God Took Me by the Hand
Jerry Bridges died in his eighty-sixth year on March 6, 2016. Once or twice I shared the speaking duties with him at a couple of conferences and enjoyed getting to know him. He wrote a little autobiography, God Took Me By the Hand, which threw light on his humble origins in the Depression years of the 1920s in the USA.
He was born with four physical defects: he was cross-eyed, deaf in his right ear, and had deformities in his breastbone and spine. His parents were financially poor, education dropouts, and religiously and socially isolated. There were no boys his age in the neighbourhood, and no toys in the house. They lived alongside the railway tracks. ‘I was probably the poorest of the poor.’ His parents could not afford to give him money for the more nutritious school meals, or 25 cents for him to see the conjurer’s show when it made its annual visit to the school, or to pay for his eyesight to be remedied. He got up at 4 a.m. and delivered newspapers each day. He lost his mother when he was fourteen and henceforth lived at home with his father. Yet from Scripture he came to know that ‘of God and through God and to God are all things’. From Psalm 139 he learned that God had created him just as he was, birth defects and all. God controlled the genetics and God gave him a fine intelligence quotient. Jerry’s book The Pursuit of Holiness has sold a million copies and he wrote more than a dozen other books, all worth reading and passing on. I have just read his final book on humility which is a sweet study of the Beatitudes. He was awarded a D.D. from Westminster Seminary.
By the common grace of God Jerry Bridges was placed under excellent teachers in school and university. In his church he painfully learned that going forward in response to an altar call is not the same as being converted. When he was nine someone asked him why he wasn’t going forward to be saved, and so he went forward, but felt no different. He went forward again when he was eleven, and two years later he did it again but with the same negative response. He said to himself that evening that he was never going to go forward again. Jerry wrote, ‘we do need to understand and believe the gospel, and we do need to put our trust in Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, but in the final result it is the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit that makes us new creatures in Christ.’
Jerry’s brother became the assistant pastor in the church and one evening he called him and asked eighteen-year-old Jerry if he would like to come with him to visit a member. As they discussed the faith his brother said to this man, ‘If you don’t know you are saved you are probably not, because when you are saved you know it.’ With hindsight, Jerry looked back at that conversation and realized that he would not make such an absolute statement, but back then it was a spur to settle his own relationship with God. That night in his room he prayed and said, ‘O God, I don’t know if I need to go forward in church again or not. I don’t want to but if I have to, I am willing. Whatever it takes, I want Jesus to be my Saviour.’ Immediately he had assurance of salvation and quickly went off to sleep. Soon he read Romans 5:1, ‘Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ He had no doubts about his salvation ever again.
Soon Jerry joined the Navy and he came into contact with the Navigators and learned the importance of personal devotions and the memorization of Scripture. Again a sincere half-right statement was used by God to direct his mind into taking the word of God seriously. A Navigators’ teacher said, ‘The Bible was not given to increase your knowledge but to guide your conduct.’ Of course Scripture is not a book of morals but God’s redemptive plan in Christ, but Jerry read the Bible henceforth to believe and obey.
In January 1960 in San Diego he attended a church where one night a woman gave him a booklet and asked him to read it. It was called The Doctrine of Election, and as he glanced at it he was deeply offended. He had never met this doctrine before. He thought that the woman was taking him into heresy. He put the booklet aside and refused to engage with it, but the thought stayed in his head and the very next morning as he prayed he was probed by God. Fifty years later he still remembers how the one called ‘Wonderful Counsellor’ dealt with him.
How many people are in San Diego?
How many of them do you think are believers?
No more than 60,000. Ten per cent.
You are one of them, aren’t you?
Yes Lord, and I am so grateful that I am.
Why are you a believer?
Immediately Jerry had to go back to the love and initiative of God in saving him. It was not a lucky decision. It was God who had made the difference, and so he prayed, ‘Lord, I have offered myself to you before, but in the light of a deeper understanding of your mercy and grace, I present myself once more.’ He added that in the twinkling of an eye he was changed to what he later learned was a Calvinist position. It was a watershed event for him. ‘It eventually changed my whole outlook about God, the world, and the gospel. It eventually led to a clear understanding of the sovereignty of God.’ Over the next three years the woman who had given him the booklet on the doctrine of election sent him books on the Puritans and as he read them and studied the Bible he became a committed Calvinist, ‘but I hope a friendly Calvinist toward those who hold a different view’.
For a while Jerry worked for the Navigators in the Netherlands, and there he met our friend Alan Levy, the pastor in Pontarddulais, Wales. Alan remembers their meetings in a park where they ate their sandwiches at lunchtime and shared their growing appreciation of the doctrines of grace. It was in the Netherlands that Jerry was asked to fill in for a speaker who had been taken ill. This was the first time he had spoken at a meeting of more than a handful of people. It was God’s first step in Jerry’s ultimately preaching the word on a full-time basis.
In September 1976 he began to write The Pursuit of Holiness in his spare time and it was published in October 1978, and I suppose it will never go out of print. God blessed the book because it was indeed a serious call to holiness. Jerry assumed that it would be the only book he would ever write and that he had said all that he wanted to say in it. How differently things turned out!
Jerry once told me that the most important book he had ever read was George Smeaton’s The Apostles’ Doctrine of the Atonement. ‘In this book Smeaton looks at every verse on the atonement from Acts to Revelation. The value of it lies in its continued emphasis on the representative union of Christ and his people.’ He was anxious that Americans read and understand these truths and so in 2007 he wrote The Great Exchange which was based on Smeaton’s great classic.
Jerry Bridges was sixty-five years of age before his first books began to appear. If God had planned for him to be a writer and teacher, why did God wait for so long to bring his purposes to full development? Jerry said, ‘God wanted me to write and teach truths that have to be learned through lots of difficult experiences and lots of mistakes. But by his providence he had been leading me all the way. To him be the glory.’
Jerry Bridges looked back through his life with some self-analysis. Maybe he is right in his diagnosis. It is worth seeing things as he looked at it all. ‘The years 1955 through 2011 were a period of fifty-six years. I look at twenty-five of them as experiencing the blessing of God on my labours. Another fifteen years were clearly painful, and another sixteen were neither particularly painful nor blessed. As I look at these numbers I feel especially blessed by God. I think of relatives and friends whose lives have been marked more by pain than by anything else, and I realized how blessed I have been.’