From Drug dealer to Charismatic
to Reformed Baptist Pastor
By Tony Bickley
I was born in 1951 into a working class family in Small Heath, Birmingham, England. My childhood was unremarkable, except for the shameful fact that by the age of seven I was a persistent truant from school.
There had been no noticeable Christian influence in my life. As was the practice of most working class families, we took in Sunday newspapers. After breakfast my second action on a Sunday morning would be to seek the salacious contents of the more sensational rags.
As the 1960s wore on, I was increasingly aware of the hippy movement in America and its use of drugs. I remember watching their torchlight march by night across the hills of San Francisco on a 10 inch television set. This was the lift I wanted!
Three years later saw me continuing to escape school discipline and in my 15th year I had my first personal encounter with sex and drugs. The pull of money and possessions had little power over me, my energies were spent in the pursuit of those other two pleasures.
By the time I was 18, all my friends could be found in the drug-taking community. it satisfied every craving in my flesh. This state of affairs continued until I became a Christian in 1984.
Surprisingly, I maintained a tenuous belief in God and the deity of Jesus Christ. Even in my teens I remember standing one evening at a bus stop and praying, “When you are ready, call me and I will come. But until then I am just going to carry on as I am.” And I did this to the utmost!
I took drugs in an ever-increasing amount over a 15-year period, cannabis being my favoured choice. But something seemed to keep me back from the more dangerous drugs. Most of my friends died from assorted drug cocktails or their long-term physical effects.
I met my future wife, Liz, when 28, both of us being part of the drug culture. I had known her for about two years. We got married, but this didn’t slow up our drug consumption one bit.
To support our habit, I decided the only answer was for me to become a small-time dealer. I was never good at it and any profits made were soon consumed. For nearly three years I continued, until one day a knock came on the door and the police drug squad came pouring into my house.
The game was up! Im January 1984 I found myself in the Magistrate’s court. However the offence was deemed too serious to be heard there, and my case was transferred to the Crown Court. By March I would be in the dock before a judge and jury.
As the day of that court appearance drew nearer, a number of things happened which would change our lives for ever. A friend with previous experience of the court system came to visit me. He told me that my case might be helped if I wrote a letter to the judge, but I took little notice at the time.
The evening before I was due in court, I let my wife go to bed and sat up for a while thinking about the next day. I was expecting the worst and was terrified by what lay before me. I knew I deserved jail, and that this would be the most likely result.
What happened next remains an awesome mystery to me. Without warning I was headlong on the floor crying to a God that I hardly knew, and had certainly excluded from my everyday life.
I cried, “I do not know who you are, or if you really exist, but if you will deliver me from this mess, I will serve you for the rest of my life!” I have no excuse for the bargaining and unbiblical nature of that prayer. But it was prayer and God was undoubtedly dealing with me.
As I stood up, I remembered the words of my friend. I sat down and wrote that letter to the judge and took it with me next day to court. My case had been moved to the County Court, and Mr Justice Potter who sat there was known for two things, his severity in sentencing and his hatred of drugs.
Entering court I asked my solicitor what my chances were. “If you get less than a year you will be doing very well,” he replied.
The trial was unremarkable until the end. Little evidence was presented, I was, after all pleading guilty. The judge began with the words, “Of course, if a man is found guilty of dealing in drugs, a prison sentence is the obvious penalty….”
Any last glimmer of hope faded, and I sat there waiting to hear how long my sentence would be. Then came his summing up.
Walking on air
“Mr Bickley” he said, “I do not normally take any notice of letters sent to me, I find them irrelevant and simpering. But this one is different. For the first time, someone has told my why they have done, what they have done instead of seeking an escape. You have simply told me why.”
After my prayer the previous evening, I had written the truth in my letter: that I was guilty; and that I was doing what I did because it was the best way I could find to get through life; the people I sold to were friends and users; I did not deal to strangers or children; I brought in bulk for practical and not profiteering reasons.
I am still baffled, however, by the effect my letter had upon him. I was guilty as charged, but it was as if the whole atmosphere in court changed. Justice Potter looked at me, and said, “Mr Bickley, I am not going to send you to jail, nor am I going to give you a suspended sentence. I cannot discharge you; this far too serious for that. I will give you two years probation, and if after twelve months your probation officer is satisfied, I will discharge you then.”
I was free to go! As I left the courtroom, it was like I was walking on air. But then, as I sat in the bus, the weight of it all came home – a much higher Judge must be at work. Indeed, when my probation officer when to obtain my discharge twelve months later, Justice Potter said to him, “I will never know why I let this man go, but as I promised so shall I do.”
Many things happened between March and July that year. Then one Sunday morning in the summer, I awoke with the intention of going to church. When my wife asked why, I replied that I didn’t know, but felt I ought to.
I went to what turned out to be a high Church of England, not knowing the difference between any of the churches. I found myself in a room full of people who simply ignored me, and I was no further on.
But profound things were happening inside me which I just couldn’t understand, though my feelings were strong. I ended up praying, “I don’t know what to say, or how to do this, but I know that something is happening in my life, and if it happens to me and not to my wife, then there will be a problem. Can you bring Liz too?”
That week I began to watch a moving presentation of the life of Jesus on television and though I now have misgivings about men playing the part of Jesus, the experience was a revelation, not only to me but to my wife, who wept as she sat with me.
Liz came to me, and said, “A strange thing has happened to me, I have begun to pray!” After this, we sought to find out more about Jesus, by praying and reading the Gospels. But all our attempts to find a suitable church ended in failure, until the evangelist Billy Graham came to Birmingham later that summer and preached the gospel.
Under the sound of that Word, as man and wife we made our confession of sin together and our commitment to Jesus Christ, as our Lord and Saviour. Institutional churches had failed us, but God in his sovereign purposed was determined to hone his truth into our hearts.
His hand was upon my life, delivering me from sin, death and hell; and now in fulfillment of my first faltering promise, I wanted to serve him for the rest of my life.
I was once a man whom you may well have crossed the road to avoid, a drug-dealing lout who had no interest in the things of God. I was a lost sinner, in need of God’s grace, but that grace he sent to me in his dear eternal Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
And having come to faith in Jesus Christ, believing on him in my heart, I was enable, along with my wife, to confess with my mouth, at that Billy Graham rally in Birmingham.
That day, 4 July 1984, was significant in more than one way. For millions of Americans 4 July represents independence from a former colonial power. For us it meant deliverance from a far more fearful tyranny. It was the greatest day of my life!
There is no better day for a man than when he becomes a Christian. And, from our human perspective, it was rendered even better when two people who love each other as man and wife joined to the Lord on the same day!
We are told there is joy in the presence of the angels of God in heaven at such times (Luke 15); and none more joyous than the Lord himself, rejoicing over us with exceeding joy.
But though I was saved, some of my old habits died hard. It would be another two months before I completely abandoned drugs. Stung my the sentence in God’s word that said “Ye cannot serve God and mammon,” I determined to stop once and for all. This was a massive turn-around in our lives, and it meant losing all the friends we once had.
The Billy Graham rallies were certainly used to the salvation of sinners, and Liz and I are living testimonies to that fact, but their great weakness lay in ‘follow-up’ work.
Many folk who had professed conversion there were recommended to most unsuitable churches. We found ourselves in a small and extremely Charismatic house fellowship. Many typical ‘Toronto’ elements were at work there, such as bouts of laughter and rolling about on the floor, long before the ‘Toronto Blessing’ was ever heard of. Within weeks, I was ‘baptized in the Spirit’. I soon ‘spoke in tongues’ and progressed to ‘prophecy’, ‘visions’ and ‘words of knowledge’. I laid hands on the sick, commanding their healing. But I was presumptuous and demanding. I was badly taught and badly behaved, thinking I could tell God what he ought to do. I offer no excuse for these things.
But along with these distracting and destructive errors came a full and purposeful desire to read and know the Word of God. And it was this Spirit-planted longing which would eventually bring me through to where I stand today.
After about a year, I began to discern the unbiblical nature of some of the church’s notions and practices. When I dared to question these things, I was met with anger and arrogance. “I am the prophet,” declared the leader. “You have to listen to me and not try and understand these things for yourself.”
Alarm bells now rang in our ears and we abandoned this very wayward form of Christianity. But still clinging to Charismatic concepts respecting the person and work of the Holy Spirit, we sought refuge in a more conventional Pentecostal church.
Here I became poised to take on a responsible position. But even then, Liz and I felt that we just didn’t have the experiences of the New Testament times. We looked into the Scriptures and came to the conclusion that we needed a fresh anointing, involving a baptism in the Holy Ghost with fire this time!
So we began to pray earnestly for the increased presence and power of God. What we got was astonishing and completely unlooked for.
All the while we has assumed that our problem was one of ‘faith’ and not of ‘truth’. Then we read Romans 9 together, and God spoke into our ignorance the life-changing revelations of sovereign grace.
It was almost like being saved all over again! Our whole world was turned upside down. Much of our previous practice was shown to have a great deal of “wood, hay and stubble” in it.
Now by God’s grace kept from preaching error upon the Lord’s day, my first ever Sunday sermon was from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “By grace are ye saved, through faith, and not that of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast” (2:8-9).
We eventually left the Pentecostal church, even though (much to my wife’s frustration!) I spent months trying to reconcile Reformed doctrine with Pentecostal beliefs about the spiritual gifts.
But, try as I might, all my reasonings fell apart in the light of God’s word. One day I read Paul’s words to Timothy about the sufficiency of Scripture. It was like a Damascus road encounter to me!
I now realized that extra-biblical revelation was to no purpose. All I needed was to be found in the pages of Holy Scripture. I finally understood that the Bible was enough; the experience was liberating to my spirit.
My mind could now be completely bound by the Word of God, and every part of my life directed by its light, rather than by feelings, impressions, delusions, imaginations and the thoughts of others.
The down-side of all this (if down-side it can be called) was that all opportunities to preach vanished. But this was under the overruling hand of God, since I needed several years of intensive learning to prepare me to “rightly divide” the Word of God.
I would need to prove the truth of Scripture through the life of faith, both in its joys, and sorrows. Walking by grace meant a period of severe testing, and upwards of a year of spiritual depression, to be lifted only by the Word of God applied with power.
The word finally delivered me, when I went to hear a man whose ministry stamped with force on my spirit the great truths of justification, sanctification and glorification. Once again, it was the Bible which came to my rescue.
I now enjoyed blessed assurance, with a stronger, all-round understanding of God’s grace and love towards me. I learned how to wait upon him and obtain much needed patience in his service.
It would be several years before the Lord would raise me up to my present pastoral ministry in Brighton, but I praise him for his wisdom. He knew I wasn’t then ready to serve him in pastoral ministry, and I thank him for the way had has led me.
He has chose my path, so that my past experiences may be applied to help others in the location he has set me, and in the dire days in which we live.
We face a crumbling society, constantly turning to chemical influences to get by. I have been inside all of this. Not only was I part of that society, I was completely committed to the whole drink and drugs culture of our time.
We also face a crumbling Christianity with rests on feelings, imaginations and a ‘worship’ content and style designed to excite and gratify the flesh rather than glorify God and edify his people. I was once part of that ethos and loved it, until the Lord taught me differently.
God has graciously shown me that he alone can change these things. We may bitterly complain about situations, but we should pray for and show love to those still imprisoned in their sin. May my story be an encouragement to many!
The Lord has taken this poor wretch and made him pastor of Ebenezer Reformed Baptist Church in Brighton! He truly takes the foolish days of this world to confound the things which are wise.
I have a long way to go to be like Jesus. It is a journey that will not end until his return or until death takes me to be with him. But by his grace, and through his love I stand in the way, holding fast his truth with his eternal life within this mortal body.
One day I will enter heaven, because God has loved me, and for no other reason. By his Spirit and through his Son, he has saved, called and continues to draw me closer and closer to my heavenly Father.
The testimony above of pastor Tony Bickley was published in the Evangelical Times in two parts: in the ET editions of December 2011 and January 2012. It has been also published here on this website, with permission from pastor Bickley and from the Evangelical Times.