“An Irredeemable at a Place Called ‘Redeemer’”
By Matthew Garnett
For about the first ten years of my adult life, I worked as an Evangelical pastor. Trust me when I tell you, we did not call ourselves “Evangelical” (with a capital “E”) for nothing! To put a fine point on it, we were “soul winners.” We “won souls” for the Lord. As such, it was incumbent upon all of us, but particularly the clergy, to do everything we could to insure that our families, friends, neighbors, and the world, would not be facing eternal damnation on the last day.
Put simply, all of our efforts, our budgets and calendars, went toward this end. To be sure, evangelism should be a critical point of doctrine to all faith traditions as it is a clear command of our Lord. However, according to our “free will” tradition and theology as Evangelicals, it was solely up to us as Christians and ministers of the Gospel to arrange certain situations where those near to us would be more likely to decide to become Christians.
We took St. Paul’s words in Romans, “…..how are they to hear without someone preaching?” to the next level. We understood this to mean that, if we did not get out there and preach, and preach in a convincing and charming way, people would actually die and go to hell because of this. Now understand, I say “we” in all of this when I should actually say “I.” This is how seriously I took all of this. Honestly, and we can praise God for this, not all Evangelicals are as unbalanced and unhinged as I was!
That said, it seems clear that if a person takes the “free will” theology to its logical conclusion, it is difficult to avoid these extremes. Couple this with what came next in my “ministry programs,” and it was the perfect storm for trouble. Next came “discipleship.”
Once a person accepted the Gospel (I usually did this by having a person sign a “commitment card”), then we began the hard work of “discipleship.” So I taught the people how to study their Scriptures. I encouraged them to get into what we called “small accountability groups” where they could discuss their struggles with one another. I basically tried to teach them how to live according to the commands of the Scriptures. And of course, I taught them how to be Evangelists.
The only problem was, I never taught them the Gospel after they signed their commitment card. The Gospel never was taught to me after I signed my commitment card. The focus was completely on the commands of Scripture. The promises of the Scriptures were reserved only for the unbelievers.
Here’s why I washed out of the ministry as an Evangelical and why many people wash out of the Evangelical faith, especially that Evangelicalism rooted in the “free will” tradition. As you try to go deeper into that tradition, understand it more, and try to live it more faithfully, a growing angst of tremendous pressure begins to mount. I began to believe that, if people were to be saved, it was up to me. I also began to believe that, if I was going to be an effective evangelist, my living had to be squeaky clean. Eternity hung in the balance for myself and for others based on what I did next.
For me, the problem with being an Evangelical was not that we placed a high value on Evangelism. All Christians should value this. It wasn’t that we placed a high value on obeying the commands of the Scriptures. Christians should want to obey what God commands. The problem was, as I went deeper into this, I did not find my faith and the faith of others becoming more stable and reliable; I found it increasing doubt and despair.
So I began to question, “Shouldn’t we, as we seek to go deeper into our faith, become more firm and secure in our salvation? Shouldn’t we be despairing less and becoming more hopeful? What exactly is missing here?”
Finally, I cracked. I simply could not figure out the answer. I left the ministry. Years of seminary training, internships, a prominent position in a large, marquee denominational church, and many, many friendships went down the tubes. Six months later I divorced my wife. This all was followed by wanderings into the occult, atheism, and the liberal arm of the American church in a search for the answer. I quickly discovered that the demands of these religious sects were even greater than those I had experienced as an Evangelical.
Suicide started to look like a pretty good option. I just couldn’t try any more. At this point, Satan and his minions of darkness started to really pour the guilt out on me. I felt as if I was irredeemable.
God be praised that, by His grace, I was able to muster enough strength to at least try to become a good husband to my wife and father to my children. I reasoned that I could at least do that, even if I couldn’t save the world with my preaching. So, I went to truck-driving school and became a truck driver.
When you drive around that much you get bored and just start listening to random things on the radio and on your podcast feeds. That’s when I ran into the Lutherans. At first, I couldn’t believe what these guys were doing.
“What is this?” I wondered. “Are they having a revival service here? Why is he preaching the Gospel on a Sunday morning? Plus that, he’s just proclaiming it to people as if it were already true. Doesn’t he know that what he’s saying isn’t true for everybody? Don’t they need to be converted first? If they already are converted, why do they need to hear this again? Don’t they know the Gospel already?”
Quite honestly, it didn’t take very long for me to get it. About two sermons. By the way, if you’re someone who is in desperate need of hearing the powerful, sin-forgiving absolution of the Gospel, don’t listen to Lutheran preachers while you’re driving. It’s hard to drive when you cannot see for all the tears in your eyes!
At long last, after a decade in the wilderness as an Evangelical and another decade in complete religious confusion, I had my answer. It is so simple. It is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is preaching and teaching laser focused on Him and what He did. You see, it wasn’t that I didn’t know of the teachings that these Lutherans were putting forth; it was that, as an Evangelical, I thought these teachings were supposed to primarily be focused on me and what I was doing or supposed to do.
It was a grand and cosmic case of a “getting the cart before the horse” scenario. In my case, it was a dispensing with the “horse” and just trying to carry the “cart” myself! No wonder I couldn’t do it!
All this time, all I needed to know was that the Gospel was for me. I still feel kind of sheepish when I think about it even today. For all my knowledge of Holy Scripture, all my education, and my gifts in teaching, I never understood that the Gospel was for me. I always thought that I was supposed to be for the Gospel. That I was only to serve God and that God never cared to serve me with His good gifts. I thought Jesus died so I could go out and change the world. Never had I heard someone teach that the cross was for me. I always was taught, and I taught others, that the cross was so we could live “for God.”
As I went deeper into this Lutheran faith and investigated it more fully, I found my faith being rekindled, strengthened, and renewed. Whereas before, as I tried to go deeper into my faith and found uncertainty and despair, this Lutheran faith was strange……and incredibly wonderful. My baptism, which I used to think was an act of obedience for God, as it turns out, was an act of Jesus and the Holy Spirit for me. The Lord’s Supper, which used to be an eating and drinking so I could commemorate Him, as it turns out, is His true body and His true blood, put into my mouth for me, for the forgiveness of all my sins.
Now when I say, “I am baptized,” I am not saying, “I obeyed Christ, but that Christ died for me. He obeyed for me.” When He puts His body and blood into my mouth, I am not saying, “I remember and honor you Lord” (even though that is there). Rather Christ is saying, “I am delivering Myself up to you for the forgiveness of your sins.” When the preacher proclaims the Absolution to me and preaches Christ’s word to me in its truth and purity, I no longer think, “I have made a decision for Christ. I have invited Him into my heart. I have given Him my heart,” but rather, “Christ has made a decision for me. He has invited me into His heart. He has given me, not only His heart, but Himself.”
These Lutherans still weren’t finished with me. It is not only the Lutheran faith and doctrine that began to make sense of all this for me, it is indeed their practices that ices the cake, if you will. So, I attend a church called Redeemer. We make the sign of the cross on ourselves. We bow a lot there. We kneel…..a lot. We sing……virtually everything. The pastors dress strangely in comparison to most churches. Why? So we can show God how devoted we are to Him? No. It is simply that we recognize that Jesus is there for us where He has promised to be. We cross ourselves so we remember that we were baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. If Jesus appeared before you right now, you would probably stand up, maybe bow. If the risen Lord appeared in His glorious flesh and blood on your altar, you would have to acknowledge Him. Maybe you’d kneel or bow. Our ceremonies are not only historic, but they are driven by the reality that Jesus is present here for us. Our ceremonies are part of how we confess that Jesus is truly present as we gather as His children to hear His word of forgiveness, life and salvation to us. That is why we bow and sing and kneel. That is why we even cross ourselves. While I found that going deeper into the Evangelical faith can be risky, going deeper into the historic and confessional Lutheran faith is sure and certain, founded on rock-solid biblical theology and sustained with historic, timeless, beautiful, and faith-filled practices.
And what about that heart of evangelism I have? Now that I realize that the Holy Spirit using God’s Word and the Sacraments is what converts, do I sit back and relax? No way! Now I go forth with the word of the Gospel to my unbelieving friends with more confidence than ever. Since I know for sure that I can simply proclaim the forgiveness of sins to all men, and that the Holy Spirit will take care of the converting (thank you very much!), evangelism is a no brainer.
What about the Lord’s commands found in Holy Scripture? I used to obey those commands hoping to impress God with my good works; so I could brag to myself and to God about all the good works I did. So have I stopped doing good and obeying His commands? Not on your life! Now that I know that my Father in heaven is eternally pleased with me because of the gift of the Gospel, I started to wonder, “What am I going to do with all that time and energy that I used to waste on trying to earn God’s pleasure? Oh! I know! I’ll spend all that time and energy on making sure Jen, my wife, is loved and taken care of. I’ll spend that extra time with my children. Maybe I’ll take the time to give a hungry guy some food today. Maybe I’ll spend that energy being a better employee so my boss will get a promotion.” Anyway, I’ve found I have a lot more time and energy for that sort of thing.
Let me be blunt. When you are a Christian; when you are a Lutheran; when you are a Lutheran Christian, faith and life just make a lot more sense. Did my conversion to the Lutheran faith fix all my problems and give me my “best life now”? Not even close. But I’ve been amazed at how much easier it is to take what life throws at you when you finally get the Gospel.
Obviously, I’ve been around the religious block a time or two. It is my considered opinion that the Lutherans have it. Furthermore, those practicing the traditional articulation of the faith will take a person further into the faith than those who resist the traditional practices in favor of more modern practices. As one who has seen it all, I could not more highly commend anything than Lutheran faith.
It’s strange to me to be sure. There was a time when I thought all hope was lost. God be praised for the Lutheran church. Yes it is strange to me, and quite ironic. Whereas once I felt and virtually knew that I was irredeemable, now I attend a Lutheran church called “Redeemer.” There I indeed know, without fail, that my Redeemer lives for me.
Matthew Garnett is the husband of Jennifer. The father of two children, Isaac and Amelia. A member of Redeemer Lutheran Church, Ft. Wayne, IN. Truck driver and podcaster at Pirate Christian Radio, host of the “In Layman’s Terms” broadcast.