In the summer of 2011, NewSpring told the story of Congressman Gresham Barrett, who, after a personally devastating loss in a campaign to replace Mark Sanford as South Carolina governor, joined NewSpring church and found a new purpose in life. In the biographical video, we learn the following:
- He went to a “very traditional family church, Westminster Baptist.”
- God wanted Barrett to run for governor.
- He foundered for six months after losing to Nikki Haley and worried that people would look at him as having failed.
- He has tried to be a “good person” for his whole life and live the “right life” and do what the Lord wanted him to do.
- He got it wrong because he was trying to please himself and man, not God.
- He had been attending NewSpring with his family for almost eight years (since 2003), after which he decided they needed to be members and attend the membership class, which NewSpring calls its “Ownership Class.”
At this point, Barrett’s story is worth telling in his own words:
I was sitting in ownership class listening to Perry, and Perry offered the prayer of salvation. And I had prayed that prayer, and I had heard that prayer hundreds of times, and I heard the Lord say to me, “You pray the prayer like you know I’m your savior, and then when you pray it, I want you to get up; I want you to show everybody exactly where you are with me and how important I am in your life.” And for a moment I thought to myself, well, I can’t do that; I’m somebody. I’m a United States congressman. What will people think?
And I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior for real.
And I got baptized to prove to everybody how serious I was.
You know, we all want religion to be simple. We want it to be neat. We want to be able to say, “I came to know Jesus Christ as my personal savior at 10 or 12 and I was baptized and I’ve lived a great life, and I’ve had a personal relationship with him ever since, but it’s not that way. It’s messy. And a lot of times people have even messier voyages–messier versions or journeys–than I do. But I know it’s not all about me. It’s not about works. It’s not about earthly things. It’s not about who we are or what we are, or me, me, I, I. It’s about knowing Jesus Christ. It’s about being a son of God. It’s about being obedient, no matter what the outcome is.
This is atrocious pastoring, but mainly it’s profoundly sad. It’s made even more so because this story was presented to the entire NewSpring congregation in lieu of a sermon, so NewSpring’s official teaching encourages other people to follow Barrett’s testimony as a model for Christian living.
Before you read much further, I want you to understand that the point of this series of posts is not to criticize Mr. Barrett. If you watch the video, you will see that this is a man who has experienced deep personal pain and has looked to his church for help. This is a man who is a genuine believer with the fruits of a maturing faith. Given what his church taught him, the conversion and baptism he described were sincere attempts to be obedient to God and his pastor.
His pastor, however, did not serve him well, as evidenced by the fact that Noble’s membership class convinced him that he had been unsaved all his life, even after listening to eight years of Noble’s preaching. Until just a few months before his NewSpring baptism, Gresham Barrett served as a congressman in the House of Representatives, having succeeded Lindsey Graham when Graham ran for the U.S. Senate in 2002. Besides his conservative politics, Barrett was also well known for his Christian faith. Soon after his election in 2003, Barrett told The Christian View magazine that his Christian faith would help him make a difference in Washington. Some excerpts from that article:
“My Christian faith is very important to me, and I’m certainly not afraid to say that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.”
While in Washington, Barrett was part of a Thursday morning prayer breakfast with his fellow members of Congress who would share their testimonies, and a Thursday afternoon in-depth Bible study.
Other influences in his life have included Rev. Wilton Maxwell, who was his Preacher at Westminster Baptist Church when Barrett was growing up in the church, and Rev. Randy Keasler, his current Pastor at Westminster Baptist.
“The one I turn to when things get rough is Rev. Bill Ellison, who preached at Bounty Land for years,” Barrett said. “He’s a dear friend. He’s my ‘go-to guy’ when things get tough, with whom I can sit and talk.”
The Gospel of Matthew is Barrett’s favorite book of Scripture. “It’s very inspiring,” he said. “Out of all of the books of the Bible, most of the speeches I give, whether at churches or elsewhere, come from Matthew.” He shares his testimony when he speaks at churches.
At some point soon after his election to Congress, he started attending NewSpring. When he was running for governor in 2010, he told reporters that one of the highlights of his life was seeing his children baptized at NewSpring, though he didn’t identify it by name, describing it vaguely as a nondenominational church in Anderson. “Just that one moment put it all in perspective for me,” he said. “Nothing is more important than seeing my children get saved.”
Like I said, this is not a criticism of Barrett. These statements suggest that he has long been a man who wasn’t confused or embarrassed about being a Christian. He showed the kinds of fruit you’d expect of a mature believer.
Until he got to Perry Noble’s class, that is.
I attempted to contact Mr. Barrett to ask him about his testimony to make sure that I wasn’t misunderstanding it, though, through a representative, he told me that I should assume that his testimony speaks for itself. So, looking at what he said in the video, we find two clues as to why he found himself in an unregenerate state that evening.
- At his first attempt at conversion, he wasn’t sufficiently knowledgeable about Jesus.
- His first attempt wasn’t real enough.
This ought to terrify any NewSpring attendee who paid attention to the story. Here’s a man with a long, public Christian testimony, one who has been going to NewSpring longer than almost everyone except the pastor, and if he’d have died, his testimony was that he thought he would have gone to hell. If a smart leader like Gresham Barrett, who could say “I’m certainly not afraid to say that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior,” wasn’t a Christian, who is? The message of the video is that no-one can be sure that he or she is secure in Christ’s hands.
A powerful church that convinced the faithful that they couldn’t be sure of their salvation was one of the main reasons for the Protestant Reformation. If people can’t be sure that their salvations are real, they must look to the church and to their own works, as directed and endorsed by the church, for assurance of their salvation. With this video testimony, Perry Noble has yanked any hope of assurance away from almost everyone in his congregation.
I ought to note here that NewSpring’s teaching on assurance isn’t always as shaky as it appears in this video. Earlier this month, Clayton King preached a good sermon on assurance. (It was somewhat undermined, however, in the last few minutes when he argued that a present lack of specific Christian works is a reason for doubting one’s salvation, then emotionally manipulated the audience to take actions to secure their salvation–say a prayer, raise a hand, stand to your feet–that might have them wondering later about the reality of their own spiritual experience. Until then, though, most of the sermon was solid.) The problem is that what they preach and what they do and encourage as practical steps aren’t always consistent. If you watched the Barrett testimony and then the King sermon, you might be a little confused.
John Calvin, the driving intellectual force of the Reformation, argued in The necessity of reforming the church that the doctrine of assurance was essential to a healthy church. Condemning preaching that undermined assurance as a “pestilential error,” Calvin described its effects:
Believers [are taught] to be perpetually in suspense and uncertainty as to their interest in the divine favor. By this suggestion of the devil, the power of faith was completely extinguished, the benefits of Christ’s purchase destroyed, and the salvation of men overthrown….
But what is the effect of that hesitancy which our enemies require of their disciples, save to annihilate all confidence in the promises of God?… They … dream of a faith, which, excluding and repelling man from that confidence which Paul requires, throws him back upon conjecture, to be tossed like a reed shaken in the wind…
The safety of the church depends as much on this doctrine as human life does on the soul. If the purity of this doctrine is in any degree impaired, the church has received a deadly wound.
Noble caused Barrett to believe that his salvation was dependent on the strength and depth of his belief in Christ, rather than in the strength and depth of Christ’s grace for him. The problem with linking our assurance to anything that we do is that we can never do it perfectly, and we can always look back on it and see defects. Noble has convinced Barrett to second guess the reality of his conversion, which, if he’s honest, will always look like it was fake. That’s not a critique of Barrett; that’s true for all of us. If you asked me to question my intent and belief when I was saved, I would tell you that I didn’t really believe like I should have. None of us do it right because we can’t. Deep down, we can’t have any confidence in any step we think we take towards Christ. Calvin again:
What can man find in his works but materials for doubt, and, finally, for despair?
As Barrett correctly diagnosed, in his first salvation prayer he didn’t adequately recognize that Jesus alone was his savior. I don’t fault him for that; I’d say the same thing about my conversion. If salvation depends on me knowing the right things about Christ, I must despair. My faith is always imperfect and often weak.
Here’s where assurance lies, though. My faith doesn’t save me. The object of my faith does, and he is always perfect and never weak. He also is the one who has given me my faith as a gift, so, no matter how weak or strong it is at any given moment, it’s sufficient because the one who judges it is the one who created it. (That’s not to say that I can neglect it and be content with a weak and flagging faith. The Holy Spirit calls me and helps me to increase it through the process of sanctification.)
If we are Christ’s, we are his forever. He doesn’t lose his own. Consider these reassuring words from Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17:
Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him….
I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word…. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them….
While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost.
Our faith is in Christ, and we were given to him by the Father for his safekeeping. There’s assurance. Calvin points out that our assurance is as secure as God is strong.
If any one of us but look into himself, what can he do but tremble? For all things shake, to their centre, around us; and there is nothing more weak and tottering than ourselves. But since our heavenly Father suffers not one of those, whom He gave to His Son, to perish; as great as is His power, so certain is our confidence, and so great our glorying. And His omnipotence is such, that He stands the invincible vindicator of His own gift.
How do we know we are Christ’s? How can we be sure of our salvation? If we look at ourselves honestly, we’ll never find a reason for hope. Our assurance is found in looking at the one who saves, not at the one who was saved. A final, re-assuring word from Calvin:
We cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look at him apart from the Son. Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election. For since it is into his body that the Father has decreed to ingraft those whom from eternity he wished to be his, that he may regard as sons all whom he acknowledges to be his members, if we are in communion with Christ, we have proof sufficiently clear and strong that we are written in the Book of Life. (Institutes, Ch 24, 5)
When you look for your faith and see Christ, you are his.
(Next up: Why did Barrett need to be baptized again? Then, what does his salvation mean for the church?)