In yesterday’s post, I emphasized the divine perspective of my salvation, i.e. that I am a child of God by His sovereign choice in Christ. It was His plan, His initiative, long before my will ever got involved. Today, I explain the instrumentation God employed in early 1984 to free me from the spiritual darkness of works-based religion, and bondage to sin, in order to bring me to Himself in such a way that I was clearly conscious of turning from sin to Christ. Consider it the human view of my salvation.
The Scriptures are clear in their presentation of the instruments God ordained as necessary for the spread of the gospel and the reconciliation of sinners to Himself, a messenger (witness) of the Word (the gospel), empowered by the Holy Spirit who is responsible to convict and regenerate the sinner (Rom 10:8-14; John 16:8). “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ” (Rom 10:17), and all who are born again are so “not by the will of man, but of God,” being “born of the Spirit” (John 1:13; 3:5). How is it that I heard the truth of the gospel at the age of 19 and consciously turned from my sin to God, thus receiving the forgiveness of sins?
Since I was born and raised in an attentive Roman Catholic home, I have no memory of ever missing Sunday morning Mass while growing up. My parents had me baptized into the church as an infant and faithfully brought me to the Wednesday evening catechism class throughout my elementary years. Though I have no memory of the Mass itself, I remember the new clothes they bought me for First Communion. As a sophomore in high school, I completed Confirmation class and successfully passed my personal interview with a church official. He asked why I wanted to officially be accepted into the Roman Catholic Church and I gave the answer my friends and I had rehearsed, which I fail to remember to this day, but was what we knew he expected to hear. I participated in a special service, kissed the cardinal’s ring, and was set to go. I had done my duty.
While growing up in that clean, religious environment, I did my best to outwardly obey the rules that were taught me at home and church, but inwardly, and privately, I was someone else. I went to Penance twice-a-year and confessed the same sins to the priest each time, choosing to mention only a few of the dozens that I could have named. During high school I would sometimes forget to abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. Guilt would nag me until I confessed to my mom that I had forgotten. Had anyone ever asked me if I thought I’d go to heaven when I died I would have replied “I hope so.” The reality was I did not think of heaven and hell at all. As a pretty good Catholic boy I felt safe as long as I was doing the bare minimum of what was required.
After graduation from high school, I moved away from home to attend a Roman Catholic college. While there, I was nominal in my religion, rarely attending Mass on Sunday and instead catching a weekday service at the college chapel whenever I felt like it, which was not very often. I no longer felt an obligation to attend Mass and since it did not seem to make any difference in my life it seemed natural to be absent. In college, I was the typical undeclared major who lacked purpose and direction. However, I was becoming aware of spiritual neediness and attended weekend retreats with priests and nuns in a search to “find myself.” I even went so far as to try self-hypnosis to fill the inner void that was becoming increasingly obvious to me. In time, I came to the point of realizing that my need would never be met by religion or a life of sin. God’s convicting work had begun.
The process of conviction began sometime near the start of 1984. One Sunday morning, I woke up and decided to visit a Bible-believing church my sister had described as “very friendly.” I don’t remember her specifically inviting me to come to church; I just remember that comment. I don’t remember what the sermon was about, but the pastor preached from the Bible while the people followed along and, strangest of all, the congregation seemed to really enjoy being there. To them, this was no mere religious duty, but a true joy. And they stayed around to visit with one another after the service! I had no idea what these people had—what made them different—but I knew I didn’t have it. The following week I received a visitor letter in the mail asking if I might be interested in being part of a home Bible study. I filled the form out positively and mailed it back.
Soon I was walking about a mile every Monday night to a young couple’s apartment. There I met with three couples to read and discuss the Gospel of John, verse-by-verse. After a couple months, we progressed as far as chapter three and my eyes and heart were opened (like Lydia in Acts 16:14). There, in John 3, I was introduced to a religious man named Nicodemus who visited Jesus at night to inquire of Him and His teaching. In response to his visit, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). It was as if a light bulb went on inside my mind. “I am that man. I am religious (at least somewhat), but have no real spiritual life.”
Sometime within the weeks that followed I felt such overwhelming guilt over my sinful life. All I remember now is crying out to God in the privacy of my bedroom. It was a desperate plea for mercy coupled with the determination to turn away from my sin. I now realize more happened at that moment than I understood at the time. All I knew then is that I had begun a new life with God. I had exchanged my religion of self-effort and external duty for the Lord Jesus who had bought me with His blood (1 Cor 6:20).
As I reflect back on my spiritual understanding prior to being exposed to the Gospel of John, I would have to say the turning point came when it became clear to me that Jesus had not simply died for the sins of the world, but He died for my sins in order to be my Sin-bearer so that I could be brought back to God (1 Pet 3:18). Prior to that moment I had been taught that Jesus’s death and resurrection had made me “savable,” but it was my obedience to the rules and sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church which determined whether or not I would truly be saved in the end. Even if I was able to be fairly obedient to the church’s demands, its teaching virtually guaranteed I would also have to endure a season in Purgatory after death. What is it that pierced this spiritual darkness? It was these simple biblical truths: all of my sin had already been paid for by Christ on the cross of Calvary. My eternal life was not secured by Jesus plus my baptism and religious works, but when Jesus cried out from the cross “It is finished” (meaning: paid in full) He really meant it. The good news of the gospel began to transform me from the inside out. I was born again from above. God had called me and saved me by His initiating grace. Like Paul, the apostle, I had exchanged my self-righteousness for the righteousness of Jesus (Phil 3:9).
The changes the Holy Spirit made in my life were immediate. For the first time, I sensed there was spiritual life within me. I had an insatiable hunger for reading the Bible, thirsted for the teaching of truth, longed to be with other believers as often as possible, and experienced deliverance from the binding and blinding power of sin. Within one month I sensed a desire to someday be in vocational ministry, though I had no idea what that may look like. Well, that was over 30 years ago. When I think of all the Lord has done in my life since that day when I exchanged faith in religion for faith in the finished work of the risen Jesus Christ, I am in awe of His grace. Not only did He bring me to repentance in order to make me a new creature (2 Cor 5:17), but He brought a godly, Christian girl into my life within months of my conversion. Two years later, we married, took a long honeymoon, and packed our bags to head off to Bible college. And the rest is history.
Now, having been in pastoral ministry for over two decades, I am more and more amazed that God would choose to pour out His marvelous grace on an undeserving sinner like me. In the words of the apostle, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service; even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. And yet I was shown mercy, because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 1:12-14).
Anyone who comes to the knowledge of the truth—being rescued out of the spiritual darkness produced by a religious system of works-righteousness—knows it is impossible to ever experience peaceful assurance of being right with God while remaining in that system. There is always one more good work that could, or should, be done; always one more sin that needs to be offset by another religious rite; or a condemned conscience that needs to be appeased by one more round of the rosary. That’s why the first time I sang Fanny Crosby’s hymn Blessed Assurance it became an instant favorite. To believe you are assured of your salvation is a sin in the Roman Catholic Church. But now I knew the truth. According to the Bible, it is not a sin, but a privilege for those who trust in the perfect sacrifice of Jesus alone—and not in their own supposed righteousness—as payment for their sin (1 Jn 5:11-3).
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God, Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.
This is my story, this is my song, Praising my Savior all the day long.