A FRIEND RECENTLY DESCRIBED TO ME how his understanding of spirituality has changed over time. I was interested because I knew something of the influence he?d had in his community while still in his teen years.
He was known in the small town where he grew up for breaking the county high school pole-vault record. Strong-willed by temperament, he also had a reputation as a troublemaker. When he let it be known at the age of 17 that he had decided to become a follower of Christ, the community took notice. The ripple effect of those he led to faith has continued over the years to change the course not only of individual lives but of several generations of families.
Yet this friend says he now realizes that in his early enthusiasm for Christ he embraced ideas of spirituality that slowed his spiritual progress.
How did it use to be?
?A few years after my conversion I began studying and worshiping with people who took salvation seriously. Just making a decision to accept Christ wasn?t enough. We looked for evidence of genuine repentance. We focused on our sins, confessing and repenting in our minds and hearts until we felt we had turned from all that was wrong in our lives. Only when we were convinced that we had renounced all that was unworthy of Christ, and only when we were sure we were ready to follow His lordship completely, could we have the assurance of our salvation.
?What we were looking for was holiness. We believed we needed to seek God ?wholly? until we were holding nothing back?no sinful or vain desire, no reservation, no jealousy, no anger, no bitterness, no selfish ambition, and no pride. Our goal was to be cleansed from the very nature of sin.?
One thing that is important about my friend?s story is that it shows what can happen among those who seem to be most serious about their faith. While others fall short of faith by thinking they can add Christ to an unrepentant heart, his experience shows what can happen to those who try so hard to be holy that they actually end up without any assurance of the grace of God.
This pursuit of holiness turned out to be a side-track for my friend. While still in high school he had worked to develop his skill at the pole vault. But now, in the company of friends and teachers in the pursuit of ?extreme righteousness,? he found himself with an even higher bar to clear.
?Following Christ was very difficult. I remember as a young man, stopping one evening, my head hurting, with tremendous mental anguish?trying not to sin against God! This struggle took different forms. Sometimes I?d find myself plagued by the fact that I knew I had sinned. In those moments, I felt lost. I was no longer ready for His coming. I had separated myself from God again. On other occasions I would agonize, wondering whether I had been ?good? enough to show that my faith in Christ was real. Struggling so much with doubt and fear of losing my salvation I spent a lot of time ?feeling my spiritual pulse? to see if I thought I was doing enough for God to qualify for His grace.
?Looking back, one of the things I find most significant is that I went through periods of pride when I considered the list of things I had done to ?keep? my salvation. There were times I was convinced that I had kept my end of the bargain, so now God would have to keep His. I felt this was part of the deal. In those moments I felt that God and I were now ?even??and with this mutual relationship I felt I really didn?t ?owe? Him anything. I had paid my dues!?
How did you find your way out?
?Those moments of pride always gave way to times of failure. While hiding my doubts and despondency from others, I knew I had to be honest with myself. Slowly, as I read the Scriptures and thought about them, I discovered that we had been adding our own theology to the ?good news.? I saw that while we said we believed in Christ as our Savior, we were trying to reach a level of ?holiness? that depended on our efforts. At first the answer came to me like a whisper. Then it shouted out to me from many places in Scripture. I would read verses like, ?no man is justified by the works of the law? (GALATIANS 2:16), and I would cry in relief.?
So how is your life different now?
?After comparing my earlier thoughts to what the Bible actually says, I am no longer overwhelmed by my own inadequate attempts to turn from sin. Today the doubts about whether my faith is genuine and complete enough are gone. I now understand that faith is not achieving a high level of performance that qualifies me for God?s acceptance. Instead I know that faith means relying entirely on what Christ has done for me. I now rest in the awareness that His death on the cross made salvation a free eternal gift (ROMANS 6:23; EPHESIANS 2:8-10). And that by trusting in Him I am Gods child forever. Relying on what Christ did for me is my peace.
?This new confidence doesn?t free me of my desire to live for God. Now I am actually much more aware of my indebtedness to the One who has offered grace to such a sinner. I am humbled again and again by the thought that Christ saves and keeps me eternally as His own. I serve Him out of gratitude for such mercy.?
A reflection in the mirror
Father in heaven, in a friend?s story I see myself. I didn?t expect to find what now overwhelms me. I see a reason for the lack of gratitude that too often cools my heart. All too often I forget that what You begin in grace can only be followed by grace.
Note: The friend mentioned in Mart?s article is Gary Dougherty, member of the RBC team and pastor of a church congregation in Alto, Michigan.