Born Again, Again. Rediscovering Grace

I was raised in the evangelical church. I “accepted Christ” at a Billy Graham crusade when I was twelve years old. For years I was content with my beliefs. But then I fell on hard times. My son was molested by a fellow missionary at a camp I directed in Japan. When we moved back home, he suddenly became very violent. He began doing and dealing drugs. He would come home with pockets full of cash, though he had no job.

His mother let him do whatever he pleased. When I tried to impose some discipline, she undermined me. She would buy him expensive gifts and clothing whenever he got in trouble in order to appease him. Eventually, he got so out of control that he tried to strangle his mother. She was having an affair with her boss at the time, so the two of them decided to send him to an expensive boarding school for troubled teens. I was obviously not consulted.

When I received a bill for $4000 for the first month of tuition and expenses, I objected. After all, that exceeded my total monthly income. So I went to court to petition the judge. The administrators of the boarding school conveniently provided a letter stating that my son was too unstable to be moved. But I was able to get my portion of the payment reduced so that I still had about half of my salary left.

Needless to say, I was an emotional wreck at this point. I was having panic attacks at work. I couldn’t do presentations because I would literally come unglued in the middle of my speech. I was afraid I would lose my job, and I eventually did.

I learned a lot about the evangelical church and evangelical Christians during those days. First, the missionary organization which employed the child molester denied my son’s allegations. They said none of their missionaries had ever molested a child. But then I was able to get in contact with another victim whose father was one of their missionaries. He and his two brothers had all been molested by the same man. With this information in hand, I was not only able to get an admission of guilt from them, but they produced an entire chronology of his sexual predations. Still, they refused to take any responsibility for his conduct. They said that if I wanted help with any of the exorbitant expenses for my son’s rehabilitation, I would have to get it from the pedophile. They would not be “blackmailed.”

I turned to my own church for help, but they would not break ranks with an organization that they supported. I asked my parents to intercede with my ex-wife on my behalf to get her to back off her incessant demands for money, but they refused to help. In fact, they sent her money to help with her expenses and then befriended her lover to avoid jeopardizing their relationship with their grandchildren.

About this time I left the church. There was obviously a major disconnect with what these people claimed to believe and what they actually practiced. They would condemn immorality but condone it within their own ranks to avoid endangering their “ministry.” Other churches closed ranks with the mission rather than confront them for covering up sexual immorality. My parents would rather accommodate adultery than risk losing connection with grandchildren. They would not help me when I was in desperate straits but freely offered assistance to those who did me serious harm.

It was many years before I would darken the door of a church again. By that time, I had done some serious soul searching, and here is what I found. I found Reformed Theology through the preaching of a man named John MacArthur.

He saw the same things in the church that I did. He explained that the sickness in the evangelical church is due to a lack of sound, Biblical preaching, preaching that confronts sin, calls for repentance, and transforms behavior through the action of the Holy Spirit. He said the evangelical church had replaced the ministry of the Holy Spirit with pragmatism, i.e. man’s methods. Evangelistic techniques have produced many false conversions, filling the church with people who think they are Christians because they have prayed a prayer but who have never been born again by the Holy Spirit.

I learned that no one makes a decision for Jesus Christ unless he has already been born again by the Holy Spirit and that God chooses those whom he decides to save. We can do nothing to effect our own salvation because we were born dead in trespasses and sins. Dead men don’t choose. Only after they are given life by the Spirit of God can they respond to God. When I realized that God had chosen me before I ever chose him, I was deeply humbled and grateful for his saving grace. I didn’t really know what grace was until I realized that not only was I incapable of meeting God’s standards on my own, but I wasn’t even capable of forsaking my sins without God’s help. This is what theologians call “Total Depravity.”

It was then that I understood why the evangelical church, though called to be separate from the world, still has to screen their workers for potential pedophiles and is filled with dishonest businessmen, cheating spouses and all the other maladies that eventually drove me away. Very simply, it is filled with professing Christians who have never been born again by the Holy Spirit.

So why was I drawn to the Reformed Church? How is a Reformed Church any different from an evangelical church?

First, the Reformed Church is different from the evangelical church in its preaching.

Reformed preachers don’t preach topical sermons. They preach through the Bible, passage by passage, line upon line, precept upon precept, one verse at a time. They use what is called the “grammatical-historical” approach to interpret the text. That is, they delve deep into the grammar of the original language and the historical context of the writer to try and understand what he is saying to his readers. Moving from passage to passage in this way keeps the preacher from straying from the original intent of the author. This also keeps him from reading his own biases into the text. The result is that the word that is preached is the Word of God in the truest sense, i.e. a genuine word from God and not the preacher.

Second, the Reformed Church is different from the evangelical church in its application of the Word of God.

Evangelical churches often work backwards from application to exposition. They start with their conclusion and then back it up with texts from the Bible. This is called “proof texting.” As with any argument, starting with the conclusion means you exclude whatever texts don’t support your thesis. That leaves scripture wide open to misinterpretation. But if you start with the text and draw out the application through the exposition, you are far more likely to come up with the meaning God intended to convey. Often, the application has become so obvious by the time the exposition is done that it requires no additional explanation.

Third, Reformed preachers avoid personal anecdotes.

Very rarely will you hear a Reformed preacher tell some significant or interesting or amusing tale. While doing so might perk up the interest of the audience, it limits the significance of the lesson to only those who can relate to the preacher’s experience. Leaving out personal anecdotes makes the message more relevant to people of different cultures, times and places. For instance, a Charles Swindoll message may strike a chord with a modern, affluent, suburban American, but it would seem alien to an Indonesian Christian who lives in a primitive Muslim culture. However, the message, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” preached by Jonathan Edwards in the eighteenth century still grips the heart today.

Fourth, while spiritual growth is certainly a byproduct of Reformed preaching, it is not the focus.

Reformed theology focuses like a laser on the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is forever fascinated with the grace of God in providing salvation for a fallen humanity. It doesn’t ever “move on” from salvation to spiritual growth, because salvation is a continuing process that is not dependent on a one-time decision but a constant renewal by the Holy Spirit. It never stops exploring the depths of God’s grace and mercy in redeeming creatures who were only fit for destruction. As an evangelical, I had lost my sense of wonder at God’s saving grace as I pushed forward with my “spiritual growth.” As a Reformed Christian, I was recaptivated by the unfathomable riches of God’s grace in saving me.

Fifth, Reformed Theology does not distinguish between salvation and sanctification.

The two are part of the same continuum from spiritual death to life to glorification. Salvation necessarily produces a life of obedience to God’s word. Absent spiritual fruit, there is no reason to believe there ever was salvation in the first place. The evangelical church, on the other hand, often distinguishes between “salvation issues” and obedience. If you “accepted Christ as your savior,” misbehavior might result in loss of rewards, but never make you forfeit your salvation. That is why so much disgraceful behavior is tolerated in the evangelical church. It is also why there is little or no church discipline and why the outside world often views the church as a bunch of hypocrites.

Sixth, Reformed worship tends to be more reverent.

Church is a place that is set apart for the express purpose of worshiping God. It looks different from the typical places people go for work or school or play. It sounds different. Sometimes it even smells different. Like the Jewish temple of old, it is a place designed especially for worshiping God. Seeker-Friendly evangelical services, on the other hand, tend to be casual and friendly to appeal to the tastes of a culture accustomed to comfort, convenience and entertainment. Even their sanctuaries with their auditorium-style seating, big stages, contemporary music, sophisticated sound systems, professional musicians and polished speakers resemble the venues of playhouses, movie theaters, and auditoriums where seekers go for entertainment. So people who live their lives to fulfill their own desires feel very comfortable in a seeker-friendly service. That is the reason why my  former wife and her boyfriend began to attend the largest and most well known evangelical church in the Chicago area after they hooked up. They knew they could blend in without drawing disapproval.

Seventh, evangelism is not a matter of human persuasion, but the natural outcome of teaching and preaching.

Reformed believers do not share their personal testimony or use an abbreviated gospel presentation to win people to Christ. They just take every opportunity to bear witness to the truth and leave the results to the Holy Spirit. Pastors don’t do altar calls and believers don’t seal the deal with a prayer of salvation so they can take credit for the eternal destiny of some soul. Since the natural man cannot comprehend the things of the Spirit, human persuasion is of no value in producing conversions. Only if the listener is moved by the Holy Spirit, will he respond in faith. If he doesn’t, there is nothing the one who shares the good news can do but pray for him. This relegates the one who shares the gospel to the role of an ambassador who is delivering a message on behalf of the sender, not a salesman who is trying to make a quota.

So how does Reformed Theology change one’s perspective?

It produces continual joy. I am sure you have witnessed the joy of a newborn Christian when he first comes to faith and then seen how it wanes as the years go by. He loses the sense of wonder at God’s grace and the thrill of the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. The Reformed believer never loses that initial sense of wonder and awe. It just keeps on growing. Like the Apostle Paul he can comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and thus to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3:14-19). Why? Because he understands how utterly lost he really was without Christ and how hopeless he was to do anything about it. If one believes that salvation is a matter of exercising his own free will to choose Christ, then once that choice is made, its on to the next thing. But when you realize that you would be on your way to hell if God had not chosen you before the foundation of the world and that you could do absolutely nothing to influence that decision, then you are forever grateful that God chose you. 

It produces tremendous confidence. If, as the apostle Paul says, God chose us when we were at enmity with him, then why would he ever reject us once he has reconciled us to himself? As he so eloquently says in Romans 8:38-39, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” On the other hand, if you believe it was your choice to follow Christ in the first place, then there is no guarantee that you will not abandon him at some later point.

It produces strength for trials. Nothing can tear us out of God’s grip. He began a good work in us and he will finish it (Phil 1:6). If Jesus is advocating for us at the right hand of God, who will bring a charge against us (Rom 8:33)? So no matter what trouble comes our way, we know that we will be able to come out with our faith in tact at the other end. “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:37-39).Why is Paul so sure? Because “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:7-8). If he died for us while we were sinners, why would he spare us anything now that we have been reconciled to him?

It produces holiness. Once you understand that Christ allowed himself to be separated  from the Father he so deeply loved to suffer the awful rejection that we so richly deserved, you will think long and hard before doing anything that would hurt him. “For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (Heb 6:4-6).

It crushes pride and exalts God. Romans 1:28-32 says, “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” You can lead what you think is a perfectly moral and upright life, but if you do not acknowledge God, then as far as he is concerned you are no better than those who are “…gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Rom 1:29-31). Why? Because you are an ingrate of the highest order. And the fact that God sent his Son to die for you when you were in that state should produce a deep sense of gratitude and humility.

It emphasizes discipleship rather than religious programs.
Those who believe they can make some contribution to their own salvation inevitably end up relying on their own efforts to assure their salvation. Evangelicals say they believe in salvation by grace and not by works but they constantly strive to validate that faith through a program of works called “ministries.” These works take the form of evangelistic meetings,  Christian counseling, support groups for various problems and small groups for fellowship. The relationship with the people in these groups often lasts only as long as the program. After that, the leaders move on to the next session and the participants often have no further significant contact with them. But the leaders have placated their need to offer some service to confirm the authenticity of their faith.

Reformed believers emphasize individual relationships in ongoing discipleship based on the ministry of the word of God and prayer that produces long term spiritual growth. Problems, no matter what they may be, are dealt with in the context of these relationships not some group convened to fix some common problem.  The objective is growth in Christian character, not overcoming some problem.

God was faithful to me by showing me the riches of his grace through Reformed Theology.

I might have turned my back on God when the church turned its back on me, but instead God brought men like John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul and Allistair Begg into my life. You see, I never blamed God for turning his back on me. Through all my hard times, my name was always written in his book of life. And as the apostle Paul says, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).

About craigolson001

Follower of Jesus Christ. Devoted husband. Avid student of the Bible. Former missionary to northern Japan for eight years. Retired. Author of The Lukewarm Church. Pickleball enthusiast. Biker, golfer. Member of Bethel Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Wheaton, IL.
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