Jesus Rescued Me

I became a Christian on September 4, 1964.  In the following years, I met and married a person who would become my closest and most trusted friend on earth, my dear wife Sandy.  The Lord has given us five children and six grandchildren.  He enabled me to graduate from college and then seminary and serve three churches as pastor:  one in South Carolina, one in Kansas and Grace, here in Central Louisiana, where we’ve been since 1975.

During the summers of 1962 and 63, I lived away from my parents and worked at the South Carolina Home in Montreat, North Carolina, the conference center of the Presbyterian Church U. S.  It was also the home of Billy Graham and of his in-laws, Dr. and Mrs. L. Nelson Bell — Dr. Bell, a retired missionary to China and medical doctor, later became a friend and had significant influence on me after I became a Christian.

At the beginning of the summer of 1963, Billy Graham spoke to the young people working in Montreat — I was convicted of sin and went back to my room and threw away my cigars — I had been an avid cigar smoker since the age of twelve — but I still didn’t comprehend the gospel:  one message without follow-up did not unseat the system of presumptive regeneration and works righteousness that had been embedded in my mind.  I was raised in the old Southern Presbyterian Church but never recall having heard the gospel with sufficient clarity to understand that I was lost and needed to be saved.  The general view of the folk in my home congregation was that all of us were Christians, and if we did the best we could, we would go to heaven.

It was from my high school Sunday School teacher that I first heard the gospel with a measure of understanding.  Dr. Bill Ragsdale, a physician and ruling elder, taught our class.  It was from him that I learned that salvation is not earned by our efforts but from the Lord Jesus’ efforts, that it was by grace alone, received through faith alone.  In time the seed that he sowed was watered.

Raised in a teetotaler home, my father a ruling elder, my mother, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, I took my first drink at the age of fourteen on an overnight, high school outing for All State Chorus, to Columbia, our state capitol.  After the chaperones went to sleep, some of the girls slipped out of their motel rooms and brought vodka into our room.  They were injecting it into oranges and eating them.  I asked for mine straight, took it into the bathroom, slugged it down and then watched my reaction in the mirror, Holden Caufield style — the mirror, the place of existential angst.

So began my three year battle with booze, a battle I gladly lost.  I remain amazed that I never got caught by the adults in my life.  In the ninth grade, after dropping Mama off at the elementary school where she taught, I’d pick up my friends, and we’d go buy beer at a convenience store.  Since I’d passed six feet and one hundred, seventy-five pounds at the age of twelve, along with my voice having changed then, I was the best candidate to go in and buy the stuff.  Three years of getting drunk, and I never got caught until April of 1964.  Then I got caught big time.  That’s when Dr.  Ragsdale got involved with my parents and me.

It was the Saturday after our Junior-Senior Prom, and a couple of my friends and I had drunk a lot of Wild Turkey or Southern Comfort out at the Myrtle Beach city dump.  After getting bored trying to shoot rats, we went to the picture show and then to somebody’s house party.  I became such a wild turkey, trying to drown myself in the ocean, that some of my friends threw me into a car took me to the hospital.  Somebody had called Dr.  Ragsdale.  He met us and took me home.  It was Reality 101 for my parents.  But it was a major turning point for me.  Dr. Ragsdale invited us to come to his home on Thursday nights for a Bible study where the seed he had planted was watered by tapes from George Manford Gutzke, a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary and a clear Evangelical.

Months passed, and then on a Friday night, September 4, 1964, with two college students and two Air Force enlistees, I became a Christian.  I didn’t simply say the sinner’s prayer or ask Jesus into my heart — I had done that many times before and remained as lost as the devil.  That night I sought the Lord until I found him.  And find him, I did. (Jeremiah 29:13) There have been many ups and downs, but Jesus has always remained the same.  He has never disappointed me, though I have often disappointed myself. 

The Scripture — in light of my own experience (Everybody reads the Bible in light of his own experience, whether self-consciously or naively.) — has led me to urge people to beware of false assurances of salvation: presumptive regeneration within the context of a Christian family or presumptive regeneration within the context of decisionalism.  Presbyterian-type churches abound in the one error; Baptist-types, in the other.

Even though we should view our children the same way we view others in the church — we are not to judge them as unbelievers unless there is positive evidence against them — we must beware of inculcating into them the false notion that real Christians are simply people who have been baptized, intellectually accepted the truths of Scripture and live outwardly moral lives.  On the contrary, real Christians love the Lord Jesus and trust in him alone for salvation.  They feel bad when they sin and regularly turn from their sins to God.  They have a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ and find his name precious.

Ultimately, we must not base the assurance of our salvation on our baptism, our joining the church, our coming to the Lord’s Table, nor even on our religious experiences. Our assurance of salvation comes as the Holy Spirit bears witness in our hearts, not because we signed a “Decision Card” or because we were baptized on the basis of our parents’ faith.  (Cf. Romans 8:9-17, especially verse 16 and Galatians 5:22-24) I am assured that God will save all who believe; I am assured that I have truly believed as I see the evidence that the Holy Spirit is making me more like Jesus. (Cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Romans 8:29)

There is no way that we can keep our children, nor ourselves for that matter, from a false hope of salvation apart from the careful examination which strong, soul-searching preaching should lead us to. We must encourage our children to look to the Lord Jesus, to turn to him daily from their sins with godly sorrow, and to believe that their sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake. Yet we must press them to self-examination and remind them that it is only those who have the positive fruit of faith and repentance who should regard themselves as Christians. Their baptism lays on them, as circumcision did in the Old Testament, and indeed as our baptism lays on us, the obligation to make our “calling and election sure.” (2 Peter 1:10)

In short, we must press them to seek the Lord until they find him.

Bob Vincent