Dealing with Doubt

This article is taken from the New Focus Magazine, January 2024. It was written by Alfred Hewlett (1804 – 1885) who was a high-calvinist Anglican preacher and writer.

Perhaps there is no subject which creates so much distress among real Christians, as the doubt and perplexity of the mind, with regard to an individual interest in the precious salvation of the Lord Jesus, as also with reference to the various dealings of God, in His providence and grace, with those who are thus tried. Many ministers of God’s word seem to me to have erred, in treating very lightly these exercises of the children of God, and particularly of the weaklings of the flock, who have often been distressed at hearing these things spoken of, as though they possessed an absolute control over their faith, and could cast their doubts and fears to the wind at a word. Others again, having pursued a contrary course, have grieved those, who, through grace, have arrived at the confidence of faith in the Lord Jesus, by speaking of doubts as a certain and necessary evidence of faith. What appears to me to be wanting, in order to remove the stumbling block out of the way, is to point out the cause and fallacy of these doubts, so as to discourage and check doubts and to encourage doubting persons, to attempt which I now write. May the Holy Ghost so guide my mind, that what is written may be calculated to effect this good work, and so bless it that it may be successful.

1. Let it be borne in mind that the whole work of salvation is contrived, accomplished, revealed, and applied, by the eternal three, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost and that nothing can add to, or detract from this finished work; and let it be understood that some of the Lord’s dear people, bought with His precious blood, and called by His grace, are occasionally, and others frequently, the subject of the most distressing doubts and fears. I know there are persons who will dispute this latter assertion, and maintain that no person can be said to be born again who is not forever delivered from all doubts, and able, at all times, to say, ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’; but such persons are grossly ignorant of the human heart, or, at all events, greatly unacquainted with the perpetual conflict which is constantly carried on in every faculty of the soul, and by reason of which doubt does, sometimes, for a season, prevail over faith.

2. The unbelief of the natural man, and the doubts of the spiritual man, are distinct; the mere professor is under the reign of unbelief; whatever may be the extent of his knowledge, his gifts, or his deportment, he is without God in the world, even when he says, ‘Come see my zeal for the Lord of Hosts’. But the poor tempted Christian suffers from the temporary usurpation of doubts, when on his way to Zion. The mark of the former is, being at ease, he feels not the burden of sin, regards it not as an evil and bitter thing; and perhaps even systematically maintains his entire deliverance from it; the poor doubter, on the other hand, sees so much evil and bitterness and sin, that he has, in fact, no eyes for anything else.

3. Again, I may observe there are two distinct classes of doubts. One class concerning God and His word, and one respecting our own interest in what God hath done and made known for the salvation of sinners. I speak the language of my own experience, and, I feel persuaded, that also of the great body of Christians, when I say that doubts do frequently pass through the mind, and suggest a train of thought, and almost a mental argument concerning the existence of God, and concerning the revelation made in the Bible. Yeah, every doctrine therein declared has been at times the subject of doubt in the mind of the believer. These are times of much distress and I doubt not, are peculiarly the work of Satan; thank God they are for the most part but of short duration. My object at the present time is to write a few lines on the second class of doubts – those which arise from anxiety concerning our own personal interest in the things which are revealed.

4. I frequently meet with precious Christians, with whom I have taken sweet counsel, whose light shines before men; whose practical godliness is seen and known of all men; whose ardent prayers declared the teaching of the Spirit; and whose deep attention to the preached word, and delight in the written word, declared that they are of God, who sometimes meet me with a lamentation, ‘Yes, I know that all you have said is true and blessed, but I doubt whether it is mine. Hath God chosen me? Hath Christ redeemed me? Am I called by the Holy Ghost? Does God indeed love me? I cannot find in myself what I ought to find, and what I believe I should find if I were a child of God. You, my dear friend, are happy, and you may be, but I am miserable, and I deserve to be.’ In many cases I find that these feelings have been encouraged as though they proceeded from a real humility, and a modest sense of our own inherent vileness, which ought to prevent us making a bold and open profession of confidence in Christ. In some cases this has been so far pursued that those who thus doubt and hesitate are considered to be further advanced in Christianity than those who are really walking in humble confidence; and rejoicing in their Lord: this is an evil, and should be treated as such. While we speak with kindness and moderation to our tempted brethren, it must be with an earnest desire that by God’s blessing we may be instrumental in raising them to a state of childlike dependence on our blessed Jesus, that they may have strong consolation. There is another point deserving our notice in this place, that the system of speaking so highly of doubts and fears as evidences of true faith has fostered much the pride of the human heart, in causing many Christians to speak of themselves, with a hesitation they do not feel, and thus to use a certain degree of hypocrisy, to gain the good opinion of those who think a certain amount of doubtfulness to be necessary to true religion. Hence, I would observe that anything which tends to encourage doubting as a part of religion is contrary to the revealed word of God; for, in that, though we have some painful and distressing evidences of the effects of doubts, yet the whole tendency of the word, and of all its blessed truths, is to establish the soul in the faith of God’s elect.

5. Before I offer a remark on the way, and the only way, in which these doubts can be removed, I would say that there exists every necessity for ministers of the gospel to labour for their removal; for ministers are to comfort the Lord’s family; And the existence of doubts is a hindrance to comfort. Again the minister is to strive to glorify his God and Saviour; But doubts call in question His faithfulness, love, and grace, and they prevent the Christian from glorifying His Redeemer, by exhibiting his religion as insufficient to support him in the trying hour. The Romanist and the Ritualist maintain that, in this life we cannot arrive at any certainty as to acceptance with God; but the word of God exhorts us to ‘give diligence to make our calling and election sure’; and that we may not identify ourselves with a corrupt system, or with abominable perversions, but follow the Word alone, it is necessary that we should aim to be instrumental in building each other up upon our most holy faith.

6. We must ever bear in mind that the Holy Spirit alone can effectually remove doubts from the mind of any trembling Christian, and that nothing which can be said or urged, however conclusive it may be, or appear to be, can benefit the afflicted soul without His direct influence, energy, and blessing. It should be the aim and end of every faithful minister, and of every established Christian, at once to comfort doubters, and to destroy doubts. This cannot be done by representing doubts as sure evidences of faith, nor, on the other hand, by speaking of them in a light and trifling manner, saying, ‘Doubt and fears come from the devil, and they will go to him again’. We must endeavour to discover the prevailing cause of doubts, and direct all our arguments against that, remembering the old maxim, ‘Remove the cause and the effect will cease’. Doubts often proceed from physical causes, such as a constitutional tendency to doubt, nervousness, bodily diseases of various sorts. The history of Luther furnishes us with a case in point, illustrative of this last cause. Towards the close of his life – a life spent in a bold and undaunted conflict with the emissaries of Satan, propagators of a false and persecuting system misnamed religion – his health began to suffer; he one day fainted in the arms of his wife and friends, and for a week he was as if in death or hell. He said he had lost Jesus Christ, and was driven hither and thither by tempests of despair. The fact was that, under an attack of bodily disease, his mind suffered, his imagination was for the time disordered, and he was incapable of exercising that faith which heretofore had borne him aloft. With the return of bodily health, the faculties of the mind resumed their office, and faith was again triumphant. This conflict we may perceive in David, who more than once cried out, ‘Why are thou cast down, O my soul? And why are thou disquieted in me? Hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance.’ Here you see doubt exists, and, for a time, through secondary causes, prevails; yet here, too, is faith in the truth of God’s word, and hope that it will be well in the end.

I shall now refer to three prevailing causes of doubt: first, imperfect views of the person of our Lord Jesus Christ; secondly, want of clear conception of the finished work of the Saviour; thirdly, an indistinct apprehension of the grounds of our faith. In making some observations on these points, I hope no one will so far misunderstand me as to suppose that I mean to say, that if a man be clearly taught in these subjects, he will have no doubts; but, humanly speaking, persons who are well instructed in these matters are not so liable to be the subject of this class of doubts, at least for any length of time.

First, many humble and devote persons have but an imperfect conception of the whole of what is contained in the declaration, ‘Thou art the Christ of God’. Here is the saviour of sinners, the anointed of the Father, as really and truly God, as He is really and truly man; the Son of God is Mary’s holy Son; to represent His nearness to, and affinity with, His people, He speaks of Himself many times as the Son of Man. He is Immanuel – with us; it is the practical or experimental knowledge of this great truth which encourages the soul in its approaches to God, which causes the soul to draw near, with the sense and persuasion of acceptance through Him. He is God, equal with the Father, and must prevail for us; He is man, our sympathising Brother, and cannot but feel for us, and be more ready to indulge us than we are to solicit His aid.

Secondly. An imperfect perception of the work of Jesus often causes the sensible sinner, by looking to self for something, to entertain doubts respecting his state in the sight of God. I cannot describe in words the blessedness of knowing that salvation is a complete work, contrived by the wisdom of Jehovah the Father, finished by Jehovah the Son, revealed and brought home to the soul by the power of Jehovah the Holy Ghost; it is a cleansing from all sin – a blotting out all our iniquities – a pardoning all our transgressions – the justifying our persons – presenting us faultless in Himself before God; For in Him we are righteous, ‘accepted in the beloved’ – all our sins blotted out – not one which is not atoned for; a complete robe is wrought out for us; ‘he is of God made for us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption’. In him ‘we have passed from death unto life’, for His death is our life; by it we are forever delivered from the guilt, curse, and condemnation of sin; and ‘as he is, so are we in this world’. This, this is the state of the whole Church of Christ in her living Head. This we are warranted to declare is the condition of ‘all who come to God by him’; whether we realise it or not, we are in Him perfect and complete. Is not faith, then, necessary? Yes, for ‘without faith it is impossible to please God’; but faith adds nothing to the work of Christ, nor does it add anything to the soul. Is not repentance also needful? Yes, for ‘except you repent, you shall all likewise perish’; but repentance makes no atonement for sin, changes not the corrupt old man; The leprosy is in the wall of this house, and the house must be taken down before the leprosy can be destroyed. Is not prayer an indispensable duty? Yes, for the God of Israel sayeth ‘I will yet for all this be enquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them’; but prayer is no part of our salvation, contains no merit, neither cleanses nor justifies the soul; but those who see not clearly that all their springs are in Him will be looking for something in themselves, and so being continually disappointed (for ‘who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?’) sit down in doubt and perplexity, thinking that they differ in some respect from other people, and are not in the right way, or that the truth is not in them.

Thirdly. A mistaken idea concerning the encouragement to the exercise of our faith, or the grounds of believing, is too often in the minds of those who have a clear conception of the great truths above stated; a cause of doubt and misgiving respecting their own interest in the atoning blood of the Son of God; their faith in the doctrine of God’s eternal election; the complete and special atonement made by Jesus in the nature and in the stead of His church, makes them rather look for the evidences in themselves as a ground of faith, than to the gracious invitations, precious promises, and soul-cheering declarations of the gospel of peace. To such I would say, Jesus invites you to look to Him, to trust in His blood shedding; Every sensible sinner is exhorted to flee to the hope set before him in the gospel; to contemplate Jesus; His glorious person; His finished work; His complete salvation, and wait in humble prayer, that through grace you may have the witness of the Holy Ghost, enabling you to believe and to suffer or to rejoice, ‘according to his eternal purpose and grace given us in Christ Jesus before the world began’.

I must yet notice briefly another fruitful source of doubts in the souls of some of the Lord’s family – I mean temptations. The enemy of souls, who goeth about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour, is constantly working upon the carnal nature of believers; And, suiting his baits to their temper, habits, disposition, and circumstances, often prevails to occupy their minds with forbidden objects and to draw away their thoughts from the Fountain of good, to harass and distress them with the idea of one day falling into his hands to be tormented forever. In their judgment, if correctly taught, they know this can never be the case with any of the Lord’s called ones; hence they doubt and fear lest (as they feel so much of what it is to be led captive by the devil at his will, and to be drawn aside of their own evil hearts) they should not be found among the number of those who are saved in the Lord with an everlasting salvation. The temptations of the enemy are various; they all, however, tend to one and the same end, namely, to shake our trust and confidence in Jesus by causing us to look within with a vain hope and expectation of finding some good thing there. Now, ‘seeing that that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that from the flesh proceedeth all manner of evil, murders, adulteries, thefts, false witness, blasphemies, and covetousness’, it is evident that to look there for anything good is vain and hopeless. Old Adam is corrupt according to his deceitful lusts, and will remain so; but the Lord Jesus is our strength, our righteousness, our sanctification, and we are complete in Him, and not in ourselves, and therefore we must look to Him for all things. Christian traveller, art thou tempted? Look to the blessed Master who was ‘tempted in all things, and yet without sin’; and, in as much as He was also tempted, He is able to sucker them that are tempted: ‘No temptation has taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; But will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it’: and, ‘the Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations’. Peradventure, fellow Pilgrim, thou hast been overcome by Satan’s temptations; overtaken by a fault, thou has fallen into the snare laid by him for thy feet, and now the seducer has turned round upon thee, and quoted thine own precious scripture against thee; he has said the Lord will not suffer His children to be tempted above what they are able to bear, yet thou hast fallen, thou was just not able to bear it; but He is faithful, He will enable thee to bear all the consequences of the temptation, and when it has accomplished its designed work, when it has humbled thee in thine own eyes, and made thee to loathe thyself, caused thee to mourn for the transgressions and be in bitterness for thy sins, He will bring thee again to His feet, leading thee ‘with weeping and supplication’ to the fountain that is opened for sin and for uncleanliness. Blessed be His holy name, He is God and not man; and He will thus remove all doubts, and wipe away all tears. Again, perhaps thou art in doubt about His love toward thee, and thy state in His sight; not because thou hast any violent temptation, or has been overcome by any outward sin or inward bubbling of corruption, but because thou feelest in thyself so little life, so little reality, so little unction, so little enjoyment; thou hast pictured to thyself the people of God always praying in the spirit, always rejoicing in the Lord, always triumphant; but thou now seest in thyself the reverse of this, and thy conclusion is, There is nothing in me, ‘I am yet in my sins’. Thou thinkest thou mayest well doubt and say with one of old, ‘If it be so, why am I thus?’ Beloved, there is not a groaning child of God upon earth who has not the same cause for lamentation. Increasing light gives an increased perception of inborn and indwelling sin, and the more we see of ourselves, the more do we turn away with inward disgust and dissatisfaction, and most blessed is it when we can turn the eye of faith on the glorious Redeemer, who is all glorious and all blessed, in whom alone we can have peace, comfort, and satisfaction.

To conclude; if those who are chosen, redeemed, and called, are subject to doubt and perplexity respecting their state, if there be a possibility of their being delivered from such perplexity; let those who are strong use the lawful means for accomplishing this great work; let us exhibit Christ and His complete salvation at all times wherever we may be, and this the Holy Ghost will bless, and doth bless, to the removal of doubts and fears and the establishment of the soul in grace. May God bless what is here written, and to Him be all the praise.