November 5, 2014

Personal Reformation 3: Jesse’s testimony

by Jesse Johnson

Jesse one purpleI grew up in a non-Christian family, almost entirely ignorant of the Bible, Jesus, and the basics of the gospel. I was registered as a Quaker—to keep me out of the draft, were one to present itself again (flower power, and whatnot)—but this was mostly symbolic, and did not bleed over into any kind of religious upbringing.

In fact, when I was an eighth-grader I watched a soccer game on TV and noticed a guy in the stands who was holding a sign that said “John 3:16.” I honestly had no idea that meant, and I asked my dad. When I found out it was a Scripture reference, I tracked down a Bible. First I had to figure out that “3:16” was not a page number, and then sort through the five books in the KJV that bear John’s name. But because I thought it was connected to soccer, I was motivated and finally cracked the Bible code and read the verse. This was anti-climactic though, and left me super-confused—I could not figure out what God giving his son had to do with World Cup soccer.

And soccer really was my passion in life. I lived for the next game, knew that the United States would soon have a real professional league, and it was my life goal to get there. I spent my vacations at soccer tournaments, my afternoons on the field, and my evenings watching games on TV. School was a means to an end, and that end was soccer.

But then my senior year in high school I got a new teammate, Tommy. He was younger than me, but he lived in my neighborhood and so we started working out together. We both had much in common (our parents were divorced, we had similar family situations, the same interests) and through the course of the season we became friends. Eventually he began to tell me about Jesus.

At first I was argumentative. I didn’t know much anything about the Bible, and so even though I probably would have identified myself as an atheist, I was no Richard Dawkins. Yet I understood that what my friend was telling me was strange, outside of what I knew about the world, and certainly not compatible with the way I was leading my life.

But despite my arguments, Tommy was patient with me and over the next several months he kept telling me about eternal life that Jesus offered.

Tommy had also been urging me to go to church with him, and I had repeatedly declined. Finally though, on Easter Morning, I caved in. That’s how I found myself, a few weeks before I graduated high school, going to a church service for the first time in my life.

We began in his youth group, where the leader—who was a student’s dad—asked us this question: “Psychologists say that a person’s ethics, personality, and character are set in stone by age 7; do you agree with that?”

I thought it sounded reasonable enough, but then he told us that Christians believe in a God that can reach down into the world and change a person at any point in their life.

This absolutely floored me. I knew that Christians believed in God, but I had always imagined what they believed as a form deism. It had never dawned on me that these people believe that God is active in the world, and could even be active in my own heart! I had never heard anything that outrageous before, and I really didn’t know what to make of it.

When the youth group was over, I staggered into the main service, still reeling from the realization that the conversations I’d been having about Jesus were secondary to this bigger issue—God might be real, and if he is, he can act upon me. I know I’m being repetitive here, but I want to impress on you that this was a new concept for me, and I didn’t know how to respond.

It was then that the gospel hit me at full speed. The pastor preached on the resurrection (apparently that’s what pastors do on Easter), and he told me the truth about the empty grave in Jerusalem. He explained how Jesus’ body isn’t there, how he died to pay for my sin, and how he came back to life three days later. He kept saying that “the fact that the grave is empty should make all the difference in the world.”  He told us that it is impossible to know of the empty grave and keep living your life as if someone had not defeated death. “That one fact should change everything about you,” he said.

And it did.

There, Easter morning at Grace Church in Albuquerque, I gave my life to the Lord. I believed the gospel, was freed from my captivity to sin and liberated from the shallowness of a life focused on the field.

I remain eternally grateful for Tommy—that he had the courage to befriend me, pray for me, and persistently witness to me. And the Lord’s kindness in this is not lost on me either: God used what I loved to make himself the love of my life.

Soli Deo Gloria

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

    Beautiful! I just love reading these testimonies, they are so encouraging. I am learning to have Kleenex nearby. Thank you for taking the time to share them.

  • Thanks, Jesse. Have you had any contact with Tommy since? I remember the woman who was a significant part of my salvation journey. Her maiden name was Cindy Thompson and she was a young adult supervising a girl’s horse club. One day, she pointed out my unwholesome use of the English language. That one-statement arrow hit the chink in my armor and pierced my self-righteous heart. It dawned on me: “If my speech is not good (wholesome) then on the inside I’m not really good after all, not in God’s eyes. Going to church and being a good girl isn’t enough. That means that I’m not going to heaven like I assumed I was. What do I do now?” That realization paved the way for conversion three months later in a movie theater. I thank the Lord for His confrontation of my sin through Cindy and have often wanted to thank her. Not long after, she married, changing her name, and moved away, and I’ve never been able to find her to thank her for confronting me.

    • Yeah. Tommy and I remained friends for a while, and I even got to be in his wedding. We both ended up in Los Angeles for a while too. I remain very grateful for him.

  • Matt Waymeyer

    Praise the Lord, Jesse! What a great story of God’s grace and providence.

  • kevin2184

    Thanks for sharing this, Jesse. Praise the Lord for his grace and redemptive work in your life. He is using so mightily to further His Kingdom. Thanks for being such a great example to so many.

  • george canady

    It is funny the way you put this but it just reminds me that I have taken for granted that not every one has the exposure I assume sometimes. But even those of us who had, remember that guy or gal that lived it in front of us at public school. I thank God that the “good ones” had not retreated to home or private when I needed the example.

  • Susan

    Your testimony helps me to understand the world of the unchurched. Living in America I tend to assume that pretty much everyone knows the basics of the Bible and Christianity, even if they reject it. Your story has changed me 🙂

  • Markus

    Hey Jesse, First time I’m posting. Hope this works. Praise God. Great testimony. Amazing how He uses relationships to draw us. Would love to hear the next chapter, i.e. how God brought you to TMS. All of Grace, Mark

    • Click on the link above (under the post, above the comments” called From Calvary Chapel to Sovereignty and Elders.

  • Gus

    What a God! Thank you for sharing this Jesse.

    Massimo and I are waiting for the first joke about soccer… =)

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Tommy was a great persistent evangelist.

  • Thanks for sharing your story, Jesse. God must have given you a spirit of tenacity 🙂

    How God enters our life to renew us to Himself is always interesting. It’s so different for everyone in context yet exactly the same in Spirit.

    I didn’t know a doctrine of total depravity, or of irresistable grace, or of His sovereignty or any of those things but as soon as He was pleased to bring me to repentance there was no doubt in my mind that I had not a thing do with it. When one is shown the holiness of God and brought to repentance you know it comes from nothing in yourself (!)

    Love the tender irony the soccer-playing kids photo (from Clint’s book) brings to your post as well 🙂

  • Jacob Gonzales

    Thanks for sharing your testimony. It is always a blessing to hear of God’s goodness and grace in saving sinners. By the way, I pastor a church in Thoreau NM (on the Navajo Reservation), about 30 miles east of Gallup. I didn’t realize until today you were from Albuquerque. I thought it was interesting, so, hello from a NM. And lastly, I’ll ask you the state question…Red or Green?

    • Green, por supesto.
      I’ve actually gone camping out near Thoreau. Thanks for commenting Jacob, and good to know there is a voice of truth out there!

  • tovlogos

    Amen, Jesse — Soli Deo Gloria.


  • Being raised in a Christian home, I knew about Jesus from the minute I could understand anything…so it is ALWAYS simply amazing to me to hear stories like yours because it tells me in no uncertain terms, that indeed there IS a God and He is alive and working on people’s hearts! I love to read testimonies like yours and it inspires me to be a witness to unbelievers and never give up, knowing the Holy Spirit is preparing their heart to one day accept and believe. Thanks Jesse! I know a LOT of people are grateful for your friend Tommy as well 🙂

  • 4Commencefiring4

    [Caveat: This isn’t meant as a comment on you particularly, just in general]:

    It’s always amazing to me that people manage to live to adulthood here in the USA and still not be somewhat familiar with the basics of the Gospel. It’s more available here, and in more formats and outlets, 24 hours a day, than anywhere; so how it still gets missed, or totally misconstrued, is a mystery to me. In some parts of the country, you can’t turn on a radio and not hear a sermon on every other station, and the bad music on the other stations drives you right back to the preacher.

    I thought by now that “John 3:16” signs at sporting events had long become part of the culture, like the old 60s “peace symbols.” It never occurred to me that it still needed explaining. Perhaps future sign holders should add: “It’s from the Bible, and it’s got nothing to do with sports.”

    In any case, glad you didn’t shrug it off.