Part of a series of articles, entitled 20 years a Christian, recalling some of the important lessons I have learned in nearly two decades as a believer in Jesus.
Last week I wrote about how much of my early Christian life was characterized by an endemic man-centeredness. Salvation was simply about man going to heaven. Worship was about man being made to feel good inside. Ministry was about what man could do to get people saved. And being saved was, of course, ultimately up to the will of man to accept or reject. Some of these things I may have felt uncomfortable saying out loud, and in so many words. And I never would have imagined, at the time, that my practices and ways of thinking actually put “the creature rather than the Creator” at (or at least very near) the center of the Christian universe. But it was so – and not only for myself, but for many an American evangelical.
But, as I wrote last time, God used a sermon called Ten Shekels and a Shirt to snap me out of it. The preacher, Paris Reidhead, absolutely dismantled my worldview … and replaced it with a glorious vision of a Christianity with God on the throne – a Christianity in which people repent, not merely to get out of hell, but because God is worthy of our obedience and holiness and praise; a Christianity in which people come to Jesus, not simply to get something out of Him and then go their way, but to live their lives in His power and for His glory; a perspective on ministry that serves the Lord, not for the purposes of success and self-gratification, but because Christ is worthy to be proclaimed, and served, and loved … regardless of the outcome. O yes, we receive tremendous blessings, and comforts, and promises in Christ! Never mistake or minimize that fact! But Christianity, Reidhead showed me, is about something far bigger, even, than that! Christ died, and the Christian faith has been established, and the whole universe exists, first and foremost, for the glory of God!
That sermon came into my ears – and its truths became more and more clear to me – in the summer before my final year of seminary. And, of course, in seminary one finds himself wrestling with the age old question of whether man’s salvation is rooted in God’s predestination, or in man’s free will. And so I had begun to hear some pretty good biblical arguments that pointed to God’s sovereignty in salvation; that showed me that we only ever choose God because He has first chosen us, and predestined us to believe. But, man-centered as I was, it was hard for me to admit that it was so. It was hard for me to let go of the desire that a man or woman should, at least in some small way, be able to say of him or herself (in the words of the English poet, William Ernest Henley):
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
And so I was one of those people who read certain verses in the Bible (about election, predestination, etc.) and said to myself: ‘Well, that obviously can’t mean what it looks like it means.’
But when I heard Mr. Reidhead preaching about Christianity, and the world, and all of existence revolving, not around the happiness of man, but around the glory of God … the penny began to drop! Because (unlike some good Christians who hold to free will because they earnestly believe it to be the most scriptural position), I had been holding on to my views about man’s free will and self-determination, not because I saw them in the Bible, but rather because they fit with my larger philosophy – a worldview which often placed man on quite the pedestal. If you think of Christianity, in other words, as primarily being about man’s salvation, and man’s happiness, and man’s eternal bliss … well then it will be very difficult for you to conceive any possibility of man not also being the determining factor in the receipt of those blessings (no matter what you may turn up to the contrary in Romans, Ephesians, or Peter)! But, now that I was being stripped of that man-centered philosophy; now that the glory of God began to fill up the windshield of my worldview … it began to occur to me that, if those passages about election and predestination really did mean what it looked like they meant, then so be it! If Christianity really is all about the Creator (and not, first of all, His creatures), then God can do with His creatures anything He chooses! I still had to make a biblical determination, of course, as to exactly what He has chosen (or not chosen) to do. But if I should discover that 'anything He chooses' includes predestining certain people for salvation (and not predestining others), then so be it! He is God, after all! We exist for His glory, not our own!
Now, as with my prior man-centeredness … I am not sure I could have put all of this new line reasoning into so many words back in my final year of seminary. But that is what was stirring in my heart. I was learning to let God be God! Having been shorn of the man-centered worldview that had kept me passing over all those verses about election and predestination, I was now free to actually hear what the Bible had to say. And, with my new view of God firmly in place, it didn’t take long before I was convinced that all those passages do mean what they look like they mean. And I was not only okay with that, I rejoiced in it! Because it glorified God, not man! I chose Jesus, yes … but only because He first chose me! And in embracing that fact, I was finally letting God be God!