December 8, 2013
© 2013, Robert J DeGray, firstname.lastname@example.org
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Good morning! My wife and I want to thank you again for inviting us to candidate at Stokley Free. Your hospitality has been great and we feel very welcomed. I’ve been asked this afternoon to share about my growth as a believer and preparation for ministry. Ned did a great job describing how he and I came to faith, though he underplayed his own role. I’m thankful that God used Ned and Pete Miller and others to draw me to faith, out of darkness, into his marvelous light.
Let me pick where Ned left off. The battle of Vimy Ridge was a milestone for the Canadian forces, who prepared well and deserved the victory. By the standards of the Western Front it was a significant victory, yet the total advance was only about 4 miles. After that 1917 settled down to be a repeat of 1916 and 1915 – attrition, misery in the trenches and ineffective advances, often followed by strategic retreat.
But for me everything had changed. Because of Jesus, I walked through the days and nights, the battles and the trench time with new hope. My mind and heart were filled with getting to know this Lord who had saved me. The guys from Canada taught us how to walk with Jesus and grow in him. And the key person for me was Pete Miller. It was his counsel, prayer and constant taking me to the Scriptures that showed me what the Christian life looked like.
After a while our units were separated, and for a few months the 14th acted as a pioneer battalion, working on roads, trenches and railroads. In April 1918 we went back into the line, and fought several costly battles. The decision on the Western front was always in doubt, it seemed, right up to the armistice in November. Even after that we stayed on the line until the Versailles Treaty in June of 1919. Then we were sent home, which for me, was Coventry. I had been born and grew up there; my father was a teacher at Bablake School, which I attended through sixth form.
As far as faith went, my family attended the parish church, Radford St. Nicholas, but I don’t think I ever heard the truth about Jesus there. The vicars were always teachers at the school, and their homilies were little more than moralistic lectures.
Before the war I planned to be a teacher like my father, and I had taken Bablake’s teacher apprentice course. But the rules had changed, and I had to enroll in the new university level teaching course at the University of Birmingham. That was OK, because I had heard that the premiere Free Church outside of London was Carrs Lane Congregational in Birmingham, and I looked forward to going there. And I enjoyed it. The minister, Rev. Simon Berry preached from the Scriptures, and applied the truths to the lives of the people and the social situation of the city. This was a huge change from the wandering homilies of the vicars.
But over time I found that Carrs Lane was not an easy church to be single, young and new in. The families that attended ran in a social circle of their own, and the main activity in 1919 seemed to be marrying off the surviving young men to the highest bidders. Don’t get me wrong: many took their faith to heart, and served the poor, but I missed the community the Canadian believers had modeled for me.
So, much to my surprise, school was more congenial. Most of the teaching students had been officers in the war. We understood each other and helped each other regain the habits of study – and of living. And it was good. But it had the unintended effect of taking me farther from my daily walk with Jesus. By the end of my first year the pride, anger and even attraction to drink that had been my lot during the war began to make themselves known again. I began to miss services and made less and less effort to include Bible Study and prayer in my daily routine. Fortunately Pete Miller, thousands of miles away in Toronto, sensed something in my letters and urged me to get into close fellowship with a few strong believers.
I tried to convince myself I could do that at Carrs Lane. I enjoyed listening to Rev. Berry and admired much of what the church stood for, though looking back I see he may have subtly set the church on a path to accepting modernism. But I had no desire to leave, and wouldn’t have, except for the snowstorm. In 1920, December, we had the heaviest snow in years. The trains stopped running and I couldn’t get to Carrs Lane. But I enjoy walking after a snowstorm, and as I did I walked by the Free Church on High Street. Like this church, it was a Countess of Huntingdon chapel. That day when I walked in from the cold, I found a warm welcome.
The pastor of High Street Chapel was Harold Marley, an older man, who had been preaching the Bible for many years. I enjoyed his sermons as much as the more polished messages of Rev. Berry. Best of all, I found someone I knew there, Terry Sheffield. He’d been a corporal in the 14th and we had attended services and prayer meetings together. He had married after the war and his wife offered me a meal that first day, and often afterwards.
High Street Chapel made a huge difference for me. It was a joy to be with people who were living in community, serious about studying God’s word, and deeply prayerful. I got to know Pastor Marley and he took Terry and me under his wing, meeting with us weekly. He modeled Christian living, study, service and prayer. I also spent time at Terry’s home, and he visited me often at school. We even lead a Bible Study and prayer time on campus, and several young men became believers.
And so the three years of my teacher training flew by and in the spring of 1923 I was faced with a choice. I could, of course, go back to Bablake and take up a teaching position. But Pastor Marley, Terry and Pete Miller were urging me to consider full-time ministry. I'm confident this wasn't because of any merit of my own, but only a reflection of the fact that Jesus has gotten hold of my life. Terry sensed a call to ministry too, and was considering Cheshunt College at Cambridge.
But I didn’t have peace about Cheshunt. I knew a drift toward higher criticism and modernism was strong at British schools. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, but Pete told me I shouldn’t go anyplace that bought into these German scholars, but look for a place that stuck to the fundamentals of the faith; fundamentalism, as he called it. Then he invited me to join him in Canada at Toronto Bible College. The school had been started thirty years before, modeled on Nyack College, a Presbyterian school with a missions focus, and on Moody’s Bible Institute.
And so, in the summer of 1922 I boarded the SS Montrose of the Canadian Pacific Line to cross the Atlantic. I arrived in Quebec at the beginning of August and boarded a train for the beautiful ride to Toronto. Pete and I had a joyful reunion, and soon found ourselves a tiny apartment, close to school. It was the best of times, for we were able to devote ourselves full time to studying God's Word. We took survey courses that walked us through the Bible and we took theology courses that unfolded the nature and character of God. We took preaching courses, and my professor, Dr. Olson, taught me what little I know about preaching. Pete and I attended Knox Presbyterian in Toronto. The pastor, A. J. Winchester was a well-known Canadian fundamentalist, a founder of Toronto Bible College.
But something was happening at the college in those years that led me to a crisis of faith. Some professors were very conservative. But Pete had not known that there was also a slow infiltration of modernist thinking, as seems inevitable these days. Modernists argue that in order to reach the rational, scientific world, we need to leave behind the superstitions of the past, even those in the Scriptures. It doesn’t make sense, they say, to live in a world where all things seem to operate by rational laws, and yet have a Bible full of the supernatural.
Several generations of brilliant German theologians had proposed a rational approach to understanding what parts of the Bible are God's true revelation, and what is merely myth, fable and primitive misunderstanding. This movement has made rapid inroads into every kind of church in Europe and North America.
Pete, of course, was outraged. He had been a fundamentalist since before the war. But I was attracted. Two of the kindest, most compassionate and godly professors at the school – Dr. Olson and Dr. Carver, who taught New Testament, were the leaders of this thinking. I ended up spending a lot of time with Dr. Carver as he served people in the poor areas of Toronto. He knew God's word better than I ever would. Yet he admired the German theologians and found their arguments for the way Scripture had been put together compelling. And the way he told the story, you found yourself agreeing – it was obviously created from various sources.
I was also swayed by my experience. I knew that millions of people had been praying for peace before the war, and during it had prayed for safety for their loved ones, and healing for the wounded. And those prayers were not miraculously answered. I could look at my own life and see God’s hand at work, but it was only in the realm of my heart and my spirit, not, I thought, in my physical world. So an argument that said that God only worked in the spiritual realm and did not violate natural law and natural consequences, that felt right to me.
My skepticism was slow growing. There was so much to delight in in Toronto, from the studies to the seasons, that at first I didn’t feel like a skeptic. But as early as that first Christmas, 1922, I heard people debating what would become a banner issue for me, the virgin birth. Modernists could not see any rational or, they said, theological reason to believe a miracle. They argued that the Old Testament word translated virgin really meant young woman. They said Matthew had simply added a popular birth legend to Jesus’ story to make it fit his favorite prophecies. The key truths about Jesus, they said were found in his ethics, not in myths and miracles.
In 1923 the fundamentalist / modernist controversy came to a head. A theologian named J Gresham Machen released a book called Christianity and Liberalism. Pete and I bought a copy, and went over it from cover to cover. Machen claimed that liberalism wasn’t just a distortion of Christianity, but an entirely new religion. Pete applauded the argument, but I bristled. How could Dr. Carver or Dr. Olson be accused of not being Christian at all, when they had such a vibrant relationship with the same Lord who saved me? So in 1923 I fell into a pit of doubt. I began to wonder if the scientific and rational explanation for Christianity was God’s word to the modern age.
After all some of the miracles did seem to have been explained by science, and the origin of many stories seemed to be primitive sources. Wasn’t it right to move beyond superstition? The saddest part of all this was that I found myself moving away from Pete. For the first time we began to argue, not just discuss. Because Pete defended the fundamentalist position, I defended the modernist one. As a result Christmas 1923 was one of the most miserable of my life. I couldn’t rejoice in the story, because I found myself, like a German critic, analyzing every phrase to see if it was of God or of man. Was there any historical basis for the taxation in Bethlehem or the visit of the wise men? Or the angels? Or the star?
And if I dismissed those, could I hang on to the resurrection? Machen had said “The issue does not concern individual miracles, even so important a miracle as the Virgin Birth. It really concerns all miracles. And the question concerning all miracles is simply the question of the acceptance or rejection of the resurrected Savior” I couldn’t refute that so I began to think ‘well, then, none of it’s true; it’s all superstition.’ It was almost like being in France, where the mud seemed to suck you down. The mud of skepticism had gotten hold on me, and I couldn’t get out.
But just as he had the first time, Pete didn't give up on me. Shortly after Christmas we received word that at that year’s annual Moody Conference, the dean of Moody Bible Institute, James Gray, would give a talk on why they believed in the virgin birth. Pete encouraged me to suspend judgment until listening to Dr. Gray's talk. Out of friendship I agreed to complete the semester and attend the conference.
But during that semester some things happened that made me begin to doubt my skepticism. First, Pete got seriously sick. The doctors diagnosed pneumonia, but then they began to talk about tuberculosis. Pete was in hospital for several weeks, struggling every minute just to breathe. I was horrified, and I prayed that God would intervene to rescue him. But in my skeptical state of mind I really didn't hold out much hope. During this ordeal Pete’s friends often gathered to pray for him. Even friends from the Army days were there. As I prayed with them I began to wonder whether a God who could or would not heal, wasn’t just a cruel hoax. Why take seriously a God who couldn’t intervene for his people?
For whatever reason, God chose that moment to intervene. It wasn't just that Pete got better. I probably would've written that off. But that last prayer time came at the lowest moment of his disease, when he no longer even had breath to talk. His friends cried out to the Lord for his life. And when I came in the next day, Pete was sitting up in bed. Still pale, weak and coughing, but breathing on his own and eating on his own. All his friends called it a miracle, and I couldn’t disagree.
The other thing that happened was that, in preparation for Dr. Gray’s lecture, I studied the passages most in doubt, hoping, I think, to catch the professor in an error. I studied the passage in Isaiah 7, the so-called prophecy of a virgin birth. I was astounded to discover that the promise was given in response to the skepticism of King Ahaz. It was when he said he would not put God to the test that Isaiah promised a sign would be given anyway. The miracle was an answer to skepticism.
So when the time came to go to Dr. Grays lecture, my skepticism was already in doubt. And God used the lecture to finish it off. He looked at that passage, but his brilliance was in showing that the modernist way of thinking ultimately led to no Bible and no salvation. If the virgin birth couldn’t happen, and the Scriptures were not true when they reported it, we couldn’t believe anything; none of the miracles could be real, because they were by definition supernatural, and we couldn’t rely on any of the authors. Ultimately the great miracle on which all things hang could not have happened: the resurrection was a hoax or a hallucination or only a spiritual reality. Without the resurrection, Dr. Gray reminded us, we were of all men most to be pitied, for there was no salvation, and we were still in our sins.
I had known all this needed to hang together, but I had been unwilling to oppose Dr. Carver and the others in order to reach that conclusion. Now the logic seemed inescapable. If I was going to believe in Jesus at all, believe in his payment and sacrifice for my sins, then I had to believe in the resurrection, his victory over sin. If not, I was lost in the sins that I knew all too well were real. But if I was going to believe the resurrection, how could I be skeptical about everything else?
My mind was changed that day, my mind was made up that day, and I stand here today to testify to the entire truth of Scripture. If the miracles are true there is no reason to doubt the record of those miracles. You can’t report truth and write myth at the same time. And a God who can raise his son can also provide a record that is without human errors and additions. I didn’t have to look at Scripture as a mixture of man’s ideas and God’s truths: it was all His truth.
This, Pete said, was also the foundation for teaching God’s word. If you call me today to be your minister I will not show you any depth of human wisdom, nor the latest scholarship. All I will do is point as well as I can to the truths of Scripture.