They’re mighty reports,
Of God’s interrupting the sinner’s run to hell,
Turning him heav’nward,
To life, by gifted faith, in Christ;
These, are testimonies.
These, our testimonies.[1]

One reason I love editing The Front Porch is because I get to hear testimonies often. The job has its quirks, though. For example, I can’t help but think of The Front Porch’s website when I hear the words, “the front porch.” Yeah, I know – tough life. Nonetheless, I was eating my oatmeal one morning and reading a poem by Langston Hughes. It mentioned – no surprise –  “the front porch.” As a rookie poet, I figure to write better poetry, I better read the best poetry.  And O, does Hughes hoist a proud trophy among that camp. Born this month (Feb. 1) in 1902, Hughes is a champion of the Black community, a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and a laureate of modern American poetry. The book I’m reading about him crowns his writing well in this summary:

“Hughes wrote a fundamentally new kind of verse – one that told of the joys and sorrows, the trials and triumphs, of ordinary black folk, in the language of their typical speech and composed out of a genuine love for these people.”[2]

The poem I stumbled on captures this love and black culture:

“Aunt Sue has a head full of stories.
Aunt Sue has a whole heart full of stories.
Summer nights on the front porch.
Aunt Sue cuddles a brown-faced child to her bosom
And tells him stories.”[3]

We could delight more in the treasures Hughes’ pen spilled. But as I read this, what sprang to mind was a tragedy Hughes’ pen bled. It’s a testimony of sorts. Really, it’s an anti-testimony; it’s Hughes recalling when, where, why, and how he rejected Christ. Take a look at his words:

“I was saved from sin when I was going on thirteen. But not really saved. It happened like this: There was a big revival at my Auntie Reed’s church. Every night for weeks there had been much preaching, singing, praying, and shouting…Finally all the young people had gone to the altar and were saved, but one boy and me. He was a rounder’s son named Westley. Westley and I were surrounded by sisters and deacons praying. It was very hot in the church, and getting late now. Finally Westley said to me in a whisper, ‘G* d*!  I’m tired o’ sitting here. Let’s get up and be saved.’ 

So he got up and was saved.  

Then I was left all alone on the mourner’s bench. My aunt came and knelt at my knees and cried, while prayers and songs swirled all around me in the little church. The whole congregation prayed for me alone, in a mighty wail of moans…God had not struck Westley dead for taking his name in vain or for lying in the temple. So I decided that maybe to save further trouble, I’d better lie, too, and say that Jesus had come, and get up and be saved. 

So I got up.  

Suddenly the whole room broke into a sea of shouting, as they saw me rise…I couldn’t bear to tell her that I had lied, that I had deceived everybody in the church, that I hadn’t seen Jesus, and that now I didn’t believe there was a Jesus any more…”[4]

As I thought about Hughes’ saddening words, eight implications occurred to me for church practice. I thought I’d share them for what they’re worth:

“…now I didn’t believe there was a Jesus anymore…”

1. Our churches should make clear (1) what the gospel is and isn’t and (2) what true conversion is and isn’t. Thus, we must explicitly say words like “belief, repentance, and baptism” and we have to biblically define those words. We don’t know from Hughes’ anti-testimony that he ever actually heard the only message that saves – the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 10:17).

2. Our churches should graciously and thoroughly inspect and instruct candidates for baptism and church membership. This protects the inspected’s soul and the church’s witness.

3. Our churches should consider that some among our numbers would knowingly lie about their conversion (like Langston and Westley). False professors may be in our pews (2 Cor. 13:5) or our pulpits (1 Peter 2:1-3). Though we may feel very sincere for someone, we can be very deceived by that person as well (like Langston’s aunt). We must guard one another from deception (Hebrews 3:12-13).

4. Our churches should not necessarily be discouraged if false converts harden their hearts toward Jesus in response to their experience with us on Sunday morning. It is the Lord who ultimately revives the heart (Eph. 2:1-11).

5. Our churches should recognize that they can, to a fault, place too much emotional pressure on people. We must be careful of peer (emotional) pressure. How many youth groups have Westleys that encourage Langstons to lie?[5] We must be careful of parent pressure as well. How many parents have said to their child, “it’s about time for you to get baptized.” If anything, Langston’s story shows us the particular vulnerability of children. So be clear, courageous, and gracious in your pursuit of sharing the truth with children – but be patient as well. Build relationships, teach them the Scriptures, and seek genuine fruits of the Spirit that signify their conversion (Galatians 5:16-23).

6. Our churches should not assume that physical or emotional responses – tears, walking an isle, raising hands, etc. – means that someone is saved. Phil expounds on this danger in his article, “Where’s the Altar Call?”

7. Our churches should be safe places for people to confess their weaknesses, fears, and doubts (Romans 12:14-21). Langston couldn’t bear to say that he lied about his conversion. Are we making people more afraid of our judgment or God’s?

8. “And such were some of you.” (1 Corinthians 6:11)

Our churches must be remember these words, lest we think Langston’s story couldn’t easily be our own. But by God’s grace some of us who lied in the temple weren’t struck dead; we were made alive. By God’s grace, some of us who cussed in churches and were “so tired o’ sitting there” now sit in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. By God’s grace, some of us who didn’t believe there was a Jesus any more, now believe there’s a Jesus forevermore!

“For by grace [we] have been saved through faith. And this is not [our] own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9)

Those are some implications that struck me. What about you?


[1] A poem I wrote titled, “Of Christians, A Theme”

[2] The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel (Vintage, 1995), p. 4.

[3] “Aunt Sue’s Stories” from the Crisis (July 1921; it was first published here), p. 121. Found in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, p. 23.

[4]  “Salvation” from The Big Sea (1940) cited in James A. Haught, 2000 Years of Disbelief (1996), p. 270.

[5] This is not to say that churches cannot swing to the other side of the pendulum and place too little pressure on the emotions. This pressure is not inherently evil by any means – and we Reformed types can be too quick to make it seem so. Yet Paul pleads for the Israelite’s salvation in Romans 9:3-10. Great wisdom and discernment is needed here.


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6 Comments

  • Avatar Scherida Vaughan says:

    Mr. Adams,

    I truly enjoyed reading this post. I was reminded of my mother giving her own personal account of her “mourner’s bench” conversion. She told us that the Lord had shown her a specific “sign” “confirming” her salvation. Because of that, I felt compelled to minister the Gospel to my own mother. I had no idea what she heard that day, but I couldn’t bear the thought of assuming my mother was saved when I could share with her the message she may not have heard. To my surprise, she seemed to resent that I did such. I was confused…

    I also recall a story she told concerning one of her younger brothers. He, too, like Langston and Westley, deceived the congregation concerning his “conversion” as well. My uncle died in 2008. I never knew whether he experienced a true conversion or not. That has grieved my heart as well.

    The implications you shared were so eye-opening (#7 was so astounding, I shouted!) I know this will help me to have a right perspective concerning the conversion of the human soul and my attitude throughout the process, remembering this one thing for sure-with man it is impossible, but not with God, for with Him ALL things are possible! I will continue to pray for my mother…

  • Avatar IsaacOnThePorch says:

    Scherida,

    Sis — thanks so much for your vulnerability and coming up on the porch. I just prayed for your family and we can trust that our Lord is not only mighty to save, but good in all he does. I’m glad the article blessed you and know you’re welcome on the porch any time! May the Lord grant you strength as you continue to witness to your family. I’m encouraged by even the brief testimony you shared here. As I was writing this those words — “but with God, all things are possible!” rang in my head. Thanks for reminding me of them once more 🙂

  • Avatar Scherida Vaughan says:

    Thank you, Isaac, for your prayers! I’m grateful you were blessed as well 🙂

  • Avatar Pastor Bruce says:

    What a delightful piece you’ve written here brother! So, so true. The practice at my old church was slightly different, but the weak understanding of what it meant to be saved is identical. Looking back, I believe many did truly love the Lord, but I can truly say that there were also many who ‘slipped in’ with a similar type profession.

    Interestingly, us Reformed folk sometimes allow ourselves to believe that our churches are immune to this, but over the years, I’ve seem many pick up the language of the doctrine, received in church, but hearts equally away from the Lord. Yes sir, we continue to clearly define and proclaim the gospel, but continue to pray that the Lord will save His people in our midst.

    Great post bro!

  • Avatar IsaacOnThePorch says:

    Pastor Bruce,

    I love how I’ve seen you on the porch lately, bro. Can’t agree more with your assessment of churches and false professors. It’s a tragedy, but our Lord will be faithful to use it for his glory. I’m hoping the Lord gives us grace to assume the best of folks and to act on our assumptions by guarding them and loving them in action as well. Thanks again checking in!

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