Fifteen to twenty years ago, prominent figures in the missional movement began saying things like, “Our churches have to be safe places for doubters,” or “You should feel like you can come to our church with all of your doubts.” I always felt somewhat uncomfortable whenever I heard these statements–not because I think that our churches shouldn’t be safe place for people to express doubts, but because it seemed as if many were confusing the idea of doubt with the idea of unbelieving skepticism. It is important to recognize that Scripture does not identify doubt with unbelieving skepticism. In fact, the most serious believers may have prolonged periods in which they struggle with doubt–a fact that the Gospel writers unfold in the account of John the Baptist’s doubts about the identity of Jesus while in prison.
During his earthly ministry, Jesus made the shocking assertion, “Among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist.” Christ praised John as having been “the burning and shining lamp” (John 5:35)–as one who poured himself out for the spiritual well-being of others. John’s ministry was marked by his selfless motivation to see Jesus exalted, “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30). John likened himself to the friend of the bridegroom, who, upon hearing the voice of Christ, rejoiced that the Bridegroom had come (John 3:29). John had the unique privilege of standing and pointing to the Redeemer in the flesh and declare, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). John joyfully encouraged his own disciples to leave him in order to follow after Jesus, when Christ began his ministry. John was content to exist for the glory and exaltation of Jesus (John 1:35-37).
However, after Herod had locked John up in prison as retribution for rebuking him for his sexual immorality (Luke 3:19-20), John began to have doubts. There are two possible explanations for these doubts. Either John was struggling with the suffering that he was enduring and couldn’t square it with the prophecies of the Messiah that he read about in the Old Testament prophets; or, John was doubting the identity of Jesus because he wasn’t fulfilling John’s Old Testament expectation that the Messiah would come bringing salvation and judgment.
John knew that the prophet Isaiah had predicted that when Messiah came he would come “to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (Is. 61:1) This was, in fact, part of Jesus’ first sermon preached in the synagogue in Nazareth about himself (Luke 4:16-21). But, now John was in prison for his testimony to Christ. Jesus was delivering him from his imprisonment. Believers may begin to doubt Jesus’ identity and God’s promises on account of his or her circumstances in life and inability to square those circumstances with what Scripture teaches. This is often a cause for doubts to arise in the hearts of even the most mature believers. So much of the Christian life is learning to walk through circumstances in which God has placed us when they seem contrary to what God has promised us in His word. We go back to the word to be stregnthened in faith, even when we can’t square our circumstances with God’s promises.
John also knew that the Old Testament prophets made clear that “the Day of the Lord” (yom Yahweh) would bring both judgment and salvation. However, now that Jesus had come into the world, there only seemed to be blessing and restoration. John had proclaimed a message and had administered a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John’s message included the prediction of both salvation and judgment. John had said following to the religious leaders in Israel:
“I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:11-12).
Jesus is both the One who came into the world to baptize the hearts of His people with his purifying Spirit and the One who will cast the wicked into hell on the Day of Judgment. However, John was only seeing and hearing about the healing and redeeming grace of Jesus. While in prison, John doubted the identity of Christ because he was expecting the righteous judgment and indignation of God to accompany the gracious redemption of God. John couldn’t understand that the prophets had spoken about two comings of the Messiah.
When the Old Testament prophets spoke of the salvation and judgment of God that would accompany the Redeemer’s coming, they were speaking about the two appearances of the Messiah. They, of course, saw through a glass darkly. It is not altogether clear whether they understood that they were speaking of a first and second coming of the Christ. They were like artists painting a picture of several mountain ranges–as if they were close together. When one looks at a picture or a painting of mountains, the ranges often appear to be together in the same spot. However, when one visits the location of the mountain ranges, one quickly realizes that they are separated by many miles. They only appear to be connected. So also with the Old Testament prophets’ predictions about the work of the Redeemer in his first and second coming.
Though he had doubts, John wasted no time in seeking to quench them. He sent some of his disciples to Jesus to ask him about his ministry. The example of John teaches us to distinguish between doubt and unbelieving skepticism. John had made the largest and most confident confessions about the identity of Jesus. Then, in a moment of weakness, he sent disciples to Jesus to ask him, “Are you the coming One, or do we look for another?” Jesus honored John for the way in which he had faithfully prepared the way for his Messianic ministry, by responding to John’s question in three way: First, Jesus performed more miraculous signs of his Messianic ministry (Luke 7:21); then, he appealed to the Old Testament prophetic witness to his ministry (Luke 7:22); and, finally, he issued a public defense of John and the ministry he carried out as his forerunner (Luke 7:24-35).
Geerhardus Vos explained the significance of Jesus’ defense of John, when he wrote:
“It is a satisfaction to know that Jesus Himself appreciated and honored His forerunner and gave expression to this feeling on more than one occasion…Even in the hour of weakness, when John’s own faith had begun to waver and he had sent to Jesus his doubting inquiry, our Lord took pains to defend him from the unjust suspicion, as if any selfish motive had inspired the doubt, thus shielding the nobility of his character, because it was precious to Himself and because He could not suffer that others should think meanly of it. There is to us something unspeakably touching in this loyal gratitude to a faithful servant on the part of Him who had Himself come to serve all others. And we may rest assured that, whatever modern judges may say, John has received his reward and experienced the truth of that other saying of our Lord: “If any man serve me, him will the Father honor.”1
So what are we to conclude about the place of doubt in the life of believers? Eric Alexander summarizes the difference between doubt and skeptical unbelief:
“Doubt is not the same thing as unbelief. Unbelief is an act of the will that refuses to trust and obey Christ. Doubt is often asking questions or voicing uncertainty; and, it may well be from the standpoint of faith. And doubt which is smothered or ignored can often be the precursor of many problems in Christian experience. Doubt which is confessed and faced and fought through can be a growing thing in someone’s Christian experience. It is not the same thing as unbelief or skepticism…’a healthy understanding of doubt should go hand in hand with a healthy understanding of faith.”
Should our churches be safe places for those with doubts? Absolutely. Our churches should be places where men and women–like John the Baptist–recognize their need for the Savior and confess, face and fight through their doubts in order to grow in their Christian experience. Though we should never attempt to pass doubt off as something virtuous, we should also not fail to see that the Savior loves to show his kindness and restorative grace to doubting believers as they fight through those doubts.
1. Vos, G. (2001). Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos. (R. B. Gaffin Jr., Ed.) (p. 303). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.