A lot of people think heaven is a reward to be earned, but I discovered it’s a gift to be received. Most people don’t even think about heaven until things start to fall apart on Earth. My world fell apart during the sixties in the border town of McAllen, Texas, where the drugs flowed freely and the parties seemed to never end.

Rebellion was in the air. Authority was to be challenged, not followed. Police were pigs, parents were prigs and we were stoned as we danced to the tunes of Jimi Hendrix, Cream and Jefferson Airplane.

At 16, I ran away from home and hitchhiked to San Francisco, which served as rebellion central for runaway teens who dropped out and doped up. As President Johnson called up more troops for Vietnam, college students burned their draft cards. Our generation would show the world how to “make love, not war.”

My rebellion collided with authority when the Salt Lake City police arrested me for loitering, which was their term for sleeping on a park bench. After a US Marshall escorted me back to Texas, I became the problem that my parents could not solve. Counseling, therapy and moving to Beaumont, Texas to live with my grandmother only fueled my resentment toward all authority and withdrawal from conventional society.

After returning to McAllen, I began to search for answers outside of drugs and parties. I started to read the Bible, but it seemed confusing to me. I visited different churches, but that left me even more confused. My confusion peaked when I visited a church where the preacher said that Christ died for my sins, and if I would make him Lord of my life, God would give me eternal life. When the preacher asked for people to come forward to follow Christ, I responded.

Eternal Life Is A Gift To Be Received, Not A Reward To Be Earned

I thought that going to heaven was a joint venture or partnership. God would do his part by sending his son to die for my sins, and I would do my part by following him. At my baptism, a friend in the audience sensed my confusion. My friend invited me to a youth meeting not associated with that church. At the Christian Youth Ranch in Pharr, Texas, pastor Wally Morillo said something that totally shocked me.

Wally said that eternal life is a gift to be received by faith alone in Christ alone, not a reward to be earned by good works. I objected. I was sure that good works had to play a role in going to heaven.

Then Wally did something I’ll never forget. He opened the Bible to the book of Ephesians and read from chapter 2, verses 8 and 9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

There it was in the Bible. I could hardly believe what I was reading because it was the opposite of what I believed. Going to heaven or being saved is “not of works, lest anyone should boast.” There won’t be anyone in heaven bragging about all the good deeds they did to get there because living with God forever is “not of works.”

Not only is going to heaven “not of works,” Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “it is the gift of God.” I wondered, “How could God possibly allow people to go to heaven freely without doing any good works?”

Wally explained that when Jesus Christ died on the cross, he paid for all sins. He said it was Jesus’ work on the cross that made it possible for anyone to go to heaven.

Finally, the light came on. I saw the true meaning of “It is finished,” the words Jesus uttered when he hung on a cross. If Jesus completed the work necessary to pay for all my sins, it would be foolish to think that I could add something by trusting in my good works to get me to heaven.

The most quoted verse in the entire Bible now took on new meaning for me: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). I realized it didn’t say “whoever tries to live a good life,” or “whoever dedicates their life to following Christ.” Jesus said in John 3:16, “whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

A famous theologian once said that believing in Jesus is “the hand of the beggar reaching out to receive the gift.” I understood that believing in Jesus Christ alone and his sacrifice for sins and resurrection from the dead requires humility. By trusting Jesus alone, plus or minus nothing, I realized that in myself I wasn’t qualified to live with God forever. I needed help.

Distinction Between Eternal Salvation and Following Christ As Disciple

For the first time, I saw the difference between becoming a Christian and becoming a disciple of Christ. Becoming a Christian requires trusting in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. Becoming Christ’s disciple requires good works not as a means to enter heaven, but as an expression of thankfulness that I’m going to heaven. There’s a big difference!

Knowing Jesus Christ as my savior has motivated me to do a lot of things I never could have imagined. After being such a poor student in high school, I now had a reason to study. I wanted to know the Bible and to prepare myself to tell others that God is now offering eternal life freely to all who believe in Jesus as their savior.

I graduated from Florida Bible College and then pursued a master’s degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Next, my studies took me to the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where I obtained another master’s degree. As someone who never graduated from high school, I have to smile when I think of how much God’s grace has changed my desires.

I’ve seen my journey-of-faith newspaper articles appear in The Washington Post and other major newspapers that received my stories through The New York Times News Service. My newspaper column, Kids Talk About God, has been in syndication since 2000. The children’s website I started, www.KidsTalkAboutGod.org, receives visitors from around the world.

I traveled literally around the world when I produced and directed the Mission Explorers Video Series, which features the adventures of an 11-year-old girl who reports on the activities of missionaries in far away places. Also, I’ve awarded 19 dude ranch family vacations to children who wrote and drew for the online storybook Bible I’m writing, Kids Color Me Bible Gospel of John. More recently, I awarded the 20th dude ranch vacation to the winner of the Rio Grande Valley Children’s Arts Festival.

My latest project is FaithProfiles.org, where Christians can learn to write their testimonies in Journey-of-Faith Writing Workshops. We publish well-written stories on this website and design business cards that point people to these stories. I’m working on this project with my ministry partner and soul mate, Lisa. In 2005, we were married, both of us for the first time. This really is amazing grace, especially for me.

The Power of God’s Unconditional Love

God’s unconditional love has given me a confidence I could never have if my eternal destiny in any way depended on something I could do. I want to serve God and follow Christ not because I’m trying to get into heaven, but because I’m grateful that God has given me eternal life as a free gift.

I’ve experienced the abundant life that Jesus promised to all who follow him. I know that following Christ cannot in any way add to the work that Christ did on the cross to secure my place with him forever. Because God’s love is unconditional, I’m motivated to let him live his life through me. I’m not claiming that I always let God have his way, but I know from the Bible and experience that God’s way is much more fulfilling than my way.

My hope for anyone who takes time to read my story is that you would accept God’s gift of eternal life by believing in Jesus Christ alone as your savior. Enter into an eternal relationship with a loving God who gave his only son so that you might live with him forever and experience peace and joy from knowing his love in a personal way.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

The Times Union article
June 20, 1992

He Has a Hammer

Carter helps build housing in Washington slum

by Carey Kinsolving

Former President Jimmy Carter is promoting a new form of Christian theology – “the theology of the hammer.”

“Hammer theology” is a code word used at Habitat for Humanity that describes a sweaty, compassionate Christianity that makes a difference on the street as well as in the pew.

In April 1991 Habitat dedicated house No. 10,000. Today Habitat founder Millard Fuller will dedicate house No. 15,000. Hammer theology has constructed 5,000 houses for poor people in 14 months.

“Seeking out the poor, the hungry, the deprived, the scorned, the friendless and the needy” is where Christ cast his lot and did his ministry, said Carter, after a morning of sawing and hammering in Southeast Washington.

Clad in soiled jeans, work boots and a red bandanna, Carter hammered, sawed and lifted along with the designated homeowner, grandmother Elsie Jones, who is raising three grandchildren, Felicia, 13; LaShaun, 10; and Robert, 2.

Six hundred volunteers joined the Carters to build 10 houses in one of Washington’s most poverty-stricken neighborhoods. The houses represent the 10th Jimmy Carter Work Project, which has become an annual event scheduled for the third week in June.

As governor and president, Carter said he had tried to write laws that addressed the poor. But Habitat has taken him beyond the legislative into the practical aspects of helping the poor.

Carter said Habitat has provided an opportunity for him “to get to know families that are genuinely in need, and to see the worth of them, the dignity, the ambition, the motivation, the hard work and the dedication,” which he added, “equals mine.”

This sometimes shocks the affluent, Carter said, who often do not know a poor person. As he talked, he seemed almost more at ease as a laborer brushing shoulders with the poor than he did as chief executive addressing members of Congress.

Carter, a long-time Sunday School teacher at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga., said that often congregations talk about ministering to the poor, but rarely are they aware of their needs.

“All of us are inclined to feel more comfortable in a homogeneous group,” Carter said.

An Atlanta minister recently expressed frustration to Carter over his inability to get people living in housing projects to attend church. Carter’s advice: “Get out of church. Go where they are and see what their needs are.”

Habitat started officially in 1976, but unofficially when founder Millard Fuller went to Zaire with a church group to build not-for-profit houses in 1968. With a beginning undergirded with little except prayer and vision for what God could do, Habitat has grown into one of the nation’s largest home builders.

The National Association of Home Builders ranked Habitat No. 62 among all home builders for 1990 and last year, No. 27. Fuller expects this year’s ranking to place Habitat in the top 10 and by 1994, “I expect Habitat to be the No. 1 home builder in the United States,” Fuller said.

“The primary importance of Habitat is not how many houses we build, but it is the witness that we make,” Fuller said.

And that witness is being distorted, Fuller said.

He expressed disgust toward some media who omit the Christian motivations undergirding his organization and the way it operates. A Washington-area television station, Fuller said, reported that Habitat is giving away houses. Habitat sells houses at cost to applicants who qualify and charges no interest on loans to comply with a mandate in the Hebrew scriptures that forbids charging interest to poor people.

Fuller’s message? Christians are recipients of the grace of God through Christ. “Because of no good deeds on our part, Christ came to this earth and died for our sins. That’s called grace – God’s unmerited love,” he said.

“The other side of the coin of grace is disgrace. It is a disgraceful situation for people who are the recipients of God’s grace to allow fellow human beings to languish in the pitiful conditions such as the inner city of Washington.”

Every morning before Habitat volunteers – including the Carters – leave Gallaudet University, where they are being housed for the week, they can attend a service consisting of a Bible lesson and prayer.

Fuller describes Habitat as an “alive, dynamic, Christ-centered movement” that welcomes Christians and non-Christians to participate in building houses for the poor.

Fuller takes special delight when people listen to the message behind the sweat, nails and saws. Recently, Fuller returned to the site of a Jimmy Carter Work Project in Charlotte, N.C. He spotted a 5-year-old boy playing in the yard of the house that Carter had helped build.

After complimenting the boy on his beautiful home, he asked him who built it, expecting to hear the boy say, “Jimmy Carter.”

Instead, the boy said, “Jesus built my house.”

Washington Post article
February 15, 1992

In McLean Class, They Learn to Accept God’s Love

by Carey Kinsolving

Jo Starbuck was addicted to perfection. So when her efforts to have a perfect marriage were spoiled by separation and divorce, she felt utterly worthless.

Tom McMahon spent years trying to resolve guilt over his father’s suicide. When he went to church, he felt only more condemnation.

Now, they both feel better about themselves.

Starbuck and McMahon are among those participating in a class at the McLean Bible Church, in which they’re learning to accept love instead of the rejection, guilt and frustration associated with real or imagined failures.

The class for single parents started in 1985, with McMahon teaching it. He said about 15 people attend the Sunday morning class, but the turnover is high because of marriage and job transfers.

Newcomers to the 1,200-member church, which meets at Langley High School because it has outgrown its facilities, usually find out about the class through checking off a box on a visitors’ card.

In October of 1990, a friend gave McMahon a book by Bob George entitled “Classic Christianity.” McMahon introduced his class to the book and began a discussion of its concepts. The book proved to be so provocative that it has become a “reference point” for discussions in subsequent classes, McMahon said.

“The book teaches that it’s not what one does, but what God did that gives people a proper self-image as totally absolved from guilt,” he said.

For Starbuck, 41, a marketing coordinator for a computer software company, the class that she started attending in 1986 served as a catalyst for healing. Starbuck said she recalled reading the word “grace” in her Bible 10 years ago, and pondering, “What does this mean?”

Thirteen years into her marriage, Starbuck was separated and, two years later, divorced. She was left to rear her two daughters as a single parent. Her commitment to perfection took more battering.

She felt, she said, “I had to do everything perfectly before God would accept me. That’s the trap a lot of Christians fall into.”

Instead of trying to do everything right, Starbuck now wishes she had relaxed and enjoyed what God was trying to teach her through her marriage problems. She attended the class for the final time two weeks ago, and is engaged to be married in May.

Although McMahon, 54, an air-traffic consultant, has never faced the feelings of rejection from a divorce, he has had to deal with the suicide of his father. McMahon recalled the sense of guilt he felt at 13 as the oldest of six children when his father died. For years he thought, “I’m one of the reasons he did that.”

Feelings of unworthiness plagued him throughout most of his 35 years with the Navy as an air traffic controller. He felt God was condemning him for his father’s death. He said he tried desperately to perform up to what he thought were God’s expectations.

The teaching of his former pastor only contributed to his problem, McMahon said, because the pastor taught that Christians could lose their salvation. McMahon said he described his former mind-set as: “If you mess up, and you don’t get it right, if Jesus comes, you’ve had it. So here you are going through life checking off all the boxes, always worried about whether you’re getting it right.”

McMahon said he now realizes that he was the son of a very troubled person, and his faith has helped him realize he is a beloved child of an accepting God.

In an interview from Dallas, George described his book as an attempt to apply biblical principles “in real life experiences that involve both falling down and getting up. Most of the time we just hear about the getting up.”

George himself experienced “falling down” – in his case, emotionally. He was teaching at a Bible college, writing Bible-study books, doing a 15-minute daily radio broadcast and was, as he put it, “busy and barren.”

George said he was doing all the right things, but had forgotten that the Christian life is allowing Christ to live through you, not just a lifestyle. He began to realize his problem when, for no apparent reason, he burst into tears while driving on the Central Expressway in Dallas.

George pointed out that the Bible tells about Peter’s denial of Christ and of King David’s adultery. “We would have left that out,” he said. “We don’t realize that it’s in those [difficult] life experiences we learn about the faithfulness of God.”

Using an accounting illustration to explain the struggle that many Christians face, George said that while God has taken their sins off his accounts receivable, many Christians fail to take them off of their accounts payable.

“The average Christian is sitting around with all of his debts still on the accounts payable,” George said.