Eric Youngblood: “Jesus, John Calvin, And Me”

Tuesday, July 11, 2017 - by Eric Youngblood

As a young child restlessly enduring the seemingly endless sermon of my grandfather at our Baptist church, I would sometimes stare up at the chandeliers in the sanctuary and squint my eyes to create little games with the shafts of light shooting from the bulbs.

 

It was a pre-electronic form of passing the time.

Laboring to occupy myself as I suffered from not being able to “move freely about the cabin.”

 

But one day, or, I should say, over time, my ears were ever more perked, occasionally attuned to what Rev. Youngblood (or Brother T.J. as the church folks called him) was saying. Especially at the time of the invitation. I’d talk with my parents about it after church on the way home in the car.

 

A Real But Not Robust Confession

 

And one Sunday morning, at the age of 9, feeling persuaded and compelled internally to be saved from judgment, and to come to Christ, I “went forth.” Seated near the front, there wasn’t far to walk, but I made the short, lonely way to my grandfather standing in front of the “altar” and made a 9 year old’s profession of faith. Which is to say, a real profession, but not a robust one.

 

It was, I think, appropriate and genuine for a 9 year old, but likely not, for say, a 27 year old. I was at that time, I now interpret, “learning to give as much as I knew of myself to as much as I knew of Christ.” But mainly, I was given the relief of knowing that I was now “saved.”

 

The following week a watery ordeal ensued.

 

The father of my father, and pastor to his flock, clad in his clergyman’s water-robe and waders, led me down the steps of the baptistry into a 3-4 foot deep pool of water where I received the sign of my belonging to Christ and being washed clean of my sins like a “sidewalk in the rain” as he submerged me in the “name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” And then I was raised from those baptismal waters to a new life in Christ.

 

It was a formational moment.

 

Only there was a problem.

 

I became a teenager a few years later.

 

Waning Faith and Confusion?

 

My excitement from that day waned. There were times I wasn’t thinking about any of that “spiritual stuff.” I wanted my skin to be clear, not to be so skinny (be careful what you wish for!), and to be a sports star, among other middle-schooler aspirations.

 

Christ was not always on my mind. And I didn’t know much about how to get him there. Or keep him there. Or what to do when I was guilty. Or how to water my wilting devotion.

 

But I was invited in the summers by a dear friend and his family to a number of Christian youth camps which became a regular fixture for some part of my adolescent years.

 

Each one had a similar format. And frequently, there was at some point, in most the Christian messages I heard, a moment when the speaker would urge us to 1) make a decision for Christ or 2) re-dedicate our lives to Christ if we had fallen away.

 

This never failed to create a crises within me.

 

I knew my faith was flagging. I knew my commitment was weak, sometimes non-existent or not, anyway, a matter of first importance to me. I felt guilty about stuff. Pleasing Christ was not my first priority. I knew that.

 

Maybe I Didn’t Really Mean it Last Time?

Maybe I’m not really saved?” I’d sit there in the heavy-aired assembly with music playing and hushed tones from the speaker, “Maybe I need to do it again. Maybe I need to go forward again. Perhaps I need to rededicate my life to Christ, and mean it this time. What if I didn’t really mean it last time?”

 

It made me a wreck.

 

But John Calvin saved me.

 

You didn’t see that coming did you?

 

Well, he didn’t save me exactly, but his influence was what helped unlock the suffocating difficulty I encountered repeatedly when dealing with the pressure the preacher was applying to my conscience, and the remedies that he kept giving me.

 

I continued to think, (and it may have merely been my error!) that if I finally “committed to Christ” rightly, if I ever finally “surrendered” sufficiently, then I wouldn’t find myself back in this awful spot again. I’d become like the speaker maybe. Not needing to really dedicate myself to Christ this time or to re-dedicate my life to Christ for good, because I would have already done it, and once having authentically done it, not just saying it, then I would never again be stuck in the distressing no man’s land of having to wonder whether I had ever done it in the first place! It would just be clear! Then I would know. REALLY know.

 

I needed to be let in on the secret of Christian pilgrimage that Mr. Calvin seemed to understand so well, and which I hadn’t yet grasped, though perhaps it had been told me many times.

 

It became apparent in time that in those meetings I was rightly identifying sincere distance from God, and true guilt before him, but the remedy was slightly different than I was comprehending. I had figured when I finally committed to Christ correctly, I would be elevated to a different plane of Christian living, where “every day with Jesus would be better than the day before” as the hymn told me.

 

Life-Long Race of Repentance

 

But what a relief to discover teaching derived from Calvin’s understanding of the Scriptures that said things like:

 

The Lord is pleased completely to restore all those he adopts to the inheritance of life. And this restoration is not accomplished in a single moment, or day, or year; but by continual, and sometimes even tardy advances, the Lord destroys the carnal corruptions of His chosen, purifies them from all pollution, and consecrates them as temples to Himself; renewing all their senses to real purity, that they may employ their whole life in the exercise of repentance, and know that this warfare will be terminated only by death…

 

What a relief! I could stop nervously searching for a single moment, day, or year of drastic alteration to myself! What a joyful repose to learn that it is sometimes “by continual and sometimes even tardy advances” that God remakes us into the image of his Son. I was an apparent expert at “tardy advances.” It was good to know my condition wasn’t some rare spiritual disease but rather en epidemic.

And Calvin kept on pouring out the hope:

 

I assert, that as far as any man approaches to a resemblance of God, so far the image of God is displayed in him. That believers may attain to this, God assigns them the race of repentance to run during their whole life.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion

 

A whole-life race of repentance to attain mine and God’s goal? Oh what a clarifying explanation. And what a remarkable description of what I had been engrafted into...a whole-life absorbing race of repentance.

 

I now know I had been confusing my justification with my sanctification in those tortured moments in dark auditoriums with hushed voices and tear-jerking stories. I hadn’t realized that even if I was “born again” I would still need to repent of my sins, and would still need to look again to Christ in faith for my deliverance, repair, salvation, and renewal.

 

A long through-hike of faith and repentance through the Appalachian Trail of my existence was the journey entrusted to me.

 

But like any marathon race, there were stations for refreshment along the way (Calvin again):

 

But as our faith is slight and feeble unless it be propped on all sides and sustained by every means, it trembles, wavers, totters, and at last gives way. Here our merciful Lord, according to his infinite kindness, so tempers himself to our capacity that, since we are creatures who always creep on the ground, cleave to the flesh, and, do not think about or even conceive of anything spiritual, he condescends to lead us to himself even by these earthly elements, and to set before us in the flesh a mirror of spiritual blessings."

 

I knew I was supposed to read the Bible and pray, but the Lord’s Supper? But the Scriptures convinced me alongside many durable and dynamic saints before me that indeed, the Lord’s Table (and even Baptism) were given “because our faith is slight and feeble unless it be propped on all sides.” I knew well that my faith frequently “trembles, wavers, totters, and at last gives way.” But I hadn’t always realized that “our merciful Lord according to his INFINITE KINDNESS” gives us physical elements, like bread and wine, to communicate and impart himself to us, like a spiritual protein bar and cup of Gatorade on mile 16 of the marathon when your knees are aching and your body’s shaky from low blood sugar.

 

It’s a spiritual boost to assure us of our continuing pardon from Christ for our inventive ongoing rebellions and also power for continuing to move toward him and away from the sins that deaden and deceive us.

 

So these days, I hope to practice and communicate, as J.I. Packer, appropriating these biblical concepts of faith and repentance would say, that Christians are those who are to be continuously “offering as much as we know of ourselves to as much as we know of God.”

 

Knowing this, interestingly enough, has led me far more confidently and regularly to Christ than I ever did when I was spending all my time stuck in the labyrinth of myself trying to decide if I had ever rightly decided and if I had, whether I had done it enough. My emphasis was on my action or lack thereof. My failure was to bring into focus Christ’s action for me (and us!).

 

Edmund, the early traitor in The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe who falls prey to the swindling allure of the White Witch, is addressed in his treachery by Aslan, the Lion who offers him complete exoneration.

 

So transformative and reassuring is that talk, that when the witch later comes with her piercing accusation we see an altogether kid:

 

You have a traitor there, Aslan,’ said the Witch. Of course everyone present knew that she meant Edmund. But Edmund had got past thinking of himself after all that he’d been through and after the talk he’d had that morning. He just went on looking at Aslan.”

 

Edmund’s posture has become my aspiration too, as one rescued in his treachery by my willing Savior. To get past thinking of myself and instead, to keep on looking at the One who has lived and died in my stead.

 

That’s how to be really saved.

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Eric Youngblood is the senior pastor at Rock Creek Fellowship (PCA) on Lookout Mountain. Please feel free to contact him at eric@rockcreekfellowship.org or follow him on Twitter @GEricYoungblood.

 

 

 

 

 

 



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