The Troubles of Life and the Assurance of Salvation


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Psalm 77:1-20

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I’m going to tell you later why I chose this psalm for my text this evening, but attend to the reading of the Word of God and take careful note not only as to how the perspective of the psalmist changes from beginning to end, but to what that change of perspective is due.

We have so far in this short series considered subjects about which there is disagreement or, at least, a difference of perspective among Presbyterian Church in America ministers and, so, about which our new minister may think differently than I or we have come to think over the long years of the present ministry. PCA ministers are in different minds about the extent to which there is a divine law of church government. That is, we disagree whether, in our particular case, Presbyterian church government, as it is practiced in the PCA, is explicitly taught to be God’s will for the church in all times and places. I told you that I am less convinced than I once was that any system of church government can be confidently extracted from the materials of Holy Scripture.

Then we considered the question of covenant children participating in the Lord’s Supper. Our traditional position as Presbyterians has been that only children old enough to make what we call a “credible profession of faith” are welcome at the Supper. An ever increasing number of our men, myself included, have concluded that this longstanding practice is suspended in mid-air; it does not rest on the foundation of the teaching of the Bible. Not only does the Bible never tell us to do what we have so long been doing, not only do we never see in the Bible people doing what we have long done, the Bible seems rather clearly to say that covenant children, being members of the covenant community, belong at the sacred feasts of the covenant community. But most PCA ministers and elders, at least to this point, still support our traditional practice.

Then, last time, we considered the characteristically tension-laden pedagogy of the Bible. Again and again in Holy Scripture, all the more in its teaching of its central themes, leaves us with paradox, with the necessity of believing at one and the same time two truths that are impossible for us fully to reconcile. It is easy enough to believe that there is but one God and easy enough to believe that God is three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But it takes a more powerful and capacious mind than has ever been given to a human being to understand how God is both one and three at the same time: how each of the persons is the whole God and how the one God is three persons. Or, take another example. We have no difficulty understanding the Bible’s repeated assertion that God is in absolute control of everything that happens in this world, that events in this world, however seemingly insignificant, are the unfolding of the divine plan. We may struggle to believe this, we may even wish it were not so; but we have no difficulty understanding what the Bible’s words mean. On the other hand, we also have no difficulty understanding what the Bible means when it says that human beings are responsible agents, that they act as they please, and that they are fully accountable for their actions. We understand both what divine sovereignty is and what human freedom and accountability are. What we cannot understand, what no one can understand, is how both divine sovereignty and human responsibility can be true at one and the same time. Entire theological systems have been created precisely to justify choosing the one truth and rejecting the other on the assumption that they cannot both be true. But they are both true and the wisest Christian teachers and preachers have not only agreed that they are both true but have gone on to explain why we cannot satisfactorily harmonize or reconcile them. Our minds are too small. God, in the infinity of his knowledge, sees the harmony of truth. We cannot. Which is at least one reason why the Bible never attempts to explain to us how God can be absolutely sovereign, in control of everything down to the last, the smallest detail, and yet human beings remain absolutely responsible for the choices they make. The harmony of truth, of reality is simply beyond the power of our finite, creaturely minds to comprehend. As Isaiah reminds us, “God’s ways are beyond our ways and past our finding out.” But I have discovered that only some PCA ministers think in these terms. Many of them are more likely to think that, as Prof. Gordon Clark once tartly put it, “a paradox is nothing more than a charley horse between the ears.” In other words, we can reconcile these seemingly paradoxical truths if we work hard enough at it. In my opinion the result is invariably that one truth or the other is minimized, is not given its full due. But not all agree.

Tonight I want to consider still another issue concerning which there is a difference of perspective among PCA ministers, certainly a difference of emphasis. Tonight my subject is less what does the Bible actually teaches and more how the life of the Christian relates to that teaching. This is a perspectival issue somewhat more difficult to discern and is more subject to such factors as a minister’s age and experience, perhaps even a minister’s personality. But it too is a subject about which my mind has changed through the years and concerning which our new minister may bring a different perspective.

Let me explain what I mean. We are all aware, whether or not we have articulated this to ourselves or thought about it in just these terms, that the Christian faith has both an objective and a subjective dimension. On the objective side there are the facts of the history of redemption, from the creation and the fall, to the covenant with Abraham, to the exodus, to God’s covenant with the house of David, to the incarnation, life, ministry, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Christ, to Pentecost and the gospel’s course of conquest through the world, to the Lord’s return, the resurrection of the dead, and the consummation of all things. There is more to the works of God than those, but those events in history are the central affirmations of the Christian faith. We recite many, if not most of them, in the creeds. It is upon that history that our faith rests. Paul said that if Christ had not been raised from the dead the Christian faith would be nothing more than a lie, a sham, or a myth like so many other myths. It is not a myth precisely because the events it proclaims as the meaning of human life actually happened in space and time. They were historical in precisely the same sense in which World War II was an historical event or men landing on the moon (assuming that it was actually the moon and not a warehouse in Nevada!), or Donald Trump being elected president in 2016. Those things actually happened. Remove that history and Christians have always acknowledged that nothing is left.

But the Christian faith has a subjective dimension as well. The personal confidence that individuals place in Jesus Christ as their savior from sin and death. The love they have for him on account of who he is and the terrible sacrifice he made for them. The joy they have in that love and in the prospect of eternal life in the fellowship of God and the saints. The peace they find in the midst of the turmoil of life because they know that God is with them and that “all things work together for good for those who love God…” And so on. There are the facts of the Christian faith and there are the motions of the Christian soul and the experiences of the Christian life. And the Bible makes clear in a thousand different ways that the Christian life is made up of both: the conviction of the facts of history and the experience of faith, love, joy, peace, and personal commitment that result from that conviction. Not only are we taught directly in the Bible that the person who denies the facts of the faith, its historical foundations, cannot be saved, we are taught that the person who does not love the Lord, who does not trust him, who finds no peace in him, and is not committed to obeying him and serving him as Lord and Master cannot be saved. To be sure, the strength of those commitments and affections may wax and wane – the Bible is candid about that – but it is the same Bible that teaches us that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6) and that there is a “curse on all who do not love our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 16:22).

But through the years of my ministry I have found that Christian people and Christian ministers tend to gravitate to one side or to the other, to the objective side or the subjective side or, to put it more crudely, from the fact side to the feeling side. In recent times evangelical Christianity has shifted dramatically to the subjective side. It hasn’t denied the objective truth of the faith – I’m not saying that – but its interests now lie emphatically on the subjective side. This change has a number of causes. Chief among them are two.

  1. The first is that modern western culture has embraced the subjective with a vengeance, to the point of even denying the objective. If Rene Descartes may be said to be the father of modern philosophy, with his shift in concentration to the individual person – I think, therefore I am – it was Sigmund Freud who, building on Descartes’ foundation, taught the entire western world to say instead “I feel, therefore I am” and in most recent times as something of the reductio ad absurdum of modern individualism and hedonism, copulo ergo sum, I have sex, therefore I am. Modern evangelicals have not escaped the influence of the modern world’s concentration on the self and the inner life of the self: his feelings about himself, her feelings about others. Modern man, especially modern western man, is no longer searching for the truth – he often doesn’t even believe that there is such a thing – he is searching for what makes him feel good. And that is the air evangelicals have been breathing for a long time now.

It is this shift in perspective that has led to the remarkable and deadly changes in the ethics of the western world. What is the unforgiveable sin of modern western life? Certainly not adultery or fornication, theft or lying. No. The unforgiveable sin is a failure of sympathy, of understanding, of feeling another person’s pain. The scarlet letter we force others to wear is not “A” but “LC.” That person lacks compassion. That person has not understood my suffering and has not supported me as I need to feel supported. There is nothing of this in the Bible, this demanding sympathy from others and the idea that I have a right to accuse others of a failure of compassion. We are to be compassionate without question; and we are to be sympathetic. Jesus Christ has taught us that! But the idea that I have a right to the compassion and sympathy of others is a modern western invention, not a biblical teaching. It is based on the assumption that my feelings about myself and my life are the ultimate meaning of my life.

  1. The other reason for this fundamental shift of interest from the objective to the subjective is that modern western life is churning up so much heart pain, has so badly shaken the foundations of everything that makes for stable and satisfying human life, that many more people are deeply unhappy than used to be the case. The social survey confirms this at every turn, as do so many other objective features of our modern society: from divorce rates to incarceration rates to falling birthrates. People are more angry, more bitter, more disillusioned, and more isolated than they used to be. That is another reason they concentrate on their feelings; they are oppressed by them.

Of course all of this has been exacerbated by the concentration on material comforts, on the pursuit of pleasure, and on the concentration on personal rights that dominate modern economies, advertising, and politics. We live in perhaps the most hyper-individualistic culture that has ever existed on the face of the earth, the culture of “me”! You young people don’t appreciate this, because this is what you know, this is your world. You have no idea how rapidly these changes have taken place, how different the world was even when I was a young man. No wonder then that people are interested to an even greater degree in themselves and evaluate ideas, programs, policies, and even religions almost exclusively according to the likelihood that they will make them happier. Their interest is not whether or not they are true; it is whether or not they will be useful to me. In the United States we are in the midst of a great experiment, to discover whether a nation can survive when everyone is looking out for number one. The early results are not encouraging.

And this same subjectivism can now be seen in the Christian church in striking ways. The rise of Pentecostalism, by far the fasting growing section of the Church is a demonstration of this phenomenon of the subjective as now the leading, the dominant dimension of the Christian faith. Pentecostalism is all about feeling, about fervor, about joy, about personal power, and so on. Pentecostals thankfully don’t deny the history of redemption or the law of God but those things are much less central to their message and their vision of the Christian life. Experience is the first thing; even the main thing. This, of course, has led to some ghastly results in so-called “health and wealth” forms of Pentecostalism. Thankfully, not all Pentecostals are susceptible to such travesties of the biblical message. But still, it is characteristic of Pentecostals that they believe that Christ intends to make his people happy, powerful, and successful, even in this world.

Now, hear me carefully. I am far from decrying the subjective side of our Christian faith. It was the apostle Paul who wrote, “…the kingdom of God…is a matter of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Biblical doctrines should have obvious emotional and affective consequences. The divine nature and the divine sovereignty should impart to believing people a powerful sense of peace and confidence. Our heavenly Father’s will must be done; the victory of his kingdom is assured; his promises cannot fail. Justification by faith should comfort us immensely in the face of our own sin and moral failure. We have the righteousness of Jesus Christ with which to stand before God. The love of God and the promise of heaven should fill our hearts with joy. And so on. Given the truth of the gospel, if we are not living in peace and love and joy then there is something wrong with us. Can anyone deny this inexorable logic?

However, as the Bible is relentless in demonstrating, even the finest Christian life is, will be, and must be beset with troubles of every kind. There are many reasons for this fact – reasons having to do with God’s judgment of this world, reasons having to do with our own sin, reasons having to do with our need for sanctification, even reasons having to do with the demonstration of the truth to the principalities and powers – but whatever the reasons, suffering is a fact of life. In the Bible again and again joy is diminished by the sorrows of life, peace by its antagonisms and uncertainties, love by its disappointments, sometimes crushing disappointments.

And so I come to my point. As a younger man and younger minister I was less affected by the sorrows of life. I had lived a comfortable, successful – not remarkably successful but successful – and largely happy life. I had the confidence of youth. The country I lived in was not yet nearly as angry and bereft of hope and appalling stupid as it is now. People looked for and expected better things in a way huge numbers of people no longer do.

So I expected to be happy myself and for Christians to be happy. If a believer asked me how to be happy I would have been very likely to give them some advice on cultivating Christian joy. I’m not saying that the advice would have been wrong. I probably would have quoted a Puritan and they were usually wise and right. But my perspective would have been different. To illustrate what I mean, let me return to Psalm 77.

Like so many psalms, this too is an account of a man in trial. He doesn’t tell us what the problem was, why he needed help, why he was in distress, why he refused to be comforted. But, whatever his problems, he prayed and the Lord didn’t answer. The silence of heaven only deepened his confusion and his sense of frustration and abandonment. As time passed a spirit of hopelessness overwhelmed him. He couldn’t sleep, as he tells us in v.4. His mind was racing; it kept worrying over his circumstances. The worst part was that he had been sure that the Lord would help him but no help was forthcoming. Where was the Lord? Where were his promises now? “I remembered you, O God, and I groaned.” It seemed to him as if the Lord had forgotten him. It certainly seemed to him that his faith wasn’t working; it wasn’t doing him any good.

He remembered happier times, those days when his heart was so full he would lie awake at night not in distress but rejoicing in the Lord and in the Lord’s goodness to him. But the remembrance of those happier times just made the present more miserable. Where was the Lord now? Had he imagined the reasons to be happy in those earlier times? Was it luck, rather than the blessing of God that had made him so happy back then? The situation persisted until the man was actually asking whether the Lord had actually abandoned him for good. “Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Is he so angry with me that he has lost all interest in helping me?

So what did this good man do? Where was the turning point for him?

Then (that is, there came a moment when) I said, ‘I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High. I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work and meditate all your mighty deeds.’”

In other words, he turned back to the objective side, to the history of redemption, to the great works of God. As you read on in the psalm it is clear the man thought primarily of God’s redemption of Israel from bondage in Egypt. This man wasn’t there. He hadn’t passed through the divided waters of the Sea of Reeds. He had not personally witnessed God’s mighty power on display on behalf of his people. Those things had happened centuries before he was born. But he knew those events had occurred and he pondered what they meant, what they had to mean. As one commentator perceptively noticed,

“By the end of the psalm the pervasive “I” has disappeared and the objective facts of the faith have captured all his attention and all of ours.” [Kidner, ii, 277]

The subjective had been swallowed up by the objective. The man’s circumstances hadn’t changed, the reasons for his misery were still there, as much as before, but his sense of abandonment had given way to the knowledge that the God who had delivered Israel at the exodus was the living God and, therefore, though he still couldn’t understand what God was doing or why, he could rest secure in the knowledge of God himself. What God had done, long before, became his reason to be sure of God’s love and wisdom in the present circumstances of his darkness and doubt.

It is this man’s perspective that has become more and more my own as the years have passed. The years batter a man or a woman. We know this, don’t we; those of us who have reached a certain age. So much in life that is sad and hard and painful, sometimes exquisitely painful, things happen that we cannot avoid, cannot explain, and cannot overcome. Disappointment, sickness, and death are all around us and within us. Florence and I were in Alaska last weekend and Lord’s Day spending some time with Andrew and Amy Allen. Here is a young man who left a successful career in the tech industry to pursue the Christian ministry. He earned his seminary degree, received a call to plant a church in Alaska, and began his work. He has already enjoyed some real success in that work. After years of trying they also conceived a child and welcomed a precious daughter to their family circle. And now, suddenly, he finds that he has stage-4 lung cancer. He never smoked but he has lung cancer in his forties. In all likelihood a death sentence. A young man, a good man, is perhaps soon to be made to leave a congregation that loves him and needs him, a wife who loves him, and a daughter who will require her father as she grows up. What are we to do with this? How does this fit our conviction that the Lord loves his children, is determined to care for them, and that they live their lives, as it were, safely sheltered under his wings? And all the more what are we to do with the fact that we have prayed and prayed and yet Andrew is still almost certain to die within the year?

And, of course, there are a hundred other stories of heartbreak, crushing disappointment, battered dreams, and forlorn hopes that I could recite from just the life of this single congregation. And how are we to know, how can we still believe that our faith works, that it is true, true with a capital “T,” in the face of all of this deep disappointment, unhappiness and unfulfilled longing? After all, the things we have longed for in many cases were the very things we have every right to long for as the children of God. Does the Christian faith really work? It isn’t always easy to tell that it does! Are we kidding ourselves?

I have had my own great disappointments, I’ve offered my own prayers that have seemed to stop at the ceiling, my own desperate cries to God to which he has remained silent. It is precisely this sort of experience of spiritual failure and disappointment from which doubts are expected to rise. Perhaps if the Lord doesn’t hear our prayers it is because we’ve been duped; there isn’t a God up there who hears prayers and answers them. Many people nowadays think just that. Perhaps if the Lord does not grant us success in life, happiness, peace, and fulfillment, it is because none of those things depends on God at all. Life is a crapshoot, some win, some lose. Nothing more. More and more people think that way in our time.

But as my own experiences and the experiences of others accumulated, as the disappointments and confusions gathered weight, I found, almost to my surprise, that I was not troubled by doubts. I didn’t, because I couldn’t, try to minimize the disappointment. It was too great to make anything less of it than it was: grand babies born too soon who did not survive, a son in prison, sadness upon sadness and not for me only but for others that I loved; prayers unanswered, heaven seemingly silent through it all. But, at the same time, my faith was not shaken. I was troubled, to be sure, but I was as confident that I know the truth about God, about life, about salvation, and about the future as I ever was. To be sure, my experience of life was not at all uniformly dark. Christian love and kindness and generosity made a great difference, happier parts of my life provided some balance to the sorrow.

But the most significant discovery I made was the same one that was made by the author of Psalm 77. Perhaps I didn’t get there in precisely the same way he did; after all, I had Psalm 77 to read and he didn’t! But when I took counsel of my thoughts, when I examined precisely why my faith had not been rocked by such severe disappointments and by the Lord’s unresponsiveness to my prayers, I found that the foundation of my faith was as unshakeable as the psalmist’s was and, more to the point, for the same reason. I don’t, in the final analysis, believe in the gospel, in Jesus Christ as my savior from sin and death, because my experience has proved that the gospel works, that those who believe it are happy and successful, that things always turn out well for believers in this world. I don’t suppose I ever did believe the gospel primarily for those reasons, but it would not have been nearly as clear to me that I didn’t as it is now.

The more I reflected on why I believed and why my faith was not undone by these disappointments – disappointments that might well have led me to think, the kinds of disappointments that have led others to think, that if God were really there, if he were really the God he is said to be in Holy Scripture, he would have prevented or relieved these sorrows – the more I realized that the foundation of my faith was in fact not the subjective experience of walking with God but the objective realities of salvation history. The foundation of my faith was not my own life, my own experience, or my own feelings. I couldn’t abandon God, even if I might struggle not to think that he had abandoned me – because I knew that God existed, I knew that he had created the world, I knew that I had been made in his image, I knew that I was a sinner and deserved his judgment, I knew that he had sent his Son into the world to live, to suffer, and to  die for the salvation of sinners, I knew that Jesus had risen from the dead, and I knew that he was coming again. I didn’t just think such things had happened or that such things were true, I knew that they were! I wasn’t at the empty tomb; I didn’t see the tongues of fire; I wasn’t on the road to Damascus, but I might as well have been, so certain is my confidence in that history. The longer I have lived with these facts, for facts they are, the more unassailable they appear to me to be.

I am a reader. I read the other side. I read the objections that are typically made by the enemies of the Christian faith. I read the philosophers, the scientists, and the cultural pundits who propose to explain the world in a different way than it is explained in the Bible. I remain profoundly unimpressed. Such people don’t themselves believe what they say; at least they don’t act as if they do. They tell me that life is an accident, but they don’t behave as if it were an accident. They say that human beings are merely higher animals, but you’d never know they believed that by the way they speak and live. They say that right and wrong are just opinions, not real things, but they don’t live as if they were not real things, absolute things. They say that life has no meaning, but they don’t live as if it is meaningless. They say that we have no future, but you’d never gather that such was their conviction by the way they behave. Sophisticated as these arguments are, learned as the ones making them often are, their explanations are a bunch of baloney, whistling in the dark. As long ago as Cicero, the Roman man of letters, it has been observed that there is no idea so ridiculous that it hasn’t been defended by one philosopher or another!

A philosophy is only as good as its explanations of what most needs to be explained: who am I, where did I come from, why am I here, where am I going, why is life the way it is, and so on. None of the popular philosophies of modern western life explains a single one of those things in a manner anyone actually can believe to be true, at least believe it in a way that they can live with it with some consistency. But the Bible explains life as we all know it to be; it accounts for human beings as we all know them to be – both the good and the bad – it explains why we have the longings and the aspirations we have, why we are afraid of death, why life is so precious to us, why every impulse of our soul is a moral impulse, an inescapably moral impulse.

More than that, when I read the Bible and the history that it contains I know that I am reading an account of what actually happened. I have more reasons for that confidence than I could begin to explain to you this evening. There is nothing remotely like the Bible among any other books in the history of mankind that purport to explain human life and to reveal to us its origin and destiny. No myth maker wrote the gospels, no aspiring founder of a religion wrote the accounts of the Lord’s resurrection. No one invented the personal history of the apostle Paul. Still today, all over the world, highly educated, often brilliant men and women have come to place total confidence in the Bible as the Word of God. Its authority, its veracity is self-authenticating. What is more, the Bible provides a thoroughly convincing explanation as to why other people do not and will not believe its teaching, an explanation that is proved true by human conduct millions of times every day.

In other words, my faith was not shaken because I did what the psalmist did. “I appealed to the years of the right hand of the Most High.” I considered what I know about God, about creation, about the fall, about the history of redemption, about Jesus Christ, his death and his resurrection, and found myself entirely ready to say, even in the confusion and darkness of some days, “What god is great like our God? You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples. You with your arm redeemed your people…”

Life continues to mystify me and in many ways to disappoint me. My own life disappoints me in various ways; I certainly disappoint myself. But I cannot escape the truth of God. Even in the midst of punishing trials, my own and those of others, I cannot escape the truth of God. I cannot evade it. I cannot deny it. I am more today than ever I have been in the past a man of the objective side of the faith. I want, of course, to rejoice and to love and to enjoy the peace that passes understanding, and, I do enjoy those things to a degree. Sometimes more and sometimes less. But in times of darkness what matters most is the solid rock under one’s feet. And that solid rock is not how happy my life is, the feelings that I find within my heart, how easily my problems have been solved, how quickly and dramatically the Lord answers my prayers, how pleasant my circumstances, but rather this:

His oath, his covenant, his blood support me in the whelming flood;

When all around my soul gives way he then is all my hope and stay.

On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand.

And this:

He who did not spare his own son but gave him up for us all; how shall he not with him graciously give us all things?

I suspect our new minister will be much younger than I. Will he be as touched by suffering and disappointment as I now am, as I was not at his age? If he is not, it is not unlikely that there will be a somewhat different balance in his preaching and in his pastoral ministry between the objective and the subjective in the Christian life in his mind and heart. It seems to me almost inevitable that there should be such a different balance.

But when I come to the end of my days, I will have many regrets and many happy memories, but I expect that I will not be thinking so much of my experiences – they prove too little – but instead of the deeds of the Lord, his wonders of old, his mighty deeds, and how it was that he redeemed his people!