Doubt is back in the news. We’ve all heard a great deal about postmodernism over the years; one of the ways it continues to influence us as a culture is to make us prize uncertainty and distrust certainty. It seems more authentic, more truly human, even more virtuous, to live in gray areas than it is does to traffic in certitudes. You could sum up the spirit of the age like this: we’re being encouraged to have faith in doubt.
People who make this argument will say that it is human to not understand things in full. They’ll emphasize that being human means being comfortable with finitude. It’s natural, we hear today, to doubt. There is an element of truth in these statements, so let that be clear. None of us knows as God knows, after all. Though the Reformed tradition is sometimes maligned as the Party of Unblinking Certitude, no less a theologian than Cornelius Van Til (following Bavinck) distinguished between archetypal and ectypal knowledge. Here’s how one source summed up this distinction, quoting Van Til: “God “interprets absolutely” while man is the “re-interpreter of God’s interpretation.” This is a fascinating and important point. We never cease to be a creature, even as a born-again believer indwelt by the Spirit. We know truly, but we always know as the creature knows, in other words. Also, sin will always impair our understanding in this life; even our best attempts at study and intellection will not meet a perfect standard.
But we must take care here. Doubt is not a virtue. Doubt is not part of faith. I was reminded of these truths when I read excerpts of a sermon given by Steven Furtick. Here’s what Furtick said from the pulpit (and here’s a longer clip) after he heard that a staff pastor encouraged people to pray a prayer of repentance that explicitly swore off doubt:
To me, he made a really big mistake when he was praying the prayer because he was inviting people to pray the prayer and he said, ‘If you want to give your heart to Christ today and know for sure that you have a relationship with Him, pray this: Lord Jesus, I believe that I’m a sinner in need of a Savior, and I believe without a doubt … and that’s the part he should’ve left out … That one parenthetical insert without a doubt, I told him never again when you stand in the pulpit at Elevation do I want you to put people into a position to pray something that they can’t honestly pray. In fact, don’t put them in a position to pray something that you can’t honestly pray. Because there’s not one of you in the room — even with tabs in your pink Bible — that you can honestly say [the sinner’s prayer] without a doubt. And if you can, hang on, you haven’t had teenagers yet,” he said.
I want to be clear on this point: the pastor in question did not make a “really big mistake” as Furtick says. He should not have been rebuked. He has been wronged, and publicly so. Coming to faith in Christ necessarily means that you do not doubt the gospel of grace. Coming to faith in Christ means that you believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Jesus presented himself as the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). Jesus demands total repentance and total trust in him, and he is right to do so. Jesus rebuked doubting Thomas (John 20:24-29). What specifically did Christ say to Thomas in verse 27? “Do not disbelieve, but believe.” If Jesus wanted to make room for doubt–for disbelief–in the confession of the Christian, he would have said the opposite of this–“Do not believe only, but also disbelieve, for that is authentically human.” But Jesus nowhere says that, and nowhere comes close to saying that.
Think also of the direction of James in James 1:5-8. “Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God—who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly—and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith without doubting. For the doubter is like the surging sea, driven and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord, being double-minded and unstable in all his ways.” The doubter is not a paragon here. The doubter falls prey to the trap of double-mindedness, the unrighteous state that James critiques throughout his text. Doubting God, James teaches us, makes you unstable and unsure. It keeps you from the blessing of God. You should not doubt God–let him ask in faith without doubting. What does this mean, except that we must continually kill our doubts and pray for faith?
We all falter in our faith. There is no perfect Christian out there who exercises maximum faith at all times in the promises of God. We all break covenant with the Lord. We are all the father of the child who has a demon in Mark’s Gospel. Every Christian must pray, “Help my unbelief, Lord, and forgive me for it!” (see Mark 9:14-29). But there is a major difference between categorizing doubt as sin and categorizing doubt as in any way neutral, acceptable, allowable, or virtuous. It sadly is human to doubt, yes. As Adam’s children, we fail God in many ways, this is true. But it is not righteous to doubt, and Jesus the true man never doubted his Father. The weight of the crucifixion smashed into Christ in Gethsemane, for he knew that it was the will of the Father to crush him (Isaiah 53:10). But he never doubted the Father. Christ the true man shows us that doubt is not part of divinely-designed humanity. In the new heavens and new earth, we will not doubt God. We will trust him perfectly, for our restoration (already begun and proceeding apace) will come to completion.
We cannot confuse the nature of conversion as Furtick does.We cannot encourage people to mingle their faith with doubt, and to pray accordingly. The sinner whom God saves does not morph into a perfect Christian at the moment of confession. But we either have faith in the living Christ as our Savior, or we do not. Doubt is not virtuous; faith is. We do not place our faith in uncertainty; we do not put our hope in confusion; we do not trust in despair. By God’s sheer grace, as the Spirit moves in our heart to convict and awaken us, we love Christ. We see that he has spoken truly–that he is the Word of God (John 1). We place all our faith (which is the gift of God) and hope in him. We believe in and confess that his death has absorbed the Father’s just wrath and washed our sin away. His resurrection has given us life. The testimony about him in the Bible is all true, all of it, without exception.
Part of what Furtick seems to have wrong is his understanding of saving faith itself. Saving faith is not something that comes from us. Saving faith according to the Bible is a divine gift. It is the gift of God. If God did not give the gift of faith, then we would surely need to offer up a corrupted, faith-and-doubt mixture in our repentance, because we are only human. But the miracle of biblical conversion is that it is not of us. It does not come from us. We do not simply need to “have faith” in Christ the way we need to “have faith” in the fourth-quarter comeback of our cherished sports team. Faith is a miracle; faith descends from the heavens; one moment we do not have faith and have never had faith, and the next we do as the Spirit quickens our heart (John 3:1-8; Ephesians 2:8-9). Sadly, there is much preaching out there that has confused this matter, and that is effectively teaching a man-centered, personally-generated understanding of faith. But this is not saving faith or biblical faith, which is whole-souled, God-given trust in the Word of God and the gospel of grace.
In sum, let us not place our faith in doubt. Let us not allow postmodernity to creep into the church. Let us gladly confess our creatureliness, our dependency on God, our total need for divine aid in every hour, and let us pray for faith in God. It is not right for pastors to baptize doubt. It is right for pastors to help struggling people grasp the glorious, dazzling truthfulness of the Christian faith, and to urge the sheep to grip the doctrines of the Word like rungs of a ladder and climb all the way to heaven.
A readable resource for Christians who see their lack of faith and want to grow in trusting God: my book Risky Gospel: Abandon Fear and Build Something Awesome. In addition, if someone you know is in a church that teaches the kind of confusing message that I have critiqued above, buy them this book by R. C. Sproul, and pray (in faith!) that they will come to a true biblical understanding of saving faith.