Results tagged “conversion” from Reformation21 Blog

Leaving the Faith: Reflections of a Prodigal

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By now the firestorm of commentary around Josh Harris' public announcement--that he has not only divorced, but departed from the Christian faith--has died down. People have moved on, but not before delivering a slew of analysis, indictments, pleas, condemnation, and speculation.  

When the news hit and I observed all the commentary, I too wanted to offer my two cents. However, I found myself struggling to say anything publicly. While I do think there might be some merit to the contributing factors cited, namely that he was never a true believer to begin with, I know there is more to the story than simple pat answers can provide. Now with the news that Marty Sampson of Hillsong fame has announced his departure from the faith, I am compelled to speak.

You see, I was a prodigal. I came to Christ in my first year in college in 1982. Though I grew up  in a missionary Baptist church, if the gospel was preached I guess I didn't have ears to hear it. By my junior year in high school, I came to the conclusion that church just wasn't for me, and I resisted attendance any further.  

That all changed when I got to college and met a couple of Christians. They didn't talk to me about church; they told me about Jesus. To this day I can't remember everything they said to me, except for this one line: "You're looking for something and you won't find it until you find Jesus." After a couple of visits to the Thursday night worship/bible study, the reality that I needed Jesus as my Savior stirred by soul with such a convicting force that I found myself on my knees in the quietness of my dorm room, telling Jesus I was a sinner and that I needed him. That's all I knew at the time.

Over the next few years, I would be ingrained in the life of the church, including the college group and whatever fellowship opportunities that arose. To be clear, my participation was a direct reflection of what I believed to be true about the faith that I now embraced: That Jesus died for my sins, and receiving him as Savior meant that I was to live for him. For the most part, I tried. I was diligent with Bible reading, prayer, fellowship, and the like.

Unfortunately, the deceitfulness of sin began to erode my walk. This is why James issues a stern warning about our own lusts that can lead us down a dangerous path, "But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death" (James 1:14-15). It didn't help that I sat under some unfaithful and distorted teaching that really didn't deal honestly with the sin nature that still tries the soul.

After a few years from my "conversion," I walked away from the faith in 1986. While I never denounced Christianity or indicated I was no longer a Christian, my line of thinking definitely echoed what I hear Harris and Sampson utter--there was a deconstruction, if you will. But really, it was flat out rebellion. I could not live within a Christian construct any longer, foolishly believing that it was freedom. I lived as one who did not believe, doing what was right in my own eyes, and making many foolish decisions along the way.

That all changed towards the end of 1998. By then I was in my second marriage to a nonbeliever, living under very unpleasant circumstances, and about to experience preliminary stages of a life altering illness. The Lord used the examples of his family members, very committed Christians, to bring about conviction to my heart that eventually led to repentance at the beginning of 1999. Shortly after my husband collapsed from what we would later learn was complete renal failure (which led to his death in 2004), the Lord had fully gripped my heart and wooed me back. His kindness truly does lead to repentance. 

Like so many speculating about Harris, I can give you the precise theological language about my soteriological position from a Reformed perspective. But honestly, I can't tell you whether I was a Christian, so seeped in rebellion that it took 13 years to come to my senses, or if I was never truly a Christian to begin with. All I know is that I was lost and now I'm found. The Lord has so graciously dealt with me, drawing me to himself. He lifted this prodigal out of the depths of sinful mire and gave me eyes to see his grace, beauty and forgiveness.

I've had some trying times since that miraculous day in 1999. I've been confronted with doubts and disappointments, trials that sent my mind into a tailspin, times of feelings of abandonment, hard and slow areas of sanctification, and bouts of numbness. The words of Peter in response to Jesus in John 6:68-69 permeate my heart, just as it did that day I read it 20 years ago. When those following Jesus began to depart in droves because they couldn't get with what Jesus was saying about himself, Jesus turned to Peter and asked, "Do you want to go away as well?" Peter's response pierces my soul to this very day: 

"Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God."

This has anchored me in those times of apparent contradiction. It has propelled me to keep clinging to Christ and trust in his all sufficient work when my mind and my circumstances tempted me not to. But I also know that it is only because of Christ's love for me and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit that has sustained me. And where else could I go, but in the firm grip of the loving Father? Unfortunately, it took me wandering away to really learn there was no place else.  

So while everyone has moved on from Harris, I consider my story and still wonder about him. Perhaps this is not the end. Whether he was ever in the Father's hand or not, I wonder if there still might be hope for him to find himself there. I know what it's like to "feel" like you're free from the shackles of what your rebellion deems a restrictive religious paradigm. But I also know that apart from Christ, there truly is no freedom at all.  


Lisa Robinson holds a ThM degree from Dallas Theological Seminary (2014). She is newly married and recently moved from Dallas, TX to Roanoke, VA where she resides with her husband Evan and attends Christ the King Presbyterian Church. She blogs at www.theothoughts.com

Lost and Found

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Lost and Found: How Jesus Helped Us Discover our True Selves
Edited by Collin Hansen
The Gospel Coalition, 2019
160 pages, paper, $12.99

I have always been troubled by those long, weight-loss infomercials that one sees on late night television. I have nothing against hearing the struggles of real-life people to decrease their diet or increase their exercise. Indeed, I applaud all people with the courage and grit to seize hold of their personal health and well-being.

No, what troubles me are not the stories themselves or the effort that went in to them, but the shape that those stories take. The message is not simply a pragmatic one about the best methods for lowering one's weight or cholesterol or blood pressure. The message is one of conversion: before I started diet program X, I was depressed, isolated, and starved for meaning and direction; after I finished it, I was happy, valued, and fulfilled.

Such stories--and they are used to sell everything from get-rich-quick schemes to find-the-perfect-mate websites, magical acne cream to mystical holistic medicine, female breast enlargement to male potency enhancement--represent nothing more nor less than a bastardization of the Christian testimony: I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see. Americans have long yearned for the quick fix, but that yearning has grown stronger and more insistent with each passing decade. "Just change one thing in your life," the promise goes, "and, presto chango, all your failures will morph into successes and all your sorrows will be transmuted into joy.

Sadly, just as the authentic Christian testimony has been perverted into the infomercial, so the infomercial has returned the favor and infected the testimony. Televangelists and success-in-life preachers too often peddle the same quick fix as the latest diet fad. Walking down the aisle in a flurry of emotion becomes the equivalent of purchasing a mass-marketed, new-and-improved product: a split-second decision that comes with the seductive promise that, without any further changes in your life, everything will now be perfect. Your life now has purpose (don't worry that that purpose is self-focused); you've won the salvation lottery (don't worry about transformation in Christ); you've had your ticket to heaven punched (don't worry about getting to know and love the conductor).

The answer to this commercialization of the gospel is not to abandon the real Christian testimony, but to restore it to what it should be. Thankfully, a new book from the publishing arm of The Gospel Coalition (TGC) points the Body of Christ in the right direction. Edited by the editorial director of TGC, Collin Hansen, Lost and Found: How Jesus Helped Us Discover Our True Selves offers a dozen testimonies from a wide array of believers who have experienced the life-changing power of God's amazing grace.

After introducing the collection and sharing briefly his own faith journey, Hansen wisely kicks things off with the testimony of a well-known evangelical figure, Joni Eareckson Tada. Most readers will already be aware of how a diving accident at the age of 17 left Joni a quadriplegic. Since that tragic day, Joni has allowed the Holy Spirit to use her creative talents and indomitable spirit to share the gospel and to advocate for people with disabilities around the world. Though she writes here, as she always does, with great compassion for those who suffer, she does not turn a blind eye to the severity of sin.

The real problem with man, she explains, is not physical pain but spiritual pride and rebellion. "God's goal is not to make us comfortable. He wants to teach us to hate our transgressions as he grows our love for him. God wants us to hate our sin as much as he does. . . . exposing sin is more important to God than relieving human suffering, even unthinkable suffering" (29-30).

Those are difficult words to read and to contemplate, especially for a suffering-aversive age like our own, but Joni does not shrink from applying the principle to herself: "for the last 50 years in my wheelchair, I've been daily dying to self and rising with Jesus, dying to self and rising with Jesus, dying to self and rising with Jesus. My goal is to mortify my fleshly desires, so I might find myself in Christ" (31). No quick fix here, but a slow process by which the dying and rising savior molds us into fit instruments--what the late Eugene Peterson called "a long obedience in the same direction."

Vaneetha Rendall Risner's moving testimony also gives praise to a dying and rising savior who will not always deliver us from our suffering, but who will transform it and use it to mature us into the people he created us to be. Growing up in India with polio not only subjected Vaneetha to long years of bullying by her fellow schoolmates but has left her increasingly paralyzed. Add to this the death of an infant and a failed marriage, and the sum might seem to suggest that the Lord has abandoned Vaneetha.

But nothing could be further from the truth. In addition to attesting to the opening stanza of "Amazing Grace," Vaneetha proclaims boldly: "Out of the ugliness of my life, God brought beauty" (54). She even shares with us five concrete things that Christ has taught her through her trials. First, they have made her "more grateful--I notice and appreciate little things rather than expect them" (55). Second, they have "taken away my fear of the future . . . I realized that I could survive . . . [and] experience joy that does not depend on circumstances, a joy that could never be taken away by anyone or anything" (55).

Third and fourth, her sufferings have given her "an empathetic ear" (55) for others who suffer, and have driven her closer to Christ, on whom she must rely every day. Finally, they have made her long for heaven--not only because heaven will mean an end to her pain, but because there she will "see in greater clarity how he has used my pain for good, both in my life and also in the lives of others" (56-7). In one way or another, all the contributors to Lost and Found have experienced that special kind of clarity that can only be gained through a direct and intimate relationship with the God who created us.

Sam Chan in particular--who was born in Hong Kong, studied medicine in Sydney, Australia, and earned a PhD from Chicago--attests to how Christ alone can bring such clarity to a life without direction. "The first 25 years of my life," he explains, "went according to the Asian-immigrant high-achieving script. Study hard. Stay out of trouble. Get a degree. Become a doctor. It was an endless series of successes" (130). Only it wasn't. What was missing from his life were the two essential ingredients to true and lasting happiness: validation and fulfillment.

Sam spent half his life seeking validation through an ascending stairway of raises and promotions. The only problem with that plan, he found, was that "once you reach the top, there's no one up there to tell you that you've done well" (132). His simultaneous search for fulfillment proved to be "even trickier. To be fulfilled is to have achieved the goal of your mission. The mission of an acorn is to become an oak tree, Aristotle said. So, when an acorn becomes that oak tree, it is fulfilled. It has attained a full life. Likewise, if we want fulfillment, we need to know our mission in life. But doesn't that just bring us back to where we started? We can't have fulfillment if we don't know the point of life!" (132).

I hear many of my college students say that they want to be part of something bigger than themselves. That is good as it goes, but Sam discovered that the something must be backed up by a somebody. Jesus, he concludes, is "the ultimate Somebody to live for. His story is bigger than our own. If we live for him, we'll find a fulfilled life. A full life. Or, as Jesus calls it, eternal life" (137).

Along with Sam, all the contributors wrestle in their own way with the difference between the Christian and worldly definition of success. For no one is this truer than Jason Cook, a former NFL player and associate pastor of preaching at Fellowship Church in Memphis. Though he grew up in the church, the mantra Jason absorbed from the world, the pulpit, and the football field alike was that "if I performed poorly, then I could not be loved. That was the unspoken message I learned from a culture of success" (123).

Like the rich young ruler in the gospels, who thought his wealth and his external obedience to the law made him righteous, Jason had to learn "the impotence of his goodness and futility of his self-righteousness" (124). In short, he had to set "aside the idol of self-reliance" (125). Only then, when he had gained the proper poverty of spirit, could Jason do what the rich young ruler could not: follow a savior who shatters, redefines, and transcends all worldly standards of happiness, goodness, and success.

Lost and Found does not break new theological ground, but it provides a much-needed reminder that the true end of the gospel is not a Friday night make-over but a slow, incremental, often painful process of transformation.

 

Louis Markos, Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his 18 books include Atheism on Trial, Apologetics for the 21st Century, From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics, and On the Shoulders of Hobbits.

 

 

Spurgeon's standards for conversion and membership

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Spurgeon, Charles Haddon 4.jpgI hope that I will be able at some point to provide a review of Tom Nettles' excellent volume, Living for Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles Haddon Spurgeon (pastors and preachers, you need this book, and can get it at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Westminster).

In the meantime, there are a couple of threads from the book that it is profitable to weave together. Spurgeon was adamant that the door to the church be well-guarded, and had a carefully-developed system whereby converts applying for membership were graciously but robustly assessed by elders, himself, and the whole congregation. He did not rush people into professions of faith, baptism and church membership (indeed, he had some distaste for the inquiry room as potentially exerting a pressure beyond that of the Holy Spirit's work on the heart of a sinner).

At two separate points in the book, Nettles shows how - at times of particular evangelistic endeavour, as well as during the more regular procedures of church life - the saints were encouraged to make a thoughtful and scriptural assessment of a man's standing with God and prospective relationship with the local church.

With regard to conversion,
counselors of inquirers looked for three pivotal evidences of true conversion. One focused on the nature of the individual's perception of his sin and dependence on the work of Christ. Did the inquirer seem to have a clear and distinct and abiding sense of the seriousness of his offense toward God, a healthy remorse for that sin, a desire to turn from it and cease such offensive behavior toward God; did he also recognize that God was willing to receive him through the atonement made by Christ and through that alone? Second, did the present determination of the person's soul indicate a clear intention to live for Christ and overcome the opposing forces of the world; did he feel the urgency of seeing others escape from the wrath to come? Three, with a full knowledge of his own unworthiness and his full dependence on God, did the person have some knowledge of the doctrines of grace and that mercy was the fountain from which his salvation flowed? (310-11)
Then, with a great deal of common ground, here is the expectation for church membership:
Arnold Dallimore's examination of this book [called the Inquirers {sic} Books, in which interviewing elders recorded their comments] showed that the entire interview process centered on the determination of three things. One, is there clear evidence of dependence on Christ for salvation? This involved a clear and felt knowledge of sin and a deep sense of the necessity of the cross. Two, does the candidate exhibit a noticeable change of character including a desire for pleasing God and a desire for others to believe the gospel? Three, is there some understanding of, with a submission to, the doctrines of grace? The only effective antithesis to merit salvation, in Spurgeon's view, was a knowledge of utter dependence on divine mercy. (248)
Perhaps, in our day, we are not always sure what we should be looking for in the heart and life of men and women who profess faith in the Lord Jesus. Far too many churches, perhaps feeling the pressure of numbers or some other force, are inclined to drop their standards or blur their distinctions, if they have them in the first place. In the face of that, these standards seem to me to be thoroughly biblical, genuinely gracious, and appropriately robust. They combine doctrinal understanding, experimental religion, and principled obedience - a religion of head, heart and hand, if you will. If more congregations embraced a righteous assessment of this sort with regard to professing converts and applicants for membership, I am persuaded that they would be spiritually healthier places than they too often are.

What is truth?

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As part of our attempts to proclaim Christ in our small corner, we are investing some effort in a village near the town where I live. This village is, I think, fairly typical of our part of the world. It has a storied and pleasant-looking Church of England building nestled near the comfortably ancient pub at the centre of the village, and a good number of the villagers have some kind of association with the church (often a long family tradition). Some have lived in the village for years, if not all their lives, while others are newcomers. Many are simply apathetic, though some are sufficiently stirred to be hostile. There are agnostics, atheists, pagans and heathens all living cheek-by-jowl with one another.

It has been hard going to make Christ known here. In an attempt to engage a little more with the people that we meet and speak with, as well as to provide some kind of impetus and framework for some upcoming gospel meetings, we have been using a brief survey (six questions with multiple choice answers) to prompt discussion and thought as we go from house to house. We ask, on a number of points, "What is truth?" The results to date have been profoundly grievous.

Almost without exception, men and women of any and all convictions have assured us that - if there is a God, and if he communicates at all - he does so through impulses and feelings, and that there is nothing any clearer or more certain. Asked if life has any point, the responses are largely split between the assertion that life has no point whatsoever or that life is whatever you make it, no more and no less. God is in none of their thoughts.

The people of this village have no explanation for suffering, although some have accepted the possibility that it is the result of natural selection. What happens when we die? Several assert that it is simply the end, but most believe that it is impossible to know.

Although none to date have claimed that Jesus was a fraud, most will take him merely as a good man or great teacher rather than as the Son of God - and I will not begin to describe what they think that last option actually means. Most believe that the death of Christ was either pointless or a tragic mistake.

These answers are given across the board. Men and women who have been faithfully attending the Anglican church for decades give the same answers as the Muslim policeman who patrolled the streets one day and the casual mystics and dabbling Buddhists. We have found so few with any seemingly substantial faith and hope, almost none for whom their profession makes any more than a superficial difference to their patterns of life. With the exception of a few who attend churches outside the village, the professing Christians are as void of any accurate knowledge of the truth as those who claim to have rejected Christianity with all its trappings. Ardent religionists, angry atheists, friendly agnostics, earnest seekers, and those who cultivate their own private spirituality are all equally lost in the same moral morass, drifting lost without any anchors to drop, let alone any solid ground in which to drop them.

On one level, this is not surprising, for it is precisely what the Scriptures tell us to expect. On another, nothing can be more agonising, for there is a fearful judgement ahead for these needy sinners, many of whom are blithely skipping toward it, confident in their own strength and wisdom, or assured by false teachers of every stripe (including those who sail under cover of a Christian profession) that all will be well.

Christian friend, do you long to see God shake the secure, rattle the carnal, convict the careless and terrify the ungodly, to give them a present and pressing sense of their need in order that the gospel of Christ in all its sweet simplicity and saving security may become precious to them? Do you long to see them running to the great Physician as those who have become profoundly aware of their spiritual sickness? If we are to make any headway in this village and in the other places in which we preach Christ crucified, it must be as the Spirit of Christ opens the eyes of the blind, unstops the deaf ears, and gives life to the dead heart - we must pray to this end. It is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2Cor 4.6), and it is that same God with whom we must plead that he might do the same for others. Pray for us, and pray for yourselves, that God would do the work, shatter the chains of those in bondage, and bring the lost to their senses and then - through Christ as Saviour - to himself.