One of the most common arguments I hear against the baptism of children in the New Covenant is that the New Testament pattern is adults being baptized upon profession of faith. The pattern is repent/believe and be baptized. I don’t want to argue that this is not true, but want to paint a fuller picture of the Biblical testimony in order to better understand how infant baptism is consistent with the biblical narrative.
Did you know that the Old Testament pattern of the application of the sign of the covenant starts with an adult (Abraham) who has faith before the covenant sign is applied (Rom 4:11)? And do you know who received the covenant sign after Abraham? His teenage son, Ishmael, and all the men of his household, which was at least 318 adults (Gen 14:14, Gen 17:24-27). After that, infants – like Abraham’s son Isaac – began to receive the sign of the covenant as well (Gen 21:4). So, initially it was a believing adult who received the sign, along with the adults of his household. Adults continued to receive the sign into the future (if they joined the Israelites from another people group), though over time it was more common for infants to receive the sign than it was for adults. And obviously infants received the sign before they believed the promises of God. As generations went by, you had fathers who would have been circumcised as infants, who had their children circumcised as infants, and so on.
I would argue that this paradigm is what we find in the New Testament as well. It is simply that we do not have nearly the historical timelapse in the New Testament to see it played out as we do in the Old Testament. That said, we do have evidence of the same pattern.
Like the Old Testament, the first to be baptized are those who believe before the covenant sign is applied (Acts 2:41). That said, upon their hearing, Peter also makes it clear that while the New Covenant IS new, there are certain aspects of continuity with the Old. For example, in Acts 2:39 Peter makes clear that these New Covenant promises and blessings are not only for those Jews who were hearing, but also for their children (and for those who are far off – i.e. Gentiles and their children). So among other things, we see that the Old Testament household pattern of the covenant sign continues in the New Testament, a fact that is further clarified with the household baptisms of the New Testament: the household of Stephanas – 1 Cor 1:16, the household of Lydia – Acts 16:13-15, and the household of the Philippian jailer – Acts 16:25-34 .
It is noteworthy that with Lydia, the passage only speaks to her faith in the Lord, but also notes that her entire household was baptized when she believed. Also with the Philippian jailer. The passage notes that the word was spoken to all in his house, and that all in the house were baptized, but only notes that he had believed:
34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.
Maybe all of Lydia’s household believed as well. Maybe all of the jailer’s household too. We aren’t told. Maybe there were children, maybe there weren’t. The point for us to consider is that there is obvious continuity with the way the covenant sign was applied in the Old Testament… to Abraham and his household. And just like with the jailer and Lydia, we know Abraham believed before the sign was given, but he and his household received the sign of God’s covenant.
In my first post seeking to answer the question of infant baptism, I addressed the covenant standing of the children of Christians showing that our children are in covenant relationship with God and should therefore receive the sign of the covenant. In this second installment, we will continue to deal with important background assumptions. The following will address specific characteristics of the nature of God’s covenants.
If we are going to think rightly about the sign of the covenant, it is important to know something about the nature of covenant relationship with God. The covenant isn’t only about the servants receiving responsibilities from God, nor is it merely about being promised blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. These are certainly important characteristics, but covenant relationship with God is undergirded by his binding commitment to those that he enters into covenant with. Of course, this relationship involves a requirement for God’s people to make commitments to him, but God’s covenant commitment to his covenant people undergirds whatever commitments we will make to him in response. One of the most vivid illustrations of this is the covenant ceremony in Genesis 15.
By Genesis 15 God had already made covenant promises to Abraham about descendants and land. Concerning descendants, God promised Abraham he would become a great nation, and even more, that in him all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:3). That said, in Genesis 15 Abraham is not seeing how this is going to work… “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless…?” (Gen 15:2). In response God doubles down on his promises… “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them… so shall your offspring be” (Gen 15:5). He doubles down similarly concerning the land (Gen 15:7-8) and then follows his promises with a covenant ceremony. In the ceremony animals were cut in half and laid on either side to make an aisle. We are not familiar with this sort of thing today, but it was very familiar in Abraham’s day. In that time, a sovereign, conquering king would have this ceremony with the servant king whose people he had just conquered. The animals would be cut in half and the servant king would pass through the pieces, as if to say, if I do not keep the terms of the covenant that you have established then let it be to me as it has been to these animals. But with Abraham, God flips it on its head. God (the sovereign, not the servant) passes through the pieces so as to say, Abraham, I have made these covenant promises to you, and if I do not keep my promises let it be to ME as it has been to these animals. In the cultural covenants of the day, the servant would pass through the pieces committing himself to the sovereign. In God’s covenants the sovereign commits himself to the servants. God commits himself to his people before his people ever make any commitments to him. This is true with all of God’s redemptive covenants, most notably in the New Covenant in Christ, where we find that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4), Christ died for us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8), and God made us alive together with Christ even when we were dead in our sins (Ephesians 2:5). Of course, in both Ephesians and Romans, we as God’s covenant people are called to make commitments to God (Ephesians 4-6, Romans 12-16). That said, it is clear that our commitments are undergirded by God’s commitment. And not only in Ephesians and Romans. This is simply the way God’s covenant works.
So remember, our children are in covenant relationship with God and God commits to his covenant people before his covenant people make any commitments to him. Now, what does this have to do with baptism?
We tend to think about baptism primarily as something that we do. It is our coming out party, so to speak. One local church in my area calls it “going public,” which fits with the order of operations… we come to faith in Christ, then we get baptized to publicly profess our faith in Christ. But baptism is not primarily about what we have done. It is the sign of the New Covenant, which is primarily about what God has done and has promised to do in Christ. Whatever commitments we make in faith to God are undergirded by God’s commitment that he makes to us. And God’s commitment comes first. We should keep this in the forefront of our mind when baptized as believers (as I was), but it also helps make sense of the order of operations in infant baptism… God commits to us, as illustrated and applied in the covenant sign, and he does so before we are able to do anything in response.
As a minister to many people with little ones, and on a church staff with both paedobaptists (those who baptize their babies) and credobaptists (those who wait until there is a profession of faith from the child), I have had a good bit of opportunity to think about and discuss the issue of infant baptism. The following posts are in reply to the question, Why do you baptize your babies?
To begin I should recognize that this post will not deal directly with baptism, but is more concerned with the background assumptions about the children of Christians. I should also establish at the outset that I DO NOT have my children baptized because I believe the sacrament of baptism saves them. I do not believe, as Catholics do, that baptism erases original sin. I do not believe, as Lutherans do, that baptism brings to new life. Nonetheless, I believe the clear teaching of the Scriptures is that the children of Christians should be baptized before they profess the faith. To think about this, one should start with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in the New Testament:
6 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), 3 “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” 4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Generally, when I talk with my baptist brothers and sisters who disagree with the practice of infant baptism, they seek to argue that the children of believers are not in a covenant relationship with God until they are saved. If I seek to argue (as I would) that the children of God’s people have always been in covenant relationship with God, they would argue that the New Covenant is different… it is a new and better covenant (Hebrews 8:6). I agree that the New Covenant is different and better than the Old (and could argue that if children are now not included with God’s covenant dealings with his people then that is not better), but I also want to point out that there is New Testament evidence that the New Covenant involves the children of believers just like the old.
In the passage above, we ought to first take note that the children are present in the assembled congregation (to whom the letter was addressed and where it was originally read). Additionally, here in this New Covenant document written from God to his people, we see that God addresses the children with covenant language! One could argue at this point that we do not know the age of the children who were addressed, and that is true. That said, there is good reason to believe that this included young children because in v4 there is instruction to fathers about how to bring up their children. The implication is that there are children present who are of the age that they have not yet been brought up, or are in the process of being brought up.
Further, God not only addresses the children with covenant language, but also gives them covenant responsibilities: Children obey your parents in the Lord for this is right. Honor your father and mother. And not only have they been given responsibilities, but there is also promised blessing for obedience: that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land. This is significant because it establishes continuity with the function of the Old Covenant. Responsibilities and blessings are marks of covenant relationship with God in the Old and New Covenants. This observation is enhanced when we realize that in v2 Paul is quoting from the 10 commandments – that Old Covenant document given to adults and children at Sinai – which is now being applied to Christians in the New Covenant. The point is that as we read Ephesians 6:1-4, we observe that covenant relationship with God is front and center, and covenant relationship still worksthe way covenant relationship has always worked… God and us and our children.
So to begin to answer the question of why I have my babies baptized, I start by dealing with some of the background questions. Are the children of believers in covenant relationship with God? The Old Covenant answer was yes. And it seems clear that Ephesians 6:1-4 establishes continuity between Old and New Covenants on this issue. The children of Christians are in covenant relationship with God. Therefore, the children of Christians should receive the sign of covenant relationship with God.
Since the Thanksgiving holiday a few weeks ago, I have been doing a lot of thinking about giving thanks to God (and have been seeking to practice giving thanks more consistently). The following verses have driven me:
(Be filled with the Spirit) giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to the Father through him.
Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
1 Thessalonians 5:18
As Christians, we know that the Lord calls us to pray without ceasing (Romans 12:12, Ephesians 6:18, 1 Thessalonians 5:17, etc.), but I imagine I am not alone in that I have not often thought about the fact that the Lord also calls us to give thanks without ceasing… always and for everything, in every circumstance in our lives.
So what keeps us from giving thanks to God? First and foremost, our pride. Giving thanks involves getting outside of me and giving glory to another. Our sin has hardwired us to want the glory for ourselves. But not only our sinful pride, also our feelings. We don’t always feel thankful, and because we are often driven by our feelings and not by God’s word we don’t give thanks. But the good news of the commands above are that none of them require us to feel a certain way. You can feel as ungrateful as a spoiled toddler, yet still give thanks to God. In fact, that is a part of the grace of the commands of God… as we obey, we discipline our emotions.
Speaking of discipline, it is impossible to give thanks in all circumstances without the Holy Spirit’s intervention, and apart from a disciplined effort on our part to do so. This is the first way we see that giving thanks is warfare. A soldier will not be prepared for battle unless he is rigorously disciplined.
APPLICATION: Start each morning with 10 minutes of thanksgiving to God. On day 1 list everything you could possibly give thanks for… include the difficulties and trials of your life (give thanks in all circumstances). Even in the hard times we can give thanks for God’s sovereign control and provision. On subsequent days dig down into each item on the list and spend 10 minutes being more specific. For example, if I thanked God for family on Day 1 I can thank Him for each member of my family (one today, one tomorrow, etc) and be specific. Perhaps doing so will help cultivate an instinct for and habit of thanksgiving in your life.
Thanksgiving is warfare. We see this not only in that it requires disciplined training, but also when we consider the power of thanksgiving in our fight against sin. During a recent Sunday school lesson I had the class list as many sins as we could think of that giving thanks to God helps combat. The list was impressive: lust, discontentment, greed, anxiety, anger, envy, jealousy, impatience, grumbling and complaining, pride, apathy, bitterness, and more. Giving thanks to God is one of the most powerful weapons in our arsenal. And the inverse is true as well. Not to give thanks is a surefire way to let sin flourish in our lives. Romans 1 says this very thing:
18 The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, THEY DID NOT HONOR HIM AS GOD OR GIVE THANKS TO HIM, but they became futile in their thinking and their foolish hearts were darkened… 24 Therefore God gave them up in the lust of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature, and the men likewise…
Romans 1: 18 and following
Romans 1 lists all kinds of sins that are present in a culture that God is opposing, among which are sexual immorality, homosexuality, murder, and the inventing of new kinds of evil. But the interesting thing is that if we follow the logic of the passage, these are the fruit sins not the root sins. The root sins are described in v21 and v25 as a refusal to honor God, worship God, and give thanks to God. And because the godless refuse to honor, worship and thank God, He turns them over to their sinful passions to “do what ought not to be done” (v28). Now, this passage in Romans is referencing the non-Christian’s refusal to thank God at all, but there is also application for the Christian life as well. Again, it is not only true that giving thanks to God is one of the most powerful weapons in the Christian arsenal, it is also true that NOT to give thanks to God is to invite all kinds of sin to flourish in our lives. So be filled with the Spirit and give thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved… For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Ephesians 2:4-5; 8-10
If one of the major besetting sins of the conservative American church a generation ago was that of legalism – an unbiblical reliance on law or moral formula – the pendulum has swung too far the other way so that one of the major besetting sins of the church in our day is license – the neglect of biblical standard in the name of God’s grace. Both misses are anti-gospel, anti-grace. And in fact, many Christians at some point or another will be tempted on either side. The following is a glimpse into how I missed it, and how God’s grace put me back on the right track.
The first couple years of my Christian life were a see-saw, at times teetering to legalism and other times to license. Both will lead you further away from the Lord and vaccuum your joy, which I suppose is why I waffled back and forth. For a while I would be rigidly moralistic – quick to impose my standards on others – which was highly hypocritical because I was fumbling my way through the Christian life as much as anyone. At other times I would relax the moral standards and “give my myself grace” justifying whatever sin seemed appealing at the time, sexual immorality and drunkenness among the favorites. Yet this too left me miserable because I now had an active conscience and knew the Lord was not pleased. There were good days mixed in between and there was a real faith in the Lord, but I really needed to better understand how to walk in his ways. As I told Tiffany just before our wedding, “I just don’t think I understand God’s grace.” I’m no prophet, but over the next few years the Lord would fill in my understanding significantly.
Tiffany and I spent the first two years of our marriage in a little church called Lagniappe, which was started to participate in the material and spiritual restoration of the small coastal towns of Bay Saint Louis and Waveland, MS after they were devastated by Hurricane Katrina. When we moved there I was in my 3rd year of being a Christian (Tiffany her 2nd) and I like to say that Lagniappe was the rehab I always needed. The Lord heard my cry and began to deepen my understanding of his grace. Specifically, it was the doctrines of justification and glorification as seen in Romans 8:30:
“And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
To understand our justification in Christ it is helpful to think of a courtroom scene, with God (Father, Son, and Spirit) as the Judge and me (or you) as the defendant. Our sins are the key witnesses, Satan is the ruthless prosecuting attorney, and there is no defense attorney. There are so many sins they can’t all fit in the courtroom and they are all screaming GUILTY. The case is clear and the Accuser is pleading his case gleefully. There is seemingly no defense, until God the Son leaves the judge’s bench and makes his case to the Father in my defense. He points to every last one of my screaming sins and commands both them and the Accuser to be silent. He speaks to the Father and says that his righteous life was lived for me and the full penalty of all of my sins was paid in his death on the cross. The gavel comes down and the verdict pronounced… not guilty but righteous, justified in the courtroom of God.
And notice in Romans 8:30, those that he justified he also glorified. Past tense. Now, it makes sense that my justification is past tense. That is the moment I was made right with God at the beginning of my Christian life (the moment I first believed). But my glorification is still future: when I enter the holy perfections of glory for all eternity on the other side of the grave. Yet the fact remains that in v30 God speaks of his people’s glorification in the past tense just as he does our justification. Why is this? The message is that just as surely as we have been made right with God in Christ, we will make it all the way to the end in Christ. Just as surely as we have been justified by faith in Christ, we will be glorified in Him.
I still remember where I was sitting in a 20s&30s Bible study on a Monday night in “the Bay” when this clicked for me. Our pastor said he could see it on Tiffany and I’s faces. I had been a believer for 3 years, but my faith was now invading my affections and for the first time I felt right with God and knew that his commitment to me was irreversible. It was like being born again again and was a major part of the foundation for significant growth and maturity into the future, but unfortunately it was not without misapplication.
No one in history has extrapolated the glories of God’s grace quite like the Apostle Paul, whose most extensive job of doing so was in the book of Romans. It is interesting and important to note that as Paul spells out the riches and profundity of God’s grace in Romans, he is also addressing misapplications:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?
What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!
Romans 6:1-2, 15
Paul had a keen awareness of the opportunistic nature of our sinful flesh to use God’s grace as an excuse for sin. The truth is that the application of God’s grace in our lives is not only to forgive and secure us in His love, but also to radically restore and transform us in His likeness and image. God’s grace is like a freight train. He not only comes for us to save us (often colliding with our life as we knew it and blowing it to smitherenes in order to put it back together in Christ), but he is also taking us somewhere specific – down the tracks so to speak. God’s grace saves us from sin and trains and empowers us in a lifetime of Christ-like transformation:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
All to say, I needed to mature in my understanding of justification (God’s grace in making me right with him) and glorification (God’s grace in bringing me all the way home), but also sanctification (God’s grace in growing me/restoring me in Christ’s likeness and image). The person who uses God’s grace as an excuse for sin does not actually understand grace and is not walking in accordance with it. God’s grace is a supernatural life-giving power that is taking us somewhere specific, to Christ-likeness. Of course, this is not to say that recipients of God’s grace won’t still sin. We will continue to sin until we get to glory. But we will also continue to grow in God’s grace, which includes not only an ongoing refreshment in our full and final forgiveness in Christ, but also consistent growth in obedience to His commands and conformity to His image. Or as Paul put it to Titus, God’s grace brings us salvation and trains us to live godly lives in our day.
What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why then do you boast as if you did not receive it?
1 Corinthians 4:7
Do not be deceived my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…
In the previous post, I described a period in my early Christian life when I had returned to following my sinful passions, and not just by way of slip up, but involving a persistent rejection of God’s clear direction. I was continually inattentive to the Spirit’s prodding – choosing instead to go my own way – until the Lord graciously smothered me under overwhelming conviction so that I had no choice but to turn back to him in repentance. At first, I was not sure he would have me back, but through a dear friend the Lord reminded me of the full and final forgiveness of my sins in Christ. I was beginning to understand the magnitude of God’s grace. And let me emphasize beginning. As Christians, we will be growing in our understanding and appreciation of God’s grace for all eternity. If grace is an ocean I was learning to swim close to the shore.
Even after God so refreshed me in the forgiveness of my sins, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had blown it. Though I was now convinced that I hadn’t lost my salvation, there was still an under layer of despair that convinced me, for example, that I would never find a good wife. I had sinned too much. And not only as a non-Christian, but I had also sinned egregiously and repeatedly as a Christian. Yes God forgives me eternally, but there was still a belief that I would need to be paying for my sins during this life. What goes around comes around.
The Lord was getting ready to blow that notion to smithereens. It was early January when he drove me to repentance. In February he gave me my first ministry assignments and in March he gave me my wife.
In April of 2008, Franklin Graham (son of Billy) was coming to town for a “crusade” that would fill the basketball arena at UT. Leading up to the event, my friend Rick asked me to share my testimony at a small rally in February, which I did. He then asked me to preach for 5 nights on a mission trip to the Katrina ravaged Gulf Coast, which would take place at the end of March. That was my first preaching assignment. It is also where I fell in love with my wife.
Tiffany and I grew up in the same town and went to rival high schools. I actually remember the first time I saw her from across the room at a party my senior year. She was dating someone else, as was I, but I vividly remember the first impression she made on me, which involved something like picking my jaw up off the floor. I saw her again at UT a year later, and remembered “the girl with the eyes” but thankfully we didn’t get together until much later. It never would have lasted. A few years later, we became Christians around the same time and started seeing each other at church and at a ministry on campus at UT. Running in the same group of Christian friends, we spent a lot of time together, but I wouldn’t let myself think about dating her. I thought we both knew too much about the other’s past. Too much collective baggage.
That all changed on the mission trip to the MS Gulf Coast. Tiffany and I were in the same work group, and most of my work (besides teaching at night) involved figuring out how to do whatever she was doing on the work site and how to sit next to her in the van on the ride back. Over the next month I spent as much time around her as possible and became convinced she would be my wife. Now I just had to convince her! So as we were studying for final exams I told Tiffany I wanted to marry her, and told her if she thought that was a good idea then we should probably go on a date. After a painful couple days of silence, she gave me the green light and we went out for the first time. A month later I had a ring, which I gave to her a couple months after that, and we were off and running.
The point in sharing this is to highlight the fact that two of the biggest parts of my life (marriage and ministry) were given to me directly on the heels of a many month backslide. This is obviously not the way I would encourage someone to pursue a wife and ministry… go blow it for a while and that should do it! Not at all. But the Lord was teaching me that my marriage and my work are gifts from his hands. I do not have a good wife because I deserved her. Neither do I have a call to the ministry because I am such a good guy. Those facts were very clear to me then, and by God’s kindness they will stick with me to the end. The truth is it is all gift. What do you have that you did not receive? Name one thing. You might be tempted to say you worked really hard to get where you are professionally. And I don’t doubt that. But where did you get that work ethic? Where did you get those opportunities? What about those mental capabilities and the blood pumping through your veins and the breath in your lungs to make it all possible? Behind every good and perfect thing in our lives is the Giver of every good and perfect gift. It’s all gift that we are called to receive with thankfulness to God and steward for his glory.
QUICK APPLICATION: Where in your life are you discontent? At the root of that is a refusal, or at least a reluctance, to give thanks to God. In a hard marriage? Try thanking God for your spouse every day for a month. Pray for their well being and ask God to change your heart. In a dead end job? Thank God for the abilities he has given you and the opportunity to work. Pray for the people you work with and ask God to transform the way you see the whole situation.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
In the days of the Judges, there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 17:6) . If you want to know what it looks like to live in such a time and place, look around. Just as it was then, there is no fear of God now. And I don’t just mean out there, in the world. The statement in Judges 17:6 was said about God’s covenant people… The people of God did what was right in their own eyes. The people of God did not fear God. It is terrifying to think that the church in America is in a similar place in our day. We do not fear God. We aren’t even sure that the fear of the Lord is a good thing. We want a therapist god that speaks in hushed tones, not the God that thunders at Sinai (Exodus 20:18-21). We want a god that is sensitive to our feelings, not the God that is a consuming fire (Hebrews (12:28-29). That said, because the One True God loves his people He will teach us to fear him yet again. The following is a glimpse into how the Lord introduced me to this blessed fear.
For years I had lived as a hedonist, a pleasure-seeker. Inflamed passions drove me to do whatever seemed good at the time. And while the Lord had saved me and radically changed me, I underestimated the deception and power of remaining, indwelling sin for the believer. Our sins are fully and finally forgiven the moment we first believe, yet that is also when the fight against sin begins. It took time to learn to put my desires in the backseat and let the word of God drive (I am still learning). One of my most helpful teachers has been the fear of the Lord.
As mentioned in the first post in this series, at the time of my conversion to Christ I had been immersed in sexual sin for about a decade. And while all of my sins were and are forgiven, sin has consequences. It was as if I was brought to new life in the bamboo forest of my sin, where I had to learn how to cut it down and dig my way out. That is what repentance is… the cutting away of the sinful flesh on the path of obedience to God, enabled and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Looking back, the fear of the Lord has served to burn down significant portions of my sin forest in order to get me going in the right direction.
I had been a Christian for a little while and was in a relationship that I knew was not honoring to God. Even so, I kept with it for months, the conviction mounting day by day. I KNEW with crystal clarity that the Lord would have me move in a different direction. Toward the end of the relationship, there was a week or two where God might as well have spoken audibly… My conscience was alive and kickin, but I pressed through the wall of conviction and went back to her anyway. I woke the next morning feeling like the roof had caved in on my chest. So I opened my Bible – for the first time in a while, because nobody wants to read the Bible when they are in sin – seeking relief from the overwhelming sense of guilt. I would not necessarily recommend the “drop and flop” method of Bible reading (just open to a page and start reading), but on that day the Lord had a message for me. My eyes hit the page at 1 Thessalonians 4:3:
3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. 7 For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.8 Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
1 Thessalonians 4:3-8
Needless to say, I did not get the relief I was seeking. Just the opposite… the Lord added bricks of conviction and now I was terribly afraid, primarily of God himself. The relationship ended before the sun set that evening and I drove home with an urgent need to confess my sin to Christian friends in Knoxville, coupled with a horrible fear that they would kick me out of the fellowship, and worse yet, that the Lord was kicking me out of the kingdom.
The next morning, Paul and I drove the 45 minutes to the Smokies in silence. I told him we needed to talk and it was urgent. I hadn’t slept much the night before and was still gripped with fear… The Lord is an avenger… whoever disregards, disregards not man but God… I had knowingly sinned against God and didn’t know what that meant but expected the worst. My voice quaked as I confessed my sin to Paul. He listened patiently as I confessed lying to him about the nature of the relationship over the previous few months. I awaited the verdict of condemnation.
Paul responded intently… “Chris, look at me when I say this.”
I looked with great shame.
He said, “With everything I have been forgiven with, you are forgiven.”
And that was that. Yet again, the good news of the forgiveness of my sins in Jesus Christ was ice water in the desert of my soul. How could God love me like this? I wasn’t sure, but I believed him.
The lesson for us all is that the fear of the Lord is good and necessary for growth in the Christian life. And not only at the beginning of the Christian life. It is true that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of the true knowledge of God (Proverbs 1:7), but the same man who wrote that statement also said that the fear of the Lord is just as crucial all the way through to the end:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.
Without the fear of the Lord we cannot know God in the first place. It is the holy primer to the everlasting paint of the gospel. And without the fear of the Lord we will not continue in obedience in response to the gospel. It humbles and purifies, breaks down and sets free.
The following is the 4th installment in a series of posts where I am seeking to tell the story of the start of my Christian life. If interested in getting caught up, here is Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
At the beginning of my 4th year at the University of Tennessee God radically changed my heart and immediately made it clear that this change would now be surfacing in my life whether I wanted it to or not. During those early days I waffled between pure joy and an embarrassing amount of timidity. The Lord was near and my heart was full. He had taken my burdens, forgiven my sins, and granted me peace overflowing. But at the same time I had to live the Christian life out in the open among my peers, which was frankly terrifying. It seems relatively small now, but it is hard to properly emphasize the difficulty of this transition for me at the time. For a 21 year old college student who had been deeply entrenched in all that can go wrong in the fraternity and sorority scene, I knew that my scene had to change. Again, it’s not that I necessarily wanted to get away from these friends, but I knew I had to. I knew that I did not possess the strength to continue in the same circles and at the same time live a life of obedience to God. I was too sinful, too weak. And in the short term this left me pretty much alone. Granted, I still had friends and family, and as previously mentioned I connected with some of the Christian guys in my fraternity the night after God changed me, but they were connected to the fraternity and the fraternity was my kryptonite. This left me meaningfully connected with almost no-one who was all-in on living as a Christian. I had been to church very little over the previous 5+ years (one time that I can recall in Knoxville to that point), and as a result was almost completely disconnected from the Christian community, especially in Knoxville. Some of my earliest phone calls were to people like my parents and my youth pastor from years prior back in Memphis, who while they provided encouragement were living 375 miles away. What I wanted and needed more than anything was a people to worship and pray with. I needed a Christian family to live the Christian life with, but I didn’t really know where to start. Thankfully, the Lord was going to slowly introduce me to a segment of His family that would make it all possible.
No one was more important in my first year as a Christian than my dear friend Wes. Within days of my conversion I remembered having seen something Wes had posted about Jesus on Facebook. He had made the post months prior and at the time it was posted I didn’t think much about it (other than the fact that he was probably high… if I was the 2nd to last guy someone expected to start following Jesus, Wes would have been the last). But when the Lord reminded me of it, I wrote Wes a Facebook message to let him know what God had done in my life and that I would love to meet up. He responded that he would pick me up for church on Wednesday night (guess he wasn’t high after all).
That Wednesday Wes took me to the Eternal Life Harvest Center, a predominantly black church around the corner from the UT campus pastored by a former drug dealer. A year prior, soon after God radically changed Wes’ heart in an empty church on the Katrina ravaged MS Gulf Coast, he had seen Pastor James Davis on a Knoxville TV station. Wes was likewise removed from any Christian community at the time, so he showed up for church and they took him in as their own. I had never been in a black church before, but I am regularly thankful that ELHC is where I spent my first couple months as a Christian. For one, I was bursting with gratitude and passion for the Lord and the black church provided an opportunity to express that passion in a way that was unlike anything I had ever known. From where I sit now, I would differ with these brothers and sisters on some theological issues, but for many reasons I thank God that is where he started me.
A few days later Wes introduced me to Paul (for those who have been reading the whole story, this is the same mountaineering nature photographer who would later almost kill me white water kayaking). I still remember the day I met Paul – where I was standing and the way he embraced me as a brother in Christ. I had never met anyone like him – had never seen anyone as full of Christian joy – and I’m pretty sure I still haven’t. That night I went with Wes and Paul and Will and Mark and Tomi to Crossroad, an enormous Monday night college ministry that met at Fellowship Church on the other side of town. At that time there were probably 750 18-25 year olds meeting together every Monday night for 45 minutes of singing + 45 minutes of teaching from a pastor at the church named Greg. Crossroad is where God really began to heal me and grow me. I still don’t think I have ever enjoyed worshiping in song as much as I did those Monday nights. And Greg’s Bible teaching provided ice water for my parched soul and a foundation for my life and ministry that I will forever be grateful for.
Then there was Rick. Rick is a retired Air Force Colonel who has invested his life for years in the high school and college students of Knoxville. He is one of the most able and persistent connector of people I have ever known. After God saved me, Rick was instrumental in further connecting me with the body of Christ in Knoxville, and especially in giving me my first ministry opportunities with The Cross Ministry (which we will save for another post).
One of the people Rick connected me with was a different Paul, another former Rush Chairman of a rival fraternity that had a similar conversion experience as I did. Paul and his brother Daniel became close friends, along with Daniel’s now wife, Kendel. And most importantly, it was through my relationship with Paul and Daniel and Kendel, and through my connection with The Cross, that I reconnected with Tiffany, who I had known before coming to Christ. The development of our relationship will likewise need to be saved for a further post, but for now let’s just say that 10 years of marriage and 4 kids later, other than salvation in Christ Tiffany is the greatest gift God has given to me.
What’s more, I reconnected with friends like Sam and Hunter and Michael, guys that I grew up in church with – guys that I had walked away from in high school – who were so gracious in inviting me back into the fold. Then there was Steve and Forest, Tim, Drew, David, Chandler, Teddy. The list could go on and on. It is amazing to look back at those early days of the Christian life, to remember how scared I was – how unsure of God’s provision I was – but how faithful and how over-the-top He was in providing a Christian family.
Two things I will leave you with here:
First, in those early days I was a bit like Abraham when God called him to leave his pagan family and homeland in order to travel to a new land and begin God’s new family. Granted, Abraham’s role in the history of redemption is far greater than mine, but the Father of Faith believed God and followed him, as did I. And while I didn’t have to leave town, I did have to leave my old life and walk into the new one that God had prepared for me, which was incredibly difficult. So it is for every Christian who is saved as an adult out of an unbelieving context. Of course, everyone is an unbeliever before they truly believe, but for many they are raised in the church and/or a Christian home and come to true faith in Christ without ever having traveled to a “faraway land” like I did. I hope and pray and labor toward the goal that this is my children’s and grandchildren’s story – that they believe young and live their whole lives in God’s pasture. But for someone like me who does venture far away, or for someone who was born outside of the community of God’s people and finds their way in for the first time in adulthood, leaving the faraway land and coming home to the Lord and his people, though it is glorious it is no cakewalk.
Second, the body of Christ is absolutely necessary for growth in Christ. In other words, it is impossible for someone to grow as a Christian while being disconnected from the church. Of course, there are exceptions. For example, I think of Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian pastor who was imprisoned for years for his faith, tortured in a Romanian Communist prison during the middle of the 20th century. He was disconnected from the rest of the body of Christ, but God sustained him. Yet the normative path for growth in the Christian life is to be meaningfully connected with God’s people in the local church and the broader Christian community. The church is the body of Christ and to be disconnected from the church is to be disconnected from Christ himself. Not that they are one in the same, but you cannot have Jesus without his body any more than I can be married to my wife without her body (which would be horrible by the way, but I digress). Christ’s body has many members. Let’s say you are a hand. How does a hand do when it is cut off from the body? It dies. Or it is preserved until it can be reconnected. But for many Christians in our nation, where spirituality is cool and individuality is king, we have bought the lie that as long as I have a personal relationship with Jesus I am A OK. That is simply not a Biblical position and the health of the average Christian in our nation reflects it. I understand that not all churches are good churches and it can be hard to find a faithful place (especially in our day when much of the Christian church in our nation is unhealthy, and perhaps even more of it is desperately sick). But for the Christian it has to be at the top of the priority list. God has reserved grace upon grace for his people that he intends to distribute through his people.
“… when (God) raised (Jesus) from the dead he seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
The following is Part 3 of the attempt to tell my story of becoming a Christian and learning to live as a Christian. To get caught up… Part 1 and Part 2
For three years, sleep had been a nightmare. It was the time I was most aware of the seemingly inevitable and unstoppable deterioration of my mind and soul and strength. But the Lord had intervened. He removed the concrete of anxiety from my chest and replaced it with peace overflowing, that surpasses understanding. He gives to His beloved sleep and what a sweet sleep it is! If only I could have stayed in bed forever. The rub was this… Not only had God saved me from the doorstep of Hell and not only had He sent high relief straight from Heaven… He had also changed my heart and it didn’t take long for me to realize that a new heart necessitates a new life. I went to bed with the assurance and comfort of the Lord’s saving presence and woke up a new person, with an increasing awareness that I was about to have to come out of the closet as a Christian.
It would actually be more accurate to say that the Lord pushed me out of the closet when I was still getting dressed, for all the world to see. Or at least for a portion of my peer group to see, which felt like the whole wide world. The day that I woke from my heavenly slumber was a Monday (Aside: This means that the Lord saved me on a Sunday – the Sabbath day of rest – which is thrilling to think about even now). We had fraternity meetings on Mondays, which meant I was going to have to be in front of the fraternity. This was nothing new, of course. I had been the Rush Chairman for 3 years, a position that involves being in front of the fraternity quite a bit. And at this particular meeting I wouldn’t have to be at the front of the room (I wouldn’t even have to speak), so maybe I could make it through with no one noticing that anything (everything) was different. Or maybe not.
I walked into the fraternity house that Monday night like I had done so many times before. Everything was the same, yet nothing was the same. The same conversations that I had been a part of for years were all of a sudden repulsive to me. Not that the guys were repulsive to me… if anything I had a greater concern for them as friends. But I had new eyes to see and new ears to hear, the new as different from the old as darkness is different to light. For a couple years my conscience had been trying to get going, like a lawnmower that won’t start but seems like its close. The night before that Monday at the house my conscience had been pressure washed by God, allowing for both clarity and heightened sensitivity. The Lord had changed me, plain and simple. This was my first real introduction to the new me out in public, and despite my plans a few others were about to meet me as well.
Before we get there, it is worth parking here a minute to talk a bit about the beginnings of the Christian life. It is safe to say that not every Christian has the same experience I had. I would venture to say most don’t. But it is still true, as Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3, that every person must be born again to both see (v3) and enter (v5) the kingdom of God. Becoming a Christian is not merely a change of habit, or a resolve to do differently. While it involves those things, at the roots becoming a Christian is being born again (what the Bible also calls regeneration), passing from spiritual death to spiritual life. Every person is born into this world as a sinner, in a state of spiritual death, separated from God in their sin. The great need for all people is to be brought to spiritual life, to be reconciled to God, and to flesh out that spiritual life in repentance from sin and faith in Jesus. Not everyone knows the moment that they pass from spiritual death to spiritual life. Again, I would venture to say most don’t. But at some point – even if you were so young when you were brought to new life that you don’t remember life before Christ at all – at some point all true Christians become aware that God has done a work to bring me to life. The gospel is no longer just what I have grown up around but there is an increasing awareness that this is for me. Jesus is no longer the One I know some things about – no longer simply THE Lord and Savior, but He is MY Lord and Savior. Living in the Bible Belt, the majority of people call themselves Christians. I would have called myself a Christian up until this point as well. But the sobering reality is that many who call themselves Christians have never actually come to new life in Christ. Now back to the meeting…
That night I pretty much kept to myself, probably worrying that everyone else was as aware of the new me as I was. The only bit of the meeting that registered significantly was the brother who stood up to invite the rest of the guys to a Bible study that, as always, would meet afterward in the main lobby of the house. I had heard this announcement who knows how many times, but this time it seemed the announcement was for me – like I instinctively knew that these were my people – but my internal response was something like “No chance. Too soon.” These few guys had faithfully been meeting together for Bible study for some time, and each week had faithfully been inviting the rest of the fraternity to join them. After the meeting I resolved to head out and head home, but when I got to the parking lot there might as well have been a brick wall standing between me and my truck. Much to my dismay, I knew that I had to go back in.
Bible study had commenced when I slowly entered like a scared pup. Remember, I had been the Rush Chairman for these guys, which meant I was pretty well known to them. It was pretty well known, among other things, that I had not been attending any Bible studies. My presence was odd enough that there was an awkward silence, so I felt compelled to speak (or try to speak), but as soon as my mouth opened I began weeping. Like a baby. In front of other dudes. All I could get out was this… “He is real. Keep doing what you are doing.”
No idea what the rest of the study was about. I probably stared off into space. I was out of the closet and was still trying to get dressed.
The following year was glorious and terrible. Terrible in the sense that everywhere I turned I was trying to figure out how to live out in the open as a Christian, and frankly was not doing very well. There will be more about this in a future post, but for now here’s a hint: Have you ever seen a baby learn to walk? Doesn’t all come at once does it? It was terrible in that there were an awful lot of hard falls for quite a while. It was glorious in that the Lord was constant in His grace and mercy, and that He continued to assure me and overwhelm me with his steadfast love and faithfulness. He did this in many ways, but none more so than in connecting me to the church and giving me a bunch of great Christian mentors and friends.
17 If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
2 Corinthians 5:17
Jesus answered (Nicodemus), “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…
For those that are late to the party, the following is the second in a series of posts where I am seeking to tell the story of how I came to know the Lord. The first installment can be found HERE (read it first!).
It was late October 2006 in Knoxville, TN. The darkness in my life had grown oppressively thick and there was an increasing hopelessness that it would ever be able to be navigated. Personal sin had led to incredible breakdown – mentally, emotionally, and physically – made all the more devastating because I was bankrupt spiritually. Initially brought on by a traumatic drug overdose, three years of panic anxiety was about to literally run me into the ground.
Scenes from the night it all came to a head are etched in my memory as though it happened yesterday. I remember where I was standing at that flag football game when I had the very clear and horrifying sense – spindles reeling, rope fraying – that I was about to lose my mind forever. After leaving suddenly, I remember where I got in my truck and called home. I remember where I was pacing back and forth at the apartment when expressing my desperation to my dad. And more than anything, at the lowest point in my life, during the worst panic attack of my life, I remember the words Dad said to me on the phone.
My mom and dad became Christians when I was a little boy. Apparently Dad had a foul mouth when I was a baby, but I honestly cannot recall a single time that he ever uttered a cuss word. God changed him. He was always very kind and consistent, a loving husband and father who worked hard and provided a steady presence of love and leadership in our family. Of course, he too is a sinner and would be the first one to tell you so. Like many parents, he didn’t let my brother and I fail enough. He didn’t always give us the kind of stern confrontation that we needed. At times he was an enabler. But the God of all wisdom knew exactly what he was doing putting Dad at the head of our family. My brother and I would both tell you that it was his character, compassion, and grace that showed us so much about the Lord. So it is ironic that it was his confrontation and refusal to enable that led me to the Lord in the end.
As we talked on the phone, I told Dad that I was done. I couldn’t go on. There was nothing left. He wouldn’t have been a fool for thinking me suicidal. At the very least, I was ready to leave Knoxville and head back home to Memphis. Mom and Dad were my safe place and I thought that if I could live with them for a while maybe I could get better. I could finish school back home.
Dad’s response was simple and clear. I believe it was his finest moment as a father when he said to me, “Chris, you may not come back home because I am not the One you are looking for.” Full stop. I don’t remember what else was said – I’m sure he told me he loved me – but the message was clear and we hung up. At his oldest son’s most desperate moment my dad understood that I was made for God and only God could give me the kind of help that I was longing for. The panic did not subside.
In utter desperation, I frantically entered my apartment, went to my room, and shut the door. I remember calling two dear friends that I thought would be a comfort during that time. Neither answered. I had tried every way to put it off for years, but the God of the universe had an appointment with me that he intended to keep.
Of necessity, one who battles frequent panic attacks has to come up with some way of coping. One way is with a benzodiazepine like Xanax. However, at the time the doctor thought better of prescribing such a powerful drug to a loose canon like me. Smart man. Without the help of medication it’s not so much that you figure out how to escape a panic attack, it’s more like you figure out how to cling to the inside wall of the tornado until it spits you out. One of my coping mechanisms was splashing water on my face. Another was, no kidding, running sprints down the street. At least then I could explain to myself why my heart was racing a hundred miles a minute. At this particular juncture I chose the water, which had never helped less.
For three years I had lived without peace. Many nights I would lay awake feeling like a sumo wrestler was sitting on my chest. Others I would self medicate to at least ensure the forced (though troubled) sleep that a large amount of alcohol provides. All of it led me to this night in the bedroom floor, the constant anxiety having made me feel like an old man – I was 21 going on 90. At this particular moment, I lacked the physical strength to stand up. I was literally brought to my knees and was once again sure (as I was at the height of every panic attack) that this was the moment I was going to die. Even though I had experienced this sensation hundreds of times since that night in the hospital 3 years prior, it never got easier. In fact it only grew more frightening and more sobering… not necessarily that I was going to die, but when I died I knew I was going to meet God and I knew that the meeting was not going to go well for me.
At that point in my life I did not have a Bible and had not been in church in years. But the Hound of Heaven was after me and He would not relent until I was set free. I reached for a Christian book that sat on my shelf collecting dust for who knows how long. I believe it was an old girlfriend’s mom who gave it to me. That little gesture was about to change my eternity. I opened the front cover and began to read, something to the effect of “you are never too far gone,” something about God’s grace. I was familiar with the concept of God’s grace, even grew up in a church named Grace, but this was the concept come to life. Head bowed, eyes closed, I cried out to God from the heart. I’m not sure if I even spoke the words above a mumbled panicked whisper, or whether they made any sense coming out, but the cry of my heart that night is still crystal clear in my mind to this day: “Lord, if your grace is like they say it is… if you will have me… take my life and do something with it.”
For years I had prayed for God to help me, but looking back those prayers were nothing more than asking for God to remove the difficulties in my life so that I could go back to being lord of my life. This prayer was different. It was a prayer of repentance, turning from my sin to God, and surrender, turning over the reigns of my life to the One to whom they rightly belong. The Lord had brought me to the end of my rope in order to show His power, His mercy, and His grace, as he rescued me from the front porch of Hell and started putting the broken pieces back together. The angels rejoiced in Heaven as this sinner repented and rested in Christ.
And I mean rested. It was peace like a sunrise in my soul. Peace unlike anything I had ever known before. It was nothing my dad or any human being could give to me. God Himself had visited me and had given me new life. I crawled into bed and slept like a baby for the first time in years.
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.