Question: Are people converted in the same way they were years ago? I know the answer is yes, but why then are things looked at so differently? When I was young, there was so much more doubt; people would say they “hoped” they had been converted. Rarely was a child of God fully assured. However, today so many who go to the Lord’s Supper are happy, don’t doubt, and just don’t have the outwardly Godly life that our forefathers did. What was wrong yesterday is OK today? I know, the main concern is to look at ourselves; I really do, and I don’t like what I see. But settling this contrast between God’s people of former days and of today, is of utmost importance to me in determining what is the truth.
You have much packed in your questions. I will try to answer the questions first as short as possible and then try to come to some Biblical conclusions.
1. Are people converted in the same way they were years ago?
When God converts a sinner, they all learn the same things though in vastly different ways. Paul learned the same as Samuel but their ways were incomparable in how they reached this. Comparing the conversion of John Bunyan (Pilgrim’s Progress) and his wife (Christina’s Journey) introduces you to two entirely different stories. Yet they all are summed up in the words of Paul in Phil. 3:3, “For we are the circumcision (regenerated/saved) which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.” The three-fold essential knowledge of the misery, delivery and gratitude (as the Heidelberg Catechism sets out) is the essence of conversion. All of God’s children can find their description in the Beatitudes Jesus gave in Matt. 5:3-10. So, yes, when God saves a person He teaches us the same things are He has taught the first fallen creature He converted.
2. Why are things then looked at so different?
You are concerned that we have departed from the truth because the professed children of God in your youth spoke differently about salvation; as a matter of fact, you observe that they rarely were assured of their salvation. There was so much doubt in them even though they attended the Lord’s Supper. They were rarely assured of their faith. Later in your question you mentioned the ‘fore-fathers’ and with them I am sure you didn’t mean the people of God that you grew up with but godly teachers such a M Henry, S. Rutherford, T. Boston, T. Watson and the like.
However, the comparison between these two groups doesn’t quite stack up as you made it sound like. If you read the personal memoirs of our forefathers you would often read about the assurance of faith and the joy of their salvation. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have their times of trial and darkness. How else could they preach so pastorally to encourage the pour doubting Christians of their days?
I agree that many in the former generation as well as many of God’s children today struggle with the doubts regarding their salvation. I am convinced that this was/is not a Biblical or healthy condition yet often present. We remain strugglers and every believer will have his times of doubt, fears, darkness and trials. Yet the reason that there was (and still is) so little assurance of salvation can also be because there was/is misunderstanding about ‘how a child of God will be assured of their salvation?’ Over the years of study of the Scripture as well as the teaching of our fore-fathers, especially they who were used by God to write the Canons of Dort, has led me to see that many dear children of God walked in darkness because they had an incorrect view about how to arrive at assurance of faith. If you are interested in this subject, send me a private e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I will send you a link to my Ministry Dropbox. Recently I preached two sermons on ‘assurance of faith’ in which I expounded the Biblical teaching of the Canons of Dort on this subject.
You would do well to establish what is right or wrong by Scripture and not by what you necessarily grew up with. The experiences or testimonies of the professed children of God in your youth are not the final answer though they may have been dear children of the Lord. Scripture is and there you do find expression such as “I know that my Redeemer liveth” and “I am persuaded …” and “When I confessed my transgressions, thou forgavest the iniquity…” I am afraid that some have made assurance of faith unreachable because they have moved it away from personal faith in God’s objective truths and promises as well as the observations of the fruits of God’s election in our life. Our forefathers warned against seeking your assurance of salvation in some extra-ordinary experiences. The Heidelberg Catechism speaks much about the assurance of salvation and always points to the promises of God which are confirmed by the sacrament and proclaimed to the believers by the preaching of the Word.
Are there then no experiences in the life of grace? Yes, there is the conviction of sin, godly sorrow, humbling of the heart, the surrendering to God, hunger and thirst after righteousness, love to God or the fear of His holy Name; the striving to be holy, burden with the impurity of heart. They are the genuine experiences Jesus points out in the Beatitude. If we are strangers to these, we are strangers to His saving grace. It is not always possible for a child of God to see the clear evidences in the fruits of God’s grace in their own life. But when I hear that ‘each child of God has had many sleepless nights’ I know that Satan will use such statement to terrify or trouble tender and sincere heart who may never had laid awake for a whole night. Not all of God’s children have had sleepless nights. But writing or stating such things is making a certain experience of one (or many) the standard of all. Or when I hear that you only get assurance ‘if you hear the Lord speak to you’ or ‘if a special Psalter or text you asked Him is used in the next sermon’ I object. Such statement lack complete Scriptural basis and cause massive confusion or strive. It is the ‘Thomas way’ of insisting on ‘this or that’ before one would believe (John 21). Though Jesus graciously condescended to Thomas, and He still does to such like Thomasses, He also rebuked him for not believing His Word.
Must I doubt my salvation because I have never had a sleepless night in my life (though there are plenty times that I had trouble sleeping or struggled with restless and speaking consciences)? What does it mean to ‘hear the Lord speak to you?’ The Lord speaks to us each time His Word is read but we don’t have ears to hear it.
The problem, however, is that many seek their assurance of faith in their spiritual experiences. But that is not where the assurance of faith is based on. What is the assurance that my wife will love me and be faithful to me? It is not in ‘what I feel or experience’ but in what she has spoken to me! Her character and her word are my assurance and this word she has backed up with nearly 18 years of absolute faithfulness. Do I need anything else to be assured of her love? My assurance of salvation is not in spiritual experiences but in the promises of God in Jesus Christ. Lord’s Day 23 sums my personal conviction and in the faith of God’s promise I may live.
So Kari, I am not ready to agree with you entirely but suggest that you let your questions guide you to read in our ‘fore-fathers.’ One beautiful book I continue to recommend is Thomas Hooker’s The Poor Doubting Christian Drawn to Christ. A true gem. J. C. Ryle has also a very readable book on Assurance of Faith. Scan through John Newton’s letters as I think he also touches upon this subject. Obtain the books by Brakel and check out his chapters dealing with faith and assurance.
3. You also share your concern that those who today claim to be saved don’t live the ‘outwardly godly life’ that they did in the days of your youth.
What is ‘godliness?’ To me ‘godliness’ is to be Christ-like in your walk, talk, manners, actions and re-actions. Jesus sketched godliness in the last three Beatitudes, the merciful, pure in heart and peace-makers. People in whom the Spirit of God lives are people who pursue godliness or seek to live a righteous life before God and man. Godliness is genuine love to God which is expressed in to my neighbour, friend or foe. Godliness is to deny yourself, sacrificially love another, not be thinking and acting like the world who only care for their own. But godliness is also to separate ourselves from the world and not to participate in the activities and idolatries of the world. Peter exhorted the believers to ‘be holy as He is holy’ and that certainly included not ‘running like you used to run with the world and their activities.’
I share your concern that it appears that some who profess grace have re-defined the boundaries about where and how we can be involved or participate in the world. That worries me too. Clothing styles and participation in all kinds of forms of entertainment and even how they talk about their faith etc. are matters that aren’t always in line with what former generations did and did not.
It is not fair to say, however, that is a general pattern. I see also many very serious-minded single and couples who are diligent and sharing in their Christian walk. We need to be careful to judge the heart on either side: those who walk very conservative can be as far away from salvation as those who are zealously working hard for the Lord. Others may be diligent in their ‘cups of cold water and prison visit’s ministry’ for the wrong reasons but there are also such who do it for the right reasons.
The outward walk is not necessarily a reliable barometer of the heart.
Well, Kari, I thank you for your patience and hope that my answer has given you something to think about. I am always open to further comments or questions. May the Lord remember us all in His grace and continue to work out His glorious salvation in us and ours.