Recently at church we were challenged to share the story of how Christ has changed us. Here’s mine.
My mother became a Christian in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia when I was three-years-old. Some men came from a nearby church one night (on “visitation”) and shared the story of Jesus with her. Although my mom and dad were both fully churched in their younger years, neither had experienced God’s salvation (been “saved”).
Soon after that night we became regular church attendees. We attended all the regular services, special services, revival services (when a guest preacher would come for a week of nightly meetings), work days, sports leagues, Wednesday night suppers, and anything else a 1960s through 1980s Southern church-going family would do.
I paid attention in church and in Sunday School, and we had on-again, off-again family devotions in our home. As my sister and I entered middle- and high school years, Mom had us read one chapter from Proverbs each morning before school (the chapter corresponding with the day of the month), and prayed with us often.
I became a voracious consumer of sermons on cassette tape (you didn’t really think preacher podcasts were original ideas, did you?), and of theology and Christian living books. My first Bible teaching experience began when I was around 16. When I announced my “calling to preach” (the belief that God wants one to become a preacher/pastor) no one in my church was surprised.
I was a sponge, able to absorb and disperse the same material over and over. You really wanted me on your Bible Trivia team.
I had a strong sense of right and wrong and was soon thought of as a fine, spiritual young man.
But, what I was, was a Pharisee.
In summary, the Pharisees were Jewish religious leaders in Jesus’s era who were experts in the Law (aka, the Torah, the five Old Testament books written by Moses). They studied the law, knew the law, interpreted the law, debated the law and, over time added other laws. Devout Jews observed laws both inside and outside the Torah.
The Pharisees were the religious of the religious.
Yet, Jesus reserved his harshest critique, his most direct condemnation for the Pharisees and their counterparts, the scribes. He chastised them with more ferocity than any other group, calling them “hypocrites” over and over (see Matthew chapter 23).
The Pharisees, who everyone near to God, did not recognize God when He stood right in front of them.
This was me. I was judgmental, fraudulent, spiritually bankrupt, and far from God. I was college to enter ministry, knew the Bible backward, forward, and top to bottom. My peers came to me for spiritual counsel.
But, I was a Pharisee. And nobody suspected it except me.
Being a hypocrite wasn’t what I intended; I was as deceived as those around me. The scripture says Satan blinds the minds of unbelievers so they won’t see the light of the gospel (Second Corinthians 4:4).
This led to a period of intense doubt when I was eighteen. The doubt was well-founded. My relationship with God was built on sand.
I knew the Bible’s teaching that people are saved by God’s grace, not by our own effort; but effort is all I had to offer. All the knowledge, cassette tape consumption, book reading, sermon listening, and the like, did not earn God’s favor. But I had never admitted as such personally. What I had told others, I had never applied.
March 21, 1982 found me at church in a turmoil I could no longer endure. I sought the help of a mentor who, though shocked, refused to assure me that I could trust my good works. It was only when I finally admitted that I didn’t know God that I came to know God. It was when I rejected works as the basis of my relationship with God that grace created one.
“For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift—not from works, so that on one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8, 9
“But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us—not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy—through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” Titus 3:4, 5
“For you know that you were redeemed from your empty way of life inherited from the fathers, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.” 1 Peter 1:18, 19
If you are now like I was then, I encourage you to reject good deeds as a means of gaining God’s favor and trust Christ alone for forgiveness, rightousness, and eternal life.
Featured Image: The Sacrament of Penance, by Nicolas Poussin, 1647. The Pharisees judge Jesus as an unclean woman washes His feet.