Just a few short years ago I had come to the end of my rope. I was ready to hang myself in despair. From the time God saved me in 1995 until 2000 when I finished up college, I had experienced marginal spiritual growth as a Christian. From mid-2000 to late 2005 my spiritual life collapsed.
So what happened to wreck my spiritual growth?
The simple answer lies in my efforts to establish my own righteousness after having received grace. I based my assurance on my spiritual performance. The cause of this faulty understanding had much to do with my limited exposure to teachers and preachers of God’s word. I swore allegiance to only 2 teachers and my pastor. Coming from a Pentecostal/Charismatic background I was taught early on to only listen to so-called ‘spirit-filled’ preachers, teachers and prophets.
Translation: I should only perk my ears toward pentecostal types who believed in tongues and spirit baptisms.
I could hardly tolerate any of the TBN preachers and teachers who fit this profile, although I would tune in to John Hagee and Hal Lindsey from time to time. I didn’t bother with the so-called ‘dried-up non-spirit-filled’ teachers, so my options were very limited. My pastor preached messages that were focused more on the happy life than on the scriptures so I wasn’t growing in the word much through him.
Note: Little did I know at the time my pastor was following the Church growth/Seeker-sensitive blueprint for manufacturing mega-churches. But that is another story…
I did get some pretty solid teaching from a Pastor in Durant who had a free tape ministry, despite his word-faith leanings. But my primary teacher was a deceased pastor/teacher named Finis Jennings Dake. I revered his Dake’s Annotated Bible and studied it almost exclusively. I bought his theological book called ‘God’s Plan for Man’ and used it as the foundation for all my Christian doctrine. As I look back, several of the TBN preachers that I spurned, used the Dake bible as the basis for many of their teachings. Many of these teachers were in the Word-Faith camp, spewing the health and wealth, name-it-and-claim-it gospel. I believe this whole movement may have been birthed from Dake’s teachings, but I’m not sure.
Dake’s teachings on salvation and grace, in retrospect, were some of the worst doctrines I have ever come across. His theology made grace cheap and powerless. He believed the gospel had many conditions that man must meet in order to access God’s grace. Admittedly, these conditions consisted mostly of repentance and faith but he presented them as simple acts of free will apart from the work of God. Man had to appropriate God’s blessings by meeting these conditions. The Father and Son accomplished their end of the deal, now man must hold up his end. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is scarcely mentioned in this process of salvation because Dake believed in the power of man’s will to choose his own destiny.
Even worse, Dake believed at the moment of repentance and faith only those sins that were committed up to that point were forgiven. Any sins committed after that point must be confessed or else man could fall from grace (backslide) and eventually be damned for those unconfessed sins. In this reality, you better be careful not to die suddenly before you forsake all the sins you committed that day! This puts salvation squarely in man’s hands. His work of repenting becomes his savior.
Dake plainly taught man can be born-again hundreds if not thousands of times in his life, if he sinned and backslid! The miracle of the radically heart-changing new birth is reduced to a tenuous state of spiritual life that totally depends on man’s willingness to remain renewed.
Worst of all, I swallowed this man-glorifying nonsense hook, line and sinker. This is the Semi-Pelagian error gone to seed.
No, I take that back. I think Dake’s doctrine was closer to full-blown Pelagianism.
Note: Pelagianism in a nutshell is the belief that the human will is unaffected by Adam’s fall and thus is not in bondage to the sin nature. Man’s will is free to abide by God’s precepts and apprehend all the blessings of obedience apart from divine assistance.
Semi-Pelagianism is the belief that man is sick with sin but not to the point where his will is in total bondage to his corrupt nature. Man is able to overcome his sin sickness and co-operate with God in salvation. The grace of God is indispensable in the life of a believer but it does not cause him to believe. The will of man is still the deciding factor in salvation.
I understood God had accepted me, after I met all his conditions. He then made me responsible for maintaining that salvation. Of course I believed he gave the Holy Spirit to help me along the way but the Spirit could be resisted. Dake taught God would never leave or forsake us, as the scripture teaches, but he added that man could decide at any point to leave or forsake God.
I feared for my salvation many times in those years. I would occasionally become angry, or give in to lusts of the flesh, like all other frail humans, but I feared sin would harden my heart to the point where I wouldn’t love God anymore. I didn’t realize then that God’s grace is a sustaining grace, a preserving grace. That in my weakness he shows himself strong. That I already am an overcomer because of my union with Christ. All these truths were hidden from me in those days.
I had free-will! My destiny was not finally decided until the day of my death. I could go through the cycle of repentance, faith, regeneration, sin, spiritual death, then repent, get born-again again, etc.etc. I just hoped that on the day I died I wouldn’t be stuck in the spiritual death portion of the cycle. I saw my life as like spinning the wheel of Fortune, praying it didn’t stop on Bankrupt. There never was a moment of true, lasting, lay-my-head-in-the-lap-of-God kind of assurance.
The greatest condemnation I underwent in this state occurred about 4 years ago. In an effort to be more pleasing to God, I made a vow to give up a vice that consumed many hours of my time. In my own power I could not keep that vow and I broke it. I made excuses for why I broke it and tried to find a loophole in my promise. Scripture takes vows to God very seriously. Jesus taught that we should not swear by anything in heaven or on the earth. he instructed to simply let ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes’ and ‘no’ mean ‘no’. I tried to explain to God that when I made that vow I didn’t realize we shouldn’t make vows, so the vow I made was not valid.
Of course, my conscience would not let me get away with it. I felt condemned. I knew with growing horror I had apostatized. I had committed an unforgivable sin, a sin that had stripped me of salvation once and for all. All I had to look forward to was a fearful expectation of judgment. These thoughts haunted me for several months. I fell into deep despondency. Thoughts of suicide would skitter across my mind from time to time. I felt I might as well face judgment and enter my punishment. I never held on to those thoughts or gave it any real consideration, but they fluttered near me all the time.
It was about this time that I read Rick Warren’s “The Purpose-Driven Life.” I really liked it – at first. It was a good pick-me up. I felt much better about myself, chiefly because it read more like a self-help volume than a treatise on the Christian faith. The effect was only temporary. I couldn’t get my mind off of my sin, all my failures were piling up as a testimony against me on the day of judgment.
This is when I started questioning things our church was doing. We changed our altar calls to a sinner’s prayer approach. I began to question how man truly came to salvation. My search led me to eventually embrace the sovereignty of God through the doctrines most commonly known as Calvinism. The chronicles of this conversion are recorded HERE.
I came to embrace monergism. It is the belief that the Holy Spirit is the lone agent in regeneration. In other words, I was born-again by a work of God and not of works of my own doing. My repentance and my faith did not save me or cause me to be born-again. My will was not the deciding factor. My faith was birthed in the new heart God gave me freely by his grace alone. I realized God called me by His good pleasure and made me His own child. The scriptures say, ‘The gifts and calling of God are without repentance.” (Rom 11:29) God doesn’t change his mind. I am his forevermore. Jesus died on the cross for every single sin I have ever committed or ever will commit. They are all covered by his blood. I am forgiven. The power of God is the gospel and it has saved me to the uttermost. I am Christ’s sheep and he is my shepherd. I hear his voice and follow him. No one can snatch me from his hands(no, not even myself). He gives me eternal life. The burden of dragging my good works across the finish line has been lifted. God’s grace has raised me up and carries me to glory.
The doctrines of free-will in salvation bear bitter fruit when carried out in practice. Whether Arminian, Pelagian or semi-Pelagian in belief, the burden falls on disciplining our will to conform to God’s will in all matters. Failure to do so inspires fear that our will may no longer desire to choose God’s way and we will fall from grace. It’s like walking a tightrope with one of those long rods in hand to help keep balance. If our will tips too far toward one sin or another, we will lose our balance and fall to our fate. The truth is, the grace of God is that rod, not our will. It keeps us in balance even if our foot should slip. We will never fall. That is my comfort. That is my security. The doctrines of God’s sovereign grace have delivered me from the hopeless fear and condemning desperation that free-will theology must ultimately produce.
By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.