In a recent sermon, Alistair Begg, gave an interesting imagined story about the thief on the cross. Having arrived in paradise as the crucified Lord Jesus Christ had promised, he was asked how he had arrived there: ‘I don’t know!’ Question after question followed: had he been born again; did he understand justification by faith, etc. He replied each time with increasing frustration, ‘I don’t know!’ When eventually asked the basis on which he was there, he responded: ‘The man on the middle cross said I could come.’
Something similar could have been my response when I first knew the Lord. I knew next to nothing about the biblical gospel. Although I had been to chapel and Sunday School since I was seven years old I did not know that I needed a personal Saviour. I knew the Bible stories well enough to win a few books. I cannot remember being taught the true meaning of the communion service and the relevance of the cross. I did not realise how necessary it was but thought that Jesus was very special to have suffered innocently there. Yet occasionally a visiting preacher came and something seemed to click inside.
Jesus Christ is the only hope
In sixth form I was still going through the motions of a kind of chapel Christianity. Things began to change when the lad who became the head boy took part in a debate – a dreaded session on a Friday afternoon – introducing the motion that ‘Jesus Christ is the only hope for our world today.’ I can’t remember details but an impression was made and when he started a Bible class in the lunch hour, I was there.
I thought I knew about the Bible, however, this was something different. This young man spoke about Jesus and God personally and said he was saved. This was new to me but I remember going to see my Sunday School teacher on an errand and asking him if everyone needed to be saved. He said his mother had been but he was not sure.
‘What is he to you?’
Soon afterwards one of the local preachers arranged a trip for young people to attend a Billy Graham rally in Swansea. One of the team was the preacher that day and his text was Peter’s confession: ‘Thou art the Son of the Living God.’ What I remember was the question: ‘What is he to you?’ and an explanation of his death. At the end we sang the hymn, Just as I am without one plea but that Thy blood was shed for me, O Lamb of God I come.
I knew I had no choice. I had to respond but that’s all. I didn’t know what had happened to me but in the bus on the way home I could not understand why everyone else was still the same as before and not overwhelmed by it all. I thought that if I told my family and others that something had happened it would change them too, but they were very concerned that I was tending to religious mania.
My pastor at home was not sympathetic. However, the gentleman who met me at the rally in Swansea continued in faithful correspondence and counselling which proved to be so helpful. I found the meaning of words like saved, converted and repentance and began to read the Bible with the Scripture Union notes which he sent. Likewise, a Christian couple in the village began lending me books, mostly missionary biographies, and I was so inspired by these.
I began to see the Lord’s providence at work – although I had no idea of the meaning of such words then, except as the words to be sung in the Welsh hymns in chapel! I was so ignorant of spiritual Christianity but the Lord was faithful. He brought gospel ministers to the area, then provided the Christian Union at the university and led me to Westminster Chapel.
A raw Christian
I was such a young raw Christian when I went as an officer to my first Christian camp in Bala and probably learned more than the campers through the messages and through having to study and share the Bible with them. Lifelong friendships were forged in that first Welsh camp. I realised that some folk had come from churches where these things were regular happenings. It was new but lovely to belong.
Born again is such an apt term for the life changing work of God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Prayer was once mechanical and formal but it became personal and a two-way privilege. Guidance was no longer going with the flow but waiting for his time and his signal from his Word.
The ups and downs of life
The Lord is very kind to his babies but we have to grow up and life is not all roses. I remember being asked during an IVF (now UCCF) church campaign to give an ‘up to date’ testimony. I had never heard of that but when it was explained, it seemed so right because I had been through a difficult and lonely time. That was when I had found the Lord to be a shoulder on which to cry and that he spoke so clearly and personally through the Bible, teaching, encouraging and correcting.
He has not changed but he has changed me. This new life has had its ups and downs but through them all the Lord’s tenderness and providences have become more and more real. These are the special times but there have been such times as the dark nights of the soul when all the blessings of this new life seemed to evaporate into thin air and the enemy of souls tried to convince me that it is all a sham. Unable to deny everything and yet I was groping in the dark for reality once more. I tried in vain to find comfort in the Word. It seemed endless, but eventually the Lord spoke through Matthew 12:20. I was the bruised reed and the smoking flax and he gave me a ray of hope. He came again by his Spirit to restore my soul and renew that precious fellowship with him – and made it even more precious.
Proving the Lord’s goodness in the ups and downs of life merely confirms how reliable are the promises he has so graciously given in his Word. Joseph Hart’s hymn reminds us of God’s goodness, past, present and future: We’ll praise him for all that is past, We’ll trust him for all that’s to come. In these uncertain times that is how I would like my own testimony to be, by his grace.