GraceTALK Q: How Much Doubt Can a True Christian Have?
The question is: “How much doubt can a Christian have until they begin to doubt whether or not they are true believers?”
To answer this question, we need first to reorient it. Why? The current framing of the question compares doubt within a Christian to being like water filling a cup – “how much doubt”… implies a critical threshold where doubt reaches a level that cancels an individual’s claim to being a “true believer.” Consequently, answering the question as is would give the impression of perpetual uncertainty, plagued by the elusive and burdensome task of determining the precise level of faith they possess and whether it is enough to qualify as a “true” believer. A more suitable analogy for this topic would be a “walk.” A walk aligns more with the ongoing development of our trust in Christ. Unlike the imagery of a cup, which implies a fixed state of being full, the concept of a “walk” speaks to more of a direction in life. Said another way, the better approach to this question would be to consider it not through the amount of faith one has at any given moment but on clear markers of saving faith in the trajectory of one’s life.
Therefore, let me reframe the question: “What are the clear markers that identify an individual who possesses saving faith.”
For the purpose of our consideration, let’s assign a name to the individual grappling with this problem. We’ll refer to this person as “Frank.” First, Frank needs to know that the Apostle Paul believed that the authenticity of a person’s faith in Christ can be seen in subjective and objective measurements. When brought together, these gauges can provide a powerful basis for the hope he seeks.
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance (subjective) and through the encouragement of the Scriptures (objective), we might have hope (Romans 15:4).
Now, let’s examine Frank’s life from these two distinct perspectives: the subjective and the objective.
Subjective – the desire for Christ.
Engaging in a conversation with Frank, my approach would involve exploring his innermost desires. By posing questions that delve into his intentions and aspirations, I would aim to uncover what truly resonates with him at the level of his motivation. Does Frank value Christ deep within his heart, and why? Does he yearn for greater intimacy with Christ and mourn his inability to follow Jesus more closely? Is Frank capable of perceiving Jesus’ intrinsic value, viewing Him not merely as a means to an end but appreciating Him for His value and worth?
I ask these questions because the significance of the person of Jesus will emerge from a truly redeemed heart. When God extended His call to Frank, the nature of Frank’s faith would inherently embody qualities congruent with the value and worth that the Holy Spirit attributes to Jesus. Thus, if the Holy Spirit indeed dwells within Frank, the value and worth he ascribes to Christ should harmonize with the revelation of the Holy Spirit in Frank’s heart. In simpler terms, the proof of Frank’s possession of saving faith would manifest in his esteem for Christ. Though Frank might not consistently exhibit an unwavering reliance on Christ as he ideally should, his estimation of Christ’s value should be evident. At this level, we are not addressing an action by Frank or his lifestyle. I would want to know if Frank treasures Jesus wholly separate from his failings to follow Jesus.
The Apostle Paul expressed this exact dynamic in his own life when he wrote to the Church in Rome (see Romans 7:7–25). Paul was vexed at the abiding reality of his flesh (GK, sarx) – the human orientation to depend on oneself. At a more profound level of desire, Paul also saw the value of Jesus expressed in a craving for obedience: ”I delight in the law of God, in my inner being” (Romans 7:22). Yet, Paul did not fully realize this desire in his walk. The tension Paul was experiencing is well-known by all of us who trust in Christ.
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the Law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the Law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the Law of my mind and making me captive to the Law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the Law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the Law of sin (Romans 7:15-25).
From within the torment of his inability to obey as he would like, Paul finds solace in the realization that Jesus has rescued him from the rightful consequences of his sin. The depth of Paul’s struggle to obey erupts in the text: “Wretched man that I am!” In this moment of despair, Paul wonders: “Who shall deliver me from this body of death?” This enigmatic phrase “body of death” could allude to a form of capital punishment among the people who lived near Tarsus, Paul’s birthplace (see Acts 22:3). In this gruesome practice, individuals convicted of murder faced a particularly horrific execution. The cadaver of the victim would be bound tightly to the perpetrator’s body and then sent into a desolate area. As the victim’s body decayed, it gradually merged with the murderer’s, subjecting them to a protracted, agonizing demise. Both the phrase “body of death” and the context of Paul’s suffering due to his inability to be free strongly imply that Paul had this gruesome fate in mind. Yet, despite being haunted by the image of a lawbreaker burdened with the “body of death,” Paul’s hope arrives as he turns to the liberation he found in Jesus: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:25a). Paul’s yearning for freedom finds its resolution in the redemptive work of Christ. Jesus, in bearing the weight of Paul’s indebtedness to the penalty of the Law, metaphorically severs the bonds that once held him captive. Because of Christ, Paul is now free!
However, Paul lives within an ongoing tension, the lingering fragrance of his former self – succumbing to faithlessness at times in his attitude and actions. The intricacy of this internal conflict in Paul’s life finds its essence distilled in the interplay of two compelling perspectives: “So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh, I serve the law of sin” (Romans 7:25). Within the tension of this idea, we discern that Paul wholeheartedly upholds the sacred and rightful standing of the Law as God’s divine standard. Yet, simultaneously, he acknowledges a profound reality: the principle that his inherent inclination to prioritize things other than Christ can never be completely eradicated from his life until he transcends his physical body and finds his new home in the presence of the Lord. Yet, the fuel that powers Paul forward is the value He has for who Christ is and what Christ has done on his behalf. The Gospel provides the drive in Paul wanting to be obedient.
I know what some of you might be thinking: “Couldn’t this serve as an excuse for the disobedience of some people by focusing on saving faith as merely an internal desire to the exclusion of good works? Not for one moment. I am simply outlining the first line of investigation into the issue of doubt expressed by “Frank.” Undoubtedly, we must engage in the unrelenting battle against our internal inclination towards disobedience. But we must never forget that we enter this battle fueled by our unwavering remembrance of the splendor and hope bestowed upon us by the person and work of Christ. For this reason, I would first delve into Frank’s convictions and perceptions regarding his value for Jesus. Does Frank display this value for Christ, or does he merely see Jesus as a way to a better life? If Frank became a Christian merely as a means to make his life better, then the Gospel that Frank has put his hope in is no gospel at all.
Objective – obedience to Christ.
The Bible doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that believers can, at times, engage in severe and prolonged sinful behaviors. One such illustration comes from the life of David (2 Sam. 11–12; Ps. 51), and another is found in the account of Lot (2 Peter 2:7–9). David’s own experience is poignantly depicted in Psalm 51:12, where he openly conveys the loss of his inner joy due to his disobedience. Yet, amidst this, he does not lose his salvation, as he fervently implores: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:12).
That being said, it remains undeniable that the walk of a legitimate believer will be made evident in their obedience to Christ. 1 John 2:3-4 says, “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” John simply reinforces what Jesus told His Apostles on the night of His betrayal: “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14).
The authenticity of the Apostles’ faith didn’t only reside in their internal trust in Jesus; rather, their lives turned on the two-prong hinge of saving faith – authentic trust in Jesus made evident through obedience to His commands. The truth of faith and works being two expressions of a Christian’s identity is analogous to the imagery of a flower. The hidden root of the flower is like the disciples’ faith, operating beneath the surface. Just as the flower stands as evidence of the concealed root, good works are observable evidence of a believer’s faith; being born again necessitates the coexistence of faith and works.
In my conversation with Frank, I would want to know if He obeys Christ? Frank’s confidence as a bona fide follower of Christ will find its footing through living in alignment with obedience to Christ. Frank’s conviction will be nourished by the practice of faithfully embracing the Lordship of Christ, wholeheartedly adopting His worldview, and embodying a lifestyle that reflects the character and priorities of Jesus.
The assurance of the Apostles didn’t solely rely on a passive belief devoid of obedience; instead, their confidence stemmed from their active trust in Jesus, demonstrated through their obedience to His commands, which bore fruit in their lives. Frank’s assurance in possessing saving faith will be solidified through the crucible of living in accordance with Christ’s directives and thereby having the image of Christ formed in him (see Galatians 4:19).
Christians who persist in sin for a time will forfeit their assurance for as long as they are grieving the Holy Spirit. It is not that we seek certainty in our works but that we gain confidence from sensing the Spirit’s work in us. Once again, the Holy Spirit shapes and reforms our inner being (see Romans 7:22), attesting to our status as children of God as we maintain sync with His ongoing operation within our lives. Frank needs to know that while saving faith does not rest solely on his good works, saving faith will never exist apart from good works.
Thomas Manton, in his commentary on James, first published in 1693, summarizes this truth beautifully when he said:
“Works are an evidence of true faith. Graces are not dead, useless habits; they will have some effects and operations when they are weakest and in their infancy.… This is the evidence by which we must judge, and this is the evidence by which Christ will judge.… Works are not a ground of confidence, but an evidence; not the foundations of faith, but the encouragements of assurance. Comfort may be increased by the sight of good works, but it is not built upon them; they are seeds of hope, not props of confidence; sweet evidences of election, not causes; happy presages and beginnings of glory; in short, they can manifest an interest, but not merit it” (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, pg. 293).
The words of Manton echo the sentiment articulated by Luther in his commentary on Romans, where he asserts that “… It is impossible, indeed, to separate works from faith, just as it is impossible to separate heat and light from fire.”
A Final Caution
Another Scripture sheds light on Frank’s pursuit to gain confidence that he is a true believer. In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (13:1-5), he establishes a connection between authentic faith and an individual’s response to correction within the church community. In verse 5, Paul says: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! What test? What examination? The context reveals that how a person responds when caught in explicit sinful behavior (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-13), will confirm or deny the presence of saving faith.
Paul’s choice of words mirrors Christ’s teachings in Matthew 18:15-17, where he mentions “the evidence of two or three witnesses” (2 Cor. 13:1). The point is that if an individual persists in rebellious conduct against the teachings of God’s Word and their response to the church is one of defiance, it casts doubt as to the presence of the Holy Spirit and, therefore, a legitimate claim on being in a relationship with Jesus. If a person refuses to follow Jesus, they are effectively denying a relationship with Jesus, irrespective of what they may claim. Conversely, if the individual repents and chooses to submit to Christ, their confidence in having saving faith rises. In other words, he or she has passed the test!
Let’s apply this principle to the life of “Frank.” If Frank were to stray from his commitment to Christ and a fellow member(s) of his church confronts him regarding the importance of obeying Christ in a specific matter (lying, adultery, theft, gossip, etc.), and if Frank genuinely heeds their counsel and repents, this stands as compelling evidence that Frank indeed possesses saving faith. However, if Frank were to reject the concern and counsel of fellow Christians, setting himself adrift in his relationship with Christ and withdrawing from the Church community, Frank’s confidence in his claim to be a Christian must be subject to reevaluation by the Church. As the Apostle John said: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).
Church discipline serves a twofold purpose: first, to unveil the genuineness of one’s faith in Christ, and second, to differentiate true believers from those who merely profess faith within the visible body of Christ. No wonder Jesus commanded the Church in this matter to separate the authentic believer from the make-believer:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:15-20).
The certainty of one’s faith isn’t contingent on overcoming some measurable threshold of doubt. Instead, it’s founded on the desire to value and follow Christ. While doubts are normal, they don’t negate true, saving faith. The authenticity of faith is unveiled through both inward yearnings and outward deeds. This perspective empowers individuals like “Frank” to navigate their spiritual journey with assurance, acknowledging their continual need for Christ’s redemption while embracing the Gospel’s transformative power. Frank exists in what can be described as a dual state: he is both a sinner, reliant on the grace of God through the merits of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and a saint, firmly established in his relationship with God due to the completed work of Christ. Frank’s walk with Christ will invariably encompass these two dynamics until he enters his eternal rest in the presence of Christ.