Confessions of faith: Johnston

A man learns that salvation is easy because Jesus has done it all, but that it cost Jesus, the Son of God, his holy precious blood. 

Wade R. Johnston 

“That’s too easy.” That was a refrain throughout my instruction in the Lutheran faith.  

I’d been kicked out of the group class. I think Pastor Karl Vertz could tell I might take a little longer and need more back-and-forth. Those who know me can understand.  

I will be forever thankful for that class. And, yet, as I studied and went through it, That’s too easy was a thought that often came to mind, if not out of my mouth.  

My Catholic upbringing 

I was raised in a good Christian home. If you’d have asked me when I was younger if I were a Christian, I probably would have said, “No, I’m Catholic,” but that would have been ignorance, not truth. I know the Roman Catholic Church in America has had its scandals, with shocking revelations coming from Pennsylvania as I write, but I had good priests. Fr. John and Fr. Joe were faithful, at least so far as I experienced.  

I was an altar boy, and I enjoyed it. It was fun being a part of the conduct of the Mass, and it drew me deeper into what the Roman Catholic Church believed and what life and death in it looked like. I was often dismissed from school to serve for a funeral. I learned the hard way not to let the incense burn me. I served for weddings when asked. I came to know the holy days and why they mattered. And, I can say, I’m glad for it. God fed me, even if the fare wasn’t as rich as what I’d later be served. And God prepared me; I was being readied for the message of unconditional grace.  

I went to parochial school until eighth grade: St. Robert Bellarmine, named after a Jesuit theologian known for his opposition to Lutheranism. My parents sacrificed for me to have the opportunity to study there. I had good teachers. I made great friends. When I was young, Bishop Moses Anderson, the first black bishop in the Archdiocese of Detroit, put his cap on me and told my family I’d be a priest someday. I have the picture to prove it.  

I went to a large public high school, once again, a good school. I was able to take a lot of advanced placement classes and other courses that challenged me to read. I really enjoyed reading about religion and religions. Later in high school I got a job dispatching semis on the weekend. I had a huge cell phone (this was well before iPhones). It made making it to church not the easiest, but my parents rightly expected me to make church a priority.  

My introduction to Lutheranism 

Here perhaps a tangent might be helpful. My mother had been raised Lutheran. She never officially became Roman Catholic. My grandparents on her side were still Lutheran, although I didn’t know much about what Lutherans were, what they believed, and what their churches were like. As I got older, I started to learn more.  

I don’t remember how I ended up going at Peace Lutheran in Livonia, Mich., for sure, but I’m guessing my mom or Grandma suggested it. Pastor Vertz didn’t mind if I brought my dispatching stuff. I also was intrigued. Peace had a nice area behind the sanctuary where I could sit and not disturb the service if I had to cut out to take a call. Those two things kept me coming back and led to me taking a class. 

I would love to say I took quickly to Lutheranism, but that wouldn’t be true. I resolved to do a thorough investigation. I had a notebook and drew two columns on page after page. I read church history and wrote notes in the “RC” and the “Luth” columns. I read the Bible and did the same. The book of Romans, which I now teach, was a mess of highlighting in that Bible. When all was said and done, I had some real thinking to do. 

My parents were amazingly understanding and patient. They were supportive of whatever I decided—whether it was remaining in the Roman Catholic Church or joining the Lutheran church. My maternal grandparents were happy but never pushed me. I grew a lot closer to Grandpa Pitts during this time. He was sick with cancer but clearly excited to see me taking such an interest in the classes. He died Dec. 21, 1995. It was the first deathbed of many at which I’d held a hand and prayed the Lord’s Prayer. I was confirmed Dec. 31, 1995. I never got to commune with him, but I rejoice to know that we are of the same communion of saints and that I share the same confidence he had in a righteousness that was not his own, but freely declared his own in Christ. I still have his Bible, also marked up.  

My allegiance to Christ 

Why did I become Lutheran? When I honestly examined myself, when I thought long and hard about what the Bible, Pastor Vertz, and human experience teach about human nature after the fall, I couldn’t get around the fact that salvation was beyond my reach. We are beggars, not negotiators, before God. When sin sank in, grace made sense. I appreciated the fact that the Lutheran church was plain on the law where the Bible gave law, but refused to come up with its own excuses or laws—whether to ease up God’s demands or to exaggerate them. I was comforted by the fact that the church doesn’t have spiritual classes, that one need not forsake the world to serve God but rather God uses us when and where he places us in the world. I came to realize that justification by grace through faith isn’t too easy at all. It came at the price of God’s own blood. It involves our own death and resurrection, as the law does its work, accusing and killing, and as the Spirit does his, raising and renewing through the gospel.  

I found it freeing to know that true Lutheranism calls us to allegiance, not to an institution or to the decrees and statements of men, well-intentioned and sound as they may be or have been for their time, but to Christ himself, who is our hope and song and sermon.  

I’ve had my ups and downs, for sure, and Jesus and I have had our moments. At the end of the day, though, I find that my ministry and I both have been served best when what brought me into Lutheranism puts me in my place again—when God in his grace strips me of my pride and self-delusion and leaves me only Christ to lean on and proclaim. My hope and prayer are that the same is true for all of us and that the same will be true for the Lutheran church as well as we press forward in a world that needs nothing more and nothing less than the same, Jesus Christ.  

Wade Johnston, a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran College, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is a member at Nain, West Allis, Wisconsin. 


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Author: Wade R. Johnston
Volume 105, Number 11
Issue: November 2018

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