Having studied Victorian-Era British history, I also have some familiarity with the art of that period, and this painting, entitled “The Light of the World” by William Holman Hunt, is one of my favorites from the 19th century. I still remember the thrill I had upon witnessing it first-hand, as a near life-sized canvas set up in one of the alcoves of London’s magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral. Although the title refers of course to Jesus’ self-description in John 8:12, the painting itself references Jesus’ words in Revelation 3:20–Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.“ Many times growing up I can remember hearing pastors talk about Jesus patiently waiting for us to invite Him into our hearts, and how He would never force Himself in. As someone who believes that God allows us free will, I would certainly agree with this. But in thinking about my own testimony, and calling into ministry, I can also attest that the Lord pursues us, or to stay with the visual reference, knocks on our heart’s door—quite relentlessly!
I was fortunate enough to grow up in a Christian home, and attended First Baptist Montgomery from an early age. Yet in retrospect my parents did me a great service in never pressuring me to make a decision of faith before I was ready, or could understand the significance of the step I was taking. I remember many of my friends being baptized at earlier ages, but not until I was age 12, on the cusp of adolescence, did I open the door to invite Christ in as my personal Lord and Savior. I can still rather distinctly recall a particular sermon given by our pastor, Jay Wolf, that talked about how no one could ever be good enough to go to heaven on their own. He used the illustration of a man who was honest, loved his wife and family, never cheated anyone, and yet still this upstanding and to-all-appearances righteous person would be bound for hell, except for the grace of God!! This message, while by no means a “fire and brimstone” type sermon, still had a profound impact on me. I think at that moment it began to dawn on me, that yes, even Blakeley Winslow, a faithful Sunday-school attender, prayer, and straight-A student, was in desperate need of God’s mercy. Now I knew that I didn’t have to be baptized in order to receive Christ, and that in fact my personal decision should precede any public acknowledgement. So it was that one sunny, late-summer afternoon, I went outside into my backyard, and calmly but sincerely prayed to ask Jesus into my heart. A few weeks later, I met with Jay in his office, and recounted my decision, and we talked about baptism. My older sister, Jennifer was also ready to accept Christ, and so in August 1992 we had the privilege of being baptized together in the ornate old sanctuary at FBC Montgomery. (for my readers outside of Montgomery, this beautiful building is on the Historic register, and modeled after the famous Duomo in Florence, Italy).
I still remember Jay telling me that my baptism was, in effect “preaching my first sermon.” Of course at that time I had no idea that I would ever preach myself one day, or pursue a calling into full-time ministry. My baptism however began a faith journey that continues into the present. As much as I understand that sanctification, and growing in Christ-likeness is a lifetime process, it is also nice to be able to point to a particular moment in time when you came to faith, and my baptism serves as a special memory of that public pronouncement of the decision I had made in my heart. Turning back to the painting for a moment, if you examine the door closely, you’ll notice that Holman did not paint a handle. The symbolism there is clear—Jesus can only come in where He’s invited, and we must choose to open the door to allow Him in. Inviting Christ into your life is certainly not a “work” in the sense that it means we somehow contribute to our salvation. But God loves us too much to take away our choice, and He allows us to make the responsible decision without which true love is not possible.
My testimony is not as dramatic as many, and yet I am very proud of the fact that my decision to accept Christ was just that—mine alone. Again, I give my parents, Sunday school teachers, and the FBC ministerial staff great credit for encouraging me, and giving me the Scriptural foundation so that I desired a relationship with Jesus—but all without ever pressuring or manipulating me into deciding before I was ready. The great father of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, once said–“every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing and his own dying.” So everyone, regardless of age, church background, or status in life, must be prepared to stand before God and the public as an autonomous individual who has decided for him or herself to follow Jesus. The decision of faith is, of course, just the beginning, of a wonderful walk with the Lord, one that stretches into eternity, and one from which we should never (and by the grace of God cannot) fall away from. In the words of one of my favorite hymns—“I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.” My testimony recounts how I was reborn into a personal relationship with Jesus, marked by undergoing the ordinance of a believer’s baptism. But in an upcoming section on this blog I will tell how I eventually followed God’s call into vocational ministry, and how that calling specifically led me to college ministry.