The God of the Second Chance: A Personal Testimony

I was a young man on fire for the Lord. At age 22, just after graduation from college, I became part of the ministry of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). As an on-air radio announcer, I played contemporary Christian music and offered whatever spiritual insights a 22-year-old could possibly offer.

Then my church started a Christian school and looked around for someone with a degree of some kind to become its headmaster. My radio, television, and film degree seemed to qualify at that point. I was also eager to take on the task.

A longer story made much shorter: I was too young, too inexperienced, and too immature to handle that responsibility. For various reasons, I wandered away from the Lord and eventually left that position.

Too many testimonies spend far too much time highlighting the sins of one’s former life. I don’t wish to do that. Suffice to say I was angry with God, filled with ingratitude for what He had given me in life, and looking for some reason to abandon Him entirely. In short, I was in open rebellion.

At the height of this rebellion, I decided to go back to college to earn a doctorate in history, which had been my minor in my undergraduate years. This decision was made without seeking God’s leading; I really didn’t care what He thought, if He was even there at all. What I hoped was that these degrees, and all the learning I would imbibe along the way, would provide a meaning for my life that now was missing.

I applied myself to higher education with all my being, completing my master’s degree in one year, then moving on to the doctorate. Two years later, I had finished everything necessary for the degree except the doctoral dissertation. After three strenuous years of reading, researching, writing, and test-taking, I was almost exhausted.

What was even worse was I had come no closer to genuine meaning for my life than when I had started. When you come to the end of yourself, that’s where you will find the Lord patiently waiting for you.

EcclesiastesI began to read the Bible again and slowly came to the realization that I had been a fool. One particular passage stood out to me one day, found in Ecclesiastes 12:11-14:

The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails; they are given by one Shepherd. But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body. The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.

It would have been difficult to find a more appropriate passage to speak to my condition. I had wearied myself with devotion to books. What I needed was to once again fear God and keep His commandments.

I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to finish my doctoral degree. After all, I hadn’t asked God about it in the first place. Yet He opened up time for me to do so, with an assurance that somehow He could use this degree for His kingdom. When an opportunity came to teach as an adjunct faculty at Regent University, I gladly accepted it.

Regent was a three-hour drive from my home, so I would travel there once a week to teach a couple of master’s-level courses. I still struggled, though, with whether I was completely forgiven by God for all those wasted years and the damage I had done with my bad attitudes and other sins during that time.

One day, in January 1989, as I was making that trek to Regent, I was listening to music as I drove. The song was an old hymn of the church, It Is Well with My Soul. When I listened to the second verse, it came alive:

My sin, oh the joy of that glorious thought, my sin, not in part, but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more. Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, oh, my soul.

As soon as those words filled my mind, something else filled my mind: a voice spoke, declaring, “That’s for you.”

As I recall it now, I can’t say for sure if it was an audible voice, but it was so real, and the Source was so obvious, that I was swept away by the love of God. He was telling me I had a fresh start. I could put aside my past sins and move onward for Him. I was so overwhelmed; the tears flowed; driving on I-95 became rather dangerous. But the presence of God and His love filled my being.

The reality of that voice has stayed with me to this day, and God has fulfilled those words in my life. I’ve been able to put the past behind and move forward. Shortly after that divine intervention, a door opened for my first fulltime teaching position as a professor. I’ve now been in this ministry for 25 years.

In those early days after “the voice,” I began referring to the Lord as “the God of the Second Chance.” I still believe that, and I remain eternally grateful for the second chance He has given me. Never would I dream now of throwing away the blessing and the honor of serving Him.

Ecclesiastes 12

Lewis: Discerning Good & Evil

The apostle Paul notes that “the god of this world [i.e., Satan] has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel.” Scripture also talks often about how those without the truth are walking in darkness. C. S. Lewis picks up on this theme in Mere Christianity when he explains how sin warps our understanding of our very sinfulness:

Good & EvilThe right direction leads not only to peace but to knowledge. When a man is getting better, he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good; a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right.

This is common sense, really. You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. . . . You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil; bad people do not know about either.

I think our goal is spelled out in the book of Hebrews:

For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.

We need discernment. Only by growing in righteousness will we ever see clearly the distinction between good and evil.

The Rot Doesn’t Start at the Top

Have you ever felt like this: so sickened by the ocean of dishonesty, lack of integrity, and arrogance of the majority of humanity that you just want to seal yourself off from the ugliness of it all? If not for the mercy I’ve received personally from the Lord, and His forgiveness for my own past dishonesty, lack of integrity, and arrogance, I would be tempted to find a nice isolated corner of the world where I could simply let the parade pass me by.

As if anyone can find such a corner.

There’s no escape from the pervasiveness of sin in our society. For me, the two most distressing places to find sin are among those who claim the name of Christ and in those who presume to lead us politically. The first—the church—is supposed to be the light in this dark world. When we act like the world, we snuff out the light. The second—our government—is supposed to be a servant of God, carrying out His will in the public sphere. When it decides to become its own miniscule god, it does the opposite of what the real God intended.

In my study of church history, I’ve often been grieved by the manner in which so many have dishonored the God they claim to serve. As a student of the history of politics and government, I’ve been almost as dismayed by the pride of politicians who believe they are bringing us utopia and by the outright lies they offer to achieve their goals.

Our current political leader, though, has set a new standard for arrogance and deception. Just when I thought no one in public life could ever top Bill Clinton for blatant dishonesty and love of self, along comes Barack Obama.

I don’t really want to go through a litany of all the dishonest statements he’s made or the growing list of things for which he denies all knowledge or responsibility, but some cartoonists have encapsulated them for me, so I’ll let them speak:

Didn't Know

Knows Nothing

He won’t even admit when he’s been wrong. Previous presidents have taken responsibility for failures and have won back public confidence: Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs fiasco; Reagan in the Iran-Contra affair. But this president? He won’t even acknowledge that his “guarantee” that everyone would be able to keep their health insurance policies if they liked them was a complete sham. He invents a new narrative of what he “actually” meant by words that could only be taken in one way. It’s obvious he lied to get Obamacare passed into law; it’s just as obvious his overall goal is to force everyone in the country into his system eventually.

It’s difficult for me to contain the disgust I feel for this man. I’m ashamed he’s the president of my country. Yet how did he get to be that leader? He didn’t just grab the title and run with it. He convinced enough of our fellow citizens that he was their savior—and I use that word advisedly, as he has always held himself up as larger than life. I mean, who else would ever say that their election was “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”?

I expect people with outsized egos to dominate our politics. The lure of power draws them. What’s most distressing is how easily fooled the people can be as they continue to believe the big lies:

Great Pumpkin

The rot doesn’t start at the top. It rises from the masses who are an unhealthy combination of ignorance and selfishness. At this point, there’s no excuse for ignorance about Obama or his agenda. The selfishness at the root of it all—we want the goodies government promises—can only be dealt with at the personal level. It’s back to the basic Gospel: recognition of our sinfulness, repentance, acceptance of the forgiveness offered through the Cross, and the development of a renewed mind so we can see the world more clearly—through the principles found in Scripture—and not be fooled again.

Lewis on the Nature of Good & Evil

Writing to his friend Arthur Greeves in 1933, C. S. Lewis offered these thoughts on the nature of good and evil:

C. S. Lewis 1I think one may be quite rid of the old haunting suspicion—which raises its head in every temptation—that there is something else than God—some other country . . . into which He forbids us to trespass—some kind of delight wh. He “doesn’t appreciate” or just chooses to forbid, but which wd. be real delight if only we were allowed to get it.

The thing just isn’t there.

Whatever we desire is either what God is trying to give us as quickly as He can, or else a false picture of what He is trying to give us . . . wh. would not attract us for a moment if we saw the real thing. . . .

Only because He has laid up real goods for us to desire are we able to go wrong by snatching at them in greedy, misdirected ways. The truth is that evil is not a real thing at all, like God. It is simply good spoiled. That is why I say there can be good without evil, but no evil without good.

You know what the biologists mean by a parasite—an animal that lives on another animal. Evil is a parasite. It is there only because good is there for it to spoil and confuse.

I believe Lewis is accurate in what he says here. Sin is always the selfish ruination of something good God offers. Food, used in the way God intended, is great. Food abused is gluttony. Sex as a means of love, commitment, and the creation of a family is a blessing; sex abused is a lustful trap that ruins lives. There is a proper kind of pride—satisfaction for a job well done—that is twisted into arrogance when selfishness takes over. There is nothing good that can’t be perverted into evil. That’s what sin is all about.

What God is all about is delivering us from that sinfulness, thereby putting every good thing back in its proper place where it can be enjoyed in the way He intended.

Finney: Discerning the Intent of the Heart

Our outward actions are extremely important, but when the Lord looks at those actions, He goes deeper and sees the intent of the heart. Sometimes, the outward actions of two individuals may be exactly the same, but the intent of the heart completely different. One may be honoring God by his actions while someone else doing the very same thing may be sinning. Here’s how Charles Finney explains it further:

A student labors to get wages, to purchase books, to obtain an education, to preach the gospel, to save souls, and to please God. Another labors to get wages, to purchase books, to get an education, to preach the gospel, to secure a salary, and his own ease and popularity. In the first supposition he loves God and souls, and seeks, as his ultimate end, the happiness of souls, and the glory and gratification of God. In the last case supposed, he loves himself supremely and his ultimate end is his own gratification.

Motive of the HeartNow the . . . immediate objects of pursuit, in these two cases, are precisely alike, while their ultimate ends are entirely opposite. Their first, or nearest, end is to get wages. Their next end is to obtain books; and so we follow them, until we ascertain their ultimate end, before we learn the moral character of what they doing.

The means they are using . . . are the same, but the ultimate ends at which they aim are entirely different, and every moral agent, from a necessary law of his intellect, must, as soon as he understands the ultimate end of each, pronounce the one virtuous, and the other sinful, in his pursuits. One is selfish and the other benevolent.

Finney then later remarks [and these quotes come from his Systematic Theology],

It is undeniable that the vilest sinners do many things outwardly which the law of God requires. Now unless the intention decides the character of these acts, they must be regarded as really virtuous. But when the intention is found to be selfish, then it is ascertained that they are sinful notwithstanding their conformity to the letter of the law of God.

How often I’ve heard someone being praised for some outward action without taking into account the intention of the heart, also known as one’s motive. This is a clear reminder that God will judge the heart, and that, as His people, we need to do our best to make a sober and discerning judgment of intent/motive as well.

Sin, the Church, & the Nation

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The New Mexico Supreme Court rules that a Christian photographer who didn’t want to photograph a homosexual wedding has to do so. Her faith was not as important as the right of the couple to force her to be their photographer. Her faith has to accommodate to their wishes because anti-discrimination is more essential than religious liberty.

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A bakery in Oregon refuses to bake a cake for a homosexual wedding. The business now faces an anti-discrimination lawsuit.

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Officials in Pennsylvania and New Mexico defy the laws of their states by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  Pennsylvania’s attorney general states she will defy the same-sex marriage ban. The attorney general is supposed to be the chief law enforcement officer in the state.

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A lesbian training squadron commander in the Air Force punishes a sergeant who believes homosexuality is a sin. This occurred after he defended another sergeant who had shared his religious views on homosexuality in a classroom setting.

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On a day in which Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is memorialized, President Obama includes in his remarks comments about how gays are experiencing the same discrimination blacks have historically experienced, thereby equating the two.

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The lead singer for the popular Christian band Building 429 says that he doesn’t like to throw stones, that homosexuals are in a human rights fight, and that they should have the same rights as a traditional married couple. Although he says he believes homosexuality is a sin, it’s not all that big a deal because he sins “1000 times a day.” He’s not comfortable chastising people and telling them they may go to hell.

This is America, year 2013. We are a nation on the edge of moral ruin. The rule of law is breaking down. Even many who call themselves Christians can’t bring themselves to stand for Biblical truth. One of the biggest problems, in my view, is that our theology is off-base. If you sin a thousand times a day, are you really a Christian?

Hebrews HolinessWe are hesitant to judge. We don’t want to be seen as holier-than-thou. We want people to love us. Yet we are told in Scripture to speak the truth in love. Yes, we reach out to people, even to those caught in the ugliest of sinful bondage, but that outreach must begin with the truth: you can only be set free by repenting of the sin and receiving God’s forgiveness. Another part of the truth is that God now expects you to live a life free from sin. Holiness is a requirement; you no longer sin a thousand times a day.

So while I’m disturbed by the drift in this nation, I’m more disturbed by the drift in what is ostensibly the Body of Christ. And the connection between the two is evident. As the church goes, so goes the nation. If we want the nation to change, we must begin with ourselves. God will definitely hold us accountable.

Finney’s Prescription for Self-Examination

Charles Finney 2Charles Finney takes aim in his Revival Lectures on the imperfect and incomplete way in which we often deal with sin. We tend to generalize and gloss over the immensity of our sinful hearts and the actions that flow from those hearts. Here’s the instruction he gives, and I think he’s on the right track:

If you mean to break up the fallow ground of your hearts, you must begin by looking at your hearts: examine and note the state of your minds, and see where you are. . . . Do not be in a hurry. Examine thoroughly the state of your hearts . . . whether you are under the dominion of the prince of darkness, or of the Lord Jesus Christ. . . .

Self-examination consists in looking at your lives, in considering your actions, in calling up the past, and learning its true character. Look back over your past history. Take up your individual sins one by one, and look at them. I do not mean that you should just cast a glance at your past life, and see that it has been full of sins, and then go to God and make a sort of general confession, and ask for pardon. That is not the way. You must take them up one by one. . . .

General confessions of sin will never do. Your sins were committed one by one; and as far as you can come at them, they ought to be reviewed and repented of one by one.

How different from the standard practice today. I think this is one reason why lives are not really changed. We treat our sins too cavalierly. Our sins cost Jesus His life on this earth. We should never take them lightly, and we should never take lightly what He did for us.