It was Erna Goulding, a valued friend and a nurse at Children’s Hospital, who sensed that I was searching for spiritual meaning. One evening, as Betty and I left our apartment to attend the musical program that attracted many to the first Baptist Church in center city Philadelphia, Erna suggested we walk a block beyond the Baptist Church and go to the evening service of the Tenth Presbyterian Church. She thought I would appreciate the intellectual approach to Christianity offered by its minister, Donald Grey Barnhouse. But we did not take her suggestion.
The next Sunday, however, I finished grand rounds early, and found my feet taking me to the Tenth Presbyterian Church, just a few blocks north of the hospital. I entered the back door and quietly slipped up the balcony. I was just going to observe. I liked what I saw, and I was fascinated by what I heard. I saw the congregation respond willingly and generously to social needs; this was no empty religion.
I heard teaching from one of the most learned men I ever knew, a true scholar who also possessed a gift of illustrating the complexity – and simplicity – of Christian doctrine by remarkable and incisive stories and similes. I was interested enough to go back the next Sunday morning. And then just a few hours later I returned for the evening service. I did that each Sunday for two years, and except when I was out of town I never missed a morning or evening service. Since I was a busy surgeon, the only pediatric surgeon on the East Coast south of Boston, going two years without a compelling Sunday morning or evening emergency seemed to me almost miraculous.
After about seven months, I realized that I had become a participant and not just an observer; what made sense to that congregation made sense to me as well. And it was new to me. I wasn’t just shifting gears from my parents’ faith to one of my own.It was not until I sat in that Philadelphia church balcony that I really understood the basics of the Christian gospel: that we all are sinners, unable to satisfy God’s standard of righteousness and justice, no matter how hard we try.
I learned that “sin” did not mean just the big bad things we do, or even the little bad things we do, but anything we do that falls short of the righteousness of God. I learned that the word the Bible often uses for “sin” was also applied to archery, and it meant to miss the mark. We all miss the mark of God’s righteousness, no matter how hared we try. Like many other nominal Christians, I suppose I had been trying to live as correctly as I could, but like them, I knew in the depths of my heart that my nature, like everyone else’s, was sinful, and my efforts to reform myself were to no avail. I knew that, like it or not, we are all immortal, and we must spend eternal life someplace when this life is over.
Over those several months, sitting in the balcony at the Tenth Presbyterian Church, the preaching from the pulpit made it all clear: that the essence of Christianity was not what we did, but what Christ had done for us. I understood the meaning of the crucifixion, I understood the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice, I understood the meaning of divine forgiveness. I realized that either my sins were on my shoulders, or they were on the shoulders of Jesus Christ. I saw how the atonement of Jesus Christ was necessary to reconcile us to God.Most of all, I understood the love of God. Like many new Christians – and many old Christians – I found the most meaningful verse in the Bible to be John 3:16:For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.I was a believer.