A member of my bible class last night night posed a question that sparked a short discussion. I don’t feel that I answered adequately. As a result, I’ve decided to use this medium to address questions that arise in class that can’t be given a full treatment because of time constraints. My new category shall be called Bible Study Q&A.
I was asked if having doubts is a sin. The person wondered specifically if having doubts about salvation is a sin. The context comes from our discussion on the definition of sin. I had someone read from Romans 14:23 which states, “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” The person who asked the question zeroed in on the first part of the verse that explains that a person who doubts whether or not a certain action is right or wrong (In this case, whether eating certain foods is permissible).
My knee-jerk reaction was to immediately say, “Yes, all doubting is sin.” A gentleman spoke up and said simply having thoughts of doubt doesn’t necessarily make it a sin. I reconsidered and backed down from the absoluteness of the statement. My next topic concerned the unbelief exhibited by Adam and Eve so I decided to segue from doubt to unbelief. I made the distinction that unbelief is the end result of doubting gone unchecked. Doubt is a slippery slope and unbelief is the dark valley we tumble into unless our momentum is stopped. The Christian life is akin to walking down the narrow road to eternal life. Along that path our foot may catch loose ground from time to time and we may slide. These are moments of doubt. Faith is a catching hold of the hand of God to help keep us from falling into the valley of unbelief.
Unbelief is undoubtedly a grievous sin. It plunged our first father and mother, and subsequently the entire human race into ruin and misery. But is doubt truly a sin? First, I must admit that doubt is a common issue with all Christians great and small. What believer can truly boast that they have never had doubts? As I said in class, God uses doubt to help us grow and mature as Christians by eventually strengthening us in our weakness and afflictions. But does this make doubt a good thing? God used wicked pagan nations in the Old Testament to chastise Israel and bring them to repentance, but that doesn’t make them good. Is doubt merely a harmless thought?
Let’s look at the definition of doubt. It is a hesitancy to believe or a distrust of something. In the Romans ch 14. text cited above the apostle Paul is speaking of someone who is unsure if it is OK to eat certain kinds of food. He hesitates to believe. If that person in his mind cannot decidedly distinguish whether or not it is a right or wrong course of action to eat a particular type of food and does it anyway he is self-condemned because he does not act in faith, but in doubt and uncertainty.
Notice, that the initial doubt isn’t proclaimed to be sin, but acting without knowledge of the certainty of the rightness of that action is most definitely sinful. Also, note that Paul writes ‘whatever does not proceed from faith is sin’. This denotes action, not simply thoughts. So, does this mean that having doubtful thoughts is not sinful? Are we off the hook when we begin to doubt the work of God in our salvation? Not so fast. It is in fact, impossible to separate our thoughts, which proceeds from our heart, from our actions. They are inextricably related. Remember the uncomfortable truth Jesus proclaimed in Matt 15:18-20: But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.
Our thoughts influence our affections which, in turn, colors our desires which steers the will to satiate those desires. We are defiled by what comes out of the heart. When doubts afflict us during difficult times we are defiled. Christ made it clear that we will be judged not just for words or actions but by what is in our heart.
As you read through the gospels on several occasions Jesus sharply rebukes his disciples for doubting and not exercising faith.
Finally, the clearest scripture on this issue is found in James 1:5-8. Here, the mental state of doubt itself is condemned. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
James instructs for us to ask in faith, with no doubting. Notice here, as in Rom 14:23, faith is contrasted to doubt. They have opposite meanings. If faith units us to God and the work of Christ then doubt must work to separate us from his sweet fellowship. Unbelief, the logical end to growing doubt, is a complete severance of the relationship between man and God. James goes on to give a scathing denunciation of the disposition of doubt. A person who doubts is of two minds. One that is set on the flesh and the wisdom of the world and one on the spirit and the things of God. These diametrically opposed ideals cannot be reconciled in our finite, corruptible minds We will have no true faith and will find no lasting peace because such a faith cannot receive anything from the Lord. A man in this condition is unstable in his mind and spirit, as illustrated so well by a wave that is driven back and forth on a storm-tossed sea.
Ultimately, we must never embrace doubt as a Christian virtue, but as a sinful trait to rid ourselves of. God uses our doubts to bring growth and maturity but often as a fire that tempers raw steel into a fine blade. Our stubborn, hard hearts sometimes must be forced to yield to God’s will by trials and tribulations that come as a result of a doubtful disposition. Doubt is common to us all, even the greatest Christians have struggled with it, but because of God’s hand of grace, doubt never grows into outright unbelief. We should heed the counsel of Jude when he wrote, “have mercy on those who doubt” (V.22).
Doubt is a sin only as it relates to our trust of God and the promises of his word. Doubts about other matters not pertaining to God or his providence over us is not necessarily sinful. Doubting that we will make it through traffic to work on time isn’t sinful. Doubting whether a gadget will work that we are tempted to purchase for only $19.99, after watching a slickly produced infomercial isn’t sinful. Actually, that would be prudent.
Doubt as it relates to our salvation can be a good thing or it can be a bad thing. Good if we are believers who begin to be swept away by the desires of the world and sinful habits, for these doubts can be used by God through his grace to draw us closer to him through fervent prayer and diligent study. It can also be good for convicting the heart of false converts who often fall victim to the superficial canned sinner’s prayer approach to salvation so pervasive in the contemporary church. A person who isn’t truly converted who doubts his salvation is an occasion for God to draw him to true repentance and faith.
As James stated, a true born again believer who doubts is unstable and will not receive God’s blessings. Those doubts must be dealt with by running to God in prayer and searching his word to erase those doubts and strengthen our faith.