Tuesday, July 27, 2010

When Is a Testimony Not a Testimony?

When is a testimony not a testimony? When it’s in Jim Pierce’s new book Wittenberg Confessions: Testimonies of Converts to Confessional Lutheranism.

Whenever I hear someone is going to give their “testimony,” I generally groan. Testimonies are a statement of some sort that are supposed to reflect a person’s experiences upon becoming a Christian. They’re generally a rambling saga of how God saved the person from their [fill in your worst nightmare here, such as a bad marriage or a gambling addiction], and often end up being about the person telling the story rather than about Jesus and His saving work in their life. So when I heard that my friend Jim Pierce was somehow mixed up with a book on testimonies, I naturally groaned. And even when I read in the preface to the book that these testimonies were nothing like what I just mentioned, I was still skeptical. Call me a doubting Scott, or a Lutheran, I can’t decide which. But now that I’ve read the book cover to cover, I’ve repented of my unbelief and can give this book a double thumbs-up. These “testimonies” really do correspond with Jim’s opening statement: “The tales contained herein are not testimonies but rather confessions of faith” (xi).

Certainly, it’s worth reading the book just to hear Jim’s own story. I don’t know anyone who worked so hard for so long, using so many different techniques, to not-be-a-Christian. But as Jim confesses, God continued to pursue him until the Holy Spirit convicted him of his sin and bathed him in the truth of the Gospel. Anybody that can claim to have been in the Assemblies of God, an ordained preacher in the United Pentecostal Church, a Baptist church member, a non-Christian Trinitarian apologist, a political science major with an emphasis in philosophy, a rationalist, an agnostic, an atheistic humanist, and someone who, among other things, dabbled in eastern occultism and Buddhism, has got a pretty good story to tell. Through all of that, the Holy Spirit continued to work on Jim’s heart through the crushing weight of the Law and the sweetness of the Gospel and saved him.

Each of the other contributors to this book, including Stan Palmer, Dana Palmer, Kelly Klages, Matt Zickler, Kaleb Axon, Larry Hughes, and Robert Shreckhise have stories which, though their starting places are different, end up in the same state of forgiveness and a common celebration of the means by which God grants that forgiveness – through the Word as it is spoken and combined with water, bread and wine. I rejoice with them in their humble retelling of their tales of deliverance from unbelief or of a miserable life vacillating between despair and Phariseeism. Their stories truly reflect a rescue from false doctrine and a reliance on self to a redemption trusting only in Christ’s work and merit.

One of the things I really like about this book is how each author relates their own journey through various denominations and beliefs (without being unkind or rancorous to their former belief systems), and how those beliefs failed to give them peace.

Stan and Dana Palmer both relate the experiential spiritual roller coaster of highs and lows they rode in a Pentecostal church, and the altar calls and life application sermons they endured in the Evangelical Free Church.

Kelly Klages relates her experience as a Baptist, in which the Bible-as-guidebook-for-living led to a belief that “Christians already knew all that ‘gospel stuff’ already, and focused on principles for living instead— maybe choosing to tack on a little bit about Jesus’ death for us at the end for the sake of any possible unbelievers in the crowd” (105). Kelly astutely comments:

You were frequently exhorted to look inward at your own fruits of faith (works) to determine whether you were really sincerely “Christian” enough, and not just a poser. If you did believe that you were too bad of a sinner, there was always the option of walking the aisle again…and again…and re-dedicating your life to make a fresh start. It’s a dreadful concept of “assurance.” To feel for sure that they really have faith, so many evangelical Christians must convince themselves that they truly are more moral and righteous than their non-Christian neighbors, which actually serves to prevent confession of real sins and turning to the Gospel (112).

Matt Zickler, who was born into a Roman Catholic family, and then did a loop through Evangelicalism, is definitely worth a listen:

The work of God in the lives of His people is truly an incredible thing. As His Hand contours even the smallest details in our world, we are truly blessed to know that these details are all worked for our good. We know this, that we have a good God, a trustworthy God because He is the One who sent His Son to accomplish our salvation on a cross: He has accomplished all for our salvation from beginning to end. The work springs forth from Him, from the founding of our faith to its perfection, and we have no part in it. Instead, we have the comfort of knowing that the security of our salvation belongs firmly in the grip of His all-powerful hand (123).

Matt does a little catechesis along the way, throwing in a bunch of helpful Bible verses on Lutheran doctrine, and explains Calvinism’s five points (TULIP).

Kaleb Axon describes the Pentecostal and Charismatic prison in which he was trapped:

If I sin, I will go to Hell.
If I pray and ask forgiveness, Jesus will forgive me.
If I sin, and die before I ask forgiveness, I will not be forgiven and I will go to Hell.
I might not remember every time I sinned.
Therefore, I have no idea whether I am really saved (155).

Larry Hughes, who started out as a Southern Baptist, and then drifted to agnosticism and atheism, has similar thoughts:

The doctrines in the other protestant denominations ultimately point one inwardly to be sure of conversion, and one can never rely on the sacraments, especially in the Baptist denomination. In these non-sacramental churches, Christ is not really, actually and truly given to you in any form. There is no certain “for me” at all in neither Arminian thought, which is always attempting to work faith, nor in Calvinistic thought, which is always attempting to find firm ground on “fruits of faith” before the sacraments can be used. The incarnate Christ simply never comes to man in these doctrines. Christ may be generally preached, but preached for your faith to reach up and grab. However, no one can ever know if they have actually “grabbed” Christ via this so-called “faith.” There is no absolution and no sacrament that comes to you, for you, so that the Good News is in fact GOOD NEWS for you (188).

Pastor Robert Shreckhise, who was a Pentecostal minister for 16 years, comments:

Even in my own life I became aware of “the law of diminishing returns” that is common in Pentecostalism. The novelty of an emotionally-charged atmosphere wears thin. It provides no reliable source of ongoing encouragement (197).

In a sense, all of these confessions are rags-to-riches stories – from lives unknowingly impoverished by the weight of the Law, to lives liberated by the freedom of the Gospel. But true to a Biblical understanding of life lived under the cross, Kelly Klages paints a realistic picture of what it means to be a Lutheran Christian:

Far be it from me to suggest that my life in the Lutheran faith has been an easy one. In many ways, it has been far more difficult than I could have thought, because becoming a Lutheran means giving up the illusion that “every day in every way I’m getting better and better.” It entails relinquishing a glorious picture of Christians being in control of this world—“the head and not the tail”—in favour of a less hip and consumer-friendly, less programs-and-frills, fewer-numbers-and-more-faithfulness, view of Christianity. It’s about living life under the cross and having a far more serious picture of your own sinfulness and inadequacy before God. But the payoff is worth it: the Gospel is also far more glorious for this reason. It’s the sort of faith that stands the test of time (120-121).

Wittenberg Confessions taught me about other people’s faith traditions, such as Catholicism, Pentecostalism, Baptists, evangelicalism, and atheism, giving insight into how these people think, which can be very helpful when speaking with them. I’ve already purchased two more copies of Wittenberg Confessions to give away, one to a Catholic acquaintance whom I just had a conversation with, who can’t quite grasp the relationship between justification and works, and another to a college-age friend who is trapped in the vicious circle of evangelicalism’s “just try harder” response to uncertainty. For each of these people, I think this book will open their eyes by the Gospel shared through each of the authors, and lead them to a fuller understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

The book also gave me a greater appreciation for the Scriptural truths which Lutheranism offers, without which, I’d be just as uncertain as these authors were in the beginnings of their own circumstances. The promises contained in the Gospel are for you, with no strings attached – a promise which the old Adam rejects, but in which the new Adam revels unceasingly. It is my hope that you too will find that same sense of peace which each of these authors so ably reveals.

Wittenberg Confessions: Testimonies of Converts to Confessional Lutheranism is published by Blue Pomegranate Press in Naperville, Illinois, is 206 pages long, and was edited by another of my friends, Elaine Gavin. You can purchase your copy for $15.00 here. I’d highly recommend giving it a read.

Jim Pierce and his family live in the Seattle area, and he is the author of the blog Confessional's Bytes. You can listen to Jim discussing Wittenberg Confessions in an interview with Pastor Todd Wilken on Issues, Etc. here.


Anonymous said...

From your synopsis, it is clear that Finney's "Anxious Bench" is alive and well. And the attendant anxiety is not diminished.


Anonymous said...


You're not saved until you leave your church, accept Jesus into your heart, become re-baptized, and then join ours. Evangelicals have been using such mean-spirited tactics against Lutherans for centuries. It is about time a Lutheran wrote a book advocating conversions to confessional Lutheranism. I cannot wait to read it.

Please dedicate a section of your website entitled "Recommended Books." It would be sad to see such a wonderful book be buried and forgotten in the endless pile of blog postings. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Would someone please remind all LCMS Lutherans that Evangelicals and non-denominational Christian church members openly detest Lutherans.

Message to the proponents of "Church Growth Movement" within the LCMS: Is it really necessary to try to emulate the kind of people that despise you?

Kaleb said...

Though my story appears in this book, please note that I am no longer a Lutheran.