11 July 2011

How Skepticism Masquerading as Christianity Almost Cost Me My Soul

A Word of Personal Testimony
by Phil Johnson



   came to Christ after being steeped for several years in the rankest brand of liberal Methodism. In the church I attended as an adolescent, the pastor and nearly all of my Sunday school teachers treated the Bible as a collection of legends, concocted by fallible human authors. They taught me that the Bible is scientifically and historically unreliable—but, they said, it contains moral principles that are good and helpful. Moreover, they said, it is great literature.

They clearly did not believe the Bible is true or trustworthy. In fact, they were convinced the Bible could be dangerous if you took it at face value, wihout demythologizing it. In effect, they denied that the Bible was either reliable or authoritative—and yet they claimed to hold it in high esteem.

Once while I was in high school, I pressed one of my Sunday-school teachers with questions when she said that the stories about Jesus' miracles were merely fables with moral lessons—not to be taken as lieral truth. I asked how she could be so sure of that, when she seemed skeptical of what the Bible actually said about itself. I petulantly suggested that if all the tales in the about Jesus were fictional, perhaps we were wasting our time talking about them in Sunday-school. I wondered out loud whether it migh be a better use of my time to stay home and watch the NFL pregame shows on TV.

So the pastor summoned me to his office and cautioned me that it sounded like I was flirting with fundamentalism. I had never heard that word before. But I could tell by the way he said it that it wasn't a good thing. He spent about an hour explaining to me why the Bible is important even though it isn't true. Yet he flatly denied that there is anything supernatural about the Bible. It's stories arent to be believed, and its teachings are not to be applied without carefully sifting the good principles it teaches from the "supernatural nonsense." He said things to me I knew he would never admit in a sermon, and by the time he had finished, he had persuaded me that the Bible was not to be taken seriously. (I was never able to take that pastor's preaching seriously again, either.)

That was about 1967 or 1968. By 1970, I had quit going to church altogether. I did, in fact, spend my Sunday mornings watching television. I would have become a convinced and devoted pagan if God had not reached out and sovereignly drawn me to Christ.



There was a meaninglessness to my life that I could not endure. I tried getting involved in politics and music and other things to feed my mind and keep me interested in life. I figured that whatever the truth was about God, He would accept me if I strove to be wise and good. But my heart was empty.

Then one night, almost on a whim, I picked up my Bible and began reading it. It was the first time I ever remember seriously reading more than a verse or two of Scripture to see what the Bible taught. And on that night, the Lord opened my eyes to the truth of Christ.

I set out to read the entire book of 1 Corinthians, and the early chapters just totally crushed all the confidence I had in my own wisdom and left me utterly without hope. I felt like Corinthians 3:18-19 was a hard gut-punch: "Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God." By the time I got to the end of chapter 3, I understood that I was utterly without hope before God.

But I kept reading. And when I got to chapter 12, I read this in verse 3: "Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says "Jesus is accursed!" and no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit."

I don't think I had a clue what that meant in the context of 1 Corinthians. I could not have given you even an elementary explanation of the problems Paul was dealing with in the Corinthian church. But I somehow knew from that verse that Jesus is Lord, He demands surrender to Him as Lord, and no one can truly own Him as Lord without the Holy Spirit's work in that person's life. I embraced Christ as Lord and Savior then and there.

The very next day, a friend called me unexpectedly and invited me to an evangelistic meeting. He had no clue that I had been wrestling with spiritual questions, but he went to a fundamentalist church where the pastor had more or less made it a requirement for everyone in the church to invite at least one person to attend this gospel crusade. I knew this guy only as an acquaintance, so I was surprised by the call. (I think he expected it to cost him a friendship, and he figured I was the most expendable "friend" he had.) I took it as divine providence, and I eagerly accepted the invitation.



On the evening I attended, the preacher was preaching on the crucifixion, and he started with Isaiah 53. He also quoted a lot from Psalm 22. I didn't know very much about the Bible, but I knew enough to understand that Isaiah was an Old Testament prophet whose writings pre-dated Christ by centuries, and the psalms were older yet. In all my years in that liberal denomination, I can't recall ever hearing that Isaiah or the psalms prophesied the death of Christ.

I didn't, however, know enough to bring a Bible to a meeting like that, so when I noticed the guy who invited me was not paying close attention, I reached over and took the Bible off his lap and began checking to verify that these verses giving so much explicit detail about the crucifixion really were in the Old Testament. When I saw it for myself, any doubt I had ever entertained about whether the Bible is to be taken seriously—all the liberal skepticism I had been force-fed by unbelieving Sunday school teachers—vanished instantly and forever.

(The sermon was a pretty good one, too—explaining how Christ's death on the cross made atonement for sins by satisfying the penalty God demands.)

From that night to this day, I have never entertained one moment's doubt or uncertainty about the power and authority of God's Word. The whole course of my life was radically changed by the Word of God alone, and there is only one explanation for it: Because "the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12).

Phil's signature

44 comments:

Stefan said...

A great testimony. The Bible takes on a profoundly different nature when we begin to actually take what it says at face value, doesn't it?

Thomas Louw said...

I had a very similar experience.
Mine came later down my road as a Christian. I went to a Seminary to be equipped for the ministry but, was taught the sceptic and liberal views.

One lecture once made a brief remark that he thought the sceptics were wrong and once some creationist guys gave a presentation, the cartoons and stuff they used to make their case just succeeded in undermining their own case.

After four years my confidence in the Scripture was riddled with holes, my childlike faith shattered and all hope for an effective ministry sank into the deep blue.

Since then I have been fighting my way back seeking answers craving the elusive.

I have made some ground but, I am more convinced than ever that only through grace and the Sovereign intervention of God will I ever find firm footing again.

Pedro said...

Praise the Lord because He prepared you beforehand for glory.
Thanks Phil for the encouragement and opportunity to worship our Triune God!

Robert said...

I had a similar experience with growing up Catholic...except it was a bit the opposite. They trhow in other miracles and such and expect you to believe it, even though the Bible doesn't support it. A childhood friend of mine who went to TMS and is now a pastor broke down the differences between Scripture and what the RCC puts forth and then I started opening the Bible and reading. God then opened my eyes and showed me the truth. My life has been continually changing as I submit more and more to the Lordship of Christ.

Thank you for sharing your testimony...I hope that there are some people lost in liberal churches who may be lead here by God. This is one reason it is important for all of us to share our testimonies...many other people can relate and God can work through that to bring the Gospel to the lost.

mrsdkmiller said...

This sounds amazingly like my husband's conversion -- from the liberal Methodism of the 70s to a hounds of heaven conversion after exposure to the Word of God. He designs the means and directs the paths, prepares the ground and sows the seed, brings life and waters the tender leaf. In Him we live and move and have our being.

Frank Turk said...

That God -- calling his people to Himself through his word.

How arrogant. I'd write him an open letter exact that's exactly what happened to me.

stratagem said...

Wow. Wow. WOW.
I have so many reactions to this on so many levels. What a wonderful testimony.

You are so blessed that you went to a liberal church that had taken Bible-dismissal to the extreme, plus was actually honest enough with you to fully admit it. Most churches that are Bible-dismissers never admit it to those in the pews, thus the people just go on being subtly deceived and never are given as clear a choice as you had. The Lutheran church I grew up in had some pastors who were similarly-minded as your Methodist pastor was, but would never admit it except in private and then only when confronted.

The Bible-dismissers are kind of in the "Jesus was a good man and a good teacher, but nothing else" frame of mind. Which doesn't make much sense given what Jesus actually said about himself, but never mind that!

Thanks for sharing this. It really touched me as few things have. POWERFUL!

JackW said...

Sounds a lot like my experience except it was an Evangelical (yeah, right) Lutheran Church. It wasn’t until I read the New Testament with a sincere desire to understand what it was saying that life began anew for me. Where do you suppose that sincere desire came from?

That may be why I dislike a lot of today’s evangelical methods and instead just encourage people to read it for themselves. There’s power in the Word.

mike said...

Two things about your testimony stand out to me. One is that as an unbeliever you had no interest in a watered-down world-friendly pretense of the gospel that might have been considered more seeker-friendly by the "experts". You would have preferred to stay home from Church and watch TV.

The other is you did not need to read a dozen books on evidential apologetics to see that the Bible = God's word = truth. You just had to read the Bible while the Spirit worked on your heart, and were convinced before you finished 1 Corinthians, the first book you started.

Eric said...

Phil,

Always a blessing to read/hear the testimony of the power of the Word and Spirit. Praise God for his mercy and grace displayed in your life!

Zoarean said...

That church brings to memory the dire warnings of Harold Lindsell's Battle for the Bible, while your testimony proves that God can still save even the one raised with such beliefs. Thankfully, that shows it is God that performs the miracle of salvation.

Anon A. Mousse said...

Oh, the irresistible grace of God that makes it impossible for anyone to keep us away from the Savior to whom He divinely presents us!

What a tremendous testimony to the power of salvation of the Logos.

Robert Warren said...

Isaiah 55:10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it."


Great post, Phil!

BTW, I think I heard you mention in an interview that Jack Van Impe was involved in that meeting.

Johnny Dialectic said...

I didn't grow up in chruch. I came to Christ via Billy Graham. When I joined a church I didn't really know about differences. It was Presbyterian church. They were nice people, but the Bible wasn't preached. It was topical, situational. I thought that's how it was supposed to be. But when I hungered for more, it wasn't there. I started to study on my own. I was seeing things in the Bible that didn't seem to comport with what the minister sometimes said, or how he prayed. I started asking questions that the minister gave only cursory answers to. Shortly after I had no church. When it came time to find another, I visited a place where the minister was preaching from the Bible itself. I thought that was a novel idea for Christian church. I knew I was home. And the inerrant Word became living and active in my life.

Rachael Starke said...

So much encouragement in this. Thank you.

Rob said...

This was a wonderful testimony, and I think you really nailed what I see as a foundational flaw with liberal denominations: if the Scriptures are to be read as fiction, then what is the point of gathering in a liberal church? Just a weekly gathering for a good dosage of self-righteous moralism?
What's sad is when you have family members who are so steeped in that model of religion, and who so deep into it that they won't hear any objections.

~Mark said...

Thank you for sharing this Phil.

I remember getting sucked in for a short time by the "transparency" and the "vulnerability" of certain bloggers and preachers who claimed to be only having a difficult time "wrestling" with God.

It wasn't long before God opened my eyes to these skeptics, and the fact that they all had the same goal. That goal was not to dig for understanding, but to foster and nurture doubt on a permanent basis, moving people away from God.

You probably wouldn't be surprised to learn that most of them are adherents to the Emergent Conversation.

donsands said...

Speak of nonsense. If Christ is not risen then we are all fools.
I'm supposing these Methodists didn't belive Jesus rose from the dead.

Thanks for sharing how our Lord saved you. He will seek out all His lost sheep.
He found me, and changed my heart so that I was a Cornelius for a season (I think). Then the Gospel came bursting into my heart and mind, and I knew that I knew.
(even yet as a Charasmatic-Christian).
Then I heard an exceptional teaching on election, "Chosen by Grace", and it overwhelmed my soul. And that was my Reformed heart's birth.

Have a great week in our Savior's sovereign love and peace. There's nothing in this world like the peace of God; knowing that He smiles upon us as we trust His promises and truth.

Bobby Grow said...

Encouraging, word, Phil! God's Word is powerful, like a hammer or fire even ;-).

Phil Johnson said...

Robert Warren: "I think I heard you mention in an interview that Jack Van Impe was involved in that meeting."

Yes, that's right, bizarre as it sounds. It was a massive city-wide crusade at the Tulsa fairgrounds in April 1971 while Van Impe was still in his fundamentalist phase. He had a famous message called "The Greatest Love Story Ever Told," and it was a very clear and thorough gospel presentation with a careful explanation of the atonement. That was his sermon the night I attended.

Van Impe has since become a living caricature of bad religious television. It's too bad, because I know he knows better. It was nice last month to see that he finally severed his sickeningly obsequious relationship with TBN and the Crouch family. It would be nice to see him regain all the sound doctrinal convictions he seemed to throw off when he renounced the fundamentalist movement.

christianlady said...

So incredible to read. As a kid, you picked up on the frauds...and they expected you to fall in line with them. For what purpose? I don't know why anyone would make a career out of church life without faith.

donsands said...

"It would be nice to see him regain all the sound doctrinal convictions..."
And Rexella too.

DJP said...

He lost Rexella? What?

donsands said...

No, he could never lose Rexella,(I don't think). I just meant for her to regain her convictions with Jack.
They are like "two peas in a pod".

Solatude said...

I praise God for your testimony, Phil. Thank you for sharing it. I hope its okay if I share a short version of my own.

When I was 18 a friend of mine died in my arms which brought me to the realization of my own mortality. I began questioning the determinations I held regarding life and death based on my "18-year-old infallibility". Nightmares and flashbacks plagued my mind for weeks, and I found neither solace nor answers anywhere.

My grandmother asked me to church often, but I always made some excuse not to go with her. After the death of my friend, however, she wore me down, and I eventually acquiesced. Surprise, surprise, surprise! Her church just happened to be the one pastored by the exact same man who delivered the eulogy at my friend's funeral...his words still replaying in my mind.

After three months of attending this church, hearing the Gospel preached, and struggling against the knowledge of the truth, I surrendered. I was saved on Sunday, November 12, 1989, in that pastor's office where I found the answers for which I was searching. That night I was baptized with four others.

That was 21 years ago. I miss my friend and my grandmother, who is now gone to her reward with the Lord, but I'm grateful beyond the expression of human language that I received the testimony God gave me through them. My friend died in auto accident as he was travelling about 60 seconds ahead of me on the same road. Sixty seconds is how close I came to entering hell when I was 18.

Grace and peace to the saints of our Lord Jesus Christ.

thomas4881 said...

Any ridicule of the Bible is blasphemy.

The Seeking Disciple said...

Praise God for your salvation brother. I enjoyed reading this much.

Kirby said...

I LOVE to hear a testimony of how God could unbury a man from the many layers of false religion masquerading as Christianity and like a Phoenix, bring him up from the ashes to a glorious salvation. I am so happy just reading this.

And to think that he would let you partner with a man so diametrically opposed to that as your Methodist pastor was. Amazing Ironies.
Amazing Grace.

patriciazell said...

God is faithful!

kelleykimblesjournal said...

I think many people who came of age in the 60s and 70s shared this experience. So much damage was done in so little time, but praise God for His ability to overcome all the man-made obstacles. Reading this after linking to Dan Phillips's "How To Make Your Very Own Jesus" strengthens my resolve to always be ready to give an answer not only for the hope that lies within me, but a testimony of coming to know Christ in spite of all the falsehoods and platitudes that I'd learned as a youth.

Chris Poe said...

Phil,

Thanks be to God for the work He has done in your life.

My background is similar to yours, being raised in a liberal UMC in the Deep South. But I never even bothered to ask those kinds of questions, as I couldn't really be bothered with the Bible at all in those days. This was in the 80's. By that time, the ministers were a little more straightforward and open in proclaiming from the pulpit that there was no literal hell, that it doesn't matter whether or not you believe the crossing of the Red Sea and the Exodus was myth or literally happened, etc. (And in the latter case that was one of the more conservative ministers.)

By my mid 20's, I was a blasphemer who denied the deity of Christ. Around that time I basically made a golden calf out of politics as well.

After a few years, the Lord started drawing me to Himself. While I was still a blasphemer, I never considered myself an atheist and had an interest in the supernatural. I got into some new agey if not explicitly occultic teachings, and it was actually some Dave Hunt books that pointed me back to the Scriptures as the only infallible rule for faith and practice.

I had always had a disdain for popular evangelicalism, so Hunt's criticisms of it hit home with me, along with the implicit debunking of my ideas about meditation. This was a few years before he started in on Calvinism. Within the month I providentially happened on some John MacArthur books.

The empty pews in the liberal mainline churches testify to the fact that, absent the societal pressures and expectations that extended into the mid 20th Century, there is no compelling reason to attend religious meetings where the Bible is so plainly disregarded as a collection of fables and superstitious nonsense. One can get feel-good messages from self-help books, Oprah, or Joel Osteen.

sunlightwest said...

I grew up in the Methodist Church in the 60's and was not only absorbing this stuff but was a youth leader who encouraged others to embrace that false biblical view. Many of my friends from that time never escaped that feel-good religion.
A wonderful testimony, Phil.
(I had the same experience with Isaiah 53)

thomas4881 said...

Luke 24:44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Robert said...

What Chris Poe wrote at 9:33 brought something to mind for me. I have seen a bunch of "Fellowship Churches" springing up around me and I think this is what has come in to replace the teaching of the Word. People get together, feel good, and enjoy time with each other, but the focus is on "fellowship". When I look in the Bible, the focus of any assembly of worship is always God. In the church, we come together to worship Him through the reading of His Word and lifting up songs that honor Him and not ourselves.

bsoist said...

@mike Being "seeker" oriented is just an excuse churches use to fill the pews. The easiest way to fill seats is to teach what people want to hear (or nothing at all - or "contemplate" everything). No one is offended so everyone stays.

Real seekers, like Phil and me, and presumably many of of the commenters here, want truth. If I'm not going to hear truth, I'd rather watch TV too. :)

bsoist said...

What do we mean "face value?"

Is there not room for discussion between "I believe every word of Scripture" and "All of Scripture is fables and nonsense?"

Psalm 50:10 says that "the cattle on a thousand hills" belong to God. Surely there are more than a thousand hills on Earth. Not every hill has cattle on it. Is it possible that cattle are always restricted to those thousand? Or does someone else own some of the cattle?

I can think of at least a half-dozen ways to interpret that passage at "face value."

Ken Silva said...

Phil,

I appreciated your writing this post, and I appreciate you as well.

In fact, I'm listening agin this morning to your excellent sermon "Marching Orders for a Backslidden Church."

Even more applicable right now my brother. If there's a transcript of that somewhere, would you please email it to me?

Solameanie said...

Phil,

The Van Impe thing is interesting to me. I've never really been a fan or follower of his, as something about him gave me the willies. But I didn't know he had a "fundamentalist phase" that he renounced. Do you have a link or more info on that? I'm curious to know what he said at the time.

As an aside, one of the things that bugged me about him was that he seemed way too comfortable with Roman Catholicism.

Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...

If memory serves me right, A.W. Pink had an issue similar to Phil's, but different in that he quit going to church all together.

He was in an era and time when Calvin's teachings (The Doctrines of Grace), were not being widely accepted, or accepted at all by his contemporaries. So I believe he found it more suitable to stay at home and read the Word, then be in the company of people who disregarded the truth.

bp said...

Great testimony of God's grace in your life, Phil, thank you.

craigbenno1 said...

No wonder you have struggled with the demonic / angelic elements of the Scriptures in the past.

Thanks for your honest testimony...praise God!

JS Allen said...

"I think he expected it to cost him a friendship, and he figured I was the most expendable 'friend' he had."

:-)

Penned Pebbles said...

Praising God for rescuing His sheep!

Stacy McDonald said...

Great testimony! Thanks for sharing!