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By Scott Hubbard — 4 months ago
For a certain kind of Christian, assurance of salvation can feel as fickle as a winter sun. Here and there, the sky shines blue and bright, filling the soul with light. Far more often, however, the days are mostly cloudy, the sun shadowed with uncertainty. And then sometimes, the sky goes gray for weeks on end, and the heart walks heavily under the darkness of doubt.
From the outside, such Christians may seem to bear much spiritual fruit: friends may mark the grace in their lives, accountability partners may encourage them, pastors may find no reason to question their faith. But for those under the clouds, even healthy fruit can look pale and sick. So even as they read their Bible, pray, gather with God’s people, witness, and confess their sins, they usually find some reason to wonder if they really belong to Christ.
How does assurance sink into the heart and psyche of those prone to second-guess? The Holy Spirit has many ways of nourishing confidence in his people — not least by teaching us to recognize the fruit he bears. But for the overly scrupulous among us, for whom personal holiness always seems uncertain, the Spirit also does more: he lifts our eyes above the clouds to show us God’s unchanging character.
Among the divine qualities he uses to nurture our assurance, we may find one surprising: God’s infinite commitment to his glory.
For the Sake of His Name
At first, God’s commitment to his glory may seem to weaken, not strengthen, a doubting Christian’s assurance. If God does everything “to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:14), for the fame of his name, what hope do we have — we who daily fall short of that glory, who often dishonor that name? We would need to find assurance elsewhere, it would seem.
Yet those who pay attention will find God’s zeal for his name running like a silver thread of hope through all the Scriptures. When Israel’s army fell before Ai, “What will you do for your great name?” was Joshua’s cry (Joshua 7:9). When the nation sinned by demanding a human king, Samuel assured the fearful, “The Lord will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake” (1 Samuel 12:22). When, later, Israel teetered on the brink of exile, Jeremiah pleaded, “Do not spurn us, for your name’s sake” (Jeremiah 14:21). And when the nation languished in Babylon, Daniel grounded his bold prayers on “your name” (Daniel 9:19).
Again and again, the guilty people of God appeal not only to God’s mercy, but to his unflinching allegiance to his glory. Save us, restore us, keep us, defend us — and do it for the sake of your name! So what did they know about God’s name that we may not?
His People, Their God
First, they knew that God, in unspeakable mercy, had condescended to put his name upon his people (Numbers 6:27). By making a covenant with Israel — taking them as his people, pledging himself as their God — he wrapped up his glory with their good; he wove his fame together with their future.
The surrounding nations knew, as Daniel prayed, that “your city and your people are called by your name” (Daniel 9:19). And so, when God lifted up his people, he lifted up his name; when God helped his people, he hallowed his name. Through Israel’s welfare, he trumpeted his own worth, showing himself as the only living God in a world of lifeless idols.
No doubt, God’s name proved useless to those who presumed upon it, who chanted “The Lord! The Lord!” so they could keep sinning in safety (Jeremiah 7:8–15). When Israel’s unrepentant ran to God’s name for refuge, they found the door locked. But for the humble repentant, God’s name stood like the strongest tower (Proverbs 18:10). They might be sinful and unworthy in themselves, but God had given them his name — and for the sake of that name they found mercy, forgiveness, safety, and help.
“The name of God is the hand of God reaching down to helpless sinners, bidding them to grab on and not let go.”
John Owen writes, “God in a covenant gives those holy properties of his nature unto his creature, as his hand or arm for him to lay hold upon, and by them to plead and argue with him” (Works, 6:471). The name of God is the hand of God reaching down to helpless sinners, bidding them to grab on and not let go.
The Lord, the Lord
Second, these saints knew something about God’s name that would have been too wonderful to believe if God himself had not revealed it: at the heart of God’s name is not only the glory of greatness, but the glory of grace.
When the Lord himself “proclaimed the name of the Lord” to Moses (Exodus 34:5), here is what he said:
The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty. (Exodus 34:6–7)
To be sure, God is zealous to display the glory of his greatness — his holiness, his power, his authority, his eternity. When he raised up Pharaoh, for example, “so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16), he wanted all nations to tremble before the plague-sending, tyrant-crushing, slave-freeing God of Israel. He is “the great, the mighty, and the awesome God” (Deuteronomy 10:17).
Yet, as God reveals to Moses, he is not content merely to show the glory of his greatness; he also exalts the glory of his grace — his kindness, his patience, his abounding love and faithfulness. Unlike so many gods of the nations, mercy, and not only might, sits on the throne of his glory. Well then might we say with Micah, “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression” (Micah 7:18) — and who glorifies his name by showing grace?
But we can say even more. For in the fullness of time, God lifted up his name in a way wholly unexpected, altogether glorious: by lifting up his Son.
Assurance in Every Syllable
When God sent his Son into the world, he sent him with a name — with many names, in fact. And in his mercy, God was pleased to inscribe assurance in nearly every syllable.
Some of Jesus’s names do speak directly of his greatness, calling forth fearful awe. He is the Lord who commands creation, the King who rules the nations, the Judge who sifts men’s hearts, the Holy One who terrifies demons. But in line with the revelation of God’s name to Moses, so many of Jesus’s names testify to the glory of his grace.
For how will he get glory as Savior unless he saves the utterly lost to the uttermost? How will he get glory as servant unless he bends to wash our filthy feet? Or how will he get glory as redeemer unless he sets the captives free?
As Lamb of God, his glory rests on cleansing the worst sins with his most-worthy blood. As bridegroom, his glory shines in the forgiven splendor of his bride. And as the way, his glory leads lost sinners home.
Now, as heavenly advocate, he glories to bear our names in his scars. As head of the body, he gloriously nourishes and cherishes his members below. And as founder and perfecter, his glory redounds when he finishes the faith he begins.
“This Jesus will not lose one jewel in his crown of names.”
We could go on, showing how the glory in the names propitiation, bread of life, light of the world, and more is a glory made for sinners’ good. This Jesus will not lose one jewel in his crown of names. He will not let his glory as mediator be diminished by one lost case, or his glory as shepherd be tarnished by one devoured sheep, or his glory as high priest be brought low by one needy, trusting sinner left without help.
Such names shine like so many suns in the sky above, each a burning assurance meant to chase away our clouds.
His Glorious Grace
Now, knowing that God saves sinners for his name’s sake may not resolve all our doubts. After lifting our eyes to such unclouded skies, we may lower them again upon a world of gray, wondering if God is saving us for his name’s sake. So how might this sight of God’s character help the hesitating soul?
First, simply fixing our gaze on God rather than self may do much to nurture spiritual health. If we often live in the cellar of the soul, trying to judge our spiritual fruit in the dim light of scrupulous introspection, long and regular looks at God may lift us into sun-lit skies, where for a few wonderful moments we forget ourselves, and then perhaps dare to believe that the light of this God can swallow any darkness, even ours.
Second, meditating on God’s grace-filled commitment to his name may remove the deep, subconscious suspicion that God’s glory and our salvation are somehow at odds. We may begin to feel, and not only say, that this shepherd would rejoice to carry us home upon his shoulders, that this father would run to see our silhouette on the horizon.
If you want a deeper sense of assurance, then, by all means keep killing your sin and pursuing the holiness “without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). But also labor to travel often above the clouds, where you remember that God created this world not only “to the praise of his glory,” but “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:6, 14). And therefore, all of God’s zeal for his glory, all of God’s love for his name, stands behind the sinner who casts his soul on Christ.
By Jon Bloom — 1 year ago
Things fall apart. It’s the second law of thermodynamics. It’s Romans 8:20 happening all around us. It’s a reality I increasingly experience in my body as I pass through the second half of middle age. Cracks permeate everything — including every church I’ve known.
Christian relationships encounter all the temptations common to man. That’s why Christian churches will rarely experience a kind of unity that knows no conflict or struggle.
But an absence of conflict and struggle is not what God has in mind for Christian unity in this age. As I’ve explained more thoroughly elsewhere, God gives unity as part of our inheritance in Christ (Ephesians 1:5, 11), but Christian oneness has a participatory dimension through which God accomplishes some glorious work in us and the world. So when God, through Paul, commands us to eagerly “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3), he intends for this endeavor to be hard — for some very good reasons.
But more than that, God intends our churches to experience seasons of noticeable disunity. In fact, these seasons are necessary, because they bring to light some very important realities. The old hymn pinpoints it well:
Tho’ with a scornful wonderThe world sees her oppressed,By schisms rent asunder,By heresies distressed.Yet saints their watch are keeping;Their cry goes up, “How long?”And soon the night of weepingShall be the morn of song.
“An absence of conflict and struggle is not what God has in mind for Christian unity in this age.”
When it comes to Christian unity in this age of things falling apart, the reality we experience is “sorrowful” over our frequent factions, “yet always rejoicing” over the future grace of perfected unity set before us (2 Corinthians 6:10).
By Schisms Rent Asunder
Church schisms happen, as we all know. And they get a lot of bad press from Christians and non-Christians — often much deserved, as we also know. But schisms perform necessary functions in the church by revealing numerous areas requiring attention. Let me address three types of division in the church.
1. Fleshly Schisms
Paul illustrates the first type of schism in his blunt reproof of the Corinthian church:
I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? (1 Corinthians 3:1–3)
Fleshly schisms plagued this church. They were divided into partisan loyalties and impressed by worldly wisdom and rhetoric (chapters 1–3), easily swayed by those who slandered Paul in his absence (chapter 4), tolerating shocking sexual immorality (chapter 5), suing each other in civil court (chapter 6), damaging each other’s faith over issues of Christian freedom (chapter 8), and more. Paul didn’t call them false Christians; he called them fleshly Christians — people governed more by carnal discernment and desires than by the Spirit in numerous areas.
“True Christian unity can be experienced and maintained only where Christlike love governs.”
True Christian unity can be experienced and maintained only where Christlike love governs — the kind Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13. Therefore, it’s a much-needed mercy to bring our unity-killing fleshliness into the light so we can see it and repent. And church schisms often perform that function.
2. Maturity Schisms
A second type of schism overlaps with the first, but its function is distinct enough to highlight. I call them maturity schisms.
Any healthy, evangelizing, disciple-making church will have differing levels of maturity among its members. And when people of diverse maturity levels come together, conflicts will erupt. Different life experiences, scriptural knowledge, and overall sanctification will stretch the church.
Differences in maturity run many different ways. A younger person might have more life experience in a certain area than an older person. Or someone who’s been a Christian a long time might be more governed by the flesh than a newer convert. Or a less formally trained saint might have a more profound, life-transforming grasp of Scripture than a seminary-trained saint. On top of that, some members who “ought to be teachers” may have regressed in maturity by habitually indulging sin, and so they need milk again (Hebrews 5:12).
Here’s my point: the maturity diversity that’s part of normal, healthy church life produces a complex relational recipe for a lot of misunderstanding and plenty of pride-fueled conflicts. Positively, this gives us all opportunities to learn from each other and grow in grace. Negatively, we don’t always seize these opportunities, and sometimes they grow into various schisms.
3. Necessary Schisms
Paul also addresses a third type of church schism in 1 Corinthians 11:19:
There must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.
As Jesus taught in the parable of the weeds in the wheat (Matthew 13:24–30), our churches in this age will remain a mixture of Christians and non-Christians, no matter how seriously we take membership. Some weeds, thankfully, will become wheat by the end. But some are weeds, and often it’s schisms — factions — that reveal them.
And some of these weeds grow into a league of their own, as we know from urgent apostolic warnings of false teachers:
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. (Romans 16:17–18)
You must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. (Jude 17–19)
These false Christians are “fierce wolves” that prey on the flock of God, “men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:30), causing distress in our churches by their heresies. And one clear way we can recognize that they are not genuine is by the disunity they create due to “contrary doctrine” and “ungodly passions.”
In addressing church unity, Paul explains why godly, mature, loving, wise, Scripture-soaked, straight-talking leaders in various roles are such valuable gifts to any church. They
equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11–13)
This is a hard calling, requiring proven character, wisdom, knowledge, and a track record of “walk[ing] by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16). Therefore, church leaders must not be spiritually immature (1 Timothy 3:1–7) lest they pour the gasoline of fleshliness on the flames of emerging church schisms rather than the water of sacrificial love and godly wisdom.
Mature leaders foster cultures in their churches that help saints pursue “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” And they’re not naive. They know that factors like fleshliness, maturity diversity, and false Christians make this corporate pursuit hard. But they also know it’s necessarily hard. In this age.
But this age isn’t forever. An age approaches when weeds will not grow among the wheat, when our sinful flesh will no longer influence us, and when whatever different maturity levels may exist will no longer result in conflicts. “We [will] all [finally] attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). We will all experience the unity that is our inheritance in Christ, and all be one, just as Jesus and the Father are one (John 17:21).
Till then, let’s not give up the fight to be one. In this fight for unity, we experience numerous aspects of the Father’s varied grace. Forced to wrestle with our own sin as we pursue unity, we experience much-needed sanctification by the Spirit. And as we struggle to attain and maintain unity, we discover and experience priceless dimensions of the love of Christ and display it for the world (John 13:35).
And our desire to experience the “not yet” promise of the completed, perfected, harmonious oneness of the body of Christ causes us to long, groan, and pray for the age to come. It keeps us saints watching and crying out, “How long, O Lord?” And the promised joy of perfected unity set before us fuels our hope that “soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.”
By John Piper — 1 year ago
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