Completely and Unreservedly
December 28, 2011
It was forty years ago today (December 28, 1971) that I became a Christian. My conversion was Saul-like: sudden, unexpected, and decisive. I was eighteen, a freshman at university studying physics and math at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
I was not raised in a religious home. My memory holds only fleeting acquaintance with the church - a "Christening" in my early teens with just my mother, an Anglican vicar and myself present; the ritual of "confirmation classes" and the visit of the bishop followed by rebellion and atheism. By eighteen, I was, like most of my peers, a firm believer in science. The universe was the product of a Big-Bang and everything that exists - Mozart, The Beatles, Rembrandt, Salvador Dali, you name them - came from this primal event. Everything comes from nothing.
Enter John Stott. In mid-December, 1971, a book arrived in the mail from my best friend. "Read it," an enclosed card insisted. The book was Basic Christianity. Truth is, I had never read a Christian book in my life, not unless J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings counts as one (a book I had read several times). Nor had I read the Bible. In fact, I did not posses a copy.
So I began to read Stott's book over the Christmas break. And a few days later, late in the evening, I found myself on my knees late in the evening in prayer. In the terminology I might have used then, "I asked Jesus into my heart." And he came.
In the opening pages of Basic Christianity, I read, "In essence, Christianity is Christ. Who Christ is and what he has done are the rock upon which the Christian religion is built. If he is not who he said he was, and if he did not do what he said he had come to do, then the foundation is undermined and the whole thing will collapse."
That's hardly revolutionary as I re-read it now, but at the time, I had no idea who Jesus Christ was. Of course, I had heard of him. But for me, Christianity was about "being good" - roughly equivalent to the philosophy that says, "so long as it doesn't harm anyone else." That Christianity was about a personal relationship with Jesus was entirely new to me.
As it happens I was "prepared" for such a relationship. I still find it hard to describe what my parents' separation a year previously had done to me. Suffice it to say that I was ready for something, some-ONE, to make sense of it all, to provide some integration and coherence into what increasingly felt meaningless and disjointed.
"Sin" wasn't in my vocabulary. I think it truthful to say that apart from my fleeting acquaintance with the church in my early teens (as quickly abandoned as found), I had never used the word. But there it was, in Basic Christianity. Two chapters entitled The Fact and Nature of Sin and The Consequences of Sin. Citing what are now familiar Bible passages about, Stott made the point that I had never considered: that I was a sinner, that I had fallen short of my own ideals let alone the standards established by God (the Ten Commandments). Sin has separated me from God. "It is this that accounts for the restlessness of men and women today," Stott wrote, adding the (now) famous lines from Augustine's Confessions: "You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you."
Somehow, I found Augustine describing me! In less than three days, Stott's book had made me feel miserable. Something was very wrong with my life, with me as an individual. I was a sinner in need of forgiveness as much as a restless, unfulfilled young man in need of a sense of purpose and direction.
And thus it was that I prayed to Jesus and found peace. Yes, immediately and decisively, I found peace in the words Stott cited at the beginning of Basic Christianity: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me" (Matt. 11:28-29).
That was forty years ago today.
As I reflect on it, three things come to mind. First, John Stott insisted in the closing pages of Basic Christianity my responsibility as a Christian to grow. "Everybody loves children, but nobody in their right mind wants them to stay in the nursery. The tragedy, however, is that many Christians, genuinely born again in Christ, never grow up." Expanding, Stott insisted on two areas of growth - growth in knowledge and growth in holiness.
It is typical of Stott that he placed at the head of his concern growth in knowledge and understanding. Within weeks of my conversion I came across Stott's latest publication (published in 1972), Your Mind Matters. I vividly recall reading these words, "one of the most neglected aspects of the quest for holiness is the place of the mind." In Basic Christianity, Stott had urged that in addition to a disciplined study of Scripture, Christians ought to "read good Christian books." Yes, good Christian books, for which we need some discernment and wise guides. Within a week or so of my conversion, I told the local Anglican vicar of my good news and he promptly gave me a copy of Paul Tillich's The Shaking of the Foundations to read. Looking back at it now, it was an attempt to undermine what the vicar saw as a fundamentalist belief in Scripture. God was kind and drew a veil over my mind as I read it. It made no sense to me and a week later I returned it.
Books are essential to Christian growth. And, if there is one disappointment I have as I reflect on over three decades of Christian ministry, it is the declining appetite among Christians for good Christian literature. As a consequence, today's Christianity is less robust.
The second thing that comes to mind is lack of holiness that still marks my life. "Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ," Peter urges (2 Peter 3:18). Grace and knowledge. Holiness and understanding. The two are intimately related. But how shall we grow? Stott provided three "main secrets of spiritual development" in Basic Christianity, each one summarized by the word "duty": Duty to God, Duty to church and duty to the world around us.
Forty years later I wonder if Stott publisher would baulk at the word "duty." Some would find it less than "gospel-centered." But discipline was a mark of Stott's life and I am grateful for the impulse he gave me to provide some semblance of structure into the shape of holiness. Truth is, I can name a dozen or more "Christians" who failed to persevere and today make no profession of faith. They began well but did not endure. Some were personal friends whose apostasy grieves me in ways I find difficult to relate.
Can Christians fall away from grace? The answer is yes. True saints will persevere to the end, but the descriptive "true" is crucial in this sentence. Demas, Hymenaeus, Philetus and Judas are notorious examples of believers who began the race but did not finish it. Scripture alludes to Christians in the only way it can - phenomenologically, according to their profession. Thus Paul writes to "the saints" at Corinth, or Ephesus or Colossae without knowing for certain whether they are all "true" believers (let alone, elect).
Why am I still a believer forty years later? The answer does not lie in me but in the grace of God. I would have fallen away a hundred times and more apart from restraining grace and a love that will not let me go. The anonymously written hymn says it all, I think:
I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me.
It was not I that found, O Savior true;
No, I was found of thee.
Thou didst reach forth thy hand and mine enfold;
I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea.
'Twas not so much that I on thee took hold,
As thou, dear Lord, on me.
I find, I walk, I love, but oh, the whole
Of love is but my answer, Lord, to thee!
For thou wert long beforehand with my soul;
Always thou lovedst me.
The third thing that comes to mind on this fortieth anniversary is a profound sense of gratitude: for the grace that found me and rescued me and continues with me every day. I am grateful for extraordinary providences within weeks of my conversion: an InterVarsity Christian Union wedded to the doctrines of grace, the ministry of Geoff Thomas (his faithful continues in the same church forty later!), a young Presbyterian girl from Belfast (whom I met at that Christian Union and married in 1976), and a thousand other things.
I have been re-reading Stott's Basic Christianity this morning. His closing sentence reads like this: "Now he calls us to follow him, to give ourselves completely and unreservedly to his service." Forty years later, it remains my calling. I pray for the grace that will keep me enduring to the end. I want Jesus to have everything there is of me.