This post appears as its own page on our site but I wanted to make it a blog post too. If you haven’t read it yet, enjoy!
Everything changed for me in January of 1973. I lived in a small town in northern Arizona where I was supposed to be in my senior year of high school, but I had dropped out a couple of months prior. I don’t recommend that experience. Jesus gripped my heart and I became a believer at a Saturday night concert at the original Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa California. The concert was in a big circus tent that had been set up on the property while a new building was being built. The original building was just down the street. For obvious reasons, I have a lot of fond memories of that place and of the people I got to know there.
I wasn’t searching for God or for answers when I became a Christian. As a naive teenager, I thought I knew all the answers to all the questions. But interestingly enough, nobody was asking me what I thought. I wasn’t seeking God when he grabbed me. I don’t know what that does to your theology, but Jesus gripped my heart, convicted me of my sin, and granted me repentance and faith, all in a moment of time. I wasn’t anticipating it or expecting it. I thought I was at that concert for one reason: because I was a below average musician and I loved music and the concert was free. So I went. That’s what disconnected hippies did. But this trip from northern Arizona to southern California changed my life. It marked the beginning of my own journey in grace. The picture to the right is me. It was taken outside the circus tent a few hours before my conversion. I think I was eating an orange, even though I look like I was growling. Scary looking, I know. But I thought I would share it with you. I don’t look like that anymore. That’s good and bad at the same time.
I went from being an early 70′s hippie to being part of the Jesus People movement in the blink of an eye. Part of the cultural climate of us hippies-turned-Jesus-freaks generation was an eagerness and passion to let go of the world and materialism. It was the opposite of what I see in the culture today where the race is on to grab all you can get. We didn’t want the clutter of materialism and most of us couldn’t leave it behind fast enough. For me, that meant that when the gospel, the good news of another kingdom not of this world, gripped my heart, I had very little baggage preventing me from letting go of the things of this life and pursuing that one instead. I was a clumsy, scary looking teenage dropout, but I think I understood my need for the ongoing day-to-day application of the gospel to my life. The gospel wasn’t just a message preached to bring me into the kingdom, it was the ongoing power of God to transform me into the image of Jesus. As strange as I must have been at times in those early years, I understood that.
Fast-forward to late 2008. Life happens. Life gets cluttered. We start careers. We get married. We raise kids. We go to Bible college. We pastor churches. We equip the saints. We read deep theology. We debate theology. All of these are good things, but sometimes as life draws us in, we forget that which is of first importance (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) and we give that position to other things. Even good things. That’s what happened to me.
Jesus rescued me in early 1973 and he rescued me again in late 2008. He’s no doubt rescued me countless times in between, but these are the two I know about. But the rescue of 2008 was a different kind of rescue from the one in 1973. In 1973, he gave me the free gift of eternal life as the message of the gospel was mixed with faith – faith that was also free and a gift (Ephesians 2:8-9). In late 2008, he started a work in my heart to bring me back to gospel centered-ness. I know that phrase gets used a lot today and possibly misused by some. I know that by using it, I run the risk of sounding cliche, but that’s what happened.
As life happened, slowly, over a lot of years, I had relegated the gospel to a theological category among other theological categories to be mastered, learned, and then filed away until needed. Without fully realizing it, I had come to view the gospel as simply the door into the Christian faith, with the goal being to get past it and on to the supposed “deeper” things of God. The gospel became biblical data that was really only needed when talking to the lost about their spiritual condition – something else I wasn’t really doing much of.
In late 2008 I began to discover that when you leave the gospel behind like that and it loses its rightful place of first importance in your life every day, something has to take its place. Something has to fill the void. Hindsight being what it is, I can see clearly now that when we relegated the gospel to our bookshelves, what took its place was performance. Our own performance in the Christian life and the performance of those around us. Our sanctification and the sanctification of others took center stage and became of first importance. In performance-based Christianity, Jesus becomes your role model instead of your substitute. In performance-based Christianity your sanctification and the sanctification of those around you takes the place reserved only for the gospel and becomes of first importance.
When Jesus becomes merely your role model instead of your substitute, performance becomes your idol. The sad and scary truth about idols is that they have to be served and eventually, they start to control you. And when performance becomes your idol and starts screaming to be served, your entire Christian experience becomes centered on how you’re performing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. It spills over onto your friends and everyone else in your life as you start to become judge and jury of their performance as well. Slowly, you begin to raise the performance bar higher and higher, both for yourself and for everyone around you, until it’s been raised so high that no one could possibly get over it. And when they can’t attain to the standard of performance you’ve set, you respond by saying things like, “We’re so disappointed in you”, “We expected more from you”, “If you profess to be a believer, our expectations for you go way up”, “A believer doesn’t look like that”, and “A believer wouldn’t respond that way.”
Performance-based Christianity produces a harshness and hardness in our hearts because it’s self-centered and feeds our pride. One of three things can happen when performance is my idol and Jesus has been reduced to a role model: 1) If we’re good at performing, we become proud of it and wonder why others around us can’t keep up. And when they can’t keep up with our fabricated standards, we become critical of them and self-righteous judges. This was my experience. 2) If you’re more tender-hearted, you might be able to keep up the pace for a while but eventually, you’ll crash and burn and fall into depression. One day you’ll start to realize that your life consists of wearing different people-pleasing masks throughout the day that are designed to hide the real you and keep the performance-based people off of your back. This is what happened to my bride. 3) You’ll remain blind to your condition because at the end of the day, only the Holy Spirit can convince you and melt a heart steeped in performance. In his book, A Scandalous Freedom, Steve Brown makes this comment about life in a gospel-lite, performance-heavy environment,
Some people in the family of God will require things of you that God never required, will tell you that God is angry when he isn’t, and will make you feel ashamed and guilty when you shouldn’t feel ashamed and guilty…. We need to get the first thing—the gospel—straight, or we are going to kill off one another. I’m trying to stop the carnage, and I don’t want you to keep shooting either.
Jared Wilson made this insightful statement in his book, Gospel Wakefulness. This really applies to our experiences.
Really, there are only two steps to gospel wakefulness: be utterly broken and be utterly awed. But neither of these things are things you can really do. They are things only God can do for you….For many of us, Jesus won’t be our absolute treasure until we are out of options.
Our blog posts further chronicle our own experiences with relegating the gospel to something other than first importance and what we’re learning about ourselves as the Holy Spirit continues to gospel us back up in so many ways. We hope you enjoy your stay here. If you would like to, please feel free to comment and interact with us at any time. It’s a journey, but it’s a journey in grace.