My carefully constructed religious edifice came under fierce attack some five years ago and suffered irreparable damage. The alarms of imminent collapse began reverberating through the dark corridors of my failing heart. Wave upon wave of relentless missile attacks crumbled the once stalwart marble pillars of my faith. The incoming warheads contained a volatile combination of sin and self-righteousness. Structural failure was inevitable. My religion had failed me; no longer could it support my overwhelming sense of failure. It could no longer assuage my feelings of guilt. I attempted to prop up the sagging ceiling with support columns of modern evangelical platitudes and aphorisms. They turned out to be hollow inside and buckled beneath the weight. The brick and mortar I had so meticulously hand-crafted disintegrated all around me in a resounding crash.
Exposed to the harsh elements of the wilderness I couldn’t help but gaze at the majesty of the heavens and contemplate my plight. Late one night in the midst of an intense spiritual malaise I raised my eyes to the stars and cried out in desperation, “Father help me, I’ve lost my way. I don’t measure up to your righteousness and I never will. I don’t know what to believe anymore. Please reveal to me the truth.” If ever I’ve been convinced that God hears and answers my prayers, that night crystallized the reality of it once and for all.
Yes, God heard me. I’m sure he had been waiting for this cry for deliverance for quite some time. After all, God is in the deliverance business. Salvation itself is defined as deliverance or rescue from danger. I have no doubt that through his sovereign power he had brought me to this fiery trial, carried me through the flames and now was in the process of treating all my grievous burns.
In 2005 I had been a peppery Pentecostal/Charismatic/Word-Faith Christian believer for just over a decade. A toxic mix of aberrant doctrines flowed through my veins and poisoned both mind and heart. I staunchly defended the absolute free will of man both to come to God of his own accord and to preserve that salvation in his own strength. In my eyes, God liberally and graciously applied his grace only as a reward for well-doing. Of course, well-doing in my estimate equated mostly to well-believing, but that power resided exclusively within my person and I could exercise or withdraw faith at anytime for any reason. It was all up to me. God saved me in response to my will to be saved. He would just as easily dismiss me if my faith wavered and I decided to brush aside his loving arms. I controlled my fate. The level of my consecration to the discipline of Christian living depended utterly on my fickle emotions. I could be a pious Puritan or I could be a fence-riding carnal Christian. I also could have tendered my resignation and walked away from it all. Free will made me drunk with pride and power. It also gave me no assurance outside of my own performance of personal piety.
The string of faith that attached me to the Father was only as strong as the material I could furnish and weave together. Gradually, over my first 10 years as a Christian, I began to feel like a spider dangling over the fiery pits of hell by a lone thread. Instead of fully trusting in God to cup his hand around me and preserve me from the flames, I determined to trust in that thin thread spun by my own hand. No wonder I trembled with apprehension for so many years. As I hung suspended, the baggage of my personal sin piled up in my arms. I could hear the string groaning under the strain. It was only a matter of time before I plummeted headlong to a terrible fate.
Those of an older generation may recall a recurring Saturday Night Live bit with Al Franken called ‘Daily Affirmations with Stuart Smalley’. He played an unlicensed therapist whose chief end was to make people feel better about themselves. First, though, he would emphatically declare his own worth. He looked resolutely into a mirror at the start of every skit and confidently asserted, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggone it people like me.”
As the weight of my sinfulness brought me to the end of my string, lacking the strength to clamber to higher ground, I felt just the opposite of Stuart’s affirmations. I came to grips with the inescapable truth that I am not good enough to please God in my own power. I would seldom read the bible anymore; it only tormented me all the more because I saw my moral failures reflected in its pages. I surely wasn’t smart enough to take Godly knowledge and wisdom and transform it into the raw power I needed for personal holiness. I could not transform myself by renewing my own my mind. I utterly failed to conform to Christ’s image. My conundrum was that I needed more knowledge of God’s word but I could not bear to gaze into its mirror for too long. I was far to ugly.
I continually sought to be a man-pleaser because I thought if people didn’t like me that meant I wasn’t truly living out the Christian life. I felt condemned when certain people didn’t respond to my overtures of Christian charity. Far grimmer than my occasional failure to win over the hearts of fickle man was my colossal failure to please God. I felt his frown upon me; a perpetual grimace of displeasure that caused me to hide my face from him. I had failed to live up to his standards in every aspect of my Christian life. I didn’t love him with all my heart. I broke commandment after commandment in mind, heart and body.
My free will theological system held grace out as a dangling carrot, forever suspended just out of my grasp. I could never close the gap between my works and the promises of eternal life for those who overcome. I had instead been overcome. My defeat was total. The enemy had laid siege and all my battlements had been reduced to smoking rubble. Finally, I waved the white flag of surrender. The faith I kept working up to continue to keep myself in God’s good graces had left me. I wasn’t good enough, nor was I smart enough and dog-gone-it God just didn’t like my very much. I had a sickening sensation in the pit of my stomach because I just knew my life had come to fulfill some of the terrible scriptures found in the book of Hebrews concerning apostasy. I had forsaken the faith and all that remained for me was a fearful expectation of judgment. I awaited the time when I would fall into the hands of the living God and witness his wrath against my sin.
Perhaps there are people who have a sound moral foundation, those who have natural love and affection for God and for his image bearers. Perhaps there are men who can please God with their lives, who can live up to his holy standards. There may be those who naturally are gifted with great faith. For them a semi-Pelagian, free-will system may be just the theological system they need to obtain eternal life. It just didn’t work out for this wretched sinner. I couldn’t scale the mountains of God’s righteous demands. I fell short and fell hard. The moment I gave up on establishing a righteousness of my own and cried out to God, “Help me. I’ve lost my way” He immediately came to my rescue. Scripture comforts the humble with these words:
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Ps 51:17).
Through my loving Father’s divine providence he had brought me to the end of myself and to the end of a belief system that depended more on sustaining a measure of divinely bestowed grace by my own power, which utterly failed to be sufficient enough. I turned from this faulty path to one where the absolute sovereignty of God permeates every doctrine. His glory radiates from every corner. My contributions of righteousness and goodness find no ground to setup camp in biblical Calvinism. My salvation comes from God the Father and is completed in Jesus Christ his Son. The Holy Spirit has applied the benefits of Christ’s shed blood to me and to every person that he calls unto himself
My heavenly Father grants me the faith to believe and preserves that faith until the end in order that I might persevere. I had to learn this the hard way. God broke me of pride and self-reliance. The term ‘faith’ came to mean something entirely new. Faith isn’t an inherent internal power that man wields to bring to pass whatever he desires. It is not a pleasing work that impresses God. Faith is a gift of God’s grace that connects me to the work of Christ, allowing me access to all the promises of the New Covenant. Faith is not an inner strength but a simple trusting in the One who possesses all the strength I’ll ever need to apprehend eternal life. I’m redeemed not because of my goodness, intelligence or charisma. I’m redeemed only by the mercy and compassion of a gracious God who for reasons unknown to me, loved and chose me long before the cosmos came into existence. Free will based theological systems may appeal to the carnal nature, they may feed the natural pride and independence man feasts upon, but its ultimate end is only misery and failure for those honest enough to assess their own goodness in light of God’s holy standards. Jesus clearly preached glad tidings in Matt 11:28-30 to all who strove to please God in their own power.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
I have now laid aside my heavy burdens and taken up the yoke of Christ. My striving has ceased. I’ve wiped the sweat from my brow for the last time. You can find me reclining at the Lord’s table, leaning against my Savior as I break bread with him. At last my soul is at rest and I shall be at peace forevermore.