Armstrong, Lorraine

My Journey Out

I will be baptized April 17, 2017 (Easter Sunday), and the pastor asked me explain my journey since so many were interested in where I came from. 

I was raised in a little known but worldwide Christian sect with the odd distinction of having no name. Growing up, I dreaded the question “and what’s the name of your church?” Except for gospel meetings, we met in homes, and we identified ourselves as the nameless NT home church. We believed we were the one true church because only our ministry went out as Jesus sent the apostles in Matthew 10. We had verses to condemn offerings, paid pastors and church buildings; and because the apostles were “unlearned and ignorant men,” we condemned theology, seminaries, doctrine, creeds, confessions and all other churches. Just to be safe, we also condemned Sunday school, and we did so with a verse. The Bible was all you needed—and this ministry to explain it.

We sang Jesus Alone Can Save Me, but Jesus only used this ministry and this church to do so. You couldn’t know if you were saved until you died, but everyone knew you weren’t if you left. We heard “if you do your best, grace will do the rest,” so we sang Give of Your Best to the Master, not Amazing Grace. Blessed Assurance was out of the question, and our hymnbook made no reference to God in three persons, a fallen nature, or to Christmas. We were told we had no rules, but our ministers preached on them anyway. I knew my 1 Corinthians 11 head covering was uncut, long hair worn up; and I had chapter and verse for why pants, jewelry, and makeup were wrong—as were bangs, perms, dyed hair and fingernail polish. I, however, remained a dress-code agnostic.

Each September we attended a four-day tent convention in Santee while a herd of dairy cows kept a watchful eye on us. Three times a day we sat on wooden benches while the flies buzzed, the adults sweltered, and the kids squirmed. Not many of our preachers were “apt to teach,” partly because the Spirit, not sermon notes, “was to give them utterance.” I used the time to doodle and daydream. When I was 12, I startled myself by standing up during the Saturday evening invitation to profess Christ as we sang the last stanza of Nearer, Still Nearer. Poor Mom, who thought I’d gotten up to look around, jerked me back down, but I was as unsinkable as Molly Brown.

However, I didn’t stand up in response to the preaching. I stood up in response to a brief vision I had as we were singing. What I saw convinced me I wanted to know Jesus, and I didn’t know what else to do. As visions were out of compliance with our sober-minded standards, I kept this to myself. Thankfully, this didn’t prefigure the gift of tongues, because I was now expected to speak in the meetings—and to pray awkwardly in archaic English. My first attempt to do so began Wednesday night with John, chapter one. I loved the stately simplicity of the opening verses, but the phrase “and the Word was God” didn’t line up with anything I’d ever heard, so I asked Mom. She said these were difficult verses and I should find something easier. Easy worked for me, and easy became my standard for all subsequent exegesis.

That December I became a teenager, and I was the real deal. I rejected all forms of authority and I jettisoned any attempt at Christianity or civility. At 17, I tried to smooth things over with God by getting baptized. Although I considered the dress code a lot of holy hogwash, I was baptized in a dress with my hair up, in the snow-melt waters of Forest Falls in May. I was cold and wet, and still a rebel. I was in and out of the fold a few times after that, but I wasn’t any happier outside than in, so I always returned. In 2009, despite a wonderful husband and a larger-than-life cat, the theme song of my life was U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. I was weary of being me, and if I’d known the hymn Not I But Christ, I would have sung Oh, to be saved from myself, Dear Lord.

Driving home sometime in August, the seemingly random question popped into my head “what is the good news of the gospel?” I wasn’t sure, and although this was against the rules we didn’t have, it unsettled me enough to make KWAVE a pre-set on my car radio. All I can say is “thanks be to God for the radio” because early in December I became an unemployment statistic and I drove home at 9 a.m. listening to Truth for Life with Alistair Begg. Halfway through the message, he said “and the good news of the gospel is….” and I almost drove off the road. The next morning I was a 9 o’clock regular. Santa was coming to town, and Alistair’s preaching made it clear we celebrated a different miracle. His was the moment God became man; mine was a dozen flying reindeer. Thanks to Alistair, later that spring I swapped all my chocolate bunnies for one He is Risen Indeed.

In June of 2010, I snagged a one-year temporary assignment with the City of Oceanside and KWAVE kept me company on the long commute. I ate lunch listening to Chuck Smith and I ended my day with Dr. David Jeremiah. It seemed odd that everyone but our ministers were clear on how we were saved. We knew Jesus died for our sins; that we had to repent and be born again; but after that, well, hope was a virtue. We focused on Jesus as our elder brother and we were exhorted to be like Him.

Through Alistair, I discovered Albert Mohler, J.I. Packer, Sinclair Ferguson and R.C. Sproul, and I studied and listened like a good Berean. I felt like a cross between a sponge and a bucket. No matter how much of God’s Word I soaked up, I still had room for more. Thanks to Sinclair and Alistair, the Trinity was now an article of my faith, and the cross and resurrection was the heart of my gospel. The Doctors Packer, Sproul and Mohler convinced me that doctrine matters—because doctrine has consequences.

In 2012, the future overseer of our state raised my hackles when he changed the invitation to profess Christ by saying “If you stand up, you are accepting Christ as your Savior AND affirming that we are the one true ministry.” I grew up hearing that this way “went all the way back to the shores of Galilee,” and I had never doubted their claim. Now, however, thanks to extensive research done by others, I knew our ministry went back no further than to William Irvine in Ireland around 1897. In light of our actual history, it struck me as deliberately disingenuous to conflate a profession of faith with this ministry.

In 2013, two of the oddest women ministers on the California staff were assigned to our area, and after a few months of their preaching, Jeff and I just wanted out. We knew we would take our salvation with us, but my 93-year-old Mom would see things differently. As we pondered our exit strategy, I pondered Paul’s statement that whatever does not proceed from faith is sin, and I decided to revisit the dreaded dress code. Modesty and moderation resolved the adornment issue for me, but Paul’s teaching on women’s hair had always eluded me. At this point, if it mattered to God, it mattered to me, and I dove in willing to be persuaded. However, after some 20 hours up to my eyebrows in scholarly debates over Greek words, cultural norms and rabbinical teaching, I decided Mother knew best: these were difficult verses and I should look for something easier.

Years ago, contrary to all I’d ever heard, I decided that just being a sheep was all I needed to be assured of heaven. This seemed like a good time to attach a little scripture to my homespun theology. Since Alistair’s theology included justification and sanctification, I thought mine should too. I now believed that we were saved by grace through faith in Christ and that a changed life was the evidence, not the ground, of our salvation. However, the more I studied the scriptural mandate of love, the less I felt like a sheep. As much as I wanted to, I did not love God with all my heart, soul, strength and mind; and I did not love my neighbor as myself—and I knew I never would. One of my earliest memories is that of hitting a little boy over the head with a shovel, and I hadn’t changed all that much.

I took a deep breath and waded into the doctrinal waters of Romans using John Stott’s commentary as theological hip boots. By Romans 5:9, I was singing “yea justified, oh blessed thought, and sanctified, salvation wrought!” Paul was clear; it wasn’t about me, it was about Christ. I was justified by Christ’s blood; saved by Christ from God’s wrath; and in Christ, this justification was mine now and forever as a gift of God’s grace by faith.

I was so full of joy I thought this old clay pot would burst. God’s love had been poured into my heart by the Spirit; there was therefore now no condemnation; and nothing could ever separate me from God’s love. This love had been lavished on me, a turbo-charged rebel bent on doing things my way, a rebel whose sins had sent Jesus to the cross—and yet by the gift of faith, God imputed to me the life of Jesus, the perfect life of love I could never live. And this love had never let me go.

The day I almost drove off the road, Alistair was preaching from Romans 8:20 and 2 Corinthians 3:18 and he said the good news of the gospel is that Jesus died in my place to free me from the penalty and dominion of sin and that as we look to Jesus and away from ourselves, the Holy Spirit begins His work of transformation. Then he added “we do not transform ourselves.” Just as Philippians 2:12 popped into my head, he said—but we work out in fear and trembling what God is working into us through the Spirit.

In Alistair’s latest newsletter, he used a quote from CS Lewis that sums up my testimony: “The Christian does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us.” I don’t know when I was saved, but eventually, I realized I was a new creature in Christ, and it wasn’t any of my doing. God changed my heart, and this changed my life. In the words of Jesus, the one who is forgiven much will love much, and I now love God, His Word, His Will, and His people in a way I never did before.

In a sweet irony, God used my well-loved atheist Jewish piano teacher to make sure I was a member of the chorale Eric later joined just as I was beginning my search for a church. When I learned he was a worship pastor, I blurted out that I was looking for a church where I could hear expository preaching like Alistair Begg’s and sing solid hymnody. His face lit up, and he invited me to Grace Bible Church. And in God’s mercy, on Sunday, September 14, 2014, Eric was family to us as we sat by Mom’s abandoned tent and waited for the mortician to arrive. That next Sunday, GBC was my home church.

I am thankful for Paul’s assurance that with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. And because Jesus is the good news of the gospel, I have a new theme song: Trusting Jesus, That is All.

Lorraine Armstrong