When Christians begin to have doubts about their salvation, they usually consult their pastor or another trusted spiritual advisor. If you ask your pastor why you are doubting, you will typically get three responses: unconfessed sin, hidden sin, or you’re under conviction, needing true salvation.
I remember sitting in my pastor’s office during great times of doubt and despair and hearing these things. Time after time, I would return home and begin the process of self-examination. Certainly there were times of unconfessed sin and I knew it. But confession and turning away from that sin didn’t seem to ease my conscience. Eventually, I came to the conclusion (about a thousand different times) that I just wasn’t saved, that I was one of those Matthew 7:21 people. You know? The ones that think they’re saved because they appear to have a sliver of holiness but are really on their way to Hell.
The entire process was painful. Every. Single. Time.
But the real culprit for my despair was something that I had never considered. This enemy had slipped into my church, sneakily subverting the comforts of the gospel from mine and thousands of other Christians minds. His name was False Teaching!
Most of us think of false teaching as a blatant perversion of the gospel; things like works-salvation, denial of the deity of Christ, rejection of the Trinity, etc. But there is a more subtle form of false teaching that has invaded our modern-day churches. This teaching tends to distract the eyes from the objective promises of the gospel to focus inwardly or elsewhere. Specifically, there are four areas of false teaching that causes Christians to go into despair and doubt their salvation. Let’s examine them, together.
Conflation of Law & Gospel
Mixing of the Law & Gospel is perhaps the main premise of Christian doubt. In Scripture, these were meant to be separated but not mutually exclusive to each other. For this reason, it’s easy to conflate the two and launch our consciences into terror. Keeping these two aspects of Scripture within their proper places is vital. The Law demands that we fulfill obligations to God, threatening us with punishments if we do not fulfill them and promising blessings if we do fulfill them. The gospel, on the other hand, only offers us promises without the expectations of performance. It is based entirely upon the mercy of God in Christ Jesus. While the Law pays its dues for kept or unkept covenants, the Gospel knows no such payment. The payment was made at the cross. Let the Law, therefore, be proclaimed to yourself if you find you are reveling in your sin. But if you have cried out to God for mercy and forgiveness, let the comforts of His promise to forgive your sins soothe your heart and conscience.
One of the greatest dangers to Christians is the checklist. When we fall prey to it, we begin to not only judge others but ourselves also. We concoct an idea that holiness comes from avoiding certain activities that God is unpleased with. If we avoid these, God is happy. On the flip side, if we exert our energies in certain areas we know we should be engaging, God is sure to smile upon us and bless us. The checklist is simply another way of commingling Law and Gospel. The only difference is that we have made the conditions of blessings and curses instead letting Scripture dictate them. The negative of the checklist is that our consciences go into the self-loathing gear when we don’t or can’t check off our presupposed holy activities. If we do happen to go several days ticking all the boxes, we become conceited, looking at others and wondering why they have not yet attained to the joy of supernatural living. Obviously God demands holiness of His people. We are not to avoid the whisperings of the Law in our ear when we sin but neither can we replace the Gospel with our checklists. It will always be a fine line and we must develop the skill of properly dividing the two.
A focus on self
When I talk about self-focus, I’m not talking about meditation or yoga or some other form of Eastern religion. Self-focus is the habit Christians have of inner reflection of their sanctification. In other words, if they have been a Christian for 𝓍 number of years but seem to have only come 𝓍 miles in their Christian walk, they begin to doubt their salvation. After all, the pastor stated this in his last sermon. He is the spiritual leader. He has had the theological training. He must be right.
Most of us view the Christian life as a continual upward journey. But the Christian life is full of ups and downs, failings and victories. It looks more like a jagged mountain edge than a gradual ascending. When we focus on our own progress and sanctification, we will see nothing but sin and failing. As the hymn writer wrote with all truth,
prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.
Even after we are saved, we are prone to follow our flesh. We continually fight our sinful desires. The majority of self-examination passages in Scripture have to do with those indulging in gross sin while naming Christ as their Savior. When these verses are taken out of context by well-meaning pastors, it often harms much more than helps. The only solution is to look to the objective promises of the Gospel. What does this mean? An objective promise is something that is ultimately true, regardless of your feelings and doubts. It is an objective fact that Jesus was crucified for your sins and raised from the dead for your justification. It is an objective fact that He promises forgiveness of sins in His Name. It is an objective fact that all who believe on Him and call upon Him receive this promise. Instead of trying to find the goodness within yourself (you won’t find it) look instead to these objective promises and let your heart be assured.
Rejection of the Sacraments
Many scoff at the idea that the sacraments can ease our consciences and bring assurance of the gospel to us. This comes from a misunderstanding of what a sacrament is. It is an earthly, visible element which has a promised Word of God attached to the element. For example, in baptism we are promised the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Mk 16:16, Acts 2:38). The Lord’s Supper promises that all who partake of the body and blood of the Lord receive the forgiveness of sins (Mt 26:26-29). The majority of today’s churches have reduced the sacraments down to mere symbolism, thereby rejecting the efficacy of those sacraments. Baptism symbolizes our union with Christ. The Lord’s Supper symbolizes our participation in His death.
The sacraments were instituted by Christ for a reason. He never spoke of them symbolically and neither should we. For the first 1500 years of the Church, these promises were taken as they stand in Scripture, literally not symbolically. When pastors began to forsake the plain meaning of these passages for a symbolic view, their laity lost with it the precious promise of assurance and comfort with it. God knows our weaknesses and considers our plight to need these visual reminders that His promises are for us. Most would object and accuse those who hold to this view of living by sight instead of living by faith. “After all,” they would argue, “true faith needs no other object but Christ.”
Scripture is replete with God’s visual signs for His people. Again, most people would object by claiming that the majority of these signs were Old Testament signs, before the promised word of the Gospel. But are we now any different than those Israelites? Are we any less prone to unbelief when they had the physical manifestations of God in their midst while we have the presence of God dwelling within us? Even in the New Testament, God’s people were given physical, visible signs of Jesus’ coming. Even the book of Hebrews classifies spiritual gifts with the physical manifestation of God’s promises. If God used ordinary physical means to assure us that His promises are true and real, we have no reason to reject the sacraments based solely upon a different theological perspective. Receive the sacraments and rest assured that the promise attached to it is indeed a promise you may objectively cling to.
Doubt comes through the false teaching of failing to properly distinguish between Law & Gospel. All of the things mentioned above are some form of mixing the two together. Our hearts will be more assured and our consciences will find the peace we search for as we learn the skill of properly dividing Law & Gospel. For more information on properly dividing Law & Gospel, you can read this section of Luther’s Large Catechism. God bless you as you seek to cling to His precious promises of forgiveness and assurance.