My Testimony – How I Came to Faith in Jesus

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Forty-five years ago this week, at a high school Youth for Christ club Christmas party, I heard the gospel clearly for the first time.   It was December 9, 1975.  I was 17 years old.  I realized that I was hopelessly lost, spiritually.  When I responded by putting my faith in Jesus Christ, I was born again.

In Eph. 2:1-5, the Apostle Paul describes our lost status without Christ.  Let me summarize:

I was dead.  I had no spiritual life due to my sinful condition.  I was living in sin because I followed the crowd, which is to say that I followed the devil.  I was just like everyone else.  I could not obey God even if I wanted to.  I always gave in to my fleshly thoughts.  Like all those who disobeyed God, I was destined to be the target of God’s wrath.  But since God loved me personally and showed me the richness of His mercy, He made me come alive to faith in Jesus, despite my spiritual separation from Him.  It was His grace that saved me. 

Unlike many testimonies you have probably heard, I was not saved out of a life of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.  I realized years later that God had protected me from making life-altering choices.

So, what was taking place in my life that brought me to that decisive moment?  Let me explain.

Good, but not good enough

I have to back up a few years before I describe what happened to me that day I became a Christian.  I do not think many of my friends have heard me share this story in detail, so it is long overdue.

I grew up in a church-going family.  I always thought I believed in God.  However, I had never heard the gospel preached in such a way that I could understand how to begin this relationship with Jesus Christ.  And yet, God was working on me, and was paving the way towards faith in Him.

In the mid-70’s, my dad took my sister and I to see the musical productions Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell.  I was struck mostly by the second one, especially in the song, “Day by Day”.  I made these lyrics my own prayer: “Lord, dear Lord, three things I pray – to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly, day by day.”  I still pray those words occasionally today.

The summer before my senior year in high school, in June of 1975, I went on a Boy Scout canoe trip in northern Minnesota and Canada.  I remember praying a lot during that week-long, 100-mile journey.  I prayed that I would catch fish, and I did.  I prayed that I would get to see some wildlife, and I did.  I was seeking after God.  I believe He was revealing Himself to me through nature.

As I started my senior year, I had several goals.  All of them were basically good, but ultimately unfulfilling.  My most important goal was to take the right girl to prom.  I had a list of half a dozen or more names.  One by one, I scratched them off.  When I ran out of options, I asked my best friend’s girl, who had just broken up with him.  (One date with me, though, and they got back together!)  I also wanted to become an Eagle Scout and get selected for the National Honor Society.  If it sounds like I wanted to be like Richie Cunningham from “Happy Days”, you are exactly right.

This same best friend, who I met at the beginning of 8th grade when we moved to Kansas City, had invited me to come with him to the Youth for Christ club off and on for a long time.  The group met in a church across the street from the high school on Tuesday nights.  I finally decided to give in on that pre-ordained December evening, as it was their Christmas party.  I am not sure why.  Maybe I thought I could meet some pretty girls or put another wholesome activity on my NHS application.

I can’t remember much about what we did or what the speaker said.  I do recall that he explained to me for the very first time that Jesus wanted to come in and change me from the inside out.  This was exactly what I needed to hear.  I was doing my best to be a good boy, just like Richie Cunningham.  However, I was only focusing on my exterior: what I did, how I looked, and what I said.  I tried to be that funny, smart, popular, handsome guy everybody liked, but I always seemed to fall short.

The message I heard loud and clear was that if I invited Jesus to come in and change my heart, then His goodness would last.  The speaker asked us to imagine what would happen if a professional basketball player could somehow enter into a high school player’s body.  He could coach him on what to do and actually enable him to make the shots.  It made sense to me.  When the speaker asked for us to bow our heads, close our eyes, and raise our hands if we wanted to follow Jesus, I did.  I eagerly accepted Jesus as my Savior and Lord.  I have not been the same since that day.

How did I change?

I saw little things change in me at first.  I wasn’t nearly as frustrated when I didn’t measure up to my own high expectations, or others’.  I prayed often.  I started reading and truly understanding the Bible.  I had a peace and newfound joy that defied explanation and was not based on circumstances.  I was less concerned about myself and  I became much more interested in helping other people.

My Christian faith has impacted every single area of my life: my family, career, what I do, what I think, what I say, where I’ve been, and where I am going.  Christianity was not just a religion I had joined.  It was a new relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that definitely has gotten richer over time.  I began to truly know God.  In knowing Him, He continued to transform me into the image of His Son, Jesus.  Even after four and a half decades, I am still growing in my faith.

Oh, by the way, I did earn my Eagle Scout badge and I was selected for the NHS.  I also did not need to worry so much about finding the right girl.  The Lord brought Linda into my life in the fall of my sophomore year at college.  We will celebrate 40 years of wedded bliss in just two weeks!

I have had quite the spiritual journey over the past 45 years.  I have much to learn before I am done!

Russell E. Gehrlein (Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 39 years, father of three, grandfather of four, and author of Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He is an ordinary man who is passionate about helping other ordinary people experience God’s presence and integrate their Christian faith at work. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. After serving 20 years on active duty, Russ now works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.  More than 50 articles posted on this blog have been published 100 times on numerous Christian organization’s websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, Acton Institute, and The Gospel Coalition.

As High as the Heavens are above the Earth and as far as the East is from the West

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I have been reading in Romans this month.  It is one of my favorite books.  (I invite you to read a series on the book of Romans that I posted on my blog a while back.)

I started in Romans 4 . . .

I began to read the first verses of Romans 4.  But that is not where I ended up.  I took a journey back to the Psalms to find some great reminders of God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

In context, Paul is writing of “the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works.”  This is what God did for Abram in Gen. 15:6, which Paul mentioned in Rom. 4:1-6.  It is indeed a precious gift that is freely given to those who trust in Jesus Christ for their salvation.  I believe this change in status is irreversible.  This is often referred to as the great exchange: Jesus took the penalty for our sins and gave us His righteous standing before Almighty God.  This righteousness that is ours by faith in Jesus Christ leads the Apostle Paul to conclude later in Rom. 8:1, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

As you may already know, the Apostle Paul quotes the Old Testament quite frequently, which is a topic I enjoy greatly.  When I read Rom. 4:7-8, I saw that Ps. 32:1-2 was quoted:

Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.

I flipped back to Psalm 32 . . .

I had to stop.  I felt led to take a look at Psalm 32 a little closer.  I made a few observations.

King David uses several terms in verses 1 and 2 to describe how amazing it is when one fully understands that he or she is completely forgiven by God: “transgressions are forgiven . . . sins are covered . . . sin the Lord does not count against him.”

This status of being forgiven of ones sins was short-lived by the Old Testament believers in Yahweh, in accordance with the system of blood sacrifices which had to be done repeatedly and did not truly take away their sins.  (See Heb. 10:4).  These sacrifices provided temporary covering of sins.  It fell far short of the full atonement that followers of Jesus would experience when they were born again.  This state of forgiveness was enough to maintain a relationship with Yahweh, but it was incomplete by design, to point to Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice for us on the cross.

David then moves forward in Ps. 32:3-5 to describe a personal experience he had when he was faced with the depths of his own sin in light of God’s forgiveness.  I believe he mentioned this so that no believer, including himself, would ever take God’s grace and mercy for granted.

In verses 3-4, prior to David’s repentance (which brought him great rejoicing in v. 5), he felt guilty about his sin, and rightfully so.  Perhaps this was what he sensed after committing adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband sent to the front lines of battle to be killed.  Whatever his sin was, before he dealt with it through confession, he said that his bones were wasting away.  He groaned all day long.  He felt God’s hand was heavy upon him.  This was not God’s mighty hand of protection that David often spoke of, but God’s Spirit laying conviction on his heart.

When he could take it no more, David acknowledged his sin to the LORD.  He did not cover it up.  He confessed it and received God’s forgiveness.  His guilty conscience was at peace.  This is reminiscent of what the Apostle John taught Christ-followers to do in 1 John 1:9 when we sin.

What stuck out to me in this passage was the contrast between what God does and what man does.  In verse 1, David mentions that God covered his sins.  This is what atonement means.  God covered their sins so that He no longer saw them.  Only God has the authority to do that.  But before confessing, David tried in many ways to cover his own sin.  He had no authority to do that.

I jumped over to Psalm 103 . . .

Meditating on Psalm 32:1-5 helped me to better understand what the Apostle Paul was arguing in Romans 4 about the righteousness that is freely given to all who have faith in Jesus Christ.  I went back to Romans 4.  Before I continued, I noticed that I had written another passage in the margin next to verses 7-8.  It was a parallel passage about the blessedness of God’s forgiveness.

Psalm 103 was also written by King David.  Like the previous one, Ps. 103:11-12 also describes the full extent of God’s forgiveness.  However, David does not focus on his personal experience in this blessed state.  In contrast, he uses a little bit of math and science to get his point across.

For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

This picture of God’s love for those who fear Him going in a vertical direction farther than the eye can see, combined with the idea of our sins being removed in a horizontal direction as far as you can possibly go on this planet reveals the greatest demonstration of God’s love and forgiveness.

When you put the vertical and horizontal lines together, what do you get?  A cross.  Hallelujah!

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Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 39 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

Grace Wins!

20160420_110327I keep coming back to this topic of resting in God’s forgiveness and grace.  A number of things have happened recently to bring it to my attention once again.  It is a message that a lot of Christians have missed, I’m afraid, and is yet another example of bad theology leading to despair.  Good theology always leads to hope and joy.

Yesterday at lunch, I was reading a bit from St. Augustine’s Confessions, a book that my daughter gave to me for Christmas a couple of years ago.  The passage is lengthy (see above).  It was a reflection on the grace that God gave to him; in addition to being rescued from all that kept him lost, he also found healing.  That word struck me.  Healing (in a general sense, more than just physical) exemplifies grace.  Through faith in Jesus Christ, God not only delivered us from evil (mercy), but also brings us into a place of restoration (grace).

And so, I took down some notes on a 2″ x 2″ light green sticky note.  Here is what I wrote down:

We receive not only forgiveness of our past (present, and future) sins in order to live in Heaven, but also the removal of these things here and now:

  • regret
  • fear of judgment*
  • a guilty conscience
  • the need to perform or earn our salvation
  • disappointment
  • shame
  • separation from God

* For more on this, see blog post on February 4, 2016.

(Note: These are all part of God’s mercy; He does not give us what we deserve.)

I continued on the back of the sticky note.  These old things are now replaced with the following new things:

  • fellowship with God
  • peace and joy
  • hope and rest
  • eagerness for His return
  • blessed assurance
  • good works in response to what He has already done
  • a clear conscience
  • boldness and confidence
  • healing
  • a desire to go and sin no more
  • acceptance of our new status as totally forgiven sons or daughters of God

(Note: These realities express God’s grace; He gives us more than we deserve.)

That is pretty much all the words that would fit on that four square inch piece of paper.

All these ideas are grounded in Scripture, and come from a clear understanding and acceptance of all that the New Covenant in Jesus Christ brings to those who have repented of our sins and come to Him by faith.  (See Heb. 10:15:23, which quotes Jer. 31:33-34.)

This is illustrated well in Deut. 4:37-38, where Moses reminds the Israelites of the love that Yahweh has for his chosen ones.  Moses states that He brought them out in order to bring them in.  God does not just deliver us from all that is bad; He brings us into a place of promise and abundance.  In the OT, God’s people looked back to the Exodus as the defining moment of deliverance.  In the NT, God’s people look back to the cross where Jesus died for you and me.  This too is a crossing over for the believer from death to life.  In the future, there will be a final Exodus at the consummation when Jesus returns, bringing God’s people out of this place where His kingdom is a mixture of already but not yet, into a city where there will be no more sin or sadness and God’s presence will light up the place.

I want to mention a popular song I hear all the time on the local Christian radio station by music artist Matthew West, “Grace Wins”.  He sings about the battle between Satan’s message of despair and hopelessness that comes from the regrets, fears, guilt, and shame we so often have because of the things we have done that we should not have done, or the things we have not done that maybe we should have done.  All of us seem to struggle with this.  However, if we truly understand that Jesus’ death on the cross, by His mercy, took all of those things out of the way (as I described above) and replaced them, by His grace, with the blessings of peace with God and hope for the future (see above), grace wins every time.

Listen to the song video and meditate on the lyrics.

There is absolutely NO condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1).  Reflect, rest, and rejoice in your new identity in Christ!

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. 

Resting in God’s Forgiveness and Grace

502013277_univ_lsr_xlI’ve been thinking a lot over the last few months about “accountability” and forgiveness.  I think there are many Christians who have been taught that they will somehow have to face some sort of judgment by God for what they did or failed to do in this life.  This leads to fear or concerns about how it is going to go when we come face to face with the Judge.  However, this clearly contradicts Paul’s statement in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  If there is no condemnation now, there will not be any condemnation on Judgment Day.  This idea also reflects a lack of understanding of what God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice really means.

Back in November, I heard a preacher on the radio say something about God “holding fathers accountable for how they raise their children”.   I have heard others preach similar ideas.  I had a brother that I love and respect dearly say about the same time that he “hoped” the sins he has committed would all be forgiven and that he is very concerned about facing God.  Other people I know and love have mentioned that certain people (believers) will have to “answer to God” for this or that sin, usually in context to what has been done to them.  And, of course, we have all heard that God will judge America for its many sins as a nation.

I began to do some research on the topic of whether Christians will face a judgment when Jesus returns at the end of the age.  This was timely, as I was preparing to teach Romans 13 in our adult Sunday School class.  This passage speaks of “understanding the present time . . . the day is almost here” (vv. 11-12), where Paul is exhorting the church to be mindful of Christ’s imminent return (i.e., it could come at any moment).  As I dug a little deeper than I have in a long time (I felt like I was in seminary again), I discovered a few things about what happens when Jesus returns.  I have also begun to break the code on why there is so much confusion and ignorance about what accepting God’s forgiveness really means for Christians.

This is not just another exploration into a merely academic theological discussion.  This topic has serious implications for how we live out our Christian faith, how we experience God’s presence on a daily basis, how we are to treat our brothers and sisters in Christ, and even on how we view the topic of work.  Understanding these truths will indeed, as Jesus taught us in John 8:31, “set us free”.

Do Christians face any kind of judgment when Jesus returns?

Some say “Yes.”  Believers will face the “Judgment Seat of Christ”.  This will be special event after Jesus returns where the quality of believers’ works will be tested by fire. It is where rewards are given.  Two passages seem to support this idea:

1) 1 Cor. 3:12-15. The traditional interpretation is that our works have either contributed to building the church with wood, hay, or straw; or gold, silver, or precious stones. The Day of Judgment will reveal which it was through fire. If it is not burned up, we will receive a reward. Although this verse does seem to mention an eschatological event, in the context of Paul’s letter he is addressing divisions in the church. His point is that believers need to be careful to make lasting contributions to the church. The emphasis is on rewards, not embarrassment.

2) 2 Cor. 5:10. Paul states that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, to receive what is due, whether good or bad.  This sounds very similar to what Jesus said in Matt. 25:31-45, where He tells of separating the sheep from the goats, the wicked from the righteous. It is a judgment that appears to be based on works.  However, we know from Rom. 3:20-26, that no one is justified by works or by “observing the law”, but it is only be faith in Christ.  The good works are the demonstration or fruit of true faith, which is what it clearly says in James 2:14-17.

However, I say “No.”  As Christians, our sins are totally forgiven, forgotten, and removed from us when we receive Christ because He has paid the penalty for all our sins.  There is only one eschatological judgment at the end of times, and it is for the wicked.  Believers need not worry about it if their names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.  There are several passages that support this view:

1) Hebrews 10:11-23. The author is contrasting Jesus’ sacrifice with that of the OT priests, whose sacrifices could never really take away sins (v. 11).  (If you go back to verse 2, you see that these sacrifices could never completely cleanse or remove the feelings of guilt either.)  But Jesus offers a better sacrifice!  Jesus’ death on the cross finished the job; the atonement for our sins is complete (v. 12).  We are declared to be perfect in His eyes (the doctrine of justification), even though we are still growing in holiness (v. 14). He remembers our sins no more (v. 17, quoting Jer. 31:33).  Our sins have been forgiven and there is no longer a need for any more sacrifices (v. 18).  This means total forgiveness of all my sins: past, present, and future.  He took away my guilt and shame.  I have been reconciled with God; there is no longer any animosity or separation between us.  This is irreversible; I can’t mess it up because it is not based on my performance, but on His atonement.  There is no penalty or fear of punishment to dread on Judgment Day over anything I have ever done.  Because of what Jesus did for me, I have complete confidence to enter into His presence daily (v. 19).  I can draw near to God without fear in full assurance of faith (v. 22) because my heart has been cleansed from a guilty conscience (v. 23).  Also, I can boldly come before the throne of grace to find help in times of need when I do sin (Heb. 4:16).

2) 1 Peter 5:4. This and other passages (see Titus 2:13; Heb. 9:27-28; 2 Peter 3:10-14; 1 John 2:28, 3:2-3) paint a picture of Jesus’ second coming as a joyous occasion for all believers.  It is something we should look forward to and anticipate.  There is not even a hint of anything to fear, like some kind of “accountability” for things we either did or did not do.  There is a consistent call to perseverance in light of Jesus’ second coming, but that is to encourage us to continue to demonstrate our faith and be faithful until the end.  There are no eternal consequences based on our own failings; we are exhorted to press on to save us from regret or embarrassment.

3) Rev. 20:11-15.  Here is a description of the “Great White Throne” judgment.  Those whose names are not found in the book of life are thrown into the lake of fire.  Rev. 21 describes the new heaven and the new earth that only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life will experience.  This ties in with what Jesus said in John 5:24: “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”

With respect to this question, it seems very clear to me that believers have absolutely nothing to worry about with respect to a final judgment.  We must read every reference to any kind of judgment based on works (i.e., Matt. 25, the sheep and the goats) through the lens of what Jesus and Paul have clearly said throughout the NT regarding forgiveness, atonement, and redemption.  Those who have placed our faith in Christ are not judged by our works.  We are judged based solely on our faith in Jesus.  Since our debt has been paid by the blood of Christ, there is nothing else for us to pay.  See Ps. 103:12, “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”  See also Ps. 32:1,2, which is quoted in Rom. 4:7,8: “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.  Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.”  This is indeed good news, and is truth we should meditate on and rest in.

There are a few classic hymns which communicate these truths confidently, allowing us to sing boldly of this understanding of total forgiveness as I have described above:

Amazing Grace

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost but now am found, Was blind but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved.

How precious did that grace appear The hour I first believed!

On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand

When He shall come with trumpet sound, oh may I then in Him be found.

Dressed in His righteousness alone, Faultless to stand before the throne.

It is Well With my Soul

My sin, oh, the bliss of this 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, O my soul!

There is more that can be said about this topic, but I will have to close with an appropriate greeting from Peter’s first epistle: “Grace and peace be yours in abundance” (1 Peter 1:2).

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.