Satan wants us to think that if we do not have the most fully developed, fully assured faith in Christ and in his forgiveness of our sins, we don’t really have it at all.
He wants us to believe there are no degrees of faith, no growth, no development over time. Either we are fully confident in our salvation at all times and in all circumstances, or we are lost.
According to God’s definition of faith, this notion is inconceivable.
“You keep using that word. I do not think that word means what you think it means.”
It’s one of the most recognizable lines from one of the most quotable movies in the history of cinema. And it perfectly illustrates the point of this device of Satan.
The word in question is: inconceivable. And what prompted that line from Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride was its consistent misuse. For something to be inconceivable, it actually must be preposterous, infinitely unlikely, a one-in-a billion happenstance. Not just something you wish hadn’t happened.
Similarly, in order to call a thing “faith” according to the Christian religion, it must line up with what Scripture calls faith. Not just what we think faith might be.
A story that shows degrees of faith
Imagine two people boarding an airplane. The first person has never seen an aircraft and has no concept of human flight. He has almost no faith in the plane or its crew. His fears and doubts nearly paralyze him. The second person flies for business every week. It has become commonplace to him. He has great confidence in the plane and crew.
Both persons board the plane, which carries them to their destination. They both experience the blessings of human flight, but with differing experiences. Each acts on what amount of faith they have, with equal results. This is because the object of their faith – the plane, or its crew depending on your preference, is the same.*
We err when we place our faith in our faith, rather than in the Object of our faith. The One who both began and will finish our faith is the only One qualified to define it.
The good news is that, by grace, Christ forgives us of this sin, too. And his servant, Thomas Brooks, has provided a few means by which we can counter Satan’s attacks and remember God’s true yet inconceivable definition.
Remedy 1: We can have great faith but no assurance
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life (1 John 5:13, ESV).
As I write this, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are celebrating the birth of their third child. That infant was born with all the rights and privileges of a prince, a member of the British royal family. He has no conception of this reality. Yet it is still true.
When that child, Prince Louis of Cambridge, comes to a certain age and degree of cognitive development, he might possibly reject that reality. He may consciously choose to distance himself from royalty. His great-great-great uncle King-Emperor Edward VIII did that very thing in 1936. Yet Prince Louis cannot truly deny the lineage under which he was born.
And neither can we. Once born, a person cannot become unborn. A royal adoption cannot be reversed. Lacking assurance of this reality does not make it untrue.
Remedy 2: God defines faith as having Christ
“It is safest and sweetest to define as God defines, both vices and graces.”
Redefining sin has become something like an art form. But “woe to those who call evil good and good evil.” We must call sin what God calls sin. In the same spirit, we must call faith what God calls faith.
We must not assert faith equals our efforts to cling to God. If we do, we make faith to be something like a work. We sell ourselves back into slavery to the Law.
We also must not believe our full comprehension of the wonders of salvation is faith. If we do, we say our mental faculties are what save us rather than the works of Christ on our behalf. We make the cross of little value, cheapening our Lord’s sacrifice for us.
Remedy 3: Faith can exist where doubt has a foothold
Jesus’ words are clear: He is faithful to save all the Father has given to him. He will lose none of them. Once God determines to save someone, Jesus will accomplish his Father’s desire.
This means the faith God grants us as a means of this accomplishment is strong enough to overcome our doubts. The efficacy of our faith is not contingent on our never doubting. Our entire lives lived by and in this gift of faith are a continual exercise in eradicating such doubts, overcoming them, and persevering through them.
Our Lord never commends such doubts. But he also never rejects his children for having them. Jesus chides his disciples for their lack of faith, yet he cheers them for what little faith they have. He gives us a deposit of faith for now. And he will be faithful to complete the good work he began in us, when he consummates his salvation of us in our physical death and perfect spiritual union with him (Phil 1:6).
Remedy 4: Look to the root, not the fruit
We have discussed the “root vs. fruit” confusion before, noting that we must dwell on the source of our salvation rather than its results. Brooks wisely reminds us here it is the witness of the Holy Spirit within us, not the human work of obedience flowing from us, that confirms we belong to Christ.
There are many thousand precious souls, of whom this world is not worthy, that have the faith of reliance, and yet lack assurance and the effects of it; as high joy, glorious peace, and vehement longings after the coming of Christ.
* Adapted from City Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, by Tim Keller