Books That Have Shaped Me – Part Ten
May 2, 2012
“The Benediction Project”
For the first 20 years as a new and serious follower of Jesus Christ I experienced some times of spiritual success and some times of spiritual defeat. Fortunately, the latter did not dominate, but they did trouble my mind and soul.
From the time God revealed to me his way to salvation by grace through faith in 1962 until the time God revealed to me his way to holiness by grace through faith in 1982, I was searching for the highly elusive (to me) truth about the way to the remarkable life of godliness described and prescribed in the Bible. I was especially struck by certain statements in the epistles of Paul, but also by the words from the Torah and from Jesus: “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.”
During these 20 years I grew steadily (but sometimes shakily) in my Christian life through the reading of the whole Bible (about12-15) times, reading good Christian literature, hearing and preaching numerous sermons and Bible lessons, serving as a pastor in two churches, earning B.S. and M.A. degrees in Biblical studies, missions, and theology, teaching Bible and preaching courses in college, and studying the Church Fathers, ethics and more in two years of Ph.D. course work.
Over these years, however, I was hungering for a more consistently victorious Christian life. I had some areas of my life (thoughts, words, actions, attitudes) in which sin was sometimes the victor instead of the vanquished. I didn’t know how to take the “next step” (if there was one) to live a life more pleasing to God—a life of true holiness.
For the first half of this period of searching I was under the influence of “Keswick” (pronounced without the “w”) teaching on (what was variously called) the deeper life, higher life, crucified life, surrendered life and other such labels. Most of the key points of Keswick teaching are found in Romans 6-8, especially chapter 6. I learned that even though I had been crucified with Christ, in order to have victory over sin I had to continually “reckon” (count, consider) myself dead to sin and alive to God, and surrender my will, hopes, ambitions and all of my “self” to God. I also had to present my body and the parts of my body to God, not to sin. Victory over sin was available to those who did these things, and who “let go and let God.” Human effort and struggle were not emphasized in Keswick theology.
While I knew that these teachings were biblical, I felt there was something more I was not seeing, or not being taught. I longed for holiness more and more, but sin was still a bothersome presence.
During my years under Keswick theology I was also reading many books in the Reformed or Calvinistic tradition. While a good number of these works helped me significantly in increasing my thirst for God, I was not able to find the way to positive spiritual living.
Reformed theology emphasizes the inbred nature of sin in every person, even born-again Christians who have the indwelling Holy Spirit. There is a way of living righteously, however, by reading the Bible and being faithful in prayer, and by refusing the lures of the tempter.
While both Keswick and Reformed teaching are based in the Bible, and overlap in essential points, they both left me with a negative view of the extent of godliness possible in this life. The Keswick approach so stressed our death with Christ and living the crucified life that it tended to neglect the resurrection life. And the Reformed approach stressed our inbred sinfulness so much that it failed to present a robust picture—attainable in this life—of the joyful, holy, Spirit-filled person we may become.
One Reformed theologian friend of mine told me he believes there is an element of sin in everything he does, even when he is worshipping God or helping others. Sin is ever-present in the life of every Christian, he believes, and taints all that we do and are. We must continue to struggle upward, even though we regularly slip back down the hillside.
After 20 years into my Christian life I was more frustrated than ever. I confessed every sin that I was aware of, and I knew that God forgave me, but I did not really expect to live as a consistent conqueror in Christ. Perhaps Romans 7 (“what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate, I do”) was the best any Christian can hope for in this life. Yet I did not believe that! And I determined that I was not going to settle for that!
Late one night in our small two-bedroom apartment, after Judy and our girls had been asleep for hours, I was reading some of the writings of John Wesley. It was very quiet, Judy was asleep on our bed next to my desk, and I was reading for my work toward the Ph.D. degree. But, as indicated above, I had been hungering for a more God-honoring life. I was poor and needy and spiritually weak. I longed to be drenched and filled with the water of holiness that I knew God had for his children.
In the stillness, about 1:00 a.m. I suppose, I was reading one of Wesley’s sermons. God saw this hungry soul—one who had been saved by his grace for 20 years—and came to him with the breakthrough he had been seeking all these years.
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The Greatest Truth I had ever heard, and ever expect to hear, is that the eternal God took on a human body, lived like you and me, was murdered, rose by his own power and now lives forever to draw all people to him. Those who come to him sincerely, in whatever condition they are, are welcomed into his eternal family because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ in our place.
The Second Greatest Truth was about to be revealed to me. However, because I have exceeded my (self-imposed) word limit I will need to continue this account in my next posting.