I’ve done a lot of question and answer sessions over the years. I’ve fielded countless emails and letters and phone calls about theological and scriptural issues. I’ve even been asked for my opinion on a few things far outside my field of expertise. In over 27 years of ministry, I think I’ve heard it all, and in the past half decade of full-time itinerant ministry, I think I’ve heard it all, twice. I actually love taking questions because it gives me a chance to hear what people are wrestling with, and provides me the chance to wrestle along with them. Maybe together, we learn something.
However, it does get a little old answering the same questions from town to town and stop to stop. It’s not the fault of the questioner; they don’t know that I had that question last weekend and the weekend before. The questions are simply evidence that people have a common curiosity. If those questions were of a purely scriptural or spiritual nature, it would give me insight into where people are at this hour on their journey of faith. But those common questions are not entirely spiritual or scriptural. They are mostly personal, and testimonial. People ask, primarily, the same three questions over and over. For the remainder of this essay, I will deal with the first of those questions, and my response to it. For the next two months, I will deal with the other two questions. Maybe this sort of treatment will serve as a written and spoken answer that I can refer people to in the future. And since so many are asking the same questions, odds are that some of you want the answers to them as well.
The first question is easily the most popular one. It is mostly asked face to face, when someone shares their story. It used to be “How old were you when you got saved, or came to Christ?” But that is rarely asked anymore. Now, due to the increase of communities built around the message of grace, the question is, “How did you come into the grace message?”
First of all, I’m not a big fan of the phrase “the grace message,” or “the grace movement,” as if they are distinct from the rest of the church. But I understand why it is necessary to delineate the doctrines. It serves as a sort of closed language; something that people inside the grace community use to describe their journey, but it is relatively useless outside that group. There isn’t a believer in the world that doesn’t adhere to a message of grace, but I know what people mean when they say it. Let me make sure we articulate it properly, just in case.
The message of grace, in modern terms, is a phrase used to differentiate from the more traditional, or mainstream, message of the church. That traditional message tends to focus on works, performance, and self-effort in order to achieve status and blessing with God. It also focuses more on the reward or punishment of the afterlife, with less emphasis on the here and now. Most people who come into the message of grace do so out of a sense of hopelessness and exhaustion. They are frustrated with the mechanisms of religion and the general feeling that they fail to match up to God’s demands.
The message of grace introduces people to a loving God, who has finished the work of redemption on their behalf, and who has taken upon himself the responsibility of bringing sons and daughters to glory. This message focuses on the finished work of Christ on the cross and the new creation realities of the resurrection. It speaks of inheritance and identity, emphasizes the difference between the new covenant and the old and leans heavily into the security of the believer. As presented, it has it’s flaws and it’s weaknesses, which I will deal with when we respond to the third question, but for now, that description helps to answer this first question: “How did you come into the grace message?”
The answer is a long one, but I always choose to give the shorter version, and will do so here as well. I’m not copping out and ducking, I’m just admitting that the story keeps getting longer as I get older, due to the fact that hindsight is 20/20. I now see that my journey started long before I initially realized. The event was less a flipping of a switch and more a culmination of a long journey.
I say that grace found me before I found grace. Long before I had a moment of revelation about scripture or the finished work, I was chased by the love of God. Sometime in my early twenties, having been in ministry for several years at that point, I began to grow into an awareness that God was bigger than I was making him out to be. I couldn’t quite prove it with scripture, but I knew it in my heart. When you read the bible through a certain lens, it is difficult to look beyond that and see things in a different light. Most of us are a revelation away from having the entire book transform for us. So for several years I had grace for others, but not so much for myself.
I was raised in a Baptist environment and around age 10 or 11, we had a Pentecostal reformation of sorts. That cost us most of our Baptist friends, but our non-denominational status kept most of the organized Pentecostals from embracing us too tightly, so most of my formative ministry years (I started preaching at 15) was spent in whatever church would have me. That created a sort of spiritual mutt mentality, where I had pieces of a bunch of things, but not enough of any one thing to really belong. That mutt, or outcast, mentality sets you up for a lot of things, not all of which are desirable.
I was introduced to the message of the finished work of the cross, a phrase I had never heard before and was immediately intrigued by. For nearly a decade, I consumed the concept of the sin nature versus the divine nature and how Christ’s cross was the centerpiece of faith if I was to have victory over my flesh. While this message focused me on the cross and what Jesus had done, it did nothing to introduce me to the resurrected life. In fact, that message made me death-minded rather than life-minded, and the ministry that was it’s major proponent was a mutt like me, and taught that their way was pretty much the only way and that all other doctrines were poisonous and you should avoid them. This led to reading the bible one way; not asking many questions; and struggling to think for myself.
That left me as a man who was always trying to die out to self; to re-crucify my old man. This was a cycle, where I claimed that faith was my answer, but the activator to that faith was another string of works, and I couldn’t live up to the standard.
By 2007, I was pastoring a church, preaching the finished work (though it wasn’t as finished as it sounded), and bumping up against some truth I knew to be there that had eluded me for at least ten years. One Saturday morning in the summer of that year, I was reading Paul’s sixth chapter of 1 Corinthians when I came across, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are expedient. All things are lawful, but I will not be brought under the power of them.” Something happened in that moment, where I was finally ready to scrutinize my own understanding of Scripture. This verse offered hope, but it ran counter to my ideas. How could Paul call all things lawful? Can we say that to people? If we do, what are the implications? I had a long way to go, but the journey had begun.
The most important thing that happened in this process seemed to have no spirituality to it at all. Such are the machinations of the Spirit. It is fascinating how he invades our realm to serve his purposes.
My wife and I owned a home on the edge of town. It was a nice little house, just large enough for our growing family. Both kids had come along and, as happens, the house seemed to be getting smaller by the minute. NaTasha found a house in town that she fell in love with, we walked through it, and decided to try and buy it, but we had to sell our home first. We put a sign in the yard just to see what might happen. Within a week, we had an offer, and boom, we were off to the races.
Things can move pretty quickly in those moments. We made an offer, it was accepted, and we moved forward. One contract was prepared to sell our house while another was prepared to buy the other one. All was going according to plan, until the house we were trying to buy turned up in an odd flood zone, supposedly unbeknownst to the seller. We couldn’t afford the mandatory flood insurance and we put a halt to the purchase. But our sale was moving ahead smoothly, so within 30 days we had sold out home, and did not have one to move into.
So, at 30 years of age, with a wife and two kids, I moved in with my parents. Their house had plenty of room, but, as you can imagine, that was a difficult move to make. NaTasha and I were married at age 18, so we had been out, on our own, for a long time. We knew it was temporary, just long enough to find a house, but we couldn’t help but wonder what God was up to.
This happened in March of 2008, just months after my little internal revolution had begun, where I was finally starting to question some things, and was opening up more and more to this message of God’s grace. Several things happened rather quickly in about a three-month window.
I came across a Joseph Prince sermon on television one day. I never listened to anyone that wasn’t approved by the little circle I was in (and strangely, no one, and I mean no one, was ever approved), so to even sit and watch for a few minutes felt like an act of rebellion. He was preaching a sermon out of the Old Testament but was emphasizing how it was a type of Christ on the cross. That was just the terminology I needed in order to stick with it, like it was approved language. I don’t remember much else, but I had this awareness that two things had just happened: one was that I had seen a glimpse of Jesus from an outside source, and two, that stirring I had in my belly for the last several months was back.
I started consuming what I could find that spoke to this message of grace. In those days, I read everything from David Wilkerson’s “New Covenant Unveiled,” to Bob George’s “Classic Christianity.” I also read Prince’s “Destined to Reign,” Dudley Hall’s “Grace Works,” and Chuck Swindoll’s “Grace Awakening.” Looking back, some of what I read then probably wouldn’t have much to say to me now, but at the moment, in the moment, it was fresh fire.
I started preaching what I was consuming, too naïve to realize that not everyone would be so excited about it. A woman in my church came up to me one Sunday morning and handed me a CD. “This sounds like what you have been trying to preach,” she said. I tried not to be insulted. Instead, I slid the disc into my truck and listened to “Grumpy is Dead” by John Sheasby, and knew that I was on the right track. Sheasby’s book “The Birthright,” lit me up, and over the next couple of years, his online resourses (the only grace material I could find that was free), became a life support for me.
But the biggest, most important thing that happened in all of this has to do with the whole house situation, and living with my parents. My dad and I have always been close. We can talk about anything and we have had some spectacular conversations over the years about the Bible and ministry. He was my inspiration for going into ministry, and for years, I privately told myself, “If I could every hear my dad say, ‘Son, you are the greatest preacher I know,’ I could die a happy man.”
Every night I would sit up and consume material, reading the bible through new eyes. Every morning I would come down the stairs and drink coffee at the kitchen table with my dad, and I would bring up what I was studying, what I was seeing and what I thought about it, and he and I would hash it out. Some of it was brand new to him, and I would have to really dig in to either prove my case or have it knocked over with other information. This back and forth went on nearly every day. It was a healthy, safe, and loving environment. Iron sharpened iron, and in the summer of 2008, we found a house, and moved on. But what had happened that spring had changed me, changed my family, changed my father, and ultimately, changed my world.
I tell the story about living with my parents because that part was vital for my transformation. Without my father going on that journey with me, I could not have safely transitioned our church. Without that, I would not have preached the message of grace on television or have written multiple books. The DDP wouldn’t exist as it does, and you wouldn’t be hearing this story. If the house we picked out had not been in a flood zone, we probably would have bought it. I still would have wrestled out this journey without those morning talk sessions with my father, but everything would have changed, and slowed, and who knows where we would be? Or better still, who knows where you would be?
So there is more to the story, there always is, but that’s the heart of it. For me, the message of grace saved me from burnout. It took me off the road of closed-mindedness, pulled me from a cult mentality, and assured me of my salvation. I’ve learned more about the Father and my place in his family in the dozen or so years since that revelation than I did in a lifetime before it, and maybe, by the grace of God, I can continue to grow and to help others to have a revolution of their own.
Grace to you.