I Was “Steeped” in My Own “Good Works Religion,”
Until God Put a Burden on My Heart
For years, the Lord patiently paved the way to finally show me my need for the Savior. Looking back, I am amazed at His grace and mercy. My name is Debbie Wilhite, and this is my story.
I was born the oldest of three girls. My parents recognized the necessity of going to church. We often attended a country church within a mile of home. Later, when the church doors closed, we traveled 10 miles to an Evangelical Covenant Church. Memories of weekly Pioneer Girls Club there, religious instruction and confirmation classes fill my mind. Yet, religion itself was not enough.
One occasion vividly stands out in my memory. A Lowell Lundstrom Crusade was held at the junior high school. During the invitation, I walked down the aisle as my 13-year-old heart longed to fill the void. Groups were ushered backstage. Within my group of those who had gone forward, a personal worker handed us decision cards. She then prayed for us as a group, congratulated us, and sent us home. I was like the Sadducees Jesus spoke to in Matthew, chapter 22, verse 29, “Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God.” By not knowing what the Bible declared was salvation, I relied on the prayer of another person for me. Romans, chapter 10, verses 9, 10, and 13 say, “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Note: “salvation”, “saved” and “born again” are Biblical terms referring to the forgiveness of sins by God and the rescue of a person from the power and penalty of that sin. This is God’s requirement for everlasting life.)
“Still spiritually empty, but assuming this was the way that pleased God, I took my signed card home where it hung on my bulletin board for years. All the while, no change in my life indicated true salvation.”
By the time I entered ninth grade, any thoughts of religion were shunned. I filled my life with friends and activities, attempting to balance any bad behavior with good deeds. If I was unkind to my sisters, I’d be kind to my friends. If I was angry at home, I’d be the sweetest cheerleader on the squad. If I’d drink on Friday, I’d sit in a church pew on Sunday morning, hoping God would somehow overlook my sins. I reasoned that I was a “good kid” by comparing myself to others who were “worse.”
At the onset of eleventh grade, an acquaintance invited me to a youth meeting at church. Enjoying the “clean” fun and meeting new friends, I was soon actively involved in the youth group and attending the Baptist Church. After several months of hearing the Gospel, as well as the importance of church membership and baptism, I was baptized and joined the church. I testified of going forward at a service and getting saved (my idea of salvation was not Biblical in that I had never asked forgiveness of my sin and, by faith, trusted Christ to save me). As undiscerning as I was then, I still thought “walking an aisle” was “enough” to make me right with God. Although I was becoming more and more steeped in my “good-works-religion,” the Lord used the opportunities of hearing the Gospel to place a burden on my heart.
“Not only was I hearing the Word of God during this time, I was also seeing it lived.”
Two people were very instrumental: Gwen Bender, the pastor’s wife, with whom I spent hours each week; and Dorinda, a close friend. Now, again comparing myself to them, I noticed some differences. Endeavoring to imitate them, I couldn’t reproduce the inner peace they had, nor the guidance they received from the Scriptures. When Dorinda decided to attend Bible college, I determined to follow her.
That first week at college brought some major changes. My happiness depended on everything “going my way.” The Lord graciously allowed me to fail in several areas I was trusting in for my happiness. In this way, God was able to capture my attention. I failed tryouts for cheerleader; didn’t make the choir; was put on the top floor of the dormitory (with no elevator!); and I was homesick and lonely among the throng of students.
September 11, 1977, dawned a beautiful morning. I should have been happy, but I was aching in my soul – and just beginning to realize it. At the early church service, Pastor Hansen inquired, “Can works save a person?” Having been “schooled” in the Word of God for two years, I knew just enough to answer accurately in my mind. Ephesians, chapter 2, verses 8 and 9 state, “For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.” Then the pastor aroused my curiosity with another question, “Can work save a person?” “Yes,” I thought. Work is what saves a soul: but it is the work of the Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross! The difference between true Christianity, and all other religions, is two letters of the alphabet: others “do” while Christ has “done.”
“At last, my own sinful condition overwhelmed me.”
All this time I had been trying to do good deeds and acceptable works—without accepting Christ’s work that had been done for me. But “knowing” this did not yet make me acceptable in the eyes of God. On the contrary, it increased the burden in my heart and the guilt in my soul. Without this sense of need, though, I would have gone no further in my search for the truth.
I sat through the rest of the services that morning with a heavy heart, and the bus ride back to campus was almost unbearable. Finally, back on campus, Dorinda and I sat on a bench, and I admitted, “I am a lost sinner.” Although I was familiar with verses dealing with salvation, we opened the Bible to see God’s Word afresh. I bowed my head and asked Christ to forgive me of my sin of rejecting Him, and I trusted Him to be my Savior. No longer could I excuse my sins— now I saw my sin as what had nailed Him to the Cross. No longer do I need the right circumstances to give me happiness. The joy of the Lord is my strength within. Certainly being born-again has not meant that I have no troubles. But now, with Christ within me, there is peace, joy, and purpose. It is the peace that only Jesus can give! Nothing happens to me without God allowing it for the purpose of His glory and my good. “To God be the glory…great things He hath done.”