Saved By Grace: From Billy Graham to Calvin and Back to the Basics

Or, How I came to believe that we are saved by faith alone.

Recently I asked a friend of mine who is a practicing Catholic what he believes about salvation. I am not Catholic, but I have quite a few Catholic friends, on WordPress and in real life. I am guessing it is because we share a common worldview, even we don’t always agree on theology. The Catholics I know have traditional values such as family, faith, the value of human life, and patriotism. Like me, they care about people and their religion is important to them. Personal freedom and responsibility matter to them and they tend to be hard-working, generous, loyal, and conservative. My friend told me what he believes and I told him I would tell him why I think we are saved by faith alone.

Don’t feel like reading, listen to a slightly edited version of this on my podcast.

Part 1

But before I answer the question, I want to share a little personal background information. (Skip down to Part 2 if you don’t want to read about how I discovered the doctrines of grace.) I was raised in a southern Baptist environment, but despite many years of Bible ‘reading’, I hadn’t learned much about denominational and theological differences. I had picked up a few ideas by osmosis such as some churches were cults, Jews believed in God, but didn’t believe in Jesus, Pentecostals spoke in tongues, Methodists allowed female preachers, and Catholics didn’t use birth control and had a Pope. I hadn’t been taught the difference between ‘Catholic and Protestant’. But I hadn’t really made a point to study any of these religions or any other religions such as Islam or Buddhism or New Age because I also had the belief that it was better not to go too deep because it might confuse me or weaken my faith.

I grew up watching Billy Graham and Oral Roberts and listening to Christian radio preachers like J. Vernon McGee. Some people would call us fundamentalists today, but I just thought we were Baptists. I didn’t know there were different kinds of Baptists such as ‘hard shell or primitive’. Some people might judge me for being so totally clueless about other people’s beliefs, but it is just how my mind works. So for much of my life, I thought if you believed in ‘Jesus’, we had something important in common. We were all Christians, right? Except for those wacky cult members, of course.

But I guess God thought it was time for me to find out what I believed and why and be able to defend it. This is part of maturing as a Christian. As the Apostle Paul said, I had to move on from milk to meat. And so God sent me into the wilderness to learn about theology.

My memory is a little fuzzy on dates, but approximately 12 or 13 years ago, I was introduced to Reformed theology,which is a particular version of Protestantism. Some think of it as Calvinism, but it’s not necessarily the same thing. I think my enlightenment began with Voddie Baucham and continued with Matt Chandler, David Platt, John Piper, R.C. Sproul , and all the cool kids of those days when being Reformed was as hot in the Christian world(great summary of the revival of Calvinism by Kevin DeYoung) as the trend of deconstructing is now. I was instantly intrigued by the concept of being ‘reformed’ as I never felt good enough. Then when I found out about being saved by grace, I was in! I even changed my Facebook name to Savedbygrace, but they eventually made me change it. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

In January 2003 we moved to a new town. I then had a baby in September 2003 and another one in April 2005. Life mostly revolved around my babies, Grace’s care, homeschooling my three older boys, and staying above water financially. But finally things settled down enough for us to start going to church regularly. In the late 2000s, God began moving in my life, but at that time I wasn’t very self-aware or Holy Spirit-aware so I was mostly focused on my relationships and my feelings. We were become more involved in our church at that time. My youngest kids were in preschool and my others were in Youth. My oldest was very involved in the church music ministry. My husband’s faith was growing.

I was starting to step out in faith and do things I had never done before. I began volunteering to help with Awanas, VBS, and other ministries. I starting getting to know the pastors and their wives better and feeling like my family was part of the church family. The church we attended was very on fire at that time. One very big step was going to youth camp as a chaperone. This may sound like no big deal, but it was huge for me. I was very, very nervous because there were so many unknowns. What would be expected of me? Could I handle it? Would I do it wrong? Would I embarrass myself? Would the other adults like me and would I fit in?

Yes, it was all about social anxiety. I was and still am a big dork! I was only slightly more mature than the teenagers at camp. But I had an amazing time and my faith grew in leaps and bounds. It was there that I got to hear Matt Chandler preach and then the next year David Platt was the featured speaker. I took pages of notes. They were preaching about RADICAL faith and they taught directly from scripture, not topically.

At Camp

Around the same time I was exposed to Voddie Baucham in my Sunday school class. We had a great class, very eager to learn about God and his Word. Baucham’s study The Ever Loving Truth really blew my mind and made me want to know more about ‘truth’. This study came out when relativism was growing and the idea of absolute truth of any kind was being called bigoted.

However, this foray into reformed territory brought some grumbling from other respected class members. They disagreed about free will and predestination. I was confused because I thought these people knew more than me about the Bible , so this sent me to studying the different views. The details of “Who can be saved” and “How” wasn’t something I had ever even considered since I had been raised on simple theology based on John 3:16.

I first started learning new words such as TULIP, predestination, reformed, Arminian, heresy, and hearing a lot about false teachers, controversies over the Holy Spirit, and discovering that premillennialism was not the only interpretation of the ‘last times’. I discovered Spurgeon and Calvin and Luther and others. Most of it seemed like what I had already believed, but there was some new stuff that I thought sounded reasonable. Reformed beliefs on knowing God’s will and the Holy Spirit clashed with some things I had learned in other Bible studies. I was actually quite surprised that there was such a debate over what had seemed simple before. I then discovered Watchman Nee, whose very spiritual and faith-based teachings I found appealing. I tried to reconcile competing ideas about God, but in the end, I decided that some of it was not worth fighting over.

Though I struggled with the idea that not everyone could be saved, based on the Reformed belief that people are too ‘dead’ to ask for God to save them, at the time I accepted it. I began to be bothered by what Reformed writers called false teachings and traditions such as alter calls. I didn’t want anything to do with heresies! I joined Facebook groups where we had heated discussions about theology and I read countless articles about popular Christian leaders who were evidently heretics. I became very vocal and overly-confident about my new beliefs. I was in the famous ‘cage stage’.

Over time I started to settle different theological questions in my mind and I began to see that there are some things that people will continue to debate until Jesus comes back because the Bible doesn’t fully explain them. I was a little bothered that some of my favorite preachers, such as the late, great Adrian Rogers, were not considered ‘reformed’ enough by some of my reformed friends.

After being called out online a few times for being too judgmental, I realized that I was offending many people and not ‘winning’ a lot of converts by arguing, I had to stop. This was not the place or the way to discuss doctrine. Even people who say they believe the Bible argue about various doctrines. In other words, these are arguments WITHIN the church. This is not the unity that Jesus said we should strive for. However, there are obviously some issues that should be fought over, such as whether Jesus actually died for our sins and was resurrected. Basic doctrines are under attack by wolves within the church and we are told by the early church fathers to continue fighting for truth.

But the most important thing I learned during that period was the concept of ‘essentials and non-essentials‘. This is the idea that Christians can disagree on non-essentials and still be considered Christians. Of course who gets to decide what is essential ? After being in a Facebook group that literally got disbanded because people couldn’t stop being snarky, I started to clarify for myself what I thought was essential. I was tired of fighting with other Christians. I decided that what Jesus taught is most essential to me and He said, The greatest commandment is to Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. He also said Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, which is why I am not 100% settled on how predestination works. I also believe that the gospel is essential, which is described in a later section.

To boil it down to an even more basic level, I believe there is only one God. He is real and Jesus really died for me and because of that I have become a new creation. I belong to God now, having been bought with the blood of Jesus and I have the Holy Spirit in me who guides me into all truth and when I die I will go to be with Jesus. And, a critical point, I do not think I did anything to earn my way to heaven. It’s all by God’s amazing grace and his mercy! Thank you, Jesus!

But if I was so into reformed theology, how did I end up in a Methodist church? Back when we left the Baptist church after our pastors left and we decided the teaching wasn’t reformed enough, we soon realized that there are not very many reformed Baptist churches in small town Texas. Meaning that we would’ve had to drive a very long way and my husband was not interested in spending his whole Sunday driving back and forth. So we stopped going anywhere for a long time. We visited a few Lutheran churches, but they were too different from what we were used to.

But I really missed worshiping and being part of the family of God as a church member. As I posted here, I wanted to find a church where people demonstrated through their actions that they loved God and loved people AND taught the Bible faithfully. I started attending this particular Methodist church because the people were nice, they actively served the local community as part of their faith, and a good friend taught a very good Sunday school class there. And I stayed after I decided that the sermons were good, too. Later I found that I was correct about this church being conservative when the traditional Methodist church ended up splitting into a new denomination over changes in doctrine, but that’s another topic.

Part 2

So back to why I believe that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone. It’s because that is what the Bible actually teaches. This is one of the best things I learned during my reformed journey. I discovered that I had been one of those people who didn’t quite understand grace and had kept God at arm’s length. But then I learned what salvation means, why I needed it, what grace means, and why it’s so amazing! I learned that I can really trust God with my whole life, not just some ticket to heaven. I gained new insights into the meaning of sin and the Fall and the world. I began to understand that this world is simply one stop on my journey to eternal life and that everything that happens to me here is under God’s sovereign control, good and bad things.

Here is what the Bible teaches about sin and salvation. God (in his grace and showing mercy upon us) sent Jesus (John 3:17) to the world to save sinners by sacrificing himself on the cross for our sins. This was necessary because it is impossible for us to be good enough to go to heaven. God’s grace is a gift. Jesus fulfilled the law (Matthew 5:17) by being a sinless god/man whose blood was shed for us. The Bible says that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin (Leviticus 17:11). Jesus made the final sacrifice (Hebrews 10) and that rules out doing good works for salvation.

However, people love to argue that the Bible talks about good works a lot. Yes, sure, God intends His children to do good works (James) out of love and for His Glory, but not for salvation; works are done from a position of being His child, not in order to earn your way to heaven; because if doing good works was enough, why did Jesus have to die? Let me say that again. If we can earn our way into heaven, even if it’s difficult, if we try hard to be very good and do lots of works, if that is at all possible, then Jesus did not need to leave Heaven, be born as a baby, grow up, do miracles, preach, and be crucified for our sins. But that is what he did. Why? Because it was the only way we could be saved. Jesus offered a sacrifice that only Jesus could give, a perfect one.

All the good works we do are part of sanctification (2 Timothy 2), being refined and purified to be more like Christ, and we will be rewarded for them in heaven. But if we have faith in Jesus, we do not have to worry about doing ENOUGH works to please God. That is a works-based salvation, just like Islam, Mormonism and every other religion. Christianity, the true gospel, is the only religion that saves you based on what Jesus did, not what you do. Let’s go back to John 3:16. For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him will not perish, but has everlasting life. This verse has been picked apart and analyzed by many theologians. But the whole book of John gives the same message. Jesus came to save sinners who could not save themselves.

That is what the Apostle Paul meant when he said, “23 for fall have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 gand are justified hby his grace as a gift, ithrough the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God jput forward as ka propitiation lby his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in mhis divine forbearance he had passed over nformer sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.27 oThen what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. ESV

Or if you prefer the Message translation it reads as follows:

GOD HAS SET THINGS RIGHT

21-24 But in our time something new has been added. What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. And not only for us, but for everyone who believes in him. For there is no difference between us and them in this. Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ. https://messagebible.com/scripture/?text=romans+3%3A23

But my favorite is Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in chapter 2 where he says very clearly, even in the Catholic Bible, that we are saved by grace, not works. “

8 For by grace, you have been saved through faith. And this is not of yourselves, for it is a gift of God.

9 And this is not of works, so that no one may glory.” Catholic Public Domain Version

So in closing, as I continue on a pilgrim’s journey, I’m sure God will use scripture, the Holy Spirit, sermons, podcasts, and friends to continue to teach me and refine me. I think one reason I am not as involved in the online Christian debates is that they never end. There will be no resolution. It’s red vs blue. So it began to feel pointless. Also, I think God has other plans for me and while I needed to learn those things to be an effective servant, God didn’t intend for me to stay in that arena forever. I am not a fighter. I am a reconciler.

Am I still Reformed? Was I always Reformed and just didn’t know it? I know we like to use labels for convenience and so people can have an idea of what to expect, but right now I just call myself a Christian, not a particular denomination. I don’t feel like my beliefs have changed a lot, although I’m more willing to say ‘I don’t know’ about some things. But mostly I pray for people a lot more now rather than beating them over the head with scriptures. (1 Timothy 2). And God has taught me to have compassion on the lost rather than judgment.

My journey into the battlefield of theology wars was exciting and humbling. God taught me a lot about myself. I trust that God really can bring me home safely to Him. God is full of grace (goodness) and mercy (kindness). He is holy and also a loving father. He cares about his lost and helpless sheep. I have peace that God loves my children even more than I do. He can save my friends and others who don’t yet know Jesus died for them. My job is to trust and obey, love God, and love people. And when I fail, I confess my sin and He is faithful to forgive me. I don’t hate anyone or think I’m better than you if you don’t know Jesus or if you are in a different place in your journey. However, I do believe that the gospel I stated above is absolutely true. Jesus offers forgiveness of sins to all who will believe because He is God. He has the authority and power to save your soul from hell because he paid the price for your soul with his blood. Amen.

12 comments

  1. A conversation with my Mother when she was still on earth included a clarification that WE ARE THE PHARISEES! 😁 Think about it; they knew the Scripture, they debated tiny points of theology, ethics and behavior… like we in the faith for many years have done. And many of the Pharisees believed in Jesus, even some of the “Judaizers” who taught that one had to be circumcised to be saved. And I imagine Father will straighten out all those who do not have MY full understanding of right theology🙄 when we get to Heaven.😄
    (Just in case someone reads this and does not recognize my sarcasm, I do NOT have all the answers!!😉… only most of them.😂)
    Keep following Jesus, fellow pilgrim.
    ❤️&🙏, c.a.

    • She’s right ! And I posted this earlier then my app said it was still in drafts, so I published it “again”, so I am not sure which edition actually got posted .

  2. Paula, I have friends and relatives who are Catholic, and I believe they are saved. I have my concerns about some of the doctrines (such as Mary being co-Redemptress), but I don’t see any of these friends engaged in praying to Mary or saints. If I did, I would definitely say something about it. No doubt when I get to heaven, I will find out about things I’ve believed that have been off or downright wrong. But if we’re trusting Jesus to save us, He is saving us, even in our incomplete understanding.

  3. I will not debate theology with another person @ this point in my life. I have known spiritually alive Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, charismatics etc, etc. and spiritually dead Catholics, Lutherans Baptists. yada, yada, Years ago when I was trying to sort out some of this same stuff, I remember reading a church history book, that had a chart of where all of the various denominations came from, it made a statement to the effect @ that time there were over 430 different variations of “Baptists” 🙂 Yep, 430. We currently are part of a small house church fellowship. Have been since the late 90’s. If I were to take a doctrinal quiz, I would probably fall into the reformed camp. Seekingdivineperspective’s mom said the same thing I have said for years..today’s pharisees are in the bible churches. I live by the mantra, Preach the Gospel to all men, and when necessary use words. that and Brother Laurence’s idea that everything I do, has the potential to be a form of spiritual worship (including every day mundane things..ie When I go to work and am building a house,I am doing it as unto the Lord. I like what you said about the older you get and not being quite as dogmatic…to be able to say, “I don’t know” or I’m not sure” is a good thing. People who are so sure of themselves when it comes to some of these nonessential things, scare me. the end 🙂

  4. I enjoy apologetics but really don’t enjoy arguing anymore about theology. It just isn’t what Christianity is about to me. I attend a church history class right now, which is at the early spread of Islam. It was particularly easy for Islam to convert the Christians who spent their time bickering over fine points of doctrine. Islam seemed easier to understand. There are so many biblical points that sound contradictory to human minds, and we make sense of them often by choosing between two clashing ideas such as “salvation by grace through faith” vs “works based salvation”. That’s actually one reason I appreciate Catholicism; they’re willing to say both/and.

    • That makes sense about converting people who want it to make sense . As I move from black and white to gray , I’m more comfortable not knowing everything. In the gray area I trust that Jesus saved me and I also try to obey God. I’m at peace .

      • Yes, this is exactly it. I trust that Jesus saved me through his act on the cross, and I try to obey God and do what is right, but I fail and have to repent all the time.

      • I think I gravitate towards people who care about God. I have an American Muslim friend. We met in the running community. He’s married with children. We have had good conversations about religion . But of course we disagree on the details . Especially the Trinity and who Jesus is. How important is it that we agree on the details right now ? Only certain circumstances would reveal that. Would he kill me over religion? I don’t think so. Am I worried about that? Not at all.

  5. I appreciate hearing your journey and what you have learned. Similarly, the Reformed Theology has personally helped me fill in gaps that never made sense to me before. I was fascinated by all the new terms I wasn’t familiar with, but so glad to see where differences were coming from. Thankfully, right around this time I learned about essentials and non-essentials to the core of doctrine.

    I think healthy debates are great. But we do need to be wise about where to engage. For friends who are very new to faith because of watered-down theology, I try to present both sides of the coin, while being honest about where I am. Reformed Theology helped me see God’s grace and sovereignty more than ever when I was so fixated on myself.

    Sadly, I’ve seen the snakiness you speak of, from both sides. I think we can get prideful about knowledge and sin kicks in. I do believe there are times for Biblical sarcasm, to make blunt points. But the time for that is not 24/7.

    I am not perfect.

    Knowledge is important. Godly wisdom is commanded. So helpful as we grow in Christ and learn from the meat. In doing so, we must cling to Christ and be able to discern timing for discussion and when to remain silent. Which can be quite the temptation. I’ve been trying to learn from discussions I follow, but rarely comment and join in.

    I do find it interesting in sharing I’m Reformed makes some people cringe. I once had a person ask if I was, and since I did not answer within 24 hrs, his next comment was simply, “Devil.” Err, um, ok.

    • Thanks for the reply . I love talking about God and his Word and how we are changed as we continue in faith . You’re so right that some people think Reformed theology is a heresy . I think many people misunderstand the idea of being saved by grace. It’s not a license to sin and it doesn’t claim to be. Then we have the “free grace” people who say that you don’t need to do anything at all to demonstrate faith, although Jesus says you will know them by their fruit . It’s not fruit for salvation, it’s fruit from salvation. Such a touchy subject! I’m learning to give people the benefit of the doubt if they seem to be trying to please God. Let them grow into their faith . But I think it’s important to talk about how we are saved by the blood because some have never heard that . Keep up the great ministry that you’re doing. 💕

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