(Martin Weber’s testimony)

I confess that for the first half of my life, misinformation about the gospel brought me frustration and confusion. From earliest childhood onward, I suffered tremendous guilt and despair despite the good intentions of my spiritual leaders.

Church school teachers warned that God could take to heaven only perfectly victorious children. The rest of us He loved very much, but that would not help us in the judgment. Then they added cheerfully: “But if you pray every day, Jesus promises to take away your naughty hearts and give you clean hearts. You can’t do this for yourself, but He’ll do it for you. Then you’ll only want to do what’s right.”

Well, again and again I surrendered my young life so Jesus could give me that clean heart, but nothing seemed to happen. Temptation still allured me. Much of what I felt like doing either was so much fun it made people frown, or it was fattening. Not much consolation for the boy known as “Chubby Marty.”

One pastor’s wife wrote a letter to my mother explaining that I would be lost if I didn’t lose weight. Her threatening quotations from inspiration failed to bring me courage in the Lord. I’ve since learned that many fat people are going to heaven, and many skinny people are going to hell.

I used to wish that God would be as nice and understanding as my mother. Not a chance. My conscience wagged it’s bony finger in my chubby face and pronounced damnation.

Teenage years brought an adolescent growth spurt that wiped out my lingering baby fat but introduced other temptations. I got the impression from what pastors and teachers told me that any young man truly born again would surely lose his appetite for sinful indulgences. As if he would enjoy spending Sunday afternoons at the local nursing home watching the old ladies knit and reading them the book of Deuteronomy!

Academy teachers worked faithfully yet futilely to weed out adolescent follies. “Young people, you must strive for perfection in Christ, or you will never be ready for Jesus to come,” they warned. “Why be lost when salvation is free! You can’t buy it, you can’t work for it. The grace of God that perfects your life is free!”

Free indeed! Let me tell you, I came to the place where I wished salvation were not free. I wished I could sell my soul to God just to find relief from my tormenting conscience. But no, salvation was free. Just like moon dust, free for the taking but far beyond my grasp.
I know some people who have tried to keep cats around the house but discover themselves allergic to their furry friends. In that same way I found myself allergic to religion. Perhaps others could maintain a victorious relationship with God, but I couldn’t. After years of frustration and failure I finally gave up. “What’s the use!” I lamented. “I’m going to hell, anyway. Might as well forget any hope of ever being good enough to become a Christian.”

Only God knows how many Adventists love the world only because they’ve tried to love God and it didn’t work. Without encouraging them with the good news of what we have in Christ, there’s no use telling them the bad news that worldlings and compromisers are going to hell. All it does is make them feel even more hopeless.

“Now or never”

At the beginning my sophomore year at college, I was more lonely and frustrated than ever. Suddenly, unexpectedly, spiritual yearnings returned deep inside. I didn’t see much hope for success in a relationship with God; my chances seemed at best about one in 10 of making it to heaven. But I had to give religion another try. Nothing else was working.

“Please, Lord,” I pleaded. “Teach me how to be a Christian!”

Heaven seemed silent. The Christians I counseled with just recycled the same platitudes that had confused me in the first place.
Just when I neared the end of all hope, the time arrived for the autumn week of prayer at Columbia Union College. My friends considered the speaker boring; he didn’t dazzle us with star spangled stories. But in his plain Jane presentations I heard the simple message of grace as never before. Monday morning he quoted a promise from deep within the Old Testament: “And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13). A ray of hope at last! If I would search for God with all my heart I finally would find Him. He promised!

Carefully I listened as the speaker explained heaven’s facts of life. I had known, of course, that Jesus died for my sins, a gift received by some victorious quality called faith. Now for the first time I learned what faith really meant. It isn’t some exclusive attribute of spiritual giants. Faith is simply the willingness to exchange what the world offers for what God offers us in Christ.
First we exchange our guilt for His forgiveness. We also exchange our weakness for His strength. Then we exchange our own way of doing things for God’s will. This is faith, pure and simple, faith that brings salvation. Applied in daily living, that same exchange (of what the world offers us for what God offers us in Christ) nurtures Christian growth.

“Seems clear enough,” I thought, “but how do I learn to exercise this faith? How do I make this practical?”

I set up an appointment with the speaker to find out. He shared a verse that unlocked the secret of faith: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).

“But I can’t see Jesus!” I protested.

“He’s in His Word, the Bible,” the speaker assured me. “There we see Him forgiving all kinds of sinners—thieves, prostitutes, headstrong disciples and proud Pharisees. The same mercy and power He had for sinners back then He still has for us today. His love softens our hearts and makes us want to live for Him.”

“Sounds sensible,” I said hopefully, then headed off to class.
Faith is just that simple: exchanging what the world offers from Adam for what God offers in Christ. Christianity had always seemed so complicated, eternally obsessed with attaining instant sinlessness. Now I learned to trust Christ’s accomplishments instead of my own spiritual achievements.

That night as I turned out the light I kept wondering: “Is all this really true? Can God really look upon me and say, ‘You are My beloved son, in Whom I am well pleased’?”

“No!” my conscience snarled. “God can’t smile at you. He’s got His eyebrows raised until you overcome every sin. You don’t deserve His approval yet.”

Then the thought occurred: Did Jesus deserve what He got on the cross? Certainly not. Well then, if He didn’t deserve what He got (my guilt), then I need not deserve what I get (God’s approval). Christ got what I deserve so that I can get what He deserves. He wore my crown of thorns so that I can wear His eternal crown of glory.

There in the friendly darkness of my room I prayed: “Lord, I love what You offer me in Christ. It’s so much better than the rubbish I’ve heard before. I want to worship You forever!”

Like a starving man who stumbled into a banquet hall, I rose early each morning to study all I could about faith. From its many uses throughout Scripture, certain facts began to emerge: Faith is not the absence of doubt but the decision to cling to God’s promises despite doubt and confusion. Faith is not the absence of fear but a dogged determination to trust God despite our fears. And faith isn’t the absence of guilty feelings but the hanging of our helpless souls on the cross of Christ despite being bombarded by guilt.

Some of this I learned right away, and some of it took years to fully understand. The best news to me was that I could consider myself a Christian even before overcoming my sins.

Backsliding into legalism

A year went by after accepting Jesus. I spent a summer in student missionary work and returned for my junior year at Columbia Union College. Eager to devote my life to God’s service, I changed my study major to theology.

Life was going wonderfully. A fulfilling devotional hour every morning met my spiritual needs. Lots of friends and Christian fellowship met my social needs. A New Jersey state scholarship and a good job met my financial needs. The future seemed promising; Pennsylvania Conference leaders planned to hire me as a pastor upon graduation. For the first time in my life, I was not just surviving but thriving.

Suddenly, everything went wrong. I plunged into a deep, dark, spiritual abyss from which I would not escape for three years.

The preceding testimony is from my book, Who’s Got the Truth, written in 1994.

(This is the first post of a five-part series of Martin Weber’s testimony, “My Tortured Conscience,” in which he describes his misguided quest for revival and reformation, which led him to quit his studies as a theology student and join an independent group of Adventists seeking sinless perfection. To read the second post, click here.)