The following essay is written by Chris Smith, (B.A. History, Thomas Edison University; MDiv, Westminster Seminary California). He is a candidate for the Master of Arts in Historical Theology at WSC. He’s a native of Nebraska (Go Big Red!) and hopes to become a pastor in the United Reformed Churches in North America.
I was born and raised in Bellevue, Nebraska, which is also where my parents lived for most of their lives before I was born. It is is a town of about sixty-thousand people just south of Omaha, and it has a big military presence thanks to Offutt Air Force Base. There were a lot of family members around, including cousins, and many families who had been friends with my family for generations. Growing up I never really considered that there were any non-Christians around, because almost everyone I knew claimed faith in Christ, at least to some degree.
Growing Up In A Covenant Home
My family attended a Presbyterian Church USA church until I was seven, where I was baptized as an infant. It was the neighborhood church that my dad had attended when he was growing up, and many of my extended family members also went there. It was a mainline Protestant church, and we never really heard the gospel proclaimed. I picked up pieces here and there, and when I was seven years old or so I remember everything coming together as I talked to my mom one day. Suddenly I understood that Jesus was the Son of God, that he lived a perfect life, that died in the place of sinners, and that he rose again on the third day. I believe I was converted that day, but I have very few memories of a time when I did not believe. Mine is not a stunning, about-face conversion story, but rather a story of a Christian home where I heard the gospel and believed it.
Discovering The Law
The next ten years of my life, however, were an exercise in forgetting that very same gospel. Soon after the day when everything clicked for me, my parents left the PCUSA church where my dad grew up. They realized that something was off, something was missing, but I doubt that they could have verbalized what it was. We bounced around from church to church over the next decade or so, and we had flipped dramatically on the Christian spectrum. We left a mainline Presbyterian church and ended up in Independent Fundamental Baptist circles. We were members of three different IFB churches during these years, and this is when the doubt and the fear crept into my mind. If the gospel was rarely heard in the mainline church, the situation was little better in the fundamentalist churches. They preached and taught Christ crucified for sinners, no doubt. The problem, though, was the additions. Whether explicitly or implicitly, it often seemed to come back to whether or not you had done enough. There were some, thankfully, who taught a clearer gospel. I can think of my middle school youth group teacher especially, but he seemed to be the exception to the rule.
I remember lying awake as a teenager, staring at the ceiling, and wondering. My mind raced with memories of the day which had just ended. Had I believed enough that day? Had I repented for every single sin I had committed? What if I hadn’t done enough? How much was enough, anyway? It was spiritual torture, and it lasted for years. I always knew that I should be sure about my spiritual state, but I never had any serious assurance. “Do more, try harder” was a harsh master.
Discovering The Gospel
I had my own law in those days. You shall wear a coat and tie to church on Sunday. You shall go to both the morning and the evening service. You shall only listen to a certain kind of music. You shall not go to movie theaters. It went on and on. During the day, for whatever reason, I could feel good enough, even superior to those around me who surely were not measuring up to my standard as well as I (funny how that works). At night, however, the ritual would often be repeated. Worry. Doubt. Hopelessness. These were the fruit of my beliefs in those days. If left to my own devices, that is probably where I would be now. Something unexpected happened, however: I became a Calvinist, and completely by accident. I began downloading and listening to sermons from Sermon Audio, and I just so happened to hear some Calvinistic Baptist preachers. They intrigued me, because many of the things they said I had never heard before, and many other things they said I had known, but forgotten. Before long, one of them mentioned a podcast called The White Horse Inn. I was mowing the yard at the time, and the only reason I downloaded an episode later that day is because the weird name stuck in my brain. As it turns out, the theology of the podcast was even stranger than its name, at least to my fundamentalist ears. Law and gospel. Justification by faith alone. Election. Perseverance of the saints. Word and sacrament. Worship as dialogue between God and his people. Weird stuff to a fundy!
Discovering The Reformation
The first domino to fall as I moved toward Reformed theology was justification sola fide, and it was at this time that I first read the Belgic Confession of Faith. Article 22: The Righteousness of Faith, and Article 23: The Justification of Sinners stopped me dead in my tracks. I vividly remember the first time I read these articles, and I remember crying.
For it must necessarily follow that either all that is required for our salvation is not in Christ or, if all is in him, then he who has Christ by faith has his salvation entirely. Therefore, to say that Christ is not enough but that something else is needed as well is a most enormous blasphemy against God— for it then would follow that Jesus Christ is only half a Savior.
Wow! Suddenly Romans and Galatians made sense. Suddenly I had a ground for assurance. Suddenly I was not being thrown back to my own efforts, feelings, and experiences. From this point on one Reformed doctrine after another fell into place in my mind, and I ended up leaving the Independent Fundamental Baptist circles that I had known for so long
I went to a Calvinistic church in Omaha for a few years while I did my undergraduate work online, and then I ended up in Escondido at Westminster Seminary California. I had never set foot inside a confessionally Reformed church before coming to San Diego County. I started out as a Particular Baptist, and during this time the idea of having and holding to a confession grew in importance in my mind, particularly the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith.
Discovering The Reformed Church
Before too long I could no longer hold to my Baptist convictions, and I was faced with the prospect of finding not only a new church, but a new denomination or federation. As an M.Div student this took on extra layers, because beyond searching for a church home I was also looking for a place to intern and, God willing, a place to pursue a pastoral call and ordination. San Diego County is unlike many areas of the country in that there are numerous Reformed and Presbyterian churches within driving distance. One of the first churches I visited was Christ United Reformed Church in Santee (about 40 minutes from campus). I was immediately struck by how this church was unabashedly confessional. The liturgy and preaching proclaimed the law and gospel to me every week, and it seemed in every sermon there was a confessional reference.
During this time of visiting I again read the confessional standards of the United Reformed Churches in North America: the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession of Faith, and the Canons of Dort. My understanding of the Bible and theology grew immeasurably at this point. Suddenly I had something I could look to as a faithful summary of what the Bible teaches. Suddenly I was at a church that knew what it believed and why, and it wasn’t in the process of changing. They did not believe the confession in place of the Bible, but instead they believed them because they were faithful summaries of what the Bible teaches, and that brought stability that I had never really felt in a church before. After visiting for a while and going through the membership class, I joined CURC in the spring of 2016.
Since that time I have come to love the Heidelberg, Belgic, and Canons more and more, and God willing one day I will be called and ordained in the URCNA. It has been quite a journey from the mainline to fundamentalism to Reformed confessionalism, and I am thankful for where God has led me.
Praise God Chris!
I remember those days of being under the impression that I had not done enough and then finding relief by understanding the law and gospel as articulated in the wonderful reformed confessions. This has motivated my ministry to preach the gospel to desperate and despairing souls that were under similar burdens as Chris and I. May God grant Chris to be in the ministry and likewise have the same motivation.
From a fellow Nebraskan, Praise Christ!