I suddenly knew it was true—Christ really had died, and God really would forgive me on the basis of what Jesus had done. That formerly foolish message suddenly was the most glorious thing I had ever heard.3 I could not see how I had ever doubted it. What was more wondrous was that he seemed to shatter the bars of sin that confined me. A new power and ability suddenly appeared and began to grow within me.

It was as if I had been rescued from a long stint in a dungeon. I staggered out into the marvelous newfound light of God's love. It was as if I had been given a brand-new pair of eyes. The sky seemed brighter, the grass appeared greener, and a freedom came into my heart that had not come from the world but from heaven. Oh, the joy the forgiveness of sin and fellowship with God brought into my life! I was controlled by a desire to tell everyone I could, to find God's people and associate myself with them. I immediately began reading the Bible with a thirst and satisfaction I had never experienced before. The dialogue I had with God as a child resumed, but it became sweeter than anything I had ever imagined and more real than the very air I breathed. Within a week I began attending services at First Baptist Church in Hartford. Very early on I felt in my heart that God wanted me to serve him in the full-time pastoral ministry. But I sensed this wasn't something one should rush into, so I hid this desire in my heart and was content to wait on God's timing.

J. I. Packer once said that God is incredibly tender with his newborns. This was definitely true of my experience. However, the time soon came for me to grow in ways reminiscent of my childhood. Nagging questions and doubts slowly but certainly began to emerge. Little did I suspect that God was purposefully leading me along a path he ordained before the foundation of the world.

Although I could not articulate it at the time, I craved the very same thing I had craved as a child but had been afraid to ask for: I was hungry for a theological foundation for my faith. God, in his goodness, gave me a mind that was logical and craved consistency. I desperately wanted solid reasons behind my faith in God; I was unwilling to completely embrace the gospel if it meant I had to check my brain at the door. Unfortunately, the problem my church had fallen into, and too many churches suffer from today, is that it had discarded historic Christian theology. For some time I thought it was a malady that was unique to the African-American church, but I have since discovered the problem to be more broadly shared than I had originally imagined. This departure manifested itself in several ways that caused me great spiritual difficulty.

Discarding Historic Theology

First, by turning away from historic theology, the church uncritically embraced many other theologies that were not only egregious departures from the teaching of the Bible but were often mutually contradictory. This often resulted in contradictory interpretations of the same passages of Scripture. I would listen to a message, intending to put it into practice in my life, only to have it reversed from the very same pulpit a short time later. I grew confused, frustrated, and then jaded. Chief among the aberrant theological headwinds that ripped through African-American churches was the Prosperity Gospel—the teaching that God wanted everyone to be rich, and by the right exercise of faith we could change our financial condition. I saw this as flying in the face of the Scriptures. I read in the Bible that we should be content with what God has provided, and that failing to do so implies that God is a bad parent (Matt. 6:32; 1 Tim. 6:8). The Bible seemed to teach plainly that the normal Christian life involved difficulty, suffering, and persecution. But this prosperity teaching brazenly contradicted Paul's brave words to the saints at Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch: "through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). Elsewhere the Bible held up men who suffered obvious deprivation as godly and worth emulating (1 Cor. 4:11; Heb. 11:37), but I was being told that financial lack was a sign of my unbelief. I watched as biblical passage after biblical passage was systematically twisted to reflect this monstrous teaching. I saw many individuals encounter significant difficulties as they embraced this teaching. What was worse was that the teaching so perfectly suited our human carnality that people would then resist any portion of Scripture that contradicted the wrong teaching.