Suffering That Strengthens Faith
By John Piper
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. (James 1:2–3)
Strange as it may seem, one of the primary purposes of being shaken by suffering is to make our faith more unshakable.
Faith is like muscle tissue: if you stress it to the limit, it gets stronger, not weaker. That’s what James means here. When your faith is threatened and tested and stretched to the breaking point, the result is greater capacity to endure. He calls it steadfastness.
God loves faith so much that he will test it to the breaking point so as to keep it pure and strong. For example, he did this to Paul according to 2 Corinthians 1:8–9, We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.
The words “but that was to” show that there was a purpose in this extreme suffering: it was in order that — for the purpose that — Paul would not rely on himself and his resources, but on God — specifically the promised grace of God in raising the dead.
God so values our wholehearted faith that he will, graciously, if necessary, take away everything else in the world that we might be tempted to rely on — even life itself. His aim is that we grow deeper and stronger in our confidence that he himself will be all we need.
He wants us to be able to say with the psalmist, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25–26).
God’s Plan for Martyrs
By John Piper
They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.(Revelation 6:11)
For almost three hundred years, Christianity grew in soil that was wet with the blood of the martyrs.
Until the Emperor Trajan (about AD 98), persecution was permitted but not legal. From Trajan to Decius (about AD 250), persecution was legal. From Decius, who hated the Christians and feared their impact on his reforms, until the first edict of toleration in 311, the persecution was not only legal but widespread and general.
One writer described the situation in this third period:
Horror spread everywhere through the congregations; and the number of lapsi [the ones who renounced their faith when threatened] . . . was enormous. There was no lack, however, of such as remained firm, and suffered martyrdom rather than yielding; and, as the persecution grew wider and more intense, the enthusiasm of the Christians and their power of resistance grew stronger and stronger.
So, for three hundred years, to be a Christian was an act of immense risk to your life and possessions and family. It was a test of what you loved more. And at the extremity of that test was martyrdom.
And above that martyrdom was a sovereign God who said there is an appointed number of martyrs. They have a special role to play in planting and empowering the church. They have a special role to play in shutting the mouth of Satan, who constantly says that the people of God serve him only because life goes better. That’s the point of Job 1:9–11.
Martyrdom is not something accidental. It is not taking God off guard. It is not unexpected. And it is emphatically not a strategic defeat for the cause of Christ.
It may look like defeat. But it is part of a plan in heaven that no human strategist would ever conceive or could ever design. And this plan will triumph for all those who endure to the end by faith in God’s all-sufficient grace.
When the Bible says we will be accountable for all of our actions, does that include sins that we've already been forgiven for?
I think so. Some people will be quick to point out that the Bible says, "As far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed our transgressions from us" and that he has cast them into the sea of forgetfulness. When God forgives us of our sins, he forgets them. He remembers them no more against us. So it would seem that we could conclude from those passages that once we are forgiven of a sin, that's the absolute end of it and we never have to be held accountable for it.
When we are forgiven by God for a sin, there are two things we have to understand. First of all, when the Bible speaks of God's forgetting our sins, we have to be careful how far we push that. That does not mean that suddenly the eternal God, very God of very God, who is omniscient and immutable, suddenly undergoes a memory lapse and that that which he once knew intimately he suddenly becomes ignorant of. If we push that, it would give us a ghastly view of God. Rather, the Bible is using this kind of language to say that he doesn't hold it against us anymore. He treats us without raising the issue in terms of delivering a punishment. The just punishment for any sin would be eternal separation from God. When we are forgiven, we are relieved of all eternal guilt and punishment so that we don't have to worry about going to hell because we have sinned.
At the same time, the New Testament tells us at least twenty-five times that the distribution of rewards in heaven will be done according to our relative degree of obedience or the works that we perform. We are told frequently by Jesus that on the last day all things will be brought into the light. Those things we have done in secret will be made manifest; every idle word will come into the judgment. I don't think that means that I'm going to be punished for those sins that I've confessed and have had forgiven. Those are covered by the righteousness of Christ and by my Mediator. But I will have to stand before God for a full and complete evaluation of my obedience as a Christian.
Whether or not at that time of evaluation he will mention the complete track record or just say, "Here's the bottom line, you'll get so many rewards"—I don't know how that's going to work. But I am going to be brought into a final accounting, and certainly in God's mind every detail of my life will be there. Even though I am forgiven and I am not punished, any sin still means that I will receive less reward than if I had been obedient.
I think our official view of confession can be seen in the form for the Visitation of the Sick where it says “Then shall the sick person be moved (i.e., advised, prompted) to make a . . . Confession . . . if he feel his conscience troubled with any weighty matter.” That is, where Rome makes Confession compulsory for all, we make it permissible for any: not “generally necessary” but profitable. We do not doubt that there can be forgiveness without it. But, as your own experience shows, many people do not feel forgiven, i.e., do not effectively “believe in the forgiveness of sins,” without it. The quite enormous advantage of coming really to believe in forgiveness is well worth the horrors (I agree, they are horrors) of a first confession.
Also, there is the gain in self-knowledge: most of [us] have never really faced the facts about ourselves until we uttered them aloud in plain words, calling a spade a spade. I certainly feel I have profited enormously by the practice. At the same time I think we are quite right not to make it generally obligatory, which wd. force it on some who are not ready for it and might do harm.
From The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III
Compiled in Words to Live By
The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950-1963. Copyright © 2007 by C. S. Lewis Pte. Ltd. All rights reserved. Used with permission of HarperCollins Publishers. Words to Live By: A Guide for the Merely Christian. Copyright © 2007 by C. S. Lewis Pte. Ltd. All rights reserved. Used with permission of HarperCollins Publishers.