In a faraway time, when I was a freshman in college, the leader of the campus ministry I was attending gave me some scanned pages to take back to my dorm and read- as if I didn’t have enough reading to do.
The pages were two letters to a Mrs. B. taken from the Select Letters of William Romaine. I didn’t know who Mrs. B was, but when I read these two letters, they could’ve just as well been written to me.
In these two little letters, Romaine helped me see for the first time the dangers of looking to my faith in Jesus rather than simply looking at Jesus for all comfort and assurance.
I think all Christians struggle with this. I know I do regularly. We begin to take our eyes off the object of our faith and start looking at our faith itself, resting our assurance on how strong or weak our faith seems to be. And soon, like ole’ Mrs. B, we find ourselves struggling to find the comfort, peace, and spiritual joys that we once so sweetly knew.
If you’ve ever felt that way, or maybe feel that way right now, I encourage you to read the whole of this letter which I’ve posted below. I’ve put in bold some of the most helpful statements if you’d just like to skim. I come back to these letters when I’m feeling spiritually joyless and dry, which is more often than I like to admit.
I think you’ll find Romaine both wisely perceptive and warmly pastoral in calling Mrs. B – and all of us- to look away from our faith and to look completely and solely to the object of our faith, Jesus Christ.
Lambeth, Jan. 26, 1768.
My dear Friend,—I received your letter of the 8th instant; in which there was the state of your case. I see nothing singular in it. Scarce a day happens, but I meet some or other in your condition, with exactly the same complaints arising from the very same cause. And I have convinced many a one, through the divine blessing, of their interest in Jesus, from the very arguments they made use of to doubt and question it.
Were I to draw the true character of a believer, I would put into it every single circumstance that you mention in your letter; and I would undertake to prove, that it made strongly for you, and nothing of it against you.
It is the very frame and temper of a real Christian. Just as you describe yourself, is every one that is born of God—feels the very things you do, and is never right when he does not feel them; it being the proper work of the Spirit of Jesus, to bring all that are under his teaching to be content to be exactly what you find yourself, that you may be led to live out of yourself upon the fulness of God-Jesus. He is teaching you this lesson, that he may glorify the Saviour in you.
But you are a bad scholar like me; slow to learn, ready to forget, and, what is worse, apt to pervert the divine instruction. You misapply, and put vile constructions upon the teaching of the Spirit of God, and give a legal turn and cast to his lesson. I can see, as if written with a sun-beam, the disposition of your mind herein, and can trace, from my own experience, all the turnings and close windings of your present temptations.
I observe what you say of your judgment. You are enlightened to see that Jesus is all in salvation work. The covenant ordered in all things and sure, this is all my salvation, and, as far as I know my own heart, this is all my desire. You unsay these words in the same breath you say them; for, because you are not always satisfied with this salvation, or always alike comforted with it, or with equal happiness enjoying the glorious fruits of it, you therefore doubt and reason about its being yours.
Thus you argue: “My judgment is clearly convinced, and my heart desires to be cast wholly upon the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation, but in the act of doing this I always fail.” What reasoning is here! How directly contrary to the spirit of the gospel! For you are looking not at the object of faith, at Jesus, but at your faith. You would draw your comfort, not from him, but from your faith. And because your faith is not quite perfect, you are as much discouraged, as if Jesus was not a quite perfect Saviour.
My dear friend, how sadly does the sly spirit of bondage deceive you ! For what is your act of believing ? Is it to save you? Are you to be saved for believing? If so, then you put acts and works in the place of the Saviour. And faith, as an act, is, in your view, part of your salvation. The free grace of the covenant you turn into a work, and how well that work is done becomes the ground of your hope. What a dreadful mistake is this, since salvation is not to him that worketh, but to him that believeth!
But besides this mistake, I can see one of the greatest sins in your way of reasoning, and yet finely cloaked under a very specious covering. I pulled it off, and behold there was rank treason under it, against the crown and majesty of my Lord and God for you are kept looking at your act of believing.
What is this for? Why, certainly, that you may be satisfied with your faith; and being satisfied with it, what then? No doubt you will then rest in it, and upon it, satisfied now that Christ is yours, because you are satisfied with your faith. This is making a Jesus of it, and is in effect taking the crown of crowns from his head, and placing it upon the head of your faith. Lord grant you may never do this any more.
I observe, thirdly, how, by this mistake, and by this great sin, the sin of sins, you are robbed of the sweet enjoyment of the God of all comfort. You lose what you seek, and lose it in your way of seek- ing. You want comfort, and you look to your faith for it. If faith could speak, it would say, I have none to give you, look unto Jesus, it is all in him. Indeed, dear friend, it is.
The Holy Ghost, the Comforter, will not glorify your faith. He will not give it the honour of comforting you. He takes nothing to comfort with but the things of Christ— and his things, not as used by you, but as given from him, who is all yours. This lesson, I think, he is teaching you, although you pervert it. He is bringing you off from looking legally at your faith. He intends you should not regard, as you have done, how you believe, but to settle you in believing.
I have been long at this, and have learned but very little. I can say my lesson, but when I come to practise, I find I am a dull scholar. The Spirit of Jesus has been teaching me to draw my comforts, not from how well I believe, but from Jesus, in whom I believe; not from there being no failing in my act of faith, but that I do act faith on Jesus, though failingly. My salvation is quite a distinct thing from any act of mine. It depends on the divine purpose and covenant,—is absolutely and eternally fixed in the divine will—and this is made known to me by faith. I receive the evidence of it by believing, and so take possession.
Faith is not the cause, but the effect. The cause is the act and grace of the Trinity,—what the Father out of sovereign love gave; what the Son bought with an inestimable price; and what the Holy Spirit proves to a sinner to be a price every way fully sufficient, and brings him to depend upon it for his redemption.
You see, then, that in consequence of the Father’s giving Christ for me, the Holy Spirit brings me to Christ, and enables me to trust and rely upon him. This is all that faith has to do in the matter. It is the fruit and evidence of the covenant grace of the Trinity. At best it is but an open empty hand, stretched forth at God’s bidding, and at God’s enabling to lay hold of Christ; but Christ so laid hold of is my salvation. It is not faith, but Christ. It is not my hand, but the thing received into my hand, that saves me.
I grant you, and I know it well, that much faith brings much comfort from Christ, and carries much glory to him; but the way to get much faith, is not to look at it, as you do, but at the Saviour; not to look at your hand, but at Jesus; not how you hold him, but that he is yours, and holds you, and your faith too, and therefore you shall never perish, but shall have everlasting life.
After I had observed these errors in your looking at the act of faith, I did not wonder at the following parts of your letter, such as, your not being pleased with your faith, and therefore not pleased with your state, nor your graces, nor your attainments, nor your own righteousness, but you thought everything made against you. This is still the same teaching of the Spirit, but you pervert it.
Have you nothing to look at but Jesus? That’s right. Then look unto him, and be saved. What! can you see nothing to rest on of your own? Are you forced to renounce the goodness of your faith, as an act, and do you experience that you cannot be saved for it? Very well: hold fast there. Stick to this : no grace, as acted by you, can save;—follow this blessed teaching, and cleave with full purpose of heart unto the Lord Jesus. You must learn to make him all in your salvation. He must save you from your faith, as well as from your unbelief; faith, as you act it, being full of sin. If the highest and best act of your faith was to be weighed in the balance of the sanctuary, you would deserve a thousand deaths for it. So much corruption would be found in it, that you could not escape the damnation of hell.
Turn about then, take your eyes off from your acts of faith —look at Jesus. Expect to be received as a poor helpless sinner, not for great and high believing. Come to be saved from your faith, as an act. Follow, as all your salvation is laid up in him, follow him, take comfort from him, see yourself in him, not for any thing in you; trust him, not yourself, not your acts; and learn to discern spirits, to know divine teaching, by this mark—that what tends to humble you, is from the glorifier of the Saviour.
Since I sat down to write I have been many times interrupted, but I was resolved not to be stopped in writing to-day, that you might, at least, know what could be said of your case. It is a very common one —common to all who are taught of God—so peculiar to them, that, as I said before, if I was to draw the character of a true child of God, I could not leave out one, not a single one, of the circumstances which you bring against yourself. Indeed, Mrs. B. they are all on your side, and witnesses for Christ.
O do not then stifle, pervert, nor dispute their evidence. Allow what they say,—your faith is not perfect—your acts fail—all things fail you. Good, very good. Then away with them—cast off all looking at, all dependence on them. Betake yourself to Jesus, trust him, use him, grow into him, and let nothing separate you from him. So be it, Lord Jesus.
Romaine, William, 1714-1795. Select letters of the Rev. William Romaine, A.M. (Kindle Locations 4249-4252). Glasgow : Printed for William Collins