‘Therefore he is not a Christian that is a Christian, that is, he that thinks himself a finished Christian and is not sensible how he falls short. We reach after heaven, but we are not in heaven. Woe to him that is wholly renewed, that is, that thinks himself to be so. That man, without doubt, has never so much as begun to be renewed, nor did he ever taste what it is to be a Christian.’
– Martin Luther as quoted in Religion Affections by Jonathan Edwards, 249.
Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed, lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.
– 1 Corinthians 10:12-13
It’s really too bad that Thomas is known for doubting. Of all the wonderful qualities I’m sure he possessed, of all the great things he probably went on to do, we remember him for his doubt, and our smug glances will forever pierce him who disbelieved until touching the atrocious wounds of the Savior. I guess it’s part of humanity’s curse, though, and especially America’s curse, to prize the self-made man, to honor those who are strong, to put into song those who can face all odds with a positive, can-do spirit. And surely the Gospel is about great strength and great endurance! This great news, however, derives its wonder and beauty not from our own muscles or our own endurance. Let’s not forget that it was our own self-making scheme that turned us into rebellious slaves. It was our own “strength” that proved our greatest weakness. It was our own can-do spirit that drove us out of the Garden. The Gospel is about our God who is strong for us, who endures within us to bring us from death to life, from suffering to glory, from the cross to the crown.
That’s why this quote from Luther is so rich. This little baby is nestled in the second half of Edwards’ Religious Affections and gives so much perspective to us who live in a church culture where “throwing down alcohol bottles,” “never doing drugs again,” and radical conversions tend to be prized at the expense of the everyday man’s plight of struggling year after year with sin, battling doubt after doubt, defeat after defeat, hoping against all odds that he is, in fact, changed by Jesus but has little, but still something, to show for it. Certainly it is a testimony to the greatness of our God to make such radical conversions where certain sin patterns are quelled immediately! Certainly we should rejoice with those who experience practical “victories” over sins in their lives! I’m not belittling the dramatic conversion. But the suffering, doubting, and weak man is a much more common brand of Christian (he may be the only brand of Christian). Conversion is only the beginning; suffering is the life. It is an equal testimony to the greatness of God that the man who suffers and suffers with sin, who, in faith, battles his sin with vigor but seems to have less “victories” and more “defeats” makes it to the wedding feast. Luther reminds us that struggling is actually a sign of God’s work. He comforts the everyman with the reality of Paul, that the man who actually thinks that all of his sin is behind him, who experiences no practical sorrow for his sin, who is not aware, in a deep and powerful way, of his own insufficiency, is actually endanger of falling.
This verse from 1 Corinthians is used, rightly so, to comfort those struggling in temptation. The verse goes right on after the lines quoted above to the famous “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure,” (10:13). Still, the first part (v.12) is no less than a very important warning. Sin is common (an understatement for sure), and it is subtle. This means that the man who has no knowledge of his own need and his own weakness is far closer to the gates of hell than the man who is just “hanging on”. We are reminded of Jesus’ words, “‘The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulteress, or even like this tax collector”. . . But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other,'” (Luke 18:11-14). Surely God desires us to be confident in our position in Christ! We are not to doubt, and we are not to waver! We can be sure, and we do stand on solid ground in Christ. We do need to pursue holiness and godliness with all the strength supplied to us. And yet we are all a lot weaker than we sometimes like to admit. The trouble is, at times, our weakness tends to make us shrink away from God rather than draw near to Him. We don’t feel like Christians, so we stop reading the Word. We doubt our salvation, so we stop praying. We keep struggling with the same old sins, so we figure that we are the one sheep that actually got away rather the one sheep the Savior went after. It is our weakness, though, that should make us press in, for “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit,” (Psalm 34:18). We are never “nearer” to God than when we feel the farthest away, and we are never more “qualified” for admission to the kingdom than when we are keenly aware of our own insufficiency. It is those who presume upon God’s kindness and forget His great mercy, who go through life with their “fire insurance,” never bothering to help a suffering brother, never repenting of tangible sin, who should fear the coming wrath. Paul warns us, “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 1:4). Those who forget that their sanctification is a long distance run and not a sprint to be won this side of eternity are truly in danger.
The words of Christ comfort and empower us: “‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners,'” (Mark 2:17). If you doubt yourself, if you struggle with yourself, it is more likely that you are in the family than outside of it. This is in no way a credit card to sin! Still, we can be comforted that the only qualification for heavenly adoption is unworthiness.
So why are those who think they are past their struggling more in danger of falling? Perhaps one of the greatest reasons is that they have forgotten about Jesus. They tend not to make much of Him. Sin creeps in when we forget about Jesus. But those who suffer tend to make much of the only thing worth glorying in. Those who doubt cling more closely to the only thing that can bring them through: Christ, the Lord. It’s not the self-made man who will be exalted but the man who exalts Christ. It’s not the man with the can-do attitude, the man who’s got it all figured out, that is running well. It’s the man who is held by Jesus, who feels the weight of his own sin and the glorious freedom of Christ, the one who trusts in Him even when it may be “wiser” (by the world’s measuring rod) to trust in himself, who will enter into glory. Christians aim at a paradox: confident humility. Our confidence is in Christ, and we distrust ourselves more than anyone. So, it may be better to suffer through life rather than to “sail” through it, better to doubt than to presume, and better to be conscious of weakness rather than deceived by perceived strength. The famous saying is true, and if one doesn’t feel the weight of the cross, he will certainly not share in the glories of the crown.