Many years ago, a casual acquaintance was heard to remark: “Well, maybe I’ll end up in hell!” The exact circumstances under which that was said are no longer clearly remembered, but what sticks in the writer’s mind is the impression that the speaker, a man known to be a decent fellow and a regularly-attending member of his church, was troubled by the possibility. Should he have been?
This is a question which has concerned many Christians over the centuries – sometimes with the encouragement of the church! Martin Luther was one such man. The medieval Catholic Church in which he was a monk portrayed God as a stern judge who could be appeased only by acts of penance, and Luther totally bought into that idea. It was not that he had a ‘bad conscience,’ but quite the contrary – no matter how strenuously he tried to obey the demands of the church, the more hopeless it seemed that he could ever be safe. Standing before the holiness of God, who could be secure?
It was in that frame of mind that Luther’s life was transformed from one of terror to joy by his discovery that the Bible teaches that the repentant sinner stands before God clothed in the holiness of Christ, and that this gift of amazing grace is freely given to any who will trust in it. Thus, “the just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17) became Luther’s personal assurance, and the ‘rock’ on which the Protestant Reformation was grounded.
But this Biblical truth has not prevented many sincere Christians from still entertaining doubts about the security of their personal salvation. If it is my faith that is required to ensure my salvation, how can I know that my faith is ‘strong’ enough? This anxiety becomes even more acute when one realizes how woefully one’s own life fails to reflect a complete trust in God or yield a robust crop of the ‘fruits of the spirit’ (Galatians 5:22). In short, any sincere Christian will find themselves laboring through times of doubt wondering: “Am I doing enough to be sure I’m saved?”
The simple answer to that question goes like this: “No you aren’t, but God is!” We are not saved by our efforts of faith, but simply by trusting that God will do what He has promised to do. Faith is not something we DO – it’s trusting in a reality that’s outside our control – an exercise of trust that we’ve previously compared to back-floating on water (Trust or Sink).
But, isn’t there a ‘catch 22’ here? It’s because I lack complete trust that I find it so hard to trust completely! How can I trust the buoyancy of God’s grace when so often I feel that I’m sinking? I’m like the desperate man who cried out: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
The only answer is to focus, not on what we can’t do, but instead on what God HAS done, IS doing, and has promised that He WILL do. And where do we find that focus? The traditional Lutheran answer: Word and Sacrament.
In God’s Word we encounter repeated assurances that the Almighty God who commanded the cosmos into existence had already chosen you and me personally to be the recipients of His Spirit which would seal us for eternity in Him (Ephesians 1:3-14). We discover, in fact, that God has been carefully crafting our salvation long before we even existed, not ONLY in that He planned and executed the atoning sacrifice for all of mankind, but that He knew and cherished you and me as individuals. The mind-boggling Biblical truth is that you and I did not choose Christ by our own initiative, but were chosen before all time, and that our Triune God who chose us is fully committed to bringing us safely home (John 10:29).
But it is not just that our gracious God tells us this assurance through His Word, He also gives us in the Sacraments the tangible gifts that seal His promises. In the water of Baptism we are formally adopted as His own family: “This one is Mine!” In Holy Communion we are fed with the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ to forgive our sins, nourish our faith, and receive His Holy Spirit. Thus, when we look in the mirror, we can be assured that we see God’s beloved child. And when we receive the bread and wine of communion, Christ is with us in flesh and blood. In the Sacraments the heavenly promises of God are confirmed in earthly experience.