If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Romans 10:9
Have you ever had the feeling that any control you may think you have is just an illusion? That events happen on a scale that is just way bigger than you? The sort of thing where you look back afterward and realize that something just took place that is (to paraphrase Ephesians 3:20) immeasurably more than anything you could have ever asked for or imagined?
Happened to me June 17, 2010. This is that story…
It’s interesting to note that I practically grew up in church.
Papa (my grandfather) was a Missionary Baptist preacher, tall and lanky with a booming voice, who taught himself to read by studying his Bible. Always accompanying him was my grandmother, sitting in her spot in the second pew. (If I ever misbehaved sitting elsewhere in church, Papa would make me get up and walk to the front of the church and sit with my grandmother. Talk about a walk of shame.)
My mother played the piano and my aunt led the congregational singing; eventually, my dad took over hymn-leading duties. As soon as I was old enough to reach the pedals on the piano, I started playing for church services.
Basically, if the church doors were open we were there: two services on Sunday, Wednesday night prayer meeting, revivals, youth rallies, evangelistic crusades, church camps, and any number of extracurricular church-related fellowship opportunities.
One Sunday night during summer vacation when I was nine years old, I spent the night with our pastor, Bro. Alvin Tucker, and his family. Unbeknownst to me, my dad asked Bro. Tucker to speak with me about the plan of salvation while I was there – in other words, Daddy set me up. So Monday morning while sitting in Bro. Tucker’s kitchen, he talked to me about our human sin nature and how we could be made clean by putting our faith in Jesus. (He used a glass of sweet tea as an illustration, pouring out the brown liquid, which represented sin, to leave a clean, clear glass.) I repeated the prayer he asked me to pray and was baptized shortly thereafter.
Obviously my place in eternity was set and I was on my way down the path of righteousness at that point, right? Right?
I’m afraid not – the life I lived after that morning in the Tucker’s kitchen pretty much belied any sort of actual decision to follow Jesus. Maybe I just wasn’t serious or maybe my nine-year-old heart just didn’t understand what it was doing. Regardless if one of those reasons was true, I can’t really use either of them as excuses for continuing in my lost condition for the next 43 years of my life.
Oh, there were moments during that period of time when I wrestled with the uncertainty of my soul’s situation, but I listened to the lies whispered by the father of those lies and came to the conclusion that I was fine. After all, I prayed every now and then, knew every verse of “Just As I Am,” owned two “Glad” CDs, could use phrases like “asked Jesus into my heart” in a sentence, and knew all the books of the Bible. Although I generally believed everything I had been taught all those years I sat through church, it was all “head” knowledge and not “heart” knowledge. Had I died during that period of time, I would have been one of the most knowledgeable guys in hell.
But by the grace of God, I didn’t die. In His unfathomable mercy and incredible patience, God let me live through those prodigal years, eventually to tell my story of His “Amazing Grace.” And that story has a happily ever after ending.
So let’s skip all those years spent traipsing through the muck and mire and get to the good part, fast-forwarding to the events I mentioned earlier that were out of my control…events that happened on a scale way bigger than me…events that were immeasurably more than anything I could have ever asked for or imagined…
It all started in December 2009, when I managed to…
Stumble upon a Bible believing and teaching church quite by mistake
For the past 10 or 11 years, my parents have made the trek to my part of the country to, ostensibly, spend part of the Christmas holidays with their favorite (and only) son. (However, I’m convinced they’ve just been using my proximity to Disney World as a good excuse to come and hang out at the theme parks for a week.)
Prior to 2009 they had always driven in on Sunday afternoon. That worked out perfectly, as I could keep up my ruse of attending church regularly without having to actually produce one for them to visit. That year, though, they threw me a curve and came in on Saturday.
No biggie – by that time I was good at maneuvering through that sort of deception; I just took them to a church I (seemingly) chose at random. I had driven by it before and saw that it was large, so it wouldn’t seem that odd for me to not actually know anybody once we got there.
Everything went well – really well, actually. Not only had I convinced them I was a church goer, I enjoyed the church service as well. The church was beautiful, the music was good, the pastor was interesting, and the Holy Spirit pretty much left me alone while I was sitting there – no pesky conviction about being lost and bound for hell.
At least not yet. That came way after the…
A few months later in March of 2010 I made the trip north to visit with my parents for a few days. This was an extremely rare occurrence – I could probably count on one hand the number of times I had visited since moving out of the state 15 years earlier (too much to hide).
I tell you that so you can imagine just how surprised I was when their home phone rang while I just happened to be sitting there on the couch and I heard my dad say, “He’s right here.” Wha..? No one even knew where I was, much less knew my parent’s phone number.
I’m sure I had an extremely puzzled look on my face as Daddy handed the phone to me.
But that puzzlement soon turned to panic when I discovered the voice on the other end of the phone was Bro. Johnny Tucker, evangelist son of the aforementioned Bro. Alvin Tucker, who told me he and Judy, his wife, were coming to Orlando in June and “just wanted to spend some time with me.”
In an instant my mind went into overdrive – why on earth would Johnny Tucker, an evangelist, who I hadn’t seen in 35 years, be coming all the way to Orlando? And why did he, an evangelist, want to see me?
Then it hit me: my daddy had set me up once again. He thought I was lost and had sicced another Tucker on me.
Through the pounding of my heartbeat in my ears I heard myself saying, “Absolutely – I can’t wait to see you both. Call me before you get into town and we’ll make plans.”
We’ll make plans?! I had plans to make all right – I either had to figure out a way to get out of seeing the Tuckers or I had to come up with a pretty convincing cover story that included a church home and a larger Christian vocabulary than “asked Jesus into my heart.”
I had three months to…
Look for someplace to hide
I had always loved Bro. Johnny and Judy growing up – Bro. Johnny had a great sense of humor and Judy was one of the sweetest people I had ever known. They had been in the ministry since they were teenagers and friends of our family for over 40 years. But I didn’t want to see them this time. I just knew they were going to try to ambush me about my spiritual life and I wouldn’t be able to fend them off.
Since they were going to be here for a whole week, I didn’t see how I could blame my inability to see them on being in a meeting the whole time. Nor could I feign illness (too transparent – plus I was afraid God just might make me live up to that lie). Could I pretend I had to go on some work-related, out-of-town trip? I travel so rarely that I didn’t think I could talk a good enough story to convincingly pull that one off.
I figured there was nothing else I could do but…
Learn to walk, talk, and act like a Christian
As soon as I got back home, I went into preparation mode. Although I had convinced myself over the years that I was a Christian, it was obvious that, even if I was, I was not a very good one. So I had some studying to do (more like cramming). I had done some community theater so I knew how to prepare for a role – which is exactly what I would be doing: playing the role of a good ol’ Southern Baptist boy.
Here was my to-do list for the next three months:
- Join a church (I don’t lie very convincingly, so I actually needed to be a church member in case I was asked. That big Baptist church I had taken my parents to that past December would do just fine.)
- Get involved in the church’s music program (The Tuckers knew all about my musical ability, so they would expect me to be playing the piano or singing.)
- Buy a Bible and read it just in case I needed to quote some scripture in front of the Tuckers (I had an old King James Bible I could barely understand, so I did a little research and settled on the 1984 NIV translation.)
- Start tithing (If I was going to do this right, I needed to totally play the part, even if it cost me.)
- Engage in daily prayer for good measure. (I found a book about the prayer of Jabez lying around and read that.)
I’d show them – and God – just what a good Christian boy looked like.
So over the course of those three months, I joined the church (under false pretenses, of course, as I had to check the box on the new member’s form that said I was already a Christian), I read my Bible daily (mostly the New Testament) and prayed the prayer of Jabez, I tithed on my gross income, I began singing in the choir and playing the piano with the worship ministry, and I sat under the preaching of one of the finest Bible-believing-and-teaching pastors around.
Then something unexpected happened: in the course of trying so hard to look like a Christian I actually began to see a gradual but undeniable change in myself. Before too long, I knew it was time to…
Not to spoil the ending or anything, but I’m sure by now you can see where this is all going.
I began to look forward to hearing the pastor preach. All my life I had enjoyed the music portion of the service and then tuned out during the sermon; for the first time, though, I was really listening. And by listening, I couldn’t help but hear him ask the same thrice-repeated question during every invitation: “Do you know that you know that you know that, if you died tonight, you would go to Heaven?”
Initially my answer was “yep,” because, of course, I thought I was saved already. After a while, though, the Holy Spirit stopped leaving me alone, and my answer to that question turned to more of an “I think so.” Eventually, the answer was, “I’m not sure.”
After a while, I began questioning that lie about my salvation I had believed all those years. I also realized I didn’t really know anything about grace, or atonement, or what Jesus really did on the cross. After reading in Romans 3:25…
God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.
…and in Romans 5:9…
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!
…I started writing down questions like, “Why did it have to be Jesus who died on that cross and what was so special about that?” (After all, there had been lots of people who had died for holy causes.) “What was so special about Jesus’ blood?”
In Matthew 7:7 and Luke 11:9, Jesus said:
…seek and you will find…
I needed answers. It was official – I was…
Remember my Bible-believing-and-teaching pastor? Turns out he’s also extremely sensitive to the voice of the Holy Spirit. The Sunday before I was to have breakfast with Bro. Johnny and Judy on Thursday he said this at the beginning of his sermon:
“We have been in a series of messages on Joseph’s roller coaster life, but today, because we’re having the Lord’s Supper, I felt compelled to preach a message on the blood of Jesus.”
Let that sink in. He may as well have said, “Today – just a few days after one of my lost church members who is under incredible conviction and is seeking answers about salvation wrote down the question, ‘What was so special about Jesus’ blood?’ – I felt compelled to preach a message on the blood of Jesus.”
…seek and you will find…
So – did God compel my pastor to preach that sermon on the blood of Jesus…
- The sermon that spelled out how Jesus’ blood was precious and pure and perfect and powerful (he loves alliteration as much as I do).
- The sermon that even gave scientific evidence as to why Jesus’ blood was the only possible antidote for our sin.
- The sermon that answered all of the questions I had written down, literally, a few days before.
…just for me, just because I was seeking? Or did God direct me to the book of Romans when He did so that I would be seeking answers at just the right time for my pastor to deliver them?
Does it matter?
Does one demonstrate the sovereign wisdom and unfathomable love of God any more than the other? For the first time in my life, after hearing people say, “I felt the Lord was leading me to…” or “I just felt that God was telling me…” and having no clue what that was like, I began to experience the presence and power of a living God. He revealed Himself in such a way that I couldn’t deny what was happening.
At that point, the Holy Spirit, who, of course, had been at work all along, went into overtime – and so did the enemy. But for every lie Satan whispered, the Holy Spirit shouted a truth. For every bit of anxious doubt that clogged my mind, a load of calm assurance kept me from giving up.
That Sunday morning, though, the game went to Satan. And that’s when I really began to…
That old serpent knew exactly how to get me – through my pride. In spite of that overwhelming feeling of conviction and the realization that I needed to turn my life over to the Lord, I clinched my fists, stomach roiling, and… just stood there.
“It would be too embarrassing to walk all the way from the balcony down there in front of all these people,” I thought. “What if I say the wrong thing? I’ll look like an idiot. They’ll ask me how I managed to join their church without being a Christian in the first place…” And it went on and on throughout the entire invitation.
When the pastor said, “Do you know that you know that you know…” my heart was yelling, “No – I don’t!” but I couldn’t bring myself to do anything about it. The invitation ended and I went home, miserable.
All the rest of that day and for the next three days I was miserable. All I had to do was pray and admit to God that I was a sinner and ask for forgiveness but, once again, Satan knew exactly what to do.
This time, I thought, “What if I pray that prayer and, just like when I was nine, nothing happens? What if I don’t feel anything? Or what if, once again, I assume I’m saved but I’m not?”
The only hope I had was that I would be able to talk to Bro. Johnny and Judy on Thursday. I needed someone to help me that I trusted in case I said the wrong words or didn’t bow my head low enough or made the same mistake I made 43 years earlier. No more wishing they weren’t coming – I couldn’t wait to see them.
And so began my 180° about face. On the way around, though, I ran smack dab into the middle of…
That Thursday morning I got up stressed and anxious and worn out. Satan had been relentless and I had hardly slept all week.
I had also read Romans 8:30 that week…
And those he predestined, he also called…
…and the enemy twisted that verse to make me even more anxious. I thought, “What if I’m not predestined? What if God isn’t calling me? How will I know?”
As I got ready to go I had nothing left inside – or so I thought.
In the car on the way to meet the Tucker’s for breakfast, Satan redoubled his efforts. Under his influence I kept thinking, “I can’t admit to Bro. Johnny that I’m not saved – that will sound like I’m blaming his father for not doing a good job. How embarrassing will that be? Plus what about Mama and Daddy? They’ll know I’ve been lying to them all these years. They’ll be so hurt. How can I do that to them?”
The atmosphere in the car felt suffocating – the presence of the enemy was almost palpable. The “reason” and “logic” why I couldn’t go through with this was about to win out when “He” finally broke through: the Holy Spirit, the comforter, the “still small voice.”
Amid the cacophony in my head, He spoke to me and showed me where those thoughts and fears all week long had been coming from, who their author was. But by that time I didn’t know how to ignore that voice and clear my head enough to turn away from the life of sin I was mired in.
Then He reminded me of the final “P” point of my pastor’s message on the blood of Jesus that past Sunday: he had said we can “plead” the blood of Jesus, something I remembered learning when I younger. Pleading the blood of Jesus, he said, is a way of attacking Satan based on the power of Jesus’ blood. He said that Satan isn’t impressed with who you are, what you’ve done, or who you know; but he is impressed by the blood of Jesus, the one thing that can – already has, actually – defeated him.
To plead the blood of Jesus, he said, you need to be very specific – and it has to be out loud, because you want the enemy to hear it.
So now there were three voices vying for attention in that car – the voice of the enemy, the voice of the Holy Spirit, and the voice of a desperate, scared, lost guy. That last voice sounded something like this, shaky at first, but gradually speaking with authority – not my own, of course:
“I plead the blood of Jesus on myself right now and on this car and on this meeting with the Tuckers. Satan, you have no power here. You need to go and leave me alone.”
Suddenly, there was silence…and peace. And then there was the still small voice again, speaking words of encouragement and comfort; not words I could actually understand, but, as Paul describes them in Romans 8:26:
…groans that words cannot express.
But they were the most precious groans I had ever heard. I was on my way to becoming…
A Sinner Saved by Grace…Finally
During breakfast, Bro. Johnny and Judy and I caught up and looked at pictures of their kids (who were no longer kids) and their grandchildren; we ate and had coffee; and not once did either of them ambush me about my spiritual life. That wasn’t why they were there.
You see, they were just in town for the Southern Baptist Convention and wanted to see me and catch up while they were in town – or so they thought. We all know better now. God had sent them to be salt and light to me.
As we were walking out of the restaurant after breakfast, I asked them if I could talk to them a moment. I didn’t know where we could go – the restaurant was in a hotel and I wasn’t familiar with it. I turned left and walked a couple of steps around the side of the building, and there was a shady arbor, out of the way of any foot traffic, with two facing benches under a vine covered trellis.
We took a seat and talked, and cried, and prayed while Judy held my hand; when I finally stood up, I was a new creation.
And my life will never be the same again. Never.
So that’s my story. I love to tell it – to me, it just smacks of grace, and love, and mercy; the sort of amazing spiritual victory that only the Creator of the universe could have accomplished. However, did God orchestrate all those events…
- Directing me to a church – a church that was to eventually become my church home – in an effort to hide my lie about being a church member to my parents.
- Using my fear of being discovered to immerse me in His word, join that church, and sit under a Bible-believing-and-teaching pastor for three months.
- Hearing a message about the blood of Jesus and how to plead that blood days before I had to fend off an attack of the enemy.
- Sending an evangelist I knew and trusted practically to my door step to see me.
…just for me, just when I needed it? Or did He use His Spirit to gently move in my heart so that I would be seeking Him just as those events were all playing out?
Again – does it matter?
If you’re reading this and are not a Christian or just aren’t sure, it’s important for you to know that all those years of sitting under the preaching and teaching of Godly men and women, spending hours in church, having my name on the church role, living with the legacy of Christian parents and grandparents – none of those things made one bit of difference in where I will spend eternity.
There is only one way to heaven. In Romans 10:9, Paul says:
If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
There is no other way…there is no other truth…there is no other hope.
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