Some Christians might argue that my life is evidence of what Noel warned us against when he preached at Nene in 1983 that anyone who broke covenant with the community would inevitably backslide into apostasy. Then, as now, I was very proud, and when I left the community, I was utterly determined that whatever I was told, I would keep my faith; but I lost it all the same in the same year that I decided to let the campaign to expose the JA drop. That coincidence has only just occurred to me, funnily enough, and I don't know if it has any significance at all.
I remember the story that Noel told back then. He was a terrific story teller. Its powerful message was certaily not lost on me. He was a voracious reader and told us that he had just been moved by an account he had read about a man who, at the turn of the century was known for taking his family to chapel every single Sunday, without fail, but did not go into the chapel himself, though he was there at the door to collect the family when their services were over.
(You will have to forgive this brief paraphrase. I am rubbish at telling stories)
The Pastor of the church had observed this pattern for some considerable time and was puzzled by it. Eventually the Pastor approched the man and asked why he was so determined to see that his family were always in church but he did not seem to share their conviction. The man (let's call him Paul) answered him by taking the Pastor to the top of a hill, where he said, "This is the very spot where I denied the Lord and now I am paying the price for my disobedience."
Paul explained that twenty years before God had called him to serve Him, but he had wanted to do his own thing: get into drinking, build a self-serving business, become rich, womanise - to lead a "worldly life". The Holy Spirit had layed it on Paul's heart that this was his moment of truth, that in this instant (an instant that Noel told us we might not even recognise if it happened to us) he must choose to follow God, or deny the Holy Spirit.
Paul hadn't understood then, as he did now, that in that instant he had set in motion a course of consequences which could never be undone. For, it would not be the devil who would harden Paul's heart against God, but God himself. Paul told the pastor that God had seared his conscience, not because He wanted to, but in fulfilment of his part of the covenant. Paul backslid not because he chose to but because he chose not to follow God's calling. Paul backslid not only because God withdrew His covering but because God had an active part in making Paul's apostasy complete.
Years later Paul, a broken man, returned to the hilltop and begged God's forgiveness, but God would not hear him. He did not blame God for this; he knew that God was being true to his promise to fulfill his own covenat and let Paul deny His Holy Spirit. Every Sunday for years, he said, he had taken his family to church and while they had been about their devotions, he had been on this hilltop spot begging God to let him come back under His covering, but a just God would not hear him. "I am determined that my family will not make my mistake but will live lives in the fear of God".
Noel's meaning was clear to me. I might never know the time when God put me on the spot but if I grieved him, He would, himself, harden my heart, not out of any sense of malice but simply because He is a just God ("not a woolly, wishy-washy, namby-pamby God").