Weighed down by the law, a man discovers true freedom in the gospel.
Julie K. Wietzke
Brandon Hughes is no stranger to religion and different religious teachings.
“What I’ve been used to for 30 years of my life are the drastic highs and lows of the American evangelical experience. I had the worst of everything from Calvinism, Roman Catholicism, mysticism, and the law-based American evangelicalism,” he says.
But through all that, he never found the peace given through the saving message of the gospel. Instead he felt pressure to live a perfect life—something he knew he was incapable of doing.
Then he discovered Lutheranism. “I went to a Lutheran church where they just preach God’s Word and people just live their lives,” he says. “When they speak about the gospel, when they speak about church or the Bible, none of it is forced—it is who they are.”
That gospel message ended his harried search for a way to gain salvation.
He continues, “It’s really wonderful having that peace and being able to rest.”
WEIGHED DOWN BY THE LAW
Hughes was raised as a Southern Baptist in Austin, Tex. “It was very law heavy and performance based,” he says.
He discovered the same heavy emphasis at the popular nondenominational church he started attending when he was in college.
After working a few years in the oil business, he had the opportunity to live overseas in Indonesia. Although he was nervous about how the largest Muslim country in the world was going to react to practicing Christians, he discovered that the city he lived in was open to all types of religious beliefs. He ended up joining a Charismatic church. “I was pretty freaked out the first few times I saw people get hit on the head, fall over, and start doing the flop,” he says. “Without a firm biblical foundation, I had no idea what to think about that. Is this real? Am I a doubting Thomas? Am I not opening myself up to this?”
Hughes says it wasn’t that he was unfamiliar with the Bible—he had read it cover to cover as a teenager. But he said he always was focusing on himself while he read. “Was it Luther who said, ‘If you don’t understand the distinction between law and gospel, the Bible is a closed book’?” he says. “It was very closed to me because I was looking in the Scriptures for myself.”
Not completely happy with his church, Hughes began downloading sermons from popular pastors in the United States. Some were Baptist, and some were Calvinistic. “I would listen to four or five sermons a day,” he says. “I was kind of overdosing in these law-based, performance-based teachings mixed in with the worst of Calvinism and double predestination.”
His failures began to drive him away from the Bible and religion. “I would do well for a while and then I would fall into whatever sin,” he says. “And after repeatedly being faced with my sin, I started doubting my salvation because I didn’t see this gradual improvement in my life. I came to the very difficult conclusion that I was one of the non-elect—I was predestined to hell.”
He says he began to despair. He would read the Bible but would hate what he read. “I was in the process of walking away from Christianity,” he says.
FUELED BY THE GOSPEL
But God had other plans. Though Hughes had never met a Lutheran or been in a Lutheran church before, he—“by the grace of God,” he says—stumbled on a Lutheran podcast about a liberal religious book he had just read. “[The pastor] presented the gospel in all its sweetness, and it’s the first time I can remember in my life hearing the gospel and believing,” says Hughes. “I wasn’t left with something to do. It rocked my world.”
Hughes began downloading Lutheran books and podcasts. He also began reading the Bible again. “Now that I understood law and gospel, it was a completely new book for me,” he says.
While he was thrilled about the new teachings he was discovering, he was also angry and confused because he felt betrayed by pastors and teachers whom he had trusted for years. “All the beliefs that I’ve held in my life—that I had been taught—were crumbling before my eyes.”
He continued reading, buying stacks of Lutheran books when he returned to the United States for his yearly visit. He left the Charismatic church and began holding Bible studies in his home to share his newfound discovery of the gospel with his friends.
His friends noticed the difference in him, and they didn’t like it. After he shared what he had been learning about the gospel, they not only rejected the teachings but also told him he needed to go back to being the person he was before. Hughes began having doubts.
The next time he returned to the United States, he decided to visit a Lutheran church for the first time to make sure he was headed down the right track. “I can’t describe what I felt when I stood among the other believers and sang hymns to God,” he says. “It was a true fellowship with believers—I had never experienced that before.”
Feeling lonely and ostracized by his old friends in Indonesia, Hughes decided it was time to return permanently to the United States. Although he had never heard of WELS, he found Faith, West Newton, Pa., online and began listening to sermons posted on the congregation’s website. He decided to visit.
It was not what he was expecting. “I was still in that evangelical sermon mode and looking for an engaging lecture,” Hughes says. “When I visited the church for the first time I thought a) That was really short and b) That wasn’t exciting.”
He began visiting other denominations closer to where he lived, but he kept finding that old self-help message from his past. He decided to return to Faith, the church that gave him the message of the gospel.
“What I absolutely love—it sounds silly—is that Pastor preaches what the Bible says,”—a practice Hughes wasn’t used to. He says he appreciates it when pastors go through Scripture verse by verse in their sermons instead of using the text as a springboard into popular contemporary issues.
Hughes started taking Bible information class at Faith and was confirmed in 2013.
“The thing that struck me the most is how normal everyone was in church,” he says. “It’s just normal people living normal lives, fueled by the gospel.”
Julie Wietzke is managing editor of Forward in Christ magazine.
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Author: Julie K. Wietzke
Volume 103, Number 4
Issue: April 2016
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