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WHEN the Shorter Catechism lists the benefits which the believer enjoys in his soul in this present life in conjunction with justification, adoption and sanctification it places at the head of the list "assurance of God's love." Strangely, what is first here may be the last to appear in the experience of some Christians. It is a phenomenon which we may have experienced ourselves or perhaps met in others: there are genuine believers who struggle with a personal assurance of grace and salvation.
That we are to seek to be assured of our salvation is perfectly clear from the Holy Scriptures. The apostle Peter writes to those who have obtained "like precious faith with us" and exhorts them, "give diligence to make your calling and election sure" (2Pet.1:1,10). Every Christian therefore should earnestly seek after this precious spiritual benefit until he or she finds it and then be very careful to keep it.
Asaph is representative of believers in their doubts and difficulties when he laments, "Will the Lord cast off for ever? and will he be favourable no more?" (Psa.77:7). It is the more familiar psalmist who shows us something of the way whereby we may attain to a full assurance of faith. David says to the Lord: "By this I know that thou favourest me, because mine enemy doth not triumph over me" (Psa.41:11).
An assurance of salvation has surely been obtained when the soul is able to say to God, "I know that thou favourest me." Literally David was saying that God was inclined towards him. It is an expression which speaks of kindness, intimacy and a loving disposition. If we know that we have grace, that we have repented of our sins and believed the gospel, that we are united to Jesus Christ, then (and only then) are we truly able to say with Paul, "the Son of God who loved me, and gave himself for me" (Gal.2:10).
The Word of God assures a believer that he is saved, but the same Word warns him that there is such a thing as a false faith. Therefore the believer desires to know that the faith he has is genuine. Full assurance is produced in our hearts when God's Word to us and the Spirit's work in us concur. Then we are sure that Christ's work was for us. This is what David had. He knew that God loved him because, as he testifies, "mine enemy doth not triumph over me." In fact David had many enemies, both within and without, as every believer does. But God delivered him from them all. This He does for all His people in every generation.
There are four principal enemies which threaten to triumph over every believer in Jesus Christ, but from which God delivers us in a gracious way, enabling us to know that we are loved with that everlasting love which He bears towards His own. Let us consider these four enemies in turn.
When we say that the world is our enemy we should be clear as to what we are speaking about. We do not of course mean the physical creation. Rather we have in mind what Paul referred to as "this present evil world" (Gal.1:4). We mean that world which James warned us of when he wrote, "whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God" (Jam.4:4). We mean that world which John referred to when he said, "If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him" (1 John 2:15). This is the world of humanity fallen in sin and in rebellion against God, the world which "lieth in wickedness" (1 John 5:19).
The world is our constant enemy. This is because as believers we are "in" the world but not "of" it. Spiritually, morally and ethically we have taken our stand on the side of Jesus Christ whom the world crucified. If the truth be known that same world today, which has not improved one whit since it performed that awful deed, would also crucify the followers of Christ if it could. No wonder then that Jesus said to His disciples, "In the world ye shall have tribulation" (John 16:33)!
Noah was a godly man who was delivered by God from an ungodly world. His deliverance was accomplished because the fear of God was present in his soul. "By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house" (Heb.11:7). Would we not be better witnesses for the Lord ourselves if we trembled more at His Word?
Satan is the one who is behind this evil world, stirring up its malignant hatred of the Most High. The devil is our great enemy and a most cunning one too. He rarely appears in his naked evil but rather cloaks himself with a variety of subtle disguises.
The Lord delivered Job from the temptations of Satan which came to him through his grievous trials. After the loss, firstly of his livelihood, then of his children and finally of his health, his wife urged him, "curse God, and die" (Job 2:9). But God gave Job the grace of longsuffering to an extraordinary degree, so that he retained his integrity and honoured the Lord. "Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord" (Jam.5:11). Do we freely confess that God's way with us is perfect and from our hearts submit to His dealings with us? To live as a citizen of heaven and to look for the riches of the world to come is the duty and privilege of God's children while they are in this world.
By 'the flesh' we understand our fallen nature - that aspect of our nature which is still affected by sin. The flesh is our secret enemy - the 'fifth column' that lurks within our hearts. It is because of our flesh that the devil still has an influence upon us and we come short of the glory of God in everything we do, even as believers.
Such a man as the apostle Paul struggled with indwelling sin. How grateful we are that he has recorded his experience as a Christian for us, particularly in his Epistle to the Romans! What was his personal testimony? "For what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I" (7:15). In his wrestlings and strivings he overcame this secret enemy through humbling himself before God. We see this (and do we not share his great burden?) when he cries, "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? (v.24). But quickly our sorrow, just as his, is transformed into joy; "I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord" (v.25).
Death we understand as the departure of the soul from its home in the body. Paul refers to death in this sense as our final enemy (1Cor.15:26). We know the consequences of sin in our bodies already - illness, ageing, decay - and one day soon these will finally issue in our physical death. How can we look this dread enemy in the face with a calm and steady eye?
We may turn helpfully to a saint named Stephen, the first New Testament martyr for Christ. Faced with a cruel death he was delivered safe into glory through prayer. "And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" (Acts 7:59). For the believer the sting of death, which is sin, has been removed in the atoning sufferings of Christ. Death does not come to the Christian as a curse but is sent by God in His love to bring His child into His near presence. At death we are finally freed from sin and misery to enjoy a more perfect communion with Christ. So Stephen was comforted in his death, as every believer may be.
We should note that David's words in Psalm 41 refer firstly to our Lord Jesus Christ. He faced a hidden enemy, Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve He had chosen to be with Him and who ate with Him. Christ was delivered up to the authorities by Judas, but His enemy did not ultimately triumph over Him. It was Christ who was soon shouting for joy! His name is "above every name" (Phil.2:9)!
Now what is true of Christ is true in a measure of all who belong to Him. Our enemies never truly triumph over us: rather we shout for joy because God progressively gives us the victory over them. The providence of our God extends to all His creatures and all their actions, so that even sin and death are not powers above and beyond Him but are governed by Him for His own glory and for our good. Christ our King rules and defends us. He restrains and conquers all our enemies. As we witness these Scripture truths and promises being worked out in our own lives, we develop by the grace of Christ's Spirit the sure confidence that we are loved by the Lord and shall overcome at the last. May we grow more and more in this blessed assurance.