A Statement of Faith by Clark Gerhart
Growing up as a Christian I was always amazed at people who had what I liked to call a Hell’s Angels’ testimony. You didn’t have to actually be a member of a motorcycle gang to have a Hell’s Angel testimony. Some were drug addicts, prostitutes or criminals. Others were alcoholics or were raised in broken or abusive homes. The common thread was a dramatic conversion story and a powerful message about the power of grace to save and change lives.
I remember one thief turned theologian who went back to the people’s homes he had burglarized and apologized and offered restitution. Wow, did that take guts. That guy had a life changing experience and it was real enough to make him risk imprisonment to do what God had told him to do. I almost felt bad at the time that I had not had such a powerful experience. I was, after all, just a lifelong Christian and I didn’t have all that sin in my life to be dramatically saved from.
At least that’s what I thought.
Then God did a dramatic work in my life to show me just how much sin there was buried in my life and how much I needed a powerful work of grace to free me. It was like toxic waste buried in the landfill of my flesh that eventually bubbled to the surface to harm my relationships and many of the people around me.
Of course as a lifelong Christian my sins did not involve drugs or violent crime. I preferred stabbing people in the back with gossip rather than stabbing them in the chest with a knife. Stealing other’s dignity with condemnation was easier than climbing in through a window at night to steal their jewelry. And shooting heroine was just too messy, especially when the drugs of pride and self-righteousness were much more intoxicating.
Yes, I was a vile sinner alright. And God revealed that this type of buried sin is just as destructive as alcoholism or any other superficial type of sin. In fact, they are probably more destructive. At least a prostitute or thief usually knows they are despicable and wants out. A despicable Christian, however, has a way of making you feel bad about it, not them. Ugh! I still shudder at the thought of how critical and condemning I was especially with the hurting people who need grace most.
Well, that was me. A despicable lifelong Christian who knew everything about being holy, but very little about grace.
Then God intervened. You know how He does itit’s the same for all despicable sinners, whether motorcycle gang members or Sunday School teachersHe shook up my life to get my attention, convicted me of sin and then His grace went to work to change me. In the process He built in me a new understanding of the doctrine of grace, a new commitment to the disciplines of the faith, a better acceptance of the diversity of His body, and a stronger devotion to ministry.
Doctrine of Grace
The thing God used to get my attention was some pretty severe relational struggles in my marriage. On the surface they seemed to be caused by unforgivenness, but confessing that sin over and over didn’t get me any closer to victory. After some anguished soul searching God revealed a deeper sin of self-righteousness that was hindering my interactions with my wife and others.
The problem was that I looked at my life growing up as a Christian and being spared from a lot of the more dramatic sins as making me better than some of those around me who didn’t have the benefit of Godly instruction when they were young. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly would have told you with my mouth that, “we were all sinners saved by grace not by works so that none could boast,” but deep in my heart I was boasting in my own accomplishments.
And believe me I had quite a bit to boast in. I was born into a respected Christian home, professed Christ in my eighth year of life. I was a Charismatic Protestant Christian, which meant I even had a little more of the Holy Spirit than other denominations. As to zealI lead small groups and taught Sunday school classes from my teens. Righteous? You bet. I didn’t cuss, smoke or drink or hang with girls that do. I did everything I was taught to do in Christianity, and yet suddenly I couldn’t even communicate with my wife and life became agony.
That’s when God opened my eyes to Philippians 3 where Paul lists a similar religious pedigree: Circumcised the eight day, a noted Pharisee, and as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to legalistic righteousness, faultless. But after listing what should make him proud he discards it as refuse, saying “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” (v. 7-8 NIV)
I realized I had to give it up, too. I knew salvation was by grace but I thought my good works added something good to my own righteousness, even if only a small bita little icing on the cake of salvation. But it was that small bit that allowed me to think I was just a little better of a person than all other people who were saved by grace. It was that same small bit of self-righteousness that was tripping me up in my relationship with my wife.
The real climax of the message God spoke to me came in v. 8 where Paul said, “I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ.” I had to give up my reliance on my righteousness in order to gain Christ’s. It was no small matter. Holding on to my righteousness, even a little, did not allow Christ’s righteousness to flow in my life.
The doctrine of salvation by grace became a reality in my life and from that point on I would rely on nothing else. I thank God that He spared me so many of the consequences of sin by teaching me His principle for living from little on up. But that obedient living didn’t grant me righteousness or salvation. I did nothing to gain these except to receive them as a gift by faith. It was such a transforming revelation that I was re-baptized to publicly proclaim my dependence on grace.
Disciplines of the Faith
During the period of struggling in my life I also developed a new appreciation for the disciplines of the faith. We all know that as Christians we need to read our Bibles, pray, support the church financially, and fellowship with other believers. I practiced all these things from the time I started dropping my quarters in the Sunday school offering plate. As I grew, though, the disciplines of the faith changed from mandatory assignments to natural aspects of the process of spiritual maturity, much like those involved in physical maturity.
Bible study gives essential foundational spiritual education for the Christian, just like the education we receive as we grow. And believe me, I’ve had a lot of education. I was told once that going to medical school was roughly like memorizing the Philadelphia phone book. And I found out that was true! The funny thing is that you don’t learn to be a doctor in medical school. Most of what it takes to practice medicine you learn in residency as you experience the application of what you’ve memorized. Christianity is the same. I found that in the tough times God spoke scripture into my life that I had to rely on to live. There was no need to memorize it. Scripture was burnt into my mind and heart as I experienced it functioning in life.
Prayer took on a whole new tone as well, much in the way your communication with your parents or other adults changes as you progress from being a child to an adult. The pressure I felt trying to talk to God and get Him to talk back disappeared. Through times of struggling I had learned to hear God’s voice gently nudging me in my spirit as I prayed, read scripture, listened to teaching or the people around me. I learned that even enemies could convey God’s message, such as the time a person told me in no constructive way that I was getting too full of myself and deep inside God said, “I have to agree.”
As you grow you also need to learn how to manage your money. You start out with your Mom helping you save some coins in a piggy bank, and eventually you end up managing the rent, car payment and electric bill while deciding how to spend what’s leftif there is any. At that point you spend on what is important to you. As my spiritual life deepened I found giving to the Lord’s work became more of apriority because sharing what He had done in me became more important. I still use tithing as a guideline to keep me consistent, but I no longer feel compelled to give according to a rule or based on pressure. I find joy in giving whenever the Lord highlights a need and I gave more freely.
Fellowshipping together with other believers became a brand new experience for me, much as you experience as you grow and learn to deal with new types of people. With the walls of pride and self-righteousness torn down in my heart interaction with others became much more caring and understanding. The grace I had experienced naturally flowed out to others.
Diversity of His body
One thing I can say as a lifelong Christian is that I’ve been around Christianity. I was baptized as an infant in the Lutheran church and confirmed at age 13 in the United Church of Christ. My formative teen years were spent in a Charismatic home fellowship. My wife was raised Mennonite so after being married we stayed in the Anabaptist movement and attended a Brethren in Christ congregation. A career move took us to a town were we fellowshipped with an independent Bible church styled in the Baptist tradition.
In my mind the Anabaptists and the Charismatics are pretty much at opposite ends of the spectrumand I’ve been both and everything in between.
The really amazing thing is that after spending time with all of these different Christians I stayed a Christian at all. Yes, it is sad but true that we really don’t like one another and we’re generally not ashamed to make known why we don’t like each other. Just move from one area to another or from one denomination to another and they’ll be happy to tell you why their particular brand of Christianity is right and others are wrong.
My favorite example of this happened during the one time we changed churches within one community rather than changing at the time of a move to another town. While I was in church #1 I was involved in a church committee meeting where we discussed a project to be carried out with another church in the town. During that discussion the pastor tried his best to appear to want to join with other churches but could not contain the disdain he felt for the other church. He said we could work with church #2 in a general way but wouldn’t get too involved because their presentation of the gospel was not as accurate as ours. I had to agree. They were no where near the Christians we were.
Well, it wasn’t long before I was sitting in a similar meeting in church #2 when the exact same criticisms were made of church #1. I sat flabbergasted and realized for the first time how completely disunified we are as Christians. I knew the Christians in church #1 and #2 and knew them all to be thoroughly committed to the Lord and serving His purposes and yet they both thought they were better than the other.
The most disgusting part of it allI was them. I had felt all those same self righteous feelings and I was ashamed. I repented and encouraged my current churchmates to do the same. None of us are better than another. We are all sinners saved by grace regardless of where or how we choose to worship.
I was tempted to give up on churches all together, but we can’t. We are a diverse people and it is human nature to want to congregate with like-minded people. I decide I would learn to appreciate the diversity in God’s body and resist disunity. I think the best model for this is described by Ted Haggard in his book Primary Purpose where he describes a community filled with churches of different flavorsdifferent, not better or worseall proclaiming the necessity of Christ.
Dedication to Ministry
The most important thing that resulted from God impacting my life in a real and life-changing way was that He gave me a new dedication to ministry. Not that I wasn’t dedicated before hand; it’s just that I didn’t have much of a message to share. There isn’t a whole lot of ministry that you can do with a testimony that amounts to “I have followed God and done everything right and you should to.” As much as I thought that message should be a shinning example to people of the benefits they could find in Christ it just wasn’t something people could relate to. And, of course, it wasn’t really honest. There was plenty of sin I needed to be freed from I just did a good job of hiding it.
As the Lord revealed sin buried in my life He opened up a revelation of how the flesh controlled me and how the fleshly nature works. He used my medical education and taught me how the fleshly nature is truly programmed into our fleshly bodies. This opened a whole new understanding of how sin is entrenched in our lives and how giving control of our lives over to the flesh rather than the Spirit produces sin.
He allowed me to see how our natural systems of homeostasis make us defensive, how our drives produce drivenness and our reflexes cause conditioned responses. I found that when the flesh was in control we spend most of our life living just to stimulate our receptors and end up addicted to sensory stimulation. He showed me that our fleshly subconscious systems give us our personalities and that understanding this can help us understand who we are and how to relate to others. He also showed me how fleshly our emotions and motives are and that since they are flesh we should not trust them but submit them to the Spirit as well. And finally He showed me how our conscious mind creates our will which rules over the flesh and must be submitted to bring about real and lasting change in our lives.
God created a message in me that could minister to others and now I am excited to share it. In my former way of thinking ministry was a religious compulsion and drudgery. Now I am thrilled to share what God has done for me. And I guess that was what I was attracted too way back when I was young listening to all those Hell’s Angels testimonies. Now by the grace of God I can share the real and powerful life changing work that God has done for this despicable lifelong Christian.