I’ve Been a Christian for Ten Less Years than I Had Thought
Nighttime was hell, a hell I put myself through. I laid awake, terrified at the prospect that I might not know God. I had asked him into my heart around my fourth birthday. But I couldn’t remember that moment, and it didn’t seem to provide the kind of assurance my soul craved. Time and again I would pray the sinner’s prayer, hoping against hope that maybe this time it would mollify the raging abyss in my soul which consumed my mind night after night. And time and again these words failed me, no matter how I changed the wording in hopes that I’d get the formula right once and for all. Marked by frequent panic attacks and terror, sleep was often long in coming. Many nights my parents stayed up holding their little boy’s hand, leading me in prayer, walking through the alphabet and thinking of the attributes of God that begin with each letter. What they could not know was the ever-growing body of sin that I refused to confess which burned hot in my heart and fed the wide-eyed terror that gripped my heart.
I knew that they loved me unconditionally. But I refused to confess, choosing to endure a dank, concrete self-made prison cell of misery rather than feel the green grass of freedom underneath my feet. Why? Reputation. I was the pastor’s son. I was the good Christian boy, the one who always played by the rules. I had a pile of AWANA awards which declared me so. Good pastors’ sons don’t swear. They don’t lie to their parents by inventing evangelistic conversations with other kids in order to appear more holy and righteous. And they certainly don’t worry about whether they’re saved or not. Maybe some pastor’s kids would sin that way. But I certainly did not.
And so I lived, shooting down the feelings of condemnation with the ammunition of obedience. I read in the Scriptures that we were to get baptized. So I was baptized on the Sunday nearest my 13th birthday. I came to understand that we were to confess our sin. So I confessed everything I could possibly think of to God and to my parents, except a few particular particularly reputation-damaging sins. I read that we are to read the Bible, so I read the Bible and felt condemned for my lack of interest in it and understanding of it. But I read it.
If you had asked me a question about the gospel, I would have given you knockout answers for them all. How are we saved? Through grace alone by faith alone. Atonement? My sins transferred to Jesus and his righteousness to me. Election? In love God predestined before the foundation of the world. And yet there was no gospel in my heart. Proverbs 8:13 reads, “The fear of Yahweh is the hatred of evil.” I hated evil, but I hated it because of what it did to me and the terrors it wrought upon my heart. Ever the scorecard hung before me, mocking me with its tally of condemnation. Yet I was convinced that this was the good and happy Christian life. This was blessing. Having become so accustomed to guilt and accusation, and being so sure that my outward obedience proved that there was an inward heart reality, I fully believed an absolute delusion of what the kindness of God looked and felt like. He fell upon my soul with condemnation, and I called it his favor.
Being convinced that I was a believer, I did not go seeking salvation. Ray and Kathy were invited over for dinner one fall night, which was not a rare occurrence in our household. As we all pushed forward our empty plates and the conversation turned to more serious concerns, Kathy begin to share her worries about the legitimacy of her salvation. “Pastor Jim, when I became a believer all I prayed was ‘Lord Jesus, I’ve tried everything else. I’ll try you.’ Sometimes I worry because there was no expression of confession or repentance.” And my Dad leaned across the table and said, “Kathy, do you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength?” “Yes, Pastor Jim.” “And has there been an observable change in your life and heart since then?” “Yes.” “Kathy, that’s the mark of a believer.” And then he said the line that changed it all for me: “It’s not the prayer that saves you, it’s Christ that saves you.”
That second I felt an almost physical snap inside me. Suddenly it all made sense as the scattered puzzle pieces of condemnation and works and prayers of repentance and terror rushed into place. No prayer would ever save. But Christ does.
Nobody could have ever predicted the stroke which would unmask my delusion. It was the entirely unintentional byproduct of a conversation that had nothing to do with me in the minds of everyone sitting around the table. If you had a friend deluded about his state of grace, that would not have been the conversation you would have wanted him to be apart of in hopes he would come to see his delusion. But it was for me. I thought I was saved and was not seeking salvation. But of far more importance, God was seeking me.
There was no fresh expression of repentance. There was no confession of sins. But where once there was blindness now there was sight. All of the terror and the doubts and the fear melted away in an instant as I came to love what before I had feared. “But as for me, the nearness of my God is my good,” says the Psalmist. Where once the presence of God was a terrifying thing, now it was indeed my good.
It has taken a great deal of time for me to come to understand the Lord’s work in drawing me to himself. For years I’ve believed that my conversion at three was authentic and my experience at fourteen was a moment of fresh discovery of what grace and love truly are. Inside the pages of Jonathan Edwards I discovered a doctrine that explains my own experiences, a doctrine called preparationism. Falling under God’s conviction and terror is not the same as loving him. Such conviction and terror is preparation, as man must first come to see his state of condemnation before knowing his desperate need of grace. For some the period of preparation may be short. For others like myself, it may be marked by long years of darkness before the Light is understood and embraced. True religion is love to God. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Where there is not love, there is no true grace.
It is my hope that reading this proves to be an encouragement and not a source of doubt. I understand how it could easily shake what has no reason to be shaken. But see in me how God was powerful to save even when I thought I was already indeed saved. I was not seeking him, thinking that I had already gained him. No matter how deep our delusions, Jesus Christ saves. No wonder we are commanded to love him with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and all our strength.