I slid into my unassigned seat for my 8:00 AM evangelism class. I like to think I was more excited about this class than anyone else there. I assume that many of the students had to take it as part of their core curriculum. For me, this was my one class, and I had handpicked it from among many tantalizing options.
Making up for lost time, the professor gave his first assignment on the first day. We were to make an attempt at evangelism in the real world and write a paper about it. I was excited to get started, but it seemed to me that there was something missing. We were in this evangelism class to learn how to evangelize. If we already knew how, why would we be taking the class. Certainly, the professor, in his great and unmatched wisdom, knew what he was doing.
After going over the syllabus and looking around campus, I drove home feeling as if I hadn't learned anything yet. On the two hour drive home, I pondered what I would do for my project. I didn't want to repeat what everyone else was going to do, which was probably sit with a friend and talk to them about the Bible. I wanted to do something that would attract attention.
By the time I got home, I had a plan. I stopped by Hobby Lobby and bought a large piece of poster board. I printed out letters and taped together a poster that read, Jesus came to save the world, not condemn it. I took the poster to the busiest corner in my home town and held it up over my head for about an hour as cars passed. Some people honked, others waved, but other than that, I don't know that it had any effect. The next week I headed back to class with my report in hand. I was confident that I had taken the most radical approach, even if my effectiveness was questionable.
Coming from a family of graphic designers, I had chosen to lay my paper out in the format of a magazine. It had pictures of the intersection where I stood and of the sign itself. When I handed it to the professor, he noticed that it didn't fit the seminary's style for papers. On receiving it, he said, "Doing something different is risky because it brings attention to your project. It better be extra good." I smiled and sat down, not sure if it qualified as extra good, but it certainly qualified as different.
After a few weeks of class, something surprising occurred to me. The subject of the class lectures and the reading material was about delivery and presentation. We discussed the way in which a revival ought to be conducted, how cross-cultural evangelism had often gone wrong, and relational approaches to sharing the Gospel. Through all of this, however, we had not talked about what the Gospel actually included.
I had questions that I wanted to be answered. Does a person have to behave to stay saved? Is sin a sign a person isn't saved? Can someone know for sure they have been saved? Most importantly, what does someone have to do to be saved? We had talked endlessly on different approaches to present the Gospel, but we hadn't yet discussed what the Gospel actually is. It didn't help me to know what intonation to use in a tent revival if I didn't know what words I was supposed to intone.
"Are there any questions?" The professor asked. "Yes?" he said, pointing to me. I'm not sure what he had been talking about, and I'm certain my question didn't have anything to do with it. The whole class looked in my direction.
"What exactly is the Gospel?" I said. I was almost sure that my question didn't really capture what I was trying to discover. "I mean, when we share the Gospel, what are we supposed to say."
It only occurred to me after the fact that the room was filled with people who probably found this question too basic for a seminary-level education. In my younger years, I would have worried about such trivialities. No longer! I was a drowning man looking for something to keep me afloat. In my increasingly desperate state, I didn't care what people thought of my infantile question. The class had cost me a lot. In addition to my wrecked jeep, I had been getting up at 4:30 AM and driving eight hours a week to find the answer. I wanted to know what I was missing.
"Ok," he said as if this fundamental question was an inappropriate interruption. In fact, it probably was. Who knows what he had actually been lecturing on. He held his right hand in the air and began to tick off a step by step plan for gaining eternal salvation. I ducked my head and began to write everything that came out of his mouth.
"First, they have to understand that salvation is a free gift received by faith, apart from good works. They must admit that they are a sinner, believe Jesus died for them, repent of their sins, commit to living their life for Christ, turn their life over to the Lord, and confess their faith to someone." He stared at me with an "any more questions," look.
"Ok, thanks," I said, though I didn't feel grateful, This was the same type of inconsistent presentation that had long ago left me dissatisfied. The professor continued the lecture that I had interrupted. I began the slow descent into my own cave of brooding. I felt betrayed by the professor. No, that wasn't quite it, the seminary had let me down. That still didn't quite capture it. Christendom had used me for her purposes, all the while promising clear answers that never came. Christianity had claimed to be the most reasonable source of answers in this life and the life to come. My experience was that the most prestigious seminary I could ever hope to study at was as confused as any small town tent revival preacher.
I began to scribble on the page next to where I had jotted the professor's gospel presentation. If salvation is a free gift, then why did it require commitment, repentance, confession, and admitting that I am a sinner? Those are not bad actions to take; in fact, they are all valuable. However, they are all actions. His presentation of the Gospel plainly included the requirement of good works in exchange for salvation. Since he said salvation is apart from works and a free gift, it made his presentation self-contradictory.
Words like repent, commit, confess, and turning over your life are flatly in contradiction with salvation being a free gift. A person's decision is only considered commitment if they exhibit physical follow through. Repentance is the stoppage of sin. Confession and admitting are both good works. Turning your life over to the Lord means that you change the way you live. It is deceptive to claim that salvation is a free gift, but will require these types of difficult works. It cannot be both free and costly at the same time.
No amount of theological acrobatics could shake my strong conviction that there was something wrong with this explanation of the Gospel. I had heard every rationale and explanation. Bible teachers would try to make a distinction between good works for salvation and good works that result from salvation. Basically, the argument goes something like this: You don't have to do good works to have salvation, but once you have salvation, you automatically will do good works. If you don't, you were never saved in the first place. This was a meaningless distinction. It's like the difference between fast food and a dine-in dinner. For fast food, you pay before you eat, at a dine-in restaurant you pay after you eat. Either way, your dinner has to be paid for. With the descriptions of the Gospel that my professor and everyone else I knew were giving, they claimed that salvation is free because you don't have to pay until after you already have it.
Some might counter by saying, “It’s not how many good works you do, but only that you demonstrate some good works.” That always struck me kind of like those so-called free gifts that you hear about on Christian preaching radio. The announcer will say, "As a thank you for your donation of any size we will send you this free gift." It's not a free gift if you have to make a donation to get it. In the same way, eternal life can't be a free gift if I have to behave in order to have it.
I was sick of all of it. I had put so much hope in the seminary and just like every step before, my fragile hopes for theological clarity were dashed to little bits on the hard floor of reality. I had one of those hot angry lumps in my throat as I drove home in my borrowed vehicle. I did not want to leave Christianity behind, but I couldn't see myself continuing along the path I was on. I was tired of pretending that it all made sense. I was agonizing over the inconsistencies. I was sick of acting like it was all so important and meaningful when, in reality, I couldn't even get a basic answer that conformed to the fundamental rules of logic.
For the two hour drive home, I grumbled at God. "What are we supposed to do to be saved?" No tears came as I complained to the creator of the universe. "Lord, why isn't there a coherent answer?" Banging the steering didn't force a reply to my prayers, but it did leave my hand feeling numb.
I didn't officially withdraw from the Seminary, but I never went back either. I suppose I failed evangelism class, but that should come as no surprise. I had been failing evangelism since I was a kid. That was despite the fact that I had worked as a professional evangelist on number of occasions. I had exhausted all my options, and I wanted out. I started looking for the exit door from the ministry.