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The First Century Ephesian Church and the Twenty-First Century American Church

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What is the most pressing problem that the American church currently has? Some might identify the twenty-first century American church’s biggest problem as the ongoing sexual revolution in our society. Respected Christian leaders have consistently decried the sexual slippery slope that our society is racing down, especially with the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA earlier this summer. Others might identify the church’s worst problem more broadly as the anti-religious liberty tendencies of President Obama’s administration or the anti-Christian bias of both news media and pop culture. I deny neither that these problems exist nor that they are pressing; however, I would identify a different problem as the most pressing problem that the twenty-first century American church faces.

The other proposed pressing problems all share this common trait: they are problems that are pressing the church from the outside. I believe that the church’s most pressing problem presses her from the inside. This problem is not new. It is a problem that has plagued the church since New Testament times. The most pressing problem that the twenty-first century American church faces is false teaching.

False teaching espouses both wrong doctrine (heterodoxy) and wrong practice (heteropraxy). Any combination of the two can constitute false teaching, and a combination of one or both of these elements of false teaching has threatened the gospel integrity of churches since the first century. For this study, I shall examine the first century Ephesian church as described in Acts, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Revelation. In the mid-first century, Paul warned the Ephesian elders of false teaching that was to come. Within ten years, that false teaching had arrived in Ephesus, and it was marked both by heterodoxy and heteropraxy. By the end of the first century, the church at Ephesus had corrected its doctrinal problems but was still threatened by practical problems: they no longer loved the Lord. Whatever varieties of false teaching are prevalent in your specific local church, bad doctrine and bad living are the most pressing dangers your church faces in America right now.

Coming False Teaching

Paul founded the Ephesian church gradually. He first visited Ephesus with Aquila and Priscilla as recorded in Acts 18:18-21, but he did not remain in Ephesus long enough to establish a church there. The first Christian convert in Ephesus was actually  Apollos, who himself was from Alexandria. Aquila and Priscilla evangelized him while Paul was away from the city (Acts 18:24-26). Apollos did not spend a long time ministering in Ephesus, either. He traveled on to Achaia and Corinth, where he exercised a fruitful ministry (Acts 18:27-28; 19:1; cf. 1 Cor. 3:5-9).

Like Aquila and Priscilla before him, Paul found disciples of John in Corinth. As Aquila implicitly had done with Apollos, Paul explicitly “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” the disciples of John that he evangelized (Acts 19:5). Paul remained in Ephesus there building up the church through preaching and healing people for over two years until he left Ephesus following a riot (Acts 19:8-41; 20:1). Before traveling back to Jerusalem, Paul summoned the elders (the leaders who labored in preaching and teaching) of the Ephesian church to Miletus so he could deliver a farewell address to them because he would never see them again (Acts 20:17, 25, 38). The theme of Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders was the contrast between coming false teaching and his previous sound teaching.

And when they came to him, he said to them:

“You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to al the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night and day to admonish everyone with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'” (Acts 20:18-35)

Paul begins his farewell address to the Ephesian elders by reminding them of his faithful ministry in Ephesus. He reminds them that he faithfully preached the gospel and urged people to repent and believe for salvation (vv. 20-21). Despite the hardships he had faced and the hardships for him yet to face, Paul was determined to faithfully complete his ministry as an apostle (vv. 19, 22-24). In contrast to Paul’s concern for others, the false teachers will be concerned for themselves (vv. 29-31). Paul rightly prays that God would make the Ephesian elders faithful as they faced the false teaching once it arrived (v. 32), even though he knew that some of them would join the false teachers (v. 30). He thus rightly concludes his farewell address by reminding the elders of his own faithfulness and generosity, which should motivate them to be faithful and generous, as well (vv. 33-35).

Paul founded the Ephesian church on the true gospel of Jesus Christ. He had faithfully modeled a Christian lifestyle for the Ephesian believers to emulate. His three years of faithful gospel preaching and gospel living, by God’s grace, would be sufficient for the Ephesian Christians to withstand the false teaching to come.

Rampant False Teaching

Sadly, not everyone in the Ephesian church were true Christians. Unregenerate church members, now as then, sow false teaching in the church both in doctrine and in practice. Within a decade of bidding the Ephesian elders adieu, Paul’s prophecy had come true. False teachers had arisen in Ephesus. Paul has already excommunicated two Ephesians, Hymenaeus and Alexander, for their participation in the heresy (1 Tim. 1:19-20). False teaching is a prominent (if not the prominent) theme of 1 Timothy, and Paul bookends this epistle with extended charges to Timothy to correct the false teaching that was rampant in the Ephesian church (1 Tim. 1:3-20; 6:3-21). This false teaching espoused both false doctrine and false practice.

As a false teaching, the Ephesian heresy of the mid-first century taught false doctrine. This false doctrine was devoted “to myths and endless genealogies” (1 Tim. 1:4). The false teaching was essentially a “vain discussion” about the law, which the false teachers had no understanding about “either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions” (1 Tim. 1:6, 7; cf. Titus 3:9). Since the Ephesian heresy concerned the Jewish law, it seems that the myths and genealogies were also Jewish constructs. Paul similarly warned Titus in Crete of “the circumcision party” (Titus 1:10) whose members “devot[ed] themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth” (Titus 1:14). Although Paul had excommunicated Hymenaeus before he wrote 1 Timothy, in 2 Timothy, we read that Hymenaeus continued to teach false doctrine in Ephesus: he taught that “the resurrection has already happened” (2 Tim. 2:18). The false teachers led “foolish, ignorant controversies” that Timothy was to “have nothing to do with” because “they breed quarrels” (2 Tim. 2:23; cf. 1 Tim. 6:3-5). The false doctrine that the false teachers taught in Ephesus seems to be an odd admixture of Jewish legalism and antinomianism. They insisted upon following the Jewish law of circumcision, but they participated in and encouraged greed, ecclesiastical disunity, and sexual immorality because they denied a future bodily resurrection. Mounce rightly characterizes this false teaching as not being “a well-thought-out, cohesive system of belief” (William D. Mounce, The Pastoral Epistles, Word Biblical Commentary 46 [2000], lxix).

In responding to the false teaching, then, Paul emphasizes how the false teachers’ false gospel results in false living.

Paul must deal with the Ephesian opponents differently from those in Galatia who had a formulated teaching that could be described and evaluated. Paul cannot logically and theologically argue against empty chatter and quarrels about words. He must focus on the opponents’ behavior, which reveals the error of their teaching. (Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, lxxv)

In 1-2 Timothy, Paul warns Timothy that the Ephesian heterodoxy was so dangerous because of its heteropraxy. Consider Hymenaeus as a case study. In 2 Timothy 2:16-18, Paul warns Timothy:

But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some.

Why should Timothy “avoid irreverent babble”? Why should he not join the false teachers in “saying that the resurrection has already happened”? Because such talk “lead[s] people into more and more ungodliness.” It upsets their faith. False teaching is dangerous because it leads people into false lifestyles that ultimately lead people astray into hell. Paul made this point specifically regarding greed:

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Tim. 6:9-10)

As I have argued previously, “destruction” refers to eternal punishment. Wandering away from the faith, by extension, likewise results in eternal punishment because it shows that the apostate was never truly saved (cf. Mark 4:14-20; 1 John 2:18-19). False teaching is dangerous because it results in behavior that contradicts sound doctrine (Titus 1:9; cf. Titus 1:10-16). Behavior that contradicts the gospel is dangerous because it results in condemnation because it shows that such a person was never truly saved (2 Cor. 5:17; Heb. 10:39).

Within a decade of Paul warning the Ephesian elders of the coming false teaching, it had arrived and was rampant in Ephesus. In 1-2 Timothy, Paul tells Timothy, whom he had “urged” to “remain at Ephesus” (1 Tim. 1:3), to combat this false teaching both doctrinally and practically. The over-realized eschatology of the Ephesian false teachers excused them to indulge abuse of their power in the church by greed and sexual immorality. However, they insisted upon their followers getting circumcised. Timothy was to combat these doctrinal and behavioral errors in Ephesus so that the church would return to “the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness” (1 Tim. 6:3).

The Residual Dangers of False Teaching

Timothy apparently enjoyed success in Ephesus to an extent. By the end of the first century, the Ephesians had corrected many of their doctrinal and behavioral problems. In the letter that he dictates to the apostle John, Jesus writes to the church in Ephesus:

“‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. (Rev. 2:2-3)

The Ephesians had rooted out (and kept out) the false teachers for a few decades. They even “hate[d] the works of the Nicolaitans,” (Rev. 2:6) who ate meat previously sacrificed to pagan deities and practiced sexual immorality (David E. Aune, Revelation 1-5, Word Biblical Commentary 52A, 148). Since the false teachers in the late 50s/early 60s were sexually immoral, the Ephesians’ double rejection of earlier false teachers and the current Nicolaitans demonstrates genuine repentance of false teaching, both doctrinal and behavioral.

However, all was not well in Ephesus despite the Ephesians’ return to sound doctrine. “But I have this against you,” Jesus wrote them, “that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Rev. 2:4). As John MacArthur has commented:

the clear penetrating laser vision of Christ found a fatal fault that probably nobody else saw. Their hard hearts, that labor of passion and fervor was becoming the cold orthodox function. That was deadly, dangerous. The service had started to become mechanical.

Bad doctrine and bad works are always dangerous, but even good doctrine and good works are dangerous when they are done by someone who doesn’t love Jesus. We can depict this truth with the following diagram:

Love Spectrum

Genuine love for Jesus results in good doctrine and good works, but those who don’t love Jesus are either legalists (good doctrine and good works) or antinomians (bad doctrine and bad works), both of which are condemned for eternity. Paul had earlier warned the Ephesians of the antinomian danger of false teaching in Acts 20 and in 1-2 Timothy, but Jesus now decries the legalistic danger of false teaching in Revelation 2. Good doctrine and good works must flow from a genuine love for Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, or else it is false. To put this truth another way, the gospel does not merely command faith that results in works; the gospel commands loving allegiance to Christ that manifests itself by faith and works. As Paul said in Galatians: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). As he put it even more succinctly for the Corinthians: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).

Implications for the American Church of the Twenty-First Century

False teaching is rampant in the twenty-first century American church. Depending upon your local church context, you may battle false teaching more at the doctrinal level, the behavioral level, or the motivational level. Whatever form false teaching takes in our contexts, it is the most pressing danger we American Christians face. Maybe for you the temptation is more legalistic, for another it may be more antinomian. Whatever form false teaching takes in your situation, be on guard against it because the consequences of false teaching are eternally disastrous.

Jesus warned the Ephesian church, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Rev. 2:5). “This is nothing less than a threat to obliterate the Ephesian congregation as an empirical Christian community” (Aune, Revelation 1-5, 147). “Christ threatens to ‘come’ to them (not in the Parousia but in an act of temporal judgment; see 2:16) and blot their community out of existence” (ibid., 155). Jesus had indeed promised his disciples that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against” the church (Matt. 16:18), but Jesus was referring to the universal church, not to local churches. Local churches, as not only Revelation 2-3 but also history and, all too often, personal experience testify, are subject to dying from unrepentant false teaching, whether coldly legalistic or passionately antinomian.

May we in our twenty-first century American churches take to heart the lesson the first-century Ephesian church is trying to teach us. False teaching is inevitable (Acts 20:17-38). False teaching may be antinomian in that it tells us to deny the faith and to live in sin (1-2 Timothy), or false teaching may be legalistic in that it tells us to keep the faith and do good works but apart from genuine love for Jesus (Rev. 2:3-5). Either way, unrepentant false teaching results both in eternal condemnation for apostate Christians (1 Tim. 6:9-10) and in the temporal nonexistence for apostate churches (Rev. 2:6). Nevertheless, Jesus ends his letter to the Ephesians with a note of resounding hope: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To throne who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7). “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32).

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Having Hope of Eternal Life

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This past Sunday, it was my privilege to preach Titus 1:1-4 at the church my father-in-law pastors in Aberdeen, Mississippi. Paul wrote this letter in order to tell Titus how to put the Cretan churches into order (1:5). Titus was to appoint elders over the various churches (1:5-9), to silence false teachers that had arisen among the churches (1:10-15), to instruct the believers on how to relate to one another (2:1-15) and how to relate to the rulers and authorities over them (3:1-8), to prevent divisions in the churches (3:9-11), and to model generous giving for the Cretan Christians (3:12-15). Paul begins, however, with a description of the purpose of his own ministry (1:1-4). In Titus 1:1-4, we see that Paul’s ministry has a threefold purpose:

  1. to bring God’s elect to faith (v. 1),
  2. to help God’s elect to grow in godliness with their knowledge of the truth (vv. 1-3), and
  3. to be a means of God’s grace and peace (v. 4).

As we read Titus 1:1-4 two thousand years after Paul originally wrote the letter, the questions we need to ask ourselves pertain to Paul’s purpose as an apostle. As we read this passage, we should ask ourselves, “Do I have faith? Do I have a knowledge of the truth that accords with godliness? Do I have God’s grace to feel peace?” Ultimately, these questions can all be summed up by asking ourselves if we have what Paul in v. 2 calls “hope of eternal life.” These questions all have to do with assurance of our salvation. So the application of Paul’s apostolic purpose today is discerning whether you are truly saved. For us today, Paul is basically telling us the three things we need to have biblically-grounded assurance that we are truly saved:

  1. Faith
  2. Growth in godliness
  3. God’s grace giving you the peace of assurance

Do you have faith?

The first question you must ask yourself if you are to have a biblically-grounded assurance of your salvation is, “Do I have faith?” By telling us that he is “an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect” (Titus 1:1, ESV, as are all subsequent biblical quotations), Paul shows us both the importance of faith and the nature of faith.

Being the first reason why Paul says he is an apostle, faith is the primary purpose of Paul’s apostleship. In Acts 26, as Paul makes his defense to King Agrippa, he describes his conversion on the road to Damascus, and in this testimony, Paul shares what Jesus commissioned him to do from the beginning:

“At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles–to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.'” (Acts 26:13-18)

When Jesus appeared to Paul on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians, Jesus made Paul a Christian himself. And he commissioned Paul much like he had the other apostles: Paul was to spread the Christian message both to Jews and to Gentiles. This message is a message of salvation, of “forgiveness of sins,” of being “sanctified by faith” (v. 18).

Indeed, faith is important not only as Paul’s primary purpose as an apostle but also as the means by which God “sanctifies” us. (“Sanctified” here designates the aspect of your conversion to Christianity in which God sets you apart to live for him by virtue of your justification, wherein God declares you righteous by faith.) This truth is evident throughout the New Testament, but I will cite only a couple. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28). “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God justifies, declares us to be righteous, when we put our faith in Jesus Christ, when we trust him to save us from our sin by his life, death, and resurrection. We receive eternal life when we believe in Jesus, when we trust him to save us from our sin by his life, death, and resurrection.

We thus begin to see the nature of faith. Faith is your saving response as an individual to the gospel in which you trust Jesus to save you from your sin by his life, death, and resurrection. However, in Titus 1:1, Paul tells us something else about the nature of faith. Those who come to faith are “God’s elect.” Although faith is the action of a person, it is done not because that person mustered it up within him- or herself but because God elected that person to believe “before the ages began” (Titus 1:2). This paradoxical nature of faith is seen also in such passages as John 1:12-13, which says, “But to all who did receive him [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Who receives the right to become a child of God? The person who believes. But of whom is that new child of God born? God. God is sovereign in our salvation, and we are responsible to believe. This paradox is unpopular, but it is biblical. To divorce God’s sovereignty from our responsibility requires either takings texts out of their contexts or, as in the case of Titus 1:1, to rip verses in half. In Titus 1:1, Paul says he is an apostle not for the sake of “faith” nor for the sake of “God’s elect” but “for the sake of the faith of God’s elect.” We are responsible to exercise “faith,” but when we do exercise faith, it is because God has “elected” us before time began.

But when you ask yourself, “Do I have faith?” do not worry yourself over the question, “Am I one of God’s elect?” The Puritans, for all their good theology and good contributions to the church, all too often ran themselves ragged with worry over whether they were among God’s elect. The doctrine of election is not in the Bible to make people fret over whether they are God’s elect. The doctrine of election is in the Bible for two primary reasons: to humble people (we are not the ultimate cause of our own faith) and to comfort people (if you are trusting Jesus to save you, God accepts you ultimately because he elected you before the foundation of the world).

When you ask yourself, “Do I have faith?” also do not mean, “Have I ever professed faith?” To have biblical assurance of salvation, you must not rely on a past religious experience as the foundation of your assurance. Do not rely on whether you have ever prayed a prayer or been baptized (although prayer and baptism are both good things to do in obedience to God’s word). Rather, ask yourself, “Do I have faith now? Am I trusting Jesus now to save me from my sin?” J. D. Greear puts it this way:

The apostle John almost always talks about “believing” in the present tense because it is something we do continually, not something we did once in the past. The posture [of faith] begins in the moment, but it persists for a lifetime. (Stop Asking Jesus into Your Heart: How to Know for Sure You Are Saved, 43)

Are you growing in godliness?

The second question you must ask yourself is, “Am I growing in godliness?” Faith is a good starting point for gaining assurance of your salvation, but “even the demons believe” (Jas. 2:19). Or as Jesus said,

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'” (Matt. 7:21-23)

The Bible is clear: we are saved by faith alone but saving faith is never alone (to borrow language from Martin Luther). As William Mounce puts it, “Faith … naturally and necessarily shows itself in godly behavior” (The Pastoral Epistles, 380). Paul’s point in saying that he is “an apostle, for the sake of … their [the elect’s] knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness” (Titus 1:1) is that saving “knowledge of the truth” is not just an intellectual knowledge of the facts of the gospel. “Knowledge of the truth” “accords with godliness.” In other words, a saving knowledge of the truth leads to growth in godliness. Along with faith, the presence of growth in godliness is meant to give you “hope of eternal life” (v. 2), assurance of your salvation.

In vv. 2-3, Paul tells us two things about eternal life that is meant to comfort us believers:

  1. Your eternal life is rooted in God’s promise from eternity past (v. 2).
  2. Your eternal life is revealed by God’s faithfully preached word (v. 3).

In connection with the second point Paul makes about our eternal life, Paul tells us two things about faithful preaching:

  1. God causes eternal life to be offered through preaching.
  2. God commands preaching to offer eternal life to any who would believe on Jesus for salvation.

Again, we see the paradoxical notion of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. If anyone responds in faith to a sermon, it is ultimately because God’s Holy Spirit has entered that person’s heart and given them that faith (see Isaiah 55:10-11, Mark 4:26-28, and John 3:1-8). However, the preacher is responsible for offering the eternal life that his audience is to receive by faith. Paul makes this same point in his letter to the Romans:

For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Rom. 10:13-15, 17)

God is the One in sovereign control over people’s individual responses to the gospel, but he has commanded preachers to make the gospel of eternal life by faith in Jesus Christ known through faithful preaching of his word.

Is God giving you the peace of assurance by his grace?

However, even if you genuinely believe that you have faith and are growing in godliness, you still may not feel assured of your salvation. Ultimately, if we are to have assurance of our salvation, hope of eternal life, God must give us peace about it by his grace. As Paul says to Titus: “Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior” (1:4). Paul the apostle was to be an instrument of God’s grace and peace to Titus and to the Cretans he served. This points to the fact that ultimately grace and peace come from God. Both grace and peace in salvation and grace and peace in assurance of salvation.

If you genuinely believe that you have faith and that you are growing in godliness but still don’t feel assured that you’re saved, cry out to God in prayer that he would help you discern the state of your soul. Ask him that if you’re not saved, to show you your lostness and to give you the grace to trust him for salvation. Ask him that if you are saved, to feel the assurance of your salvation, to feel that “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7). “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jas. 1:17), and assurance of salvation (or salvation if you aren’t saved) is certainly a good gift. Ask the Lord for help discerning the true state of your soul.

Of course, we recall that as God is sovereign, we are responsible. Paul admonished the Corinthians, “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!” (2 Cor. 13:5). This self-examination is not wholly individualistic. As you wrestle over the state of your soul and pray about it to God, seek out the help of mature Christian friends, a parent, perhaps, your spouse, or your pastor or another church leader with whom you are close and who knows your life well. Just as God used Paul as a means of his grace and peace in the first century, he can use the mature Christians he has put in your life as means of grace and peace.

I remember the first time I seriously doubted my salvation. I was 10 or 11 and had first professed faith in Christ and was baptized a few years before. But one Sunday night, as my pastor was preaching, I felt convicted over the sin that remained in my life. I realized I wasn’t perfect. I acutely felt the sinfulness of my continued lies, disobedience to my parents, and meanness to my younger brother. That night when I got home, my mom could tell that I was torn up inside, and she asked me what was wrong. When I told her that I doubted whether I was truly saved, she was God’s means of grace and peace to me. She asked me if I trusted Jesus to save me from my sin and assured me of the Bible’s recurring promise that those who trust Jesus for salvation will be saved. She told me how she saw, despite my lingering sin, that I had grown in godliness since professing faith in Jesus Christ. Although I still lied, I didn’t lie near as often as before coming to Christ. Although I still disobeyed her and dad, I didn’t disobey near as often as before coming to Christ. She shared with me the glorious news of Romans 7 and 8: that to be a Christian is not to be perfect but to recognize sin in your life and to fight against it by the Holy Spirit. Through my mom’s encouragement, God by his grace gave me peace about my salvation, and as various doubts have occasionally arisen over the years, I have combated those doubts with the questions Paul invites us to ask in Titus 1:1-4 and that my mom asked me so many years ago:

  1. Are you trusting Jesus to save you from sin now?
  2. Are you growing in godliness?
  3. Is God by his grace giving you peace about the reality of your salvation?
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