Big Book Religion II
Bill Wilson’s Salvation
‘What must I do to be saved?’ is the urgent question of anyone who knows he is a sinner.
It is a question Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, faced after repeated attempts to get sober followed by devastating failures to maintain sobriety. He describes his long history of alcohol abuse in ‘Bill’s Story’ (Big Book, pp. 1-9).
But then he had a conversion experience while hospitalized after an episode of binge drinking. After that, according to his own testimony, he never drank again.
It sounds very much like the stuff of an evangelical conversion. Only it wasn’t an evangelical conversion.
The beginning of Bill’s conversion experience was the testimony of his friend, Ebby Thatcher, whose history with alcohol was similar to Bill’s. (Though Thatcher was the key instrument in Bill Wilson’s conversion, he resumed the pattern of drinking and quitting until the last two years of his life, when health broken, he was cared for by a compassionate couple.) Bill recalls Ebby’s testimony:
But my friend sat before me, and he made the pointblank declaration that God had done for him what he could not do for himself. His human will had failed. Doctors pronounced him incurable. Society was about to lock him up. Like myself, he admitted total defeat. Then he had in effect been raised from the dead, suddenly taken from the scrap heap to a level of life better than the best he had ever known! (p. 11)
At first Bill Wilson resisted the thought of God, but relented when Ebby told him it was enough to believe in his own conception of God. This led to the beginnings of Bill’s conversion:
It was only a matter of being willing to believe in a Power greater than myself. Nothing more was required of me to make my beginning. I saw that growth could start from that point. Upon a foundation of complete willingness I might build what I saw in my friend. Would I have it? Of course I would! Thus I was convinced that God is concerned with us humans when we want him enough. At long last I saw, I felt, I believed. Scales of pride and prejudice fell from my eyes. A new world came into view. (p. 12)
As noted in the previous blog, Bill Wilson’s god, Bill did drink again after that visit. His conversion was further advanced when, searching for Ebby, he went to the Calvary Rescue Mission, and there went forward and surrendered to God. Then he drank again and decided to admit himself to a hospital again. There his conversion was completed:
There I humbly offered myself to God, as I then understood Him, to do with me as he would. I placed myself unreservedly under His care and direction. I admitted to myself for the first time that I myself was nothing; that without Him I was lost. I ruthlessly faced my sins and became willing to have my new-found Friend to take them away, root and branch. I have not had a drink since. My schoolmate visited me, and I fully acquainted him with my problems and deficiencies. We made a list of people I had hurt to toward whom I felt resentment. I expressed my entire willingness to approach these individuals, admitting my wrong. Never was I to be critical of them. I was to right all matters to the utmost of my ability. I was to test my thinking by my new God-consciousness within . . . I was to sit quietly when in doubt, asking only for direction and strength to meet my problems as he would have me . . . Belief in the power of God, plus enough willingness, honesty and humility to establish and maintain the new order of things, were the essential requirements. Simple, but not easy; a price had to be paid. It meant destruction of self-centeredness. I must turn in all things to the Father of Light who presides over us all.
There were revolutionary and drastic proposals, but the moment I fully accepted them the result the effect was electric. There was a sense of victory, followed by such a peace and serenity as I had never known. There was utter confidence. I felt lifted up. As thought the great clean wind of a mountain top blew through and through. God comes to most men gradually, but His impact on me was sudden and profound . . . My friend had emphasized the absolute necessity of demonstrating these principles in all my affairs. Particularly it was imperative to work with others as he had worked with me. Faith without works was dead, he said. And how appallingly true for the alcoholic! For if any alcoholic failed to perfect and enlarge his spiritual life through work and self-sacrifice for others, he would not survive the certain trials and low spots ahead. If he did not work, he would surely drink again, and if he drank, he would surely die. Then faith would be indeed dead. With us it is just like that. (pp. 13-15)
In a later chapter, Bill Wilson reflects on his own and others’ experience of conversion:
The great fact is just this, and nothing less: That we have had deep and effective spiritual experiences which have revolutionized our whole attitude toward life, toward our fellows and toward God’s universe. The central fact of our lives today is the absolute certainty that our Creator has entered into our hearts and lives in a way that is indeed miraculous. He has commenced to accomplish those things for us we could never do by ourselves. (p.25)
In the chapter directed to the agnostic, Bill Wilson again describes variables and the invariable of conversion:
In our personal stories you will find a wide variation in the way each teller approaches and conceives of the Power which is greater than himself. Whether we agree with a particular approach or conception seems to make little difference. Experience has taught that these are matters about which, for our purpose, we need not be worried. They are questions for each individual to settle for himself.
On one proposition, however, these men and women are strikingly agreed. Every one of them has gained access to, and believes in, a Power greater than himself. This Power has in each and every case accomplished the miraculous, the humanly impossible . . .*(p. 50). *This is described as ‘an entire psychic change’ (p. xxix) by the physician who wrote The Doctor’s Opinion. Here are thousands of men and women, worldly indeed. They flatly declare that since they have come to believe in a Power greater than themselves, to take a certain attitude toward that Power, to do certain things simple things, there has been a revolutionary change in their way of living and thinking. In the face of collapse and despair, in the face of total failure of their human resources, they found that a new power, peace, happiness, and sense of direction flowed into them. This happened soon after they wholeheartedly met a few simple requirements. Once confused and baffled by the seeming futility of existence, they were making heavy going of life. Leaving aside the drink question they tell why living was so unsatisfactory. They show how change came over them. When many hundreds of people are able to say that the consciousness of the Presence of God is today the most important fact of their lives, they present a powerful reason why one should have faith. (pp. 50, 51)
In the chapter ‘How It Works’, this is the suggested prayer for a person wanting to change:
God, I offer myself to Thee – to build with me and do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage to self , that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy will always! (p. 63)
This prayer is offered as the way to effect Step 3 of the 12 Steps, the first two of which are admitting powerlessness and coming to believe in a Power greater than oneself. It is followed by launching on ‘a course of vigorous change.’ (p. 63)
Why does all this sound, as I think, so evangelical to evangelicals? I believe there are two reasons:
(1) It uses a popular form of evangelical testimony – the testimony of experience. In fact many evangelicals are suspicious of a profession of faith which does involve a testimony of one’s conversion experience, of how one came to have the faith he is professing. It not infrequently said among evangelicals that no one can refute your experience, which makes experience a key or the key component of witness. Bill Wilson’s conversion and the conversion he wants for others is undeniably an experience, an experience he attributes to God.
(2) The experience and its effects sound very much like the Arminian evangelical experience of being born again by faith or the Calvinist evangelical experience of regeneration and its simultaneous effects. One realizes his helplessness and hopelessness. He recognizes that God alone can change him. Upon his experience of faith – new birth or regeneration – conversion, he is changed, notably changed, so that now he is by divine power what he could not ever attained by his own efforts. He sings, ‘What a wonderful change in my life has been wrought . . .’
My guess is that if you could add or substitute at some places, for the various nouns used for God, ‘Christ’ and maybe ‘Holy Spirit,’ many evangelicals would be hard pressed to find anything substantial with which to find fault. They might quibble a little or wish for a little more precision. But experience and change, if attributed to Jesus and his Spirit, would be adequate to make it all unquestionably evangelical.
But none of it is evangelical. The fact that it can seem so is a testimony to how unclear evangelicals are about the evangel.
There is no atonement for sin offered by Christ on the cross. There is no faith in Christ, forgiveness of sins, righteousness by faith, or reconciliation with God. There is experience. There is change. But there is no gospel. There is no salvation.
A person who understands Bill Wilson’s problem, rejects AA’s disease model, choosing rather the Bible’s teaching that all sin is disease (though only one way of looking at sin) wrote in Modern Reformation:
What the disease of sin requires, no matter its particular manifestations, is atonement and forgiveness. We cannot atone for our own sins, nor can we or others do the forgiving. Others may not be able to forgive us; we cannot declare or will ourselves forgiven. As the Pharisees said when Jesus pronounced a man’s sins forgiven, none but God can forgive sins. To put the gospel in grammatical terms, the indicative must precede the imperative. What is goes before what must be. You must be a Christian before you can be told to live like one. To put the gospel in theological terms, justification always goes before sanctification. Your sins must be forgiven and you must be declared righteous by faith apart from anything at all that you do or try to do before you can begin to develop a holy character or engage in holy conduct. Furthermore, the necessary renovation of the heart and reformation of life cannot progress apart from regular massive doses of the gospel. God does radically treat sin when we come to faith. Paul, who later describes his struggle, first tells us that faith unites us to Christ and that the power of his death and resurrection means we have died to sin and that we are alive to God and righteousness. But this radical treatment does not eradicate the problem. And nothing save forgiveness can deal with the daily struggle.
In fact, in some way that I do not fully comprehend, I must never forget that the struggle, even the successful struggle, does not get me God’s favor. Nothing but the forgiveness of sins received by faith in Jesus and his atoning death can get God to smile at me and like me. And nothing but that acceptance by God can enable the struggle.
The gospel is always first and always primarily about what God does for us outside of, not inside, us. It is first and primarily about forgiveness of sins and the righteousness of faith, not change inward or outward. It is about Christ, not about us.
Bill Smith is a PCA pastor and lives in Flowood, Mississippi.
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