Do you struggle, even after years of believing the gospel, to feel forgiven by God?
The most vital reality, of course, isn’t to feel forgiven, but to be forgiven. Yet the Bible is unashamed in speaking about our subjective experience of the gospel’s objective truths (Romans 5:5; 1 Corinthians 13:6; 2 Corinthians 1:4; Ephesians 3:16–19; 1 Peter 1:8).
Many of us, if we are honest, do have trouble feeling forgiven. We are sincere-hearted Christians. We want to follow Christ. We have enjoyed profound experiences of God. But we continue to find ourselves faltering in the Christian life — dismayed at the frequency of our boredom with God, resentment toward others, critical spirit toward our church, or seasons of despair and emptiness. Or perhaps we simply find an undefinable cloud of nonspecific guilt hanging over us.
Try as we might to “preach the gospel to ourselves,” the gospel doctrines we rightly cherish do not melt and warm our hearts. And so we go through life finding our sense of divine forgiveness fluctuating.
Two Ways to Live as a Christian
The Puritans understood the human heart better than we do, they understood God’s word better than we do, and they understood how to connect the two better than we do. One way they walk us into new depths of felt forgiveness is by teaching us that we need to see not only the verdict that has been rendered over us but also, more deeply and wondrously, the heart from which that verdict comes. Not only the result, but the cause.
Or, as John Owen put it, not only the stream, but the spring. Commenting on believers who enjoy a settled awareness of forgiveness, he says,
General notions of impunity they dwell not on; they have a closer converse with God, than to be satisfied with such thoughts. They enquire into the graciousness of his nature, the good pleasure of his will, the purpose of his grace; they ponder and look into the mystery of his wisdom and love in sending his Son. If these springs be not clear unto them, the streams will yield them but little refreshment.
Others, however, profess Christ but have tepid enjoyment of divine forgiveness, as Owen continues,
And some think, if they have got a form of words about them, they have gotten a sufficient comprehension of them. It is, doubtless, one reason why many, who truly believe, do yet so fluctuate about forgiveness all their days, that they never exercised faith to look into the springs of it, its eternal fountains, but have merely dwelt on actual condonation [pardon]. (Exposition upon Psalm 130, 104)
What’s Owen after here? Both kinds of people he describes are believers. This is not a distinction between the unregenerate and the regenerate, but between two kinds of Christians whom we could call unhealthy and healthy. Unhealthy Christians “fluctuate about forgiveness.” Healthy Christians don’t.
What’s the basic difference?
Look at exactly how Owen puts it. Unhealthy Christians content themselves with “general notions of impunity.” They latch on to the basic message of the gospel and leave it at that. They think that “a form of words” equals “a sufficient comprehension of them.” In other words, as long as they have the right apprehension of gospel truth, they’ve gone as deep as they need to go.
What they haven’t done is looked beyond the gospel into the heart from which it comes. They have downloaded the formula of the gospel, but not the Person out of whom it pours. They believe that they are justified by faith alone on the basis of what Christ alone has done. This is vital, and to be cherished daily. But they have not peered down into the source out of which that gospel flows.
These Christians know that Jesus is justifying and atoning in his work, but not that he is gentle and lowly in his heart (Matthew 11:29).
Don’t Stop Short of God’s Heart
Here and elsewhere in his writings, John Owen is saying that we will remain adolescent Christians if we stop short of (as he puts it in the same passage) “the heart of Christ.”
Knowing we are forgiven brings relief. But it is only knowing Christ himself and his own longings — his sheer delight and unblushing joy in embracing messy-but-penitent sinners into his deepest heart — that brings transformation. Understanding the gospel, if kept at a transactional level, brings fluctuating levels of felt forgiveness. Seeing the unquenchable fountain of love from which that gospel flows brings settled enjoyment of felt forgiveness.
An orphan who receives a financial gift from a billionaire on the other side of the world is grateful for the benefit, but can have no confidence of further blessing because the heart of the benefactor is not known. But what if that orphan was seen, pitied, and in overflowing compassion flown home and adopted by that billionaire?
Healthy Christians look beyond the benefits of the gospel to its springs.
How to Find the Heart of God
But how does this work? How exactly do we look beyond the gospel itself to the heart from which it flows?
There is no neat and clean answer to this. Indeed, from one angle, this is the great battle of the Christian life, which we will be grappling with our whole lives long. But there are some actionable steps that may provide the breakthrough many of us need, as our prayers go up and the Holy Spirit comes down.
1. Drink down the whole Bible.
We all tend to cherry-pick the Scriptures and privilege certain emphases and passages above others. We read it all, but we don’t drink it all down. Give yourself time to mature out of that.
Memorize not only Romans 3 but also Hosea 11. Ponder not only the neater, cleaner, more downloadable parts of the Bible, but also the parts of it that throb with heaven’s heart to the point that we start to blush as we meditate on it — that we are, for example, God’s “darling child” (Jeremiah 31:20) or that God “yearns jealously over” us (James 4:5). In such texts we are brought to “look into the springs,” as Owen put it.
2. Give yourself wholeheartedly to a healthy church.
A “healthy church” can of course be defined a hundred different ways. Here’s one. Find a church that talks not only about the transaction of the gospel, but the God and Christ of the gospel; not just the formula, but the Person; not just the stream, but the fountain; not just God’s work, but his heart.
Find a church where you are not only taught the love of God, but feel loved by God.
3. Embrace an ally.
Find someone who will go with you, yes, into the gospel of grace and all its benefits, but beyond that who will plunge with you down into the very springs from which those benefits come. Someone who is wonderfully discontent with only “a form of words” and wants to look into God’s very heart.
Your entire church might not be there. Maybe not your whole small group. Maybe not even your spouse. But someone is. Find that person and don’t let them go. Sharpen each other, ask questions of each other, pray for each other. “Two are better than one” (Ecclesiastes 4:9).
4. Befriend a Puritan.
Or a Reformer. Or a modern author. But sit down next to someone who has left a library of writings behind that lead you by the hand into the inner workings of a divine love which, as it is seen, calms your heart into non-fluctuating settledness about your state of being forgiven once and for all.
Look into the Springs
At the end of the day, do whatever helps you dare to believe it. Note that Owen said that we need to “exercise faith to look into the springs” of divine love. We naturally think cold thoughts of God’s heart. To see God’s heart as it really is cannot happen as we are left to our own natural intuitions. We need faith. We need eyes to see. All we know otherwise is to project onto God our own calculating way of loving and forgiving.
So, ask God for a glimpse of his heart, the “springs” from which the gospel flows. Then have the audacity to believe God doesn’t love like you do. Step out of the misery of fluctuating. And then march through your day, with all its challenges and perplexities, daring to feel forgiven.