Category Archives: salvation

Book Summary – “Foundations of Exchanged Life Counseling” by Richard F. Hall

Hall, Richard F. Foundations of Exchanged Life Counseling. Englewood, CO: Exchanged Life Ministries, 1998.

Hall, Richard F. Foundations of Exchanged Life Counseling. Englewood, CO: Exchanged Life Ministries, 1998.

This is the third of three book summaries I had to write for a class on Discipleship Counseling I’m taking through my church.  The first summary can be found here, the second right here.  The third book we had to read has the captivating title Foundations of Exchanged Life Counseling by Richard F. Hall.  It is somewhat of a brief textbook for the type of biblical counseling in which we’re being trained.

Explained briefly, the term “exchanged life” refers to the idea that when we place our trust in Jesus Christ for salvation, he takes our sin, death, and selfishness and in exchange gives us forgiveness, life, and a loving heart.  Hall says the exchanged life involves exchanging our self-centered approach to living for a new approach in which we live for Christ.

Here is my brief summary of the book.  I’ve included a few explanatory comments in [brackets].

  1. Each person is made up of three parts: the spiritual (i.e., spirit), the psychological (i.e., soul) and the physical (i.e., body).  An unsaved person operates out of the psychological part of themselves. For a Christian, the spiritual aspect is the essence of who they are.
  2.  [This “tri-partite” view of the person is based on the following Scriptures: 1 Thessalonians 5:23 ~ “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.   And Hebrews 4:12 ~ “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”]
  3. The primary cause of problems in people’s lives is living life out of their own resources rather than in dependence on God.  [This way of living is known in the Bible as “living by the flesh.”  The apostle Paul uses the term “flesh” in a unique way, not to refer to our physical bodies but rather to speak of that part of us that is drawn to sin and opposes God. Key passages in which Paul uses the term “flesh” this way are Romans 7:14-8:17 and Galatians 5:16-25.]  Sin and the flesh are the source of people’s problems.  Living out of the flesh is a self-centered approach to life and ultimately detrimental.
  4. There are certain qualification a person needs to meet in order to be an exchanged life counselor.  First and foremost, they must have a personal experience of salvation through Jesus Christ.  They also need to be totally surrendered to the Lordship of Christ.  The exchanged life counselor needs a good overall knowledge and understanding of Scripture, as well as training in communication skills.  Finally, he or she should meet the qualifications for Christian leadership outlined in 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.
  5. As with most counseling methods, exchanged life counseling begins with the client’s presenting problem–their stated reason for seeking counseling. The counselor then takes the client’s personal history.  This helps the counselor get to know the client. It also helps both counselor and client identify unhelpful patterns the client follows to deal with life.
  6. After the client’s problem is presented and a personal history is taken, the first step in the actual counseling process is a presentation of the salvation message if necessary, for this is the foundation of the entire method. The second step is to acquaint the client with their former identity “in Adam”–that is, the way they were as a fallen, sinful, and unredeemed person when they were born into this world. The third step is to help the client understand his or her new identity in Christ.  [The assumption is that we are all born “in Adam” but when we accept Christ we are born again, or “born from above” (see John 1:12-13 and John 3:1-21).  From that moment on we are no longer in Adam, but we are now in Christ.]
  7. The counseling method presented in the book has six steps: A) Assess the problem. B) Learn the client’s social history. C) The connection needs to be drawn between the presenting problem and the client’s past living patterns. D) The client is taught about his/her identification with Christ. E) The client is led to appropriate his or her identity in Christ. F) Further areas need to be dealt with that relate to the issue at hand.
  8. Exchanged life counseling techniques include: A) Preparation – through prayer, reviewing previous counseling sessions, and relaxation. B) Attentive communication skills, listening. C) Observation, concreteness, respect, and empathy. D) Confrontation, self-disclosure, and immediacy. E) Genuineness. F) Use of visual aids such as charts or diagrams which illustrate the truths being taught. G) Appropriate use of Scripture. H) Homework tailored to the client’s needs.
  9. The primary goal of exchanged life counseling is that the client come to understand and experience his or her identity in Christ and apply this understanding to life’s problems. Sub-goals to this primary goal include: A) Helping the client grow in Christ-like-ness. B) Helping the client grow to spiritual maturity. C) Seeing the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) start to emerge in the client’s life. D) Helping the client experience freedom in Christ’s life.
  10. Exchanged life counseling is founded on certain theological concepts: A) The Bible as the infallible source of authority. B) The doctrine of man and sin. C) The doctrine of salvation. D) The doctrine of sanctification.

In conclusion, Foundations of Exchanged Life Counseling serves as a good summary and explanation of what exchanged life counseling is all about. As such it serves as a good resource to consult over and over again.  My one criticism of the book is that it’s very conceptual and therefore mostly abstract.  The author doesn’t take time to illustrate the concepts.  It would be very helpful if the author would release a later edition in which illustrative material is added to flesh out the concepts.  However, the book does include a number of drawings which could be used in counseling sessions to help explain concepts to the client.  All in all the book is a good beginning resource for exchanged life counseling.

 

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A Spiritual Journey, Part 3 – Change Is In The Air

This is a continuation of my previous post, which in itself was a follow-up to a post I had published back in 2008.  Part 1 can be found here: https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2008/06/05/a-spiritual-journey-1/

Part 2 can be found by going to my last post, or by following this link: https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2013/11/26/a-spiritual-journey-part-2/

After the events of the Pastor’s Prayer Summit in March 1998, which are told in Part 1 of this series (follow the first link above to read that story), I stayed at the Presbyterian church I was pastoring two more years.  But as time passed I began to suspect the writing was on the wall.  I was different now, and over time I began to feel like I didn’t really fit there anymore.  I was changing but my congregation wasn’t.

The changes that took place in me over those two years were not anything new or different or strange.  Rather, I was simply finding the courage to be who I was instead of succumbing to the pressure to be what I sensed others wanted me to be.

At that time most pastors in my denomination wore a black robe as they conducted the Sunday service.   Prior to the ’98 pastors prayer summit, I was no different.  I wore a black robe every Sunday as I led the service.

I’m not really a formal person by nature, though–a fact which was always dismaying to my mother, who was pretty formal.  When I first started in ministry I didn’t mind wearing the robe because I felt it offset my youthfulness somewhat (I was only 27 and pretty young-looking). I felt it gave a sense of authority I didn’t have otherwise–which seemed important since most of the people I was working with were older than me.

However, by this point in my ministry, I was ready to shed some of that formality.  So in the weeks after the Prayer Summit I began to experiment with not wearing the robe on Sundays. Instead I wore a suit and tie–still formal, for sure, but a step down from the robe.

When summer came I tried leaving off the coat and tie altogether and just wearing an open collar button-down shirt and dress slacks.  I was able to get away with that as long as it was summertime, but when the fall came, the church organist (who was one of the matriarchs of the church) came to me and said, “It was okay for you to not wear your coat and tie as long as it was summer.  But now that it’s fall, you need to put them on again. You can’t be that informal all the time.”  (She implied, too, that kids want to be informal, but grownups dress up.  Yikes!)

Some people might say I should’ve ignored her and done what I wanted to do, since she really didn’t have any formal authority to tell me that.  But that isn’t my personality, and certainly wasn’t then. I am a people-pleaser by nature and hate any sort of conflict (though in my old age I’m getting better about speaking my mind and standing my ground).  Besides, she was a member of the church and a key player, one of the leaders.  Among other things, she was chair of the worship committee. I knew if I defied the organist there was likely to be trouble. At best she might make an issue of it before the worship committee and the elders, and at worst I might lose my organist over it. Being in such a small town, I wasn’t sure how many other good organists would be around to take her place, and so I was afraid of losing her (she was good at what she did, and a volunteer).  I was not yet at the level of maturity in which I was willing to take a risk of that magnitude. In that time and place, a Presbyterian church without an organist would scarcely have been Presbyterian!

So I did what she said. I was 33 or 34 and she was well into her 50s.  Besides, I knew she probably spoke for many in the church, maybe the majority.  So I resumed preaching in my coat and tie.  But I never went back to wearing the black robe, except for weddings and maybe funerals.

Preaching in a suit, though, instead of the robe left me open to the charge of being “too Baptist”–a cardinal sin in a southern liberal church.  Baptists are the most populous church in the south, so some southerners intentionally choose a “mainline” or more liberal church in order to avoid joining a Baptist one.  So being “too Baptist” was not viewed as a good thing. Nevertheless I stuck to my guns and wore a suit rather than a robe each Sunday.  (As I write this I am shaking my head over what people can get riled up over.)

At any rate, though, the organist’s displeasure over my open-collared shirt was my first sign that the church might not be as open as I hoped to the ways I was changing.

After the prayer summit my preaching began to change, too. Prior to my born again experience I tended to focus on morality and, honestly, I often preached on the ways I felt people weren’t living up to the Bible. I guess you could say my pre-prayer-summit preaching was probably negative, moralistic, and somewhat legalistic.

Post-prayer-summit I began to preach more on salvation and also on the love of God.  There was still some moralism–I didn’t change totally–but the focus came to be more on Jesus and who He is, His love, and what He’s done for us.

Also my method of preaching changed. In seminary I had been trained to preach from a written manuscript, and often (though not always) this is what I did in the years prior to my born again experience.  After that, though, I began trying to preach more extemporaneously. Instead of writing a manuscript, I would just jot down a few notes and pray that God would give me the words to say.

Looking back I’m not sure my preaching really improved that much. I imagine it seemed more personal and conversational, but I also think the content and organization suffered a bit.  (Actually, in the years since then when I’ve preached I’ve gone back to the method I used before seminary, which is to make detailed notes but still speak off the cuff as much as I can, using the notes to jog my memory when necessary. I find this approach works best for me, since I’m not a talker by nature; but it still allows me to be more conversational.)

Meanwhile, I remained active with the interdenominational pastors prayer group I’d gotten to know at the Prayer Summit. I was going to two different prayer meetings a week, as well as occasional retreats of a day or more in duration.  I also attended conferences with them on occasion.

All these meetings were very expressive in their feel, and quite different from the more staid service I presided over every Sunday.  I had a growing desire for our church to experience the joy, freedom, spontaneity, and openness I saw at the interdenominational prayer meetings.

Whenever I had a Sunday off (which was only a few times a year) I began to make a point of visiting some of the churches pastored by my friends in the interdenominational prayer groups.  I wanted to see what their churches were like.  Of course, a lot of them were doing contemporary worship, and I got to experience some of this firsthand.  This was nothing new to me, as I’d attended Sunday night church at Calvary Assembly of God in Decatur, Alabama for several years, as well as special services at other churches. Not only that, but I had led the singing for youth groups and events for many years. So I was pretty familiar with contemporary worship.

Within the next year I decided to try some contemporary worship at my church.  This was completely new for most of them.  Normally on Sunday mornings we did what is sometimes jokingly referred to as the “hymn sandwich”–a hymn at the beginning of the service, a hymn in the middle, and one at the end.  The hymns and all the music were accompanied on a very nice console organ.  Only rarely was the piano ever used, mainly to accompany the choir.

On the other hand, as you probably already know, in contemporary worship it’s not uncommon for worship teams to play 4 or 5 songs straight through before anything else happens in the service. The worship bands play rock instruments (bass, electric guitars, drums) and usually dress informally.  To say the least, all that was going to be a stretch for that little Presbyterian church!

Not being one to stir up conflict, I decided to start small.  As I began to talk about my ideas with the worship committee, what we finally agreed on was that we would not change the worship service itself, but  instead just for the summer months we would add the contemporary worship on as an optional time 15 minutes before the regular service began.  The idea was that those who wanted contemporary worship could come early, and those who didn’t want it wouldn’t have to deal with it during the actual service.

I was satisfied with this as a beginning. My expectation was that those who arrived for church early (which was a sizable portion of the congregation) would be exposed to the contemporary music anyway and might gain a favorable impression of it.

Once this was approved I went to work recruiting the few musicians in the congregation who might be interested in something like this. It wound up just being me on acoustic guitar and a fellow on the piano (I can’t remember now if there was anyone else).

So this is what we did for the summer months that year (I think it was in 1999 but can’t say now for sure).  For each service I would choose about 4 songs and have the words printed on an insert for the bulletin. I chose songs that were popular at the time: “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High,” “Open the Eyes of My Heart,” “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” and the like.

Attendance was decent – maybe a fourth of the congregation came at 10:45 for the contemporary worship. We had a core of people who preferred that style of music, so they were very happy with it. Quite a few others arrived 5 or 10 minutes early for the main service and were able to hear the new music as well.

There were no complaints about the contemporary portion, but it was just to be a summer thing, so when August ended, the contemporary music ended as well.  Overall it was deemed a “success,” and so I began to think about how we might incorporate contemporary worship into the regular schedule of our congregation.

The worship committee considered a couple of options: an earlier service on Sunday morning and a Sunday evening service.  For reasons I can’t remember now we eventually began to make plans for an evening service.  I think the leaders weren’t crazy about the idea of starting a new early service; our church wasn’t very big to begin with, and I think they were fearful of splitting our already small congregation into two even smaller services.  I guess the thinking was that a Sunday evening service wouldn’t detract from the morning service, and those who wanted to attend both could if they so desired.

By the time we’d begun talking seriously about starting a contemporary service it was late in the fall of 1999.  In spite of the seeming success, for some reason I was uneasy about moving forward with the new service.  I dragged my feet.

Looking back now I think the reason was that it seemed artificial to me.  No one in the church had any thought of doing a contemporary service until I mentioned it.  And even now, I was the only one in the church really pushing for it.  The family of the one man in the church who really loved contemporary worship had, ironically, begun attending another church. In fact, by this time (again ironically) several people in the church who would’ve been the most likely supporters of a contemporary service had begun visiting other churches (more on this below). So I felt like I was trying to force something that really no one else in the church cared about besides me, and my most likely allies in doing it appeared to be leaving.

When I first came there as pastor there were basically two groups in the church: An old core of charter members, mostly elderly, and a group of younger couples brought in by the previous pastor. As you can imagine, generally I felt like I had a lot more in common with the younger group than the older one. The younger folks seemed more vibrant spiritually, more biblically focused, and more open to new ways of doing things.

During my years in Lenoir City I always felt the church’s promise lay with these younger families. Yet now, just as I was beginning to catch a vision for a new direction, some of those very families were beginning to leave. I never found out why. It was always a mystery because these were the people I considered my greatest supporters.  It began to seem like the vision I’d had for the church was not necessarily God’s vision.

During this time (in the late fall of 1999) there was also some contention with the church organist over the new, slightly more casual and contemporary direction I was leading the congregation. I can’t remember all the specifics now, but one Sunday morning after church she basically told me that if I continued in the direction I was going she might leave the church.

By this time I really wasn’t ready to take her on and risk losing her. She had lots of close friends in the church, most of whom were in leadership. Moreover, those who might have supported me against her had begun leaving the church.  My fear was that if she got angry and left, not only would we be without an organist, but her friends, even if they agreed with what I was doing, would not support me if I went against her.

So I feared that a major conflict with the organist would rupture the very core of the church membership, as well as leaving us without an organist.  I figured if that happened a lot of people would leave, or else they would try to get rid of me.  At best we’d be left with me having to lead the music on my guitar, as well as preach, with only a handful of people in attendance. In short, I felt there might not be much church left to pastor if all that happened. I didn’t feel that insisting on doing things my way was worth that level of disruption.

This left me, though, at loose ends. I began to wonder about my future at the church.

Add to this the fact that as long as I had been a pastor, I had struggled with being a pastor. There were lots of reasons. Often I felt ill-equipped for the job. I felt my introverted personality did not fit with the very extroverted nature of being a pastor. Besides all that, pastoring was very lonely for a single person. I’m not saying it would be less lonely if you were married–obviously I wouldn’t know. But it felt odd being single and being a pastor, and the older I got, the more I wondered if being a pastor wasn’t actually keeping me from being able to marry, due to the time commitments and the fact that few women today are eager to marry the pastor of an old-fashioned, traditional church.

Or so was my thinking at the time. Add to that the fact that I had a lot of issues with my denomination, and it’s not hard to see there were many reasons I was struggling with being a pastor.

On top of everything else, I had become increasingly involved in the interdenominational prayer movement that was exploding at that time in Knoxville. My regular involvement with the larger church was exposing me to many practices and experiences I felt went far beyond what my congregation was used to. It was changing me and my perspective.  I was learning and growing.

I tried to share this growth with my church through sermons and one-on-one conversations. But I found it hard to convey it all by myself. I felt I was fighting an uphill battle. I was ready to move forward with what seemed like bigger and better things in God, but my congregation wasn’t going with me. They were content where they were.

If I was a more outgoing person I might have invited some of them to come with me to the prayer meetings. Looking back now I wish I had done that. I guess I feared they’d have no interest in it, or might think it was strange.

At any rate, I felt increasingly out of sync with my church, and didn’t really know what to do about it. Very soon everything would come to a head, though.

I’ll leave that story for the next installment of A Spiritual Journey.  Stay tuned.

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A Spiritual Journey, Part 2 – A New World Opens Up

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:

https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2008/06/05/a-spiritual-journey-1/

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.

A Spiritual Journey, Part 1 – A Preacher Meets Jesus

Part One – A Preacher Meets Jesus

I had been a pastor for seven years when I asked Jesus Christ into my heart. This is my story.

I am an only child. My parents were always faithful churchgoing people. Our family was Methodist first, and then around 1976, when I was about 12, we started attending a Presbyterian Church. The two denominations were pretty similar in the “feel” of their services, though the Presbyterians tend to be a bit more “heady,” while the Methodists are more oriented toward the heart (you know, that famous story about John Wesley’s heart being “strangely warmed,” and all). Both denominations fall into the category of “mainline”, meaning the services were staid, quiet, reserved, “reverent”, traditional, and—for a young person—pretty boring. Both denominations lean liberal theologically, so they tended to interpret many parts of the Bible in a less literal fashion. At the Methodist churches we attended in those days, the sermons were heavy on psychology and sentimentality and light on references to the Bible or God, Christ, and spiritual matters.  Or so it seemed to us.  This is what led my parents to look for a different type of church to attend.

There was a Presbyterian Church across the street from where we lived.  I had visited one of their children’s programs several times with a friend and had liked it, and so my parents decided that would be a good church for us to visit.  The preaching there was more substantial than what we’d heard in the Methodist churches, and more biblically focused, but still liberal, heady, and dry for a young person. I don’t think it’s unfair to say I got very little out of the services. I don’t recall ever being aware of the presence of God there. As an older teenager I did learn to appreciate the hymns, and that has stayed with me and deepened over the years. I also remember a sermon or two preached there by the young associate pastor who worked with us kids.  But that was about the extent of what I’m conscious of getting out of those services.

To be fair, the people in that church, including the leaders, genuinely loved me and cared about me. They were (and still are) very kind to me and supportive. They saw my gifts as a young person and invited me to use them at an early age. As a teenager they had me playing my guitar and singing for services on occasion, helping out with the youth group, and even teaching Sunday school every so often. That Presbyterian church was one of the first places where I ever felt like I belonged.

My parents were a significant influence on my approach to spiritual things. During my early childhood, faith did not often appear to be a significant matter in our family. However, in my mid-elementary-school years my folks began to experience some deepening and renewal of their own faith, which culminated just before we moved to the Presbyterian church. From that time on they were (and are) essentially evangelical in their beliefs. So sometimes we almost felt like conservatives battling liberalism and unbelief in our denomination.

Our youth minister, whom I mentioned above, was an evangelical, though, and he had a strong influence on me as well. He reinforced a lot of what my parents taught me.

My perception in those days was that the emphasis was mainly on an intellectual approach to faith as opposed to an intimate relationship with Christ. The focus was on believing the right things and doing your darnedest to put them into practice–pulling yourself up by your spiritual bootstraps, so to speak. There seemed to be a lot of focus on serving Christ but not so much on knowing Christ.  Or at least that’s how I perceived it.  If more was presented, I confess I totally missed it.

In the Presbyterian denomination I grew up in, there was little emphasis on personal salvation. People are not confronted with questions like “Do you know the Lord?” or “Have you given your heart to him?” or “Have you asked Christ into your heart?” or “Are you saved?” There are no altar calls or invitations given in church and few evangelistic sermons. About all that was emphasized was making a “commitment” to Christ, and this mainly in terms of personal effort.

So there was little emphasis on the Person of Christ and coming to understand and know Him as a living Lord today who is active and a personal friend and companion. Little emphasis was placed on receiving the Holy Spirit and living the Christian life by His power. Most of the focus was on Jesus as portrayed in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), and trying to imitate Him or to live according to His teachings.

Well, to fast-forward things a bit, this was my background as I entered seminary in the mid-1980s to prepare for full-time ministry. The seminary I attended (Princeton Seminary, a Presbyterian School a few blocks from Princeton University but not affiliated with it) was middle-of-the-road by liberal-Presbyterian standards, but would be liberal from an evangelical or perspective. We spent most of our time debating the truthfulness of Scripture, so it was not a place in which to become grounded in the Bible and spiritual things, certainly not a place in which one was encouraged to know Christ more intimately.

I think I went to seminary to face liberalism head-on. I had been exposed to it all my life and secretly had grave doubts about the evangelical beliefs my parents and youth pastor had tried to instill in me. In seminary I came in order to look liberal beliefs straight in the eye and see for myself what was the truth. At the same time, though, deep down something in me knew the liberal approach was a lie. But I didn’t know why, and I couldn’t defend biblical beliefs against it, which threatened me.

So in seminary I was on a personal quest. I spent most of my time and energy exploring and defending the authority of the Bible and its teachings in all my classes. In doing so I learned why liberal views don’t hold water and why it’s best after all to believe the Bible; and for the first time in my life I KNEW it, and these were certainly rungs on the ladder God was leading me up to bring me to know Him.

As an interesting side note, in one of my church history classes we were required to read a book by J. Gresham Machen from the 1920s called “Christianity and Liberalism.” This fact was rife with ironies. Machen had been a Bible-believing New Testament professor at Princeton who was forced to resign when the liberals took over the seminary during the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy back in the ‘20s. In the book, Machen claimed that liberal Christianity wasn’t really Christianity at all, but instead a completely different religion, a false gospel masquerading as the Christian faith in modern guise. We were assigned this reading as an artifact of history, but for me it was a lifeline. While most of my classmates ridiculed Machen’s ideas, I was soaking them in and agreeing wholeheartedly with every word. This was but one of several discoveries I made at Princeton which served to unhinge the liberal agenda in my own thinking.

So I came out of seminary at least no longer threatened by liberalism, seeing it for the sham that it is, and with a lot more confidence in the truth of the Bible. But in many ways I had not experienced the realities the Bible conveys for myself. What I knew were intellectual ideas, more than relational and experiential realities.

When I finished seminary I wasn’t that keen on becoming a pastor, because I didn’t really feel suited for it, and I had a lot of misgivings about the Presbyterian denomination. I didn’t agree with infant baptism for starters, my classes in Reformed theology notwithstanding. I also disagreed with the fact that they ordained women as pastors, elders, and deacons, and with the feminist agenda that seemed to accompany this practice. This is not even to mention the homosexual activism that was going on in the denomination at the time, and still rages to this day. But my parents had paid all that money for school and I really didn’t know what else to do for a living, so I went ahead and looked for a church position in that denomination.

As a pastor I found that I didn’t know how to rely on God for the things I was doing–in fact, I wasn’t really even inclined to do so. So I felt pretty helpless and at a loss. The unbelief in the mainline church was so daunting, and I didn’t know how to address it in myself, much less in anyone else. I felt like the whole system was arrayed against knowing God, and perhaps it was….

I accepted my first call out of seminary in 1991, where I served as an associate pastor in a fairly large church. During my time there the senior pastor and another pastor on staff got into a big fight. In my youthful zeal and self-righteousness I took sides and got drawn into the conflict, too. It wound up being a very painful and disillusioning experience. Before it was all over, the entire presbytery in our region had been affected by this conflict. It was a huge, sad mess.

After 4 years at that church I left there (of my own accord, but after the major conflict I knew it was time to move on) and became the pastor of a small church in East Tennessee, still licking my wounds over what I had gone through in the previous church (not a good way to start one’s ministry in a new place…). In my new church I was dealing with a lot of pain and guilt from the conflict in the previous church, and felt very alone and unsure in the new situation. As a single pastor it was hard to find friends and hard to find potential women to date (how many young women really want to date a preacher, after all?). I felt abandoned, I guess.

This is when I began to really search for God. I was climbing more rungs up a spiritual ladder toward knowing Christ. One of the very ironic and good things that came out of my experience in seminary is that it actually served to increase my faith in the Bible as God’s Word. All I had been through as a pastor just made it more clear how true the Bible really is. By this time I was searching in earnest. I began to suspect that something significant was missing from my Christian life, but I didn’t know what it was.

I finally concluded that if I wanted to find whatever it was I was searching for, I was going to have to look outside my denomination. This is frowned on in Presbyterian circles because they think they have the smartest way. But I was to the point that I didn’t care anymore what my colleagues would think. I just wanted healing and deliverance, and had become willing to go wherever I needed to go to find it.

So in 1997 I started meeting with some of the other ministers in town for fellowship and prayer. Most of them were Pentecostals and Baptists. My parents had had some good experiences with charismatics in the Methodist church, and I had been close friends with several Spirit-filled kids in college, so I felt comfortable with them, even though my denomination probably would have thought they were flaky.

An Assembly of God pastor friend invited me to a prayer retreat for pastors in early 1998, and I decided that was just what I needed, so I went. I figured being with those folks for an extended period of time would help me find what I was looking for.

The retreat was great, and I had a chance to share my burdens and sins with the other pastors. They encouraged me to meet with a small group of laypeople and pastors who were there praying with those in attendance for healing and restoration.

So on the third and last night of the retreat, a group of five men prayed with me, two pastors and three laymen who were intercessors. The prayer time was actually led by one of the laypeople. I began by confessing to them some sins that were weighing heavily on my heart. Then we began to pray. During the time of prayer I was delivered from some demonic oppression I’d been fighting for several years. At one point the man leading us in prayer identified a demon that afflicting me and asked my permission to cast it out. I said yes, and so he commanded the lying spirit to go in Jesus name. I literally felt something in my chest release its grip on me and depart. Afterwards I felt released from a tightness in my chest that had been with me for several years. I was free!

All together, the confession, the prayers, and the deliverance were all very healing. I could tell God’s Spirit was truly at work.

A real surprise came a little later, though. At one point the man who was leading the prayer time asked me, “Have you ever asked Jesus into your heart?” I responded by telling him of my involvement in the church since my early teen years and that I had made some commitments to live for God around age 13.

“That’s good,” the man replied gently, “but it’s not exactly the same thing. Have you ever asked Jesus into your heart?”

The truth was I couldn’t remember ever having prayed such a prayer in earnest. They don’t think like that in the Presbyterian church–asking Jesus into your heart. To be honest, I’d always thought the idea was a tad sentimental and not really necessary. I felt that what you believed about Christ and whether you trusted Him was the main thing. I was convinced that this man’s question to me wasn’t really that important, and that it was already taken care of in my life. So I answered that I couldn’t remember asking Christ into my heart but I thought the issue was already dealt with.

He replied, “Well, since you can’t remember a specific time, why don’t you do it now, just to be sure. Then in the future if anyone ever asks you this question again, you’ll be able to say yes.”

Now you have to understand, under different circumstances I might have tried to offer some “clever” arguments as to why I didn’t think I needed to pray a prayer like that. After all, by that time I’d been a pastor for seven years!

But in that moment it was pretty clear that God was at work, and I had no desire to stifle whatever it was he was doing. In my spirit I suspected the question was on target. So within myself I said, “Lord, if this is what you want me to do, I’m not going to fight it.” I agreed to pray and ask Christ into my heart.

Just the same, I wasn’t really expecting much to happen, because I did assume the matter was already taken care of. I was essentially praying the prayer as a formality. But I was in for a surprise, and a very pleasant one at that.

I bowed my head and prayed a simple prayer in my own words: “Lord Jesus Christ, I do want you to come into my heart, and into my life,” I began. Suddenly I felt a change in my heart, a sense of peace, love, and joy filling me up–a feeling I had never felt before.

As C.S. Lewis said, I was “surprised by joy!” All those years I had sought to serve God, but I had never felt or experienced his love for me until that moment. For the first time I began to understand what it meant to call God my Father.

Afterwards I was in wonder and amazement and floating on cloud nine like I never had in my life, and scratching my head over what had just happened. It was night time, and so after the prayer time I went back to my room at the retreat center where we were staying. As I brushed my teeth, I noticed the chorus to an old hymn was “playing” inside me. This had never happened to me before, for it wasn’t me singing the song, but something inside me was “singing” it. I stopped to listen.

He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and He talks with me
Along life's narrow way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives:
He lives within my heart.

The amazing thing is, this was not a hymn I knew that well or had ever sung very often (they don’t sing hymns like that much in the Presbyterian church). And yet that night my heart was singing it as though it was an old favorite. Then I remembered the Scripture that says, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:16-17, NIV). As long as I had been in the church, I had wondered what that verse was talking about, because I had never experienced the Holy Spirit testifying to my spirit that I was a child of God. I suddenly realized that this was exactly what was happening! The last line of that hymn says “You ask me how I know He lives–He lives within my heart.” The Holy Spirit was using my absolute favorite medium of communication—music—to give me a most important and excellent message! Truly God knows our deepest desires and how to speak to them…..

After my experiences at that pastors’ retreat I noticed some subtle but real changes in my life. For the first time I began to feel genuinely loved by God. I noticed that my prayers packed more power and punch. Scripture came alive in a deep and beautiful way. Passages I’d never understood before began to make sense. I was less prone to doubt than I had been before. I was also less prone to anxiety. And, much to my relief, my love life also began to take a turn for the better.

In the weeks that followed the retreat, I tried to better understand exactly what happened. It was certainly more than a mere “rededication” of my life, because after that time I experienced something I’d never known before–the reality of God’s love and presence in my life. Yet I thought I had known the Lord to some degree before those events: I felt that at times He had spoken to me and led me by His Spirit, and I had believed in Christ and sought to follow him.

As I thought and prayed about it, I came up with several ways to talk about this change I experienced:

1) Originally I had believed in the Lord intellectually and felt I had some level of relationship with him, but He always felt pretty distant. It’s almost like before asking Christ into my heart, I had something like an Old Testament relationship with God. I believed in Him and knew a lot of facts about Him. I believed He had given the Bible and that it was His Word. I believed in and knew His laws and tried to live by them. I even believed Jesus was the Son of God and had died for the sins of the world (it was harder to get my mind around the idea that He had died for my sins). I knew the Holy Spirit was given to live in believers and I even believed in the gifts of the Spirit. But the idea that God truly loved and accepted me was a foreign concept. Talk of God as my Father, or of His grace, didn’t mean much to me. I had rarely, if ever, experienced the reality of God’s presence in my life, or His power. Love was not much of a reality in my life. I didn’t feel loved by God, and I didn’t have much love to offer others. I wasn’t capable of giving or receiving love. I related to God from my mind and was hardly even aware of my heart. I didn’t know that we relate to God through our hearts. My heart and mind were split off from each other. I was a man divided from himself, and didn’t even know it.

As I thought about all this an analogy occurred to me from the business world. Before I asked Jesus into my heart, it was as if a business deal had been all set up and fully negotiated, but we had never actually “closed the deal.” It seemed “the deal” was actually “closed” that night when I prayed to receive Christ. I began to conclude that Jesus does not force His way into our lives. He wants to be invited.

2) The difference between the “before” and “after” in my relationship with Christ was sort of like the difference between a couple who are engaged and a couple who are married. Both couples have some kind of relationship with each other, but only the married couple has been united to one another. At some point we need to actively receive Christ in order to be united with him for eternity and sealed with his Spirit. It is not until then that we can truthfully say that we are “in Christ,” and He is in us. Before my experience at the pastor’s prayer retreat I had never understood the Christian life as a spiritual union between Jesus Christ and myself.

3) Before, as I said above, I had more of an Old Testament relationship with God: I knew him, but I feared him. I saw him more as judging than as loving. After my conversion I came to know him in the New Testament sense, as my loving Father. The difference is subtle but important.

4) Perhaps the best explanation–certainly the most biblical one–is to simply say that I was “born again” or “born anew” (John 3: 3), which in the Greek also means “born from above.” Scripture makes it clear that this is a work of the Holy Spirit, not something we human beings can do for ourselves. And it happens when we receive Christ: “…to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1: 12-13). Before receiving Christ I had trusted him to some extent with my intellect but had never actively received him into my heart and life.

5) One other Scripture I discovered for the first time after my experience was Eph 3:16-17: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith (NIV). There it is, right in the Bible, and I never knew it.

6) Before receiving Christ, I struggled with doubts about my salvation. After my experience at the pastors’ prayer retreat I had assurance of salvation, because the Holy Spirit had testified to my spirit that I was a child of God.

On that last night of the pastor’s retreat, as I lay in bed unable to sleep due to the excitement and wonder of all I had experienced, I knew I had a choice before me—whether to keep this change and this new discovery to myself, or to share it with others. Sharing it would be risky. It might raise questions about my legitimacy as a pastor. If I had been mistaken about my relationship with Christ all those years, would people want to follow me anymore? How would my congregation respond? On the other hand, though, it would be a shame to keep such great news to myself. I realized that if I had been mistaken about my relation to God all those years, I was probably not the only person like that. I concluded that there were probably a lot of other people in churches who had never truly encountered Jesus in a personal way.

It really wasn’t that hard of a decision. Good news is hard to contain. I decided to take the risk and be open about my experiences. I’ve always been a pretty open person anyway, so it would have gone against the grain to keep such a wonderful experience all to myself, especially since I had finally found what I’d been searching after for so many years! It occurred to me that perhaps God had even allowed this to happen to me so I could share it with others. So I decided to tell what had happened to me that night.

The pastor’s prayer retreat ended on a Thursday. At the closing session in which we were sharing what God had done in our lives during the retreat, I couldn’t contain myself and burst out with it before my fellow pastors. The room erupted in exclamations of surprise and delight, in “Hallelujahs” and other acts of praise. One of the other pastors there, who led a large Evangelical Free church in Knoxville, asked me to come and share my testimony in the evening services at his church. I agreed, and we made plans for me to be there that Sunday night.

After the retreat it was back to regular church responsibilities, back to “reality,” as they say. I decided to share my experiences with my congregation in the Sunday morning service.

When the day came, I was a bit nervous, because I wasn’t sure what their response would be. After all, this was a Presbyterian church in a liberal denomination, so I just didn’t know quite what to expect….

(To be continued….)

Part 2 of this story can be found here: https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2013/11/26/a-spiritual-journey-part-2/

The New Birth

The following is a sermon I preached at a United Methodist church in East Tennessee on June 1, 2008.

John 3:1-15

3:1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicode’mus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicode’mus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicode’mus said to him, “How can this be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (Revised Standard Version)

For those of us who grew up in the church, this may be a very familiar passage. Because it’s so familiar we can miss aspects of its meaning.  Therefore this morning I want to take a fresh look at this story to see what we might learn from it.

The first person we meet in the story is Nicodemus. What do we know about him?

Verse 1 tells us Nicodemus was a Pharisee, which means he was devoutly religious. This same verse also calls him a “ruler of the Jews.  ”In verse 10 Jesus calls Nicodemus “a teacher of Israel. ” This implies that he must have been fairly well-known as a spiritual leader, someone who was respected as a teacher in spiritual matters. So from these few facts we can surmise that Nicodemus was no lightweight; he was known and respected as a spiritual leader.

In light of this, the fact that Nicodemus comes to see Jesus at night (verse2) is significant. Some of Nicodemus’ colleagues among the spiritual leadership of the Jewish people were suspicious of Jesus and thought he was leading the people astray. It appears Nicodemus was concerned about what his colleagues would think about him coming to consult this controversial rabbi, and so Nicodemus comes to see him quietly at night.

We can also see, though, that he must have had some level of spiritual awareness, because he tells Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him” (verse 2). Nicodemus recognized Jesus as a man who had been sent by God. One of the themes in the gospel of John is that Jesus is the man who came down from heaven, and this verse indicates that Nicodemus was perceptive enough to see this.

Jesus doesn’t mince any words with this man. In fact, he doesn’t even give Nicodemus time to ask a question or tell Jesus why he came. Jesus cuts to the chase; He tells Nicodemus he must be “born anew” (v. 3).

The fact that Jesus says such a thing to this prominent religious leader is significant: Even though Nicodemus is a spiritual leader of his people—even though he’s a teacher, and a man of some understanding—Jesus tells him there’s more. There’s more to being a part of God’s kingdom than Nicodemus has yet discovered.

Nicodemus questioned what Jesus meant about being born anew. It would be worthwhile for us to consider the issue for a moment.

You probably know that the New Testament was originally written in Greek and that all our English Bibles are translations of the Greek manuscripts into English. In John 3 verses 3 and 7, where the text speaks of being born anew, the Greek word translated “anew” is anothen.

This word can also be translated “again”. Of course, this is the wording we most often hear with respect to this phrase: “born again”. The idea of being a “born-again Christian” has almost become a cliché. However, we see here that being born again is a biblical idea.

The Greek word “anothen” can also be translated “from above”. So Jesus tells Nicodemus that he needs to be “born anew”, “born again” or “born from above.” Each of these translations tells us something about what Jesus meant.

“Born anew” and “born again” have similar meanings. We can tell Nicodemus understood Jesus’ statement in this way because of his question in verse 4: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Nicodemus understood Jesus to be saying he needed to be born again.

The translation “born from above” is helpful also, because it helps us know what kind of birth we’re talking about. It’s a birth that’s not merely of this earth, but instead is “from above.” We can interpret this to mean that the new birth is from heaven. We’ll say more about that in a moment.

When we hear Jesus tell Nicodemus “you must be born anew” or “born again,” our response might be a bit like that of Nicodemus: “What do you mean I must be ‘born again?’ How can someone be born once they’ve grown up? Can a person enter a second time into his or her mother’s womb and be born?” Let’s take a few moments to consider in more depth what kind of birth this new birth or second birth is.

Our best indication is found in verse 6, when Jesus says: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Here Jesus contrasts two kinds of birth.

First he refers to our natural birth when he says “That which is born of the flesh is flesh….” Every person is born into this world in the natural manner: Parents conceive, the mother carries the baby to term (hopefully) and eventually the mother gives birth to a healthy baby from her womb. This natural birth that every person goes through to come into this world is what Jesus is referring to when he says “that which is born of the flesh is flesh.”

But then Jesus goes on to say that “that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Here he’s talking about the second birth, or the new birth. So from this we know that when Jesus says “you must be born again” he’s talking about a spiritual birth. This fits with the idea of being “born from above,” which we talked about a moment ago. When he speaks of “that which is born of the Spirit” he’s referring there to the Holy Spirit. The new birth is a spiritual birth coming “from above,” when a person is born of the Holy Spirit.

This goes along with what Jesus said in verse 5: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Scholars have debated what Jesus means here by being “born of water.” Some say the reference to water refers to the waters of baptism. Others claim Jesus is referring to the natural birth, as we think of when we say that the mother’s “water broke” just before giving birth.

Since Jesus is talking here about what must happen in order for a person enter the kingdom of God, and since he contrasts the natural birth with the spiritual birth in verse 6, I don’t believe being “born of water” here is referring to the natural birth. I think it’s safe to say that the water Jesus mentions in verse 5 is the water of baptism. Jesus is saying that in order for a person to enter the Kingdom of God they must be baptized and spiritually reborn. (Note: We should not take this to mean that baptism is necessary for salvation. But that is a topic for another sermon.)

So to sum up, when Jesus tells Nicodemus “you must be born again” he’s saying to him: In order for someone to enter the kingdom of God a person has to be born in a spiritual sense. They must be born of the Holy Spirit.

To learn more about this idea of being born again, let’s look at another passage in the gospel of John, John 1: 9-13.

9 The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. 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. (RSV)

Here John is talking about Jesus coming into the world. He says that Jesus “was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. 11 He came to his own home, and his own people received him not” (verses 10 and 11). But then notice what it says in verses 12-13: “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.”

Here we see another reference to the new birth, when John speaks of being “born of God.” John tells us that the way to become children of God is by being born of God.

What the gospel of John is talking about here and in chapter 3 is becoming a Christian. And what we see in both places is that in order to become a Christian a person must be born again.

We have heard talk over the years of “born-again” Christians, but these verses let us know that really there is no other kind. If you want to be a Christian, if you want to enter the kingdom of heaven, if you want to be a child of God, says the Bible, you must be born again. Notice it says “you must be born again.” Not you “may” or you “might want to be”, but “you must be born again.” And lest we think Jesus was only addressing this thought to Nicodemus, we should take note of the fact that when Jesus says “you must be born anew” in verse 7, the word “you” in the Greek is plural. So it means “you all must be born again.” (You didn’t know Jesus was a southerner, did you?  😉 ) Taking this into account, the full meaning of verse 7 is as follows: “Do not marvel that I said to you, Nicodemus, that you all must be born anew.”

Jesus wasn’t just telling Nicodemus he had to be born again. He was saying that any person who desires to become a Christian needs to be born again.

Why? Why do we need to be born again?

The answer goes all the way back to the book of Genesis. When Adam and Eve were deceived by the serpent in the Garden of Eden, disobeyed God’s command, and ate of the forbidden fruit, their disobedience caused them to die spiritually. This gave them a sinful nature which also passed to their children and on down through the generations, so that every person who’s ever been born has a sinful nature that separates them from God.

Every person who is born into this world is born spiritually dead. When we come into this world our spirits are dead. That’s why Jesus said we must be born of the Spirit in order to be saved. In order to enter God’s kingdom we have to be born into it via the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit revives our spirit and brings it to life, giving us new life, the life of Christ.

Back in the days when kings ruled the earth, the normal way to become a king was that you had to be born the son of the king in order to succeed to the throne. Kingship was normally passed on by blood through birth.

When we become Christians, we become children of God, who is the great king of all the earth. God invites us to become his children. But in order to do this, we have to be born into his kingdom.

So how does this happen? How do we become born again? Let’s look again at John 1: 12-13.“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.

John says that those who were given power (the Greek word also means “right” or “authority”) to become the children of God were those who “received” him, those who “believed in his name.” This is how we are born of God, by receiving Christ and believing in his name. Let’s look briefly at these two ideas.

First, what does it mean to receive Christ? We must begin by remembering that Jesus is a person. He’s not a concept or an idea or a thought, but a person. Yes, he’s risen from the dead and ascended to sit at the right hand of the Father in heaven. But the Bible teaches that Jesus comes to us spiritually and makes his home with us if we love him. Consider these verses from the 14th chapter of John:

18 “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also. 20 In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” 22 Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” 23 Jesus answered him, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24 He who does not love me does not keep my words; and the word which you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.

If a stranger comes to your house, you have a couple of options as to how you will respond to them. You can turn them away, or you can receive them into your home and show them hospitality. If you get to know them well, you may begin to show them love and in a sense receive them in a deeper way, into your heart.

John 1 says that when Jesus came into this world, many didn’t receive him. They rejected him. They didn’t believe he was who he said he was, they didn’t believe or accept his teaching, they didn’t receive him in any way.

The chapter goes on to say, though, that there were some who did receive him. These were the ones who “believed in his name.” In Bible times, someone’s name represented everything they were. To believe in Jesus name is, among other things, to believe in everything that he is. These people believed Jesus was who he said he was. They believed and accepted Jesus’ teaching. They received him into their homes and into their lives and showed him hospitality and love.

Unfortunately, the idea of believing in Jesus is often misunderstood. The Greek word translated “believe” in the New Testament is the word pisteuo, which really means to “trust” or to “have faith in.”

Too often people think that believing in Jesus is just intellectual assent; that is, merely believing in Jesus as an idea or a concept; believing facts about Jesus—that he was born of a virgin, died on the cross, rose again, saved us from our sins, will get us to heaven when we die, etc. These facts about Jesus Christ are all true, and we do need to believe them.

But when the Bible talks about believing in Jesus, what is meant is trusting in him, having faith in him. Jesus Christ is a living person, more real than you or I. And we can have a relationship with him, just as you would have a relationship with a very special friend; or with a father who loves you and looks after you and watches out for you and has the best advice and wisdom for you. In order to be born again we are called to place our trust in this very special friend, to put our very lives in his hands.

Likewise, receiving Jesus means opening our hearts to him and receiving him, his very life, his very being, into our very selves.  Letting all that He is fill all that we are. THIS is what it means to be born again.

And so the question I have for you this morning is: Have you been born again? Have you received Jesus into your heart and life? Have you believed in his name, not just as an idea, but as the Lord of the universe and your closest friend?? Have you invited to Jesus to come and live inside you, to fill you with Himself?

The Bible says that unless a person is born again, they cannot enter the kingdom of God. Simply being born into this earth of natural means is not enough. Every person is born that way. But in order to become a child of God, we have to be born of God, born of the Holy Spirit.

This means God has no grandchildren. Every new person who comes into this world must be born of God themselves. We don’t become Christians automatically, simply because our parents were Christians, or because we grew up in the church. The only way we become Christians is if each one of us personally receives Christ ourselves and puts our trust in him.

Friends, there are a whole lot of people who have gone to church all their lives but have never come to know Jesus Christ personally. They may have been faithful in their church attendance but have never received him. They may even be leaders in their church, just as Nicodemus was a teacher of the Jews, and yet they have never placed their faith in him. To every one of us Jesus says “you must be born again.”

I want to tell you a story from my own life. I grew up going to church. My parents were Christians. They had grown up Methodist, and as a child our family attended the Methodist church. For reasons I won’t go into, when I was about 12 our family became Presbyterian (a fact for which I hope you all will forgive us. 😉 ). So my formative teenage years were spent in the Presbyterian Church. I was confirmed in that church and became very active in the youth group. Around the age of thirteen I began to make some conscious decisions to try to live the way I believed God wanted me to live based on the teachings of the Bible.

From then on I was at church almost every time the doors were open. As a teen I tried very hard to live a righteous life. I became a leader and song leader for my youth group, and taught Sunday school on occasion with the younger kids.

In college I continued to serve with youth groups as a leader and during the summers I worked as a camp counselor at our church camp, eventually working my way up to the position of head counselor. I felt like my efforts as a spiritual leader at the camp were well-received, and so I concluded this was perhaps an indication that maybe God was calling me to be a leader in the church. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a pastor, but I felt drawn to some form of church leadership.

So my senior year I decided to go on to seminary. I applied to become a candidate for ministry in my denomination and began applying to seminaries. When I was accepted at Princeton seminary I decided to go there.

After seminary I was ordained as a pastor and served two churches. My years of ministry were filled with personal struggles of various types. I found that the beliefs I had weren’t sufficient to deal with the struggles I was facing. I felt like something was missing from my life, but I didn’t know what it was.

I had entered the ministry in 1991. In about 1996 or ’97 I heard a sermon on tape by the pastor of a fairly large church in Knoxville on this very same passage from John 3 about being born again. As I listened to the tape, I concluded that whatever this experience was of being born again, I had not had it. I didn’t know what it was, but whatever it was, I was pretty sure I had not experienced it. So I began to pray, “Lord, whatever it means to be born again, I don’t think it’s happened to me, but I would like it to happen, so would you bring it about in my life? I want to be born again.”

In 1998 I was invited by some other ministers in the town where I lived to attend a prayer retreat for pastors. There I had a chance to share some of my burdens and struggles with the other pastors, and they prayed for me.

On the third night of the retreat, I learned of some men there who were praying for pastors in a more personal way, and so I sought out these men and asked them to pray with me. As I shared my struggles with them and we prayed, I felt my burdens beginning to lift. I was being released from spiritual bondages and sins I had been carrying around for a long time. It was a wonderful, freeing experience, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the room was palpable.

During this prayer time, one of the men turned to me and asked, “Have you ever asked Jesus into your heart?” At this point I had been a pastor for seven years, so the question kind of took me by surprise. I might have been tempted to dismiss it, but because God was working so powerfully in my life, and because I was in such obvious need, I took the question seriously.

I responded that I wasn’t sure I ever had asked Jesus into my heart, but that I had made a decision to serve Him as a young teenager. The man replied gently that this was good, but it wasn’t the same thing. And so he put the question to me again: “Have you ever asked Jesus into your heart?”

I said, “I don’t think I’ve ever asked that exact thing, but I think it’s already taken care of.”

“Well,” he replied, “since you’re not sure, why don’t you take a moment now and ask Jesus into you heart. Then if anyone ever asks you about this again in the future, you’ll know for sure.”

I agreed. I bowed my head, and he encouraged me to say a simple prayer in my own words. So I prayed, “Lord Jesus Christ, you know I love you and I want you to be in my heart. And so I ask you now to come into my heart,” or words to that effect.

At that moment, as I prayed those words, I was aware of a benevolent spiritual presence filling my heart with a peace and a feeling of cleanness and joy and love that I have never known before. Jesus Christ had answered my prayer and come into my heart, just as I asked him to!

Later that night, after the prayer time was over, when I went back to my room in the conference center where the retreat was being held, I was filled with joy and excitement and wonder! As I lay in bed that night I found myself asking, “Lord what has happened to me???” As I lay there, the Lord began speaking to my heart about what had happened in my life. Over the days and weeks that followed, as I studied the Bible to find explanations for what I had experienced, I concluded that I had finally experienced this new birth Jesus talks about in the third chapter of John. I had been born again, born of the Spirit.  That prayer I had prayed a couple years earlier had been answered.

From my own experiences I’ve concluded that being born again involves a personal encounter with God. It isn’t necessarily something that happens just by being in church every Sunday or by doing spiritual activities like prayer and Bible study. I did all those things and more as an active church member, and as a pastor; and yet I never experienced the new birth through those things alone.

You may find it hard to believe that someone who grew up in church, was active in youth group, went to seminary, and became a pastor could do all that and yet never come to know Jesus Christ in a personal way. But I’ve become convinced there are lots of people who’ve been in church all their lives but have never been born anew. They are elders, and deacons, and Sunday school teachers, and church board members, even pastors, bishops, and seminary professors. They are good, responsible religious people like Nicodemus, but just like him they need to be born again.

Since you all are Methodists, I’ll close with a story from the life of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. (You all probably know this story better than I do, and might be able to correct me on any details I get wrong.)

Wesley grew up in the Church of England, and at the age of 22 made a profession of faith. After this Wesley decided to pursue a career as a priest.

Eventually John Wesley became the leader of a group of Oxford university students started by his brother Charles called the Holy Club. These young men were very zealous in their desire to live a holy and spiritual life, and so they adopted a very strict regimen of Bible study, self-denial, and acts of service. This group later became known as “Methodists” because of the method of spiritual discipline they rigorously pursued.

In 1735 Wesley decided to come to America to be a missionary to the Indians. On the trip across the ocean, one day a storm came up and everyone on board thought they were going to die. Wesley himself was very fearful of death at this time in his life.

During the storm the young preacher noticed a group of Moravian Christians from Germany who remained calm and serene. Wesley was impressed by their faith and concluded they had something he didn’t have, something he wanted.

In Wesley’s own estimation, that first trip to America was a failure. The response to his ministry was not as he had hoped, and in 1738 he returned to England. Once back home, Wesley sought out some Moravians like those he had met on his trip to America, and began attending their meetings.

You’ve probably heard the famous story about how one day, while attending one of these meetings held on a street called Aldersgate, as someone was reading a passage from Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans, Wesley felt his “heart strangely warmed.” After this spiritual experience, Wesley’s life was profoundly changed. He discovered a new power in his preaching, as people responded like never before. Eventually a revival a broke out that continued for 50 years.

Scholars have been divided over exactly what the experience was that Wesley had at Aldersgate. Some have said it was salvation, some have said it was sanctification; others have concluded it was the filling of the Holy Spirit. But one thing is clear—after this experience, Wesley was never the same. His life was forever changed. He knew the power of God in his life as never before.

Through my own experiences and the testimony of others, I’m convinced that the new birth, being born again, is a personal encounter with God. If you’ve had it you will know, because your life will be changed.

It may happen different ways for different people. But the point is have you had it? Do you know that you know that you’re born again?

When a baby is born, mother and baby go through a very painful and wrenching process of labor. (Since I’m a man, I’ll never know what this is like in a personal way, but the ladies can tell us). The mother never forgets the labor she went through with her children.

I think it’s the same way with spiritual birth. You know when it happens because it is significant and memorable.

If you have any doubt in your mind that you’ve been born again; if you have any uncertainty as to whether you’ve met and gotten to know Jesus Christ in a personal way, I encourage you to seek to know him personally. If you’re unsure, why not ask Him just to be certain. Tell God, “Lord, I’m not sure I’ve ever had this experience of being born again, but I would like to.” If you’re not sure you’ve asked Jesus into your heart, why not pray a simple prayer asking him to come into your heart and live inside you.

For years I thought the Christian life was me trying real hard to live the way I was supposed to live. Today, even ten years after I met Jesus Christ, I am still learning that living the Christian life is not trying our best to live as Jesus wants us to live. Instead, it’s inviting Jesus Christ to come and live inside us, and letting Him live His life through us.

I encourage you to seek to know Jesus Christ personally. Feel free to ask me about this if you want to know more.