I was born and raised in Chester in England. My father was a Baptist Evangelist and yet I never really grew up in Church. My Dad used to travel extensively to preach, and that meant that my mother and I seldom went with him to Church. That was until my Dad became the pastor of a local Church.
I remember being extremely bored with Church as a child and was far more interested in soccer (called football over in England). I wanted to be a pro-soccer player. My favorite part of the Church service was the benediction – I was so glad when it all was over!
I remember seeing my Dad reading and studying his old black leather King James Bible (I was probably around age 9 at the time) and thought to myself, “that looks so boring to me – spending hours with a book that’s hard to read, in language I cannot understand – you’ll never catch me doing that.”
One Sunday night, when I was 14, my father did ask me to go with him to hear an Evangelist preach. His sermon was on the second coming of Christ. I remember him looking at the crowd, but yet it seemed that his gaze was focused on me, as he said “for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” My first thought was “how does the preacher know of my sin? How does he know I am a sinner?” Like a bolt from the blue I realized my lost condition and that I would be embarrassed with shame if I had to stand before God in that condition.
An appeal was made for salvation and I responded by raising my hand, walking the aisle, signing the card provided… but more than anything I just knew of my need for Christ to be my Savior to hide me from the fierce judgment of God. When I later returned to my seat (after around 15 minutes in a counseling area) my father still had tears streaming down his face. I think it was the first and only time I saw my father cry. Some time later he told me that my parents had been praying earnestly for my salvation for many years.
I then started attending the church on a regular basis, but as I look back, one of the biggest changes in my life was evident in my love for Bible study. I would spend all my allowance money on Bible teaching tapes… I just couldn’t get enough. I would spend 3 – 4 hours every night learning the Scriptures and hearing Bible teaching. That same passionate desire for the Word of God is still present in my life today.
My first 20 years as a Christian were spent as an Arminian. I would never have used such a term to describe myself, but looking back I can see that I held to the doctrines taught by Arminianism. For the most part, I was never really exposed to the doctrines of Grace that I now consider so precious. Oh, certainly, I met many a Reformed man in my time; in fact, many of them were my instructors and professors at the Bible College I attended in England, but no one ever sat down with me to try to explain the Reformed faith.
Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent. In the game of tennis, you can practice your serve and in all reality, if you keep repeating the same mistake (for instance, the way you hold the racket), you don’t make the serve perfect at all; your poor serve becomes permanent – and only deliberate and intense personal coaching can eliminate the problem.
I say this because I have been in full time ministry since graduating Bible College in June of 1987, and was fairly confident that my knowledge of the Word was sound. In the year 2,000 I had been a Christian for 20 years. This only compounded my problem – not a tennis serve problem, but my many false assumptions and traditions, which were heightened by this simple fact – I had no idea that I held to faulty doctrine. I had assumed I was correct in my interpretation, and went on my way merrily for many a year. As Dr. James White so ably puts it, “those most enslaved to their traditions are those who don’t believe they have any.”
Because the traditions I held to were strong, when I first heard the message of Sovereign Grace and election taught, I have to admit that I resisted it.
So what happened?
Well one day in November of the year 2,000 I received a flyer in the mail from Ligonier Ministries informing me that Dr. R. C. Sproul was coming to do a Friday night and Saturday morning teaching in Scottsdale, Arizona. That was only a short distance for me, living in Phoenix. I had never heard Dr. Sproul in person, but had been greatly impacted by seeing his teaching videos on the Holiness of God some years before.
As I looked further at the flyer my heart sank when I saw the subject he was going to be focusing on – “Chosen by God – the biblical doctrines of election and predestination.”
Honestly, I thought, “how silly that a man of that caliber would spend his energies articulating an idea so way past its sell by date.” I was in two minds as to whether to go or not. I wanted to hear Dr. Sproul, but not on that subject. Any other subject would have been better as far as I was concerned.
Well, I finally decided to go, but sat on the back row so I could leave quickly without interrupting folk around me. I stayed for the first session and thought – yes, Dr. Sproul has a point – I can’t fault what he is saying, but I have many scriptures that would refute his conclusions. However, I was intrigued that there was nothing in what I heard that would be easily dismissed.
Then the conference included a question and answer session on the subject. This proved to be invaluable for me, because many of the questions I had were raised, and, I had to admit, were answered from Scripture, in their proper Biblical context.
I was immediately alarmed by this, as I came to understand that this whole issue required a lot more research than I had previously thought. I left the conference unconvinced, but bothered enormously that I had heard no scripture taken out of context. Being absolutely honest with myself, I had to admit that it was my assumptions about certain texts that were guilty of that exact charge.
Knowing that I needed to believe what Scripture taught on the subject, I ordered much material, and began my research. It is never pleasant to examine firmly held traditions, and I felt that this was especially so in my position, when I had taught other things at various times in my ministry. No one wants to admit the possibility that they may in fact have been wrong.
I have to say that it took more than a year of researching the issue in depth, before I realized that there was a consistent and clear Biblical doctrine of election and predestination. I also came to see that in order for me to believe what the Bible taught in this area, I had to dispense with my traditional understanding.
I was as surprised as anyone to emerge from this self imposed theological study cocoon as a five point Calvinist. Yet that is what happened. And I look back and see the whole thing – the desire to study this and examine firmly held beliefs (I have found many do not wish to do this), and the ability to see the truth – as a work of God’s grace in my life. How gracious it is that God opened up my eyes to see these things.
Although now embracing God’s Sovereignty in election, I continued on with my study, and yet waited another year before preaching on the subject at the Church. There’s no doubt this issue is controversial. I think many pastors and teachers who believe it, do not preach about it for this very reason. The question then becomes, who are we trying to please – God or men?
Jesus preached it and watched many in the crowd walk away when He pressed the claims of Divine Sovereignty in election. In John 6:65, 66 we read, “And He was saying, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.”
It is extremely humbling to think that God alone gets the credit for our salvation. This doctrine destroys all human pride once and for all, and elevates the graciousness of God in saving a people for Himself, for His own glory alone. Not everyone wants to hear this. Yet I am convinced, as C. H. Spurgeon said, “Christ’s sheep will not be offended by Christ’s voice.”
Of course, this subject is not all that I teach, but in that it is something spoken about regularly in Scripture, if I am a Bible teacher, I have to teach something about the subject. I have no right to cut it out of the Bible or out of my teaching, if, as a pastor, I am called to teach the contents of the Bible, which of course, I am.
I also realise that even now, there may be areas in my thinking that are incorrect. That is true for all of us, which is why it is so important that we constantly expose our traditions to the light of Scripture, so that we may fully conform with His Word.
Rather than sending a tennis coach to help me with my undiscerned problems, God sent a Bible teaching coach named Dr. R. C. Sproul, who was the first (of many) to expose my errors and inconsistencies, and help me see the biblical reality of wonderful, amazing, Sovereign grace. And oh the difference it has made to understand these things. My love and appreciation for the depth of my sin and the radical, powerful (effectual) grace it took for God to save me has soared enormously. Quite simply, I love my Savior more.
I have also had the joy of teaching these truths in a wide variety of settings, both in live teaching and in writing. I have had many people come to me with tears in their eyes, thanking me, but more than that, thaking God, for opening their hearts and minds to these truths. They have told me their Christian life is so different now they do understand these things. All for the good, I might add.
Now I comprehend something of the enormous miracle that conversion really is. My wish is that others who do indeed know Christ, would also come to know these same Bible truths and as a direct result of this, experience the security and overwhelming joy of knowing that we love Him, because, truly, He first loved us.
May I ask you, dear reader: Are you open to allow your traditions to be tested? You should be, because it should always be remembered, practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent. I invite you to join me in testing any assumptions and traditions you have in an online study and discussion on TULIP (the Doctrines of Grace) taking place here on the blog.
“My Journey Into Grace” (Part 2) here