Normally, I’m the guy in the room who was redeemed out of the most extreme, outwardly rebellious lifestyle. That’s one of the reasons why I love hearing the testimony of God’s grace in Christ to other believers who were redeemed out of deep and dark rebellion. The grace of God in the Gospel is magnified in the lives of such wayward men and women (1 Tim. 1:15-16). Lowell Ivey is one such “brand plucked from the fire” (Zach. 3:2). A friend of mine told about Lowell and his story a few weeks ago. Lowell is currently a student at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary–my alma matter. Through the Scriptures, a Christian radio program and many of Ligonier Ministries’ resources, the Lord drew Lowell to Himself and to an understanding of Reformed theology when he was serving time in prison for the serious crimes he had committed. If you grew up listening to the show “Unshackled” you’ll think you’re listening to one of their episodes. Here’s the testimony of God’s grace to Lowell Ivey:
The Lord set me free in prison. In 1994, I was in the Army, stationed at Schofield Barracks, HI. I stole another soldier’s wallet one night and was caught. With a court-martial looming, I went AWOL. In Los Angeles, I met two other men who were doing armed robberies and joined with them–mainly because I was on the run anyway and it seemed exciting. We robbed hotels and restaurants from California to Texas. In Arlington, TX, we robbed a Pizza Hut restaurant one night and as we left the building, the police were right outside. We ran, but were caught. I was sentenced in 1995 to 17 years in the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice.
In prison, I joined a white supremacist gang. I was involved in a number of gang-related riots and was eventually put in solitary confinement for trying to stab a black inmate. The administration “confirmed” me as a gang member, meaning I was permanently assigned to solitary confinement (Administrative Segregation). That was in 1997.
One night in 2000, I was listening to a radio program for prisoners called “Here Comes the Light.” The Lord used it to convict me of my sins–particularly the sin of racism. I can remember a moment of total despair, on the one hand knowing I needed Christ, but on the other, knowing I had no desire to follow Him. The gang was my life; my whole sense of identity was tied up in it. I realized I could NEVER live the Christian life. It would mean giving up too much. It would mean having to give up the gang. It would mean having to accept people of other races as brothers and sisters. I knew I couldn’t do that. And in that moment of despair, all I can say is that my heart was changed. It was like a switch was flipped in my heart. I’d never heard of the Reformed faith or the Five Points or monergism. But one thing I knew: my heart was changed and God was the one who changed it. I knelt on my cell floor beside my bunk and, weeping, asked God for forgiveness and help to follow Christ.
A few months later, by God’s grace, I discovered R.C. Sproul’s “Renewing Your Mind” program. I began listening to it and finally things seemed to make sense. I’d never been comfortable with things I was hearing on other radio programs–particularly in regard to “free will” and dispensationalism. I was reading the Scriptures on my own and having trouble understanding many things, but the explanations I heard just didn’t seem satisfying. Dr. Sproul’s exposition of Romans 9 was a turning point. I recognized that his teaching was exactly what God Himself was saying in the Bible. As I listened every day, I became more self-consciously Reformed.
Eventually, I asked my grandmother to buy me a copy of the New Geneva Study Bible. This became the first Bible I read from cover to cover. It was helpful for two reasons. First, it was in a translation that was easy to understand. I had a KJV, but had trouble with the archaic language. Second, the study notes helped me to begin thinking systematically about what the Bible teaches. I would always try to understand the text on my own first, but if I had a question I could find a good answer in the notes, or in the theological articles. For the first time, I loved reading God’s Word. Especially poignant was the realization I had in reading through Genesis that the Bible was a record of my own spiritual family! I was related to these people by virtue of my covenant union with Christ. Having been abandoned by my birth parents and adopted twice, this was a precious truth–that God had chosen me before the foundation of the world to be one of His children by faith!
I wrote to Ligonier and received old back issues of TableTalk, which I read one after the other. I read some of Dr. Sproul’s books, including Grace Unknown and Essential Truths of the Christian Faith. I also wrote to other ministries asking for books that Dr. Sproul and his guests sometimes would recommend. I came to love the Puritans and enjoyed reading anything by or about them. I also heard about Dr. Gerstner’s book, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, on the subject of dispensationalism. I was able to get it from Soli Deo Gloria (before they were purchased by RHB) after listening to an interview with the publisher. That book helped solidify my covenantalism, though at the time I considered myself a Reformed Baptist. It almost certainly helped me to make sense of things later on when I fully embraced covenant theology through a study of the place of children in the church.
As I read and studied, I realized the great need for Reformed prison ministry. The Reformed faith simply was not being taught in prison. For the most part, prisoners were getting nothing but Arminian and charismatic teachings. The Word of Faith movement was very influential. But the Reformed faith was almost unheard of–and when I discussed it with other Christian prisoners, they reacted strongly against it. I realized I needed to study more. I also began to think about the possibility of going to seminary one day in order to minister to prisoners in a Reformed way. I decided to try to get out of solitary confinement by participating in a program called “GRAD” (Gang Renunciation and Disassociation) so could begin taking college classes. In 2007, after a four-year investigation process, I was transferred into the program. I completed it later that year and was released back into general population.
After returning to GP, I was able to attend college. I also started a Bible study on my cellblock, teaching from a Reformed perspective. I felt more and more that the Lord was preparing me to one day minister to prisoners. In 2009, I was released and an OPC pastor in Longview, Texas met me and took me in to live with him and his family. He encouraged me to go to seminary. In 2010, I took two semesters of classes at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas (what used to be Westminster Seminary, TX). After I was married in 2011, I transferred to Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I’m very grateful to the Lord for leading me here.
In the bonds of Christ’s love,