A friend of mine recently told me that he wrestles with painful doubts about his salvation. He has reasons from biblical texts for having doubts about his salvation. For example, he sees Paul’s teaching in Romans 6:15-16:
(15) What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! (16) Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?
And he sees Romans 8, which, properly understood, says that the reason there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ is because the Holy Spirit has actually given us the power to live and think righteously, something the law was unable to do. My friend understands that our glorious salvation in Jesus consists not simply of justification through his death, but also sanctification, deliverance from the life-destroying tyranny of sin via the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit.
The Painful Disconnect
Then my friend looks at himself and sees a painful disconnect. While he loves going to church and teaching his kids about Jesus, he nevertheless struggles with temptation and all too often fails. He doesn’t see enough (for his own satisfaction) of the proof of the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life – the fruit of the Spirit – and instead he sees the works of the flesh – anger, lust, envy. He finds it difficult to get motivated to pray and study the Bible. In other words, he is profoundly aware that he is sinful to his very core. The thought that tortures him is: if I were truly saved, wouldn’t I see more evidence of the Spirit’s sanctifying presence in my life? If I am saved, why am I still so sinful? It is at this point that the voice of condemnation says, “Maybe you aren’t really saved. Maybe you’re just fooling yourself. Or maybe God’s had enough of your failure.”
My friend’s story is not unique. I have encountered it many times. I myself have had times when, discouraged by struggling with things that I really should have overcome long ago, I wondered whether God might not finally have had enough of me. Indeed, I would suspect that many if not most really sincere Christians have wrestled with questions along these lines. Why? Because every Christian this side of the Resurrection finds himself or herself in the same awkward spot: having one foot in this present evil age and one in the New Heavens and New Earth, having received the earnest of our inheritance in the Holy Spirit but still awaiting its fullness, having a King who is seated victoriously at the right hand of God but under whose feet not all enemies have yet been placed. Though we are new creations in Christ, nevertheless we still have this flesh to deal with.
Salvation in Action
But the voice that interprets our awareness of our lingering sinfulness as a sign that we are not reconciled with God in Christ (either that we never were or that we are no longer) is not from God but is instead the voice of the enemy acting like a political spin doctor. Because here is the truth about that awareness: this is salvation in action, painful as it might be. While the justification side of our glorious salvation does indeed happen in an instant when we enter into covenant with God through Christ, the sanctification part of salvation is, more often than not, a process that will continue the rest of our lives, gradually transforming our thoughts and actions.
The enemy’s goal in convincing you that your awareness of your sinfulness is a sign not of your salvation but of your lostness is to discourage you and make you give up the fight. This is why it is so important to realize that your awareness of your sinfulness is a vital and integral part of your salvation and not in any way a sign that God is angry at you or on the verge of throwing you away in disgust. Rather, it is a sign of his love for you. Proverbs 3:11-12 says:
(11) My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline
or be weary of his reproof,
(12) for the Lord reproves him whom he loves,
as a father the son in whom he delights.
Our awareness of sinfulness is God’s reproof. It is what sanctification looks like. The old-fashioned Evangelical word for this is conviction. Rather than being evidence of the absence of the Holy Spirit from your life, it is, in fact, evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life. God’s goal for us is to make us (in the repeated words of Leviticus) holy as God is holy, or, as Jesus reinterpreted Leviticus in Matthew 5:48, perfectly complete in love as our Father is perfectly complete in love. On the other hand, it is when we stop being aware of just how far we have to go to be like our Father in love and holiness that we enter the danger zone. For Paul in Romans 1, sin is itself sin’s own punishment:
Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to dishonor their bodies among themselves. (v. 24)
For this reason God gave them over to dishonorable passions. (v. 26)
And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what should not be done. (v. 28)
According to Paul, God’s wrath against sin is revealed by leaving us in our sin, by not telling us that we are sinful, or by telling us in such a way that we have made ourselves unable to hear. This is very likely at least part of what Paul has in mind in 1 Timothy 4:2 when he talks about liars whose consciences are seared. They are so given over to their deception that they can no longer feel the beckoning of the truth.
In light of this, the conviction of the Holy Spirit is a good thing, because it is an indication that God has not given us over to our depraved minds, that he is not, in fact, through with us. It is precisely the goodness of God that leads us to repentance, not his fury (Romans 2:4).
The Father’s reproof is painful, but like physical healing, sometimes the process of spiritual healing that is sanctification can be painful. Nevertheless, even if it seems like you are going nowhere, trust God, both for his faithfulness and grace in accepting you and loving you through your struggles as well as for his wisdom in guiding you through the process of sanctification. Only God really knows how deeply infected you are by sin and how precisely to get the sin infection out of you without destroying you. Trust God. He is good, loving, faithful, and gentle. As he told Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9, trust God when he says to you, “My grace is sufficient for you.”
So if you, like my friend, find yourself discouraged by your lingering sinfulness, don’t give up the fight against it. Continue to fight the good fight. Sometimes our salvation is a painful one, but it’s a good kind of pain.