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Faithful in the darkness

“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (Psalm 42:5 ESV). This deep spiritual darkness is no doubt the state of many Christians, perhaps you, today. A hard-to-explain gloom casts its shadow, and the joy you once had in the Lord feels like a vague memory. Though you continue to read your Bible and pray, God feels far off. 

In these moments, many feel that God has abandoned them. Many secretly wonder if God, fed up with them, has finally decided to cast them off. Or, one may know God will bring them into glory but feel that until then they must walk alone, cut off from God.

Is such thinking correct? Has God abandoned the sorrowful Christian?  No, absolutely not. It is imperative that we remember this during dark seasons. Yet how do we know that God has not abandoned the Christian even though it might feel like it?

Firstly, we have God’s promises in His Word. “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). “… [W]hoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4). The “Lord Jesus Christ…will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God is faithful” (1 Corinthians 1:8-9). God cannot lie. His Word is always true. Therefore, we can know these words for a fact. “But,” you say, “I don’t/can’t feel this. It feels hollow.” Remember, though, that your feelings do not determine truth. My feelings, for example, on what day of the week it is (“It feels like a Thursday”), or how I did on my test do not make objective realities any less true. Our supreme authority is God’s Word, not our feelings, and our feelings must be subject and conformed to the truth of God’s Word, not the other way around. So if the Bible says something we don’t believe or feel, we know we are the ones in error, not the Bible. We are called, then, to trust God and his Word, even when we can’t see or feel it. This is the very definition of faith (cf. Hebrews 11:1). This by no means is to suggest that we, once understanding this, will automatically be joyful. But it reminds us of our foundation and leads us to trust God when he says he will never leave us nor forsake us, despite our feelings to the contrary.

Secondly, we know that such sufferings are not foreign to the Christian life but have been experienced by faithful Christians throughout the ages. In our sorrow, it’s easy to conclude that no other Christian has felt such darkness as we do, and, therefore, we must be cut off from God. Yet a cursory reading of the Psalms quickly puts such concerns to rest. Many times, David thought himself forsook by God (Psalm 22:1), yet he was not, for he later writes, “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread” (Psalm 37:25). The fact that God thought it good to repeatedly show us examples of true Christians going through dark times reminds and comforts us that we, too, may feel cast down yet are not abandoned by God.

Thirdly, recalling God’s grace and faithfulness in the past assures us He will not forsake us now (Psalm 77:11, Lamentations 3:21-24). “But how,” you wonder, “does God’s faithfulness prove that he will be faithful and deliver us now?” Surely, though, you would think it disrespectful and untrusting to ask the same question to a faithful friend or parent. How much more should you be trusting of God, who has never failed you? Note also that his faithfulness is not wearied or decreased by our sin because it is not on the basis of performance but his steadfast love and grace (Psalm 51:1, 109:26; 2 Timothy 2:13). This leads us to a great truth; in the words of John Flavel, “As God did not at first choose you because you were high, so he will not forsake you because you are low.”

Lastly, and most comforting of all, our standing in Christ guarantees that nothing can separate us from God. If our relationship with God depended to any degree on our own works, performance or piety, we would have been cast off long ago. Yet we are not forsaken because our standing with God is not, as mentioned earlier, based on our record, but on what Christ has achieved. He “bore our sins” (1 Peter 2:24) and “[became] a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). He suffered the wrath of God in our place, and, through faith in him, we are forgiven of all sin (Colossians 2:13-14) and are children of God (John 1:12). Because we have been united with Christ (Romans 6:5, Colossians 3:3) and now stand before God in his righteousness (Philippians 3:9), God can no more cast us out than he can cast out his own Son. Nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38). Not the world, the devil, death or your own sins. Not even the frailty of your faith or your spiritual darkness. Even more, as God’s children, he works all things—even sufferings (Romans 5:3-5) and discipline (Hebrews 12:7)—for our good (Romans 8:28). God’s sovereignty and love, based on Christ’s atoning work, is a tremendous and comforting truth for the sorrowful soul.

Know, then, that far from abandoning you, God cares for you and works all things for your good — even in your sorrow. It may certainly not feel like it, but it’s true. Do not think God is being stingy with you. He silenced all such accusations at the Cross (Romans 8:32). How deep his love is for us—even in our darkness, even when we feel so little for him.

Andrew Sveda is a senior at Notre Dame from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, majoring in political science and theology. In his free time, he enjoys writing (obviously), reading and playing the piano. He can be reached at asveda@nd.edu or @SvedaAndrew on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Christ alone

In his first letter, the apostle John makes a startling remark: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13 ESV).  John is saying that we can know that we are saved, that we have been regenerated by the Spirit, that all our sins have been forgiven, and that, when we die, we will pass through Heaven’s gates. How can a Christian make such an audacious claim and not be arrogant and self-righteous? After all, those of other religions would blush to make such a boastful proclamation.  The answer: because Christianity is utterly unique from every other religion. All other religions say your righteousness — your good works, your piety, the deepness of your spirituality — is what saves you.  Sure, God is gracious, but if you do not do enough, pray enough, read enough or participate in spiritual activities enough, there is no hope for you. Christianity, on the other hand, says that we are not saved by our works at all but wholly of grace.

Let us examine what this means. The Bible teaches that just one sin, one white lie, one lustful thought, one arrogant remark is deserving of an eternity in Hell (Romans 5:12, 6:23). “[A]ll who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’” (Galatians 3:10).  “[W]hoever,” James writes, “keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:10). On the basis of your works, you stand guilty and deserving of God’s wrath.  Nothing you can do can “make up” for your sins. Can a criminal tell a judge, “I know I’m a murderer, but my x hours of community service make up for it”? In the same way, your good deeds can’t cleanse you of your sin.  More than that, you have no good works before God to begin with because man’s heart is not naturally good but evil and wicked (John 3:19-20; Romans 1:29-32; Genesis 8:21). Thus, it is said: “‘None is righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one’” (Romans 3:10-12). Even our best actions are “like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6) to God and even they, if we were to be judged only on them, call out for our condemnation. This is not to say that all sins are equal but that all our actions are corrupt and dark because they flow from an impure and depraved heart. See, then, how helpless your endless strivings and “good works” are before God. All your works condemn you. By your works, you cannot be justified.  

Yet, amidst our depravity and sin, we read this: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4-5).  “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly …while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6,8). What does it mean that Jesus “bore our sins” (1 Peter 2:24) and “died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3)? It means that, on the Cross, He suffered the punishment and wrath our sins deserved in our place. He took upon Himself the condemnation we deserved, which He could do as He was both God, whom our sins are against (Psalm 51:4) and who is infinite (making Him able to bear the punishment of our sins), and man, allowing Him to act on our behalf as our mediator and great high priest (cf. Hebrews 2:14-17).

Know, too, that this atoning sacrifice was not made for mostly good people or only a portion of our sins. It is a wholly sufficient and finished sacrifice made for the ungodly, for God’s enemies (Romans 5:8,10), for those who are “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3) and “children of the devil” (1 John 3:10). These are those He saved, and saves completely, cleansing them from all sin (Colossians 1:13-14; 1 John 1:7). Our hearts, too, are regenerated by the Spirit at conversion, transforming the heart that once hated God into one that loves Him, desires Him and wishes to serve Him (Romans 6:17-18). Salvation is all of grace, and it is secure because it rests on the finished work of Another.  

Since Jesus paid it all and accomplished for us “an eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12), nothing can be added to it. No offering for sin remains (Hebrews 10:18) because we have been reconciled wholly through Christ’s atoning death, a propitiation “to be received by faith” (Romans 3:25). We are not, therefore, saved by faith plus works but only by faith alone in Christ and His work alone. To suggest our works play a part in saving us and reconciling us to God is to deny the finished nature of the Atonement. For Paul, this meant to depart from the gospel and to try to be justified by works all over again (Galatians 5:2-4).

Some may be angered by this, but we should rather rejoice that by Christ alone we have been given a salvation that is sufficient, secured, and settled in Heaven.  If it were not so, if Jesus died even for all but one of our sins, we would have no hope.  If He did not pay it all on the Cross, we could still expect nothing but God’s wrath and judgment.  But He did pay it all, and thus it can be written: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). Praise be to God for truly amazing grace! All glory be to Him!

Andrew Sveda is a senior at Notre Dame from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, majoring in political science and theology. In his free time, he enjoys writing (obviously), reading and playing the piano. He can be reached at asveda@nd.edu or @SvedaAndrew on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Majoring in Theology

If you had told me three years ago that I’d be a theology major, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. Leaving high school, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be. God had other plans for my life, and I am incredibly grateful for it. But why would I, or anyone, study theology? Isn’t it rather useless and a waste of time?

This is a very common response, and one I’ve thought myself. But if any subject is meaningful, it must certainly be theology. If we talk about things being “a waste of time” or “useless,” we are assuming (and rightly so) that we have meaning and purpose, a design, a telos. And purpose — true, objective purpose — can only exist if we have been designed by a Creator who has given us this purpose. In other words, meaning and purpose flow from God. We are made for His glory (Isaiah 43:7) and only find meaning and rest when we honor and worship Him. Would not, then, the greatest and most meaningful subject be the study of this great God, the source of life, truth, and “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17)?

Or let me ask you this: “[W]hat will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). If this is not a good enough reason to care about theology (whether or not you major in it), I don’t know what is. We all stand on the brink of death and eternity. It will not matter in the slightest if you were rich or poor, Democrat or Republican, married or single, successful or unsuccessful. When you stand before God’s Throne all alone, with no one to hide behind and no excuses to deceive, only one thing will matter: Do you know Jesus? Are you united with Him? Have you been born again or regenerated by the Spirit through faith in Christ and His atoning death and resurrection? Understanding this, why refrain for one more moment from learning about this great Savior? What reason could you possibly have for not devoting your life to tracking Him down, to drinking ever more deeply of His love and grace towards wretched sinners like you and me?

I am afraid, though, that even this will not convince anyone. Most of us have heard such exhortation not to neglect Christianity — all to no avail. It may engage and excite us for a time, but sooner or later, we find ourselves ignoring it. The fault is not with the arguments but with ourselves. Can we honestly say that we desire God, that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21), not in a slogan-on-a-coffee-mug kind of way, but really mean it? We travel countless miles to see cities and beaches, but we will not lift a finger to open our Bibles when we “don’t feel like it.” We spend hours watching movies and sports, but we don’t want to spend 30 minutes earnestly studying God’s Word. We often say it’s “beyond us,” that we can’t understand what it’s saying. But, my friend, what would you do if you felt this way in a class of yours and the final was coming up? Wouldn’t you buckle down and endlessly look over your notes and the internet for help until you truly understand it? I shudder to think what God would say to me if He was my manager or professor. And yet He is infinitely greater than any of these.

“But you’re a theology major,” I can imagine someone saying. “Aren’t you ‘alright?’” And herein lies one of the many dangers of majoring in theology: viewing it as a work that affords you a better standing with God. This is a terribly dangerous error. “Nothing is quite as deceitful,” D.A. Carson writes, as a Christian “scholarly mind that thinks it is especially close to God because of its scholarship rather than because of Jesus.” Theological knowledge, the publishing of papers and books in the top theological journals and presses and even a whole life devoted to studying the Bible will not save you. The Pharisees are the perfect example of this. They knew the Law and the Prophets like the back of their hand. They were the most pious and devout of men, yet Jesus said to them, “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (Matthew 23:33). Jesus’ words are true: “[U]nless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Unless you are born again, all your theological and religious accomplishments will mean absolutely nothing. They will not bring you closer to God but will bring upon you greater condemnation (Matthew 11:20-24; Romans 8:7-8). Your works cannot save you. Only the Cross can.

In our study of theology, then, let us not depart from the heart of it: that we are justified “not because of our works but because of [God’s] own purpose and grace” (2 Timothy 1:9). We cannot add anything to Christ’s finished work, but are saved through faith in what He has accomplished for sinners. And when we see in ourselves our sins and our neglect of God, let us not run away but “draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). Jesus said, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). And this includes you, reader, despite all of your sins. Whether you’ve never been in a theology class or have been studying it for decades, come to Him now in repentance and faith, and He will save you.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Andrew Sveda

Andrew is a senior at Notre Dame from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, majoring in political science and theology. In his free time, he enjoys writing (obviously), reading and playing the piano. He can be reached at asveda@nd.edu or @SvedaAndrew on Twitter