20 February 2007

February 11: the most pivotal day in my life (Biblical lessons to learn)

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." Plus, one's conversion can be instructive (1 Timothy 1:16). 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 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 their prayers, and 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. 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.

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 1:17). 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's 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 (except, I suppose, in cases where someone is converted reading the Hebrew OT or the Greek NT, alone) imperfect means. 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 do 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 mind, 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


FX Turk said...

The Spirit, Scripture, an evangelist, your own reason, the eternal decree of God and love {shudder} working together to save you?

Dude: that sounds like theology to me. It sounds like something is going on apart from random lightning bolts of regeneration falling from the sky.

Count me in.

Unknown said...

Thank you for reminding us that it is God who chooses to communicate his gospel through sinful man. Perhaps, so we can't take the credit for it, and that glory goes back to God.
Thanks for the encouragement.

DJP said...

Garet: It is a little (a LITTLE like) like the political discussion I have every election time. People tell me they won't vote for the lesser of two evils. I reply that EVERY vote, at its best, is for the lesser of two evils.

So it isn't a choice between perfect evangelism—though that should be our aim—and imperfect evangelism. Insofar as that is what people are thinking, they'll do like perfectionists do on Election Day.

Stay home.

DJP said...

Well, yes. And I'm always happy to point out which one that is!


Gary Bisaga (aka fool4jesus) said...

I am with you, brother. How many of us have been saved by perfect evangelists? Raise hands? Surely it's true that very imperfect Gospel presentations can lead to false "conversions." But so can more perfect ones. Is a perfect presentation more likely to lead to a more mature Christian life? I doubt it.

Similarly, it seems to me that God will bring his truth to us if He wishes, regardless of how we were saved - in other words those He justifies, through whatever means, He will also sanctify. God used C.S. Lewis to convert me 10 years ago, in the midst of an entirely apostate Episcopal church, later through anti-Lordship salvation and Calvary Chapel theology; yet several years later He opened my eyes to the truth of the doctrines of grace.

In other words, it seems to me that what "we are saved by" is not always "what we are saved to."

Anonymous said...

Maybe we can change the maxim to: Who we are save by is whom we are saved to.
Ok, doesn't make perfect English, but it seems a better fit for the topic.

DJP said...

I like the sound of it, "E." Being a Calvinist, the phrase "you save them" gives me the shudders. I know Paul says something similar, once, in 1 Corinthians 9:22. But most of us aren't exactly what we were when we were saved. We've moved in one direction or another regarding Calvinism, dispensationalism, eschatology, baptism, charismaticism, church government, etc.

northWord said...

What an excellent, wonderfully discerned series this has been Dan. Your post today is especially high impact, good stuff . . . such a blessing to me particularily now. You've driven home points that are sorely needed these days.

Unless pride has pierced the heart, as it is often at the core of dissonance, there can be no raised eyebrow to this.
It's just your experience, beautifully told and what an excellent witness tool, Jesus really was a good carpenter. ;)

Thank you Father for using Dan, Thank you Dan for your servanthood. May we all recognise when God wants to use us and simply just go out and serve our King, putting on the faith, and the grace of the Holy Spirit alone. Amen.

HOOKM14 said...

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)

AMEN: Now where is our action point as beleivers in sharing of His sovereign mercey?

Isaiah 45:19 - I have not spoken in secret, from somewhere in a land of darkness; I have not said to Jacob's descendants,'Seek me in vain.'I, the LORD, speak the truth; I declare what is right.

Travis said...

This has been an edifying series of posts, and it is helpful to be reminded of these lessons.

Obviously, God perfectly saves through imperfect means. This does not imply that I should set out to "imperfectly" evangelize, but try as I might it's always imperfect. Probably because I am. I liked the monkey too. That picture has been filed for future use. Thanks!

Speaking of things filed for future use, this Centuri0n quote: "Sounds like something is going on apart from random lightning bolts of regeneration falling from the sky" has been duly filed. I'm not sure in what context I'll ever be able to use it, but I liked it. Wonder if I can find a cool cartoon graphic to illustrate that point?

donsands said...

"Don't assume that this man or woman is beyond the gospel."

Ananias had a hard time when the Lord Himself told him Paul was saved.

It's a difficult frame of mind sometimes. But greater than that frame of mind, is the truth that God saves unlovable blasphemers. I was one as well.

Thanks for the God glorifying testimony. And for the encouragement.

DJP said...

Hookem—your screen name, your profile picture, your location....

You're killing me.

Anonymous said...

donsands (et al.),
It is a difficult frame of mind. Even worse is the one I sometimes find myself in: I don't want God to save a particular man or woman. But not because they are "too far gone" to be saved, instead, because I find I enjoy their "unsavedness" (what a terrible thing to say, I know!). I know that when God saves them, they will become new people with new desires and that old nature which I have enjoyed (I guess, trying enjoy sin by proxy) will be brought into submission to Christ.

Rick Potter said...

"...sounds like something is going on apart from random lighting bolts of regeneration falling from the sky."

"He covers ⌊His⌋ hands with lightning
and commands it to hit its mark."

Holman Christian standard version.
(Job 36:32)


HOOKM14 said...

djp: just liven the dream, fighten the fight, you know the "fisher of men" thing.

Love your stuff. Have to re-read 3 & 4 times for them to process. You know us truck driven, blue staters, a little slow at times. Keep up the fight my brother.

Anonymous said...

Hon, what you dexcribed as a voice is exactly how God communicates specifics to His children and anyone else He decided to...I had the same experience before I made Him Lord, myself....He still speaks, with that still small voice.

You know it when you "hear" it.

donsands said...

I just thought of this in John's Epistle as I read these last few comments:

"So they again called the man who was blind, and said to him, 'Give God the glory! We know that this Man is a sinner!'
He answered and said, 'Whether He is a sinner, I do not know. One thing I know that though I was blind, now I see.'
.... Jesus heard that they had cast him out; and when He had found him, he said to him, 'Do you believe in the Son of God?'" John 9:24-25;35

This blind man then said "Lord I believe!" And he worshipped Him.

A great portion of Scripture to study.
Very appropriate with this post I thought.

Travis said...


You asked "Does any of this make sense?" I'm not the one you were asking, but I'll say that your comment didn't make any sense to me. I wondered if you'd read the whole post? All three in the series?

I'm a recent commenter, but I've lurked here since the Pyromaniac days. I honestly do not think the tone has become "meaner". IMO, the tone of this blog, and its precursor, is respectfully edgy; not mean.

DJP said...

DonOne thing I know that though I was blind, now I see

In my earliest days as a Christian, I remember quoting that for myself. I didn't know a lot, but I knew that.

Stefan Ewing said...

I found this blog via Tom in the Box.

Wow, a fascinating faith journey, and not too different from my own. I held Christians—especially the evangelical variety—in varying degrees of contempt before God saved me. I never got caught up in something like Religious Science, but I was one of the millions who believe that Jesus was an exemplary moral teacher and nothing more...your ideas of how Jesus must have been "wrong" on some things rang so true for me—how wrong we were in contrast!

Why does God call wretched atheists like us? You've been in his loving embrace for 30 years, but I'm just starting on my journey...I may have a lot to learn from reading your posts here on a regular basis.

I'm sure God knows no such thing as "imperfect" means in bringing about true rebirth in the Spirit. Soon after God saved me, he extended a sign to me that I really had been saved through the agency of my proudly atheist mother, who would be downright appalled to know she was doing God's work.

Jmv7000 said...

It has been encouraging to read some of everyone's blurps on how they were saved. Pretty amazing post and amazing accounts; what love shown to His enemies.

I was evanglized by someone "cold-turkey" in Barnes and Noble.

Leberwurst said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leberwurst said...

I don’t get how you think Dan is promoting the use of an incomplete or unsound Gospel presentation… It seems to me that any attempt to reach the lost with the truth of God’s word by a child of God will produce the results that God wills “My word will not return void but will accomplish that for which I sent it forth” (sorry for the paraphrase off the top of my head) Dan isn't saying we should not strive to present the most accurate, God honoring Gospel we can, but that in some way our lives are also a kind of Gospel insofar as they are Christ like and we are speaking the Truth in Love. I know that I was invited to church by someone who had no theological training, had been a believer for a very short time, and was far from completely sanctified, but at least he cared enough about me that he wanted to tell me about the Christ whom he loved and who died for him! I am amazed at the misinterpretations of some who come here to post comments, it seems as if every minor imperfection is picked at like a scab that never heals, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone” Thanks Dan for a fine illustration of the mercy of God in using imperfect people to save his beloved from out of this world for His Glory!

Catez said...

I think professional, full-time arguers have an important ministry. But their ministry isn't most of ours.

Glad you said that :) I think sometimes that there is a lot of valuable stuff on the internet, but it can appear as if the "professional" arguing is the main thrust, and in reality for most of us it isn't.

Catez said...

Wow. I love bookshops - being evangelised in Barnes and Noble would have been something. Made me smile reading that. :)

donsands said...

Amen Dan.

I remember when God began shaping my heart, that the name of Jesus Christ took on a whole new meaning to me.
I remember opening a Bible (RSV) and going to Romans and reading it, thinking this will teach me about being a Roman Catholic.
I remember going to Confession to the priest, and saying "It's be 18 years since I've done this." And getting my 10 Hail Mary's and 10 Our Father's, and not finishing them.
The Lord is way to patient and gracious.

Unknown said...

Although we are all saying here that God is sovereign, there is a lot of damage that is done by false presentations of the gospel. Particularly by people who have been 'converted' and then fall away. Are these the people who are referred to in Hebrews 6 as "having tasted the heavenly gift"? There is no harder person than someone who perceives that "they tried Christianity, but it didn't work for them"

Its that old tension between God's sovereignty and Man's Responsibility.

Unknown said...

thanks Dan. that was a perfect illustration of what discipleship must be like. we just heard it this morning in chapel (no, not tms).

discipleship must have the building of relationships as its beginning, and, dare i say it, in LOVE (= genuine concern for the other person and their eternal soul).

i think that sometimes we get so bogged down with wanting to be correct that we end up staying quiet for fear of being wrong.

but, of course, we should teach and live the biblical Gospel of God, for that is the only power of God for salvation. there is nothing in me.

encouraged ...

Micky said...

About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

Peace Be With You

Eugene said...

Although there is "no one way" for someone to be saved, I think we should always keep in mind as we are witnessing that "God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble."

We shouldn't share the Gospel with a proud, arrogant person, until they have first been humbled by the Law of God with a real knowledge of their sinfulness and need for a Savior.

For a full treatment of this subject, google "Ray Comfort - Hell's Best Kept Secret".

Us said...

I first read this months ago, and I keep coming back to it and coming back to it, and emailing it to my friends. There is so much to learn from what you have written. I find it so encouraging and helpful. And exciting. I just love this whole story and analysis. Thank you for taking the time and thought to write it. It is continually bearing fruit. Well done. THANKS.