How I Became a Christian
Dr. Otto J. Helweg
I was raised in a rural community (city of 3000),
Watervliet, Michigan and was in one building from Kindergarten through the
12th grade. There were about 53 in my graduating class. I was a "big
frog in a small pond" and did everything from sports (football and basketball)
to music (band and glee club). I was voted the outstanding boy in the graduating
class and prided my self on being moral. (My unspoken creed: "I don't
drink, smoke, or 'chew nor go out with the girls who do.") I was president
of our Methodist Youth Fellowship and had pins for perfect attendance in church
for something like 12 years. At church camp I learned my first dirty joke,
but after that was active in the Boy Scouts.
We had the stereotypical science teacher who was, at best, an agnostic but a very good teacher. I liked Math and Science and wondered if there really was a God, but not being much of a deep thinker and enjoying my reputation as a "shining light" I had no desire to rebel or question the "theology of the day." That is, I thought God was a celestial score keeper; when I would do good things, I would get a good check and when I did bad things, a bad check. In other words, I (like so many church goers) thought I had to earn my way into heaven. If, when I died (and I never thought of this), I had more good checks than bad checks, I would get into heaven.
The problem, of course, is that if God "grades on the curve," one can never be sure if one will receive a "passing grade." Who knows how many good and bad checks one has? But we don't think about those things, much. I disliked "religious people," the kind that carried big black Bibles or demonstrated any kind of emotion.
I had three scholarships upon graduating from high school; one to the University of Michigan, one to the Coast Guard Academy, and one to the U. S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. I chose the latter. I am not sure how it happened, but I started attending a pre-reveille prayer meeting my Plebe year. I suppose I figured I would get double credit from God for such a sacrifice. I also sang in the Chapel choir and played sports (football, boxing, and lacrosse).
During the Plebe (freshman) year at the Naval Academy, life is tough. You only get two leave periods your first year, one over Christmas and the other Spring Leave. An upper classman asked me if I would like to go to a Christian conference over Spring Leave. I could think of about 500 things I would rather do than spend this valuable leave period in, what I figured, was a weekend of church. I politely declined and went to New York with a friend where we went sight seeing and attended some concerts.
However, by the time I was a second classman (junior to you non-military types), Spring Leave was no big deal so I accepted the repeat invitation to this conference. It was inexpensive and I could take along my girl friend so it would not be a total loss. This conference was sponsored by the Officers Christian Fellowship for Naval Academy midshipmen and West Point cadets.
Upon arrival, I could see this was a big mistake. First, I felt completely out of place, sort of like a person walking into a high mass in cutoffs and "go aheads." Second, I thought I was surrounded by a bunch of hypocrites. Everyone was smiling and pretending (I thought) to have a good time. As time went on, I realized they really WERE having a good time.
The big surprise was that my stereotype of a religious person was shattered. Previously, I considered religious people to be weak physically and mentally; social outcasts who had to flee to church groups to find acceptance (i.e., a tall skinny kid with glasses). It never dawned on me that my theology was inconsistent. Here, were midshipmen who I highly respected. There were cadets against whom I had played sports. There were officers who were outstanding, especially a marine major who was head and shoulders above any of the company officers at the Academy, both in physical abilities and mental sharpness.
Also, the speakers were great. Dr. Robert Smith, a philosophy professor from Bethel College and Rev. Keefe, a Presbyterian minister who was a baseball "nut" and spoke on (of all things) Habakkuk and Haggai (Old Testament books I hadn't heard since I memorized their names in Sunday School, for some kind of prize).
God, with His sense of humor, chose a "tall skinny kid with glasses" to corner me at the conference and ask if I were a Christian. Actually the "skinny kid" was Jim Wilson, a graduate of Annapolis, and was now on the Officers Christian Fellowship staff. Since I defined a Christian as someone who was going to heaven and I didn't know the status of my good checks and bad checks in God's score book, I couldn't answer the question.
I told him that I went to church and asked if he didn't think I was a Christian. He said that if I didn't know, how could he know. He asked if there was a time in my life that I accepted Christ into my life. I answered that I didn't know. Did you have to do something like that? He said that there was no set formula, but normally a person becomes a Christian by making a specific decision.
By that time, without analyzing why, I felt very uncomfortable. I now know that his question suggested that I was NOT a Christian and that my whole theological foundation might be wrong. This implied that all of the good points I though I had accumulated by attending boring church services and pre-reveille prayer meetings might not exist. I didn't want to consider this and rather abruptly excused myself. Jim's parting words were to go to the source, the Bible, which any good scientist would do, to find out God's definition of a Christian.
I returned to the Academy and conveniently forgot about the conversation at the conference. It was several weeks later that I received an invitation from Major Perrish, the Marine company officer I had met at the conference, for a Sunday lunch at his quarters. I could also bring my date.
In my pseudo modesty, I assumed he had recognized my superior leadership and was inviting me over to further my career. However, when I arrived, who should be there but Jim Wilson, the guy that had cornered me at the conference. I may not be too bright, but I could see that this was a "set up." Major Perrish had invited me over so Jim could "corner me" again.
Sure enough, after lunch, they managed to get my date to help with dishes so Jim and I wound up in the living room alone. He asked me if I had thought any more about our conversation. I answered, "A little," which was the overstatement of the year. He then asked if I would like to pray with him and make a decision to give my life to Christ. I answered that I didn't think I was ready to do that.
At this point, for the first time in my life, I was presented with the way a person may become a Christian. Jim explained that when we are born physically, we are dead spiritually, in a natural state of rebellion against God. The rebellion may be very subtle, like being religious while keeping God comfortably at a distance, running our own life, living for self.
Jim continued to explain that there were two ways to get into heaven and find spiritual life. One was to be perfect (which even I could see was beyond my capabilities, it was already too late) and the other was to accept a gift from God. That is, imperfection (sin) cannot exist with God. It is like a harmful bacterium trying to live with an infinitely powerful anaseptic; it would be obliterated once it came within a million light years. In order to approach God (heaven) we need to be sin-free.
This is a dilemma. God is just and cannot merely wink at our rebellion, but God also loves us. How He solved this problem is the greatest story ever told. He entered our time-space continuum in the form of a man, Jesus, and lived the perfect life for us. He then paid the price for our rebellion by allowing himself to be crucified. He proved that this sacrifice was acceptable by rising from the dead and he offers this as a free gift to be received by faith.
Faith, in the Bible, is not merely mental ascent, but actually trusting on Christ alone for forgiveness, and adoption into God's family (eternal life - heaven). All I needed to do was to accept this gift and give control of my life to God.
After hearing this, I knew in my heart that it was true. There was a self-authentication in the message; consequently, when Jim asked again if I would like to accept this gift and give God control of my life, I said, "yes!" As I knelt down to pray, I wondered what this would cost. Most military people understand commitment and I wanted to be sure I could accept the demands of this. I thought of the "worst case scenario," which, at that time, was that God might send me to be a missionary into the deepest part of Africa. That thought was so abhorrent to me that I put it on the "shelf" of my mind, agreeing to go ahead whatever the cost, even if I was not sure I could "pay" it.
After my prayer to give my life to Christ, I was rather disappointed because there was no emotion; no flashing lights, etc. However I had made a commitment. Major Perrish and his wife congratulated me. I was a little embarrassed in front of my date, but left wondering what was in store. Major Perrish counseled me that now I belonged to God, Satan would send doubts into my mind and I should reject them. I thought this sounded like kidding myself that something was real when it was not. Nevertheless, I determined to spend several minutes in prayer every evening before bed time and read a chapter out of the New Testament.
You need to remember that externally, I was a very moral person. The fact that I was really a hypocrite (Pharisee of Pharisees) had not entered my mind. As I look back, it is an act of grace that God's Spirit opened my heart because (I'm embarrassed to say) I had no sense of sin. Everything was going well, studies, sports, personal relationships. I am convinced that the reason I understood the truth of the message Jim brought was because someone had given my name to a group of Christian officer's who's wives made it a point to pray for midshipmen.
This decision happened decades ago and while God never promises a problem-free life for His children, He does promise to be with them and give them the means to overcome all problems. I can attest to that. Having Christ at the center of one's life just makes sense. Why would anyone want to make ill-informed decisions when he or she could tap into the wisdom of one's Designer and Creator who knows the beginning from the end. Assuming you are not a mechanic, which makes more sense when your car has problems; lifting the hood and aimlessly turning screws, wigling wires, etc. or having the engineer who designed it take over?
In spite of having a wonderful wife, a great job, three super sons, I cannot wait to get into heaven. If God were to give me the choice to die now or wait, I would jump at the chance to be with Him. If you are like I was (BC, Before Christ), there are resources on the home page of this web site to help you receive spiritual life. Or, contact me and I will be glad to help.