By David Feddes
This is a message for strugglers, for those who are unsure of your salvation. You’re not sure of your standing with God. You’re not sure whether God accepts you or not. You’re not sure whether your sins are forgiven or not. You’re not sure whether you’re truly born again and saved or not. You’re not sure whether you’re headed for heaven or hell. You’re just not sure. And your lack of assurance is tearing you up inside.
If you struggle with such things, you’re not alone. I know from personal experience what it’s like to feel afraid and unsure about my salvation. And I’m often in contact with people who anguish over their relationship with God and their eternal destiny. I’ve had enough letters, phone calls, e-mails, and face-to-face conversations to know that more than a few people lack assurance and have distressing doubts and fears.
If you’re afraid of God and agonize that he might reject you, the first thing I want to say to you is, Congratulations! You are a likely prospect for God’s blessings. In fact, his grace is probably already working in you. There’s a line in the song “Amazing Grace” which says, “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.” Let that sink in. “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.” Fear is often a result of God’s grace, a sign that he is at work in your heart.
How can that be? How can it possibly be a good thing to be afraid of God? Let me explain. Being afraid of God means you’ve come to see a number of important truths which many people never see at all until it’s too late.
First, being afraid of God means you know he’s real. That’s better than not believing in him at all. Your fear shows you recognize his existence.
Second, being afraid of God means you take him seriously. That’s better than thinking he doesn’t matter and can be ignored. Your fear shows you know that God decides your destiny.
Third, being afraid of God means you know God is holy. You know he’s not like you. That’s better than thinking God is just like you. Your fear shows you sense God is infinitely beyond you in majesty and purity.
Fourth, being afraid of God means you know your sinfulness. That’s better than pretending you’re okay. Your fear shows you’re aware of your flawed character, your ungodly actions, and your unworthiness of God’s approval.
Fifth, being afraid of God means you know God’s wrath against sin. That’s better than pretending God is too tame and nice to punish anyone. Your fear shows you know hell is real.
Sixth, being afraid of God means you know salvation isn’t something you can take for granted. That’s better than assuming you’re automatically entitled to forgiveness and eternal life. Your fear shows you know that you’re entitled to nothing, that God owes you nothing, and that your only hope is for him to have mercy on you.
If you didn’t know these things, you’d be less fearful. If you thought that God isn’t real, or that he doesn’t matter, or that he’s not holy, or that you’re not sinful, or that there is no hell, or that eternal life is automatically yours, you wouldn’t feel afraid of God. But you’d also be out of touch with reality. So be grateful that you know enough to tremble before God and fear for your eternal destiny. Would you rather be strolling calmly down the road to hell wearing a blindfold?
Fear isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, if your heart has never feared, there’s a strong possibility you’ve never tasted true grace. If you’ve never been overwhelmed by a sense of God’s majesty and purity, if you’ve never had a crushing awareness of your own sin and shame and hopelessness, it’s doubtful whether you know the Lord or belong to him at all. There’s an infinite difference between simply assuming you’re okay with God and having a humble, faith-filled assurance that you are saved by God’s grace in Jesus. So again, if you’re afraid of God, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Right now your inner turmoil and dread may seem awful, but some day, looking back, you may say with the songwriter, “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.”
The song doesn’t stop there, of course. It says, “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” You’re not meant to be perpetually fearful. Eventually grace relieves fear. But never forget that it’s also grace which teaches your heart to fear in the first place. Fear is not a good state to get stuck in permanently, but it’s often a necessary stage on the path to glory. So if you’re uncertain and fearful, take heart. Awareness of God’s holiness and your own unworthiness is a huge step in the right direction.
Fear and Faith
In the Bible the prophet Isaiah tells of the terror he felt when he met the majestic, holy God in a vision. “Woe to me!” he cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Isaiah was so overwhelmed by a sense of God’s greatness and his own sin that he thought he was doomed. But God told Isaiah through a heavenly messenger: “Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for” (Isaiah 6:3-7). Then the Lord commissioned Isaiah to become a mighty prophet. ‘Twas grace that taught Isaiah’s heart to fear, and grace his fears relieved.
The apostle Peter had a similar experience. Peter made his living as a fisherman. On one occasion he had been fishing all night but hadn’t caught anything. Then Jesus (whom Peter was just getting know) told Peter to put out into deep water and let down the nets for a catch. Peter objected that they had been trying all night. If they hadn’t caught anything during those prime fishing hours, why would they catch anything now? “But,” said Peter, “because you say so, I will let down the nets.” Suddenly the nets were bursting with fish, enough to fill two boats so full they nearly sank.
Peter instantly forgot the fish. He realized he was in the presence of an awesome Lord. He felt afraid and crushed by a sense of his own sin. He thought it would be proper for Jesus to abandon him then and there. “Go away from me, Lord,” Peter cried. “I am a sinful man.” But Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men” (see Luke 5:4-11). And Peter became the foremost of the twelve apostles. ‘Twas grace that taught Peter’s heart to fear, and grace his fears relieved.
I myself went through a time as a youngster when I was unsure of my own standing with God and afraid of his judgment. I had come to know some of the truth about God and about myself, but I didn’t know if I was a Christian or not. I didn’t know if I was saved or lost. I knew that God is great and holy and that as a sinner I couldn’t claim to deserve his blessing and acceptance. I went through a period of several weeks where I was tormented by uncertainty and fear. Some nights I lay awake for hours, crying and full of turmoil. When I could bear it no longer, I spoke to my mother about it. She told me God’s promises to those who long for salvation and trust in Jesus and open the door to him. That night I prayed and experienced tremendous relief and joy.
My struggle was painful, but it was also good for me. It made it impossible for me simply to go on with business as usual. In my fear I felt the weight of eternity and God’s holiness and my own sin, and this prepared the way for me to have a more genuine joy in salvation and a deeper, sturdier, more personal faith and commitment to the Savior. ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.
So if you’re a struggler, if you’re afraid of God, the first thing I want you to understand is that your fear may well be a sign that God is already at work in your heart to save you and that it’s his grace that has taught your heart to fear. But that’s not all I want to say. Fear can be an important stage on the journey, but it shouldn’t be a permanent condition. Grace may begin by teaching your heart to fear, but then it goes on to relieve those fears.
How does God’s grace do this? By showing you the tenderness of God’s mercy in Jesus, by making promises you can count on, and by moving to believe those promises and trust that mercy. The song “Amazing Grace” says, “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved,” and then explains, “The Lord has promised good to me, his Word my hope secures.” At first the holiness and power of God may terrify you, but then his goodness and the promises of his Word give relief and hope and assurance.
The Bible makes it clear that forgiveness and salvation and eternal life come to us by way of faith in Jesus. The Bible says that to all who receive Jesus and believe in his name, he gives the right to become children of God (John 1:12). Jesus said he had to be lifted up on the cross, “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:15-16). Jesus doesn’t say whoever believes in him has a chance not to perish; he says whoever believes in him shall not perish. God doesn’t say, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you might be saved.” God says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). That is God’s promise. And it is impossible for God to lie.
What does it mean to believe in Jesus? Well, believing in Jesus is the opposite of believing in yourself. To believe in Jesus and put your faith in him, you must give up on yourself entirely and trust your past, present, and future to him. Trust his perfect obedience credited to your account. Trust his blood to wash away your sins. Trust his Holy Spirit to uphold and purify you. Trust his promises to bring you to glory, trust his commands to guide you, trust him as your very life. When you trust Jesus in this way, God justifies you through your faith. He doesn’t count any of your sins against you and declares you to be made right with him.
Many people who fear for their salvation have had their fears relieved when they at last grasped justification by faith. Two famous examples are Martin Luther and John Wesley.
Martin Luther was filled with fears and tried everything he could think of to make himself right with God: he tried to be moral, he tried all the right rituals, he tried confessing his sins to a priest, he tried becoming a monk and priest himself, but none of that relieved his fears. Luther was still tormented by guilt and terror. But then he discovered in the Bible book of Romans that the just shall live by faith. Luther said, “I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.”
John Wesley lived a few centuries after Luther, but he experienced something similar. Wesley had an intense desire to be holy and had high standards for moral behavior and religious activity. But he wasn’t sure where he stood with God. There came a time when he was sailing across the ocean in a terrible storm. Wesley was afraid the ship would sink, and he was terrified to die and face God. Meanwhile, there were Christian people on board who were calm and confident of their salvation. The ship didn’t sink in the storm, but John Wesley couldn’t forget his terror or the assurance of his fellow passengers. Wesley longed to have that same kind of assurance, but he continued to be troubled by fears. Then one day he found himself listening to someone reading some comments of Martin Luther on the book of Romans, explaining justification by faith. Wesley said that as he listened, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” He realized that God accepted him through faith, not through his own efforts.
If you are afraid of God, and if you’re trying to earn God’s approval through religious activity and good deeds, you need to understand that salvation is entirely by God’s grace in Christ alone. You are made right with God through faith alone. This truth may be exactly what you need to relieve your fears.
Maybe, though, you already know the truth of salvation by faith, but you’re not sure it applies to you personally. What then? You know that Jesus is God, that he lived a perfect human life, that he died to pay for sin, and that he rose again and lives forever. You also know you can’t be saved by any actions of your own but only by believing in Jesus as your personal Savior. “But that’s just the problem,” you might say. “Believing is a big struggle for me. I often doubt whether Jesus will save me personally. I don’t have a strong, robust faith. So how can I be saved? If I have any faith at all, it’s puny and pitiful. Even when I seem to believe, unbelief is right beside me, muttering in my ear. My faith—if it can even be called faith—is so weak and wavering, so beset by doubts and fears, that I don’t see why God would accept me.”
If that’s how you feel, then I have good news for you. The Bible says of Jesus, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out” (Matthew 12:20, Isaiah 42:3). This is a beautiful promise for strugglers!
You may think salvation by faith means you can be a child of God only if you always have a strong, healthy faith and a calm, complete sense of assurance. You may think the Lord Jesus will crush and condemn you if your faith is fragile and flickering. After all, what use is a bent, damaged reed? And why would anybody put up with a smoldering wick? It just smokes and smokes without giving light. What good is it? Why not just blow it out and put an end to that miserable, irritating smoke?
But that’s not what Jesus does. Listen again to the promise: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” That doesn’t excuse doubt—but it does encourage doubters. If your faith is tiny and troubled and trembling, Jesus may rebuke the smallness of your faith and direct you to greater faith, but Jesus will not reject or destroy you for having a weaker faith than you ought to have. Of course he’d rather not smell the stinking smoke of doubt from a smoldering wick–but he will not snuff it out. Many times in the Bible, we read of Jesus rebuking his disciples as men of little faith, but did he give up on them or destroy them? No, he rescued them and relieved their fears over and over again until at last their faith grew stronger and began to burn more brightly.
British preacher Charles Spurgeon emphasized that small faith is still real faith. Even where there are great doubts, there may be a little faith, and little faith is enough to be saved. Even though there is a great deal of darkness at twilight, said Spurgeon, yet there is some light. Even if your faith never reaches the brightness of noonday, even if it only reaches the level of twilight, you are saved. Indeed, continued Spurgeon, if your faith isn’t even twilight, if it’s only starlight, or candlelight, or only a spark, or even a mere glint of a glow-worm, you are saved. All your fears and distresses, terrible though they might be, can never destroy you. “A smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”
The Bible tells of a man who came to Jesus, counting on the Lord to help him and his son but at the same time filled with misgivings. He pleaded with Jesus,
“If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
“If you can?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes.”
Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
How did Jesus respond? Did he say, “Sorry, that’s not good enough; I don’t save people who believe but also struggle with unbelief”? No, Jesus lovingly granted the man’s request. “A smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” Even the smallest, weakest faith is a work of God, and the Lord won’t destroy his own work. Instead, he will fan and fuel your faith until it glows more brightly.
Weak Faith, Strong Savior
One thing that often troubles people and makes it hard to believe God accepts them is the reality of their own sin. You may have a history of sin so long and dreary that you don’t see how God could pardon you. Or there’s one particular sin you’ve committed, a sin so grievous you can’t forget it—and you’re not sure God can forget it.
But listen to Jesus. He told of a man with an extremely wicked past. This man felt awful about his sins. He felt ashamed and afraid of God. He didn’t feel he had any right to be in God’s presence—but he decided to go to a house of worship anyway. When he got there, his eyes remained glued to the floor; he didn’t even dare to look up. He didn’t know the proper words or have anyone to tell him what prayer to say. All he could do was groan, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This man, said Jesus, “went home justified before God” (Luke 18:13-14). ‘Twas grace that taught his heart to fear, and grace his fears relieved. Jesus will not snuff out a smoldering wick.
If you’re like some strugglers, you may be troubled by a nagging feeling that there is some special method or technique for making your salvation personal. You’ve said certain prayers and gone through certain rituals, perhaps you’ve even responded to altar calls over and over again, hoping that this time you’ll at last have the key that opens the door to full assurance and unwavering faith. Maybe it’s time to stop trying so hard. There’s no magic technique, no marvelous and mysterious formula, that works when all others fail.
Faith is first and foremost a movement of the heart, not a ritual or a particular set of words. Faith is a heart that gives up on self and goes to Jesus. If an evangelist tells you to say certain words after him, those words may be a fitting prayer. But don’t think you need to repeat the exact prayer of a famous preacher in order to be saved. If all you can do is groan, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” or cry out a few broken words such as, “Lord, I believe; help me overcome my unbelief,” the Lord hears and saves. The Bible promises, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). “A smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”
In order to be saved, you don’t need a strong faith; you need a strong Savior. If you’re sick and you go to a good doctor, it doesn’t much matter if you feel hesitation and uncertainty. What matters is simply that you go, and that he’s an excellent doctor who can really help you. So too, if you go to Jesus, your faith may be weak and shaking with doubt, but as long Jesus is the one you go to, he will save you. Jesus himself promises, “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37). So don’t think Jesus will reject you and drive you away on account of your doubts and fears. Just come to him. Don’t worry so much about your feelings; focus on God’s promises. Don’t worry so much about the weakness of your faith. Focus instead on the power of your Savior. Pray along with the poet and say,
Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come.
Just as I am, thou will receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve,
Because thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.