|My pastor, Matt Rawlings, baptizing me. Photo used by permission from Bev Peeples.
In January 2005, I was fast asleep. Perhaps more appropriately, I was dead asleep. God knelt down, got right in my ear, and gently said, “Wake up!” I was disoriented, and wondered what the heck had just happened to me. My path was altered, my life was lovingly interrupted, and I had no idea where I was going.
Jenny and I had been married for almost a year, and we were living in Michigan. My behavior leading up to this point had cost me more than one friendship. I have since heard people talk about giving God part of your life and keeping part of it for yourself. First step on this new path was the crushing blow of coming clean about who I had really been. I think this is what is meant by the phrase God must increase, and I must decrease. Humility 101, I suppose.
So here we were, living in Michigan. I knew part of what I was to do was to start going to a church. We went to a few different ones, and I struggled in a huge way. One of the sermons I remember was about forgiving and forgiveness of sins and how if I don’t forgive and ask forgiveness for everything, then I won’t be forgiven, and I was really confused. Are you telling me that if I don’t confess every single sin I do, and have ever done, that I won’t get into heaven? The checklist was growing to be impossible. I thought God was just on the sidelines, as some kind of cosmic cheer leading genie.
I didn’t know what to believe. We weren’t having much luck on the church front. Jenny had grown up in Daytona Beach, Florida, and was a part of the same church movement her entire life. We were convinced that what they believed about the Bible and God was true, and a church plant had recently happened in Greenville. South Carolina. Her parents were considering making the move there to be a part of the church, even as we had already begun talking about moving to Daytona. We needed a place to learn about God and the Bible, and we wanted to be closer to Jenny’s family. I was also wanting to go back to college, so the combination of church, family, and school brought us to Greenville on September 23rd, 2005. Two days later on Sunday, September 25th, we attended the church that was one-third of our reason for moving here. The church was meeting in a Seventh-Day Adventist building and I said to Jenny, “This place is a cult.” (The SDA church met on Saturday, and they let us use the building on Sunday.) I came in with a thick coat of cynicism, and what we saw was foreign to me. The pastor then, Jim Britt, was playing an acoustic guitar, all by himself. I found out that this was less than satisfactory to a lot of people, but my church experience had been “worship leaders” performing a cheesy entertainment show on stage with some silly shuck and jive dance moves. The whole thing with Jim and the acoustic guitar was so simplistic, so unentertaining, that it was like God crafted it to specifically speak to me in a way I needed to hear, and it was there my cynicism began to melt. The sermon was from the book of Mark on the unpardonable sin. To be honest, the point on that message is kinda foggy to me now, but I remember that’s what the message was about.
Then we met Rick Thomas, who helped us get plugged into what the church called care groups. These were basically small group meetings held during the week to discuss what we heard on Sunday and seek to apply it to our lives, as well as build relationships and actually do life with other Christians. People were bringinh meals to each other when they were sick and everything. To hear the Bible preached at church was a new thing to me, as ironic as that is. I would learn that is called expositional preaching, where over the course of weeks or even months, the pastor works through an entire book of the Bible. I was finding that I even remembered what the sermons were about week after week and was able to connect them with each other.
We learned about church membership, which is an up in the air topic in Christian discussions and arguments anyway. I will just leave it at Jenny and I definitely wanted to be official members of the church. It was during this time that I really began to learn what the Gospel is. During our interview process, Rick was asking if we needed to be baptized, and I responded for myself, “I think so.” He asked, “Why do you think so?” My answer was very revealing: “So I can get to heaven.” Turns out that this mindset had permeated much of the way I operated.
This is what’s called works righteousness. Basically what that means is that I thought I got into heaven by checking all the right boxes. As I was discipled by my peers and, more importantly, read the Bible, I found that this is the exact opposite of what the good news of Jesus really is. What the Bible reveals is gift righteousness. That means that all my boxes were checked by Jesus, and I believe it. That’s a double edge sword, because it’s simultaneously very offensive and the best news ever. Offensive because, seriously? The Bible sets the bar infinitely high and then says I can never reach it. It is also the best news because God’s rescue plan is that Jesus came to reach the bar on our behalf! This is why I came to believe the Bible was true, because if it was merely the words of men, men would have made the bar high but still reachable. Man makes much of himself, and I cannot believe man would naturally think and make the effort to put himself in the place Scripture does. “You are hopeless on your own, no matter how hard you try” grinds too hard against the way the human race operates that the message must indeed be a revelation beyond us.
But back to baptism. In 2007 (I think), I was actually baptized as a Christian by my friend and pastor (at the same church), Matt Rawlings. I learned that it’s a public declaration that, follow the symbolism here, you have been raised to new life, and your sin has been washed away by the blood of Jesus. One of the verses that I kept going back to was Galatians 2:20-21, which says I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. Admittedly, that takes some chewing on to figure out, but it was where I started to understand what was going on. So, baptism doesn’t save anybody. I had it all wrong. All those submersive dunks did for me when I was 14 and 18 was make me a wet pagan. All that real baptism did for me as a Christian was make me obedient to a command that ended up being a huge means of grace to me that physically helped me see what Christ indeed has done in me. Grace to me, benefit to me, but no saving effect.
Two big words that I would learn and have difficulty separating were justification and sanctification. Justification is legally being made made right with God, reconciled with God, through the work of Jesus. It’s by faith alone that this happens, not by being good enough for God. Sanctification is the getting better process, where we become more and more like Jesus, but doesn’t do anything to make us right in front of God because that’s already been done when we were justified. Sanctification is a lifelong process of changing, putting sin to death, repentance, and hoping and delighting in who Jesus is and what he’s done. It’s important to make distinctions between these two, because tangling them together didn’t do me, or anyone around me, a lick of good.
Raised to new life. Once dead in sin, now alive in Christ. Then, sorry Carrie Underwood, but I took the wheel. It became about me, and my efforts to get better and become a better person. Losing sight of what Jesus had done and making it about what I had to do only made more of a mess out of me. In my attempts to “be a leader” in my home, I became overbearing, passive aggressive, and frustrated. I tried to learn all the right answers, pray in a way that sounded spiritual even though I was not very spiritual, and be a religious know it all. What is interesting about becoming a Christian, and I think a lot of people don’t see this, is that while some areas of behavior may improve, others decline. You never really get better or become a better person. Maybe in one area or another, but not wholly. I’m not trying to make an excuse, it’s just reality. I may have grown in an obvious area, like swearing less, only to find out that anger has manifested itself elsewhere, and then my inner sailor reemerges (especially in the last year). I wish I could remember who said this, that we are like sponges with ink in them. I can keep the ink in as long as no ones is squeezing me, but the second I’m squeezed by something not going my way, the ink (the sin that still resides in my heart, though forgiven on the cross) comes oozing out. Indeed, I am a desperate man in need of a savior. I came to see somewhere in those middle years that living by “Christian virtues” was really not the point of Christianity at all. During the movie Amazing Grace about William Wilberforce’s taking on of the slave trade in England, John Newton (who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace) says, “I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior.” Living in light of THAT truth, day by day, is what I came to see that being a Christian was really about. It wasn’t about getting better, although that may happen. A few years ago, I read an excellent quote by the author Bill Clem who eloquently stated that “The Gospel is about identity transfer, not identity improvement.” This was huge to me. This was probably the pivot point for me in this period of my life. Instead of trying to force growth, force my life to be a certain way, force my family to be and act a certain way, my focus shifted. What has Christ done for me? Was I basing my identity on ME, or was I basing it on who I was IN CHRIST? (For an exercise, check out the book of Ephesians in the Bible, and underline every time “in Christ” appears, for a study on identity.) I knew as a husband I was supposed to love my bride as Christ loved the church, and what does that look like? Jesus gives the church grace. He lovingly leads, and he pours out grace on his bride, the church. I can honestly say that grace is not a word that could be used to characterized how I interacted with people during this time of my life. Yep, I heard the Gospel. I heard that Jesus died for my sins, and believed it. At least on the surface. Functionally, I was still living under the law of works righteousness instead of the freedom of gift righteousness. For years, I hated Father’s Day and my family’s attempts to celebrate it because I didn’t measure up to my self-imposed qualifications. I was miserable and miserable to be around. Self-salvation projects really make for me being unpleasant, so for the record, if I am being unpleasant (and I have a long history of it), you could ask me how I’m trying to save myself. I may not be, but it’d be a decent question of a friend to ask of me. What was the remedy? Well, the Gospel, really, but I forgot so easily.
Books played a huge part in my life as a Christian, and I’ve read dozens. I had made a few attempts to read the Bible cover to cover, and I never made it past 1 Chronicles in the Old Testament. Most times, I would make it into Joshua and then burn out. Finally, in 2013, with the help of YouVersion
, I was able to read through the entire Bible chronologically in a year. The Bible isn’t written in chronological order, and there are all kinds of different literature styles penned by different people all under the same divine inspiration of God. I was able to get a context for what the story line for the Bible is, and I really began to see it as God’s rescue plan for mankind. Outside of the Bible, there are three books that I think really stand out as meaningful, even life-changing, for me over the last 10 years. The first is Romans
, by R.C. Sproul. I took an entire year (2011 or 2012?) to slowly crawl through the book of Romans in the Bible, and R.C. Sproul held my hand. There was a short pause in that to read his book The Holiness of God, which I only mention for the chapter on the Insanity of Martin Luther, because that spoke to me right where I was at in my vain works righteousness. Romans helped me to really dig into the Bible and learn what it had to say, even parts that I didn’t like. Sproul also said in this commentary something that stuck with me. “The doctrine of justification by faith alone is easy to get from an intellectual standpoint, but to get it in the bloodstream takes a lifetime.” The second, which I actually listened to on audiobook, is Heaven
by Randy Alcorn. I’ve heard it said that eschatology – the study of last things – is the crown jewel of Christianity. Not the end times, Left Behind style, but what can be anticipated as the flyleaf of this era is turned and the rest of the never ending book of eternity begins. It’s not that I hope for heaven most strongly, but what comes after heaven when this earth is made new, and sin and suffering and death and injustice are all at an end. Zion. The third book is One Way Love
by Tullian Tchividjian. To learn that God’s love for us is one way was mind blowing to me. I wasn’t earning my justification. My sanctification was frustrating because surely, I wouldn’t struggle with things like anger, lust, greed, and pride. I took the presence of these sins in my life to mean that I hadn’t been justified by Christ’s work on the cross. However, when Jesus died on the cross, he gave the proclamation for all who would come to call him Savior – IT IS FINISHED. Am I to continue living any way I want, doing away with all of the laws of God? No, as reading New Testament books like Romans and Galatians would show with a quick reading. But, as I read the law, read what God requires of people blatantly spelled out by Jesus (“Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” Matthew 5:48), it becomes painfully clear that I can’t keep the law, no matter how hard I try. I was coming full circle back to why I believed the Bible in the first place. It is finished. Now those were sweet words to my soul. To rest in the Gospel, to rest in that Christ died for my sins and was raised again, to be free from trying to do the impossible of trying to be perfect as God is perfect, that is sweet freedom, I learned that God is holy, and I am not. I need a mediator, and Jesus is that mediator (2 Timothy 2:5).
In C.S. Lewis’s book Mere Christianity, he talks about Christianity being a house with a long hall and many rooms. The hallway, what he refers to as mere Christianity at its most basic, is where he spends his time. Denominations, doctrines, and other things people like to identify with and disagree about are what the rooms are. I’ve purposely not spent any time delving into which room I’ve found myself in, because the important thing is that Jesus died on the cross for my sins. If that’s not good enough already, he was raised again on the third day and ascended to heaven so that I can have hope for the same. The purpose of this post is not to be a convincing argument for Bible doctrine (there are books for that), but to relay to you a snapshot of what this roller coaster has looked like over the past 10 years. It hasn’t always been pretty, and I’ve acted out poorly in a lot of ways. I’ve had to make a lot of apologies to people I’ve hurt and said and done sinful things to and against. I’ve learned even more so that my hope is not in myself, but my hope is in Christ alone. That’s a tough pill to swallow, but quite frankly, that’s a big part of why I believe it, too.
The past 10 years, I have been a mess. Not as much of a mess as the first 23 years of my life, but I’ve still managed to bumble through the Christian life. I’ve learned my hope is not in myself, I’ve learned that I’m still going to sin (simultaneously a saint and sinner – wrestle with that one) and I need the humility to fess up to it when I do. We are still at the same church, Redeeming Grace Church
. I’m still married to the same woman, Jenny, who has lived the Gospel in front of me more vividly than anyone else. We’ve had rough times, and great times. We’ve had three healthy children together, and we’ve had three heartbreaking miscarriages. I’ve worked jobs I’ve hated, and I’ve been broke. I’ve poorly managed resources. I’ve made and lost friends. I’ve struggled with depression, and then I would refuse to communicate anything other than “I’m fine.” I’ve yelled in anger. Again, my wife Jenny has been the most vivid display of the Gospel I have seen, loving me even when I am unlovable, just as Jesus has done. We have thrived, and we have suffered. All of this stuff I’ve learned about the Gospel doesn’t happen in a vacuum. How do I navigate life with it? Only by the grace of God. He’s not a God sitting on the sidelines, but actively involved working together all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8). In the midst of that, I know this fire of sanctification is burning away the impurities I am prone to wander to. I’m not good enough for religious people, and I don’t even perfectly live by the Golden Rule, so I’m not good enough for secular people. I’m not really that good at all. But God is.
My hope in the Gospel is not that I can act good enough for God, but that Jesus died and rose again to make an enemy His friend. Learning to be satisfied in him is where I’m at right now. I can’t be satisfied in how good of a job I’m doing, because I’m not really pulling it off that well. My hope is in Jesus, who loved me and died for me. Learning to rest is a difficult thing. More on that in the next post.