By Billy Graham
These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God. --1 John 5:13
EVERY week I receive scores of letters from those who say they have doubts and uncertainties concerning the Christian life. Many come from genuine Christians who seem to have none of the joy of Christian faith, or the assurance, because they have failed to understand a basic truth of Christian experience. Even though the Bible says, "But these [the Bible] have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name" (John 20:31), many are unsure.
Now let's use this chapter to sum up what has happened to us. We have seen what it means to repent, to have faith, and to be born again. Now, how can I be certain, how can I be sure that all of this has happened to me? Many people with whom I talk have repented and have believed and have been born again, but they often lack the assurance of their conversion. Let's go over a few things that we've learned. First of all, becoming a Christian can be a crisis experience in your life, or it can be a process with a climactic moment of which you may or may not be conscious. Do not misunderstand me; you do not become a Christian as a result of a process of education. Some years ago a great preacher said, "We must so educate and train our youth in the Christian way of life that they will never know when they were not Christians." Much of the philosophy of religious education has been based upon this premise, and perhaps many have missed the essence of Christian experience because nothing more than religious training took its place. No change took place in the heart.
At the turn of the century, Professor Starbuck, a leading thinker in the field of psychology, observed that Christian workers generally were recruited from the ranks of those who had had a vital experience of conversion. He also observed that those who had a clear concept of what it means to be converted were mainly those who had come out of rural areas where in the early days they had had either little or no carefully planned religious training.
This is not a criticism of religious training, but it may be taken as a warning of the dangers involved in improper use of religious training that becomes a substitute for the experience of the new birth.
Religion Is Not Rebirth
To Nicodemus, one of the most religious men of his times, Jesus said, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). Nicodemus could not substitute his profound knowledge of religion for spiritual rebirth, and we have not progressed beyond this point in our generation.
The ugly larva in its cocoon spends much time in almost unnoticeable growth and change. But no matter how slow that growth may be, the moment comes when it passes through a crisis and emerges a beautiful butterfly. The weeks of silent growth are important, but they cannot take the place of that experience when the old and the ugly are left behind and the new and the beautiful come into being.
It is true that thousands of Christians do not know the exact day or hour that they came to know Christ. Their faith and lives testify that consciously or unconsciously they have been converted to Christ. Whether they can remember it or not, there was a moment when they did cross over the line from death to life.
Probably everyone has had doubts and uncertainties at times in his religious experience. When Moses went up on Mount Sinai to receive the tables of the law from the hand of God, he was lost for some time to the sight of the Hebrews who stood anxiously waiting his return. They finally became doubtful and said among themselves, "As for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him" (Exodus 32:1). Their defection was a result of their doubting and uncertainty.
The dreadful uncertainty that haunts the souls of multitudes grows out of a misunderstanding of what constitutes true Christian experience. Many do not seem to understand the nature of Christian experience, while others have been misinformed and are seeking something for which we are not warranted by Scripture to expect.
More than three hundred times the word faith is mentioned in the New Testament with reference to man's salvation, and many more times it is implied. The writer of the Book of Hebrews said, "Whoever comes to God must believe that He exists, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him." And again he said that "Without faith it is impossible to please Him" (Hebrews 11:6).
It is because we have confused faith with feeling that many experience the difficulty and uncertainty that is so common among professing Christians today.
Faith always implies an object -- that is, when we believe, we must believe something. That something I call the fact. Let me give you, then, three words, three words that must always be kept in the same order and never rearranged. Let me give you these three words that will point the way for you out of uncertainty to a confident Christian life. These three words are fact, faith, and feeling. They come in this order and order is essential. If you confuse them, eliminate one, or add one, you will end up in the mire of despair and continue to grope about in semidarkness, without the joy and confidence of one who can say, "I know him in whom I have believed" (2 Timothy 1:12).
If you are saved from sin at all, you are saved through a personal faith in the gospel of Christ as defined in the Scriptures. Though it may at first seem dogmatic and narrow to you, the fact remains that there is no other way. The Bible says, "I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he arose again the third day according to the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). The Bible says that we are saved when our faith is in this objective fact. The work of Christ is a fact. His cross is a fact, His tomb is a fact, and His resurrection is a fact.
It is impossible to believe anything into existence. The gospel did not come into being because men believed it. The tomb was not emptied of its deposit that first Easter because some faithful persons believed it. The fact always preceded the faith. We are psychologically incapable of believing without an object of our faith.
The Bible does not call upon you to believe something that is not credible, but to believe in the fact of history that in reality transcends all history. The Bible calls upon you to believe that this work of Christ, done for sin and for sinners, is effective in all who will risk their souls with Him. Trusting in Him for your eternal salvation is trusting in a fact.
Faith is second in this order of three words, Faith is rationally impossible where there is nothing to believe. Faith must have an object. The object of Christian faith is Christ. Faith means more than an intellectual assent to the claims of Christ. Faith involves the will. It is volitional. Faith demands action. If we actually believe, then we will live. Faith without works is dead. Faith actually means surrender and commitment to the claims of Christ. It means an acknowledgment of sin and a turning to Christ. We do not know Christ through the five physical senses, but we know Him through the sixth sense that God has given every man -- which is the ability to believe.
The Experience of Faith
In reading carefully through the New Testament to see just what kind of an experience you can expect, I find that the New Testament sets forth only one. There is just one experience for which you can look -- only one feeling you can expect -- and that is the experience of faith. Believing is an experience as real as any experience, yet many are looking for something more -- some dramatic sensation that will bring a physical thrill, while others look for some spectacular manifestation. Many have been told to look for such sensations, but the Bible says that a man is "justified by faith" and not by feeling. A man is saved by trusting in the finished work of Christ on the cross and not by physical excitement or religious ecstasy.
But you may say to me, "What about feeling? Is there no place in saving faith for any feeling?" Certainly there is room for feeling in saving faith, but we are not saved by it. Whatever feeling there may be is only the result of saving faith, but it in itself is not what does the saving!
Feeling is the last of the three words, and is the least important. I believe that much religious unrest and uncertainty is caused by earnest, honest seekers after salvation who have a pre-determined idea that they must be in some kind of an emotional state before they can experience conversion.
Those who are seeking salvation as it is presented through the Scriptures will want to know what kind of an experience the Bible leads you to expect. I speak to those who have gone often to an altar, or to an inquiry room, or perhaps have knelt beside a radio or television set when an invitation has been given to receive Christ. You have heard the message, you have known that you were a sinner in need of the Savior, you have recognized that your life is a spiritual wreck, you have tried every man-made scheme for self-improvement and for reformation but they all failed. In your lost and hopeless condition you looked to Christ for salvation. You believed that He could and would save you. You have often read His invitation to sinners when He said, "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). You have read the promise that says, "Whoever comes to me, I will never cast out" (John 6:37). You have read how He said, "If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink" (John 7:37).
Feeling Comes After Faith
When I understand something of Christ's love for me as a sinner, I respond with a love for Christ -- and love has feeling.
But love for Christ is a love that is above human love, though there is a similarity. It is a love that frees us from self. In marriage there is commitment. There is also feeling. But feelings come and go. Commitment stays. We who have committed ourselves to Christ have feelings that come and go -- joy, love, gratitude, and so on. But the commitment remains unchanged. Feelings are important, but not essential. The Bible says, "Perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18). And those who love Christ have that confidence in Him that raises them above fear. Psychologists tell us there is destructive fear and healthy fear. Healthy fear is instructive, causing us to care for our bodies and our loved ones -- Jesus told us to fear Satan.
When I understand that Christ in His death gained a decisive victory over death and over sin, then I lose the fear of death. The Bible says that "He too shared in their humanity so that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage" (Hebrews 2:14, 15). Surely this also is a feeling. Fear is a kind of feeling, and to overcome fear with boldness and confidence in the very face of death is feeling and experience. But again I say, it is not the feeling of boldness and confidence that saves us, but it is our faith that saves us, and boldness and confidence result from our having trusted in Christ. From Genesis to Revelation we are told to fear the Lord. It is the fear of the Lord that puts all other fears in proper perspective.
The Part Guilt Plays
To have a guilty conscience is an experience. Psychologists may define it as a guilt experience, and may seek to rationalize away the sense of guilt; but once this has been awakened through the application of the law of God, no explanation will quiet the insistent voice of conscience. Many a criminal has finally given himself over to the authorities because the accusations of a guilty conscience were worse than prison bars.
In an article on guilt which appeared in The New York Times (29 November 1983) Dr. Helen Block Lewis, a psychoanalyst and psychologist at Yale University, described guilt as a feeling that "helps people stay connected" to their fellow human beings.
"Guilt is one of the cements that binds us together and keeps us human," she explained. "If it occurs to you that you've done something to injure someone else, guilt compels you to do something to fix it, to repair the bond."
Samuel Rutherford said to "Pray for a strong and lively sense of sin; the greater the sense of sin, the less sin." A sense of sin and guilt is the same thing. It not only tells you when you are in trouble, but like the sense of pain it can keep you out of it. Without a sense of pain one could put his hand on a hot stove and feel nothing. The vital part that a sense of pain plays in keeping us healthy is explored in the book, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, by Paul Brand and Philip Yancey. They explain that it is not the disease of leprosy itself which causes the deformation so common among lepers. It is the absence of a sense of pain when the extremities are injured (for instance, the hand in a fire) which causes the horrible mutilation associated with leprosy.
The Bible teaches that Christ cleanses the conscience. The Bible says, "for if the blood of bulls and of goats and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean sanctifies to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?" (Hebrews 9:13, 14).
To have a guilty conscience cleansed, and to be free from its constant accusation is an experience, but it is not the cleansing of the conscience that saves you; it is faith in Christ that saves, and a cleansed conscience is the result of having come into a right relationship with God.
Joy is a feeling. Inward peace is a feeling. Love for others is a feeling. Concern for the lost is a feeling.
Finally, someone may say, "I believe the historic facts of the gospel, but still I am not saved." Perhaps so, for the faith that saves has one distinguishing quality -- saving faith is a faith that produces obedience, it is a faith that brings about a way of life. Some have quite successfully imitated this way of life for a time, but for those who trust Christ for salvation, that faith brings about in them a desire to live out that inward experience of faith. It is a power that results in godly living and surrender.
Let that intellectual faith, that historical faith that you may now have, yield itself to Christ in full surrender, earnestly desiring His salvation, and upon the authority of the Word of God you become a child of God. "Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God" (John 1:12).