The Greatest Change of All

The testimony of Rev. Gary Benfold

Gary Benfold‘What’s a nice boy like you doing in a job like this?’ To be honest, nobody has ever asked me that question, but I’ve sometimes thought they should. People who knew me in my school days, in particular, may well be surprised at the idea of me being a preacher; I never had more than an average interest in religion.

I was brought up in a mining community in South Yorkshire. I had no brothers or sisters, but it was a happy family without any particular religious convictions. We never went to church and (to the best of my knowledge) I only attended Sunday School once. A little girl sat on my knee, I remember, and I would never go again.

Like many people, I suppose that I grew up believing that there is a God, but that he doesn’t really matter. There is a God, so many want to get married in church, buried in church and bring their children to church for christening (hatch, match and despatch) but apart from that, God can be safely ignored. But all that began to change for me in the sixth form.

I blame Chris; while the teacher was struggling to teach us applied maths on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, Chris was struggling to answer my questions about his new faith. I remember being very sarcastic and superior (hard to believe, I know). I asked all the questions sceptics still ask: how could all those animals get on such a small boat? Where did Cain get his wife? How could a God of love send anybody to hell? – and dozens of questions like them.

In more than 35 years since, I can honestly say that I have rarely been asked a question I hadn’t already asked Chris. To my surprise, he had sensible, intelligent, well thought-out answers for all of them; naturally, I didn’t let on that I thought so at the time! His answers made little difference to me, though. The truth was, I didn’t want to believe, and my objections were props for my own disbelief. In my experience now, I would say that, too, is very common. Still, I was surprised and not a little impressed that there were answers, and gradually I suppose the idea occurred to me that this was no mere academic debate. If there is a God, it might just matter. He might possibly want something from me…

I was being told of a God who wasn’t nearly as impressed with my perfections as I was – a God, in fact, who knew all about the sins of my heart and tongue and deed. No-one’s perfect, I argued. But that isn’t quite true; no human being is perfect, but God is. And he is, says the Bible, a holy God: that means that he is not only perfect himself, but positively hates sin – that is, all kinds and types of wrong-doing.

We hold up our hands in horror when an earthly judge is ridiculously lenient with someone guilty of a serious crime; and in that way, we bear witness to the fact that we know there is right and wrong, and we know, too, that wrong must be punished. (Incidentally, for those interested in following this through, I recommend CS Lewis’ classic ‘Mere Christianity’. In the first chapters he shows by clear reasoning that we do know that there is a God, and we do know that is bad news for us!

It’s one thing though to be convinced by an argument; it’s another thing entirely to feel its power. There are several instances in the Bible when individuals suddenly feel something of the awesome nature of God’s holiness. Isaiah is one case in point: in chapter 6 of his Old Testament prophecy he describes how, one day in the temple in Jerusalem, he was suddenly aware of God’s presence. The result was fear: ‘Woe is me! I am undone! I am a man of unclean lips… and my eyes have seen the Lord.’

That experience was waiting for me – not in a temple, but in a church. I hadn’t meant to go; I was tricked. But anyway, there I was – April 28th 1973. Britain’s most famous preacher (I’d never heard of him) was preaching in Sheffield and I reluctantly went along. Almost thirty years later I can remember the shock; the shock of walking into a building where God was present, and suddenly becoming aware. Aware that what I’d been told about my own sin was true; aware that the holiness of God meant I could not stand in his presence; aware that – as I was – hell would be my eternal destiny. Convinced but still reluctant, I ran from God for – what? About the next six months, I guess – until eventually God backed me into a corner and brought me to my knees.

The same CS Lewis, after describing his own conversion, called himself ‘the most reluctant convert in England’ – and I know how he felt! Coming to acknowledge and know God is a mighty revolution, a more-than Copernican revolution of thought. When Copernicus showed that the earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way around – well, frankly, it made very little difference to the daily life of ordinary people. So what? We can still get up in the morning, eat the same breakfast, do the same job and continue in the same life-style. But Christian conversion is not like that.

To explain why, I need to tell you the other half of the story. So far, I’ve spoken only of God’s holiness, and human sin, underlining the truth that the Bible teaches so clearly (in both Old and New Testament) that God hates sin and must punish it. But the other half is what makes the gospel ‘good news’. This half of the story tells us that God loves human beings – you and me, in spite of all our failures and sins and rebellions. His love cries out for a relationship with us; his justice cries out for our sin to be punished. So, he punished it – in the person of Jesus.

Jesus, the One true Son of God, came and bled and died, bearing ‘in his own body on the tree’ the punishment for our sins. Then, having done so, he offers forgiveness and eternal life freely to those who will have it. It cannot be earned by a life of doing good – even if we could live such a life. It cannot be bought by religion and ceremony. It can only be accepted: ‘The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 6:23).

Now, think if you will of that for a moment. Think of a God so holy that all our sins merit infinite punishment from him. Think of a God so loving that he bore that punishment in our place – Jesus, laying aside his glory, coming to the earth, suffering the excruciating death by crucifixion and enduring the agony, while still on the cross, of being separated from his

Father while our sins were laid on him. Think of him rising from the dead, triumphant over death, the greatest enemy of all – and then offering us heaven, for free. Then imagine taking that gift, and knowing the peace and joy of forgiven sin and the power of a new life within, and the certainty of heaven for all eternity to come.

Now – how could our life-style possibly be the same after that? From that moment on, the God who so loved us MUST be the centre of our lives and thoughts and deeds. In the words of a great sportsman who became a great missionary, ‘If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice I can make for him can possibly be too great.’

And that’s how it’s been, for almost thirty years now. I’ve no greater joy, ever, than telling the world about this God, this Jesus, this gift. So I’ve become a preacher – a Bible-teacher, that’s all – calling on the unconverted to turn to God and trust Christ, and urging the converted to understand better the riches they have in Christ and serve him with greater zeal. In the words of the most famous text in the Bible (John 3:16), ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’

Now, what about you? Reading this, you’ve either recognised your own experience in mine and are a Christian already, or you’ve found it raising all sorts of questions. If you’re in the last category, can I suggest that the first and most important question of all is ‘Is this thing true?’ And nothing can be more important than getting an answer to that, because you too have a soul, and you too must face God one day. How to get an answer? There are several ways:

  • Find a Bible-believing church and go along. (Be careful; not all churches believe the Bible! You could try asking them: ‘Are you evangelical?’ If not, go somewhere else!)
  • You could read some of the evidence: ‘Mere Christianity’ by CS Lewis is still available; your local WH Smith may have it, Amazon certainly have. Or take a look at some of Josh McDowell’s books, especially those that focus on the evidence for faith; again, Amazon will be able to supply them.
  • Or you could follow up some of the links at the bottom of this article – or even drop me an email. I promise to reply unless you ask me not to.

The greatest journey of all is walking with God; and to that I cheerfully invite you.

Links

  • Cornerstone Evangelical Church in Nottingham has a web-site with an ‘Investigating Christianity’ section, answering many common questions
  • Evangelist Roger Carswell also has a page answering all sorts of questions for enquirers.
  • Answers in Genesis is a world-wide ministry devoted to answering questions for those for whom evolution is a big issue.