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The Tightrope Of Faith: My Testimony Of Grace

I came to faith at the age of eight underneath a starry sky.  I still vividly remember that night at a church retreat.  I remember the sense that I could almost touch Heaven, the incredible conviction with which I felt full of, and the sense of acceptance I felt from God and other Christians.  The following Sunday night, partaking of communion, I held the tiny plastic cup of grape juice as a woman might hold her newly received engagement ring with awe and wonderment.  I still pointedly remember looking at the object in my young hand and believing with absolute certainty that Jesus' blood had washed all my sins away.  Jesus died for me.  And better yet - He came back to life and freely gave me eternal life.  It was as simple as that.  In the days that followed I was full of joy and excitement and had a great desire to tell people about my newfound faith.

Yet as anyone who has walked with the Lord for any length of time can tell you, the journey will give you many bumps and bruises along the way.  Just a few short years later, I lay on the floor of my tween room listening to Steven Curtis Chapman's "Speechless" and wondering if I should still believe the lyrics' message that God's grace had saved me or if instead I should end my life to escape the painful things that were going on at school and in my family.  I was raised in a broken home of multiple divorces and was well acquainted with trauma.  Poverty, food stamps, a brother hooked on meth (and in and out of jail), and even drive-by shootings while I was in bed are all part of my story.

On top of that, I was a victim of repeated molestation by a female family friend at the age of seven, and exposed to pornography by classmates at ten, and so was now beginning what would be a long struggle with pornography, lust, and depression.  There I was at age twelve believing that I was now perhaps beyond saving.  Too sinful, too damaged, too disgusting for God to look upon.

High school came and darker sin was waiting at my doorstep - more pornography, more despair because of my broken family situation, and several unhealthy relationships with girlfriends.  I struggled again with wanting to end my life.  It was the simple Gospel message though that kept me going - that kept me from making that terrible decision.  At that point in my life I didn't fully trust the Good News, but I believed it just enough to hold out hope for God's mercy.  The part of me that doubted God's mercy I began filling up with legalism.  Whenever I would mess up I found myself literally showering to wash the sense of guilt and disgust I had with myself away.  Maybe I could clean myself up enough for God to accept me again.  Back in the confines of my room I would shut myself away, light candles to appease God, and then beg Him for forgiveness.  I even came to the belief that if I prayed a certain number of words for a certain length of time while asking for all the right things that God might finally hear me and show pity.

Days from Christmas in my junior year of high school I again found myself researching what it would take to finally end my life.  It was at that time that I was the closest to acting on the despair that haunted me.  It was in that moment that my faith seemed to falter like it never had before and I questioned the very existence of God.  No way could God love me and still allow the turmoil and pain in my life.  He seemed altogether absent and aloof, which appeared to me as evidence of His non-existence.  Yet a still small voice told me to leave the house and just get away from it all - give God a chance.  So well past midnight in the cold of winter I sat completely alone in a park staring up at a night sky glittered with stars and not a cloud in sight.  The warm air from my lungs floated up into the sky and I prayed that God would give me a sign.  It occurred to me that the results of an answered prayer of generality might be difficult to notice, so I prayed that God would send a shooting star if He heard me.  Nearby city lights brightened the sky just enough that a shooting star would have to be substantial enough to be seen - this wasn't the country after all where such things are seen regularly.  I repeatedly prayed for the same sign, but the sky remained motionless and eerily silent.  For nearly an hour I prayed that desperate prayer, yet nothing happened and my fear that God was truly absent appeared to have been confirmed.  I was preparing myself to face the reality that I was alone and had no way out except through death itself.

Just as I was about to leave the park in even deeper despair this exact verse came to mind:

"A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah." Jesus then left them and went away. - Matthew 16:4

You have to understand how strange it was to be sitting there all alone that night and then have such an incredibly obscure verse pop into my head.  It was a verse I had probably heard only once or twice in my entire life.  As I stewed on the Scripture it occurred to me that I was the wicked one looking for a sign of my choosing when God had already given me the exact sign that I needed - the sign of His choosing - the sign of Jonah.  What is the sign of Jonah?

For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. - Matthew 12:40

The sign of Jonah is simply the Gospel.  Jesus died and came back to life three days later.  He conquered sin and death for me.  It was this very sign that had kept me going, kept me hoping, kept me from ending it all in times past.  It was the only sign I had ever really needed.  In that moment of realization, my faith, though small, was restored.  I believed God again and needed no further sign - I would hope in Him.

And then as I stood to leave, the motionless sky remained motionless no more.  A shooting star flew vertically across the sky from the horizon directly centered in front of my field of view.  When I gave up on myself and rested in the truth that God was there and had already given me exactly what I needed, He showed up.

From that night forward I never again had a complete loss of faith.  I would always hold onto the Gospel.  My new motivation in life was to find out what was true in God's word - what doctrines, beliefs, and scriptural interpretations are an accurate reflection of biblical truth.  My search would take me deep into lexicons, concordances, various versions of the Bible, a diligent study of early Church history, and even the original biblical languages later on in college.

The first significant conclusion I drew from my studies was that taking the biblical text largely at face-value, specifically some form of historical-grammatical hermeneutic, was the only way to uphold the book as the inerrant words of God.  If I allegorized sections of the Bible that were hard to understand or disconcerting or that didn't line up with what modern science dictates then interpreting any part of it, from Genesis to Revelation, was only an exercise in pure subjectivity.  In fact, a profound truth I discovered was that denominational differences could be largely attributed to a denomination's theologians allegorizing sections of Scripture that would otherwise be interpreted literally or at face-value by the denominations they opposed.  One example is the remarkable consistency of premillennial teachers from a variety of backgrounds versus the inconsistency of proponents of amillennialism - all because one side chooses to say that certain verses and passages don't mean what they plainly say.  One thing that drove this belief home for me was how Jesus appeared to repeatedly refer to events in the book of Genesis as if He understood them to be real historical events - not as merely metaphors or parables (e.g. Matthew 19:4, Matthew 24:37, Mark 10:6, Luke 17:26-28).  The apostles and disciples also taught likewise (e.g. Acts 7:1-53, 2 Peter 3:3-6, Hebrews 11:1-40).  And if Jesus and His apostles and disciples believed in the historicity of Genesis and the rest of the Old Testament, who was I not to believe likewise?  This was the foundation on which all the rest of my study of God's word would be built.

The legalism that I had developed in adolescence was still a big part of my life and I carried it on into college - holding to the Gospel on one hand while attempting to make atonement through prayers and moralism on the other hand.  I doubted the sufficiency of the Cross and that doubt led me to dabble in broad ecumenicalism and Catholicism, questioning the simple evangelical faith I first had as a child.  But God was still working in my life, always drawing me back to the simple Gospel message.  After I graduated, God was ready to kick my study into overdrive and strip away any illusions I had that I could somehow get right with God through any efforts of my own.

Martin Luther, at one time a Catholic priest, found himself obsessed with saving his own soul, yet the harder he tried the more he realized his efforts were pure futility in the face of a truly perfect God.  One of the darkest moments of his legalism ended up being perhaps the most transformational moment in his life.  He found himself scaling the Scala Sanctum in Rome while on his knees in prayer.  According to the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, scaling these "Holy Stairs" could help one atone for sins.  Charles Spurgeon had this to say about the event:

One day, among others, wishing to gain an indulgence which the Pope had promised to every one who should on his knees climb up what is called Pilate's Stair, the Saxon monk was humbly crawling up the steps, which he was told had been miraculously transported to Rome from Jerusalem. But while he was engaged in this meritorious act, he thought he heard a voice of thunder which cried at the bottom of his heart, as at Wittenberg and Bologna, 'The just shall live by faith.' These words, which had already on two different occasions struck him like the voice of an angel of God, resounded loudly and incessantly within him. He rises up in amazement from the steps along which he was dragging his body. Horrified at himself, and ashamed to see how far superstition had abased him, he flies far from the scene of his folly.

In regard to this mighty word there is something mysterious in the life of Luther. It proved a creating word both for the Reformer and for the Reformation. It was by it that God then said, 'Let light be, and light was.' It is often necessary that a truth, in order to produce its due effect on the mind, should be repeatedly presented to it. Luther had carefully studied the Epistle to the Romans, and yet, though justification by faith is there taught, he had never seen it so clearly. Now he comprehended the righteousness which alone can stand in the presence of God; now he received from God himself, by the hand of Christ, that obedience which He freely imputes to the sinner as soon as he humbly turns his eye to the God-Man who was crucified. This is the decisive period in the internal life of Luther. The faith which saved him from the terrors of death became the soul of his theology, his fortress in all dangers, the stamina of his discourse, the stimulant of his love, the foundation of his peace, the spur of his labours, his consolation in life and in death.

But this great doctrine of a salvation which emanates from God and not from man, was not only the power of God to save the soul of Luther, it also became the power of God to reform the Church; a powerful weapon which the apostles wielded, a weapon too long neglected, but at length brought forth in its primitive lustre from the arsenal of the mighty God. At the moment when Luther stood up in Rome, all moved, and thrilling with the words which Paul had addressed fifteen centuries before to the inhabitants of this metropolis, truth, till then a fettered captive within the church, rose up also, never again to fall.

God stripped away my own legalism in like manner, by showing me that all my efforts were just efforts in futility.  I knew I was a sinner, but what Christian doesn't?  So many give lip service to the Cross of Christ, but until you come face to face with the depth of your own sin it is all too easy to believe part of what keeps you right with God is your church attendance, prayers, evangelism, and whatever else a "good Christian" does.

Jesus answered them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." - Luke 5:31-32

In times past, I, like many Christians would read this passage in Luke and think Jesus was making a distinction here between those who are "good enough" and don't need repentance and those "really bad sinners" who do.  It would take more sin, more struggle, more brokenness in my marriage, and more efforts to "clean myself up" before I learned how to interpret this passage in the gospel of Luke in light of these verses:

As it is written: "There is no one righteous, not even one." - Romans 3:10

And

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. - Romans 3:23

And

Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins. - Ecclesiastes 7:20

And also

All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. - Isaiah 64:6

Jesus called all to repentance because all are sinners.  In Luke 5 Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees and teachers of the law - the very ones who Jesus elsewhere says are not good enough (Matthew 5:20) and whose supposed righteousness was to be exceeded by prostitutes (Matthew 21:31).  What I and the Pharisees needed to hear was that we all are sick and in desperate need of a doctor - a Savior.  We like to bash Pharisees for their own sins of choice - pride and self-righteousness, but the truth of the matter is that this 1st century Jewish sect kept the law meticulously - almost as an art form.  They even added on rules and regulations to make it even harder to break the written mitzvahs - the Torah said no more than 40 lashes and the Pharisees would say no more than 39 so as not even risk the possibility of accidentally breaking a single commandment.  They kept the law more perfectly than any modern Hebrew-roots Christian could ever dream of, yet in Matthew 5 Jesus says that these almost perfect law keepers were not perfect enough.  And in Matthew 21 He says that it would actually be IRS agents and street walkers who would somehow possess the superior righteousness needed for entrance into Heaven.  How can a broken, wretched sinner whose heart is continually fixated on evil obtain a righteousness like that?

As I studied the Gospel and the relationship of faith to works, nothing stood out to me more than the hypocrisy I found in myself and other Christians who at times argued that works and/or avoidance of sins were necessary for salvation.  Many Christians, myself included, have a sort of negative guttural reaction when a Believer says a Christian who sins is still saved (1 John 2:1).  Catholics often react by pointing to church teachings on venial versus mortal sins and legalists in the Protestant tradition run to James 2 and 1 John.  Yet even in these passages that supposedly argue that works are necessary for salvation you find a deeper truth at play that brings the house of cards to the ground:

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. - James 2:10

No Pharisee, Hebrew-roots Christian, or Roman Catholic has ever perfectly kept the whole law and they are therefore guilty of breaking all of it.  That is a firm biblical principle.  You find it again in Galatians:

Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. - Galatians 5:3

Borrowing from a teaching I did on the Gospel:

Consider the current Catholic system. If you commit even once any one of these sins without confessing before death you have a one-way ticket to Gehenna whether you believe Jesus died for you or not. In fact, every single time you commit a "mortal sin" in Catholicism you become unsaved and are "re-saved" upon confession and priestly pardon. Notice that this process completely decouples forgiveness from faith in Jesus' finished work. Instead, the Torah system of the endless sacrifices of bulls and goats is replaced with the Catholic system of the endless sacrifices of the Mass, and priestly confession, and other sacraments, because no one can truly live up to the Catholic standard just as no one could live up to the Levitical standard.

In light of the Catholic system consider also Jesus' standard where hatred = murder and lust = adultery. Are people so blind as to not see how at any given time the vast majority of Catholics would be unsaved under their own standard?

When I hear a Christian say to a fellow Christian that you better not sin or else you'll end up in hell, I can't help but question that belief:

What is the point of the Gospel?

What did Jesus accomplish on the Cross?

What does forgiveness of sins mean to you?

How much sin does it take to be unsaved?

How does a Christian become good enough?

How does a Christian become righteous enough?

How does a Christian become perfect enough?

Don't get me wrong - the Bible takes sin very, very seriously.  Judgment is very real and it's promised to every individual and even the whole world.  The wrath of God against sin is real.  It's coming on an unrepentant world.  This is an eschatological reality.  A lot of my own legalism stemmed from seeing so many supposed preachers of grace say that sin isn't that big a deal, or even not sin at all.  I see men like Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo, and Rob Bell teach and preach on grace incessantly all while they justify the acceptability of things no learned Bible scholar or disciple would ever justify: homosexual marriage, universalism, and earth-focused theologies, among other things - things that undermine the very foundations of biblical truth.  As I see them twist and torture and neglect the Scriptures, I can't help but question grace itself.  If wolves like this who have no interest in God's revealed truth are the ones who represent the grace side, then I want no part of it.  I'll run to truth and away from grace.  And I think so many Christians have a similar reaction: when they see grace used to undermine truth they bunker down in truth and abandon grace.  In the reverse, when proponents of grace see self-righteous Christians wrap themselves in the Scriptures and scream about hell, judgment, and sin all while they neglect the Gospel message, they begin to question truth itself - if truth makes people hateful, judgmental, and unmerciful, then I have no place for truth.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. - John 1:14

Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and legalistic Protestant theologies see the Christian message as some sort of compromise between grace and truth: one part grace to one part truth.  Yet a half-truth is no truth, and half-grace is no grace at all.

And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace. - Romans 11:6

Here the Apostle Paul utterly destroys the concept of sanctifying grace.  Grace is not some abstract and obscure doctrine found in a dusty catechism, nor is it fuel in your spiritual tank.  Grace is what the common man understands it to be: unmerited favor, forgiveness, and mercy.  Grace is mercy and mercy is grace.  In Roman Catholic doctrine a Believer is said to have fallen from grace when they commit a mortal sin, yet the only Scripture that refers to having fallen from grace says it is actually caused by virtually the opposite thing - trying to be justified by works:

You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. - Galatians 5:4

Jesus was full of grace and truth.  Not 50/50, but 100%, 100%.  The truth says we really are alienated from a perfect God by our sins and we really are condemned where we stand.  Without Christ we will die in our sins and face an eschatological judgment.  Grace says that God's great love for us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8) has dealt with our sin completely.  We are free, forgiven, and justified in spite of our sin.  That perfect righteousness no man could ever attain has been gifted to us through God's Son.  And the reality of the forgiveness of sins can be appropriated to us through faith alone.

False teachers come in two flavors: those who teach grace without truth and those who teach truth without grace.  The crazy thing is, though the two sides seem at complete odds their heresy is actually the same.  Their teaching undermines the Gospel at the exact same place:

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. - 1 Corinthians 15:1-4

The legalists replace Christ's propitiation with various forms of their own and the truth-deniers deny that sin is sin.  You can see how both very conservative elements of the Roman Catholic Church and very liberal pseudo-Christians like Brian McLaren attack the Gospel at the same place:

We've realized that centuries of tradition have taught good Christians to make unwarranted assumptions - for example, that "salvation" means "exemption from hell," or that "judgment" means "sending to hell," or that "Jesus died for our sins" means "Jesus died as a penal substitutionary sacrifice to solve the problem of original sin." Instead, we're reading the Bible with different hypotheses - that "salvation" means "liberation, healing, correction, and restoration," that "judgment" goes beyond punishment to restoration and so means "confronting evil and setting things right," that "Jesus died for our sins" can mean "Jesus died because of our sins," or "Jesus died to turn and heal us from our sins." - Are You a Universalist Q & A with Brian McLaren

McLaren builds a straw-man in order to twist the normative and almost universally recognized understanding of what it means that Christ died for our sins.  Believers do not say that salvation merely means being saved from judgment.  Of course salvation is more than that: immortality, healing, restoration, and freedom.  Yet by dividing the two unnecessarily, he then undermines the entire Gospel itself to fit his wayward views.  Some conservative theologians do the same thing in reverse to undermine grace.  They say that grace is not as commonly understood - undeserved mercy and forgiveness.  Instead it's the power to change.  The power to be better.  The power not to sin.  They set these two understandings of grace up in unnecessary opposition, so that the first, normative view can be abandoned in favor of the theologian's ivory tower understanding called "sanctifying grace" - a grace without mercy and without final forgiveness at the Cross.

These two seemingly disparate sides attack the Gospel in another similar way.  They argue that Christianity should be Christocentric rather than cross-centric.  In other words, "stop focusing on the Cross so much - Jesus was so much more than that".  Yet like grace and truth, they are not in opposition.  To be cross-centric is to be Christocentric.  The Cross is the most perfect demonstration of who Jesus is and why He came and walked among us: to save sinners from their sins.

The truth-without-grace and grace-without-truth camps, have more in common than you might think and in fact both end up denying both truth and grace.  Take as an example Jesus' stern warning that you should gouge out your eyes and cut off your hands if they cause you to sin (Matthew 5:29-30).  The antinomian ignores the passage completely or chalks it up to pure illustration.  The legalist, for all his purported seriousness about sin, actually downplays it.

"Jesus didn't really mean that."

"He was just warning us to take sin seriously."

"Jesus was just exaggerating, but we should fight our sin."

The problem is that unless you want to argue that this warning was an exaggeration or that God isn't really powerful enough to move mountains, Jesus was never prone to exaggeration or satire.  The truth is that sin really is serious enough to warrant gouging out an eye or cutting off a hand - if your solution to sin is to keep the law and be good enough on your own merit, but Jesus came to save eyes, hands, and the whole person, so:

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin. - Romans 7:24-25

I say believe it all.  The Gospel is true.  The Bible is true.  Receive grace completely and accept all of God's truth completely.  A great quote from Beth Moore:

You will watch a generation of Christians – OF CHRISTIANS – set the Bible aside in an attempt to become more like Jesus. And stunningly it will sound completely plausible. This will be perhaps the cleverest of the devil’s schemes in your generation. Sacrificing TRUTH for LOVE’s sake. And you will rise or fall based upon whether you will sacrifice one for the other. Will you have the courage to live in the tension of both TRUTH and LOVE?

Only a few short years ago God finally revealed to me through His word that faith is a tightrope.  Not a tightrope of physical effort or works, but one of heart and mind.  When the Bible repeatedly speaks of enduring to the end, it is not an endurance of good deeds, but an endurance of belief (1 Corinthians 15:2).  Can the man of God endure all the lies and deceit of the enemy and hold onto the truth of the Gospel?  Can he, through the power of God, weather the storms of life without falling from the grace of God by rejecting the Gospel?  Can he acknowledge his real need for a Savior and embrace both grace and truth?  The Gospel is no good to you if you don't believe it.  It requires no effort on your part, but you must accept it without alteration.  Those who alter the Gospel by denying the need for propitiation (as both sides discussed above are doing, though they deny it in different ways) may find on the day of judgment that the message they failed to embrace as-is was the very message they so badly needed to believe.  It is a message so simple that an eight year old child can embrace it, but so powerful and disarming that it confounds those who feel wise in their own eyes.  It is a message that has changed my life, and through no power of my own actually wrought love and grace towards others - the works pleasing to the Father.


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6 comments :

  1. Powerful word, Gary. Thank you for your willingness to share parts of your personal testimony and how the Lord won you over by His grace and truth. This is such a timely word for our day, where even Oxford Dictionary has coined "post-truth" as the word of 2016.

    I also think of Jude 3, and how he exhorted believers to "contend for the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all." A tightrope walk is an excellent metaphor for contending for the faith. Nice work, brother!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for the encouragement. I am hopeful that God will use this to help someone who has similar struggles with resting in God's grace!

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  2. More than exceptional! Many emotions. Very grateful for you.

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  3. Praise God. This helped me. Thank you. His Grace is enough!

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