Theme registry rebuild completed. Turn off this feature for production websites.
Mark Johnston's picture

Mark Johnston (MDiv Westminster Theological Seminary) is the Minister of Bethel Presbyterian Church (EPCEW) in Cardiff, Wales. He was previously Senior Pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church Bryn Mawr, PA and of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London. He began his ministry as a church planter in Ireland. He serves on the Board of Banner of Truth Trust and has authored several books including three titles in Banner's Let’s Study series, You in Your Small Corner, and Our Creed.

Column: Resident Aliens by Mark Johnston

Faith on the Edge of Reason

May 29, 2015 •

In its definition of ‘Saving Faith’ the Westminster Confession of Faith enters a very significant caveat that is all too often overlooked. Namely, ‘This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong; may be often and many ways assailed, and weakened, but gets the victory: growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance, through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith’.[1] Its inclusion is important, not just as a statement of theological fact, but in terms of its pastoral relevance to many true believers whose faith is in crisis.

The extent of this problem in church life is not easy to gauge, because Christians who wrestle with doubt are often reluctant to admit to it for a variety of reasons. Indeed the same is true for pastors who are no less prone to it – their interest in this matter has professional as well as personal implications. But the reality is the problem of doubt is present in the church to a far greater degree than we might imagine. It is rather like the proverbial iceberg. Its visible tip may seem small and somewhat innocuous to the untrained eye, but for those who know about icebergs, 90% of the problem is hidden beneath the surface.

Thankfully the Scriptures are neither unaware of this problem nor do they show no embarrassment in acknowledging it publicly. We see it in some high profile cases, like the prophet Jeremiah (Je 20.7-18) and John the Baptist (Lk 7.18-23). It constitutes an underlying theme in the General Epistles of Hebrews through Jude. But we see it addressed most directly in the psalms, notably in Psalm 73. There the author speaks with such openness about this issue that it is clear his faith at this particular point in his experience found itself on the edge of reason.

The authorship of this psalm is attributed to Asaph, one of the Levites appointed by David as one of the official Music Directors for Tabernacle worship (2Ch 15.16-17). He would have been very much in the public eye amidst the worshipping community of Israel. So for him to waver in his beliefs had serious potential to affect the faith of others. Yet, far from airbrushing such a spiritual crisis out of the biblical record, it is set forth with brutal honesty; but also in a way that clearly demonstrates that doubt does not automatically spell the end of faith.

In this post I would like to focus on what brought this man’s faith to crisis point and then, in the one that follows, to look at what not only brought him back from the brink, but actually enabled his faith to be strengthened through this dark and disturbing chapter of his life.

The psalm begins with a great affirmation of faith: ‘Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart’ (73.1). It has the kind of liturgical ring to it that would suggest it was a refrain that ranked alongside the great Shema as a key component of Jewish worship. It affirmed God’s covenant goodness and faithfulness. But juxtaposed to this great affirmation is a jarring confession that the psalmist’s faith was faltering. ‘But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked’ (Ps 73.2-3).

Despite the comfort intended for the faithful as they rehearsed the great truths about God in worship, for Asaph it felt as though there was a yawning chasm between truth confessed and the apparent truth of the world in which he lived.

He goes on to spell out where he saw these seeming incongruities. He catalogues the perceived blessings enjoyed by the wicked, over against the troubles he and the rest of the righteous were plagued by all day long (Ps 73.4-14). Indeed, from the perspective of God’s covenant to which he alludes in the opening verse, it seemed as though the blessings promised to the covenant faithful and the curses reserved for covenant-breakers in Deuteronomy 28-29 had somehow been reversed.

It has never been hard for Christians through the ages to identify with Asaph’s words. On the surface of things – at least as far as tangible, material blessings are concerned – it really does appear as those who openly deny God are more likely to ‘prosper’ by this world’s standards. While those who are Christians and seek to live by the Bible’s ethical standards and with integrity seem to be the losers.

The issue has become even starker in recent years with the rise of militant atheism and the race between Western countries to embrace an anti-Christian ethic. Where is God and his promise to be good to the righteous in such times?

Asaph begins to answer that question even before he has finished laying out his complaint. On the one hand he admitted that even to speak in the way he was speaking was a betrayal of people who mattered far more to him than he had perhaps appreciated. (Ps 73.15). More than that, he also confessed that there was more going on in this scenario than he was capable of comprehending (Ps 73.16). (Which would suggest he knew deep down that there is an unseen dimension to life that is more significant than the merely tangible.)

Before we allow ourselves to be dragged too far down the road of doubt – fashionable or otherwise – we would do well to remember the limits of our own understanding as well as the testimony of other believers around us.

There is, however, a critical turning point in the psalmist’s journey to the edge of darkness. It is when he says, ‘Until I entered the sanctuary of God…’ (Ps 73.16). It is the point at which he gains a different perspective and which changes everything – a perspective to which we will return in the next post.

In all of this and in light of the Bible’s candour as it speaks about this issue, we should appreciate more fully why the men of the Westminster Assembly chose to include their caveat about the nature of faith in the Confession. They were biblical realists and knew that faith leads us to salvation, not because it is perfect, but because it leads us to Christ. And sometimes it means clinging to him as if just by our fingernails!

[1] Westminster Confession of Faith 14.3


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.