God is good to me. These five words encapsulate the reality I seek to display in this short statement. After my conversion, the events that had the biggest impact on me were my participation in overseas missions, encounter of the doctrines of grace, and joining a healthy church.
Despite being born into a Christian home, it was not until the age of fifteen that I was attracted by who Christ was for me. Before then, I was a teenager who knew how to hide my anger with aptitude behind my parents’ good reputation. I knew the “correct” answers in Sunday school as well as with my relationships with other Christians.
To the church and my parents I seemed like an exemplary pastor’s son but, before God, I was a proud, angry, lying, thieving, porn-loving, pot-smoking, pill-popping, God-hating sinner. I did believe God existed, but I would not say it was any different than the faith of demons. I had the faith of a Deist, where God created the world and was somewhere “out there” but I did not have a personal relationship with him.
Growing up in an unhealthy church did not help deal with the problem of sin. It was a functional church in the sense that it had all the outward components like a congregation, a preacher, a pulpit, and a big building with a cross on top. Although the gospel was proclaimed in some fashion, it was not the motivation for the church’s ministries and activates. It was, sadly, more of a Russian cultural center that prioritized the Slavic culture and language over the need of reaching the surrounding community with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
During one Sunday evening service in 2001, after hearing an old friend give his testimony of how he came to know Christ, I began to think about if I knew Christ as my savior. A Russian preacher later spoke about hell, sin and Christ’s forgiveness for sin. He then gave an alter call, and that night I repented. While standing there after the prayer I realized that I was forgiven. I was just sure of it. Suddenly it was not only the forgiveness of sins that provided peace but the benevolent forgiver – Jesus Christ. He who was once a distant reality now became my own Savior.
That night my relationship with Jesus changed forever because Jesus became my all-sufficient joy. I felt so alive and happy that God would forgive someone like me. As my relationship with Christ grew, so did my love for his presence in prayer and His Word. There were times I could not get through singing rich hymns like “Amazing Grace” without bursting into tears because I now related to the truth of those very words.
I read the Bible as often as I could. I found myself alive to the Word of God, since the verses I read dozens of times before, now moved my heart and caused me to weep bitterly. By my heart’s response to the Word of God I learned that being forgiven of sin made it more painful to sin. I began to make effort to speak to others kindly with a spirit of cooperation. I stopped watching pornography, taking drugs and stealing. My friends gave me a hard time about it but I began to embrace humiliation for the search of humility.
Along the way I had many blunders, but I knew a change had happened because I could not enjoy the things that I once loved. By the grace of God and with a great amount of difficulty I began to change my friends, habits, and character. I struggled with all these because I was not in a healthy church. I didn’t have accountability or all the benefits of formal Biblical counseling, and to make matters worse the preaching was not nourishing my soul.
In the summer of 2002 I volunteered to help at a Christian Summer Camp for orphans in Siberia. After that trip I began to go as often as time permitted. Those trips helped me see that God’s grace was at work before I was born. I appreciated that God could have made me a Siberian orphan but instead he placed me in a Christian home, gave me loving parents, and placed me in a church. But most importantly, God opened my eyes to the blessings of my conversion and a relationship with Christ. Over the years, while visiting dozens of churches in Russia I encountered Christians that helped me to see how critical a theologically trained and sincere pastor was to the local church.
In 2005 my father took me to a Shepherds Conference and I didn’t know it then but those sermons had turned on a light in my mind that I could not turn off. I began to wrestle with God’s sovereignty. I could not come to grips with the doctrines of unconditional election and limited atonement, and yet the more I sought to disprove them the more I began to believe them. I could no longer read the Scriptures without seeing an unconditionally Sovereign God.
I was humbled to learn that it was God that did the saving and not I. It was humbling to know I contributed nothing to salvation. I did not know this at the time but I began my missionary work as an Arminian because I wanted to save as many as I could by persuasion. But as a Calvinist, I found encouragement to carry on the evangelizing work because God will not lose a single soul due to my inadequacy or my many inabilities. All I had to do was trust and obey God’s word. It was one of the most comforting news, to learn that my salvation was secure and dependent on Christ. I was no longer troubled with the thought of losing my salvation every time I committed a sin. I had begun to see God as one that was “for me” and not an angry judge who was out to find fault. As the Lord was sanctifying me, I sought to proclaim his grace to the world around me.
I would continue to preach at my local church and quickly become aware that I was not going to reform any church single-handedly. In my efforts to reform the church I become spiritually sick, fell into depression and again began to watch pornography. I felt like a misfit because so many people rejected me for my Calvinistic convictions. To make matters worse the preaching did not give me the spiritual nourishment I so desperately needed. I felt alone, rejected, misunderstood and discouraged. The majority of my family and friends had a hard time accepting me as a Calvinist.
In 2007, I heard about a local reformed church called Immanuel Baptist Church (hereafter IBC) through an advert for a Conference by PCRT – Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. That conference showed me that IBC loves the Lord and gospel preaching. Through the interactions with IBC members and pastors, God helped me see that I needed to have accountability, Biblical counseling, and sound preaching.
Eventually I spoke with my father about leaving the Russian church and explained that I needed to be in a church where I can have discipleship and oversight, where I can grow with likeminded Christians, where I can invite people from school, work, or street, and they will be able to understand the preaching in their own language. But more importantly I needed to be where I can hear the Scriptures expounded and the grace therein. Ultimately my father gave me his blessing to transfer membership to IBC.
On December 2009, I became a member of IBC and it has utterly redefined church for me. I was amazed by the power of the Word in my life. This was demonstrated to me through the Biblical Counseling ministry, sound preaching and godly relationships. It was so good to have my spiritual health restored, particularly when I received biblical counseling for my pornography addiction. I felt so free of that shameful bondage! I was no longer filled with guilt and shame.
To my great joy, it helped that I got married soon thereafter. I grew in the knowledge of Scripture through the relationships with mature Christians. They came alongside and helped bear my burdens through insightful questions, pointing me to the Word with loving rebukes, exhortations, patience and teaching. God’s goodness has never been withheld from me and I am indeed excited to see where the Lord will lead me next.