If the term “religious, but lost” ever described anyone, it described me.
Born into a devout Dutch Reformed family, I was in church regularly from my earliest memory. Family devotions were held regularly, and I received teaching from the Bible at home, at school, and in church. For all this, though, the Scriptures bear record that I was a child of disobedience, by nature one of the children of wrath (Eph 2:2-3).The Dutch Reformed denomination does not teach the need for personal conversion, but I had an early encounter with a Baptist farmer at the age of fourteen or fifteen who gave me a Gideon New Testament and told me I needed to be born again. (John 3:3-7) I argued with him, knowing better, but he was patient with me, and over the next several years, I must have prayed the “sinner's prayer” multiple times. Most people would look at my life during that time and think I was pretty strict, and good enough to go to heaven, but the reality is that my outward works did nothing to change the filthiness of my own heart (Mat. 23:25-28): an impure, unrighteous heart that could of itself bring forth no fruits of righteousness (Isa 64:6).
God's grace is more than sufficient to save a vile, wretched soul. (Isa. 59:1-16) Where my own sin abounded, even as a mere professor of Christianity, God's grace did much more abound. (Rom. 5:20) Once I completed highschool, I attended a Christian college in the U.S., and began examining my theological upbringing and the non-Calvinistic, non-Covenant theology teaching I was now receiving. Make no mistake, those studies were being examined by an unregenerate heart, but because of the Baptist-leaning doctrines of the college, I was really exposed to, for the first time, a different method of interpretation of the Scriptures than what I had been accustomed to. The Lord used that time to move me from a more allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures to a historical-grammatical (more literal) interpretation of God's inspired revelation to man. This forced me to examine what the Bible taught about the doctrines of grace, salvation, baptism, and even the second coming of Christ. In 2003, I was baptized by immersion at the college, although still (as I see now) unsaved.
Many Christians in modern society would look at the years of my life that followed and simply conclude I “wasn't properly discipled,” that I “had gotten away from God,” or even that I was “just a carnal Christian.” Most of this comes from now deeply-engrained evangelical teaching that God's grace, although powerful enough to save your soul and to preserve it to Heaven, is somehow not powerful enough to break the bonds of sin in your life. It's unbiblical because it is without proper exegetical Scriptural support; it's blasphemous because it contradicts the Scriptural doctrine that God's grace raises us to live soberly, godly, and righteously in this world (Tit. 2:11-12); it's dangerous because unregenerate religious sinners such as I was can grasp onto false assurances of eternal life based on having prayed the sinner's prayer (as long as I "meant it" at the time), (cf. Acts 8:13, 20; James 2:19) and by the false distinction between a believer (who is supposedly saved, but may look, act, and live like an utter worldling for his entire life) and a disciple/Christian (one who is saved and looks acts and lives a life of piety before the Lord).
I lived a number of years with my false assurance, although not without periods of uneasiness. I wandered away from the mere form of religion into greater and greater worldliness and wickedness. Through all this, the strong arm of the Lord still worked in His mercy toward my unholy and unrighteous soul. Truly, of God's patience with my hardened heart, it was only of the LORD's mercies that I was not consumed, because his compassions fail not (Lam. 3:22). I forsook church, almost lost my marriage, and was subjected to the humbling hand of a righteous, but merciful, God.
I wish I could say that I began searching for truth in doctrine and in churches because I needed it for myself. However, my search began with almost entirely the wrong motivation. We had been blessed with our first child, and I wanted her to be under good Biblical teaching. We ended up joining an independent Baptist church about 40 minutes from where we lived. This time though, despite my misguided intentions, the Holy Spirit continued His convicting work in my heart, and I began to hungrily devour the preaching and teaching of God's Word.
The confusion that has reigned in independent Baptist circles – and in most of evangelical Christianity – over the Lordship of Christ in salvation (i.e., denying it) ensnared me at the time, just as it has with countless thousands of professing Christians. As I came under conviction from the consistent preaching of God's Word, I thought I was a recovering carnal Christian simply looking for assurance of my salvation. I knew I was sinner. I knew that I had transgressed terribly against my God and Creator. I agonized over it and felt its weight. I remember my pastor at the time (early 2011) preaching through Romans, and I felt as though I was finally beginning to grasp an understanding of salvation. I learned so much, but I still wrestled.
In June 2011, my wrestling ended when I received the Lord Jesus Christ, repenting of my sins and believing on Him. I knew that my sin – my terribly unrighteous thoughts, my wicked words, and ungodly actions – made me guilty before God. But I was also assured by the Scriptures that the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom all judgment has been committed by the Father (John 5:22), had taken my sin and imputed His righteousness to me at Calvary (Rom. 4:6-8; II Cor. 5:21). It was only faith in Christ that could save me.
At the time, I thought I'd simply obtained assurance of my salvation, having come to a full recognition of my condition and state before a holy God, having repented of my sin, and having believed on the Lord Jesus Christ. As I've studied the Scriptures more since then, I see it from a Scriptural perspective now: more than simply assurance, I had received the Lord Jesus Christ and had become an heir to eternal life. We must never filter the Scriptures through our experiences, as the tendency of so many (myself included at the time) is today. Rather, we must judge our experiences against the Scriptures (Isa. 8:20).
I had been converted (II Cor. 5:17). And oh, what a conversion it was. Jesus Christ does not leave the humbled repentant sinner unchanged (Eph. 2:8-10). Having obeyed the gospel and repented of his sins, believing on the Lord Jesus Christ, the believer walks in newness of life (Rom. 6:1-23). Sin never used to grieve me (Rom. 7:15-21). The love of the world never used to bother me (I John 2:15). Thoughts of eternity and a love for the Saviour never used to occupy much of my time (Psa. 10:4). All of that changed. I didn't become sinlessly perfect. That won't happen this side of glory. My walk with the Lord hasn't been – and still isn't – without stumbles and falls, but things have changed. With Peter, I can joyfully say that I look for a new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness (II Pet. 3:13).
Reader, what is your condition before an almighty, thrice-holy God? Are you – like I was – deceiving yourself into thinking you can call heaven your home while you live for and love the pleasures of sin, of the world, and of your own flesh? While you glory in your shame and sin before the Lord who is of purer eyes than to behold evil and iniquity (Hab. 1:13), have you convinced yourself that you're not that bad, (Psa. 14:1-3) or that because you prayed a prayer one time and meant it, that you are now assured of the hope of eternal life? (I Pet. 1:5) You can, no doubt, find many churches who will assure you that the lack of change in your worldly life and even the uneasy thoughts you may have over your lack of interest in obedience to the Scriptures is no great matter for concern, so long as you pay lip service to a love for God. But consider, the Pharisees and Herodians also had many who followed them in their worldliness and their love for prominence and influence among the religious, as well as their desire for acceptance by the society around them.
Perhaps, though, you've convinced yourself that God doesn't exist; (Psa. 53:1) that somehow, though you and I both know it's foolish to think so, you have given life to yourself and that what you see around you – Creation itself – has no author, no artist, no Creator. Perhaps you think that there is no almighty Judge. Perhaps you think that this life is all there is. The Bible is clear. Some day you will give an account of yourself to a righteous Judge (Rev. 20:11-15). I wonder, what will your testimony be at that great and dreadful day?
God is gracious. He grace pursued me even while I stubbornly sought my own righteousness and continued in the pride of my own religious heart. The matter of your soul's standing before the everlasting God is no trifling matter.
“To day, if ye will hear his voice...” (Heb. 4:7)
“Now is the day of salvation” (II Cor. 6:2)