Pastor Tullian's Story
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” Colossians 2:13-14
I was blessed to grow up in a loving Christian home, the middle of seven children. I watched my parents live out their faith. As far back as I can remember, I was taught the truth about God. I grew up reading the Bible, praying, going to church, going to Sunday school, and attending Christian schools. I knew virtually every story in the Bible. I could recite the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and even the Apostles’ Creed. I never doubted that God existed, and I always acknowledged that God sent his Son, Jesus, to die on a cross for sinners like me. I knew this was no fairy tale. My knowledge about God was biblical, orthodox, and impressive.
Sadly, however, while I knew a lot about God, I did not know him. As Aunt Anne once told me about being a Christian, “You can have the right stuff in your head but still be missing something.” Well, I was missing something, all right—something big!
Here’s how that “missing something” played out for me.
It’s not an excuse, but I found growing up as a middle child difficult. At times I was bunched with my older siblings, and at other times I was bunched with the younger ones. It seemed like I ended up bearing the responsibilities of both groups and enjoying the privileges of neither. Coming into adolescence, I wasn’t sure who I was or where I fit. Perhaps partly as a result, I rebelled against everything my family stood for, looking instead to other people and places to fill the hole I felt inside.
I didn’t rebel halfheartedly either. By the age of sixteen, I had dropped out of high school, managed to get myself kicked out of the house (the police literally escorted me from my parents’ property), and set off party hopping across South Florida. At the time, of course, I was very pleased with my achievements. Freed from the constraints of teachers and parents, I pursued pleasure harder than most my age, trying desperately to “find myself” through promiscuity, drugs, and alcohol. I was on a pleasure-seeking rampage in search of satisfaction and contentment behind every worldly tree and under every worldly rock. I was a man on a hedonistic mission.
But the more I pursued these things, the more lost I felt. The more I drank from the well of worldly bliss, the thirstier I became; the faster I ran toward godless pleasure, the further I felt from true fulfillment. Pretty much everything about the real me was broken, foolish, and crusted over with self and sin. By the time I reached my early twenties, I was even more confused about who I was and where I fit than I had been as a teenager. I felt like I was stumbling through life blindfolded, without direction or understanding. Life made no sense. I decided there had to be more to who I was than what I was experiencing.
I couldn’t understand why my master plan wasn’t working. What had I done wrong? Where had I miscalculated?
I hadn’t taken into account the amazing grace of God! I radically underestimated the determination of Divine love and mercy. In everything I was doing, I started to feel, in the words of C. S. Lewis, “the unrelenting approach of Him who I desperately desired not to meet.” The Hound of Heaven was on my tail, and my persistent attempts to outrun him were proving to be futile.
I cried out to God for pardon and help, believing he was the only one who could deliver me. God answered and helped me see that my hunger for identity could be satisfied only in something that I’d never asked for when I was growing up, that I hadn’t inherited from my godly parents, and that I’d certainly never found in my headlong, self-centered pursuits: a relationship with God himself.
What happened? I experienced “a magnificent defeat” at the hand of God. God rescued me, and for the first time in more than twenty years, I rested. God accomplished what I couldn’t. He moved me from one side of the Grand Canyon to the other. I was literally “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). I knew God!
The point is, if you really want to know God, you have to enter into a personal relationship with him.
You and I were created by God to know him, plain and simple. Every single human being was designed—hard-wired—specifically to be in relationship to God. But something’s wrong, and all of us know it. If we were honest, we would admit that deep down we sense something necessary is missing. We sense a homesickness we can’t explain. The truth is, only when the distance between us and God is bridged can we experience the fullness, the homecoming—and the certainty—we earnestly seek. As St. Augustine prayed, “You have created us for Yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.”
What keeps us apart and restless? An uncrossable chasm of separation. The Bible word for it is sin.
In our narcissistic culture the word sin is not popular. But actually it’s a pointed, practical word. Sin, says J. I. Packer, is a “a universal deformity of human nature, found at every point in every person.… It is a rebellious reaction to God’s call and command, a spirit of fighting God in order to play God.” None of us, in other words, is sin free. As Paul wrote, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside. (Romans 3:10-12)
Our own sin nature and sinful acts preclude an intimate relationship with a holy God. (It only makes sense—selfishness and betrayal fracture human relationships too.) The sin virus warps how we understand ourselves and God, blights how we treat others, skews what we want (even if it’s killing us), and drastically limits what we can do to change. The fact is, we cannot get over the canyon of sin without help. God must act.
And God has acted. On our behalf, he crossed over the canyon to rescue sinners. The Bible word for this astonishing gift of mercy and life is salvation.
Salvation, like sin, is an eminently practical word—although a much happier one. Salvation is what a baby girl playing in the middle of the freeway needs; she doesn’t understand the danger she’s in, and she couldn’t escape it if she did. Salvation is what the hardened murderer on death row needs; he’s about to receive society’s just judgment for his actions, and if pardon and freedom are to come, they must come from outside his cell, from someone who holds the power of pardon and release. Both the baby and the criminal need rescuing. They can neither earn nor fabricate their salvation; their only hope is to receive it as a gift.
You and I are born estranged from God. We live in self-centered rebellion, stubbornly choosing to be “God” for ourselves. And we justly deserve the true God’s judgment. What we all need—desperately—is to be saved.
The good news of the gospel is simply this: in the midst of our hopeless and helpless circumstance, God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to save sinners like you and me. God’s costly gift, however, requires our humble response of acknowledging our need of him and receiving in faith the salvation God offers. The Bible promises, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).
In Christ, God promises to make us new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17). We gain a new beginning, a new family, a new purpose, a new power, and a new destiny. We gain a new relationship with God that is real, absolutely certain, and eternal. This relationship has little in common with the “knowing about” variety. Rather, we enter into the genuine “knowing” fellowship of a loving Father.
The above story is mine. But the best part of it, the salvation part, can be yours too. If you’re not sure yet whether you have a relationship with God, know this: God promises that if you call on his name, he will hear. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you must “get yourself right” before you cry out for salvation, for as an old hymn puts it:
Let not conscience make you linger, Nor of fitness fondly dream; All the fitness He requireth; Is to feel your need of Him.
When you feel your desperation for God and call out to him for rescue, that’s all you need to receive the free gift of pardon, new life, and lasting relationship that only God can give.