There are two things that have been bothering me over the past several weeks. One regards the issue of assurance of salvation; the other touches on our boldness in confronting followers of Christ for their sin. The trouble for me is not that we tend to lack teaching on assurance, but that we tend to be very different in how we teach assurance from what I find in men like Rutherford and, more importantly, Paul and Christ. Along those lines, I find Jesus, Paul and Rutherford confronting sin in their followers in a way that I find myself very uneasy about. I constantly struggle with the questions, “Am I being too harsh? Am I being too merciful? Am I being too impatient? Am I being too patient?” That balance is very difficult to achieve. Here are some of the things I’m reading from Paul, Jesus and Samuel Rutherford that make this battle in my mind so difficult.
Paul“The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19-21 NIV).
I can’t miss the fact that discord, jealousy and selfish ambition are in that list—qualities that can be found in many young men and women.
“Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person--such a man is an idolater--has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph. 5:1-5 NIV).
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Mat. 5:27-30 NIV).
Jesus in no way offered a “wait-and-see-how-it-goes” policy for dealing with sin. He insisted on “radical amputation.”
“You may put a difference betwixt you and reprobates, if you have these marks:
- If ye prize Christ and his truth so as you will sell all and buy him, and suffer for it.
- If the love of Christ keepeth you back from sinning, more than the law, or fear of hell.
- If you be humble and deny your own will, wit, credit, ease, honour, the world, and the vanity and glory of it.
- Your profession must not be barren and void of good works.
- You must in all things aim at God’s honour. You must eat, drink, sleep, buy, sell, sit, stand, speak, pray, read, and hear the Word, with a heart-purpose that God may be honoured.
- You must show yourself an enemy to sin, and reprove the works of darkness, such as drunkenness, swearing, and lying, albeit the company should hate you for so doing.
- Keep in mind the truth of God that you heard me teach, and have nothing to do with the corruptions and new guises entering into the house of God.
- Make conscience of your calling, in covenants, in buying and selling.
- Acquaint yourself with daily praying; commit all your ways and actions to God by prayer, supplication, and thanksgiving. And count not much of being mocked, for Christ Jesus was mocked before you" (Letters of Samuel Rutherford, 83-84).
Here lies my dilemma: Though the gospel itself is very clearly by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, our assurance of our salvation rests on the evidence that it produces. That is easy enough to understand. The dilemma part of it comes for me when teens in my youth group seem more keen on lying than on telling the truth; when sexual sin becomes a lifestyle for a person—even though he or she “really wants to be free” from it; when God and his Word are only Sunday and Wednesday necessities. These are the situations I find myself facing and wondering how best to respond. When Rutherford wrote to John Gordon of Cardoness, he challenged him on his salvation with these words:
“I beseech you, Sir, by the salvation of your precious soul and the mercies of God, to make good and sure work of your salvation, and try upon what ground-stone you have builded. Worthy and dear Sir, if you be upon sinking sand, a storm of death and a blast will lose Christ and you, and wash you close off the rock. O for the Lord’s sake look narrowly to the work.... Know this, that those who never had sick nights or days in conscience for sin, cannot have but such a peace with God as will [fester] and break the flesh again, and end in a sad war at death. O how fearfully are thousands beguiled with false hide, grown over old sins, as if the soul were cured and healed” (Letters, 49-50).
So the question, for me, remains then, “To what extent to do I boldly challenge a professed faith that displays little or no evidence of genuine conversion?” For some time I resolved that impasse by insisting that it was not my duty to judge a person’s salvation, and that may still be the correct approach. However, the more I read of men like Jesus, Paul, Rutherford, Spurgeon, Owen, Baxter, et. al., the more I come to the conclusion that maybe that is exactly what my job as a shepherd is.