During the years allotted to me by God, I have experienced many struggles and have come through several stages in my spiritual growth. As I reflect on the changes that have taken place, I can see that each advance in my spiritual life corresponded to a deeper awareness of my own sinfulness before God.
As a child I had every spiritual advantage. My family attended a Bible-believing church, where the gospel was preached and an effort was made to see that the message of God's grace was included in every lesson. Sermon after sermon spoke of God's love, God's willingness to forgive, etc. Yet, in my case all this preaching fell on deaf ears because I did not think of myself as a sinner. Oh yes, I had been told many times that all have sinned. I had heard it said, over and over again, that even wrong thoughts or desires were sinful. The Lutheran order of service even required me to recite to God the words, “I, a poor miserable sinner confess all my sins and iniquities whereby I have ever offended Thee.” However, I did not think that I had ever done anything “really” bad. After all I reasoned, I had never worshiped an idol, robbed a bank, committed adultery, or killed anyone. My sin-corrupted reason simply refused to think that anything that did not cause physical harm to someone could really be bad. That is the spiritual blindness which Jesus spoke of in Matthew 15:14.
As I entered my teenage years I began to experience lusts and desires that sought to degrade me. In order to resist such lusts I began to use God's Law as a motivation for self-control. Yet, to my surprise, as I began to talk about the importance of keeping the law in order to be saved my family jumped all over me. I was told that salvation was by grace alone, and that I would go to hell if I trusted in works (Ephesians 2:8-9). They all seemed to understand this grace stuff, but it did not make any sense to me. What was grace? How could that save anyone? To me faith was nothing more than believing that Jesus was a real person who was born of a virgin and died on a cross, and grace was simply a way of describing figure skaters, or dancers, or acrobats. What on earth could that have to do with salvation?
About that time I began to partake of the Lord's Supper. However, because I did not think of myself as a sinner I received it to my own condemnation. Suddenly everything seemed to go wrong in my life. My grades dropped, my confidence wilted, and I began to experience seizures. At the same time, I felt confused, condemned, and worthless. It seemed as if the very forces of the universe were arrayed against me (Judges 5:20). There also seemed to be a spiritual force at work in my life that was vexing me and driving me to admit that I was a sinner (Job 27:2). The problem was that I did not think that I had ever broken any of the commandments. However, I finally heard a radio preacher preach on the sin of pride, and since that was a sin I could confess to without feeling that I was a bad person, I admitted that I was guilty of the sin of pride.
When my family first began to insist that salvation was by grace alone, I resisted the idea. However, the same spiritual power that was driving me to admit my sins seemed to be compelling me to accept it. Finally, I was driven to my knees to ask God about it. In prayer I told God that salvation by grace did not make any sense to me, and asked Him to show me from His Word if it were true. As I was praying, the idea that I would not be convinced by an interpretation ran through my mind, so I also asked God to show me if it were true by what the words themselves actually said, rather than an interpretation. A few months later I picked up my Bible and began to read the book of Romans. As I was reading, the words suddenly seemed to come alive. The meaning of the words penetrated my heart and filled my soul with joy. After that experience, I was convinced that salvation was by grace, but I still did not really understand what grace was.
Although the joy of that moment continued for a while, because I was using the law as a motivation to resist fleshly lust, and had convinced myself that I must not only trust but must also obey, I soon lost the joy of salvation (Galatians 5:4). I had accepted the doctrine that salvation was by grace, but I had not yet put my trust in Jesus. Of course, if asked, I would say that I was a sinner (I had been trained to do that), but I still wanted to think of myself as righteous, and, for that reason did not really think of myself as a “bad sinner.” On the contrary, in my blindness, I was convinced that God was pleased with me because of my efforts to resist the flesh and to obey His law. As a result my life soon became cold and empty.
During this period in my life I had convinced myself that I was saved, even though I had no real assurance of it. I had also learned to use the language of grace, even though my sin-corrupted reason redefined all of the evangelical terminology, and I still thought of myself as a righteous person. For example, if I said that God's Law must first bring a person to repentance before they can have forgiveness, I did not mean that we must admit our sin and look to Christ for forgiveness. On the contrary, I did not really see what part Christ played in salvation. Instead, I imagined that forgiveness came, not because of Christ but because one “repented,” and that by deciding to obey God's law. Therefore, I had simply embraced another form of works righteousness, one that was disguised by an evangelical terminology.
One day this thought came to me. What if God has a different standard of righteousness than I do? I think that I am righteous, but what if God's standard of righteousness is so much higher than mine that He would see me as a wicked person? If that were the case the only way I could be saved would be to throw myself on His mercy. Suddenly something clicked in my mind. Suddenly, I realized that God's grace is His mercy. For the first time, the doctrine of salvation by grace made sense. To be saved by grace was to be saved by God's mercy. The Bible passage, “All of our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” then came to my mind (Isaiah 64:6). As a result, for the first time I actually saw my self as a sinner in need of God's forgiveness. Therefore, my entire way of thinking began to change. Instead of seeing God as a harsh taskmaster, I began to think of Him as a merciful Father. Nevertheless, I still wanted to be motivated by God's law, and could not see how I could give up that motivation without going to the opposite extreme.
During that period in my life I saw various statements that the Bible made about redemption, justification, and other topics but had no idea where various “doctrines” were found. I was blind to the fact that doctrine is explicitly stated in Scripture “here a little, and there a little” (Isaiah 28:10). As a result, doctrine seemed to be largely a matter of opinion.
Soon after I realized that God's grace was His mercy in Christ, the seizures that had troubled me ceased. Years earlier I had asked God to give me certain signs so that I would know when He had healed me of that problem, those signs came to pass just as I had requested and I have not been troubled with that problem since.
Then, as I read a description of Martin Luther's conversion experience, my thoughts went back to the experience of grace that had brought joy to my heart years before. As a result, I asked God to allow me to experience an understanding of His grace such as Luther experienced, one that would open my understanding of the Bible and help me to see how the various doctrines of Scripture fit together.
When that prayer was answered (in 1971), the Bible suddenly seemed to come alive. As I read God’s Word it seemed as if the Holy Spirit was speaking to my heart through what was written. In my soul I began to feel the height and depth, the horror of sin and the joy of salvation (See Ephesians 1:17-18). During the years previous to that time I had read the Bible but remembered little of what I had read. However, as the Spirit began to speak to my heart He brought various passages to my remembrance (John 14:26). As a result, within about six months I had a good working knowledge of the Bible, and could find almost any passage without the need for a concordance. My eyes were also opened to see how the Bible should be interpreted, and how the various doctrines all fit together to form a unified body of theology.
There were also several areas where the Holy Spirit corrected my thinking. The first of these had to do with emotionalism. Before I was saved, I imagined that the Holy Spirit would make me excited and emotional. However, when the Spirit actually came, He taught me to value discipline and self-control over fleshly emotion (1Corinthians 14:32). I had also imagined that the Spirit would give me information not found in Scripture, information that would supplement and explain what the Bible said. However, to my surprise He taught me just the opposite. He taught me to shun all revelation outside of the Bible itself (John 8:31). At the same time, He enabled me to distinguish between what the words of Scripture actually said, and what they were interpreted to mean.
As I studied the Word, He led me to see that truth is not a matter of which interpretation is right, but a matter of what the Bible explicitly says. In short, The true doctrine is what the Bible actually and objectively says, not what some man claims that it says (2 Peter 1:20). In fact, any interpretations that are not found in Scripture itself should be rejected, because they are the word of man not the Word God. He then led me to see that God's doctrine is plainly stated in the words of Scripture and is revealed, “Line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little there a little” (Isaiah 28:9-10). In that way, He led me to reject all forms of millennialism as private interpretation, while opening my eyes to see the importance of concentrating on the gospel, and allowing Scripture to interpret itself, instead of speculating about Bible prophesy.
Since I had asked God to send me teachers who would guide me into the truth, the first one he brought into my life was Dr. William Leberecht, an elderly gentleman who had received a classical education. Dr. Leberecht taught in a way similar to Socrates, by discussing, listening, and then asking deep questions. From him, I learned to clearly define my terms, think in precise logic, and analyze thoughts by breaking them down into assumptions and premises. The second teacher that the Lord provided was Daniel Koelpin, who had also received a classical education. Under his guidance, coupled with intense personal study, I acquired a good working knowledge of theology. Other teachers and authors, such as Wayne Mund, later helped me to round out my education. Throughout this period the Holy Spirit helped me to grow in wisdom, and impressed upon me the importance of critically judging my own opinions in the light of God's Word. I was taught to subject my own opinions to rigorous examination in order to find and eliminate any error (Isaiah 8:20, 1 Corinthians 11:31, 1 John 2:27).
At this time, I began to think about the importance of looking at my own sins. Since I realized that it was blindness to my own sin that had kept me from understanding the gospel, I was impressed with the fact that throughout history, the men who received the deepest insight into the gospel were those who had deepest awareness of their own sin. Therefore, I asked God to help me to see myself as He saw me, and to see clearly that even my righteousnesses were as filthy rags.
During that period I critically analyzed every thought, urge or idea that came into my head, condemning everything that was not in accord with righteousness. In time, I came to see that even my “righteous” acts were corrupted by sin, and that even when I did a kind thing (such as giving a gift) my giving was not perfect. There were always some second thoughts that went through my mind. Questions such as, “Do I really want to spend that much?” always arose. At the same time, I did not try to deceive myself, for I knew that even though such sins seemed small to sinful man they were only present because my nature was corrupt (Jeremiah 17:9). Therefore, they were crimes worthy of hell in the eyes of a holy God (James 2:10). After a time, I came to the point where I felt condemned no matter what I choose to do. When I came to that point, I decided that I no longer needed to critically examine and condemn everything that I did.
Instead, I began to walk by faith, doing that which seemed good and right without trying to make myself righteous (Romans 7:6). Although I almost felt like a rebel when I took this step, to my surprise it brought me to a new level of spiritual growth, for through it I experienced sanctification by faith. In saying that, I by no means want to imply that I ceased to be a sinner. My nature was still sinful. However, the struggle with sin was far less intense. If you have ever struggled with a problem in your life only to give up, and found that the problem disappeared after you gave up, you have experienced, at least in part, sanctification by faith. As I began to walk by faith new insights into God's Word flooded my mind. At last I could see clearly that those who try to live by a list of do's and don'ts are not keeping God's law at all. In fact, the more they try to make themselves righteous the harder they are rebelling against God, for they are refusing to see their sin (Romans 10:3, Galatians 5:4). In other words, because the purpose of God's law is to expose our sin, only those who critically look for their sins are keeping God's law. Furthermore, if keeping God's law involves condemning ourselves as sinners, then freedom from the law is freedom from condemnation (1Corinthians 11:31, Romans 8:1-2). Moreover, it was one thing to know that truth as doctrine and another to actually live it. I was free, free at last, free not to be unrighteous but to be righteous (Romans 9:30). I was free to be a good citizen, a faithful husband, and a godly father without constantly being condemned by God's law (Romans 6:18). At last, I fully understood what Martin Luther and the Apostle Paul had seen so clearly. I did not need to constantly look at the Bible in order to know how to live. The years of self-condemnation had inscribed the law of God upon my heart (Jeremiah 31:33, Hebrews 8:10). At last, I could see clearly that the forgiveness which I had in Christ Jesus did far more than simply get me declared righteous. That forgiveness and that forgiveness alone made me pure, perfect, and holy in the sight of God (Hebrews 10:10,14, Romans 10:4). And, once I was free from the delusion that my works somehow helped to sanctify me before God, I could see many truths of Scripture more clearly. Such as the fact that those who trust in the flesh to make them righteous are carnally minded (Romans 7:6 and 8:2-4). At the same time, many of the end time prophecies that had before seemed so confusing, became clear. As a result, one paper that I wrote several years ago accurately predicted the fall of communism on the basis of God's Word.
I enjoy writing, possibly because I regard each of the articles that I write as a work of art, and labor over each one carefully trying to forge a thousand strands of thought into one clear presentation. It is art of thought rather than style or rhyme, and of words carefully chosen to convey that thought in a way that is clear and concise.
Far too many who profess to believe in “Justification by Faith” as a doctrine do not really live by it. They may talk about the importance of faith, but they are still trying to gain God’s favor, blessing, or protection by keeping the law. Therefore, even though they appear to be dedicated believers, they are really in rebellion against God, for they are refusing to submit to the true righteousness that comes only by forgiveness, and that through faith in Christ (Acts 13:39, Romans 10:3-4). [Works do not make us righteousness before God, they simply reveal the fact that we are righteous through faith in Christ, James 2:18.]
If I had grown up believing that the Bible was full of error or that what it said was all a matter of opinion, I would very likely be in hell today. Likewise, if my family had believed that religion was a private thing that everyone should decide for himself, I might still be in my sins. It is only by the grace of God that I am saved. However, God used people who believed His Word and cared enough about my salvation to condemn the errors that I once held to bring me out of darkness and into the light.