06 August 2009

February 11: the most pivotal day in my life (Biblical lessons to learn [requested classic re-post])

by Dan Phillips

The first word which I wrote unto you, O Pyrophilus—and the second — related the Lord's dealings in my life. They started in the eternal counsels of the Trinity, and worked out in my own history, culminating in my conversion on February 11, 1973.

But my conversion featured some aspects that probably raised an eyebrow or three hundred. I spoke of a voice, I read C. S. Lewis, I "walked the aisle," I was read the Four Spiritual Laws, I "prayed the prayer." What's up with all that?

One's conversion can be instructive (1 Timothy 1:16). I hope mine own is. And so, now, these observations, musings, questions, and/or lessons:

1. Do not decide that any living person cannot be saved. Know that I was virulently anti-Christian. I was known campus-wide as a Christian-hater. I was, if you will, evangelistically anti-Christian. I was like Elymas in Acts 13: if I saw evangelism going on, I did my best to foil it. I was arrogant, cocky, foul-mouthed, condescending; "formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent" (1 Timothy 1:13). I had contempt for my fellow-cultists who had a "live and let live" attitude towards Christianity. If Christians were engendering false fear, and giving false hope, they should be stopped. And I aimed to stop them.

I'm not sure whether Greg knew all this or not. If he did, it didn't deter him. You see, it says, "The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost" (1 Timothy 1:15). So this bad person you're thinking of not witnessing to — is he really nasty? Is he dead-set against Christ? Is he smarmy, sarcastic, cutting, smug? So then, are you saying that he is a sinner?

Well then, that's great news. See that is exactly the sort Christ came to save! Do not assume that this man or woman is beyond the Gospel. Tell him the truth of Christ straight, with intelligence and love, and leave the rest to God.

2. Sow with hope. Greg was not the first Christian to try to talk to me. Many Christians tried to talk to me, and I blew them off. Some of them have (reportedly) long-since apostatized. Others surely prayed for me. The Lord heard those believing prayers, and He broke up the hard soil of my heart, so that I could receive the good seed, hold it fast, and bear fruit (cf. Mark 4).

Not right away. Not nearly. But eventually.

3. There is no one method of evangelism. Which is the right way to deal with people? The way Jesus dealt with Nicodemus? Or the very different way He dealt with the Syro-Phoenecian woman? Or the distraught father in Mark 9:14-27? Or the woman at the well in John 4? Or the rich young ruler? Or Zacchaeus? Which was the right way?

Of course they all were the right way. Legitimate commonalities can be found among them. Nevertheless, if one doesn't also acknowledge significant differences in tone and approach, one is reading the texts through funny glasses.

To be specific, I believe God has used street preaching. He's used "cold" evangelism, that doesn't necessarily have much more context than, "Nice day. So, has anyone ever told you about Jesus Christ?" God has used tracts (even bad ones), videos, books, billboards, "friendship" evangelism, door-to-door. And He has used altar calls.

He has used them if they had the Gospel in them. Because it is the Gospel, and not our flawless method of presenting the Gospel, that is the power of God resulting in salvation for everyone who believes (Romans 1:6).

If Greg had said to me that first day, after I got into his car, "Did you know that God loves you and Jesus died for your sins?", I might have argued. Or I might have said "Yes, and not interested, respectively." But that would have been our last conversation; I'd just have walked home from then on. It would have slammed my mind shut.

Instead, Greg befriended me, and took the slower approach of building a rapport and credibility, though he had specifically pointed to the door on our first conversation. But it was no pressure; no personal pressure.

Then later, the Holy Spirit applied all the pressure that was needed, and I needed to talk to someone, and Greg was just the man — because I knew he, and his faith, were genuine.

People aren't all plastic figures. They're (we're) complex individuals. One size does not fit all.

4. Show the way of God, but show love as well. I had no interest in hearing about the former from Greg until I'd seen the latter.

I think professional, full-time arguers have an important ministry. But their ministry isn't most of ours. Most of us need to do the hard work of showing love, so as to create a context for the Gospel. It isn't our love that saves anybody, it's the Gospel (Romans 1:16-17). But it can be our love that makes anyone willing to hear the Gospel from us.

Shining as lights in the world (Philippians 2:15) means more than being able articulately to describe light, and contrast it from its opposite. It means showing forth its qualities in a credible witness. It means integrity, and integrity means (among other things) love and grace.


5. Be real. Fairly or (more probably) unfairly, I saw most Christians as sloganeering, shallow, plastic, hypocritical fools. If Greg had only unctuously said, "Yes, friend, I once had problems just as you do. But Jesus fixed all that up, and now I'm perfect and happy all the day!", I'd've cocked an eyebrow, and become scarce.

Instead, Greg affirmed that he'd seen the same inside himself that I was discovering within my own heart. He was "a man of like passions." That helped me want, ultimately, to hear the Word from him. He could point me towards solutions, but they'd been solutions he'd needed and used first.


6. God saves perfectly through imperfect means. It's odd that I should need to make this point to Reformed readers, yet here we are. Who saves? We Reformed loudly shout, "God!" God is the one who foreknows, calls, justifies, glorifies (Romans 8:29-30). God is the one who draws, gives live, redeems, saves.

But He does all this through means (Romans 10:13-17), and those means are without exception imperfect means. (I suppose the exception would be those cases where someone is converted solely through reading the Hebrew OT or the Greek NT.) Or do you think that your evangelism is the exception to that rule? If so, God help you, God help your hearers, and God help those who don't share your perfection.

A brief aside: you may have noted that I did read the Bible before and through the process. I had "studied" the Gospels, enough to be bothered by them. And as I came under conviction, I read the Gospel of John.

There is, to be sure, irony in the fact that God used means in my conversion that I myself would not use today, in evangelism. But if you bristle at my insistence that God used these imperfect means, please re-read my testimony (especially part two) more carefully. You and I share legitimate concerns about what the Four Spiritual Laws, Lewis, and altar calls might either mis-communicate, or leave out. We are concerned about a smaller Savior, a less sinful man, a less sovereign God, a more exalted view of free-will and human decision-making, among other things. These are legitimate concerns.

But NONE of those things made an impact on me, because GOD was using the truth in them to save me.

Read my testimony, and you will see that the elements in all those sources that God pressed home upon my mind were my lostness, my hopelessness, my unbridgeable distance from God due to my sin, Christ's Lordship and Deity, Christ's truth, Christ's uniqueness, and the fact that God called me to find forgiveness through faith in the Jesus Christ presented in the Bible alone.

I daresay that if you have trouble with that Gospel, you have trouble with the Gospel.

So suppose some precise soul had waylaid me on my way down the aisle, dragged me into a side-room, and asked me, "So, you think Jesus is just some problem-solving Mr. Fixit who is at your beck and call, some glorified embodiment of myths and legends, waiting helplessly down at the front of this aisle for your free-will to activate Him at your command? You think you're going to go save yourself? Is that it, hippie-boy?"

I might have said, "I don't know about any of that. But I am convinced that I need Jesus, God's only Son, to save me from the ruin of sin and [garbage] that is me, and bring me to God. Someone down there is going to help me find out how. Jesus is my only hope. Don't try to stop me; I don't want to have to hurt you [cf. Matthew 11:12] — especially in church."

So if your or my view of evangelism leaves us feeling superior to other Jesus-preaching Christians (pace Philippians 1:14-18), as if God saves more people better because of our purity and perfection... just whoa.

If there is something seriously wrong with a Gospel that exalts the sinner, I think there is no less wrong in a Gospel that exalts the preacher.

7. Dude—you said you heard a voice? I said nothing of the sort. I said, "It was as if a voice came back." So what do I think that was? Do I think it was the actual voice of God, brushing Scripture aside to address me directly, by special revelation?

No. I think it was a result of God the Holy Spirit working in my mind to convict me of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8-11). I think the "voice" was my own conscience, but it was the distillation and the culmination of what God had already been impressing on me by an agonizing process that took months and months. It was the focused application of what I'd already seen from the Gospels, laid on my own wretched heart and the destruction of my false foundation. It was nothing like prophetic revelation, which is direct and unmediated.

In sum: I was saved by the sovereign mercy and grace of God, to whom alone be the glory. In my conversion, He used (as He regularly does) "the foolishness of preaching" (1 Corinthians 1:21).

This does not serve to commend our degrading the Gospel by adding our human follies. Nor does it rule out Biblical assessment of evangelistic methods and contents. But it does serve to humble us appropriately, and counsel grace towards others who preach Christ through different means, because it serves to exalt our gracious, saving God.

Dan Phillips's signature

11 comments:

Johnny Dialectic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johnny Dialectic said...

"But it does serve to humble us appropriately, and counsel grace towards others who preach Christ through different means, because it serves to exalt our gracious, saving God."

Thanks, Dan. A fine sentiment after a powerful testimony.

Aaron said...

Amen! I experienced a very slow conversion: growing up in a moderately-liberal church, innoculated to what I thought was Christianity, rejecting it, coming to my wit's end, going to a Christian gathering just to find girls, and it goes on. Looking back, I am amazed that God could love me, that Christ could stoop down to save me, particularly and effectually. I do thank God's human means for bringing me to understand the Gospel, but I thank mostly the Holy Spirit. I say that had God passed me over and left me to my own free will, I would have stood deservingly condemned. What a kind and loving God to override our stubborn rebellion and to give us new hearts, to take away our sins, to clothe us in the perfect righteousness of the Son, to adopt us as sons and heirs of His glorious Kingdom. On a small side note, the L in TULIP is LOVE - effectual and particular LOVE. Yes, it's limited, but that's not the real point. It's actual love - NOT possible love. Christ did die for us, to actually take away our sins.

Anyway, good post!

Terry Rayburn said...

Dan,

"But NONE of those things made an impact on me, because GOD was using the truth in them to save me."

That's it exactly and biblically.

Regarding hearing "A Voice", you explained it well.

By 1976 I had heard the Gospel many times to no apparent avail.

Late one night in my office, unhappy and empty, I re-read a plaque my sister had bought me.

It was a quotation from the Eastern Mysticism you-are-sorta-god blasphemous book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

It read, "It's good to be a seeker, but sooner or later you need to be a finder."

I literally asked the empty room, "Yeah, sure, but what is there to find?"

And, to quote you, Dan, "It was as if a voice came back," and witnessed to my heart, "It's that Jesus that everybody has been telling you about."

And my heart was opened to the Lord Jesus Christ, and I never looked back.

Dan, I really appreciate you (re)sharing your story.

Howard Fisher said...

"Dude—you said you heard a voice? ...No. I think it was a result of God the Holy Spirit working in my mind to convict me of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8-11). I think the "voice" was my own conscience, but it was the distillation and the culmination of what God had already been impressing on me by an agonizing process that took months and months. It was the focused application of what I'd already seen from the Gospels, laid on my own wretched heart and the destruction of my false foundation. It was nothing like prophetic revelation, which is direct and unmediated."

I am glad I am not the only one that had this experience. I remember thinking in the seat while listening to the preacher and believing while being filled with doubts. I remember asking in my mind "What about that ridiculous flood story?" To which the "voice" said, "Put your doubts aside for the moment and the answers will come."

Looking back, this may have been logically or reasonably foolish. But the answer did come in the most "accidental" way.

I had truly believed, yet I struggled for answers with many doubts. Because real answers were out there and finally were found, I have only become a stronger Christian.

There were no local Christians that would or could answer my real questions. Yet God was pleased to save me through weak preaching. I saw my sin. I saw my need for Christ. Even that I only came to see with more clarity as time went on. As one who slipped up the hand and prayed the sinners prayer in a Pentecostal church, I definitely did not fit the Reformed mold. Yet here I am today standing firmly in the Reformed camp by God's grace smiling with internal applause as I read your post.

God Bless

Rachael Starke said...

What a great primer on personal evangelism.

Thanks especially for the reminder about actually embodying the love we proclaim, especially when it's really, really hard.

And also for the reminder that God really can and does save people that hate Him. We've got a lot of those kind in our life and it's tempting to give up.

God doesn't - neither can we!

Carlo Provencio said...

Charles Spurgeon tells that correct doctrine is only one small part of our soul-winning arsenal. Much prayer, seeking after righteousness and holiness, and a deep love for the lost are also things that should be present in our lives. I would hate to think that soul-winning is only for the theologian or the pastor.

great post!

stratagem said...

"Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion."

David Sheldon said...

So - the Spirit, Word, conscience, conviction, salvation in Jesus Christ. Sounds just like Jesus describes the ministry of the Spirit in the Gospel of John!

Thank you for wonderfully describing the "freshness" for you. I concur and you explained your "voice" well. And He was so powerful for you and He sounded so personal that it seemed - "AS IF" IT WERE UNMEDIATED - as if it was the first time it had ever happened and was direct!

Exactly - to His brand new creation - DJP - via Word and Spirit! And for all who call upon Him in salvation! To this the posts bear witness! I say - let's get really "missional" and bear personal witness to the truth of the gospel and the power of the gospel!!!

Dan - Great post and careful thoughts. Testimonies are great!!!

My personal thanks to all at team Pyro. I know of many who read all posts on site and don't necessarily comment. And I think I can say for them that God is using all of you mightily. To teach and be careful and Biblical and "think out loud" in both posts and interaction in comments can be so very very meaningful!

Herding Grasshoppers said...

Brilliant series, Dan.

Mark said...

"This does not serve to commend our degrading the Gospel by adding our human follies. Nor does it rule out Biblical assessment of evangelistic methods and contents."

My thoughts exactly. We should always strive to be biblical whenever possible.

"But it does serve to humble us appropriately, and counsel grace towards others who preach Christ through different means, because it serves to exalt our gracious, saving God."

Ouch...there is some definite conviction for me there. Thanks for the admonishment to rejoice always that the Gospel is being preached and Christ is being exalted instead of me.

"Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from goodwill: The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice." ~Philippians 1:15-18