A Second Work of Grace

Special Guest Post by Tim Berglund

You’re getting to know some new Christian friends at a small group you just started attending. People are trading testimonies of how they came to faith. The next guy’s up, and he starts with, “I was raised in a Christian home.” Well, now you know it’s gonna get good. The false starts, the flimsy profession in adolescence, the hypocritical teen years filled with make-out sessions and secular music, the slide into the organized crime underworld by age 22, repentance and true faith at 27 to the tearful strains of Love Comes True—it’s all going to be there.

Well, that’s not me. Growing up, my mother was a believer—I think she was converted when I was a preschooler—and my dad took some years of his early adulthood to come to terms with the reality that the faithful Lutheranism of his upbringing was not his own. My family occasionally attended a local Nazarene church, and it was at their Vacation Bible School in 1980 that I first responded to the Gospel and committed my young heart to Jesus. But our participation in the life of the church was uneven, and I did not grow up in the conventionally Christian home that my own children would come to know decades later.

That little boy responded to his new faith by wanting to read his Bible, which was regrettably a verse-per-paragraph King James edition. Mom encouraged me in my faith, discipling me into the moderately fundamentalist Dispensationalism that, in the early 80s, had not yet begun its eventual decline. I recall enthusiastically reading Hal Lindsey and Salem Kirban and unironically consuming Chick Tracts. But tell me when God has ever been pleased not to allow his church to be, in some parts, a gloriously redeemed tire fire.

My family didn’t hold together. Substance abuse, mental illness, and a crumbling marriage culminated in my parents getting divorced in 1990—and me getting married that same year. My new wife and I promptly left our homes in Colorado and moved to Central Florida for college and a new life together away from our difficult families of origin. Church had not been a meaningful part of our lives in our teen years, and was also absent from the first year of our marriage. On a random August day in 1991, my wife pointed out a Nazarene church right next to the university, and said, “Wasn’t that the kind of church your family used to go to? We should visit there.”

We did. She was converted several weeks later, and my faith, which had been asleep, slowly woke back up over the coming months. We were loved and discipled by the healthy, caring brothers and sisters there—some of whom remain friends 30 years later. I discovered I had a mind for theology, and tried to understand what everyone meant by “Wesleyan Arminianism” and why this “Calvinism” thing I heard about was so bad. “Calvinism” was a system affirmed by “Baptists,” whose primary tenet was the pernicious “Once Saved, Always Saved” doctrine that could never possibly lead to holy living.

We attended the “College and Career” Sunday School class taught by a member of the church board who was around my father’s age. He and his wife took an interest in us and invested in us, as committed middle-aged folks tend to do with young couples in the church. They are people I still make it a point to see when I am anywhere nearby in Florida, including a visit just a month prior to the time of this writing.

That Sunday school teacher—we’ll call him Mike—was himself an established, nth-generation Nazarene and member of the church leadership, who it would seem would have held some commitment to Nazarene doctrinal distinctives. But he also made an annual pilgrimage an hour inland to the Ligonier Conference in nearby Orlando. He was something of a Sproul fan, and for reasons unknown to science, one Sunday he gave me a copy of Classical Apologetics by Sproul, Gerstner, and Linsley. I think it’s fair to say that book is a graduate-level text, and this engineering undergrad found himself at the same time completely unprepared to engage it, and also intoxicated by its erudition and its bold clarity. It was a thorough exposition of the Classical method and a critique of presuppositionalism. To this day, while I am delighted with presuppositional methods, I still have no time for Van Til’s epistemology. Get them while they’re young, I suppose. I devoured more and more Ligonier resources, finding in Sproul someone who engaged the faith in a way I aspired to do.

I perceived at the time—and I say this with some embarrassment now, but let me beg your pardon of young Tim’s best efforts—that all the smart people were Reformed, and that’s where I would want to end up.

R.C. Sproul

Looking to this new role model, I saw that Sproul made no time for flimsy pietism, was deeply connected to an ancient faith, and was conversant in the philosophical tradition that had so deeply informed two millennia of Christian theological development. This was a man who reasoned about the faith. Who made arguments for its veracity from first principles. Who had a systematic way of reading the Bible that made sense of it as a whole. Who was, in short, the sort of man I wanted to be.

Back in Colorado now and with a growing family, I realized I could not affirm Wesleyanism anymore. We found a local Evangelical Free church whose very gifted pastor was best described as a Reformed Baptist, occasionally calling into question his Baptist credentials at the expense of his very nearly Confessional Reformed bona fides. We made friendships and participated deeply in the life of that church, but I continued to rely on Tabletalk Magazine and the Ligonier’s Tape-of-the-Month as important catechizers. I still remember the tape on God’s Eternal Decree, and what a balm it was to my soul. It stayed in my car until the plastic was yellowed.

Some would argue that the covenantal lens through which we view the Bible is more essentially “Reformed” than our famed view of God’s sovereignty, but 25-year-old Tim hadn’t gotten that memo. As my own growth created growing tension between me and my broadly evangelical ecclesiastical context, the weekly Renewing Your Mind broadcast—streamed through the Real Audio player over a dial-up connection—was a intellectual and spiritual lifeline.

Late in my 20s, I found an online discussion forum run by Ligonier. There I met more like-minded folks and not a few highly intelligent critics: broad Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and people outside the Christian faith altogether. I saw older, more experienced believers put the tools of the Reformed faith into intellectual practice in what was then a brand new medium (and would now be seen as a positively primordial web 1.0 institution). This was, again, the faith I wanted to have.

As the tension between me and evangelicalism grew, eventually we decided we would seek a new church home in a Confessionally Reformed denomination. By this point in the mid-2000s, I was in the stereotypical place of being convinced of the overall system of Reformed doctrine and knowing I found my safest cultural home among these brothers and sisters, except for…baptism.

But I was honest with myself. I knew it would only take a few months of keeping company with paedobaptists before my own fence-sitting would resolve in favor of the lower-energy state of embracing covenant baptism without reservation.

This is always the holdout of converts, and I was no exception. By this time, all three of our children, ages 7, 10, and 12, professed faith, but they received baptism at the time we took our membership vows.

That church proved to be an overall safe and loving place for me and my family to grow over the next fifteen years. And in that time, there has been so much more joy, pain, growth, service, stagnation, sin, repentance, injury, recovery, and all-consuming grace to tell of, but that is another story. This one ends here.

The next time I’m at a new small group introducing myself and recounting how God saved me, it won’t be with the classic Christian Home testimony set-up, but it will be a story of God’s enduring faithfulness, his providing his own person as a place of unshakable refuge, and his grace in placing me in a tradition I love and can call, with all its faults and dysfunction and dark, cracked corners, home.

You can catch up with Tim on Twitter at @TLBerglund