Becoming Grace Based
by Steve Kurtright
The Impact of Doctrinal TruthMy life and worldview dramatically changed on July 25, 1970. That summer I attended my first denominational youth camp at Lake Texoma, Oklahoma. July 25th was a Sabbath. Earlier in the day a number of young people were baptized, but I waited until that evening. I noted my hesitation in my testimony written for AIM magazine, "That beauty stayed with me. I was torn between God and 20 years of upbringing in the darkness of the customized church. I let my feelings take hold that afternoon, and I fought God with all my strength, but it was to no avail. That night I became a child of God and a member of God's Church. I was blind and He made me see."1 Don't miss the hint of my worldview as evidenced by my play on the word, "customized". At this early juncture, I was seeing my previous church affiliation as being corrupted with the customs of mankind and void of any Biblical truth. I believed I had united with God's one true church on earth. It believed that the church and it alone embodied all doctrinal truth of the Bible. A heady experience for a new convert. I was twenty years old. It will soon be thirty years since I joined the Church of God (Seventh Day) and I've had plenty of time to reflect.
One month after youth camp I attended a Leadership Conference in Boulder, Colorado. It was there I felt a call to ministry. "It was here l realized that no longer could I continue as just a member of the Church of God (7th Day), the church that has the truth and needs young blood to get the message rolling."2 That was the beginning of my journey. A journey that was motivated by a desire to please God by obeying the doctrinal truths as understood and taught by the church. A journey that was sustained by the pursuit of additional doctrinal truth and the ability to defend it. By this point you may have noticed another hint of my worldview. There is no mention of Christ in either of my testimonies. My conversion was to a belief system referred to "the truth," not Jesus. My call to ministry was not to the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus, but of that "truth." I believe Jesus was present at my conversion and my call, but He took a back seat to the belief system.
The first to benefit from my newfound truth were my parents. I asked them how they could have lied to me about the things I believed about the Bible. I then proceeded to enlighten them about unclean meat, Christmas, Easter, three days and three nights, and Sunday. Concluding my discourse, I told them that unless they came to the same doctrinal understanding as I had they were spiritually lost. I didn't share the joy of having Christ in my life, I shared doctrinal beliefs. The second beneficiary of my witness was a good friend and college roommate. He was a devout Catholic and ignorant of the Sabbath, so I proceeded to tell him how sinful it was to go to church on Sunday. I shared with him that he might as well be a murderer or adulterer since there was no difference in those things and going to church on the wrong day. With the "truth" shared, I announced I was withdrawing from school. I didn't praise God for His mercy and grace, nor did I invite my good friend and roommate to consider giving his life over to Jesus, rather I unloaded on him about my understanding of the importance of Sabbath-keeping.
I quit secular college, moved home and began attending Midwest Bible College. Weekends were especially horrific. I separated myself from my family as much as I could beginning on Friday at sundown. I made a show of getting ready for church on Sabbath morning and made sure I didn't return (whenever possible) until after sundown on Saturday so I would not be defiled by non-Sabbath activities and conversation. Meal times were unbearable. I read the label on everything that came into the house. I was so intense on being pork free that I thought about it all the time. One night I had a dream. I dreamed that I died and went before the great white throne (even my dreams were "doctrinally" correct by this time). Jesus refused to allow me to enter the kingdom. After citing all my obedience, I asked why I was being turned away. The answer, YOU ATE BREAD! The fact that the bread had lard in it was clearly understood. On Sundays while the rest of the family attended church I washed the car, mowed the lawn, and anything else I could do to show my family that Sunday was just another day of the week and meant nothing to me. My newfound faith emotionally alienated me from my family.
Soon I moved out of my parents' house because of the conflicts caused by my zealous stand for my newly discovered beliefs. No one counseled me to move out, but my decision was justified by individuals who shared with me texts such as Luke 14:26, "If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother, and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple" and Matthew 10:34-36 "Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man's enemies will be the members of his household." The justification and inference were there, unspoken but understood. My decision to separate myself from my family was the correct decision to make. Recently I apologized to my parents and asked forgiveness for my judgmental and condemning attitude toward them. For the first time in twenty-eight years there is no emotional barrier between us. We enjoy our visits tension free.
Thirty years ago I published paid ads in the local Stanberry newspaper against the observance of Sunday and holidays. My feelings of exclusiveness grew. Did you notice the trend? It began with leaving my previous church affiliation. My exclusivity then extended to my friends at college, the community and finally my own family. I had "the light" (correct doctrine) but they were in darkness. I was determined to bring them the doctrinal truth they lacked. One year at Christmas time I even wore a t-shirt with the words "xmas is pagan" professionally emblazoned on the front. Later, when I had children, my boys were faithfully absent from all non-church related activities on Friday night. We had them excused from all class holiday parties at school. They were religiously instructed that Christmas was pagan. Their mother faithfully read the school menus so as to warn them early on to the impropriety of eating anything unclean. Requests were made to teachers to order cheese pizza for our boys rather than pepperoni like the rest of the class. Thankfully they are well adjusted and love us in spite of our approach to their religious education.
Understanding the Attitude of Judgment
Unless you join the church from the outside as I did, you may have a difficult time identifying with this zealous behavior. But for those who do, it has a major psychological impact. I literally believed that God had called me from paganism and doctrinal error to spiritual enlightenment. The language of this being God's Church - the true people of God created an environment that encouraged a judgmental attitude. I believed I had wasted my youth because I didn't understand what I later perceived was the truth until I was twenty years old. I lamented the fact that "church kids" I went to public school with didn't tell me about the doctrine of the church. My separatist attitude and my isolation from my family and believers who were not members of Church of God (Seventh Day) were enforced by the church's emphasis on doctrinal correctness, referred to as "the truth." Without that doctrinal correctness, stated or not, an individual was lost eternally. In my mind one may as well have been a Catholic as belong to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I could legitimately reason why just about every denomination was lost except for mine. Sunday keepers, feast-day keepers, pork-eaters (which included jello, marshmallows and those who didn't read labels), those who ate in restaurants on Sabbath, those who ate in restaurants and didn't ask what kind of shortening was used to prepare the food, pagan day observers, fifteen'ers, cross wearers, movie, heaven and dance goers, and mixed swimmers all were lost or at the very least, fallen from God's favor and in need of repentance. Everyone had doctrinal error but me. The environment of the church encouraged me to believe without a doubt that I was "in the truth" and that I had a responsibility to spread that truth. I even found myself judging other members of the church. Those who watched television on Friday night or who traveled distances that required them to buy gas or pay a toll during Sabbath hours were deemed less spiritual than I. Those who washed dishes, rode bikes, read the paper, or picked up their mail at the Stanberry Post Office were all spiritually inferior to me. Somehow it was okay to get and read your mail if it was delivered to your house, but if you had a P.O. Box and had to go downtown to retrieve the mail there was something Sabbath defiling about being around or seen by those who ignored Sabbath rest. It represented a blemish on our witness. How would one know you weren't downtown to make a purchase? While I admit my worldview at the time was a bit narrow, I eventually was less judgmental regarding many of those issues. In time I came to judge only those who didn't purchase Sabbath meal tickets in advance at church conferences/conventions, those who ate in restaurants on Sabbath, those who allowed their kids to participate in Friday night activities and otherwise defiled the Sabbath in much greater ways than watching television or reading the newspaper.
As I reflect on 25 years of ministry with the Church I know that the judgmental attitudes prevail in some degree or another with many of our members and my peers. My coming to the church from the "world" may have heightened the attitude, but by no means do I feel I was alone in holding them.
The Language of the Church
I successfully mastered the language of the church. Our dialect wasn't taught in the classroom or Sabbath School exactly, but the implications and insinuations were there. I could state with all my heart, Jesus saves, but understood that to stay saved I had to keep the Sabbath and observe all the other doctrines we believed. As a pastor, my messages on salvation usually contained the phrase "salvation by faith," but not without the qualifying, "faith without works is dead." To this day, I can count on one hand the church members who asked me how I came to a saving relationship with Jesus. However, I'm still asked, "when did you come to the Sabbath" or "when did you come into the truth?" I knew that "the truth" referred to something other than the idea that Jesus is the Savior of the world. I understood that coming to the truth had nothing to do with a relationship with Jesus Christ. Words like "Jesus" and "saved' were rarely used as they sounded too Protestant or Evangelical. I learned to refer to Jesus as Lord, Christ, Savior, or better yet, Messiah. I knew the phrase "keeping the commandments of God" was our code for Sabbath keeping, which because of its neglect excluded most of the Christian community from salvation. Rarely were others outside our denominational circle referred to as Christians, the term of choice was "the world," which referred to anyone who did not believe the same doctrine as we did.
The language of the church not only colored how I viewed people but how I interpreted the Scripture. "...You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). I distinctly remember when I realized this verse had nothing to do with doctrinal beliefs and everything to do with Jesus (see v. 36). How about all those verses that use the word commandment(s), I John 2:3,4; I John 5:2,3; Revelation 12:17; and Revelation 14:12. I too distinctly remember when I realized that those texts had nothing to do with the Ten Commandments and everything to do with Jesus' instructions?
Grace is now the basis of my salvation. Of course grace has always been the basis of my salvation, but finally I realize it and can say it without qualification or reservation. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2:8,9). I have abandoned all attempts to earn God's favor by my works.
My focus was on obeying the law and commandments of God. My idea of being a true and worthy child of God was to avoid doing wrong things and doing right things. But I learned that it is by grace I come. "For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses: grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ" (John 1:16,17). I am no longer focused on the law and the commandments, but on my relationship with Him. I was judgmental. I was a legalist. I blame no one but myself. I have repented and now give all thanks and glory to Jesus for the grace that changed my heart, my mind, my life! I am grace-based.
How did my transformation happen? Study, self-examination, and surrender I believe. Scripture took on new meaning as I viewed the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament and not visa versa. That is key. Understanding the Scripture through the lens of the new covenant leads to certain logical conclusions just as understanding Scripture through the lens of the old leads to certain logical conclusions. The result was a change in my perception of the content and purpose of the covenants as a whole. Jesus Christ and Him crucified became pervasive in my reasoning of Scripture.
Since writing this article, Steve resigned from the Church of God (Seventh Day) and is now serving on staff as Discipleship Pastor at Grace Place in Berthoud, Colorado.
I love the people in this church. They are my spiritual fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and cousins. My life has been deeply impacted by the teachings and relationships of many. My sharing these thoughts is not intended to berate any individual(s) who had influence on my early days with the church. I was provided godly counsel, a place to live, and community whose prayers contributed to my physical healing. Some of you have been a part of my journey since that July Sabbath in 1970. My journey is not complete, but it is more Christ-centered than it has ever been. My desire is for my spiritual family - the community of believers that I love and serve - to join me in the journey of knowing the joy and freedom of becoming grace-based.
1 AIM, p. 34 (August 1970)
2 AIM, p. 19 (October 1970)
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