How God Answers Spiritual Self-Doubt
Our culture promotes the idea that self-worth and self-belief are essential and that we need to overcome the self-doubt that holds us back. The idea is that we simply ignore what self-doubt tells us, develop self-belief and draw on our personal resources. But the gospel gives us a realistic understanding of ourselves and that we cannot depend on our own resources. Yet it offers to us the greater, inexhaustible resources of Christ. Spiritually, there may be much self-doubt and it can be hard to see it as a bad thing. After all, we cannot depend on ourselves and we are not in doubt about God and grace. But these things are not so easily separated because when we are dealing with self-doubt concerning the work of God within us. Sometimes we can be discouraged with a deep sense of our weakness and doubt whether we have grace at all. This kind of self-doubt can be very hard to overcome. We need to hear God’s covenant promises speaking into such a condition.
We should be careful of mistaking weak grace for no grace. There is a world of difference. William Gurnall in The Christian in Complete Armour says that even if you have the very least grace that any ever had to begin with you have something of infinite value. God has done more in putting that grace within than in giving perfect grace to believers who are now in heaven… “There is a greater gulf between no grace and grace, than between weak grace and strong; between a chaos and nothing, than between a chaos and this beautiful frame of heaven and earth.”
William Guthrie patiently applies the covenant promises of Hebrews 8:10-12 and Jeremiah 31:31-34 to twenty-seven different doubts and fears. He represents God as doing this directly with the individual through the words of Scripture in the following dialogue. God makes a covenant with rich promises. “I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people…they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them…I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more”. He shows how these promises are to be embraced and depended on by faith alone, discarding all trust in our own resources. In this updated extract from an unpublished sermon, we find numerous doubts and objections graciously disarmed and laid aside, one by one.
1. How can I have mercy when I am an enemy to God by nature and the thoughts of my heart are only evil and wicked continually?
Answer. The Lord says, “I will make a new covenant” (Jeremiah 31:31) with you. Hold your peace; do not let that thought about being an enemy to me trouble you seeing that I purpose to bind a bond of friendship with you in my Son Christ.
2. Although God would make a thousand covenants with me, yet I am unable to keep (or fulfil) any condition the Covenant requires. But what conditions can I a sinful creature fulfil towards the Lord who is holy?
Answer. “I will make a new covenant” in which I promise to fulfil all that I require of you. I will put in you a new mind and a new heart (Hebrews 8:10), and I will bind my Son as surety that I will do this.
3. But how can I know I if I am one of those with whom God will enter into covenant? I know there is a people in covenant with God, but I doubt if I am one of them.
Answer. I will make the covenant “with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:11), or, in other words, with the visible Church consisting of Jews and Gentiles (the partition wall being now taken away). Now you have been born into the Church and baptised, and so are already within the outward scope of this covenant.
4. I know that the Church is called the Israel of God. But what God promises is to the sincere and upright Israelite. I fear that I am only an Israelite outwardly in the letter and not in the spirit. There is nothing in me except what is to be found in all professing Christians who have merely been baptised.
Answer. My covenant shall be with those who have nothing of my law written in their inward parts. If you lack my law in your heart, I will put it there (Jeremiah 31:33). I will make you an Israelite, in whom there is no guile (John 1:47), and whose praise is not of men but of God (Romans 2:29).
5. Although God would put his law in my heart, yet I am blind and incapable of apprehending spiritual mysteries. No matter how long they were taught and explained to me, yet I would remain ignorant of them.
Answer. I will put my law in your inward parts (Jeremiah 31:33), as the apostle expounds it, “I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people” (Hebrews 8:10).
6. But I find after everything only weak desires of knowledge in my mind. My love to God is very cold. My hatred of sin is very little or nothing. My heart is not affected towards heavenly things but is occupied with vain and sinful things. It is sometimes set on the world, and sometimes on my lusts and pleasures and those ways that lead to destruction and perdition.
Answer. I will put my laws in your mind and write it in your heart (Hebrews 8:10). If your heart is wicked, you will have a new heart. Your lawless heart will yield to the law, for you will have a loving heart, and love is the fulfilling of the law. Your blind mind and stony heart will be taken away, and a single and sincere heart will be given to you.
7. My heart is averse to God and godliness and inclined to all evil. If any godly motive arises in my heart, it does not abide. It is as though written on water, or on sand that is blown away with the wind. It is as the morning cloud, or as the early dew which soon vanishes away. (Hosea 13:3).
Answer. I will write my law in your heart (Hebrews 8:10). A written testimony is constant and enduring. As the law written in a book remains, so also when it is written in a renewed man’s heart.
8. But my heart is harder than the millstone, harder than the adamant so that the Word preached does not move me.
Answer. I will write my law in it (Hebrews 8:1). I will make it like a polished and prepared writing tablet so that the fingers of the Lord will make deep letters in it. Although it may not appear like this to you, yet love and obedience to the law will be seen by others. Sin, bit by bit, will be rubbed out and disappear, and the law of the Lord more and more clearly read.
9. These promises are to the believer and those who have new obedience begun in them. But I find little faith, repentance, or obedience in me. Indeed, I often doubt if any of those things are in me.
Answer. I will put my law in your mind and write it in your heart (Hebrews 8:10). Now, what is faith but receiving of the law into your mind and heart? If then, you are pleased to covenant with God and will say so, you will answer to Him that it is the chief desire of your heart to be reconciled, then be sure He will give you faith and repentance.
10. If I take hold of these promises, I know that I will be exposed to a thousand dangers because of many temptations.
Answer. “I will be their God” (Jeremiah 31:33). Now, if God is yours, what do you lack? Should this promise not satisfy your trembling heart? As long as God endures, you will endure and enjoy all that He is to his own.
11. I have no reason to doubt that God will do all that He says of Himself. My only doubt is that I will not get my part done to Him in an acceptable way and manner.
Answer. “They shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33), i.e., I will make you one of my people when I consecrate you to serve me and to be a diligent subject and careful honourer of me.
12. Although I were among God’s people, I would slip out again. I am afraid that I would not persevere, and so the bond would not continue.
Answer. You “shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33), i.e., you will remain my people, my special people, and none will be able to pluck you out of my hand. (John 10:29)
13. I wonder how this can be, how God can promise so much to me? I am so unworthy and have so many disqualifications and cannot give him a good reception. Will a king covenant with a beggar or draw up a contract with a poor, unprofitable person? Far less can God covenant with me.
Answer. “I will be their God,” (Jeremiah 31:33) i.e., of my own accord I am pleased to be so. It is not a covenant of works but a covenant of grace that I make, and it is made with the unworthy. If they were worthy I would bid them obey my law perfectly in their own strength; but now, although they are unworthy, yet I am pleased to be their God. And what have you to say against this which is my purpose and my pleasure?
14. What if a change of religion should come, heresy arises, and teachers from whom we have received the truth swerve and fail or fall away? What if teachers change their theme, and take out of our hands what once they have taught us? I even fear that I myself may become an apostate.
Answer. “They shall not teach… ” (Hebrews 8:11). If any teacher does not teach so, you will not be taught by him, but I will teach you myself. You will learn to lean on me and not on them. Although their teachers may be learned men and of great repute, yet (if they do not teach so) you will not acknowledge them. Although they are in the Church, they are not of the Church, they are apostates. But as for you, I promise to teach you myself, and you will receive no man’s doctrine except what I have delivered by the mouths of my prophets and apostles.
15. What if all true teachers were to be driven away by persecution. It would then be with me as in the days of the prophet Amos (8:13) when they wandered from sea to sea to seek the word of the Lord and did not find it? What if we are so dispersed by persecution so that we cannot meet together, and even the Bible taken out of our hands so that we cannot even read it?
Answer. “They shall be all taught of God” (John 6:45). If I take away the means I will supply the lack of them myself. I will be a little sanctuary to you (see Ezekiel 11:16).
16. “I am only young,” says one. “I am unlearned,” says another. “I am a weak helpless woman,” says another, “and they may make me believe anything they please”. “I am poor,” says another, “and do not have the means that others have to obtain knowledge.”
Answer. “All shall know me, from the least to the greatest” (Hebrews 8:11). It is the duty of all to learn to read; but, although you are unlearned, here is a promise that God will teach you as much of Himself as will save your soul.
17. I cannot attain to the knowledge which others possess, neither have I capacity to take in matters of so much consequence as are set down in Scripture.
Answer. “All shall know me,” that is, all shall come to the saving knowledge of the Lord Himself, your teacher and friend. Although your calling may be such as to make the attainment of learning impossible, although your capacity may be weak, and you lack means to receive instruction, although there are many things, of which you will still remain ignorant, you will know Him whom to know is eternal life.
18. But, when I consider my natural disposition, I fear that, although I were even now pardoned and cleansed, I would immediately defile myself again.
Answer. I will be merciful to your unrighteousness. (Hebrews 8:12). What else do you wish but mercy? If your nature is rebellious, know that the Maker and Surety of the Covenant is also your Advocate (1 John 2:1).
19. I would trust for grace not to sin wilfully for the time to come, but when I think of my past sins I am afraid and know not what to answer.
Answer. Your “sins and iniquities I will remember no more” (Hebrews 8:12)
20. These things are all good. If I could be sure that they would be made good to me I would be joyful in spirit.
Answer. Four or five times “Thus saith the Lord of Hosts” is repeated in this Covenant. As if He had said, “I the Lord of hosts am Surety that whatever is promised will be fulfilled”. God’s curse on everyone who does not continue in doing the things of the law (Galatians 3:10) makes you afraid and disturbs your peace. Why does His saying in the gospel not restore your peace again, seeing you have His Word in the one case as well as in the other?
21. If I could remember that sweet promise I would be rich, for it satisfies me now. I can say nothing against it; but, when my adversaries assault me, I am afraid I will forget again.
Answer. The sun and moon, heaven and earth, are witnesses of the Covenant, and they shall never depart out of your sight. But, even, if you were blind, the earth under your feet would remind you of it, for this Covenant is as securely established as the earth.
22. But I am so changeable, I never remain one day in one condition. What if the Lord calls me away when I am in the worse case? How can I have any steadfastness?
Answer. The day and the night have their changes but not the ordinance of the day and of the night (Jeremiah 33:25). It is an article of the Covenant that the ordinance should remain sure. So, although you are changeable yet the Covenant made with you will not change, for the Covenant is not of you but of God. He says, “I am the Lord, I change not” (Malachi 3:6).
23. I am like Peter when he was ready to sink in the Sea of Galilee. Everything seems to terrify me. There are fightings within and fears without, and I have little or no steadfastness.
Answer. The Lord stills the sea when the waves arise. Can he not quiet the tempest of the heart?
24. How is it possible for a saving work to go on steadfastly in the heart of one so unworthy and so fickle?
Answer. The Lord gives the sun for a light by day and has made all things out of nothing. He can as easily complete the work of your salvation. Is anything too hard for the Lord?
25. But I see the whole Church of God is harassed, what then can I expect who am but one? When the ship wherein I sail is ready to perish what shall become of me?
Answer. “The seed of Israel shall not cease being a nation before me for ever” (Jeremiah 31:36). Sun and moon, heaven and earth, shall all soon perish, but the Lord will reserve a people to himself.
26. There are so many against the Church and so few on her side. The King of Babylon has a hundred provinces, and how shall Judah and Benjamin, a parcel of poor, naked captives, deliver themselves? The king who should be a defender of the faith is its persecutor.
Answer. The height of the heavens and the depth of the earth is also unsearchable to you, but not to God. Leave the fulfilment of what He has promised to God Himself, and He will find a way for it. Is His hand shortened that He cannot save, or has He no power to redeem?
27. Well, then, I see by all these promises I will have an easy life. I may be secure and indifferent. It may encourage sin in me to tell me of a Covenant by which any person that pleases may be saved.
Answer. There is nothing so good but men may abuse it. Grace is grace, although some may turn it into licence. This Covenant is made with the true Israel of God. If any, then, will abuse this doctrine let them answer for it. If they will draw near to the devil because God has drawn so near to them, or be more wicked because God has been so good, let them see to it. If any will be more licentious because God is ready to forgive, and allow that which should be an anchor of the soul to draw them away from God, let them know that their punishment will be all the more dreadful at the last.
It is a sure token of a damned soul when it grows the more wicked the more it hears of grace. But the more the sons of Jacob hear of grace, the more they will wrestle for it. The more loving and gracious a father is to his children, the more ready they will be to obey him. But if a child is more rebellious because the father is good, he deserves to be put out of the door. If you are a good child, you will out of love pursue after God when he pursues after you with kindness. But if you will abuse this doctrine against God and your own soul, and will harden your heart because God has spoken good things to you, you will draw swift destruction on yourself.
And now if anyone says, “let the minister preach as he pleases, and we will do as we please”, I have only to say that the benefit of our preaching is to another and not to him, and that the more he hears of such preaching the worse it will be for himself. Let him, however, rather recall his words and return now to God. For it is God Himself who says, “Incline your ear and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David” (Isaiah 55:3).
William Guthrie wrote a famous book to help doubting and seeking souls. It describes in a clear and attractive style what it means to be a Christian, and how to become one. This book is all about Christ and how we must embrace Him by faith on the basis of the promises in the Word.
In the first part, he looks at how someone is drawn to Christ, what the evidences are of true saving grace, and the difference between a true Christian and a hypocrite. In the second part he describes how to ‘close’ with Christ, and deals with various objections, difficulties, and doubts.
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