|One of the things I do, when I read words like "faith" and "believe" in the scriptures is remind myself that these words do not describe a mere intellectual assent, but rather a settled trust in something. To have faith in Christ is to have a trust in the character of Christ. If I say that I believe in Christ, I mean, that while I obviously believe that He is whom He claims to be, I go further, and trust Him to do that which He has promised to do.
In order to become a Christian, a sinner must recognize that they are not only guilty of rebellion against God's rule, but condemned on that account. They must come to that awful realization that no amount of changed living can undo their condemnation. God is just and no matter how much "good" they do, God will not spare them because they remain guilty. The certainty of their own damnation, coupled with the certainty that they cannot by any human means undo it, is the work of the Law of God. It condemns the sinner, so that the sinner can know for certain that when this life is ended, they will be judged guilty, and justly condemned to hell, because they rejected the rule of God in their life. They must realize that this is an inescapable reality, such that they realize that they cannot save themselves, but need a Saviour.
The sinner who comes to see this had two options, he can continue to reject God, and remain damned, or he can turn away from this life-long course of rebellion against God, and cry out to Him that He might save him through Christ.
When a sinner turns from His rebellion and acknowledges God's rule (i.e. "repents"), and pleads with his Master to save Him from His sins through Christ, Christ spiritually baptizes that sinner, converting Him into a son of God - a Christian. This new birth, miracle that it is, is just the beginning.
The newly born (again) Christian is an infant in the faith. He doesn't know how to go out and how to come in, as it were. He doesn't know how to be a Christian, he only knows that he is a Christian - and even this is a source of concern and doubt in the new believer. Did I do it right? Am I really a Christian now? Did God accept me? How can I know for sure that it worked? Such remain the concerns of an infant believer - you cannot move onto deeper things until you are certain about these first things.
A proper understanding of faith from the very beginning may deliver a believer from decades of doubt-sustained spiritual infancy.
I should mention that assurance of salvation is not the product of positive thinking, it is the product of a genuine, but more mature faith. It isn't that you tell yourself that you are saved until you start to *really* believe it. It is that you get to know God through the reading of God's word, until you start to trust in the character of God that becomes evident through the study of God's word. Every other source is at best well meant hearsay. You can't trust what people say, but you can trust what the word of God says.
Spiritual experiences, mystical moments, and liver shivers will never give you lasting (or genuine) assurance that you are God's child. Once the moment passes new doubt will harangue you, and send you looking for some further mystical proofs of the legitimacy of your faith. This is a road to confusion, and further and even broader doubts - stay off of it.
Likewise, you cannot put as much trust (and rightly so) in second hand information. Sermons and even reading theology, and even going to bible college - all these are secondary to simply sitting down and reading what God has said. Don't worry if you don't understand all that you read, even the most seasoned Christian, who has read the bible cover to cover dozens of times, will open it daily and learn something new - something they never understood before. The scriptures are like that - they are deep enough that you will not touch the bottom of them in this life. So don't be concerned if something doesn't make sense. You can ask someone to explain it if it troubles you, or read commentaries on it to help you form an understanding - but always remember, the main goal of your study is to get to know God. Studying is word is the primary means of truly seeking Him. The more you read the scriptures, the more you begin to see the character of God - and the character of God engenders trust in all who see it.
In other words, (genuine) faith grows through intentional exposure to the word of God. Constant practice in the words of righteousness, as the author of Hebrews tells us at the end of chapter five, grant maturity, and discernment to those who labour in this way.
I should add as an aside, that if you do not believe that the word of God is without error, then you will never be able to believe that any part of it is actually true. Those who doubt the word of God will never have a genuine assurance of faith, because they have no sound footing to stand on. They may have a false assurance, but it is just that - a false assurance. If you haven't figured out that the whole bible is true, that's the main reason why you have remained in your infancy for so long. If God can't keep the bible true, He ain't God.
Having believed that Jesus is the Christ, that God sent Him to save those who repent of their rebellion and cast themselves upon Him for salvation, that is, having become a babe in Christ, the next step is to grow in how you trust God, and that growth is accomplished through purposely and consistently exposing oneself to the word of God for the purpose of knowing God. When one becomes so saturated with God's word, that one begins to trust God more, and is able to discern both good and evil through that word, one is said to be a "young man" in Christ. Being full of the truth, you are less likely to be deceived by the lies of the enemy. Sadly, this level of maturity is all too rare in many churches.
People tend to think that only "super" Christians study the bible daily, and only theologians and pastors, and teachers "need" to bother with all that. That it is perfectly fine for Johnny-in-the-pew to go on in his infancy, because he simply isn't wired for all that bible reading. It's difficult to understand, and tiring to read, so clearly some spiritual "gift" is lacking, and if it is lacking, then that is all the excuse one needs to set it on the shelf permanently.
That's just bunk.
The bible wasn't written for pastors and teachers, theologians and super Christians. It was written for all believers. God intends for every believer to not only read it, but to meditate on it day and night. There is no such thing as a gift of "reading the bible". The only reason a person refuses to read the bible is because they feel they have better things to do with their time - and that's the rub. They don't see themselves as denying Christ the opportunity to influence them on the grounds that the scriptures are not entertaining enough - no, they just think that it is okay to be a "regular" Christian.
I mentioned that this kind of thinking is hogwash of the worst sort. These are just believers who are falling back into carnal habits, or who have never risen above them. They are stagnant in their faith because they truly do not see any value in going further in it. They content themselves with the promise of a better afterlife and find anything further to be a tax upon their time. They take part in all the religion, but set God Himself aside. They do things in His name, but never in His Spirit. They are lukewarm because they have either never fallen in love with, or have since fallen away from, their first love: Christ.
The promise for this life, for the believer, is that if you draw near to God, He will manifest Himself to you.
That is not a promise made to unbelievers; It isn't that if you come to faith, God will come to you and save you. This promise is that you, the lukewarm believer who muddles around half content in spiritual infancy, that if you take the time you have been given, and use it to draw near to God, He will manifest Himself to you.
Let me say that without any flowery language. It means that the believer has a hope of knowing Jesus as a person. Right now, if you are immature in your faith, you don't really know Jesus. You know of Him. You have heard about Him, read about Him, but Jesus is no more real to you than any other person in the scriptures. You know of Him, but you don't know Him. He knows you, of course, but you don't know Him, not personally. The promise is that Jesus will so manifest Himself to you, that He becomes more real that every other person you know - because He is more real.
The fully mature believer knows Christ. It isn't that Christ comes and has breakfast with him and they talk as two people do over a table, both speaking to and hearing from one another. That is mystical nonsense. It is rather that Christ make Himself real to you in a way that He can't when you're sitting on the fence.
You see, you cannot be His disciple unless you deny yourself. That means no sitting on the fence. You can't have a heart that is divided - 99% for Christ, but holding on to the "right" to grab the reins whenever it gets too boring, or whenever the urge to set our own course hits us. It means being sold out entirely. What fellowship can the Holy Christ have with you if still entertain a partial, but cherished, rebellion in your heart? Do you want to ascend the Holy Hill, you cannot come unless you are clean - and clean here means no spots of self-rule whatsoever...
If your Christian life isn't aimed at this fellowship with Christ, you're wasting it. I don't care if you have a thousand convert notches on your spiritual pistol, or if you've planted a dozen churches, or given 90% of your wealth to the work of God - thousands of pagans have done as much and more for their false gods, and it amounts to the same glory. If you're aiming your life at becoming a pastor, or a missionary, instead of at coming to know Christ as He has made Himself available to be known - you're missing the point of everything. If you're busy in ministry, and haven't got this far - you're labouring in your own strength, and it is pathetic, even if others think it is glorious - and can I say this? You know deep down that this is true.
So, brothers, sisters, I commend you to seek the Lord first, and these things will follow. I commend you who are babes in Christ to pursue Christ - first by becoming saturated with the word of God, that you might be set free from the lies that hold you in your infancy, and that you might begin to truly discern good and evil. Then I commend you who are grown in the faith, but haven't yet surrendered all to Christ, and subsequently, haven't really come to know Christ - don't pretend that you are more than you are. You're hardly more than a babe, and not yet what God called you to be. Don't pause now that you have cleared the first hurdle, for the race is uphill, and any pause will see you fall back into your infancy. Set your eyes on the prize of your faith: Christ. Pursue Him with the intent to lay hold of Him. Settle for nothing, and pursue nothing else, until you obtain the full measure of Christ's gift to us here upon the earth.
But how do I seek the Lord, or rather, how do I find Him? You do as the scriptures teach, you deny yourself, you obey Him. I bet right now you can think of at least one thing you're doing regularly that you shouldn't be. There is at least one thing in your life that you feel is displacing God - and you're not willing to deal with that because you haven't squeezed the last drop out of it yet, and you simply can't see yourself putting it aside until you do. I know am dead on the money here, not because I am so holy, but because I am a sinner also. That thing is called a strong hold - a place in your life that isn't ruled by Christ. You need to throw open the gates, and let Christ rule you in that place. You can't cozy up to it, a little here, a little there. It is a binary thing - you either continue deny Christ's rule, or you surrender to it. It is quite a simple, even practical decision. Stop doing it.
I would if I could, you say...
Then see this, dear reader, that the problem is that you are a wretch who is unwilling to do what you are called to do; See that you truly are incapable of changing. See the truth of the scriptures that describe the Ethiopian who cannot change his skin, nor the leopard his spots. See yourself as you are, utterly and completely subject not to God, but to your own rebellious heart - a heart that sees only loss in subjecting itself to God. That is you. That is me. That is everyone.
See that, and remember that Christ has already saved you from that. That in His death He defeated that. That you have a choice, a genuine real choice that He died to supply you with, and that choice is to obey either your own desires which enslave you, or His desires which set you free. The truth is that Christ is no slave to sin, and if Christ is in you, He will not obey sin. The choice is between two masters - the one who cannot fail, and the one who cannot win. The problem isn't that you can't choose Christ, it is that your flesh doesn't want to choose Christ, and because you continue to WALK IN THE FLESH, you continue to believe that this is the "you" that you are. But if you're in Christ, you have another life - the life of Christ, the unassailable, unfailing life of Christ. If you deny the desires of your flesh, you will be walking in the Spirit, and all that was impossible in the flesh, will now be possible in the Spirit - meaning, you will certainly be able to put that thing aside like a bad habit.
Maybe you'll feel great for finally getting that monkey off your back - maybe you'll tell yourself that it wasn't really a spiritual victory - that you just hyped yourself up with some good old fashioned positive thinking. I don't really care, because overcoming this one thing is only going to open the door to the next, and the next and the next.
Just as no one learns the bible in a day, no one learns to walk in the Spirit consistently in a day - it takes dedication and practice - so much so that I do not believe a person can do it without the goal of knowing Christ. I don't believe that a person can arbitrarily persevere in this endeavor if their only goal is to alleviate guilt, or to fulfill their Christian duty - or even to purchase, as it were, a better afterlife as certain varieties of Christian hedonism would have you do. I think that Christ is like a pearl of unsurpassable value - that the moment you realize you can actually know Him, and actually fellowship with Him, and that He can actually become more real to you than life itself - I think that is worth more than every other thing this life has to offer. Without that goal, I doubt that anyone will sell all (as it were) to gain the field.
With these thoughts laid out, I want to encourage the reader to seek Christ for Christ's sake. To stop playing at Christianity, and stop thinking like a religious pagan. To take a long and sober look at their own situation, and answer the question, what exactly are you in this faith for?
Finally, have you ever met a Christian who was utterly sold out for Christ? A believer who was always "on" as it were - home, church, out in public, always and ever the same - his or her focus is always on God, God, God. You know the sort I am talking of - he or she is profoundly humble, and constant in their ministry - in fact to breath is to minister. They don't have to be a pastor, or a teacher, but through their life they do more in a week than you've done in a year. What is the difference? They know whom they have believed, but you don't, at least not in the same way. They are fully mature, and you are still struggling to surrender to God in all that you do. They are in the Spirit, you are in the flesh.
Do you want things to change? Of course you do. Well, talk to God about it. Be honest about your sin (i.e. continuing rebellion in certain aspects of your life), and especially about your unwillingness to deal with it in a way that honors the Lord. Did I say especially already? Let me use that word one more time. Especially own up to the fact that you haven't actually been pursuing Christ in your faith, but pursuing religion. Ask God to use His word to draw you to Him, and commit yourself to reading the word - not as an empty religious obligation, but for the sake of knowing Christ, for the sake of discernment, and with a heart that actually trusts that God will honor such a prayer.
Do this, and continue on in it, and I expect you will draw nearer to Christ. Continue to draw nearer, and nearer, and your faith will grow exponentially - until, I expect, Christ is no longer obscured by your sin when He manifests Himself to you - that is continue on until you come to know Christ.