeds are righteous but because he has been righteous on your behalf and clothes you with that righteousness. Not because you have lived for him but because he has lived and died and risen again for you. Not because you asked him to be your Savior but because while you were yet a sinner, Christ died for you, chose you, called you, and washed you clean in his own divine blood.

If someone asks you, “How do you know you’re a Christian?” the answer is as simple as it is beautiful: you know you’re a Christian
because Christ has made you his own
because Christ will hold you fast
because nothing can separate you from the love of God
because Christ knows you, forgives you, washes you, and will never let you go.

That’s how you know you’re a Christian.

I love a lot about these concluding paragraphs. I love the emphasis on the work of Christ on the cross. I love the focus on Christ’s never-failing love. I love the reminder that we do not hold on to Christ, but he holds on to us. I love what Bird affirms in this closing section. My concern is in what he denies. I find this to be a recurring problem in recent sanctification debates. It’s not the affirmations of grace that trouble me, but what so often shows up as the antithesis to grace. If the question was “How do I become a Christian?” then the “nots” would be well placed. But the question is how do I know I’m a Christian? In which case what we believe, what we do, and what our hearts feel is not irrelevant. What should we make of someone whose heart is bad and impure, someone whose deeds are unrighteous, someone who does not live for Christ, someone who has not asked Christ to be his Savior? I suppose in one sense–and this is likely what Bird means–we could still conclude that this person was a Christian, if we mean someone whose heart still struggles with sin, someone whose deeds are not always righteous, someone who does not live for Christ as well as he would like, someone whose confidence is not in faith itself but in the object of his faith. I assume that’s what Bird means, but by themselves these statements say too much. They claim that looking at the heart, looking at our deeds, looking at a life of discipleship, looking at a basic faith commitment has no bearing on whether you know you’re a Christian. Even if these were absent there would be no grounds for questioning your position in Christ. Is this good biblical counsel and pastoral care? Is there anything a professing Christian can say or do or fail to manifest that would suggest a profession is false?

If you can hang with me a few more paragraphs, read through this tedious but important section from (Lutheran) Defense of the Augsburg Confession:

We, therefore, profess that it is necessary that the Law be begun in us, and that it be observed continually more and more. And at the same time we comprehend both spiritual movements and external good works [the good heart within and works without]. Therefore the adversaries falsely charge against us that our theologians do not teach good works while they not only require these, but also show how they can be done [that the heart must enter into these works, lest they be mere, lifeless, cold works of hypocrites].

The result convicts hypocrites, who by their own powers endeavor to fulfill the Law, that they cannot accomplish what they attempt. [For are they free from hatred, envy, strife, anger, wrath, avarice, adultery, etc.? Why, these vices were nowhere greater than in the cloisters and sacred institutes.] For human nature is far too weak to be able by its own powers to resist the devil, who holds as captives all who have not been freed through faith. There is need of the power of Christ against the devil, namely, that, inasmuch as we know that for Christ’s sake we are heard, and have the promise, we may pray for the governance and defense of the Holy Ghost, that we may neither be deceived and err, nor be impelled to undertake anything contrary to God’s will. [Otherwise we should, every hour, fall into error and abominable vices.] Just as Ps. 68:18 teaches: Thou hast led captivity captive; Thou hast received gifts for man. For Christ has overcome the devil, and has given to us the promise and the Holy Ghost, in order that, by divine aid, we ourselves also may overcome. And 1 John 3:8: For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.

Again, we teach not only how the Law can be observed, but also how God is pleased if anything be done, namely, not because we render satisfaction to the Law, but because we are in Christ, as we shall say after a little. It is, therefore, manifest that we require good works. Yea, we add also this, that it is impossible for love to God, even though it be small, to be sundered from faith, because through Christ we come to the Father, and the remission of sins having been received, we now are truly certain that we have a God, i.e., that God cares for us; we call upon Him, we give Him thanks, we fear Him, we love Him as 1 John 4:19 teaches: We love Him, because He first loved us, namely, because He gave His Son for us, and forgave us our sins. Thus he indicates that faith precedes and love follows.

Likewise the faith of which we speak exists in repentance, i.e., it is conceived in the terrors of conscience, which feels the wrath of God against our sins, and seeks the remission of sins, and to be freed from sin. And in such terrors and other afflictions this faith ought to grow and be strengthened. Wherefore it cannot exist in those who live according to the flesh who are delighted by their own lusts and obey them. Accordingly, Paul says, Rom. 8:1: There is, therefore, now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. So, too, Rom. 8:12-13: We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die; but if ye, through the Spirit, do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. Wherefore, the faith which receives remission of sins in a heart terrified and fleeing from sin does not remain in those who obey their desires, neither does it coexist with mortal sin.(III.15-23, emphasis and paragraph breaks mine)

I find in this section so much of what is often denied by those on the “stop looking at yourself” side of the sanctification discussion.

  • We can grow as Christians (the Law being observed in us more and more).
  • As the fruit of our justification, good works are necessary for the Christian.
  • By the conquering power of Christ, good work are possible for the Christian.
  • Genuine faith in inconsistent with living according to the flesh.

As I read the books and blogs and tweets of my brothers and sisters on the other side of these debates I often find myself saying, “Yes, I love that too! But saying yes to that doesn’t entail saying no to this.” We have to deal with people in the full range of their problems, fears, hurts, and idols. We have to sing all four parts of the score and from more than our favorite oratorio. We have to be more careful with what we affirm and what we deny. And above all, we must be relentlessly biblical. If someone’s sermon or book or article makes you feel condemned or feel uneasy or feel out of sorts with God that is not inconsequential, but neither is it by itself conclusive. Maybe the message was off. Maybe the messenger was clumsy. Or maybe the fault lies with the one receiving the message. If we want to be good Reformed Christians or good Lutheran Christians (or any other kind of good Christians) we must keep going back to the Bible. We have to think carefully and speak carefully. This is an important conversation with lots of theological, personal, and pastoral ramifications. If we deal with slogans and caricatures, all will be in vain. If we talk calmly and dig deeply, much can be gained.

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