“Whatever you do, don’t share the Gospel with me?” Those were my exact words to my slightly mystified seminary professor. As he set his coffee down, I could tell that he was holding back in an effort to allow me to process what I was thinking. “To be honest,” I said, “I don’t think God loves me. I feel like He is angry at me. I feel like I have prayed the “prayer” over a thousand times and He won’t hear it.” As I continued to share, I figured that this couldn’t be the “norm” for incoming students, like myself. I mean, you don’t have to be perfect to be enrolled to be at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, but you should at least, at bare minimum, be a believer…right? Here I was baring my soul to my “Formations of Christian ministry” professor over dry bacon and watery eggs. In my head, I figured that the only recourse would be for the administration to send me home. This would make sense to me because ultimately I can’t tell people about the love of Christ if I am not sure that I have received it.
Surprisingly, my professor didn’t condemn me. As a matter of fact, he didn’t do much at all. He just sat there silently listening to me as I poured out my heart. He didn’t respond with Christian cliches or platitudes nor did he give me any advice to “fix” my problem. He just sat with me as I struggled to finish my breakfast. After waiting for me to gather myself, he calmly asked to pray for me. He encouraged me to stay the course and to seek him out as I processed my current crisis of faith.
Truth be told, this “current” crisis was not a new problem for me. This issue had hounded me for as long as I could remember. Growing up in church, I had been conditioned to consistently examine my faith. If I failed to pray or read the Bible regularly, I would immediately doubt that my faith was genuine. If I struggled with a particular sin too long, I would find myself thinking that I hadn’t truly been saved. So I would spend hours searching the scriptures, and praying constantly that God would love me, all to no avail.
But you wouldn’t have noticed because I was in church every time that the doors were open. I was a leader in my local congregation and my campus ministry; I even worked in the music section of a local Christian bookstore. Outwardly, it looked as if I had it all together. But inwardly, I falling apart. For example, during my shifts at the bookstore, I would steal evangelistic tracts, take them into the back room and would study them word for word to make sure, that I had done everything right (Yes, I understand how that sounds). With that said, I’m proud to say that I have memorized Billy Graham’s “Steps to Peace with God.” I just needed to know that I had prayed the prayer right; that I had done everything that was in my power to be saved.
So there I was at seminary deciding to stay the course. During this semester in 2003, I would be introduced to Martin Luther. Not only was I enamored by his theology, but I was captivated by his doubt and his fear. The Father of the Protestant Reformation didn't have it all together either. For that reason, his struggle to find peace with God was oddly reassuring. With that said, I jumped at the chance to write a paper comparing Luther’s understanding of “justification by faith” to the Council of Trent’s formulation. The problem with this assignment, though, was that it was given to the entire class, so by the time that I made it to the library, almost every book was gone. Only a couple of books were left. One of them was an old, dusty copy of Gerhard Forde’s “Justification: A Matter of Death and life.”
As I began to read, Forde’s words captivated me. “We are justified freely, for Christ’s sake, by faith, without the exertion of our own strength, gaining of merit, or doing of works,” Forde explained. “To the age-old question, ‘what shall I do to be saved?’ The confessional answer is shocking: ‘Nothing! Just be still; shut up and listen for once in your life to what God Almighty, creator and redeemer is saying to his world and to you in the death and resurrection of his Son! Listen and believe!’”
I was shocked: “Do nothing? The strength of my faith doesn’t matter?” I couldn’t put the book down. Forde continued his argument by posing the question “‘but…, but we have to do something, don’t we? Aren’t there, after all, some conditions? Don’t you at least have to ‘decide?’ The difficulty is exactly with the unconditional nature of the decree: you are justified for Jesus’ sake!…The Gospel of justification by faith is such a shocker, such an explosion, because it is an absolutely unconditional promise. It is not an ‘If-then’ statement, but a ‘because-therefore’ pronouncement: Because Jesus died and rose, your sins are forgiven and you are righteous in the sight of God!’”
At that point, I realized that I was justified by my faith, not because of it. My own feeble attempts to “get saved” were not enough. My salvation could only rest on the object of my faith, namely the perfect life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in my place. Finally, I could embrace my inner accusations. Of course I am not good enough to be saved. Yes, my faith may be weak, but Christ is my strength. Now as I meet with other Christians, I am quick to share the Gospel. Not because I think that they are not saved; I share the Gospel to remind them that they are loved.