In sympathetic resonance with last weeks’ posts on the Reformation, the Cripplegate bloggers will this week be sharing the testimonies of our own personal reformations. I have the privilege of running the first leg of this relay race.
I grew up Catholic. My parents instilled in me solid, biblical behavioral standards and morals. We went to mass regularly, I attended catechism classes and wore an understated St Christopher pendant around my neck (for protection against car accidents).
Thanks to this upbringing I knew that I was a sinner, that Jesus was the Savior of the world, and that he died for my sins, and that reading the Bible was better than reading comic books.
And yet I had no personal relationship with Jesus. I found it very difficult to grasp what the New Testament was saying, and the Old Testament was little more than a rambling, opaque prequel to the Christmas story. I cheated on lent days and, like Bill Clinton, only confessed when I had to. I put all my faith in my baptism and relative goodness compared to Hitler, atheists, and the stroppy “bad apple” latch-key kids in my school. I figured “If I am going to Hell, there are a lot of people going to Hell.”
Then, in college, I crashed a campus Bible study because a girl I liked said she’d be there. (She didn’t pitch). We met in the copious University of Pretoria chapel, about six students in total. The pastor was an American missionary who draped a sheet over the statue of Mary before preaching a 45 minute expository sermon from Ephesians 2. I was hooked. He preached with such certainty and clarity that it felt like the word of God was relevant to my own life in every way.
I came back week after week for the following instalments. I agreed with Ephesians 2:1-3 that I was dead in my trespasses and the light began to break into my self-righteous understanding that my clean-cut, drug-free, cuss-free, celibate goodness was still not enough to get me into Heaven. I realized that God only lets perfect people into Heaven, and not even the canonized Saints of Catholicism made the grade.
I rejoiced when we reached verse 4, “But God…” the best but in the Bible!
God granted me repentance and faith in Jesus alone as my only hope to be saved from my sin. I finally understood what the “for” in “died for my sins” meant—that Jesus was my substitute, taking God’s wrath I earned and replacing my sin with his righteousness.
I wrestled a for a day or two with the conundrum, “If I really believe I deserve Hell, then why would I ask for forgiveness?” That’s when the grace penny dropped. An epic ah-ha moment. Grace is a free, unearned, undeserved gift flowing from God’s love.
My peers thought I was on a temporary conversion kick because of the girl. I was attending Catholic mass on Saturday nights, and Grace Fellowship Church twice on Sundays. I still considered myself Catholic—much like Luther did, I guess—and I too thought that I could perhaps be used by God to tell other Catholics about grace.
I was still pretty wet behind the theological ears: I even asked the pastor if his alma mater, The Master’s Seminary, would accept me while I was still Catholic. He sagely replied, “Why don’t you keep coming to church and Bible study, and see what the Lord does?” I soon realized there were more and more parts of the mass I couldn’t partake in with a clear conscience (e.g. genuflecting to the communion wafer, saying Amen to the transubstantiation litmus test “This is the body of Christ,” reciting the creed, doing penance, saying the rosary, etc.) Eventually I stopped attending mass and got baptized.
From the day I was saved I had a burning passion to understand the Bible and teach it to others. And I still do.
Ephesians 2:1-10 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Soli Deo Gloria.