I liked their music. They were the first Christian band I had ever heard – a group of college and high school students singing the new folk-pop Christian music, including songs from the new musical Godspell. But there was something more. They spoke about knowing Jesus. There was something different about them.
I grew up in the Bible Belt where everyone belonged to a church and professed to be a Christian. We all knew our Bible stories and, of course, the story about Jesus dying on the cross for us. And we all believed. Except for the small Jewish population in our town, I did not know anyone growing up who would have said he did not believe in God and that Jesus was God’s Son. Even the “bad” kids would not have argued that Christianity was a lie. On the other hand, I did not know anyone my age for whom Christianity had special meaning. We went to church, but it had little impact on our daily lives. My friends and I were basically “good” kids who fit into the Christian church system.
The “One Way” young people were different though. They spoke and sang about Jesus as though they really did love him, as though he had made a difference in their lives. It struck me that it was possible not merely to believe a system but to know a Person. It was possible to know Jesus, not as a mere religious figure who did something for me, but who could be in me and with me.
“Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” was the Godspell song playing in my mind later that evening as I walked home and came to the dreaded park that stood in the way. I could walk around the small enclosure as I normally did at night. Even into high school, walking in the dark alone unnerved me, particularly when walking by bushes or trees where anyone or anything could be hiding! But, I reasoned, if Jesus is with me, as I believed he was, I could walk through that park without fear. And so I went forward with “Prepare ye” in my mind. Halfway through I knew I would make it and cheerfully touched the dreaded trees. I actually made a point of brushing all the bushes on the way home! This is real. This idea of having a true relationship with Christ is real!
This testimony of believing on Jesus Christ is by no means a startling testimony. Nevertheless, it was my baptism into what the true Christian believer understands, whatever his experience may be – what matters is knowing Jesus. Or more to the point – what matters is Jesus.
My pilgrimage in my relationship with Jesus continued. Love for Christ was brought further home to me at Explo’ 72 that summer following my conversion. There I met thousands of Christians who expressed love and devotion to Jesus. In college I grew in understanding Jesus as more than a super friend who saved me. In a religion class, I read excerpts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who made the point that Jesus is not a band-aid we turn to merely to help us out when we feel we need him. The Intervarsity books, retreats, and especially the InterVarsity leader Rich Scheer instilled in me a higher view of Christ as one to be worshipped as Lord, as well as loved as Savior.
It is this knowledge of who Jesus is and what he has done that binds us Christians together. I have heard dozens upon dozens of testimonies of persons from all walks of life – the Bible Belt Southerner like me, the Philadelphia street fighter, the Thai soldier, the Chinese scholar, the Turkish minister, the Jewish advertiser, the jungle tribesman. Our one common element is knowing and loving Jesus Christ.
I will speak of my “I get it” moments of my spiritual pilgrimage. But the journey did not begin until that period in 1972 when through the three events – an April Billy Graham Crusade, the One Way concert, and Explo’ 72 – my first “I get it” insight came. What matters is Jesus and the work he did on the cross to redeem me from my sins. It was Jesus I prayed to receive at the crusade, Jesus whom Fred, Trish, Mark and the others in the band spoke passionately about. It was Jesus whose name was spoken of and praised throughout the Explo ’72 youth conference. I was sitting in the Cotton Bowl stadium when I first heard the Scripture read which spoke to my own heart. Here it is in The Living Bible paraphrase used at that time:
I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I can’t. I do what I don’t want to – what I hate. I know perfectly well that what I am doing is wrong, and my bad conscience proves that I agree with these laws I am breaking. But I can’t help myself, because I’m no longer doing it. It is sin inside me that is stronger than I am that makes me do these evil things.
I know I am rotten through and through so far as my old sinful nature is concerned. No matter which way I turn I can’t make myself do right. I want to but I can’t. When I want to do good, I don’t; and when I try not to do wrong, I do it anyway. Now if I am doing what I don’t want to, it is plain where the trouble is: sin still has me in its evil grasp.
It seems to be a fact of life that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love to do God’s will so far as my new nature is concerned; but there is something else deep within me, in my lower nature, that is at war with my mind and wins the fight and makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. In my mind I want to be God’s willing servant but instead I find myself still enslaved to sin.
So you see how it is: my new life tells me to do right, but the old nature that is still inside me loves to sin. Oh, what a terrible predicament I’m in! Who will free me from my slavery to this deadly lower nature? Thank God! It has been done by Jesus Christ our Lord. He has set me free (Romans 7:15-25).
“I get it!” The reason I never could have inner peace through my effort was that I did not have it in me to be good – not good enough for God’s standards. I wanted to be good. I tried hard to be good, but I also knew my doubts, inner struggles, and failures. I knew that God’s law condemned me rather than proved my worth. Where was my hope? It was, it is, in Christ.
This understanding of Jesus Christ as central and pre-eminent in knowing and being accepted by God has kept me in line through a spiritual pilgrimage that, quite frankly, should have veered off course many times. Should I doubt the necessity of salvation (that is, question whether our sins are really that bad), I think of his work on the cross and know that such a sacrifice would only have been made if salvation was necessary. When I doubt the love of God, again, I look to the cross that speaks to me of a love beyond my imagination. When I doubt God’s justice, there again I contemplate the cross that mysteriously brings together his love and mercy. When I doubt there is more to life than what I see, I look to the cross and Christ’s resurrection and his ascension, and my heart cannot help but be stirred by the hope of my Lord’s return in glory.
It is not a system of belief that keeps me steady. It is the person of Jesus Christ, and the heart of every follower stirs at the same thought. A popular movie at the time of this writing is Amazing Grace, the story of William Wilberforce’s effort to end the slave trade in the British Empire. Viewers will take away different scenes that particularly struck them, but I can guarantee that everyone who has experienced the saving work of Christ will remember John Newton’s line: “I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior!”
Oddly enough, I believe Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace” is popular outside the Christian faith because it does not mention the name of Christ or use the term “sin.” Thus, anyone can sing the song to express how they have come through tough times. But Newton was referring to himself as a sinner saved by God’s grace through Jesus Christ. Here is another hymn that clearly states the place of Christ in his heart, in mine, and in the heart of every believer:
How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
In a believer's ear.
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds
And drives away his fear.
It makes the wounded spirit whole
And calms the troubled breast;
'Tis manna to the hungry soul
And to the weary rest.
Dear name! the rock on which I build,
My shield and hiding place;
My never-failing treasury filled
With boundless stores of grace.
By Thee my prayers acceptance gain
Altho' with sin defiled;
Satan accuses me in vain
And I am owned a child.
Jesus! my Shepherd, Husband, Friend,
My Prophet, Priest and King;
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring.
Weak is the effort of my heart
And cold my warmest thought;
But when I see Thee as Thou art
I'll praise Thee as I ought.
'Till then I would Thy love proclaim
With every fleeting breath;
And may the music of Thy name
Refresh my soul in death.
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