I grew up in Southern California in the 50s and 60s. Drugs were already becoming a problem when I was a little boy. My parents were concerned that I needed moral instruction to keep me from drugs and bad behavior. So they enrolled me in a religious boy’s club when I was just six. I went down there twice a week after school and then on Saturdays I played the three major sports in season, football, basketball, and baseball.
During the week we had religious instruction and practiced for our sports. My parents were not aware what was being taught.
The leader of the group, Mr. X, was a man who came from Oklahoma. He had been involved in Pentecostal Holiness and Nazarene churches. But he broke free and started his own group because they were not conservative enough for him.
Mr. X taught that a person would have one or at most two chances to be saved in his lifetime, and those chances came between the ages of 5 and 20. In order to get saved when our time came, we had to be holy enough. That is, we had to turn from our sins and live for God in order to good enough when our time came. He said if we missed the first chance, there might not be a second. If we missed the second, then we were doomed to hell.
I was scared I wouldn’t be ready. I tried to stay up all night praying that God would give me my chance.
One problem I had is that I wasn’t sure how I would know my time had come. Mr. X just said that you would know.
Somehow our time seemed to come during church services when altar calls were given. If you were sure God was calling you to go forward, then you must go.
But we were also warned not to go forward when it was not our time. This was a terrible thing. You’d know. Until then, you waited, whether months or years or more than a decade.
My time had still not come by the start of my ninth grade year. Then my parents shocked me. “You are going to quit the club and get involved in school sports.” I briefly rebelled openly. After all, without the club, I was doomed to hell.
I made plans to go back to the club when I graduated from college.
When I was 16 I prayed inviting Jesus into my heart in my room. I felt a stirring in my chest. Was this it? Was I now saved? I hadn’t gone forward at a service. But I felt something.
Mr. X also taught that once we were saved we had to live a sinless life or we would lose our salvation and then we could never get it back. One sin and you were damned. Was I now living a sinless life? I hoped I was. But I had my doubts.
John Carlson was my best friend. We had met in the club when we were in grade school. His parents made him quit the club in high school. He went to a different college and we lost touch for a few years.
Then in late August just before the start of my third year in college, John contacted me. Would I like to come to a Christian meeting (Campus Crusade for Christ) at his college, USC? I was scared. They could lead me astray.
When I told John my fear, he asked a great question, “Is it possible that your view of the gospel is wrong?” Whoa. If Mr. X was wrong, then I’d end up going to hell in spite of all I had given up to be saved.
I decided to go. I prayed and asked God to protect me if there was error there.
For the first time in my life, I heard about the grace of God and the free gift of everlasting life. But it was too easy. Way too easy. Just believe in Jesus and you were saved once and for all? How could that be? If that was true, then everything I believed about salvation was dead wrong.
But John had believed the same way I had. He had come to believe this grace message. Maybe it was right. I decided to contact Campus Crusade for Christ at my school, UCI.
I called and was put in touch with a young staff member named Warren Wilke. For five weeks we meet an hour a week and Warren answered my questions. I really had one question: How can I be sure that I am saved? He quoted Eph 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
I had read those verses many times, since I had read through the entire Bible multiple times. But those verses had never made sense to me because so many other verses seemed to say that we are saved by enduring, by working, and by obeying.
Each week I would ask Warren about verses that I thought taught salvation by works. He’d give a brief answer and then say, “But whatever those verses mean, they cannot contradict Eph 2:8-9. Then like a broken record, he would quote the verses again. By grace. Through faith. Apart from works. Lest anyone should boast.
By the end of the fifth week, I was convinced. That is, I believed. I knew that I was saved and that I could never lose it, not because of a feeling, not because I thought I was sinless, but because of the simple promise of Eph 2:8-9.
Some might say I embraced grace theology because I was so miserable with the club’s teachings. I’d say I embraced grace theology in spite of the tremendously strong pull of the club’s teachings. I might have been miserable. But I thought that was part of the cost of following Christ to the kingdom.
What finally changed my thinking was the Word of God. I just couldn’t get around Eph 2:8-9.
The reason I do what I do is because God grace grabbed me. I know He will never let me go. I love to tell that message to others. The promise of life is truly good news.