We believe that Jesus is real. Not sort of real. Not once-upon-a-time real. But we believe that he is really real — more real than anything we face in our lives.
And we have the stories to tell you what that is like.
Each story is as different as each person. The backgrounds, the circumstances, the struggles — no two are exactly the same. But Jesus is the same. And when his grace and our stories collide, things change.
“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:17-19 (NIV)
My life has truly been outrageously blessed by God. There are so many good things in my life that had nothing to do with my choices, behavior, or knowledge. I don't deserve the life I have and I certainly don't deserve the life everlasting. From the beginning of my life I have been graciously loved by the Good Shepherd. In fact, one of my earliest memories is my mom explaining the gospel to me.
Like all young children I disobeyed my parents daily and, in love, my parents disciplined me. Even though every child receives punishment, the LORD used a common experience to show me His mercy. Sometime around the age of four or five, I remember standing in the kitchen of our house. I don't know what sparked the conversation or what followed, but I do remember being told that just as I disobey my parents and I deserve punishment for my actions, we all have disobeyed God and deserve punishment for our actions. However, Jesus has taken our punishment for us so that we can be with God when we die.
What amazes me is how I could understand some of the concepts in this simple gospel message. How did I understand who God and Jesus were, what death was, and how someone could take on my punishment? I don't know how I believed, but I did. The LORD was gracious to me.
But the fact remains that the gospel is not only this simple truth as explained by my mom, it is richer and deeper than we can possibly imagine. Throughout my life I have been shown more and more of how in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). I have come to know and experience that the gospel is not just for the moment of conversion, but it is the very lifeblood of the Christian.
Throughout my childhood, my knowledge of the Bible and of God grew. Enrolled at a Lutheran School from K-12, I was taught Biblical history and was required to memorize Scripture verses as well as parts of Luther's small catechism. I learned a lot of information and understood the difference between the Law of God (His Commands) and the Gospel of God (His Grace). I even lived out what would have been considered a Christian life, but I still hadn't grasped the breath and length and height and depth of the love of Christ.
On the contrary, I thought I had everything pretty much figured out. I thought I knew the Bible well enough -at least better than most people. I knew arguments for the authenticity of the Bible and Christianity. I knew plenty of theological concepts, including the basics of the gospel Certainly, I could sin less than I did, but I was sure that as I got older I'd become more disciplined that would solve most of my problems. Oh, how little did I actually know!
In the summer after my freshman year of college, I read Crazy Love by Francis Chan. This book opened my heart to the fact that although I knew a lot about Christ I barely knew Christ intimately and emotionally. This really shook my life's trajectory. Following Jesus doesn't mean I can only have knowledge of Christ's sacrifice, but I needed “to know this love that surpasses knowledge,” Instead of focusing most of my time and energy to academic and personal achievement, I needed to focus on Christ. This drove me to seek out Christian community at the University of Minnesota which I thankfully found in Campus Outreach.
This community changed my life. Through the relationships I made and the truths that I heard my understanding of the gospel has deepened. Throughout my childhood I had always understood the gospel as a courtroom scene where I stand before God the Judge for a fatal sentencing, but Jesus steps in and takes my punishment instead and I can walk free. However, I learned that another way to look at the gospel as a hospital scene where I lie before God the Healer with a fatal disease, but Jesus steps in and gives his blood for me so I can live again. This second view showed me that sin is not bad behavior, but it is a brokenness of the soul. I needed Jesus not just for covering my bad deeds, I needed him to change my heart and mind, my very soul.
This deeper understanding of my sin problem prompted me to look at my desires and my emotional responses to the gospel. It pushed me beyond just knowing the truth, but to loving the truth. This was truly transforming who I was. I realized the gospel was not just for life after death, but for my life now. The solution to my problems was not discipline, but Jesus!
Over the past several years, I have come to understand my desperate need to daily remind myself of who I am by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Knowing Jesus is not like knowing physics and world history. Knowing Jesus is believing the gospel so well that I am changed to my very core, that I am continually being changed to image Jesus because his blood flows through my veins, through my very heart. I cannot truly live without him.
Now there are also many other things that Jesus has done, is doing, and will do in my life and in lives everywhere. I can easily say with John that “Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25), but for now this will have to be enough.
I grew up in a home with wonderful Christian parents. At age 4, I understood the gospel well enough to desire to be in heaven with Jesus one day and to ask him to forgive me for everything I had done wrong. Unfortunately, as I grew, I placed more stock in my reputation as a “good Christian girl” than in my identity as a forgiven daughter of God. For that reason, my story is not filled with “heinous” sins (at least, according to many people) which would require a dramatic conversion experience. That would have been unthinkable for me — not because I loved Jesus so much that I wanted to honor him in everything, but because I loved what others thought of me too much.
However, that is not to say that my life was not still filled with “heinous” sins — by God’s definition. My fear of man, which was greater than my fear of God, showed up in many ways. I have one particular memory which still haunts me: In elementary school, I befriended a girl who had a physical disability. Eventually, my other friends hinted that it was not “cool” for me to hang out with that girl. So, I finally and slowly stopped making efforts to even acknowledge her. This is just one of many of the ways in which my lust for the approval of other humans proved that I was not truly, or at least not fully, motivated by a passion for God and for the true joy that he gives us when we obey him. Even though I believe, at the time, that I was truly saved, I made choices that hindered my ability to enjoy God.
But when I was twelve years old, my family moved from Connecticut to Minnesota — partly to be with family; partly because my father had been diagnosed with a chronic health condition and was unable to work full-time. He began homeschooling my sisters and me while my mother worked full-time, and everything as we had known it was turned upside-down. During this time, I lost contact with my friends in Connecticut and became involved in the youth program at our new church. Everything was so new, and I coped with the unfamiliarity by withdrawing in silence when in public. (And I mean, silence. I didn’t make friends with people; people made friends with me).
But God was using that difficult season of change to bring about something for my good! He began opening my ears and my heart to understand that I really needed Jesus on a daily basis. To begin to see the depths of my sin. To be overwhelmed with gratitude for the gift of forgiveness and heaven that I did not deserve, yet Jesus died to give me. To allow myself to be challenged by the Bible — to the point where I began to desire to tell complete strangers about what Jesus had done for me and could do for them.
I ended up applying to a solid, reformed Christian college and grew much in my knowledge of God while I was there. But again, my people-pleasing hunger reared its ugly head in a new way, and God revealed yet another aspect of my sinful heart that needed to be killed. I became so devoted to getting good grades that my devotion to God waned. I grew very dry spiritually, to the point where reading my Bible felt like a chore. I even became slightly depressed, as I realized that I could not get myself out of that pit. Yet God did not allow me to remain there; he humbled me through some difficult circumstances that opened my eyes to how little I really understood about God. He allowed me to experience deeper fear than I had ever known — every “what if” began to overtake my mind and heart, and I have felt the emotions almost as strongly as if those terrifying “what ifs” were all coming true. For a long time I lived in constant dread of dying or losing a loved one. Now I recognize that my fear was a gift given to me as a result of God’s grace. Grace, because it drove me to thirst for the Bible, and for more of God. Grace, because it drove me to the end of myself and my idols, the things I have always clung to which I cannot keep. You see, when those “what if” questions pierced my heart like spears, I had to say, “well, even if ___, still I have hope that___.” Even if my loved ones are killed, I still have Jesus now and forever. Even if the bridge collapses beneath me, and I drown, I will be with Jesus. It is better to die and be with Christ, as the apostle Paul said.
I am finally beginning to understand that the wonderful things and people that God has blessed me with are meant to impress two deep truths upon me. They fill me with joy, which helps me understand God’s beauty and goodness and splendor; but they are also meant to fill me with longing, as I realize that even the best things in this world are tainted (and our enjoyment of them is tainted) by sin. Then I experience a deep longing for heaven, where I will one day be with Jesus forever in perfect joy that does not have that nagging thought, “but there’s got to be more.” And that longing for Jesus drives away the very fear that drove me to him
One of my earliest childhood memories is watching my mother and father sign divorce papers at our kitchen table. That moment changed my life forever because it planted a seed of pain that grew into the roots of dejection that seemed to fill my heart from that moment on. My father rarely came back to visit us during our childhood. He pretty much stopped seeing us at all by the time I entered middle school. This neglect produced in me deeper feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, and illegitimacy.
Up to that point in my life, our family had gone from being nominally Catholic to religiously ambiguous. Because my spiritual life was lacking, I was left grasping for more concrete ways of proving my self-worth. Like so many teenage boys, I turned to sports as my hope for purpose and praise. This path, though rewarding at times, was by and large littered with disappointments. I often felt like a failure; I was not good enough for my father and not good enough for my coaches.
As time progressed my family began to experience many more problems. As the middle child, I naturally assumed responsibility for our family’s health or lack thereof. Thus, our family’s downward spiral pointed to my inadequacies and failings as a son and a brother. Where was my hope in such a time? Though I tried so hard, I found that I was repeatedly proven to be unable to be my own savior, let alone that of my family.
As God would have it, a friend of ours was noting our plight and invited us to attend her church. Not only had it been a long time since I had been to church, but I had never even attended a non-Catholic service before. I was really nervous as we drove into the church parking lot. Honestly, I felt so out of place that I just wanted to turn around and run the other way.
Upon opening the doors to this Lutheran church, however, I was immediately captivated by a sense of life, joy, and peace in the hearts of the individuals that I met. As I sat in on the service, I was blown away by worship that seemed genuine and loving, both from the hearts of those on stage as well as those in the congregation. I grew in excitement as the pastor spoke from the Bible with vigor and urgency, talking about this God whom he seemed to know so well. I don’t remember exactly when, but early on in attending this church I was told about the hope that sinners have in Christ Jesus. As I grew in the knowledge of the Bible, attended youth group, and eventually moved on college, I began to have eyes to see my own sin and need for a savior. I realized that my works could never earn a place before God and that only by the blood of Jesus could I appear before him as redeemed.
I can only describe this feeling as the most comforting assurance I have ever known. The tireless hours of effort and toil that had characterized all of my life had finally come to an end. I had been freed from self-slavery, had the heavy burden of sin lifted, experienced the confession of personal weakness and failure and plunged deep into the love of the Father who has promised to love me despite me. God was suddenly no longer distant or ambiguous but present and loving. I was now able to see him as my true father, the one who would never leave me or condemn me despite my failures.
It has been a decade since my conversion; ten years mixed with joy and sorrow, and pain and pleasure. I have grown to know Jesus as my best-friend, my good shepherd, my conquering king. All of my hope is in him, and there is no where I would rather be than in his arms. I still struggle with sin and times of doubt. I am still drenched in selfishness and reek of pride. Yet my savior is better. He has promised to continue his work in me and present me before the Father as pure and spotless. I love him. He has been so good to me. I long for you to know him too and would love to share more about his great grace to you.
I grew up in a single parent home; my mom having left my dad, little brother and I when we were five and three. My dad very much valued my brother and I being exposed to church and being in a religious school, and from little on I remember faithfully attending our Lutheran church and school. Whether or not my ears ever heard the true gospel in those places I do not know. I do know that my heart did not. I grew up believing that if I was baptized, went to church regularly, went to “good” schools, and was a “good” person, I was in good stature with God. Even though we didn’t have money, I was very spoiled and felt entitled to the things I received. Our way of communicating was through screaming and hitting (occasionally by Dad). I loved myself and rarely loved anyone else.
Most of the way through high school I was a very poor student and craved intimate attention from my guy friends. I was a quality contributor to my dance line and went on mission trips every year, continuing my thought that I was good enough (even just barely) to be in God’s graces. Then, early in my junior year my dad unexpectedly passed away from a stroke, and my life crumbled, though I wouldn’t have let on to that. I was depressed, rebellious, anxious, promiscuous, and now living with my estranged mother. Thankfully, I started going to a youth group where the leader was different from any Lutheran I had met. He was funny, but serious about grace. It was through his youth group that my stony, dead heart finally heard Truth and felt the warmth of Grace.
Though still loving my sin, I wanted to know Jesus more. The beginning of college at Bethel was awesome. I have never experienced such joy! I loved my believing friends and reading my Bible. My joy was soon squashed, though, when I became one of those young, restless, and reformed stereotypes in my junior year. I loved God’s justice to a fault, and forgot (completely) about God’s joy as a Father and His loving mercy. Only recently do I feel like the wounds of those errors are starting to mend.
I wish I could say that since I was given a new heart, ridding it of sin has been easy, but that would not be truthful! I very much still struggle with self-absorption, entitlement, materialism, unrighteous anger, fear of death, lack of trust, anxiety, depression, pride, and more. But, though those sins are still very real, I know and am comforted that because of Christ I need not be (because I am not) a slave to them (Romans 6:1-14), and that He has promised to complete this good work that He has started in me (Philippians 1:6)! What mercy!
I grew up in a Christian home with parents who love the Lord. I remember regular family devotions, being encouraged to read my Bible every day, and having a lot of friends from church. A good family however, didn’t save me. It wasn’t Jesus that I loved, but myself. I was extremely competitive and harsh with myself and others when competing. I loved lust and was often consumed by sinful thoughts and desires. I wanted to be seen as humble by other people and would work hard to achieve it in a way that only fueled my pride when others thought well of me. And yet in all of this I managed to convince myself that I was a Christian. Deep down, I thought, “God couldn’t send me to hell because… I’m me. I’m good at things and do kind things for others and am well liked.” This attitude carried me all the way through high school and in to college at Bethel University where I continued to lead a double life of attempting external godliness while on the inside I loved my sin the most.
During the summer after my sophomore year at Bethel I was a camp counselor at Trout Lake Camps. God began working at my heart through a group of incredible men working there that summer. They talked about and revered the Bible like nothing I had encountered before. They read the entire Bible (not just small portions like I did) and lived under its authority. In God’s providence, when the summer was over, my older brother picked me up and had planned to discuss my view of the Bible during the three hour drive. By the time we got home my desire to read and take the Bible seriously had grown even more intense. I started reading through the entire Bible and attending Bethlehem Baptist Church. I wanted to read every gospel-centered book I could get my hands on because it felt like the life giving Christian faith I had heard about for so long, but hadn’t experienced.
Somewhere along the way, I was born again. I turned from trusting myself to be good enough for God’s love and began trusting wholly in Jesus and his finished work on the cross to reconcile me to God. I remember hearing the gospel for what felt like the first time and realizing that this was just basic facts for unbelievers, but the foundation of the entire Christian life. Since being born again, I still struggle with the same sins. Yet now, rather than just covering over my sin so that others can’t see it, rather than sin being my greatest love, Jesus has been slowly but surely transforming me by his grace so that he is my greatest love and deepest satisfaction.
I became a Christian at the age of four while living in seminary student family housing. I still believe all of the core doctrines I learned as a child. I led Bible studies in high school and I was on the student leadership team of a college campus ministry. That’s a fairly unremarkable testimony, right? I certainly thought it was. I didn’t like to share my testimony when asked because I didn’t think it was worth sharing. I didn’t think I had any of those things in my story that would make people say, “Wow! Praise God!” I didn’t think I had much to my testimony that made God look really good. God always looks really glorious and mighty when he saves the thief on the cross or knocks a persecutor off his donkey and makes him an Apostle. Those are the stories worth telling and re-telling. How hard is it to save a four year old? I may have had the core doctrines down from a young age, but I clearly lacked understanding.
Though I had been a Christian since I was four, there were major aspects of the Gospel that I had yet to grasp. First, I had to see that dead is dead. The four year old, on his own, is just as dead in his sin and rebellion against God as the hard living forty year old with a lifetime of bad choices behind him. When you can’t remember a day when you weren’t a Christian, you sometimes fall into the sin of believing that you almost became a Christian on your own. Like you were almost there and God just gave you a little hand to get you over. Not true, not even a little. As Christians, all of us were dead in the sins and trespasses in which we once walked and we all desperately needed the “But God” of Ephesians 2:4 to give us life.
Second, God’s glory is without qualifiers. He does not appear more glorious in saving one person than he does in saving another. He is simply and purely and completely glorious. It was not easier, nor harder, for God to save me as a child than it was for him to save anyone else. God sending his Son to die on a cross in the place of sinners and raising Him from the dead so that a person may have life and spend eternity with God is always glorious. How God chooses to call someone to repentance is always amazing and we should stand in awe of the myriad ways in which he does it.
Third, the Christian’s identity is not primarily in who he or she was before Christ. The title says it all. A Christian’s identity is in Christ. Who we were before Christ, how he called us to repentance, and how we turned and trusted Christ matter only in so far as those things may be used by God to reveal his glory.
I used to think that last part was true only for those with what I considered to be remarkable testimonies. Then, two years ago I was on a short-term missions trip in Ecuador. We had a team member become frighteningly ill and we had to get to a hospital. As a few of us sped down the Pan-American Highway in the middle of the night, through the legendary twists and turns, the team member’s condition only worsened. The person we were racing to save was about ten years younger than me and recently baptized. I asked God what I should say. I desperately wanted to say something that might encourage all of us.
It was then that I realized that I had been a Christian for nearly 30 years, much longer than this sick team member and even far longer than almost all the others in the cab of the truck. So I told them that in nearly 30 years of being in Christ, I had only ever known God to be good, to be faithful, to be trustworthy. I told them of his faithfulness even when I had been unfaithful, his mercy in all the moments I deserved wrath. I believe that was the first time I realized how grateful I was to be able to look back so far into my life and testify to God’s goodness and mercy over a lifetime. I realized just how remarkable an “unremarkable” testimony can be when it is used to point to Jesus.
During the first year of my life my father fell away from the faith and left my family.
I was born in Thailand while my parents were studying the Thai language and culture in preparation to become missionaries through Bethlehem Baptist Church. When our visas expired after that first year, my mother, sister, and I moved back to Minnesota without him. Growing up without a father was hard in many ways. The hardest part might have been that my mother didn’t have the energy or willpower to both take care of us and really teach us about personal faith — something she’s always regretted.
I remember growing up heavily involved in Bethlehem. We attended all the Sunday morning and Wednesday night sermons and meetings. We were in a Bible study, and we attended many other events, but I never paid attention. I believed in Jesus — that he “died for my sins”, and that I would go to heaven if I believed that — but if you had asked me any more about it, I wouldn’t have known what to say.
I didn’t really understand the gospel — why it was a big deal, and why it was called “the good news.” When we read as a family, it was almost always Narnia or some other fantasy novel, and we never put much effort into understanding Scripture. We prayed before every meal, but never really stopped to consider what we were doing. Throughout primary school I chased popularity and good grades, at least externally, all the while internally struggling through low self-esteem, anger, and trust issues.
I hadn’t been baptized. I rarely prayed — and if I had it was usually before meals. I never opened my Bible on my own. I had no desire to. I figured that since Jesus had already died for my sins, I didn’t have to put any personal effort into following him.
After my freshman year of college, I got connected to Campus Outreach — a ministry partnered with Bethlehem — and attended their summer program. During that time I dug far deeper than I’d ever gone into the gospel and why I believed it, and especially how much I needed it. I learned that everything God does, he does for his own glory — and how that is a wonderful and perfect thing. I learned that I can sin in my mind as well as through my actions (Matthew 5:28; 15:19), and that these internal sins are just as serious to God as external ones. I learned how God’s glory is increased by justly punishing those who do not trust him, and I also delved into the love and grace of God in sending Jesus to die in place of his chosen people. I had never before thought about the implications of that action — how the perfectly just side of God’s nature is made even more glorious by showing his mercy in saving those who deserve nothing, and just how lucky and undeserving I was that God still pursues my heart, even after all I have or haven’t done.
It is still amazing to me that after all of my failures, God is still faithfully pointing me towards himself (Ephesians 2:1–10). I am in no way “there” — I struggle constantly with prioritizing reading the Bible and prayer, among many issues. But God — the best father anyone could have — and his unwavering faithfulness to his promises (Deut. 31:6, Is. 42:16, Heb 13:5, Mal. 2:17-3:6, 1 John 1:9), is far greater than our inability to keep our own. He will never leave us or forsake us.
When I was 10 years old, I spoke at my grandfather’s funeral. I spent the entire speech trying to explain how much I loved my grandfather and how confused I was that he was, all of a sudden, gone. When I was in 7th grade, I started drinking and doing drugs because I was struggling with severe depression. I couldn’t find meaning or purpose, which drove me to drink more. By the time I reached high school, I had been to 4 different counselors trying to answer the same exact questions.
Why am I here?
Why was I born into this world?
I write these things not so that people feel bad for me. I write these things because God put these things on my heart from a very young age. Becoming a Christian for me was not easy. It took tears, death, and redemption.
I grew up in a culturally Jewish home, which basically meant that we celebrated the major holidays and enjoyed matzo ball soup about once a month. I had no idea what it meant to be Jewish in the Old Testament way.
My first day of college I met a guy named Paul Poteat, who left a note on my desk wondering if I wanted to grab something to eat sometime. For the next four school years, God used Paul to answer every question I could possibly think of. Paul provided answers to the questions I had been asking since I was a kid. He told me about Jesus and sin and why and how Jesus could heal my fractured and sinful heart, mind, and soul.
God continued to surround me with Christians. In the best way possible, I couldn’t get away from them. But, like Pharaoh of the Egyptians before me, my heart would not soften towards God and the gospel.
The summer going into my senior year of college, I began dating my wife, Stephanie, who was a Christian at the time — I was not a Christian at this point (note: we don’t encourage this). Once again, God used another person in my life as a reflection tool to point to him. There were three different ways in which Stephanie challenged my sinful heart where no one else could. First, I was interested in her and I couldn’t figure out why she actually believed. Second, she started bringing me to church and I went (see the interested part in number one). Third, she was sure that I would become a Christian.
I cannot tell you when I actually became a Christian, but Stephanie and I both remember a point in time when we were washing dishes during our senior years of college and I turned to her and said, “You know, I might actually be starting to believe this Christianity thing.” She just looked at me, smiled, and continued drying the dishes.
From there, my heart exploded with love for God and his story of redemption in his Son. I devoured C.S. Lewis books, mourned over my family not being believers, and told many of my bewildered friends about God’s love.
Now I realize that everything in my life was and is preparing me to be more like Christ. I see my sin on a daily basis, I repent, and continue to believe that the God of the universe sent his Son into this world to die and rise again for our sins. As I grow in my faith, I continue to see my depravity and just how little I have to offer God, which drives me to be amazed by the love of Jesus.
This C.S. Lewis quote says it best:
“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.” (Mere Christianity)
Growing up, I attended a Catholic school for the first eight years of my education, went to church each week, and I felt comfortable and in control. The first real shock to my comfort was right before high school when I was diagnosed with a condition that took away my ability to control my health and how well my body functioned. Facing a situation that I couldn’t fix on my own, I began to battle for control over my life. This battle carried over into all aspects of my life: academics, appearances, and friends. I wanted to control what others thought of me by being who I thought they wanted me to be. I felt completely self-reliant, so when something didn’t go my way I took it out on myself, causing great anxiety and unrest. My idea of God aligned with these ideas, living as if God had a giant balance scale weighing my good deeds against the bad. If the scale tilted towards the good deeds, I was content. This scale seemed to work well for me since I did well in school, didn’t party, and hung around other “good” kids.
However, my senior year, the “good” kids I once hung with started to participate in activities that I saw as “bad.” Wanting to control their image of me, I started to do the same. My balance scale was completely tilted in the wrong direction and seemed to be impossible to keep up, so I let it go. This was the first time that I saw myself as a sinner.
My first year of college, God placed a girl in my life who attended a Christian ministry. We quickly became friends and she started inviting me to some of the ministry’s weekly meetings. Feeling the meetings were too weird for me, I just hung out with her and her friends at other events, like bonfires and bowling. I became friends with the other students who were in the ministry and stopped partying, but only because I thought this was the image they would want. So, when I went home that summer, I returned to my previous ways. Upon returning to college that fall, I thought that my friends involved in the ministry would not want to hang out with me, knowing how sinful I was during my summer at home. The same friend, who first initiated towards me the previous year, kept inviting me to activities and after many rejections said she would never ask again if I just attended a fall retreat with the ministry. So I gave in, fully expecting to be shunned because they all knew how much of a sinner I was. However, when I arrived at the retreat they welcomed me and loved me. They didn’t treat me like a “bad” person, but didn’t ignore the sin at the same time. Through their actions God made the gospel clear to me. That while I am still a sinner, God shows his love for me by sending his only son to give his life for me, fully acknowledging that I am a sinner and simultaneously justified at the same time (Romans 5:8). Remaining in control and saving myself was never going to work. I needed the free gift that God offered through Jesus.
The gospel shows me that I am not in control of my life, so I don’t have to worry about the balance and that I have always been a sinner and can’t ever be good enough; Jesus frees me from these things. Jesus changes everything.
While control is still a struggle, God reminds me that he is in control and I can say, “… you are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” (Psalm 16:2) Knowing that God is in control as he works in and through me to reveal his glory, gives me a peace that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7) and allows me to rest more than I ever could on my own.
Growing up, I always thought I was perfect. I excelled in school and sports, went to church every Sunday with my mom, and was super polite and charming to all the adults I knew. In turn, I received a lot of affirmation from these adults, confirming the fact that I was a great kid. Whenever something did slip, or there was a conflict in my life, I found a way to convince everyone around me that it was something or someone else’s fault. After all, I was perfect.
I built my identity around the mindset that I was perfect and could do no wrong. This eventually found its way into my identity as a Christian. It was a heavy chain that I wore with the biggest smile on my face. I would go to a party with friends, but graciously decline any alcoholic beverages, because I was a Christian. On the flip side, I would sit in youth group and judge all the kids around me from my high horse, thinking that I was the only one living the perfect balance of real life and the Christian life.
As I prepared for college, my youth pastor strongly encouraged me to find a college ministry that was connected to a church, recommending the college ministry of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Campus Outreach. I put the note in my back pocket and went off to college. As God would have it, Campus Outreach found me before I found it.
Within my first few weeks at college, I became friends with one of the pastor’s sons. While having lunch at his parents’ house after church one Sunday, I was introduced to a guy who said he was on staff with Campus Outreach. He asked if I wanted to grab lunch on campus, and following our second meeting, he got me connected with one of his friends, Eric Lonergan. Though I didn’t know it at the time, it was the beginning of my first discipleship relationship. Eric was eager to hang out with me a few times a week, and eventually asked me to join a Bible study with him and a few other freshman guys. My plan was to show him how perfect I was, and eventually finagle my way out of the Bible study.
Eric saw right through me, and refused to abandon the Pharisee that I was. He started to ask me the hard questions. He challenged me to think through all of my thoughts and actions. What was my motive behind them? What was I trying to convey to those around me? How did I think God perceived these thoughts and actions? Every time he asked a question, I found myself getting frustrated, rather than actually wanting to think through the questions he was asking me. Why was he being so harsh and naggy? Why couldn’t he mind his own business? In reality, God was using Eric’s questions to reveal my sin to me, slowly, but surely. A breaking point came when Eric asked me what the gospel was. I sat silent and confounded. I tried to piece together the best Sunday school response I could, but could not get out a single word.
Over the next year, I spiraled downward, as God slowly revealed to me the fact that I was not perfect. I felt convicted of sin in everything that I did. I saw my pride, and how much I fought to protect it. I saw my judgment on others. I saw how much I cared about what others thought of me. The gospel became more real than ever. 1 Timothy 1:15 tells us, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” This is why Jesus died for me. This is why I could call myself a Christian. Not because I was perfect, but because Jesus was perfect in my place. The burden that I had experienced from all of my sin was finally lifted, as I began to find my identity in being a sinner saved by Christ!
I still struggle, daily, to see my own sin, quickly justifying mistakes or conflicts as the fault of another. But thanks to my gracious wife and friends, God continues to show me that I am not perfect, and that I need him more than ever. The cross that Jesus died on becomes bigger everyday, and for that, I am extremely grateful.
I grew up in a Catholic family in a suburb of the Twin Cities. We went to church together most Sundays and listened to the priest read to us from the Bible, but I don’t remember ever hearing a distinct articulation of the gospel or any discussion of a personal relationship with the God of the universe.
In my understanding, Jesus was just one of many characters in the Bible. I didn’t factor his life, death, and resurrection into my chances of making it to heaven. I basically just relied upon my own performance— whether athletic or academic. If I could be good enough, then I could earn my way. In reality, I was desperately fighting to maintain my outward appearance of humility and perfection, when inwardly I was in denial about how broken and sinful I was.
In college, a few of my teammates on the Rowing team at the U of M were involved in Campus Outreach. I studied the Bible with my friend Rachel a few times, but when she told me about God’s steadfast love for me, it fell on deaf ears. I thought that if I had the approval of everyone around me, I had all the love I needed. It wasn’t until I heard my friend Lindsey speak at an FCA meeting a few years later that I finally felt truly exposed. As she shared her own story I felt like a light was turned on for the first time. The façade of my perfection and humility was seen for what it was. I saw my own sin so clearly. She went on to read from Isaiah 43: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” The entire chapter seemed to be directed like a laser right into my heart. God knew all of my sin, and he claimed me anyway. He didn’t just see me as a nameless number among millions. He called me by name and offered me forgiveness and redemption. I read this passage over and over for a week and each time it chipped away at the walls I had built up. God broke me down and brought me low so that I could finally see my own desperation. I surrendered my life to Christ.
In the few years since trusting my life to Jesus, he has proven his faithfulness in the good times and in the bad. I have found that the gospel is sweeter to me every time I hear it articulated by someone else, or when I encounter it in his Word. The Lord has given me a heart for coaching and mentoring young athletes, and in such a dynamic and unstable job arena, I have found comfort in verses like Psalm 138:8, “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.” He has provided for me, and he promises to be with me forever.
If you had asked 15-year-old Brook Kleiman what I believed, I would have replied: “Jesus died for my sin so that I can live with him forever.” Growing up in church, and attending a Christian school meant I had all the “right” answers, but they weren’t a true reflection of what I believed. Deep down I thought I was good enough. I wasn’t drinking or swearing like the other kids at school, and therefore, I didn’t need Jesus to die for my sin. It wasn’t until I came to college that I saw myself for what I truly was, a sinner in need of saving.
I attended the University of Minnesota where I became involved in Campus Outreach (a college ministry). During my sophomore year I began studying the Bible with a group of girls, and saw that their understanding of Jesus was very different from mine. They taught me that sin is not just outward actions but also inward thoughts. Over the course of that year I began to see myself as truly sinful; that all the “good things” I was doing were not able to outweigh the bad (Isaiah 64:6). God showed me that because of my sin He had to kill his one and only Son so that I could live with him forever.
Since my sophomore year of college, my circumstances have changed drastically, but the truths of the gospel have remained the same. As I have become more aware of my sin, I find myself amazed that God would even desire a relationship with me. A verse that has been very comforting to me over the years is Hosea 2:14: “Behold, I will allure her and bring her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her.” This verse occurs in response to Israel’s continual, faithless betrayal of their Maker and King. God’s response to us is always faithful, always full of mercy. He gives us what we don’t deserve, a life forever worshiping and enjoying him.
I grew up in a classic suburban family — two kids, heavily involved in sports and activities, minivans — the whole deal. We were culturally religious, went to church every week and prayed before meals. My brother and I went to Christian school through high school. I was fine on the outside, but inside I understood God to be somewhat of a cosmic killjoy — if you followed the list of “do’s and dont’s” well enough, he’d let you go to heaven. I knew about Jesus, and I had heard that he died for my sins, but that just meant I owed him and had to pay him back. However, I was more interested in my own success, my own popularity, my looks, my grades, my girlfriend, my points-per-game average. I desperately needed people to like me. Through high school and early in college, I pursued worldly happiness through academic achievement, sports success, and relationships with the opposite sex. And I was somewhat successful, but I felt empty, and a guilt loomed over me that I couldn’t place.
At the University of Minnesota, the first true secular public school that I had attended, my safe cultural Christian upbringing came into serious conflict with an onslaught of atheism, humanism, and cynicism. Brook (my girlfriend at the time) asked me one day if I really thought that I was a believer. Thinking about it seriously, I replied “maybe not.” I didn’t truly have a foundation to stand on, and I knew that a shaky mental assertion that Jesus lived and died wasn’t the ticket. The death and funeral of a high school friend accelerated my questions. God led me to his word searching for answers. I started in Romans, and God graciously opened my eyes to the preciousness of the gospel for the first time. I realized that I was more wicked than I ever knew — “None is righteous … All have turned aside … There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:10–18) — but in Christ, I was more loved and accepted than I ever thought possible — “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly … God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6, 8). Following that season, Jesus became the most intriguing and impressive person in the world. I recognized that he was the hero, the main character of the story — not me.
So my life began to change. With Jesus as my substitute, the guilt and the need to perform were gone. And with Christ as my new treasure and deepest source of joy, my desperate need for others and worldly happiness slowly dissipated and a deeper peace started to flow in. I began to enjoy church and love singing praises to the God who saved me. God placed me in several deep relationships through Campus Outreach and Bethlehem Baptist Church that bore fruit in turning from sin and enjoying Jesus more. As the years go by, I have definitely not attained perfection. I still sin, a lot, and I still need the gospel every day. Now that God has blessed me with a beautiful wife and two kids, I must rely on and apply Jesus’s death and resurrection to my stumbling service of others above myself. My identity is not in being the perfect father or husband. My identity, my life is “hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is [my] life appears, then [I] also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:3–4). True life, true joy, true peace is found in Jesus Christ, the God-man who laid down his life for me.