In September 1972, I picked up a Bible, opened it and began to read it for myself.
To be sure, I had grown up in a Bible-believing Baptist church. I went to Sunday School, memorized Bible verses, could recite the books of the Bible. I knew what Revelation was about and the basic plot of many books. I knew what Paul did, I knew who Jeremiah was. In fact, I was known as the “religious one” in my family.
I started my real journey at the same time I had an experience that turned my life upside-down. Although I had professed faith in Christ and been baptized, it was then that I knew that I was a child of God and that he was calling me to be his disciple.
Chapter One – I react against false teaching
Like Pilgrim in the story, I was barely on my way when I met with danger and confusion.
At the State Fair in our town, various churches had booths. I picked up a pamphlet from a group called, I think, Character Building Association. Fill out this card, it said, and we’ll send you a Bible course by mail. You would read a 10-page or so magazine, take a reading test and sent it in, whereupon they would send you the next one. I finished the whole course and got a big book for free. I found out years later that the organization was a particularly legalistic splinter group of the Adventists. [NOTE 1]
I listened as they told me that whatever the church had taught me was false, and that this group was the true interpreter of the Bible. They talked a little about the cross of Christ, but it was tucked away in a corner of one of their workbooks, almost invisible.
Their real agenda was clear. From Genesis and Exodus they proved that I had to cease from work and worship on Saturday, not Sunday, or I would be damned. From Leviticus they demonstrated that if I ate pork, shellfish or other animals, I would be lost eternally. I three-quarters believed them, enough so that I started eating kosher. (Imagine my horror one day when I bit into my lunch and realized my mom had packed me a ham and cheese sandwich! I spit it out – but had the damage already been done?). In fact it was also my mom, when I explained why I didn’t want to eat ham anymore, who told me she thought that this was a cult and that it was twisting the Bible.
Were they distorting the Scriptures? Or were the Baptists the bad guys? I had to know.
So at age 14, I vowed that I would never again believe anything anyone said about the Bible, unless I could prove it to my own satisfaction, using just the Bible.
I picked up my King James Bible, the one with the tiny print, the one with my name embossed on it, that I’d gotten years earlier. Where should I turn? God led me, I have to believe, directly to Galatians, and later to Colossians.
O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?…Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh? (Gal 3:1, 3)
Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ. (Col 2:16-17)
Wherever I’ve lived, that Bible has gone with me, and once in a while I open it to see those same verses. I didn’t just learn that I didn’t have to worry about Sabbath or kosher food – the main lesson was that I should be focused on Christ, his death and resurrection for me.
I don’t know what upset me more: that someone had tried to rob me of Christ, or that I had been totally unequipped to defend myself against spiritual predators.
So I studied and studied and sat down and wrote out about six pages, meeting points taught in the literature with Bible verses that I had discovered. The woman in charge of the group wrote me back and we also talked on the phone. I told her, Thank you, but I’m not convinced, and I’m finished with your group.
It was that experience, mixed with a healthy dose of the “question authority” mentality of the culture in 1972, that laid an important foundation for the rest of my life. In politics as well as theology I am a real devil’s advocate. Someone falsely criticizes a Democrat and I leap to his defense; someone wrongly calls a Republican a reactionary, and I show why she is not. I push for a fair hearing for Arminians and Calvinists, for complementarians and egalitarians. This is one reason why people have a hard time figuring out my political views, and why I tend to be a nuisance in Facebook discussions.
When it comes to God’s Word, I have to pray regularly not to “react” nor to instantly criticize whatever teaching I hear. Nevertheless, I believe that one of God’s works in me is to be a questioner, to be the person who thinks to ask, “Why should we believe what you’re telling us? Prove it to me from the Bible.” I stiffen when someone says, “Well, I guess it’s true; Dr. So-and-So teaches it.”
Many of my articles and blogs, especially about spiritual gifts or Bible prophecy, had their start when I heard a teaching and I asked myself the basic question: “How do we know that’s true?”
Chapter Two – I read the whole Bible
I was able to manage the fine print King James Bible, and still can, so long as I have my reading glasses. But it was a hard slog going through the Old Testament for the first time. My parents gave me a Living Bible for Christmas, 1972, and I finished the whole Bible in that paraphrase. I also got hold of a pocket New Testament, the Revised Standard Version. [Those are versions I don’t recommend today – in fact, both are off the market; also, I do like the New Living Translation, and I often use the New Revised Standard. But the Living Bible was fine for what I needed.] Every day I read some chapters, and I pulled out my pocket Bible whenever I had a spare minute. Within a few months I was able to write in the inside cover that I’d read the whole Bible. I started again.
Those were glory days, reading through the Bible for the very first time!
Again, I have to give the Spirit credit, since I had little idea of what I was doing: he taught me that we don’t simply study the Bible, we seek God through its pages. The goal of our study is to bring God glory, enjoy his presence, pray to him based on the truths we read. I learned to confess my sins, and experienced the Lord’s transformation, in particular quickly cleaning up my habit of using bad language.
Around this time I started to listen to Christian radio. My favorite program was “Through the Bible” with J. Vernon McGee, who took his listeners on a “five-year safari through God’s Word.” Those of us who heard him will smile in remembrance of his Texas drawl and homespun stories. Years later, I realize how many doctrinal differences I now have with him. Nevertheless he taught me a fundamental lesson: the Bible is not just a collection of verses. It’s composed of books, and you should read them as such. Read the Bible in context! Pay attention to the flow of revelation and the story of redemption! The Bible makes sense! I began to think in terms of God’s ongoing message, not isolated verses.
This blog is continued HERE.
NOTE 1: My interactions with Seventh-Day Adventists have been almost perfectly bipolar. On the one hand, a local Adventist group drew me away from the true gospel and damaged my faith, for just a few months, Glory to God. That group most definitely stated that my salvation was at stake if I didn’t obey their doctrine. On the other hand, I now have several Adventist friends and students in my current locale. When we first met, we all sat down for a two hour conversation so that I could ask them questions about their faith, their understanding of the gospel, the relationship of faith and works, the doctrine that worshipping on Sunday is the mark of the beast from Revelation, and so forth. The experience was a healing one for me, as I heard them testify to their faith on Christ alone for their salvation and their explanation that, while Adventists differ, their observance of the Sabbath and dietary restrictions were for them denominational distinctives, not a reason to separate from other believers. I respect that there are differing views on whether Adventists are evangelicals; in my experience, our confusion is due in part to the wide variety within Adventism itself.
“My four decades in the Bible – Part I,” by Gary Shogren, PhD, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica