My Journey in Grace
Part II: Why I Am a Reformed Christian
This blog is actually the third in a series of my spiritual journey. The first dealt with the fact that I am a Christian because of God’s eternal purpose for me in Christ. The second discussed why I am a Reformed Christian, and in this blog I propose to tell the story of my personal journey in grace.
This is really not so much my journey as the unfolding of God’s purpose for my life, a purpose He planned before he created the world. Now that humbles me and boggles my mind, that the sovereign Creator of the universe would have a gracious plan for me! That plan, my journey God designed for me, takes the strangest twists and turns, so that it really seems incredible that, given where I began, I should be where I am today. At times I want to say, “If I knew then what I know now, I would have done things differently. But that is silly. What happened is what God intended to happen, and when I think like that, I am calling into question the unfathomable purpose of God. I think my journey will be of interest to many of you because it will reflect your own journey. I had no sooner published the previous edition of the blog on why I am Reformed when a former student contacted me to say that he could see his own story in it. So if my story blesses any of you and brings glory to God, I am happy, and I write with that clear intention.
T. W. Brents, The Gospel Plan of Salvation. This book may seem a very strange place to begin the story, but I think it should begin here. As I mentioned in my first blog on why I am a Christian, God effectually called me to faith and salvation one day in 1955 at the corner of Elm and National in Springfield, Missouri. I joined the South Street Christian Church in Springfield, and on the next Easter Sunday my family and I were all baptized. I felt a call to the ministry, and although I had been a Christian but a short time and had but a minimal knowledge of Scripture, through a professor of mine at Drury College, I secured an appointment as pastor of the Christian Church in Sparta, Missouri. My best friend, Roger Kensinger, delighted that I had given my life to Christ and I think wanting to encourage me, told me of his knowledgeable minister, Oscar Ellison, at the Southside Church of Christ in Springfield. I finally decided that it would be to my best interests to resign my position as pastor at Sparta and attend Southside to sit under Oscar’s ministry. So by 1957 I was taking notes on his sermons and teaching classes. I certainly did learn much Biblical information. Oscar knew I wanted to preach, so he gave me a reading list, first of which was the above book. I read it and soon found that it was an attempt to refute Calvinism. Brents presented Calvinism as the greatest threat to the gospel. I didn’t know anything about Calvinism, but I assumed that it was really bad.
I don’t remember too much about the book, but I recall Brents teaching that God does not deal directly with us and there is no working of the Holy Spirit on us beyond giving us the Bible, meaning a denial of the doctrine of the direct operation of the Holy Spirit. Essentially Brents was teaching that God gave us the Bible and left the rest up to us. I remember his insistence that we are not inherently sinful, so we are quite capable of picking up a Bible and discerning what we must do to be saved. When he came to the doctrine of predestination he taught unequivocally that God blanked out his mind so we would have free will. In other words, God made himself ignorant of what we would do in order to give us free choice. God’s ignorance of the future further underscored in my mind the fact that we are on our own in this life and should expect no direct help from God. I admit to thinking it rather strange that God would be ignorant and wondering how he could know anything at all. But that was what I was supposed to teach and preach if I wanted to succeed in the Church of Christ, and so I did as I was told. But my wondering about the matter I now consider as the first step in my journey. At least I knew that Calvinism existed and a little about it, albeit from the negative side. I knew enough to write a paper in a college French class critiquing John Calvin’s views on infant baptism and sprinkling. That did not go well with my Presbyterian French teacher!
Florida Christian College and Homer Hailey. I think the next thing God wanted me to think about occurred at Tampa, Florida, where I attended classes to gain more Biblical knowledge. Church of Christ unfortunately does not believe in their ministers attending seminary, so one has to learn any way he can. The president of FCC, now Florida College after its board decided that a college could not be Christian, had encouraged me to come there after I graduated from Drury. I did not stay long, as Alice and I wanted to get married, but my time there was profitable. One highly knowledgeable teacher was Homer Hailey under whom I took two classes. One of them was entitled “The Scheme of Redemption” and was a synthesis of Ephesians and Colossians. It was well organized and required much memorization of text. I now found out that what Brents expended so much effort refuting was indeed in the Bible. Paul wrote of an eternal purpose of God and of predestination, so I listened carefully to Mr. Hailey’s explanation. In order to preserve free will, he taught that God did not predestine people but a plan, and when we, of our own free will, choose to follow the plan as revealed in the Bible, then we become God’s predestined people. So now I did not have to teach the ignorance of God; instead I could teach that God predestined a plan and left it up to us to select and follow it. But I admit, as I wondered about T.W. Brents’ comments, that I also wondered about what Mr. Hailey was teaching. Paul really didn’t say that God predestined a plan; he said that we are chosen and predestined in accordance with the plan. But I was young, had much to learn, and again my job was not to question but to teach what I was told to teach as the acceptable interpretation of passages. After all, the most important thing to convey to people in the congregation was their obligation to hear the gospel, repent of their sins, confess their faith, be baptized by immersion for the remission of sins, and live a faithful life if they would have a chance at heaven.
Pleasant Valley Church of Christ, Wichita, Kansas. Alice and I were married in 1960 and moved to Charleston, Arkansas, where I preached for the local Church of Christ for three years. It was a small congregation with limited ability to pay their preacher. Southside in Springfield gave me some support, but I supplemented my income by teaching in the local high school for two years. I also worked at a radio station in nearby Paris, Arkansas, to earn time on the air for a radio broadcast. In 1963 we moved to the east part of the state where I preached for the Melton Avenue Church of Christ, a group of humble, committed, loving Christian people. There our first son, Jim, was born in 1964. In 1966 we moved to Wichita, Kansas, where I now preached for the Pleasant Valley Church of Christ. All but Charleston were churches affiliated with the Non-Institutional (“Anti”) segment of the Church of Christ, far more conservative and legalistic than most Churches of Christ. Here, attempting again to teach and preach what I was told, I encountered full-blown legalism, and I was shocked at how ugly and unloving it was. One of the members insisted on witch-hunts to discover any sin in the members in the attempt to have a perfect church. One of the members had been thrice married before he was baptized, and that presented a great problem to them. I found the man humble, fully repentant of past sins, and committed now to living a Christian life, but unwilling to divorce the wife who had led him to Christ, as he was told to do. I involved myself in considerable controversy when I insisted that we accept this godly man into fellowship, causing many to leave. I remained there ten years, but this issue resurfaced. During this long process God led me to discover the primary place of love in the Christian life. Every sermon of mine included some reference to love. Again and again I mentioned Jesus’ admonition to his disciples that the world would know that they were his by their love for one another (John 13:35). At this point I knew that legalism was wrong and love was right. I knew I wanted to pursue a course of love rather than suspicion, judgmental attitudes, and attempts to follow the letter of the law. Liberalism seemed appealing, so much so that my wife was concerned about me, and rightfully so. I wanted to leave the Church of Christ, but with her encouragement we found solace in a mainline church, the Northside Church of Christ in Wichita. So many people are like I was at that time knowing only the religion of the Pharisees (legalism) and the religion of the Sadducees (liberalism) and think they must choose between those two. What I didn’t know, what people today don’t realize, what people had difficulty in Jesus’ time understanding, was that Christ, neither legalism or liberalism, is the answer!
Wichita State University, Kelley Sowards’ class on History of the Reformation. While we were at Pleasant Valley (certainly a misnomer), our second son, Jon, was born. I knew that with a growing family, I needed to supplement my income, and teaching had always been appealing. Thus I began in 1969 work on my master’s degree at WSU. All my professors were outstanding and quite helpful. The class that God used most to shape me on my journey was taught by one of the greatest Renaissance-Reformation scholars anywhere, in my opinion, Dr. J.K. Sowards. His teaching methods were effective, and he certainly knew his material. He guided me through both my master’s and doctoral studies. I enrolled in his class on the Reformation, and listened spellbound as he lectured on Luther’s journey to grace, how that through his academic studies in preparing to teach at the University of Wittenberg the Pauline epistles, beginning with Romans, he discovered the meaning of Romans 1:16-17. We are declared righteous by faith alone. It is not our righteousness, but God’s righteousness. And even that faith by which we are declared righteous is a gift from God, as Luther accepted and staunchly defended the doctrine of divine predestination. This concept blew my mind! It was glorious and wonderful! It made sense. It was Biblical. It went into my heart, but there remained now a strange dichotomy between head and heart. I did not teach this doctrine at Pleasant Valley or at Northside. I have asked myself why not, and the only answer was that it wasn’t yet the time, and God restrained me. I still taught what I was supposed to teach, but in my heart I cherished this wonderful doctrine of justification by faith. Now I knew that my doubts about what T.W. Brents and Homer Hailey taught on the subject were well founded. But again, I dared not articulate those doubts. Like Mary, I treasured these things in my heart. That was enough for now.
Wichita Collegiate School. While finishing my degree, one of my WSU professors, Dr. Philip Thomas, helped me secure a position as director of the Wichita Historical Museum which now supplemented my meager preacher’s salary. After completing the master’s in 1970, I was able to fill a position on the faculty of Collegiate, an independent college preparatory school where I was to teach for the next fifteen years. I can remember actually praying that I would get the position while sitting at a desk at the museum when the secretary at Collegiate actually interrupted my prayer by calling and inviting me for an interview. During that time I was able to complete my doctorate in Renaissance and Reformation history at the University of Kansas, and also I was asked to share the pulpit at Northside with the late Louis Tandy.
When I first joined the Collegiate faculty I was still at Pleasant Valley and reacting bitterly against the evils of Church of Christ legalism. I found the atmosphere at Collegiate spiritually refreshing. I was asked to teach theology courses and be the chair of that department along with teaching literature and history classes. The faculty were wonderful people from diverse denominational backgrounds. I was asked to secure speakers for our Friday weekly chapels, and thus I had the opportunity to interact with pastors of many denominations. I felt reborn into a much larger Christian family. However, when we left Pleasant Valley for Northside in 1976, and, just after finishing my Ph.D. written and oral exams, I was asked in 1978 to preach, I immersed myself in the work of this church that was much more loving than the one I left. I became involved in youth work as well as teaching and preaching. In many regards it was a spiritual step back to the Church of Christ system. Now I saw that it could work much better than in the “anti” sect, and I wanted to import it to the Collegiate campus, especially with the goal of recruiting students there for our youth group.
Soon after I began at Northside, Robert D. Love, founder of Collegiate and its board chairman along with his wife embraced the Reformed faith. He had heard the teaching of R. C. Sproul and became a supporter of Ligonier Ministries. As a result, Reformed teachers came to our campus. I had voluntarily given up teaching theology when the school grew to the point that I needed to specialize, and my degree was in history. My position as chairman of that department was filled by Gerry Matatics who had just graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Gerry brought full-blown Calvinism to the campus. His work was augmented by R.C. Sproul’s frequent appearance on campus, along with John Gerstner and Frank Kik. Dr. Gerstner had taken a year’s position as theologian-in-residence at Eastminster Presbyterian Church where the Loves, the headmaster and family, and many other of our faculty attended. Frank Kik was pastor of Eastminster. Now I was confronted with the hated doctrine of Calvinism, what Brents taught was the nemesis of the gospel and what Mr. Hailey tried to explain away. In spite of the lingering doubts about his failure to do so and the awareness of what Luther learned, and in spite of the fact that my uncle Marlow had convinced me that my salvation was secure in Christ, I felt I had to maintain the denominational position to which my position at Northside obligated me, and I attempted to refute the teachings of these Reformed theologians on our campus. I got myself in hot water, so to speak, and deservedly so. My efforts to refute were weak and totally inadequate, as my son Jim later told me. And all of this theology was sinking deep in my mind as well as heart. I confess that I took notes in Gerry’s now daily chapels, and that I still have them. He taught some great truths very capably, although later he renounced the Reformed faith for Catholicism. God was filing it all away in my mind and heart.
Before leaving my experiences at Collegiate, and so much more could be written about them, I should mention an unforgettable experience that happened to me while there. I was attempting to foist my works-righteousness theology on one of my Collegiate classes, particularly baptismal regeneration, when one of my students, Geoff Todd, asked if he could just read something from the Bible. Geoff was a very capable student, the son of Dr. Richard Todd, my excellent professor of classical (Greek and Roman) history at WSU. It was hard to forbid the reading of scripture, and I felt sure I could adequately respond to any passage Geoffrey might select. However, he read Romans 4 in entirety. I had no answer. There was nothing I could say, and I knew it. God had slain me with his word. I just remained dumb for a moment and went on with something else.
Smith Springs Church of Christ, Nashville, Tennessee. I received my Ph. D. degree in 1984 and entertained the itch now to move into college-level teaching. Even though I was just appointed chair of my department and made teacher of the year at Collegiate, I accepted in 1986 an invitation to join the faculty of Lipscomb University (then David Lipscomb College) in Nashville. One of the Northside members, a good friend, told me of an advertisement that appeared in a Church of Christ news journal. I called about the position and was asked to submit my resume. Alice told me to send it only if I was prepared to move, but I didn’t think I stood a chance. Within a week I received a call from Dr. Robert Hooper, chair of the history department. He later told me that the fact that I wrote at the bottom of my resume that I only wanted to do the will of the Lord that convinced him that I was the one they wanted. I remained at Lipscomb twenty-five years and enjoyed nearly every minute of it. Lipscomb is a Church of Christ related school, so I thought I would at last be on friendly soil theologically. I was to find soon that I was mistaken.
I told Bob Hooper that I wanted to continue to preach, as I had always done so. He said that they liked their faculty to preach and told me of two churches looking to fill their pulpits. I secured a position as interim minister for the Smith Springs Church of Christ and later worked with David Gaylor in preaching for the next thirteen years.
It was immediately apparent with me that this church was different, and it was hard to identify the exact ways in which it was. Otis Charlton, who had planted this church, was an old man who thought young thoughts. He was quite progressive and insisted that we search for great principles rather than getting bogged down in legalistic issues. I met others who were challenging traditional Church of Christ interpretations. I was a bit shocked, but I enjoyed the people and the work. God was now preparing my mind and heart to embrace ideas that he had been instilling in me for many years.
David Gaylor’s sermon on Ephesians 1. The next major jolt God has in store for me was to sit in the audience one Sunday morning while my colleague David Gaylor expounded on the text of Ephesians 1. It was the interpretation of this text by Homer Hailey that had confused me years ago and caused me to wonder, but I never expected that in the context of the Church of Christ I would hear a sermon actually enunciating what was clearly taught in that passage. We always explained it away or ignored it for our traditional proof texts. Now David was pointing out that Paul taught that God chose us for eternal life. And further, he brought forth the fact that Paul was teaching that salvation was God’s work of grace. It was the work of God the Father in choosing us, God the Son in dying for us, and God the Spirit in sealing us. And after Paul discussed the work of each of the three persons of the Godhead, he wrote that it was to God’s glory. I can still hear David boldly pointing out verse 6 “to the praise of his glorious grace,” verse 7 “according to the riches of his grace,” verse 12 “so that we might be to the praise of his glory,” and verse 14 “to the praise of his glory.” And it was all “according to the purpose of his will” (verse 5), “according to his purpose” (verse 9), and “according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (verse 11). We were on our way to a full-blown articulation of the doctrines of grace!
My office and my son Jon, “God broke me, Dad.” Perhaps the defining moment was a meeting with our son Jon in my office at Lipscomb. As might be expected, I dearly love both my sons and am grateful to God for giving them to us. Jim attended WSU and remained in Wichita, while Jon came with us to Nashville and attended Lipscomb, graduating in 1992. One day, while he was a student there, he appeared at my office door and asked if he could talk with me. Naturally, I invited him in and prepared to listen. He told me about being in the youth group at Northside in Wichita and trying so hard to live the Christian life, but time and again messing up. I can remember one of those emotional times at teen camp when many of the young people cried in remorse and repentance over their sins, and I distinctly remember Jon hugging me in tears. He said that when he came to Lipscomb, a Christian school, he was sure that in that environment he could get his act together, but he messed up again and again. He said that one night as he lay on his bed in Sewell Dormitory that he realized he was nothing but scum. He said “then, Dad, at that point God broke me, and I knew his grace.” That remark was the proverbial ton of bricks landing on my thick skull. I pondered for a moment as Jon rose and started to leave my office. When he got to the door, I stopped him and said, “If that is so, Jon, then you could never leave God.” He turned and quietly said, “No, Dad.” I sat after he left and allowed the realization to overtake my soul, not just my mind and heart, but my total being, that the one true and living God had invaded the life of my son, convicted him, took him to the depths, and then revealed to him his grace. T.W. Brents and the others in the Church of Christ were wrong. God does work directly on the human heart. All I had been hearing from the Reformed teachers at Collegiate was true. My suspicions about the interpretations of Church of Christ being wrong were also correct. It wasn’t just Martin Luther to whom God reached out; it was also to my own flesh and blood. And if to Jon, then why not to me? Why not to all of us who are Christians? This is huge. This is wonderful. When I took young people from Northside to youth rallies and the speakers talked about grace, it was then just a pretty word; but now it became a powerful reality. I knew there was no going back from grace as surely as I knew on that day in 1955 on Elm Street in Springfield that there was no going back from the call of God. Wow!
Danny Hale: “Grace is predestination.” It was now impossible to keep quiet in the pulpit at Smith Springs. David had blazed the trail. Now I began to articulate in my preaching the reality of salvation by grace rather than works. It had its effect. I recall one Wednesday night when one of our elders, Jacob Roll, had the audacity to ask me after services as we stood in the aisle, “David, do you believe a Christian can lose his salvation?” Now I had the courage to destroy that damnable dichotomy between heart and soul and articulate what I had known since my talk with my uncle Marlow. “No, Jacob, I do not,” I replied. That is heresy in Church of Christ. It is an affirmation of the Baptist once-saved-always-saved doctrine, and anything the Baptists teach is anathema in Church of Christ. Jacob responded, “So do I, David.” From that time our hearts and lives were knit together.
Soon after that, on another Wednesday night after services, another of our elders, Danny Hale, confronted me in the hallway outside the sanctuary. He said to me, “David, I notice that you are interested in grace,” to which I replied that I was. He told me that I needed to know that grace is predestination. The dichotomy returned for a moment and I replied as I had been programmed and said that I didn’t believe in predestination. He told me that I needed to get the books of R.C. Sproul, to which I replied that I knew Dr. Sproul from his visits to Collegiate and that I didn’t agree with him. He told me that nonetheless I needed to get his books.
I should comment that I was aware that Danny had earlier expressed an interest in the will of man and the will of God and what the power of each was and their relationship to each other. He had asked me about the subject, and at the time I had no coherent reply. What I didn’t know is that Danny subsequently went to Logos Bookstore and obtained a copy of Dr. Sproul’s Chosen by God, and Danny’s life was forever changed.
I called Bob Love in Wichita and asked him if he could put me in touch with R.C. He said he would and he would also send me some of his lectures on VHS tapes. He sent a whole box of them, and among them were his lectures on the five points of Reformed theology (the TULIP). I remember sitting in front of the monitor in our family room and watching them one by one. My big hang-up had been the idea that man was basically good, a doctrine I learned from Brents and my early experiences in Church of Christ. Down went that idea with the first lecture. All the convoluted and twisted interpretations of predestination fell with the second, especially the idea that the most important concern to God was our free will. And so with the atonement, and so with the effectual call, and so with our assurance. I knew God had called me, and I knew that I was not going to lose my salvation. It was wonderful to learn that Christ died with my name on his heart, and that his death alone secured my eternal salvation. As I listened to each of the points in lecture after lecture, I realized that what Dr. Sproul taught was true and I was in agreement. I was Reformed. I could be no less than openly so from now on. No going back, no way!
Kyle Jones, “Dr. Lawrence, predestination is true!” In this midst of this unfolding of God’s plan for me to understand his beautiful doctrines of grace, one of my students encountered me on the sidewalk beside the building on the Lipscomb campus where my offices and classrooms were located. Kyle had been in a number of my classes, and we had developed a friendship that endures to the present. For whatever reason, Kyle felt the need to confront his professor. With authority and passion in his voice, he shouted out at me as I was about to walk into Burton Hall, “Dr. Lawrence, predestination is true!” I was somewhat taken aback, and I responded, “Kyle, I have been considering the doctrine, and I can promise you that I will look into it honestly.” I have since thanked both him and Danny for their willingness to confront me and for the honest love and concern both of them manifested for me.
The Memphis Ligonier Conference on the Sovereignty of God. The doctrines were solidified for me and Danny when we attended a full Ligonier conference at the Independent Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee. Danny had been saying for some time that we needed to meet with R.C. or hopefully attend a conference. (Dr. Sproul had told Bob Love that he would indeed be willing to meet with me in Orlando, but that meeting never materialized; we opted instead for the closer conference in Memphis.) The full conferences of three days with several speakers were usually reserved for the national conference in Orlando, but this time, in God’s providence, one was held at Memphis. Our group consisted of Danny and his wife, David Gaylor and his wife, Jacob Roll and his wife, and my wife and me. We were confronted with the holiness and sovereignty of God in glorious music and powerful proclamation of truth. Danny looked back on it and remarked that it was the first time in his life that he had truly heard the gospel. So many of the questions I had on the sovereignty of God were answered, including the question of how the responsibility of man coincides with God’s sovereignty. I shall never forget Jacob and me attending a class taught by Albert Martin, “Called to Account,” dealing with that very question, and both of us leaving the session literally trembling.
What Comes Now? Do we go home and share our newfound knowledge with our church? Do I open up on the Lipscomb campus? Or do we sit on it? Well, the latter couldn’t happen. But this blog has been lengthy, and I thank you for enduring. We’ll leave the discussion of the aftermath, of how God directed us to live, experience, and share our understanding of sovereign grace for the next blog. For now, I still marvel that God would deign to reveal these wonderful realities to me. I once said to R. C. Sproul at a Ligonier conference as I talked to him in the bookstore that coming to understand the doctrines of grace was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. R. C. corrected me, quite rightfully so, and said, “No, that is the second greatest thing that ever happened to you. The first is your salvation!” May God continue to call his elect to salvation, and may he continue to open their hearts to what that calling means…as Paul wrote: “…I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead…” (Eph. 1:16-20).
To Him be all Glory now and forevermore!