By Steve Martin

I. I GREW UP WITH A FORM OF GODLINESS BUT DENIED ITS POWER

     My story is unique to me and yet similar to so many others. In 1948 I was born outside Chicago into a churched American family that would profess to be Christian. My father was Lutheran and my mother was Episcopalian (Church of England). My parents difference of religion was settled by regularly attending the local Episcopal church. We went to church off and on whenever my father connected with the local minister. I was christened as a baby and went through confirmation class in the 6th grade, memorized what I was supposed to say and was confirmed by the Bishop. I was in.

     What did this mean to me ? Sadly, very little. I was not outwardly rebellious toward God the Father or His Son, but they meant very little to me. Jesus was as important to me as George Washington (our first President) or Mickey Mantle (my baseball hero) or Davey Crockett (my American folklore hero)–they were distant figures who played a very small role in my daily life. Similarly, Jesus was an historical figure whose life, death and resurrection would mean very little to me as I was growing up in the 50’s and 60’s. At that time, American was a land of opportunity for those willing to pay the price of moving their family wherever the company dictated. My father wanted to escape the subsistence living of his upbringing so we lived in 8 states and made 12 moves, living in 12 homes!  School was a painful uprooting all the time. I learned to read people, make friends quickly and be prepared for tearing up roots, moving on and trying again! 

     The culture I grew up in was of a stable, loving home, lower middle class mobility, “education is the key to success” mind-set, and the possibility of living the American dream of financial and material success. My father did not particularly like the minister of our church where we lived when I was finishing High School so we rarely went to church. I can remember my parents arguing over whether we would go to church and I would root for my father to win so that we could go get a paper and I could read the comics. Anything was better than boring, irrelevant church.  I did go to parachurch youth festivities to check out the girls and endure the ‘Jesus pill” at the end. but they never told me about how badly I needed Jesus and the consequences of facing life and death without Him. Jesus was held out as the carrot but we were never told how to know Him or how He fit into reality. During my teen years, my morality was kept in check by my parents– and what they didn’t know or discover about me didn’t hurt me! 

     By God’s grace, I was given enough intelligence and aptitude, and later enough discipline to make good grades in school and get some  scholarship help for college. All things seemed possible in June of 1966. Rumors of war, drugs, urban unrest, and debauchery were something that happened in the big, bad cities like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles–to other people. And I did not live in any of those places and certainly was not going to college in one. Bright-eyed and terribly naïve, I went off to college to learn how to be smart and make a living, find Miss Right and live happily ever after. Little did I know what was ahead. We do not know what a day will bring.

II. COMING TO SEE THAT THE WORLD IS MESSED UP…AND SO AM I

     By the time I graduated from High School in 1966, American was in the midst of a culture shift and American lifestyles were changing rapidly. President Kennedy had been assassinated in 1963. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy would be assassinated in 1968 while I was a sophomore in college. An unpopular war raged in Vietnam and thousands of men died for who knew what! The inner cities were burning with racial outrage; the campuses were in revolt against the war and against mindless conformity, the fairy tale lifestyles of the Eisenhower years were now giving way to the “make love, not war” Age of Aquarius. Religion, morality, right and wrong were stood on their heads. We were authoritatively told by our professor there was no such thing as absolute truth. Blacks, women, Native Americans, Latinos, homosexuals, everyone it seemed needed to be liberated from something. The last vestiges of a Christian veneer, “traditional morality”, was thrown out the door with the Bible. Man had come of age and we could do anything we wanted, no strings attached. We did not need a revelation from God for how to live now and face eternity. We would usher in our own golden age unsullied by the “military-industrial complex” and the bare threads of western culture. We were becoming a nation of rebels with a cause!

     Meanwhile, my problems were beginning to mount as my understanding of reality grew. If nothing was true, how could one center one’s life?  What should I do with my life? Why was I even in existence?  Did life have any meaning or purpose?  Did my life mean anything? Was humanity just a chance configuration of atoms? Who wants to pour their life down a rat hole and waste it ?  What should I do about my moral slide and my increasingly guilty conscience?  What kind of person should I look for to marry?  Why get married because divorce was rampant? What happened to truth, beauty, goodness, 

integrity ?  Who wants to live in a society with no truth, beauty, goodness or integrity?

     My professors did not have the answers. Most of them attacked the values and traditions handed down in Western Civilization. My religion professors smilingly told us why we could not trust our Bibles. The Bible was a cut and paste job patched together over the centuries by well-intended but highly fallible men. What’s more, the authors my professors gave us to read for those majoring in English were not ‘great men’ who knew which way was up. One author wrote to show us the way but he died of syphilis at age 32. Another man of great stature went insane. Another died a drunk. How could they show me the way when they did not know the way themselves? The so-called ‘great men’ were frequently more confused and obviously lost than me. Where was I to turn?

     I had already seen in High School that money was not the way to truth, ultimate reality and happiness. The rich students I knew had all that riches could buy (material possessions) and nothing else (love, meaning, purpose, faithful relationships). The great athletes I looked up to were one knee surgery away from oblivion. The intellectuals I knew were too often proud and ugly. Drinking and partying was the way most of my fellow students drowned their consciences on the weekends. Drugs of all kinds became popular and one after another of my friends disappeared into a marijuana haze or worse. Most of my friends and acquaintances viewed women as tools for exploitation, even if they professed to be searching for Miss Right. If I could be honest with myself, I was no better really. I was just less active and successful at realizing my sinful ambitions. 

     After two years of reading literature, philosophy, religion, biology and the history of western civilization, I looked out upon my nation and had the dawning realization that something was amiss in the human condition. Something awful had infected the human race. Something within us human beings screwed us up!  What was it?  And then one day I had the realization that “it” was in me too. It was not just ‘out there” but it was in me too! How sobering. My conscience was guilty but not so much that it kept me from pursuing paths I knew were wrong. I could look a young woman in the face and might profess my love to her but I knew deep down that if it ever came down to just her and me, it was going to be all about me!  How ugly!  How hypocritical! I could profess to love someone but in reality loved myself more.  What a monstrous work was man, was I.

III. LEARNING THAT JESUS CAME INTO THE WORLD TO SAVE SINNERS

     In the Fall of 1968, with the nation spiraling down, my morals spiraling down and my hope of change spiraling down, little did I know that God was already at work to bring me to Himself. My sister who attended a nearby college offered to fix me up with one of her sorority sisters whom she said was a wonderful girl…and a committed Christian. Well, I was taken back a bit. I was not a Buddhist or a Hindu or an atheist. I would have checked the box on some application where one was asked about one’s religious preference and checked “Christian” or “Protestant”. How religious could this girl be? I took the plunge and went out with her and was intrigued in what I found. For you readers who came to Christ as adults, you can perhaps remember the “indefinable something” that attaches itself to real Christians when you meet them. This girl had the “indefinable something” that was both attractive (she was a wonderful person) and a bit repellant (she was attached to Christ). At the end of our date I asked her what made her different. She said that she was a Christian, that Jesus Christ was her Savior and Lord and she lived daily for Him. I did not know what to say to such a person. I dropped the subject.

     But after this one date had to ask her out again and she said “Yes”. This time I was ready with my barrage of questions. “If God is so smart, how come…?”  And on it went. Most of the questions she could answer. Some she couldn’t but it did not seem to phase her. I could have answered some of my own questions. I asked her out a third time and she said the she did not do “evangelistic dating”.  I had no idea what she was talking about but pursued another date. I was intrigued by her and her “indefinable something”.

She told me that a student ministry was holding a Christmas Conference over the Christmas break at an airport hotel in Chicago and over 1000 students were expected to attend. I drove three hundred miles in a winter snowstorm to pick her up and go to the conference. And there was over a thousand students from all the campus sub-groups of that time. And so many of them seemed to have this same “indefinable something”. Arriving on the last day, the singing, talent show and final lecture were all I attended but as I drove her back home later that night of December 31st, 1968, I knew that I did  not have what these people had. Little did I know that God was reeling me in.

     Her parents offered to let me spend the night before I drove home the next day and she played a recorded message for me on “The Uniqueness of Jesus”. Of all the world leaders and so-called “great men”, Jesus was unique. A unique pre-existence in heaven as God, born of a virgin, never traveled more than 120 miles from home, ministered publicly for 3 and a half years, betrayed by a close friend, abandoned by his other friends, the victim of a rigged trial, unjustly condemned to death, crucified, checked and pronounced dead, raised from the dead three days later as he had prophesied, appearing to individuals and groups for more than forty days before returning to heaven with the promise to return.

     The message went on that as the God-man come from heaven,  only Jesus could do four things for humans and that no one else could do them. He alone could give a person pardon, purpose, peace and power. (It is called ‘alliteration’ when the points of a message begin with the same letter, ‘P’ in this case. I don’t use it much but this man did and his alliterated message is still stuck in my brain.)

     As the God-man, Jesus could give me pardon for my sins. “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God”was true to my experience. My conscience had not called my rebellion ‘sin’ because that was too biblical and if true, made God my Boss and Judge. But this day, I realized that it was too true and I had been a rebel who kicked against God and His right to rule His universe. As the perfect and sinless man, Jesus could represent guilty sinners on the cross, God’s place of judgment. He had no sins of His own to deal with. A sinful man cannot substitute for others because he has his own sin to condemn him. But the sinless Jesus, a point the New Testament witnesses made clear, never sinned. He loved and obeyed His Father in heaven 24/7.  The innocent Jesus could take the place of sinful, guilty sinners. “The wages of sin was death but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  How sweet that sounded. What my rebellion and law-breaking had earned was my just condemnation before God’s holy tribunal on Judgment Day. But Jesus came for that very reason–“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  That was me. And He came precisely to take the penalty due rebellious and sinful people like me. 

     As God come in the flesh, Jesus could show me the way to live my life and why as my Creator He made me. Jesus alone could give me purpose. Whatever my purpose in life was, the way to find it out was in knowing Jesus. The great architect of reality, Almighty God, had made the world for a purpose, to display His glory. Man’s sin ruined the pristine planet and polluted the earth and everything and everyone in it. The Bible was God’s blueprint to show us how to build our lives on God and His Son. But my rebel pride had not listened to God’s Word in the Bible so it was no wonder I was lost and floundering with no purpose or way ahead. To hear the Savior say, “ I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly” was more than I could hope. To know that Jesus was “the way, the truth and the life” showed me where truth and reality was. To hear His Word, “no one comes to the Father but by Me” told me I had to come to Jesus to meet my Maker and Sustainer. My confusion and “lostness” was a result of my sinfulness and being cut-off from the sole source of ultimate reality.

      The Bible teaches that peace with God (cessation of hostilities) and the peace that 

passes all understanding (existential tranquility) were the fruit of knowing JesusThe Words of Jesus, “My peace I give you, My peace I leave unto you” were a salve and a healing balm to my soul. Having stood in my place and being damned for my sins, there was no longer any violated justice that the Just Judge of all the earth would hold against me. God was transformed by Jesus’ work from being My Judge to being My Father. The price had been paid. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  The cringing fear of God that we sinners know from time to time was gone. My record was cleansed; I had a new record. “For God made Him who knew no sin (Jesus) to become sin (on the cross) for us (believing sinners) that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”  What a transaction. I knew about substitutes through playing sports. Jesus was my substitute and my stand-in. He was condemned and died and was raised for me that I might live a new life in Him. And besides having the hostility between me and God over with, knowing Jesus as my Lord and Savior meant that He was now running my life and was the Guardian of reality. My life was safe in His hands. I could relax and let him run the cosmic universe and my personal universe of trials, hardships and heart-aches. I could have existential peace, peace of mind and peace at heart, which the world craved but never found.

     The final “P” in the message was “power”–Jesus alone give me the power to be different. I came to understand that Christ Jesus changes a person by giving them the gift of the 3rd member of the Holy Trinity, God the Holy Spirit. As Christ’s personal agent and stand-in, God the Holy Spirit would flesh out the life and work of Jesus in me, personally. I now had divine power to be different. I was concerned that I could not live the heightened life of a Christian. I was told by the young woman who was playing the message that though I was an English major, she guessed that I could not write like William Shakespeare. But imagine that Shakespeare did not stay dead but was raised from the dead and was now alive to give a portion of himself to me. Would it make a difference?  Would I be able to write a bit more Shakespearean? I saw her point. She admitted that the analogy was imperfect but I got the point. God the Father sent God the Son on a rescue mission to save a great host of people. God the Father raised the Son from the dead when His mission was accomplished. The Son was vindicated. The Father and the Son then give the Holy Spirit to those He makes new. They receive a new birth from above, they are forgiven all their sins for Christ’s sake, they are adopted into God’s family as children of God, and they are on their way to heaven. God Himself in the person of the Holy Spirit now took up residence in me, the ‘cleansed and made new’ me, and I could be different. “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation”. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  The promises of God to His people to have His resources to accomplish His holy will are many and varied. I had encouragement for the road ahead.

     There in the front sitting room of that home, it was as if my life was on display in the message I had just heard. I could visualize the great gulf between me and God caused by my sins. I could see how it was unbridgeable by me. I could see that Jesus alone was God’s answer to man’s problems. I recognized that if I did not bow to Jesus and wholly surrender to Him, body, soul and mind, the best that I knew how, if I did not look to Him to save me from the guilt, shame and condemnation of my sin, I was doomed (and history’s biggest fool!).  I bowed my head at the end of the message and prayed aloud for God to forgive me for Christ’s sake, to pardon my many sins and to give me new life, and then make me into the person He created me to be (but which I had so long rebelled at). The young woman I think was a bit shocked because when I opened my eyes after praying, she was staring at me with her mouth open. There were no cataclysmic events accompanying my turning from myself and entrusting myself to Christ that afternoon. No church bells suddenly chimed; no angel choirs erupted; no soft violin music wafted through the air. But I knew I had just done the right thing with God. (Later that night, in my bed, I revisited the whole event and told the Lord that I was definitely sincere and meant what I said that afternoon.. And I went to sleep.)  The next morning I awoke with the first time realization that God was in my life, that I was a child of God and now had to live for Him and with Him. He was a new reality in my life. Life was never the same.

     That was over forty years ago. I did not marry that young woman whom God used to bring the good news of Jesus to me. We parted as friends and have kept up over the years. She is happily married to someone else and later God would bring me to the special woman He had for me. My final year and a half in college were so different than before I knew Christ. Meaning, purpose, love, peace, joy, beauty, forgiveness and harmony made everyday life so different. At times I wanted to pinch myself with wonder out of the realization of the great and good changes taking place in me. Out of the overflow of my love and joy I spoke to my friends at college about Christ. My studies took on a new meaning as I sought to study for His glory and not just my grades or a good job later. I made the Dean’s List of academic achievement for the first time. I became more sensitive and mindful of others. I had a interpretive grid through which to evaluate the world around me and understand what was going on. Given the fact that six billion (at that time) sinners populated the planet, it was no wonder that war, rape, robbery, genocide, lying, fornication, selfishness and the like ruled. The greatest thing that had ever happened to me was coming to know God personally in the person of His Son, Jesus. Introducing others to Him was the greatest thing I could ever do for others. Upon graduation, I went into student work on campuses in America until such time as God was pleased to show me that He wanted me in the church as a pastor. I have been in the pastoral ministry since 1981. The Father has grown me up, taught me to be a husband to my precious wife and father to my precious children. He has faithfully, despite my slowness and stubbornness at times, made me more like Christ. What’s more I have come to know experientially that Jesus Christ is the best friend a sinner like me could ever have! I look forward to heaven.

     STEVE MARTIN