From Darkness to Light

 

 

The testimony of my conversion to Christ

By James Barry Godwin

 

 

“Go home to thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee” (Mark 5:19).

 

 

From a Jacob to an Israel

 

I was born April 12, 1947 in Jacksonville Beach, Florida with a police escort.  As dad used to tell it, he was speeding down the highway to the hospital when a motorcycle cop pulled up next to him.  Dad pointed to the back seat where mom was “rolling around in labor!”  The cop took one look and said, “Follow me,” and we got a police escort, siren and all, to the hospital.  Unfortunately, it was not the only police escort I ever got in life!

 

We had a fairly large family.  I had 2 brothers, 1 sister, and 2 half sisters.  While the others all finished college on time and started their careers, like the prodigal son, I “wasted a lot of my substance with riotous living.”

 

I have titled my story “From Darkness to Light,” but in some ways, it could have been called “From a Jacob to an Israel.”  Jacob was a conniver, a crook, and a wimp.  He conned his brother, Esau, out of the birthright.  But after he wrested all night with the Angel of the Lord, God changed his name from Jacob, “supplanter,” to Israel, “one who prevails with God.”

 

I identified with Jacob in a lot of ways.  I was a pool hustler, a card shark, a con-man.  Was I a wimp like Jacob was?  I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that it might tend to incriminate me!  I will say this: I’m glad God chooses “the foolish things, the weak things, and the base things…to confound the wise, the strong, and the noble!”

 

Jacob would plot and scheme to exalt himself.  I was cut from a similar cloth.  One of the great benefits of being a Christian is being delivered from the kingdom of Satan where they scratch and claw to be number one, into the kingdom of Christ where he that is least of all and servant of all is greatest of all.  This is one of the great secrets to life!

 

 

If this is Christianity, I don’t need it!

 

My mom was Catholic and my dad was Episcopalian.  So, of course, I was raised Catholic.  Although I looked with awe, and still do, at the old Gothic cathedrals—the stained glass windows, the classic works of art, the bronze, the silver, the gold, and the choirs singing in Latin—the Catholic religion, as well as all religions, seemed like mostly a waste of time to me. 

 

They made me an altar boy when I was about 10 years old.  I was scheduled to serve 6:30AM mass one week.  On Monday morning I arrived at school about 8:00AM.  The nun who taught our class was steaming with anger.  She stood me up in front of the whole class and, with a voice that could shatter glass, made the point that I had nothing more important to do in all of life than to serve mass.  She asked me why I wasn’t there on time.  I said, “I forgot”.  She said, “Oh, you forgot, did you?  Are you going to be on time tomorrow?”  I said, “Well, Sister, I don’t know.  You see, my dad is taking me to the wrestling matches tonight, so I’ll be up late, and...”  If she’d had a gun, she might have shot me on the spot!

 

Not all the nuns were as crusty as she was.  One in particular, Sister Mary Stephanie, will always have a special place in my heart.  She was so calm and peaceful, sweet and smart—a virtuous woman in many ways.  I loved her.  She taught us for 3 straight years.  I suppose she had some influence on our decision later in life to name our only daughter “Stephanie.”

 

But all in all, by the time I became a young man, I had pretty much rejected as unprofitable most of the Catholic system of priests, masses, rosaries, relics, indulgences, purgatory, etc.  I would like to be able to say I saw through it because I understood Ephesians chapter 2: “by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works...”  But the fact is, I had never even heard of the book of Ephesians, much less read it.  I pretty much just lumped Catholicism in with all other religions as a waste of time.

 

I attended Christian Brothers High School in Memphis.  While the name “Christian Brothers” may have a nice ring to it, there was little there that resembled Christ or the gospel.  It was pretty much typical Catholic tradition and superstition.  I snuck through high school with as little effort as possible.  How was studying history, physics, or biology going to help me to run a rack of 9-ball?

 

I enrolled in a Catholic Jesuit college in Mobile, Alabama called Spring Hill College.  The priests would tend bar for us at our school parties which often ended up as drunken brawls.  It was not hard for me to conclude what I already wanted to conclude anyway: “if this is Christianity, I don’t need it.”  I did not see where I had time to go to class in college.  Looking for the right girl friend (but never finding her) took some time, and when I wasn’t running an all-night poker game in my room, I was often out at the pool halls, or the bars, digging up whatever sin I could find.  I introduced marijuana to my fraternity brothers.  It took a little less than two years for them to kick me out of school for “disturbing study atmosphere.”

 

 

Free as a bird?

 

By the time I had become a young man, I loved to boast that I was free as a bird—free from religion, free from God, free from his laws.  Free, free, free…”  Really?  How about free from sin?

 

I got arrested in Memphis in 1968 for illegally writing my own drug prescriptions.  I got arrested again in Florida in 1970 for shoplifting.  There was no reason why I couldn’t have done time in jail for any number of things, other than that God had other plans for me.

 

I was drafted for the war in Viet Nam, but I ended up 4F because of my history of drug abuse.  After my conversion to Christ, this became one of the great regrets of my life, and still is to this day.

 

Because of the shame and sadness, it is probably best not to even speak of some of the things I did in those dark days.  Talk about regrets…

 

 

My first Christian witness

 

Why did God set his love on me?  What made him decide to seek out a sinner like me?  I don’t know, but I do know this: the year was 1969, I was 22 years of age, and he started drawing me to himself like a moth to the light.

 

I was in a Laundromat in Melbourne, Florida, washing clothes.  This woman sitting next to me began to preach the gospel to me.  By this time, because of the hardness of my heart, I had become pretty much of an atheist.  We debated quite a while over the existence of God.  I mocked and insulted her.  She went and got her husband to come preach to me.

 

They promised me that if I would pray with them, God would reveal Himself to me.  I said, “Right here and now?”  They said, “Yes, right here and now.”  I said, “Well, I want to see this.”  So we all got down on our knees there in the middle of the Laundromat—people walking by, probably thinking we’re all a bunch of kooks—and they prayed for me that God would reveal himself to me.  When we finished, I looked up, hoping to see God or at least an angel standing in front of me.  I said, “Well…, where is He?”  They said, “Don’t you feel Him?”  I said, “Oh, come on.  You promised me I would see Him.  Where is He?  See, He doesn’t really exist.  You’re just like all the other religious phonies I’ve ever met.” 

 

A few days later, the husband came to see me at the local bank where I was working.  I still remember the humble look on his face.  It was evident to me because it was in such sharp contrast to the look of arrogance and pride I was so used to seeing on the faces of most of the people I hung out with.  He handed me a little pocket-sized New Testament, and told me they were all praying for me at his church.  I thought to myself, “Well, if you want to waste your time praying for me, and your money buying me Bibles, so be it.”

 

I had never had a Bible in my hands before that I could remember.  I certainly had never read one.  I’m thinking, “What am I going to do with this?”  I took it into the break room and told everyone the story.  We were all having a big time mocking and laughing when one woman burst my balloon in an instant.  She boldly declared, “Barry, I believe the Bible!”  I could see that she was serious.  She went on: “If the Bible is not the word of God, then how come everything it has ever prophesied has come true?”  I said, “It has?”  I’d never heard anything like that before.  It cut me to the quick.  Still, I managed to put all that on the back burner and continue my life of sin.

 

 

The “hound of heaven”

 

Society was going through some dramatic changes in the late 1960’s.  There was sexual revolution, cultural revolution, political revolution, just to name a few.  There was also in those days, what could well be described as a special visitation of the Spirit of God in this country.  It may or may not be accurate to describe it as a time of true revival, but I do know a lot of people were professing faith in Christ back then, and though many were like the dog who returns to his vomit again, or like the sow that’s been washed to its wallowing in the mire, there were some who are still serving the Lord to this day.  I also know this: that first witness, in that Laundromat in Florida was just the beginning.  It seemed like God had ordered the “Hound of Heaven” after me.  People began evangelizing me from every direction!

 

My nephew had recently had some kind of spiritual experience.  He called it “getting saved”.  I had never heard of anything like that before.  He told me I was living for the devil.  I didn’t say anything.  I just looked at him and thought to myself, “You know, he’s right.”

 

Still, I continued to seek the pleasures of sin as much as possible and then, here came the Hound of Heaven again.  Abusing drugs was having a negative effect on my nerves, to say the least.  I had tried lots of remedies but nothing worked.  So I decided to pray as a last resort.  Other than that time in the Laundromat, I don’t know that I had ever really prayed before.  Immediately I felt a peace come over me unlike anything I had ever experienced.  It was so dramatic that I thought maybe I had gotten “saved,” whatever that was. 

 

I had not gotten saved, but something definitely was different from that moment on.  I did not know it then, but it was what theologians call the “pre-salvation work of the Holy Spirit.”  Jesus said, “No man can come unto me except the Father, who hath sent me draw him…”  (John 6:44).  God had begun the process of drawing me.

 

I began to develop a conscience which really threw a wrench into things!  I would play pool, and if I’d win, sometimes I’d give the money back.  Of course, if I lost, no one gave me back my money.  It’s hard to make a profit that way!  I had trouble lying like I used to.  It was confusing.  I even told some of my friends—partners in cosmic crime would be a more accurate description—that I was becoming “some kind of Christian.”  They did not seem interested. 

 

I was under “conviction of sin,” but I had a long way to go before I was really ready to do business with God.  Although I had made some moves in the right direction, gambling, drugs, and all manner of immoral behavior were still the hallmarks of my life.

 

The “girlfriends” I had could hardly be called that.  If I was interested in them, they’d dump me.  If they were interested in me, I’d dump them.  It was pretty pathetic.

 

 

Worldly wisdom

 

The wages of sin were beginning to catch up with me.  I became confused, lonely, and depressed.  I had thoughts of throwing in the towel, but I was afraid, “what if there really is a hell?”  Between the years of 1967 to 1973, I went to 2 psychologists, 3 psychiatrists, and 3 priests for counseling trying to figure out why I was so unhappy?  and how do I put the pieces of the puzzle together?  and why I couldn’t find a good woman to love?

 

Now I know that psychology and psychiatry have their places, but these were my experiences:

One of the psychiatrists was a devout atheist.  One of the psychologists suggested I try reading more pornography.  If the 3 priests weren’t perverts, they sure acted like it—and same for another one of the psychiatrists.  One psychologist did suggest I study the lives of great men in history—not bad advice.  And one psychiatrist did suggest I try going to church—not bad advice.  But not one of them seemed even remotely aware of my greatest problem: how was a hell-deserving sinner like me ever going to be made righteous in the sight of a holy God?

 

To tell you the truth, the atheist probably made the most astute observation of them all.  He said, “You’re looking for some sweet young all-American girl to be your wife, and yet you’re a rat, a con-man.  You don’t have a career or even a job other than selling dope and gambling.  You can’t offer her any security.  Why should she be interested in you?”  It cut me like a knife.

 

One night some thug from a pool hall jumped me and beat me up.  I asked that same psychiatrist “why do things like this keep happening to me?”  He said, “what do you expect from the places you go and the kind of people you hang out with?”  How was I going to argue with that?

 

 

Is this a conspiracy, or what?

 

In early 1973 a really startling wake-up call was sent to me from a most unexpected source.  I was selling some marijuana to three “customers” when suddenly from behind me I heard the chilling sound of a trigger cocking and felt the barrel of a pistol at the back of my neck as they proceeded to rob me.  The guy’s hand was trembling.  He kept saying, “I’m gonna’ blow this cracker’s head off.”  I’m wondering what it’s going to be like to be snapped into eternity, and to stand before the Judge of all the earth.  The darkness I saw in their eyes that night made an impression on me that I would never forget.

 

I did not know it then, but I had begun to understand by experience something of the biblical principles of light and darkness.  Light and darkness in scripture are usually metaphors for truth and falsehood, but in a way that may require more eloquence to describe than I can offer, they are sometimes—if I may say it this way—spiritual realities we can virtually “see” in life.  I also did not know it then, but the issues of light and darkness are no minor themes in Scripture:

·       “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light

·       Light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light

·       “…the light of the glorious gospel of Christ…”

·       “The light of the body is the eye”

·       “…the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light

·       And a whole host of other like statements.

 

Actually, I was becoming obsessed with 3 issues in life: God, love, and this issue of light-and-darkness.  The hound of heaven was after me more so than ever.  Gospel messengers were coming to me from what seemed like “out of the woodwork.”  Just to mention a few:

 

* Two of my old friends had gotten “saved,” what ever that was.  They took me to an evangelistic meeting.  It was probably the first time I had been in a church in years.  I went forward at the invitation and asked the evangelist, “Why should I quit selling marijuana?”  Without any hesitation he answered, “Because the Bible says to obey the laws of the land.”  Wow!  I had never met anyone who could quote the Bible and apply it to my life like that!  The sword of the Lord just pierced into my soul!  I will probably never forget that simple encounter.

 

* I was walking into a bar one night, and out front was one of my old high school friends with a Bible in his hand telling me that Jesus Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life.”  There was a brightness to his countenance I had never seen before.

 

* I went to play golf and who did I get pared with but John Bramlett?—the ex All-Pro NFL linebacker.  John’s recent conversion to Christ was the talk of the town.  I was full of questions.  He was more than willing to try to answer every one.  What a “coincidence,” huh?

 

* One day I was just standing at a gas pump, filling my car, when a young man comes by with a Bible in his hand and starts telling me “Jesus loves me.”  I’m thinking, “Is there a conspiracy going on here, or what?”

 

* One day I was walking down the street, contemplating the existence of God, as usual, and thinking, “I wonder what is really going on here with all these people telling me of a God in heaven who loves me.  Could it really be true?  But even if it is, how do I know Jesus Christ is the only way to him?”  At precisely that instant, church bells from a grand old Anglican cathedral across the street began ringing.  What a “coincidence,” huh?

 

* A most astonishing event took place one night in T.G.I. Friday’s at Overton Square in Memphis.  I was sitting there eating dinner, discussing the marijuana business with one of my customers, when I silently cried out to God in my mind, as I often did.  At that exact moment—what a “coincidence”—I noticed a very eerie “dark light” shining at me from the corner of the eye of the older man sitting at the next table.  Then I noticed he and another man at his table were eavesdropping on my conversation.  It was very frightening.  I just stopped what I was doing, sat up, and looked directly back at them.  It is hard for me to describe how intense it was.  No one spoke a word, but there was a deep, “glaring darkness” in their eyes, and fierce anger on their faces.  I’m staring back right into their eyes in defiance.  I think it’s called “threading the needle.”  There was no question in my mind as to who they were, or what they were doing.  I got in my car and left to go stash all my marijuana in a safe place, overwhelmed that God would choose to have mercy on me rather than justice.  I just kept crying out loud, “Thank you, God.  Now I know you’re real.”

 

((You may be thinking, “It was probably just paranoia.  How does he know those guys were cops?”  I’m glad you asked.  Allow me to fast forward about a year into the future from that night.  By then I was truly converted, out of the marijuana business, and working at the Holiday Inn, when one of those same 2 men walked into the lobby.  I recognized him instantly.  I said, “you’re a policeman, aren’t you?”  He said, “how did you know?”  I reminded him of that  night in Friday’s, and that I had since become a Christian.  He admitted that, yes, he was working Metro-Narcotics at that bar at that time.  Amazing!))

 

 

My Appointed Day

 

I hung out at night at the bars at Overton Square in Memphis a lot in those days.  Although I abused my fair share of marijuana and other illegal drugs, I was really not much of a drinker as I usually wanted to stay relatively sober for gambling.  I just hung out there a lot, still looking for the right girl friend…still not finding.

 

At that time God was sending these “Jesus freaks” there to Overton Square to spread the gospel to people like me.  One group was from a para-church ministry called the “Sonshine Inn.”  There was a sweet young girl in the group named Beverly Akes.  I had no idea at the time, but she turned out to be the one God had reserved for me.

 

I would often talk to one young man from the Sonshine Inn, who, like me, had lived a life of sin, but he had been converted, and his life had changed.  I told him I thought maybe I had already been “converted,” but I knew deep inside that he had something I didn’t have.  I would have long conversations with him on the sidewalks of Overton Square trying to determine how much of my sin I would have to give up if I really did come to Christ like he did.  He was so patient with me, and he had such a peace about him.  I did not know it, but everyone from the Sonshine Inn was praying for me.  I can remember thinking, “Do I really have to forsake all like they have to be a disciple of Christ?  Couldn’t I just forsake some?  How about most?  But all?  Oooh, I just don’t know!” 

 

I began going to the Catholic cathedral that I attended as a child, but not for services.  I would go during the middle of the day when no one else was there so I could have the place all to myself to pray.  I would like to be able to say I was praying for God to ransom me from my sin, but to be honest, mostly I was praying for him put all the pieces of this crazy puzzle together for me, and to send me a good woman to love.  But at least I was praying, which is quite a development for someone who not long before considered himself an atheist and mocked the gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

I had a little pocket-sized New Testament that someone had given me along the way.  It may have been the same one that the man in Florida had given me years ago—I can’t remember for sure.  I had never read any of it, but I still had it.  I laid it open on a table in my house and set up a candle behind it (like a good Catholic).  People would come in to buy marijuana from me and they’d see this open Bible and the candle and say, “what’s up with you?”  I didn’t know what to say.

 

Loneliness, depression, confusion, and the issues of God, love, light and darkness were pressing harder on me.  I thought if I didn’t find some answers soon I was just going to throw in the towel. 

 

And then came August 25, 1973—my appointed day.  I walked into T.G.I. Friday’s about lunchtime, thinking “what am I doing spending day after day and night after night in this place of darkness?”  Just then the music began to play a country & western song that was popular at the time:

Lord, help me, Jesus.

I’ve wasted it,

So help me, Jesus.

My soul’s in your hands…

Another one of those strange coincidences, huh?

 

I left, but came back that evening.  The darkness in everyone there just seemed overwhelming to me.  But how come I could see it while others could not?  And why are they in darkness anyway?  And why aren’t they desperately searching for a way out of it like I am?  It was as if I were in the midst of the walking dead.  The situation seemed so hopeless.  Little did I know that I was just minutes away from knowing the answers to these questions.

 

I had this conversation with myself:

 

“Doesn’t anyone in this bar have the light of God in him?  Surely someone, somewhere….”  But the answer was a disappointing, disheartening “NO!”  “Well God’s light must be in someone, somewhere.  What about those ‘Jesus Freaks’ out there on the sidewalk?  Do they have it?  If so, am I willing to forsake all like they have?  I don’t know if I am or not, but I know I can’t go on living like this any longer.  What if there is no light in them either?  Then I guess I’ll just die!  I have GOT to know the truth at any cost!”

 

I practically ran out the door to the sidewalk.  I didn’t know what the answer was going to be, but I was desperate to find out!  I had finally come to the end of myself!

 

A young man was out there with a Bible in his hand, sharing the gospel with a young girl.  What was I going to see in him?  I just butted in between them, and as I did, the Lord “turned the light on!”  It may not have been the same as the light the Apostle Paul saw on the road to Damascus, but it was sufficient for me!

 

Was it a physical light?  No.  Was it a metaphysical light?  I don’t know what metaphysical means!  Was it a spiritual light?  As best I can describe it, my eyes were suddenly opened to another realm I didn’t know existed.  I “saw” that that young man was spiritually alive!  And I was convinced his spiritual life was vitally connected to his faith in that book he had in his hand—or, I should say, to the one about whom that book is written.

 

I had never read the Bible before, but I knew from my Catholic upbringing, and just from living in a country where the gospel is freely preached, that it teaches that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and is the living Lord of heaven and earth.  I was absolutely convinced for the first time in my life that it’s all true.  With all my heart, I believed on the Lord Jesus Christ!  It did not seem possible that I could have done otherwise.  In an instant, I was intimately acquainted with Christ, as if I had known him all along.

 

I was “born again,” just as the scripture says, though I did not as yet realize what that meant.  In the short distance from that bar to that sidewalk, I had stepped from the kingdom of darkness and entered the kingdom of light!

 

The questioning, the wondering, the searching was all over.  I realized that God’s all-powerful and all-loving hand of providence had been orchestrating every event in my life at every turn to bring me to that sidewalk at that moment.  I was overwhelmed at his patience with me for all those years.  I was very conscious of the fact that God had done something for me that I could never have done for myself.  The Lord “opened my heart to attend unto the things of the gospel.”

 

To what things of the gospel did I attend?  I wish I could say I understood something of the atoning work of Christ: that he had paid the penalty for my sins as my substitute on Calvary.  Within 2 days, I would be in a Bible believing church on Sunday morning feasting on these great truths, but to be honest, I didn’t know a whole lot of anything that Friday night.  Like the woman with the issue of blood, about all I knew to do was “touch the hem of Jesus’ garment.”  I guess you could say the sum total of my knowledge was something like this: “he is risen from the dead, he is Lord, I am his, and I am going to be serving him for the rest of my life.” 

 

The young man’s name turned out to be Johnny.  I didn’t know what else to say to him except: “You’ve got the power of God in you.”  He said, “What, are you mocking me?”  I said, “No, and now I’ve got it in me!”  We both just looked at each other…neither of us speaking…he was sizing me up.  Then he broke the silence: “may I pray for you?”  I said, “Sure.”  I can still remember his prayer quite well.  He asked God to release me and set me free from the power of sin and Satan.  I remember thinking as he prayed, “This is a nice prayer, but he’s just a little late.  God has already set me free about 2 minutes ago!” 

 

When we finished praying and I opened my eyes, I felt like a prisoner who had just been set free from jail.  I felt clean.  I felt new.  I felt alive.  I had never been that happy before in my whole life!

 

I noticed some of my friends and acquaintances passing by.  I was suddenly pressed with the reality that they were just walking the plank into hell—the same plank from which I had just been snatched!  I don’t know that I had ever given the subject of hell a whole lot of serious thought before now.  But my, how all that changed in an instant!  I wanted to stop them all and tell them the good news, “Hey, I’ve found the way of escape out of the sin and the darkness.  It’s wonderful.  It’s glorious.”  I did try telling some of them, but it was clear they were not interested.

 

 

I didn’t know the Bible had stuff like this in it!

 

I went home and picked up my little pocket-sized New Testament.  The epistle of 1st John looked like as good a place as any to start.  It was as though a light was shining down from heaven directing me to the words: God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.”  Then I read, “God is love.”  Wow!  It was about all the things that I had been consumed with for the last 4 years.  I was just amazed.  I didn’t know the Bible has stuff like this in it!  What a joy when I got to chapter 5 and read, “…God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son…he that hath the Son hath life...”  I was experiencing the very thing I was reading.  The Bible had always been a mysterious closed book to me, but not now.  When I got to the last verse, “Little children, keep your selves from idols, Amen,” it was as personal as if the Lord had hand-written the letter himself, and addressed it to me!

 

What a glorious God we have.  I might have chosen any book of the Bible to start.  Was it just good luck, good karma, or fate, that I “just happened” to open up to 1st John?  I trust it is not necessary to dignify that question with an answer!

 

It was partly sunny the next day.  I felt like, if I could just roll back the clouds, there would be Christ himself, seated on his throne, watching his new child with a host of his angels nearby, and listening to my prayers.  I wanted to sing, but did not know any Christian songs or hymns, other than “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  All day long I kept looking up at the sky and singing “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord…”

 

I wanted to tell somebody what had happened.  By now I thought I could pretty well determine whether or not people were Christians just by looking into their eyes.  I went up to one guy who seemed to have a nice look on his face and some light in his eyes.  I said, “Are you a Christian?”  He said, “Well,…uhhhh…, yeah.”  I introduced myself, shook his hand and said, “Well, I am too.  I just thought we ought to get to know each other since we’re going to be spending eternity together!”  He looked at me like I was crazy!  I decided maybe I better contain my enthusiasm somewhat until I can find somebody who can relate to me.  I got in my car and drove up and down Central Avenue looking for the Sonshine Inn.  I finally found it.  They all welcomed me in as a new brother in Christ.

 

 

I’ve never even heard of King James.  Who’s he?

 

Shortly after my conversion, I told my mother I needed to get myself a “real” Bible.  She asked me what kind of a Bible?  I didn’t know there was more than one kind.  She said, “Maybe you should get a King James Bible.”  I didn’t know what she was talking about.  In the meantime, I joined a Baptist Church and was baptized.  That young girl, Beverly, whom I mentioned earlier, was a member there also.  One night she gave me a present.  It was a King James Bible.  I began to wear it out.  It lasted me for a number of years, and then I bought another one, and another, and another….  No, I’m not one of these “King James Only” kooks, and yet on the other hand, to me, there’s nothing like the splendor, the grandeur, the dignity of the King James Bible.

 

I asked my friends at the Sonshine Inn where I should start reading in my new Bible.  They suggested the book of Romans.  So I went home and read it through that night.  I did not understand a lot of it, but I did understand some of it.  I can still remember getting to the ninth chapter and reading for the first time about election, reprobation, and the absolute sovereignty of God.  “Wow, I said, this is deep stuff!  I’ll have to look into this down the road.” 

 

 

The quintessence of feminine pulchritude!

 

Beverly and I became good friends.  We saw each other at church at lot, and often rode to church together.  I became good friends with her mom and dad too.  The more I got know Beverly, the more I noticed how pretty and sweet she was, how generous and meek she was.  The more I got to know Beverly, the more she seemed to me like she was just about the quintessence of feminine pulchritude!

 

After knowing each other for about a year and a half, one day “bells and whistles” began to go off between us!  Then one night I gave her a good-night kiss!  Can you imagine that?  Three months later, I took her out to dinner and to a little chapel in east Memphis to propose to her.  It was very romantic.  She said “yes!”  A month later, in December, 1974, we were married.

 

It was quite different from a typical engagement in our society.  I had read in the Bible where Paul told the Corinthians that it is “good for a man not to touch a woman…nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let them marry.”  I think that means to refrain from having sex before marriage, but at the time I just figured it meant to pretty much keep my cotton-pickin’ hands off until we were married!  We not only didn’t have sex before we were married, we didn’t even hardly hold hands, or do much kissing, or anything else until we were married!  That may sound a little unusual in our society, to say the least, but I can tell you this: it was a sweet honeymoon!  Well, actually, the honeymoon isn’t over yet, although from time to time in later years it has had to be put on hold due to Bev’s problems.  But we won’t go into those. 

 

We have one daughter, Stephanie, born in 1979.  We always wanted more children, but oh my, what a blessing that girl has been.  We have two sweet grandchildren, Noah and Savanna.

 

 

Restoring the years the locusts had eaten

 

I attended Mid South Bible College (MSBC) in Memphis from 1976 to 1979.  Whereas I had been expelled from college almost 10 years earlier for “disrupting study atmosphere,” at MSBC, the Lord “restored unto me the years the locusts had eaten!”  I loved my days at that school.

 

From time to time I am invited to preach at various churches.  It is a great privilege, responsibility, and joy.  I just have one message when I preach: “Jesus Christ and him crucified,” as Paul told the church at Corinth.

 

The time would fail me to tell of how God has blessed me with my own business as an independent health care insurance broker. 

 

 

I aint what I oughta’ be, and I aint what I’m gonna’ be, but praise God, I aint what I was!

 

The old Puritans used to say, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.”  We are “created in Christ Jesus unto good works” (Ephesians 2); or, to say it another way: every Christian, to one degree or another, is being “changed from glory to glory into the image of God’s Son” (II Corinthians 3).  If not, then what ground is there for assurance that one is in Christ at all?

 

So, it seems like a good idea to share how my life has changed since coming to Christ.  However, it is kind of a scary proposition.  In fact, I have considered omitting completely this part of my story for fear that I might sound like I am boasting on myself rather than in Christ.  You’ll just have to take my word for it that such is not the case.  (Do I hear someone whispering, “Yeah, right, tell me another one?”  I heard that!)

 

Another concern is the growing trend in evangelical circles to focus on people’s changed lives as if they were the gospel.  While changed lives are important, they are NOT the gospel.  The story of the life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ is the gospel (I Cor 15), and only the gospel is the “power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1).

 

But on the other hand, the “Carnal Christian” mentality is rampant in our society; i.e., the notion that we can “take Jesus as savior without bowing to him as Lord.”  The “Carnal Christian,” even though he may be living like the devil, has been assured he is bound for glory because he has walked the isle during an altar call, or prayed the right prayer, or been baptized, or some such thing.  It is a dangerous heresy.

 

And then one more reason for not omitting this part of the story is that even if no one else benefits from it, I do!  Whenever I am tempted to doubt my salvation, I can always remind myself that while I aint what I oughta’ be, and I aint what I’m gonna’ be, praise God I aint what I was!

 

So, having said all that, let me proceed with caution.

 

I knew “intuitively” from the start what I later discovered is clearly taught in Scripture: “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”  My language changed instantly.  Whereas I used to routinely blaspheme that holy name whereby we are called, now I love to sing praises to it.  Whereas I used to cuss like a sailor, now I cringe when I hear foul language.  I can’t count the number of times over the years I’ve warned people that we are not allowed to use profanity out here (“out here on this planet”).  I’ve had more than one get angry at me about it.  People don’t like to have their righteousness insulted, but Jesus said, “…every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment, for by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned” (Matthew 12: 34-37).

 

I also knew “intuitively” from the very start of my walk with Christ that my days as a Roman Catholic were over.  Back then, I may not have been able to give a very eloquent answer as to how I knew that.  Today, I would simply ask: why would I want to pray to Mary when I can pray to the Father through Jesus?  Why would I want to confess my sins to a priest when I can confess them directly to God?  Why would I want to do penance for my sins, when Christ has already done the ultimate penance for my sins?  Why do I need a priest at all when I have access to The Great High Priest?  What good can come from the offering of daily sacrifices “which can never take away sins,” when Christ “by one offering has perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (Hebrews 10).

Catholics have no good answers to these types of questions.

 

There was just no desire for marijuana or any other illegal drugs any more.  To this day, I will hardly even take an aspirin if I can at all avoid it.  When I am offered a cup of coffee, my standard reply is, “no thanks.  I got off of drugs when I got saved!"

 

I called a metro-narcotics detective that I had met a few times at various hangouts over the years.  For some reason he had always been friendly to me.  I told him I suspected they were closing in on me, and, if he would, please tell them to back off, because it’s all over…I’ve gotten saved, and I’m out of the dope business!  He admitted they were closing in on me.  He was rejoicing with me on the phone at my conversion to Christ.  He said he was a Christian himself.  It was great.

 

I got a job and quit gambling.  You’ll search the Bible in vain for a verse that says “thou shalt not gamble.”  But what you will find are statements like “beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God….”  How am I going to obey the commandment to love one another if I’m trying to beat you out of your paycheck?

 

I gained a whole new set of friends who believed the gospel.  I have no idea what happened to most of my old friends.  There were some from whom I had to ask forgiveness and make amends.  There are others from whom I would like to ask forgiveness, but I wouldn’t even know where to find them.  I asked my mom’s and dad’s forgiveness for all the trouble I had caused.

 

I had acquired quite a collection of Rock ‘n Roll music albums over the years.  One day I just gathered them all up and just dumped them in a dumpster.  The vain philosophies of the world had spoiled me long enough.  One of my brothers thought I was crazy for doing this, but I never regretted it for one minute.

 

Whereas I had spent most of my life lying, and trying to con people, now there was an affinity for truth—to want to tell the truth, to want to know the truth, and to want to better know the one who is truth.

 

Now that I had a new heart, I was able to understand the gospel.  The great doctrines of the faith which I had never even heard of before, and even if I had, would not have made any difference to me, now began to thrill my soul.  I can still remember it so clearly, one Sunday afternoon, not long after coming to Christ: I was listening to a radio sermon on the subject of “imputation,” when suddenly the glory light came on for me again, and I saw that my sin was imputed to Christ on Calvary, and his righteousness was imputed to me when I came to him.  It has been well said that a lost man can see everything in the cross of Jesus Christ that a saved man can, except for one thing: the glory.  He can’t see the glory.  I began to see that glory and still do to this day, only more so.

 

Last: I know Christ, and he knows me!  He said, “This is eternal life, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3).  But, you might ask, there are millions of people who say they know Christ.  How do you know that you know him, or that he knows you?  That’s kind of like asking a young bride how she knows she is married.  She would probably answer: “What?  I know I’m married because I have a husband!  He walks with me.  He talks with me.  He lives with me.  We know each other.”  And so it is with every child of God.  “For me to live is Christ,” said Paul, and so says every Christian.

 

So, in describing some of the blessings of being in Christ, do I sound like I now have it all together?  It’s sort of a paradox.  The longer I serve God, and the closer I draw to him, and the better I get to know him, the more I see the wickedness still present in my own heart: the pride, the self-righteousness, the vulnerability to the snares of the world, the flesh, the devil.

 

I wonder sometimes why, if I’m really saved, do I think such evil thoughts?  Could I be a hypocrite?  Could I be deceiving myself?  I’ll tell you what: the man who thinks he can’t be deceived is the one who is the most ripe for the devil’s picking!  So while it’s possible to be “deceived,” if I am a hypocrite, I probably wouldn't worry about such things.  Is the hypocrite really struggling deep down inside to overcome his sin because he knows it grieves his Lord who died for that sin?  I doubt it.  He is usually comfortably complacent in his own correctness.  Inside the Christian, on the other hand, a continual war is raging!  "The flesh lusts against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh."  I can say “Amen” to that every hour of every day (more like every minute, really!)

 

And then too, also, I take comfort that, the greatest Christian who ever lived said he "didn't do the things he should, and he did the things he shouldn't."  If that's his testimony, where does that leave me? And so I cry with him, "O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?  I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans, chapter 7).

 

In short, I find that “when I would do good, evil is present with me.”  So what do I do about it?

Of all the good advice I’ve received from other Christians along the way, this is probably the best: for every one look you take at yourself, take a thousand looks at Christ!!  In other words, it’s ALL OF GRACE—from beginning to end.  No, I don’t have it all together, but I’ve got a sinless Savior who has it all together!

 

 

Arminian’ism, Free-Will’ism, Decision’ism, and Grace

 

From the very start of my walk with Christ it just grieved me to no end to see this one particular evangelism method employed by many “soul-winners.”  It’s known as “Decision’ism”—the practice of assuring sinners that their eternal destiny in heaven is secure because they have responded to an “altar call,” or nodded their heads to a few facts, or repeated someone else’s prayer where they “accepted Jesus into their hearts,” or some such thing.  How can Decisionists be so sure?  Do they have spiritual x-ray machines to see into the souls of their converts?  Wouldn’t it be better to say that a man has made a “profession of faith,” rather than to pontifically assure him that all is well with his soul, and “don’t you ever doubt it”??  Wouldn’t it be better to let time tell whether his conversion is genuine or not??

 

Decision’ism is based on the Arminian notion of “free-will.”  To “free-willers,” God has done everything he can possibly do to save us all, now it’s up to us to make the right decision to accept his offer of salvation.  These are what you call half-truths, the problem with which is that most folks usually get hold of the wrong half!

 

Now don’t get me wrong.  We are not saying that Arminianism is “another gospel.”  It’s not.  There is usually enough truth in an Arminian sermon for a sinner to lay hold of Christ if the Lord is dealing with him.  Mormons preach another gospel.  Jehovah Witnesses preach another gospel.  Arminian’ism is an imperfect gospel, but it’s not “another gospel.”

 

Well-know Arminians of our day include some good men like Billy Graham (“The Hour of Decision”), Jerry Falwell, and Adrian Rogers.  I had the opportunity to personally debate this issue twice with Adrian many years ago.  I don’t think I won him over, but I suspect that he and Jerry both have probably changed their views by now!

 

For over three years I looked for a church where they believe as Jonah did that “salvation is of the Lord.”  Then in the late 1970’s I studied theology at Mid South Bible College under Paul Davidson.  We called him our beloved “Brother D.”  He was always asking questions like, “For whom did Christ die?  What was the intent of the atonement?”  I began to wrestle with issues like, “Did the cross of Christ really secure the salvation of anyone?  Or did Christ go to Calvary like a gambler goes to Las Vegas, just rolling the dice, hoping someone would believe on him?

 

Brother D said he was “Calvinistic.”  It seemed like maybe I had heard that term before, but I did not know what it meant.  I soon learned it’s a whole system of theology which takes a high view of God’s absolute sovereignty.  Calvinists believe that when the Scripture says in the book of Revelation “Alleluia, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth,” it means it.  God is not somewhat potent, or mostly potent; he is OMNI potent.  “He works all things after the council of his own will” (Ephesians 1); not some things, or most things, but ALL THINGS.  Calvinists believe that, since man is utterly incapable of saving himself, salvation is “not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy” (Romans 9:16).

 

I began to study the biblical doctrines of election, predestination, particular redemption, efficacious grace, and the like.  I discovered that Arminians pretty much reject these doctrines in favor of the notion that salvation hinges on man’s “free-will.”  That’s why they see no problem in their Decision’ism tactics.  By contrast, I learned that the message of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is that man is hopelessly lost, doomed, and hell-bound, unless God first does for him what he cannot do for himself.  It’s called GRACE.

 

My experience in coming to the “Doctrines of Grace” was perhaps somewhat like that of the “prince of preachers,” Charles Spurgeon, who said, “I can remember the day and the hour when these truths were burned as a hot iron into my soul, and how I felt I had grown on a sudden from a babe to a man.”

 

I learned that these are the glorious truths embraced down through the ages by many of the great pillars of the faith—men like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Bunyan, Spurgeon, Edwards, and many others.  It’s called “Calvinism.”  Well-known modern day Calvinists would include men like Sproul, MacArthur, Piper, and many others.

 

Once I knew what I was looking for, it did not take long to find a church where the Doctrines of Grace are preached.  It is called Grace Bible Church of Olive Branch, MS.  I joined in 1978, and have been a member ever since, serving many years as a deacon, occasionally teaching or preaching, but mostly learning, and hopefully growing in grace, through the ministry of our pastor, Mark Webb.  Talk about one of the great minds of the church age, it’s Mark Webb.  Talk about one of the leading theologians in the world today, it’s Mark Webb.  (I would have included his name in my list of great pillars of the faith, but he asked me not to!)

 

 

One more answer to prayer

 

I can’t quit without sharing one more answer to prayer.

 

It’s about my father.  Dad was a great guy.  He loved to laugh and have fun.  His greatest joy was music.  He was a poet, a song writer, a musician, a promoter & historian of jazz & blues.  There is a plaque on Beal Street in his honor for all his contributions to jazz & blues.

 

But he did not know the Lord.  It would probably be accurate to say that he did not have a lot of interest in spiritual things.  He had been an alcoholic in his younger and middle years.  My mother and older brothers kept that from me until I was grown.

 

Dad was 67 years old by the time I came to Christ in 1973.  I was burdened for his soul, as well as the rest of my family, who were all Roman Catholic.

 

I remember it so clearly--it was about a year or so after I had gotten saved--the day I told him if he would ask God to reveal himself to him, “that I guarantee you, dad, God will do it.  (I didn’t know any better in those days than to make a guarantee like that!)  We were standing in the breakfast room of his house.  He looked up towards heaven, raised his hand, and said, “Okay, I’m asking him to reveal himself to me, right now!”

 

He then got in his car and drove around the corner to the convenience store.  In the parking lot a man comes up and hands him a gospel tract.  It contained the man’s testimony, printed in detail, of how he came to Christ. 

 

Dad had this astonished look on his face when he got home.  I had no idea what had just happened.  He showed me the tract.

 

Now here’s the rest of the story: the man’s testimony was his account of how he had been A MUSICIAN AND AN ALCOHOLIC all his life, until Christ saved him!! 

 

I remember Dr Crichton at Mid South Bible College defining a miracle as “an event, whether natural or supernatural, timed so as to bring glory to God.”  Folks, if that’s the definition of a miracle—and I agree it is—then this event qualifies!!

 

I would love to be able to say that dad repented of his sins and trusted Christ that day, but I cannot.  He died 13 years later without ever having made a profession of faith.  But who knows?  He could have believed on Christ on his death bed.  There is one death-bed conversion in the Bible, but as the saying goes: “one that none might despair, but only one that none might presume.”  This I know for sure: he is in the hands of a righteous God who does not make mistakes.  And that is where I leave it.

 

So what if dad didn’t come to Christ?  Then one might ask, why did God so obviously answer that prayer that day?  I’ve thought about that a lot over the years.  Maybe it was for my benefit.  Maybe it was so that I could tell about it, that others might be blessed.  Who knows?

 

That guy was up in years himself in 1974 when he gave my dad that tract.  He’s probably in glory right now as we speak.  And maybe—I don’t know, but maybe—whenever someone reads this story, and is blessed, who can tell but what God might allow one of the angels of heaven to let him know that his labor in the Lord was not in vain!! 

 

 

My tombstone verse

 

Well, it’s time to quit.  My goal in telling my story has been to try to illustrate the work of the Holy Spirit who leads God’s sheep to the absolute end of themselves, that they might cry out to the Chief Shepherd for help.  As Mark Webb says, “as long as God gives you a leg to stand on, you’ll stand on it.  It’s not until he knocks all the props out from under you that you are ready to do business with Christ!”

 

Let me say again, my testimony—anyone’s testimony—is not the “gospel.”  So what is the gospel?  It’s not about how you can be a better person, or live healthier, or get wealthier, or any of those kinds of things.  I don’t know how to state it any more concisely than Paul did: “…he hath made him (Christ) to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (II Corinthians 5:21).  In other words…

 

…salvation is in a person: Jesus Christ.  It’s not in any religion, sacrament, ritual, ceremony, creed, anything, or anyone, other than this person, Jesus Christ.  Why?  Because only this person did always those things that please the Father.  It is only this person with whom the Father is well pleased.  Only this person gave his life a ransom for many.  Only this person was raised from the dead, and ascended into glory.  It is only this person to whom all power is given in heaven and in earth.  Only this person sits on the throne of glory saying, “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  No one else can say that—not the Pope, or Mary, or Joseph Smith, or Mohammed, or Allah, or Buddha, or anyone else—except this person.  “He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.”  Will you be converted as a little child and go to him?

 

You may be asking, “How do I go to him?”  Let me suggest the same way the leper from Galilee did—by kneeling down before him, worshipping him, and beseeching him, saying, “Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean?”  Who can tell?  Perhaps he would be pleased to say to you the same words he said to that leper: “I will.  Be thou clean.” 

 

You see, the Pharisees were right about Jesus: “this man receiveth sinners.”  Hallelujah, what a Savior!

 

Let me sign off the same way the Bible does, with the most awesome invitation ever known to man.  I trust that someday, when I’m dead and gone, that Beverly will engrave it on my tombstone: “…and whosoever will, let him come, and take the water of life freely” (Revelation 22:17).

 

James Barry Godwin