I have recently discovered The Thinking Fellows podcast and I really have benefited from it. I do have some questions that are very important to me because they deal with my standing before God.
Fair enough. Great subject, Mike. What the Reformers would call THE question.
I used to claim that I believed Jesus died for my sins but I have realized that I struggle to believe that on a personal level. I want it to be true, I need it to be true and I confess it to be true but I just struggle in thinking of it as true in ways that are more than just facts I'm saying are true.
Not that far from what Luther experienced his whole life long with Anfechtungen, Mike. It’s untranslatable, but roughly “terrors, and in particular terrors of condemnation.” He was stupefied when his Roman critics said that faith in Christ was a relatively easy thing, “a great start” on a “larger plan” of salvation. The aspect that stupefied Luther was their claim that faith in Christ’s death and resurrection as saving, as being enough (apart from works, explicit verses on it) was “easy.” Luther counseled our “daily return to our Baptisms”: that we were betting everything on the death of Christ for us (Latin pro me) and not at all on anything in us (particularly our own faith in Christ, let alone anything of our sanctification!).
Say that I am called to debate a Roman priest on the justification of sinners. That priest has much going for him, and particularly that what he says “makes sense to any hearers.” It does—that is, justification has to include something of our own wills in action, our attempts to at least vow to or intend to try to satisfy the Law’s demands as we are able.
And what do I lay out in response? Something that sounds almost immoral, something that makes no sense at all, something that sounds nuts. I try to lay out as the alternative what we call the Gospel (Rom. 1:16, and many other verses). Christ’s cross and blood save(s) sinners all by itself! (Talk about non-intuitive or even anti-intuitive!) I have to expect some dentist to say to his wife after the debate, “I understood that priest, but for the life of me I don’t know what Rosenbladt’s point was… what he was getting at!”
I won't get into my history but I can sum it up by saying my experiences in my family growing up, my church growing up, and my marriage make understanding Jesus's love for me so hard to understand and believe. I've always felt like an afterthought to God, that if I'm in heaven I'll be there because I've asked to be saved but He really won't care. I realize what I just wrote is way off theologically speaking but it is how I perceive things and the battle I'm in.
I am loath to recommend anything I’ve written, but you might like to take a look at the text of my The Gospel for Those Broken by the Church? It’s free on 1517.org. Probably better, given your words regarding your history, would be the new book by my former T.A., Dr. Scott Keith: Being Dad.
How do I know I have actual saving faith?
Ironically, when you quit looking inside and instead look outside to Christ and His promises! That means the daily fight within to quit looking within and instead to Christ’s “I came not to annul the law; I came to fulfill it.”—meaning FOR YOU! Listen to the pastor as he pronounces your sin forgiven [forgiveness of sins = justification = eternal life] as yours, etc. Listen to the pastor say (as you receive the bread), “Take and eat. This is the Body of Christ given into death for you, Mike.” [and] “Take and drink. This is the blood of Christ shed for you, Mike.” And do it again and again—even when you are not all that sure you believe it! The promise gives what the law requires of you, to you.
I don't want to believe the way the demons do.
The demons are the ultimate acknowledgers of who Christ was and is. And they’re right! But it doesn’t save them. Because no one is saved just by “correct belief.” Sinners are saved when they give up on anything but Christ’s cross and blood being what saves them—start-to-finish. You, me—but not the demons! They despise “for you” as it would apply to them, are its active haters. (Funny, how they were the first on earth to recognize who He really was, knew they were subject to anything He decided to do to them: “What have you to do with us, Jesus, Son of the Most High?”)
I know I'm a sinner and I know I can't create faith or muster it up.
Profound! Stick with this at any and all cost!
I've asked God to give me the faith I need. Is His giving it based on me believing 100% that it will happen?
Forget 100%! In Jesus, the Triune God accepts us “half-believing” sinners based on His Son’s work/death for us. You’ll believe 100% when you get to heaven and not before. Me, too. And others, too.
How do I know that I have the Holy Spirit?
Because Jesus promised Him to you. Period. Great lesson in Sola Scriptura.
I get lost when I look inside myself and I know I shouldn't do that so I try not to.
Sounds absolutely normal for a Christian. Me, too! End of Rom. 7. And “Lord, I believe. Help Thou mine unbelief!” And He, His death, His blood, saves sinners like you and me propter Christum, anyway. Just a little and half-assed repentant, sort of believing in Jesus just a little, etc.
When I try to look to Jesus the doubts I've just written about undercut my resting in Him. The thoughts that come to mind are, you don't really believe, you believe for the wrong reasons, your belief is like what the demons have and you’re just fooling yourself. I don't want doubts and I don't want unbelief. What does this stuff mean?
Whatever else, it means that you already believe in Jesus in a way that is certainly saving. (again, end of Rom. 7) The devils never talk like this! Read a few of Luther’s comments to the devil regarding his sin(s) & his doubts!! Talk about earthy! He reminds him of sin(s) the devil had overlooked, lengthens the list! Then tells the devil to take the matter up with the Lord Christ who died for them, commands him to be gone! But in much more graphic language than I have used here, trust me! Whenever you are “to the wall” on this, remember the (Oh, so important!) prepositions of Scripture: you are never justified by your faith, finally. You are saved by Jesus’ blood and cross and through faith! Sola fide is not about your faith; it is about Jesus and what He did for you (through faith and not based on/because of your faith)! Back to Him, back to His promises! Away from you, “your faith!”
I want to rest and know that I belong to God and that maybe all of this is a process of Him working things out of me.
Again, profound, Mike. And “spot-on.” It is the inward fight of every Christian, but you are just laying your unbelief out on the table for everyone to see. If they talk as if you are alone, are nuts, they are liars. It’s the same battle for them: Does Jesus save based solely on what He has done? Or does He save based on “our faith in Him?” The former is true and the latter is a lie. But till the day you and I die, we will fight this one within us—every single day!
I get afraid that maybe I don't know God and I'm going to hell. I'm trying to understand what's going on. This has been something that I've been dealing with off and on for years. It doesn't make sense to me that I would care so much about this if I didn't belong to God.
Again, profound. And absolutely true. Non-Christians don’t think as you here write or think—ever! But again, too, the “answer” is in Him, His death, His blood, His promises to save you and me. Not (as you already recognize) on “our faith” in Him and His blood, His cross. Rather just His blood, His cross, His promises. Take another look at the meaning of extra nos. Read the first sentences of 1 Cor. 15 (what Paul calls “the Gospel”) and see whether you can find any reference there to “your faith in Him,” to “accepting Jesus into your heart,” to “great faith,” etc. If you find it, please let me know where it is? I can’t see it, can’t find it.
I'm trying to understand that I'm saved and I get terrified to think that I'm not. I want to believe Jesus died for me not just died for sins in general. I think I do but I don't know. Doubts creep in and take over. I'm really struggling.
You are dealing, struggling with, what our dogmaticians call fides reflexa (check this out in our dogmatics (F. Pieper) and textbooks (Mueller & Maas, We Believe, Teach, and Confess)). You and I are rarely if ever conscious of our saving faith, though it is solidly ours. Saved by Christ’s cross and blood, but daily miserable because we are not very often conscious of our saved condition, going back like a dog to its vomit to “our faith in Christ and not to Christ via His promises.” The way out and to real joy is (again) that we look outside ourselves—to Christ and His promises, and not within ourselves to the state of our faith in Christ. (Same song, different verse.)
Sorry to dump all of this on you. Wish I could be at the Christ Hold Fast conference this weekend.
Not a problem, Mike. That’s why we try to do what we all do at 1517, and it’s no more than our pastors are trained to do, should be preaching to all of us (from various Biblical texts) every single Sunday. Stay in touch!
Thanks for your help.
You’re more than welcome, Mike.
Under the completely sufficient imputed righteousness,