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Doubt and the Christian Life

Posted April 3, 2024

Despite what you may have been led to believe, the Christian faith is populated by scores of “Doubting Thomases.” While Jesus’s most skeptical apostle has received his fair share of criticism over the years, Thomas is in good company among the redeemed since it is precisely his doubt that the risen Lord shows up to dispel (John 20:24–29). Rather than belittling him for his apparent lack of faith, Jesus’s gesture to dissolve Thomas’s doubt by pointing him to the wounds that secured his righteousness remains indicative of the good news that the church still extends to doubting sinners today.

Trusting in God’s word doesn’t necessarily preclude doubt, since our hearts are made of feeble and faithless stuff. Those who have led you to believe that faith and doubt are incompatible would benefit greatly by re-reading the Psalms. King David, who was one of the most prolific psalmists, confesses his doubt and distrust on multiple occasions with words that paint a vivid picture of his despair (Ps. 13:1–2; 44:24; 79:5; 89:46). In many ways, the Psalms are tailor-made for seasons of doubt since they are able to capture the guttural feelings of dejection and despondency in ways that are often beyond us, while at the same time conveying a hope beyond hope, which is that God doesn’t meet our doubt with withdrawal.

The posture of God toward sufferers and doubters isn’t one of detachment or disappointment. He isn’t aloof or alarmed when we struggle with seasons of doubt, even prolonged ones. Rather, his word and his Spirit are primed to dissolve doubt, not by offering listicles of disciplines to accomplish or incentives for works done, but by placarding the indissoluble fact that Jesus’s passion and death is the surety of every sinner’s standing before the Lord Almighty. God’s word is brimming with hope for doubters and sufferers precisely because its message is for them, right where they are.

Luther, who struggled with doubt during his years as a monk in the medieval Catholic church, speaks to this notion of doubt and the insistence that one’s works are what bring them into right standing before God. As he saw it, the Catholic church’s focus on external demonstrations of faith and piety had bred generations of doubters who were taught to look to themselves to ascertain their standing, demanding adherents to find in their own ability the capacity to carry out what the law demands. Righteousness, then, is tethered to one’s devoutness and religiosity. As you can imagine, this was fertile ground for doubt to blossom. After all, what’s more fickle than the human heart?

But the gospel of God that is derived from the word of God leaves no room for doubt. This isn’t to insinuate that doubters have no place, but rather that doubters are met by something infinitely more reliable than their own devotion. “We are not to trust in our own strength, our own conscience, our own feelings, our own person, or our own works,” Luther explains. Luther, of course, was intimately familiar with this system of depending on one’s own works for assurance of salvation.Prior to his days as Germany’s most outspoken Reformer, his religious experience was mired in the rigors of the Augustinian monastery to which he belonged, where hope and peace depended upon strict adherence to the exacting demands of God’s laws and the church’s traditions. But no matter how hard he tried, he always came up short. He could never confess enough sins, pay enough penance, or do “enough” of anything to still his restless soul. Eventually, Luther’s tireless quest for assurance was put to rest by God’s word and his promise to those who believe in his Son. If doubt is produced by incessantly looking at yourself to make sure your faith and virtue are kept in line, then hope is preceded by a word that comes from the outside.

This is the gospel. God’s “outside word” is the good news that announces that the Lord Jesus has given “himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). Rather than looking at ourselves, Luther declares, “we will trust in that which is outside of us — that is, in God’s promise and truth.” To those committed to saving themselves, God gives a Savior (Matt. 1:21). To those convinced that their religious efforts can settle their eternal debts, the Christ of God stands as their ransom (1 Tim. 2:5–6). Notice how the apostle John articulates this beloved truth: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1). For John, the demonstration of God’s love through the person and work of Jesus had resulted in the concrete reality that those who confess his name are his children. This new identity is not contingent on one’s mastery of their passions or religiosity but on one’s faith in the love of God, who took on flesh “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8) and “to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Accordingly, the gospel’s definitive announcement of the accomplishments of the cross affords struggling sinners with the certainty of their identity in Jesus. “Beloved, we are God’s children now,” the apostle concludes (1 John 3:2).

The gospel proclaims the facts of redemption that are extended to every doubter and sinner through the life, death, and resurrection of the Christ of God. As King David would confess near the end of his life, “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Ps. 18:2). Luther puts it this way: “This is our anchor, our foundation: the Gospel does not command us to be looking at our service, our perfection, but to God who promises and in Christ the Mediator.”

The gospel doesn’t leave any room for doubt because it invites doubters to stretch themselves out on that which is sure and steadfast. As the Lord Jesus himself declares, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24). Accordingly, the message of the gospel should be preached in such a way that it doesn’t leave anyone in doubt either. The definitive announcement of Christ’s blood-soaked accomplishment disavows any notion that our pious résumés can be used to renegotiate our acceptance. Indeed, our doubts, however fierce, are dissolved by the crimson river that flows from Golgotha.


Footnotes

  • Martin Luther, Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (1535): Lecture Notes Transcribed by Students & Presented in Today’s English, translated by Haroldo Camacho (Irvine, CA: 1517 Publishing, 2018), 338–39.

  • Luther, Galatians, 339.

  • Luther, Galatians, 338.

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Bradley Gray

Bradley Gray serves as the senior pastor of Stonington Baptist Church in Paxinos, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife Natalie and their three children, Lydia, Braxton, and Bailey. He is the author of Finding God in the Darkness: Hopeful Reflections from the Pits of Depression, Despair, and Disappointment and is a regular contributor for  and is a regular contributor for 1517 and  and Mockingbird. He also blogs regularly at www.graceupongrace.net.