What to Remember When the Gospel Doesn’t Make Sense
You likely know someone who struggles with the assurance of salvation. Perhaps that person is you. This struggle is real for many Christians, and it is no small matter. To know what you need more than anything and then to be plagued with oppressive doubt, wondering if you actually have it… that is a darkness that can seem inescapable. And it grows darker at the thought of truths like hell and the justice of God. For the person who doubts his salvation, what counsel can be given?
While it is true that believers in Christ reveal their faith through bearing fruit (see John 15:5), to tell the person struggling with assurance that he needs to examine himself for evidence of faithfulness can be terrifying. Often such people are acutely aware of their sins, both outwardly and inwardly. And while you can point to a number of choices in their lives that look to you like signs of faith, they can tell you of the selfish motives behind those choices, or, at best, the mixed motives that were warring inside behind the scenes. Those who are uncertain of their salvation usually have no problem believing Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount that tell us it is not just murder and adultery that break the law of God, but anger and lust as well (Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28).
For these strugglers, the doubt comes from the wickedness they see so clearly throughout their lives. They know both the breadth and depth of their sins, and therefore, it is extremely difficult for them to make sense of the gospel in those moments of self-examination. They can be debilitated by thoughts that say, “Why would God make me His child… I am saturated with sin, and I know that He sees so much more of it that I don’t even know about?!” When that’s where a person stops, his doubt seems to make sense doesn’t it? With both eyes on his own sinfulness, God’s justice is logical, but His grace is not.
There is something, however, that the person doubting his salvation misses when both of his eyes are focused on his sin. He misses the reality that salvation is not, ultimately, about him… it’s about God. Consider Ephesians 1. It is a chapter chock full of gospel truth, telling us what we have through our union with Christ. But on three different occasions, Paul points us beyond what we have in Christ to the goal of our salvation: v. 6 – “to the praise of his glorious grace”; v. 12 – “to the praise of his glory”; v. 14 – “to the praise of his glory”. In light of this, I like what the ESV Study Bible says in the footnote to v. 6: “God’s ultimate purpose is not redemption as such but the praise of [God’s] glorious name through redemption.”
This truth reveals that the gospel makes perfect sense. What better way for God to highlight His glory and gracious character than through saving those who had abandoned His perfect will? Better yet, those whom He had made for His glory only to watch them choose to worship the creature rather than their Creator (Rom. 1:24-25)? The great story of our redemption reveals with pristine clarity that God is wonderfully good and kind.
Paul knew this with regard to his own conversion as well, because he said, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tim. 1:15-16). Did you catch that? Paul said that the reason he received mercy was so that something about Jesus’ character would be put on display. What would be put on display? Christ’s patience. Why would Christ’s patience be put on display through Paul being shown mercy? Because he is the foremost of sinners (v. 15), a “blasphemer,” and a “persecutor” of Christ’s church (1 Tim. 1:13). In His patience, Jesus saved Paul to reveal that no one is beyond the reach of His saving work.
How does this encourage the person struggling with the
assurance of salvation? It reminds him that he must not stop the progress of
his thinking when he comes to his sinfulness. Rather, he must keep his thinking
moving to the ultimate goal of the display and the praise of God’s grace. When
we think of salvation from the perspective of our sin, it doesn’t make sense. But
when we think of it from the perspective of God’s glory, then nothing makes
more sense than to believe that our infinitely good God would promote His
character through turning His sin-embracing enemies into His beloved children. With
this truth at the ready, the person who doubts his salvation peels his eyes off
of himself to fix them on the perfect wisdom of God, whose plan is to glorify
Himself, which he can now see as masterful.
 ESV Bibles by Crossway, ESV Study Bible, 1 edition (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2008), 2262.