- Wednesday, July 29, 2009
A Plea for Real Answers
by Reddit Andrews III
I come from a long line of Baptist preachers and deacons. From my earliest memories growing up in Hartford, Connecticut, I was not only conscious of God, but intensely interested in spiritual things. I have vivid memories of maintaining a constant inner dialogue with God. I remember getting dressed on Sunday mornings when I was around seven, putting on my little clip-on necktie, and consciously trying to set my face and mimic the walk of the deacons at Mount Calvary Baptist Church where I attended and my grandfather served as deacon. My most precious memories include the look on his face when he assisted in my baptism one evening service when I was seven or eight years old.
As wonderful as those memories are, they are not totally unclouded. Those silver clouds were laced with dark strains of doubts I never spoke of. I will never know what sort of help I might have received, because I simply suppressed them. I recall getting a McDonald's map of the solar system and taping it to the wall next to my pillow. I'd sometimes spend moments that seemed like hours gazing at it, impressed by the vastness of space. This would give rise to troubling thoughts. How could a God so great and powerful as to make all that exists in outer space possibly know me? Is it conceivable that he can really hear my prayers? Even if it were possible, would he even care? To my young mind these thoughts were deep and unsettling.
My inner struggles were compounded by the powerful conflicting messages I was exposed to in public school. It was not difficult for me to see that the message I was receiving in school and the message I was receiving in my Sunday school classes were mutually exclusive. In public school, my Sunday morning lessons were flatly contradicted. I dutifully listened in Sunday school where I was taught how God created the world in the space of six days and how he rested on the seventh. All week long I would lug around school books that said the earth was millions of years old and that mankind evolved over an unfathomably lengthy period of time. As a child it seemed quite easy to decide who was correct. My Sunday school teachers were mainly the parents of friends, housewives, and bus drivers. The church was an old unimpressive structure, while to my young mind, the school I attended was a large, impressive, building. My teachers appeared highly trained and incredibly competent. Furthermore, there were so many books, movies, and scaled models at which I could look and even touch.
While I never thought my Sunday school teachers were bad, I just concluded that the public school teachers couldn't possibly be wrong. No, my Sunday school teachers were certainly good people, just misguided and behind the times. Having concluded that, I continued to attend Sunday services for a while, until I became interested in football and girls. My family later moved into a neighborhood where I knew very few people. The kids there seemed louder, more boisterous and violent than what I was accustomed to. I sought comfort in a small Lutheran church in the community. I'd at times gaze out the window while the mostly Anglo and female Sunday school teachers would teach us songs about Jesus. "Lowly Jesus meek and mild, he wouldn't hurt a little child." There was a basketball court on the church property, and I'd watch the games while the lesson was being taught. I would overhear the arguments about the games and watch the fights that would often break out. I'd think to myself, Man, Jesus needs to hurt some of these children! My Sunday school experiences all seemed so hopelessly irrelevant and out of touch with real life.
Going My Own Way
I concluded after one of the more tepid classes that though Jesus was plenty nice, he didn't understand my world, and I'd just have to go out and make a name for myself. After all, I reasoned, I was the oldest child in a single parent home; if I didn't, it would be only a matter of time before my home would be disrespected and my little brothers bullied. It was then that I consciously turned my back on God and his church and set about becoming self-sufficient, quietly instilling self-confidence in my siblings. I'd preach fiery messages to them about standing up for themselves, sticking together, and letting no one, ever, under any circumstances disrespect them! Obviously this marked a radical shift in the direction of my life. In fact, it marked the beginning of an odyssey of sin, pain, and shame that engulfed the next fifteen years. It wasn't that those years contained no good, but the sin and rebellion I brought into my heart infiltrated and infected everything I touched. Those years can be aptly summarized by an illustration I heard somewhere: "Knock, knock." "Who's there?" said the man within. "One little sin," was the reply. "Slip in," said the man. All hell walked in.
As I recount my past determination to live without God, three things strike me. First, how swift and complete the fall was! I took to my new life of sin with astonishing ease. Earlier in my life I had worked out some principles for myself, a sort of internal list of things I wouldn't do. It didn't take long for me to blast right through the list, rationalizing each new level of depravity I had sunk to. Second, I'm still shocked at the deception I practiced on myself. I somehow was able to convince myself that I had incredible self-discipline and that eventually I'd grow tired of the life I was living, galvanize my will, and reverse the course I was on. Third, how persistently my conscience plagued me! A battle raged within me, which I was careful to let no one ever suspect I was fighting. Try as I might to get God out of my mind, it wasn't as easy to walk away from him as I had supposed. He was terribly tenacious. I had periods when I thought I'd vanquished him from my heart and mind, only to have him return. He'd wake me at night and haunt me during the days.
Over the years God sent messengers to me and graciously mitigated the consequences of my mulish rebellion. The simple message that Christ came into the world to save sinners and that he died on the cross as a substitute for those he would bring to himself through faith just seemed childish. The thought that someone dying two thousand years earlier could somehow matter to me seemed so utterly foolish and preposterous—I could believe almost anything but that. Yet, nothing else gave me any solace from the gnawing uncertainty I felt within.
In December 1981 I met Nadine, who later became my wife and the mother of my two daughters, Felice and Shannon. Nadine, though unconverted at the time, was raised in the church and attended youth group meetings into her teens. Somehow meeting her created a desire to get serious about turning my life around. Reality came crashing in on me. I'd comforted myself that when I was ready, I'd be able to summon a secret reserve of willpower from within and muscle up moral rectitude. It was devastating to realize that I was unable to overcome the least negative habit I'd fallen into. I discovered the reality of what the Bible calls the dominion of sin. My sins seemed to be interconnected and mutually supportive of one another, continually cooperating to prevent me from ever escaping. I was trapped, helpless, and completely powerless to move toward God. What was worse, the harder I tried, the worse I seemed to grow; I secretly became filled with despair.
A New Year, A New Life
It was December 31, 1987, when the Lord mercifully delivered me. What happened to me that New Year's Eve was nothing short of miraculous! God changed my heart! I had been drinking and was lying awake somewhat giving attention to the televised countdown at Times Square. Almost imperceptively my thoughts turned to God. I was shocked fully awake by the sudden awareness that I was contemplating him with full knowledge that he not only existed but was cognizant of me—that he knew my thoughts, my sin. I began to think of what justification I could offer for what my life had become. I'd no sooner formulate an excuse than I'd dismiss it as worthless. There was no excuse I could use that would fool God. My thoughts then turned to the terror of hell and the awful eternal separation from all that is good and lovely in life. In terror I thought of all the messengers I had rejected over the years and how I had mistreated them.
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.
Second, in turning away from historic Christian theological convictions the church lost the ability to answer big questions and to articulate with clarity how Christians actually change. I was desperately concerned with having answers for skeptics regarding why we should believe the Bible, whether there were any evidences for God's existence, and other such questions. There seemed to be not only little interest in teaching these things, but outright irritation with those who insisted on getting answers and seriously discussing those subjects. This lack of clarity as to who God is and what God is doing in the world, and the unwillingness to articulate how it is that we actually change, in my view, was far more pernicious, more insidious; it was the very reversal of Christianity. It presented God as having no agenda of his own, as existing for no other reason than to serve our agendas and cater to our desire for the things of this world. I couldn't harmonize this presentation with the Bible. It seemed to actually promote what God abominated! "You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes himself to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God" (James 4:4). The more I read the Scriptures the less many of the preachers I knew looked like faithful shepherds and the more they looked like the wolves they were commissioned by Christ to guard the sheep against. Again the Scriptures are clear: "Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep" (Ezek. 34:2-3).
Because of this departure from historic Christian teachings, the church was unable to adequately answer questions regarding how it is we actually change. I was very much concerned with getting deep, biblical answers for how to deal with the conflicting desires I wrestled with in my own heart. I felt that I loved God, but not enough; I felt I hated sin, but I was still drawn to it. I could very easily identify with Paul, "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Rom. 7:24). I was extremely hesitant to voice my struggles, because I wasn't even sure I was supposed to have them. When I finally began to express them, I was angered that no one seemed to have a clear understanding of my struggles. Surely the Bible had a clear, consistent way of answering these questions? Some would direct me along mystical lines. If I'd pray and fast enough, I could decisively win my battle with things like lust, bitterness, anger, and other carnal impulses. I tried this, but the temptations were not only still there but seemed to grow even stronger. Others made me feel as though the answer lay in simply trying harder, but I didn't know how to try harder. Besides, this advice seemed to be condemned by the Bible itself! "These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh" (Col. 2:23).
My desperation for answers and desire for direction in transitioning into the gospel ministry led me to enroll in a program at Hartford Theological Seminary specifically designed for preparing African-Americans for ministry. That the school was equally committed to training Muslims for ministry should have sufficiently raised questions about the level of commitment to historical Christian truth lurking behind the walls of that institution. Yet, I was naive. I entered, excited about the possibility of obtaining solid ministry training.
I left the first class utterly bewildered, trying to process the professor's gleeful assertions of the Bible's supposed mistakes and general untrustworthiness in its recounting of historical events. I determined I would reject that part of his lecture and practice what my mother taught me as a child: "Son, don't believe everything your teachers tell you. Learn to swallow the meat and spit out the bones." I bent the knee in complete defeat a month later after being severely and publicly reprimanded for expressing some reservations about a section of the professor's lecture. I concluded I had better escape while I still believed that God authored the Bible!
I thought it best for the short term to settle in and quietly serve in my church and wait to see what God might do with me. I spent the next few years driving the church van, transporting the church's senior citizens and poorer members. It was a wonderful time, but I was unable to see that Christ was steadily leading and preparing me for future ministry. During this time I was being tempered by the Lord's senior saints, and I became better acquainted with normal church life and the struggles of the average churchgoer. God gave me a very deep love for his church and a sincere desire to see his people grow spiritually.
During this period we relocated to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and my inner struggle and doubts went with me. I knew that God was calling me to the ministry, but I felt that I should have answers to my questions before I entered. It was during this period that God led me to a small Christian bookstore that also held regular church services. I had never before considered worshiping in such a place, as I had only attended well-established, high profile churches in the African-American community. The gentleman who ran the ministry seemed more serious than many ministers I had previously encountered and hinted that he had mentored men in the past who had gone on to become ministers. I thought that God might have a purpose for me there. In a short time I was leading a Sunday school class, and soon I was serving as youth minister, deacon, usher, and janitor. I even led the singing a few times. My questions raged on, but I realized that I no longer was asking them only for myself, but also for the people I served.
Though I regularly read the Scriptures, I was drowning in questions for which I had no answers. I consulted commentaries only to discover they differed among themselves, and I wasn't sure how to decide which was right. I began again to be interested in more formal training. This time I decided to be more careful and discerning in my selection of an institution. During this period my pastor quoted the nineteenth-century English preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon during one of his more fiery sermons. While I cannot remember the details of the sermon, it marked the opening of an entirely new chapter in my life. A short time later I inquired about Spurgeon and was directed to a book he wrote entitled Lectures to My Students. I had never read such a book before; I would have great difficulty expressing the strange inward delight it brought me. I sensed that I was moving toward what I had longed for since I was a child, namely a theological bedrock on which I could not only rest my faith but even build a ministry. I next read The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. It so excited me that I gave it to my wife, and she devoured it just as I had. I then began purchasing Spurgeon's sermons in booklet form and reading them regularly.
I made it a point to read other authors that Spurgeon favorably mentioned, including the great Puritans John Flavel, Jonathan Edwards, Robert Murray M'Cheyne, John Owen, Thomas Manton, and others. They were like enormous mountain peaks; I didn't think I could scale their heights, but I would try to climb as high as I could.
It was about this time I went public with my intentions to enroll in Trinity International University, South Florida campus. This meant that I was not going to be available to serve in my church in the same way I had previously. I was shocked and somewhat discouraged when my news wasn't favorably received and was actually spoken against. The tension was significant enough that I ended up leaving the church. I was sad but somewhat relieved, because I reasoned that this gave me the chance to find a church that would support my desire for formal education. God led me to the historic Piney Grove First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale.
For the next three and a half years I lived in two distinct but equally pivotal worlds that profoundly influenced the theological course my life would take. Piney Grove First Baptist Church was a historic African-American church associated with the National
Baptist Convention, an equally historic African-American denomination. Trinity International University, South Florida campus was a conservative evangelical institution associated with the Evangelical Free Church, a historically Swedish denomination. Piney Grove was 99.9 percent African-American, while Trinity was split between Caucasians, Hispanics, and blacks. Trinity was committed to imparting the tools necessary to study and teach biblical truth but not committed specifically to any one theological position. I deeply loved both church and school and was determined to be active in both settings, though at times I thought I'd collapse trying to do so.
Discovering the Five Points of Calvinism
While at Trinity I was first exposed to the five points of Calvinism, commonly referred to as TULIP. The subject came up during my first Systematic Theology class and was cast in a somewhat favorable light. However, the general consensus was that only four of the points were scriptural. Limited atonement (the understanding that the atoning death of Jesus Christ was intended by God to redeem an elect group of people singled out from the perishing mass of humanity, and that it actually accomplished the salvation) was dismissed as repugnant and misrepresentative of the character of God.
Earlier I had become persuaded that limited atonement was, in fact, the true scriptural view, and that the contrary position amounted to no atonement at all and ultimately made salvation rest on what human beings did or failed to do. I couldn't see how rejecting limited atonement could square with so many of the Bible's precious statements, such as God having "saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began" (2 Tim. 1:9). For me it was not only a critical issue but a very personal one: if salvation depended finally upon anything I did or didn't do, then it was possible for me to cause my salvation to fail. Knowing myself as I did, I didn't view this as a mere possibility, but as inevitable; I would eventually fail in the Christian life. I spoke tentatively in favor of limited atonement at first, and was later ashamed of my timidity because I felt that ultimately limited atonement gave God the most glory. I felt the opposing understanding robbed God of glory by making the atonement something that only rendered men savable, but failed to actually save them until they managed on their own to respond to it. Furthermore, if someone had to be in charge of who actually went to heaven, I couldn't think of anyone better qualified to make that decision than God himself!
I began to notice that my fellow students' objections to limited atonement could be reduced to a charge of unfairness in God or a repudiation of man's free will. I realized that what was really at stake was God's absolute sovereignty in all things, and this emboldened me. The discussion grew heated one day, continued after class, and was joined by an adjunct professor who happened to be passing by. He heard my perspective and remarked to the group that I was "awfully Reformed" in my thinking. He said it kindly, and I took it as neither an insult nor a compliment. I really couldn't grasp the import of the comment, but I wanted to. That night I asked the manager of my favorite Christian bookstore where the Reformed section was, and with a puzzled look he pointed to the section I usually perused. It was the section where my favorite Puritan authors were found; I simply had not heard the term employed in the way the professor had used it.
I now began to investigate aggressively the Reformed community to discover where I might fit in. At this point I still did not actually know anyone who was Reformed. I had only read authors who had long since gone on to be with the Lord. Two events converged to alter that. First, I began to study Berkhof's Systematic Theology at night after my regular studies. In addition, I read Iain Murray's biography of D. Martyn Lloyd Jones. Second, one night my wife couldn't sleep, which was a surefire sign something was troubling her. She asked, "So . . . um . . . does anyone else believe what you believe?" I thought, Oh great, now my wife thinks I'm a heretic! "Sure," I said, "Lloyd-Jones, Spurgeon, a guy named Jonathan Edwards. . . ." "I mean living," she replied. I told her that I was sure there were plenty of people who did, but she sounded a little doubtful.
The next day I told a friend I needed to meet some Reformed people in the area and asked who was a safe bet. I was directed to a young African-American man named Mike Campbell who had recently taken up a pastorate at Pinelands Presbyterian Church in Miami. Mike was committed to the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) denomination and at first seemed way too enthusiastic for my comfort. Since I was not teaching that following Sunday and really wanted my wife to meet someone living and Reformed, we visited Pinelands. We were encouraged by the service. Mike gave a thorough, well-developed message that solidly explained the text and passionately applied it. My wife had a very positive experience, and I was happy. I now consciously identified myself with the Reformed movement and began sorting out where I fit within it.
After completing my studies in Miami and graduating with a BA in Biblical Studies, we relocated to Deerfield, Illinois, where I enrolled in the Masters of Divinity program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. As our moving truck crossed the state line between Florida and Georgia, I declared myself a Presbyterian; upon arriving in Illinois, we eventually began attending services at Lakeview Presbyterian Church, a small PCA church where we were the only African-American family. Talk about culture shock! The adjustment period was significant and not without its difficulties. My wife and I had decided that we either were going to be driven by a pursuit of truth or a desire to remain in our comfort zones. Where the two clashed, we knew we must be driven by theological conviction.
We have not looked back. We have had no need to. While I cannot pretend to have found a perfect Reformed community, I have indeed found what I had craved my entire Christian life: "a reason for the hope that is within me." In the Reformed understanding of Christianity, I learned that God has wisely incorporated our earnest efforts in the process of sanctification. Sanctification is a work God himself undertakes in believers' lives, lives in which we progressively grow in holiness as we die to sin over time. As I apply myself to the Bible, prayer, and communion with the saints, I am ever to be dependent on God alone. I rejoiced to learn that my sanctification is as much by faith and a product of the death of Christ as the justification that brought me forgiveness. I also gained a clear conception of what God is up to in his world and in my life. He is graciously summing up all things in Christ, who as God will reign eternally over God's creation, which includes his people. I learned that a day is coming, born of the obedience of Christ unto death, when all the demonic powers and world of unbelieving men will be cast into the lake of fire. God has purposed to purge and purify this very sinful world and bring into existence a new heavens and new earth wherein dwells righteousness—eternally devoid of sin, suffering, or death. I have discovered something that doesn't diminish the deep pain and travail of the world as it groans under the burden of personal and corporate sin, but that in the face of the sufferings of this present time still offers real hope that doesn't disappoint. This has given my life richness, my faith solidity, my mind inexhaustible wonders, and my heart the deepest joy imaginable.
With this understanding, I was enabled to answer God's call on my life to enter the gospel ministry, endeavoring to serve God's people and God's interest in the world. In God's good providence, I have been settled at Soaring Oaks Presbyterian Church in Elk Grove, California, and brought into connection with several likeminded African-American brothers in the faith, who, while the individual paths walked may differ, know well "the trouble I've seen."
Copyright 2009 by Anthony Carter, Ed.
Published by Crossway Books, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers
1300 Crescent Street Wheaton, Illinois 60187
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher, except as provided for by USA copyright law.
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