Rev. Gritters is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan.
Dear Christian parents and young people,
This section of the Standard Bearer has always been written for the Young People. The Title “The Strength of Youth” emphasizes the unique strength that young people have in their teens and later.
Although there is a unique strength that young people have, in their lives there are many difficult questions to face and answer. My purpose in this rubric is to address some of those questions and try to give guidelines for answering them, so that their strengths may be used to the fullest.
God lead you and bless you as you face your many “hard questions.”
Am I a child of God? Is my faith genuine? Is it really true that I am born again, so that the life of Christ is in me? Will it be true for me that when Christ comes again, the great Judge will say to me, “Come, ye blessed of my father . . . .”? Can I entertain the hope for myself that “after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God”?
As young people mature, and as the rest of your life becomes more stable so that your attention turns more often to serious things (like your spiritual life), you begin to ask that kind of question of yourselves. “Even though I was born of believing parents, this does not guarantee that I am a child of God. How do I know for sure? (Or: How can I be sure?)
To doubt their salvation and the validity of their faith is not unusual for God’s people; they often entertain these doubts. Our Reformed confession says, “believers in this life have to struggle with variouscarnal doubts (my emphasis: BG), and that under grievous temptations they are not always sensible of this full assurance of faith . . . .” (Canons, Chapter 5, Article 11).
The knowledge that some who had been brought up in the church (who apparently were saved, who seem to have loved God) later rejected the gospel and the fellowship of Christ’s church increases the worry. The question then arises, “What about me? Today I seem to be a member of Christ’s church; but will I remain so?” Add to this the fact that the Bible speaks of different kinds of faith which seem to be genuine but are not, and the doubts that trouble me (even though “born of my iniquity”—Psalter #210) become all the more severe. “Is my faith simply a historical faith, a miraculous faith, a temporary faith? Or is it one that has root and will remain?”
Every child of God can be assured of his salvation and can be convinced that his faith is genuine. He can entertain the hope that he will live into eternity of life in the body after this life ends. He can know that when judgment rolls, his soul will be secure. The question is “How can he know?”
Young people, for assurance of your salvation look not for some fantastic experience in your past life. Not something in the past, but something in thepresent must assure you of the certainty of your faith. Perhaps an illustration would help. I will never forget the evening that I was lying on my bed in the apartment when, like a flood, the conviction that I could run no longer from preparing for the ministry came over me. From that day on there was no hesitation or doubt that God called me to the pastorate. But it certainly was not true then, nor is it true today, that my conviction of Gods continued call rests on that evening’s experience. My certainty of God’s call to the ministry rests on, among other things, the present call He continues to give me through the church, and the present grace to do what He calls pastors to do. If I were to base my call on that past experience, I would continually be plagued with doubts as to the genuineness of that experience. How foolish! Well, the same holds for your salvation. Perhaps God did regenerate you later than in your infancy. But do not rest your assurance on that moment you first felt alive; rest your assurance on the present.
There are at least three points of view that you can take regarding the assurance of your salvation.
The first concerns your faith. “Can I be sure I have faith?” is the vital question, because faith unites with Christ, the Savior, who gives life. But do not turn in on yourself and be preoccupied with examining your faith. The more a person does that, the more doubts he will have. This problem reminds me of today’s concern about psychological health. The more you brood about your own situation, the more you become depressed. Psychological health does not come through contemplating ourselves, but comes through looking away from ourselves, to our work, our family, our church, our neighbor, our God! So with spiritual health. Don’t look at your faith. Faith itself is an “eye.” Look at what faith is supposed to observe. Look at God. Look at God’s Word. Look at Gods promises.
Then let me ask you some questions about your faith. Do you believe everything God has revealed in His Word to be true—not rejecting any doctrines taught there, hating any doctrines taught there, despising any doctrines taught there, but loving them? I’m not asking about how strong your love is for the truth. I’m only asking, “Do you love it?”
For the removal of the shame of your sins, for the strength to deliver you from sin’s awful power, for your righteousness in God’s eyes—all of it—do you trust in the promises of God in Jesus Christ? As to your presence in the judgment day, do you anticipate calling attention to your works, or to the works of Christ for you? Again, I’m not asking if that trust is as strong as it should be. I’m asking, “Do you have that confidence?” Then you have faith. You should not doubt. You are a Christian!
There are some practical implications of this truth. First, if you know your faith is true—even if it is weak—then confess your faith (if you are old enough to discern the Lords body). Why? Because God uses confession of faith to increase the assurance of our salvation (see Romans 10:8-10). Second, make sure that you are a church member, and remain one, where the truth is preached. If the word that you hear from the pulpit is impure or only story telling, and not the doctrines that make one wise unto salvation, either your assurance will be false or you will have no assurance. What affirmation of the truth can faith give to a sermon which was not gospel doctrine? Third, use the means of grace. Where God gives faithful preaching, give attendance to it! Prepare to hear it! Pay careful attention when it is preached! And when the minister says “Amen,” respond in your heart and soul with your own, “Amen, I believe it.” And you will be assured of the genuineness of your faith.
Second, the young person’s assurance of salvation and faith has to do with his life of good works.
This is not to say that your good works will earn you the assurance of salvation. The Reformed young person knows better than to think that. But good works play an important part in the life of assurance.
Let me use an illustration. Suppose you walk in a particular gross sin. (I need not list any because believing young people know just what is meant.) You will not experience any assurance that you are a child of God. You will experience severe doubts and fears and plagues of conscience. And you ought to expect that, too. Or suppose that you are not walking in an outwardly gross sin, but fail to walk in the good work of loving others. You are self-centered, concerned about no one but yourself. You have no serious desire to live in obedience to the great commandment (Matthew 22:37-40). There can be and there will be no assurance that your faith is genuine.
That only makes sense. What are good works? Every good catechism student knows that good works are the fruits of faith, so that, just as one tells the real character of a fruit tree by the fruit it produces, so the church member knows the true character of his faith by the fruits that it produces in his life. These need not be great works that men can praise, but are the works of washing the saints’ feet, being sorry for sin, desiring to be more holy . . . . “By their fruits ye shall know them” applies as well to yourself.
The third aspect of your assurance (which can be distinguished but cannot be separated from the others) concerns your old man and your new man.
It has happened more than once that when I have talked to young people who have doubts about their salvation and question the validity of their faith, the first question that comes up has to do with the power of sin in their life. The experience goes like this: In the past few months, or years even, sin has gotten a I hold on them. Perhaps one particular sin has plagued them. Perhaps more than one sin has the upper hand in their life. They feel almost impotent to struggle against bitterness, rebellion, sloth, or another of a multitude of sins. And then the question arises in their soul, “If I were a child of God, would this be happening to me? If I truly were united to Christ, would I have these problems with sin that I’m experiencing?”
A good pastor is very careful at this point, because it may happen that an unbelieving member of the congregation simply wants his guilty conscience soothed by some easy words from the minister (who, perhaps, has approached him about his crooked walk). Then the minister may very easily try to convince him of the genuineness of his faith, without finding out about his true state. I want to avoid that error here, too.
Depending on the attitude expressed—true sorrow or the sorrow of the world—assurance of salvation can be gained here, too. What is the result of finding this sin in your life? How do you react when a sin gets the upper hand? What do you feel during a time like this? If you feel shame for the things you have done, if you feel guilt for the sin that boils in your blood, and if you desire to be delivered from the reigning power of sin in your life, this is indication of true spiritual life, of union with Christ. In the first place, no unbeliever feels sorrow that he has sinned against God; no unbeliever feels shame from the experience of giving in to a sinful lust. That is the difference between you and an unbeliever. You sin, but are sorry; the unbeliever could not care less. In the second place, it should not surprise you that there is this struggle going on in a child of God. This is the experience of every child of God to one degree or another. The chief of the apostles, toward the end of his spiritual pilgrimage, anguished in his heart because of the power of sin in his life, so that he could say not only, “the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh . . . so that ye cannot do the things that ye would’ (Galatians 5:16) but also, “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24). That there is a mighty struggle within you against your old man of sin is a sign that there is life. And if there is life, even a small beginning, that life will never die. God will fan the glowing ember into a flame that will never be extinguished.
Let me suggest a couple of practical things you can do. Before church next Sunday (and it would be good for you to get there before the elders enter, so that you have time for meditation on worship) take out the Psalter and read carefully through the fifth chapter of the Canons of Dordt. If you have not read it recently, you will be pleasantly surprised at the rich comfort in this part of our beautiful Reformed heritage. Also, if you haven’t sent for it yet, we still have some pamphlets left entitled, “Christian Joy.” Just a note to Byron Center PRC Evangelism Society, P.O. Box 71, Byron Center, MI, 49315, and you will have one shortly.