Chapter 1 - A Genuine Believer
An earnest young man approached me after class one day. He looked me right in the eye and asked, "Are you a Christian?" It was the summer of 1983 and I was 20 years old, a full time student at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. I was in excellent physical condition, surfing at least daily and practicing martial arts several times per week. When not at play I was riding my bike to and from class. Things were going well in my life by any secular measure; however, I was not right with God. Because of this, although I was happy, deep in my heart I knew that this was a fleeting stage in my life, much like a warm summer day, because even in my state of relative spiritual darkness, I knew that God and I had some unfinished business.
Years before I had accepted Jesus Christ as my savior on at least two occasions. The first one was at a summer camp on Catalina Island when I was 12 years old. The second time was at a Saturday night concert at Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa, when I was a freshman in high school. I remember being quite sincere on both of these occasions, but neither of them seemed to make any perceptible long-term difference in my life. I changed a few things for a few weeks and then slowly slipped back into my old routine, which by now included a steady girlfriend and moderate recreational drug use, especially when the Grateful Dead were in California.
The question that this young man had just asked me was quite perplexing. I really did believe in God, and did believe that Jesus was the only way to salvation, but nothing in my life or daily choices confirmed that I had ever really believed. After brief reflection I answered him by saying that I was indeed a Christian. He got rather excited at this point and shared some thoughts and ideas with me about God and the Bible. I was rather impressed, because he immediately pulled out a well-worn Bible and turned quickly to passages all over the Old Testament. Up until now I had only thought pastors were able to do this. This young man, named Jeff, then said something that is burned into my memory to this very day. He said, "And on Sunday we worship The Lord!" Everyone I had ever met who invited me to church usually said that the service starts at ten, or something to the effect that Sunday school is at nine, and afterwards we all go into the sanctuary. No one before had ever demonstrated such seriousness and genuine excitement over worship. Jeff was different, and a little peculiar. He was unlike any other Christian I had ever met.
The next week, Jeff invited me out to his Bible study, that Wednesday night at seven thirty. I promised that I would attend, and really felt that God was tugging at my heart to once more return to Him. Back at my apartment, my housemates had plans to get high and watch The Omen. I viewed the situation as one that entailed a clear choice between darkness and light, and being a man of my word I chose to attend the Bible study.
That night the chapter was Acts 7, and I don’t remember anything about the message, except that the person who taught turned to even more verses than Jeff, and knew his Bible better than anyone I had ever encountered. I was truly impressed. These Christians seemed a good deal more serious than the few believers that I was in contact with at the time. At this Bible study, I prayed to God, recommitting my life to Him, for at least the third time in the last eight years. But something was very different; I didn’t feel anything at all, no warmth, no love for God, only a feeling that my prayer never went anywhere and that God did not hear it.
The leader assured me that God always hears a prayer of faith, even if it is apart from feelings and that He would answer it. And answer it He did. I didn’t find out until around 15 years later how God answered me that evening, but it is undeniable that He heard my prayer.
I went to the Bible study several more times, because Jeff invited me weekly. He would invite me over to his house for dinner on Bible study night and then see to it that I attended, in a nice sort of way. I was starting to clean up my act with regard to parties and the like. I was surprised, because I hadn’t felt any "fire" after my prayer weeks earlier, yet God did seem to be doing something in my life. Jeff explained to me that most Churches preach salvation but then stop short and do not provide any sort of discipleship following salvation. "People need to learn to walk with The Lord," he explained, and his church was the sort that emphasized real "spiritual life," not just "fire insurance," like so many others. He quoted 1 Corinthians 3, and said that plenty of Christians get saved, but then barely make it into heaven and end up smelling like fire. This wasn’t what God wanted; He wanted us to live overcoming lives. This sounded good to me, and it made a lot of sense, because no other church had ever mentioned anything about teaching me to walk with the Lord and overcome, and sure enough, I had never really done so.
I thanked God, along with Jeff and the others, that there were still a few churches around that were more than just social clubs, churches that had serious members who really cared about spiritual things. This seemed like the sort of church that I might like.
I immediately recognized an analogy from the world of Karate, with which I was very familiar. There are many Karate classes that teach a watered down version of the art that is designed for exercise and public consumption. The important thing in these compromised schools is keeping a lot of members paying monthly dues. Make it easy, give frequent promotions, keep it safe and fun and there will be many little kids whose parents write checks every month. The fact that these kids don’t really learn how to fight is not the important thing. The financial health of the instructor is the bottom line.
On the other hand, the karate school that I belonged to had no more than a dozen members. We would sweat. We would really hit, very hard. Our form and discipline was traditional and proper. We were dangerous, and we were also pure and serious. Our black belts were real black belts and could really fight. Only a very few people, who were serious about Karate would be interested in such a school. I took pride in the fact that I was in a genuine, traditional martial art.
This new church was the same way. There were only a dozen or so members, and all of them were incredibly serious about walking with Christ. They were genuine believers, much more right-on than the other sort, who had failed to teach me how to walk with God in the past. The reader may be thinking that I was an arrogant, proud sort of person, and I definitely was in many ways. However, because this superior spiritual attitude was clearly taught and projected from the pulpit of this church, everything fit like a glove and at the time many of us were not even aware of this subtle spirit of pride.
Meanwhile, Jeff seemingly took a real liking to me, and I found myself going to the Bible study every week. In addition, I had begun a weekly discipleship meeting with Jeff. My friends noticed a change almost immediately and gave me a small amount of grief and even a little respect. The first warning came when my good friend David came to visit. He was a strong Christian, and we had much in common and were pretty close. He was concerned with my spiritual state, but never really confronted me about it the way Jeff did.
After his first visit to the Bible study, his comment was, "How can you stand this? These people are so phony! They act so spiritual but they seem so fake!" I was hurt. Yes, many of the people were strange. But that’s OK, isn’t it? After all, doesn’t the Bible say that not many wise and noble will follow Christ? These people certainly didn’t seem wise and noble, but they were definitely following Christ. What could possibly be wrong?
David and I had many discussions over the ensuing weeks about these matters. Our relationship, which had been quite close when I was not walking with Christ, was now strained. Eventually, we made peace, mainly because he reasoned that since I was cleaning up my act, and reading the Bible, my new church couldn’t be all that bad. Although our friendship would never be what it was, we remained somewhat close.
I never stopped to ask myself, if the same God was working in my life and in David’s, why was it that we were having less in common than before? This wonderful new church made a big point of talking about unity. They were especially careful to illustrate how most other Christians were not keeping the unity of The Spirit, because they were divided into different denominations and camps. Armed with the new teaching in which I was immersed, I understood that David’s reluctance was normal, especially for a "worldly" Christian. This was the first warning that something was wrong, but I didn’t notice it until 15 years later.
On my part, I had concluded that our relationship was strained because David wasn’t quite as serious a Christian as I had once thought. My new friends could blow him away when it came to looking up verses to explain things. David prayed simple prayers and didn’t even kneel! In contrast, Jeff always prayed very intelligently, and always knelt in God’s presence. "No," I reasoned, "David is uneasy with the idea of total commitment. He, like so many of God’s people, is content with being saved and giving God eighty percent. Jesus is Savior to him, but not really lord," or so I thought. David definitely had uneasiness when it came to commitment, but it was the group that made him uneasy. I merely interpreted this as the same as not being committed to God.
On the other hand, here were some people to whom Jesus was both Lord and Savior, and it really showed. These people got up early in the morning and read their Bibles, even before they went surfing! Most of them were so content in the Lord that they didn’t have time to surf anymore and didn’t even miss it. I, on the other hand, was worried that Heaven would be boring if there was no surf there. I was actually disturbed when I was told that there was no ocean in the new earth, and that there was a crystal sea in Heaven. At this point in my life, I really couldn’t imagine spending eternity somewhere without surf.
Unlike me, when something good happened to Assembly members, they gave thanks and praise to God out loud instead of saying, "Cool!" or some worldly expression. Mind you, at this time I considered myself to be a poor excuse for a believer, but in contrast, the new friends that God had brought into my life were the genuine articles.
My conviction about the spiritual superiority of my new friends was confirmed one Friday night when David and I met with Tim, a very godly man about 10 years older than we were. I wasn’t sure exactly who Tim was, but I had heard that his father was a great Bible scholar and had something to do with founding a very large worldwide ministry of which my little Bible study was a part.
David was a five point Calvinist. This always rubbed me the wrong way. The idea that God had predestined some to be saved and others to go to hell really didn’t sit well with me. David and I had many discussions about this. He did show me many verses in the Bible that seemed to back up what he was saying, but I was confused, so I asked Jeff about it. Jeff didn’t know much about Calvinism, except that it was wrong. However, he was familiar with what he believed and showed me some verses that seemed to say that anyone who called on God could be saved, and that God does not desire that anyone go to hell. However, he was not able to explain the verses that talked about predestination to my satisfaction so Jeff suggested I talk with Tim, who was coming up the next week. Jeff also made frequent, subtle, oblique suggestions that I would be wise to stay away from Calvinism and those that promoted it. "These kinds of people have flat tires," he explained, "They always say the same things and every time you talk to them all you hear is wump, wump, the flat just keeps coming around." Ah, yes. That was it. Many Christians get hung up on some side issue; meanwhile they never really seem to get on with the Lord. I was learning fast.
The discussion with Tim went splendidly. He was an absolute master of the Bible and could turn to any number of verses that articulated exactly what he wanted to say. He could have an argument with someone and say very few words, instead using the scriptures to make all of his points. "Ah," I said to myself, "This is what it means when it says that the Word is the sword of the Spirit. I have never met anyone who knows how to handle the Word like this!"
Tim made mincemeat out of David, and I was actually astonished that David did not quit his church right there in the restaurant and join up with the genuine believers. Surely he must have been humbled and awed with how much Tim knew about the Bible. Especially impressive was how Tim wrapped up the age long debate of Calvinism vs. Arminianism in just minutes. The coup de grace was when Tim explained that he used to be a Calvinist, until God taught him more clearly. Without a doubt, I concluded, Tim’s position was Biblical and David’s was a misguided "mainstream" position. I was disappointed when David only expressed sorrow, and apologized for not being able to defend his position adequately. When he didn’t come over to the correct biblical side, my esteem for him went down. However, my esteem for Tim, and this wonderful little church went way up.
In this way I became what I thought was a Genuine Believer. Yes, I was thankful to God for all those other believers who were not going to hell because they had fire insurance, but I was also a little peeved that they didn’t have the courage to preach the pure, unadulterated truth from their pulpits. No wonder my life had never changed so radically before, when I went to those mainstream churches! I thanked God that He was doing something new in my life; I was committed.
Although in my mind I was totally following God for the first time in my life, what was actually happening can be likened to the first few days of an offshore voyage. If one’s intended destination lies several thousand miles away, it is impossible to get too far off course after only 2 or 3 days of sailing. To be sure, I was totally excited about serving God, and delighted with the new church with which I had become involved. There were many good things happening in my life. However, this was not to continue. The problems came when, as the years passed, I found myself, due to faulty navigation, a hapless sailor. Not only was I going off course, but also I began to sail in dangerous waters, with unforeseen reefs and hazards. However, at the point of my life described above, things were still bright and sunny.