This post has been a long time coming. It is the follow-up to a post I wrote in June 2008 called “A Spiritual Journey, Part 1.” In order to understand this post, you really ought to read that one first, which can be found here:
From 1991 to 2000 I served as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Seven years into my ministry I had a significant encounter with God which revolutionized the way I understood the Christian life.
I told that story and the events leading up to it in the post listed above. If you haven’t read that first part, I recommend you do it so this post will make sense.
Here I’m going to pick up where the previous post left off. (Some of the names in this post have been changed because I haven’t been able to ask permission from the parties involved to share their part in the story.)
After asking Christ into my heart at the first annual Knoxville area Pastors Prayer Summit on Wednesday, March 11, 1998, the retreat was over on Thursday, and I went back home to the church I was pastoring in Lenoir City, Tennessee. I had decided to share the testimony of what had happened with my congregation. I was nervous because my denomination was staid and traditional, and not that keen on conversion stories. Even though my church was pretty friendly and open, they were still fairly traditional, so I wasn’t sure how my experience would be received.
Sunday finally came, and I shared my testimony. It seemed to be well-received.
Altar calls, or invitations to receive salvation, are not a common practice in the Presbyterian Church. In fact, they are so uncommon that Presbyterian sanctuaries generally don’t even have a place at the front for people to kneel if they were to come forward. This is partly because Presbyterian churches don’t have altars, but instead communion tables. But that’s a topic for another post.
At any rate, that Sunday at the end of my message I gave an altar call, inviting people to come forward and ask Jesus into their hearts, or rededicate their lives. To my delight, six people came to the front, including several longtime members of the church. Since there was no altar rail, I just invited them to stand where they were or kneel there on the floor. As I recall they all knelt, including one dear matriarch of the church who was in her 70s.
I hadn’t given many altar calls before (only one other one in the entire course of my ministry), so I really didn’t know what to do when the people came forward. To be honest, since invitations weren’t a common occurrence, I hadn’t really expected a response. That’s what I get for underestimating God.
So I had the organist play a hymn (it may even have been “Just As I Am,” I can’t remember now. 🙂 ) Then I led everyone in a prayer in which I invited them to ask Jesus into their hearts.
At the end I dismissed the service, and talked with those who had come forward. I wish I could say I was good about following up with them in the days to come, but honestly, I wasn’t. I hadn’t been trained in anything like evangelistic follow-up, so I didn’t feel like I really knew what to do or say. This is one of a number of regrets I have looking back on my years of ministry.
That night I had been invited by one of the pastors at the prayer summit, a man named Doug, to share my testimony at his church, a large evangelical church in Knoxville. I’m not sure Doug knew exactly what he was getting himself into. But it wound up being a good and memorable experience.
At that time, Doug’s Church had four identical services every Sunday, two in the morning, and two in the evening. Doug had invited me to share at the two evening services.
At the first service Doug had me speak at the beginning, right after the singing. He had prepared a message but after I shared, he said he sensed the Holy Spirit moving and decided to stop the service and issue an invitation. Doug asked the people to come forward if they needed a touch from God similar to what I had experienced.
There wasn’t a huge rush to the front of the church, but I would say somewhere between one and two dozen people came forward. One of them caught my eye, though–she happened to be a woman I recognized from my home town! I didn’t know Terri well, and wasn’t even sure she would know who I was. She was known around my home town as a strong Christian, someone who had been very active in Young Life, a para-church ministry to youth.
Because of what I knew about Terri’s Christian background, I was surprised to see her standing at the front of the church weeping. And yet because of what had just happened to me that week it made perfect sense. After the service I went up to her and introduced myself, telling her I remembered her from our home town. She shared that in recent years she had come to a place in which her faith felt dry and empty, and so when she heard my testimony she could really relate, and so she came forward. When she did, God really touched her.
I later learned that Terri was the wife of one of the elders in the church. I made plans with Terri to get together with her and her husband soon, which we did not long after that, and shared a wonderful evening comparing notes of what God had done in our lives.
The second service that evening went very much like the first. I shared, and then Doug led an altar call, in which a dozen or so more people came forward. I later learned that the lives of several people in the church had been touched by my testimony and the Spirit’s working during the altar calls. I was surprised, delighted, humbled, and thankful.
Apparently some of the things I shared in my testimony that night were a bit controversial, though, and I understand there was a lot of discussion and some debate about it the following week. We tend to expect salvation to be a very cut-and-dried event. Most often we hear testimonies in which someone who was deeply involved in sin found God, and their life totally changed. My testimony wasn’t like that. I had been a good churchgoer all my life, and was even involved in church leadership. The things of God were my bread and butter. Meeting God in a new way out of that experience is not as cut-and-dried as the blatant-sinner-finds-Jesus testimony.
Back at the Pastor’s Prayer Summit earlier that week, on the night after I had asked Jesus into my heart, I lay in bed unable to sleep, so excited by what I was experiencing, and also wondering what on earth had happened to me! As I lay there asking questions, I felt God begin to speak to me.
Two analogies came to me, and I believed they were from God. The first one was that my experience of God had been like that of a couple who are engaged but have never married. They’ve come to know each other well but their relationship hasn’t been consummated. They’ve shared their hearts but they haven’t yet been united in marriage and become one flesh. They may have spent many hours together, but they haven’t become one.
I felt God was showing me that this is what my relationship with him had been like prior to that night. I read the Bible and prayed a lot, but God had still seemed distant and remote. The Bible says a Christian is someone who has been united with Christ through faith. A Christian is “in Christ,” and Christ is in him. This union with Christ is similar to a married couple becoming one flesh through the consummation of their marriage. Ephesians 5 even compares the relationship of a husband and wife to that of Christ and his church.
That night I felt like God was showing me that prior to asking Jesus into my heart I had been acquainted with Christ, but I had not been united with Him. I even talked to Jesus but was not in Him or He in me until I invited Him in, which I had never really consciously and intentionally done before.
The second analogy that came to me as I lay awake that night was of a business deal that had been negotiated but never closed. In that scenario, both parties have worked out the deal in every detail, but the contract has never been signed on the dotted line, sealing the arrangement.
In a similar way, in the years prior to asking Jesus into my heart, I had a lot of interactions with God but had never really “closed the deal” with him. When I asked Christ into my heart, that’s when I finally closed it.
The night I gave my testimony at Doug’s church in Knoxville, I shared these two analogies. Apparently some people were bothered by the subtleties of it. Folks were asking “He was ‘engaged to Christ’??–What does that mean??”
The intercessors who had prayed with me to received Christ (who also went to that church) didn’t have a problem with what I was trying to say. Their take was that anything is possible with God. But my analogies didn’t sit well with others because I guess they weren’t cut-and-dried enough.
So Doug, the pastor of the church, wound up feeling a need to address the issue. The next Sunday his sermon was entitled “What Happened to Morgan?” I’ve listened to that message after it was given and it was very well done, though I can’t remember the exact content of it now, since many years have passed.
Well, everything I’ve written about in this post so far covers the events of just four days after the pastors prayer summit–Thursday afternoon through Sunday evening. Some time during those days I had also called my parents to tell them the news. My mother said this explained something that had happened to her: the same night I’d asked Jesus into my heart, she was awakened in the night and thought she heard God say the words “to the heart” but she had no idea what that was about. After she heard my story she concluded her experience pertained to what had happened to me.
This was typical of my relationship with my mother. She had that sixth sense that moms seem to have about their children, and she was also very sensitive to the things of God, especially anything having to do with me. Rarely did anything important ever happen in my life without my mother having some sort of knowledge or awareness of it even before she was told about it.
After the prayer summit I had wondered how my congregation would receive my story. In the days and weeks that followed I sensed they seemed to approve of what I had shared. As one person commented, “We liked you before, so now if you’ve really met God” (or some words to that effect) “then we like you all the better!” They seemed glad I’d had an experience that legitimized my relationship with God and my ministry. No one ever questioned my testimony or spoke against it in any way.
The week after the prayer summit I began to wonder how my experience fit with the Bible. I wanted to know: was it scriptural? I began to think about the Bible passages I knew, and also to search for others. Over the next week or two, several verses came to my attention that seemed to speak to the experience I’d had. I’ve already shared some of these in the earlier post, but I think they’re worth repeating in more detail.
My mother pointed this passage out to me: Ephesians 3:14-21
14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen (emphasis added).
This is the main passage in the Bible that speaks of Christ living in our hearts. It also makes the connection that the heart is a person’s inner being. My prayer summit experience was profound for me in terms of teaching me about my own heart and the human heart in general.
Growing up in Huntsville, Alabama, which is a very intellectual town (with more Ph.D.s per capita than any other city in the nation, I understand), I tended to look at everything very rationally (maybe this was somehow related to my upbringing, too). I was quite a literalist in that metaphor and figures of speech didn’t make much of an impression on me.
As a result, sentimental talk about the human heart always left me cold. As far as I was concerned, the heart was a muscle that pumped blood through your bloodstream and that was it. I was cynical about thinking of the heart in symbolic terms.
My prayer summit experienced made me aware of the emotional aspect my heart for the first time in my life. Once I asked Jesus in and had the experienced of him entering my heart, everything changed. I realized all that talk about the emotional side of the human heart wasn’t pure bunk after all.
Often the heart is equated with our emotions, but from a biblical standpoint this isn’t completely accurate. Ephesians 3:16-17 imply that when the Bible talks about the human heart it is referring to our inner being, the innermost part of us that makes us “us.” So the heart isn’t just a sentimental thing, it’s really the central aspect of who we are.
In the years after my prayer summit experience, as I was discipled by a pastor named David Moore, I came to understand that God relates to us mainly through our hearts, more than our minds. Therefore, what’s most important in terms of our relationship with God is not what we believe about Jesus in our minds, but what we know and believe about him in our hearts. The mind reflects what’s in the heart, and whatever we don’t truly believe in our hearts our minds will struggle to grasp as well.
But I digress. My point was: Ephesians 3:17 does speak of Christ living in the hearts of Christians.
I also found a couple of verses which speak of asking Jesus in. One of these, probably the most famous, is Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”
Months later when I studied this verse in order to preach on it, I learned that the door Jesus is actually talking about there is the door of the Laodicean church to which he is speaking in Revelation 3:14-22. Jesus is standing outside the church, as it were, asking to be readmitted. But the promise he gives in verse 20 is still to individuals in that church, for he says “If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.” Jesus is speaking in individual terms there. So the verse still applies to the idea of individual persons answering Jesus’ summons and letting him into their own lives.
In my studies I also found a verse in the gospel of John which speaks of receiving Christ: John 1:11-13
11 He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (emphasis added).
This verse tells what must happen in order for someone to become a child of God (that is, to be saved): they must receive Christ, believe in his name, and be “born of God.”
I think we are all familiar with the idea of believing in God or believing in Jesus. For many people, being a Christian is equated with this simple kind of belief, or with believing certain ideas about Jesus: that he died for our sins and rose again from the dead. We may see it as believing in Jesus as our Lord and Savior.
Too often the idea of belief is thought of as mere intellectual assent – if someone believes God exists, believes Jesus lived 2000 years ago, believes he died on the cross and rose again, then that makes them a Christian. These beliefs are good as far as they go. But the Greek word for “believe” throughout the Gospel of John (such as here and in the famous verse John 3:16) is pisteuo, which is better translated “have faith in” or “trust.”
So the kind of belief John 1:12 and John 3:16 are talking about is more than just intellectual assent. It’s really faith or trust, which is a more relational idea than mere belief. In order to have faith in someone, you have to know them. You have to know what sort of person they are to know if they’re worthy of your trust. So these verses really imply not just believing in Jesus, but knowing Him, and trusting Him.
John 1:12 also speaks of those who “received” Jesus. Prior to my prayer summit experience I’d never noticed this verse, and had never given much thought to the idea of “receiving” Christ. I’d heard people talk about it (“Have you received Christ?”) but not really considered it.
The context of this verse is the incarnation, God coming to earth in Jesus Christ. Verse 11 says “He came to his own home” (literally, “his own things”) “and his own people received him not.” “Receiving” here calls to mind hospitality. Jesus came to the world he’d made, to his own people, the Jews, and the religious leaders rejected him. They did not receive him. Some people did accept Jesus, though–many of them social outcasts such as tax collectors and prostitutes. These folks received him. They showed him hospitality, inviting him into their homes and lives, spending time with him, accepting him, listening to his message, and obeying his word.
John 1:11-13 implies that those who received Jesus in this way did more than just show him hospitality–they believed in him, not just in his teachings but, it says, in his very name. In Bible times the name represented the person. These people trusted Jesus. They opened their hearts to him. In doing so they were born of God and so became children of God. As we would say it today, they were saved.
This gives us a picture of what it means for us to receive Jesus. It is to open our hearts and lives to him. To get to know him. To trust him like a trustworthy friend.
John 1:13 says those who received Jesus in this way were “born of God.” This is reminiscent of a more familiar passage in John 3 that talks about being “born again” (see John 3:1-15). We’ve all heard the phrase “born again.” “Born of God” is what it means. (For more on what it means to be born again, see my post here: https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2008/06/03/62/).
In the days after my prayer summit experience I remembered that a couple of years earlier, in 1996 or so, a lady in my church had given me a sermon on tape by John Wood, the pastor of Cedar Springs Presbyterian, a large church in Knoxville. The sermon was on John 3 where Jesus talked about being born again. Pastor Wood gave an excellent explanation of the passage.
As I listened, it dawned on me that whatever the Bible meant by being born again, I didn’t think it had ever happened to me. So right there I said to God “I don’t know what it means to be born again, but I want it.
Now, two years later, as I thought back on my recent prayer summit experience, it occurred to me that what had happened to me there was God’s answer to my prayer about being born again back in 1996.
In John 3:5 Jesus said “You must be born again.” It’s not an option. John 1:11-13 also shows that being born again, or born of God, is required in order to become a child of God (i.e., be saved).
This isn’t often discussed. Many times there’s talk about someone becoming a “born again Christian.” But according to the Gospel of John, there is no other kind of Christian. To be born again is to be saved, and vice versa. Jesus said, “You must be born again.”
Based on my experiences and my reflections on them, I concluded that being saved (i.e., becoming a Christian) is more than just accepting certain beliefs in our minds. It’s more than just praying a sinners prayer. Being born again involves a personal encounter with God which causes us to be born anew and have our spirits brought to life. (For more on this go here: https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2008/06/03/62/)
Colossians 1:13-14 says “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
Did you catch that? This verse says that when we’re born into this world, we’re born into the domain of darkness and that we have to be transferred by God out of it. This is why we must be born again. The first time we were born we were born into the wrong domain. In order to be transferred to the kingdom of Christ we have to come under His dominion and submit to him. We have to be born into his kingdom, born of God.
I will end this post by asking: Have you ever been born of God? John 1:11-13 tells us how we can be born of God. 🙂
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Up next: A Spiritual Journey, Part 3, in which I talk about the conclusion of my ministry as a pastor, as well as events in my life since that time. Stay tuned.