Jerry Hickey, Missionary to Brazil
When acceptance before God is based on human merit (i.e. good works), the best efforts to explain otherwise will be filtered through this deeply rooted mindset. What is said and what is actually understood may be completely opposite.
Raised in a practicing Roman Catholic family and having been a missionary to Brazil, my experience since my conversion in 1973 has been that Catholics, as a general rule, find it very difficult to grasp the truth of “being justified freely” by God’s grace. One reason has to do with the Catholic doctrine of salvation. Catholic theologians will argue that they believe in salvation by grace. However, you have to earn this grace by previously practiced good works or behavior, even though that is a direct contradiction of the very definition of grace.
It Takes Time.
Usually, just as the longstanding popular expression in Brazil, “once the token goes into the slot, it takes a while to fall.” Repeated explanations of true grace is required in most cases. Over the years, there have been ex-Catholics who have said to me that they got saved the first time they heard the gospel preached. Upon further inquiry, it became apparent that someone, usually a relative or close acquaintance, planted and watered the seed years before. The concept is too foreign to be assimilated the first time in most instances. Of course, this is added to the universal hindrance of the prideful motivation to justify himself before God through his own self-effort. Cain’s offering and Satan’s blinding come to mind. For this reason, Paul goes to great lengths in his epistles to stress that it is “not by works of righteousness which we have done,” “lest any man should boast,” as man most certainly would!
As a new missionary four decades ago, I was under the illusion that, the most effective evangelistic strategy would be the presentation of the “Romans Road” in polished Portuguese (usually on the first encounter), and then add the personal testimony of being raised in a strict Roman Catholic home. I was almost expecting a response similar to the Philippian jailor after the earthquake. In “going door to door” with a Brazilian pastor on a weekly basis, we saw many “decisions” but no conversions (“new creatures in Christ”)… for the aforementioned reasons. Catholic tendency is to trust in the “sinner’s prayer” rather than the One supposedly being prayed to. In this mindset, prayer is a “good work.” As a child, when I made confession to a priest, I was instructed to go to the altar and “say” a certain number of “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys” as penance for my sins, paying for them with these “prayers.”
We also need to understand that in the case of practicing Catholics, their religion is a part of their cultural identity. When Christ and His redemptive work, as presented in the New Testament, are shared, it is viewed as a threat to that identity. Like the Samaritan woman at the well, it becomes a question of which religion is right—not a question of a right relationship with the Water of Life. After my conversion and initial attempts to communicate Christ to my parents, and having left home years before, I was labeled to my face--not a heretic, interestingly enough, but a “traitor”.
Fear & Superstition
Fear is another impediment that enters the conversation. Ever since Emperor Constantine’s legalization of “Christianity” and Theodosius’s declaration of it as the official state religion some 70 years later, the Catholic church began to incorporate some practices of pagan religions which existed in Rome centuries before the arrival of “Christianity.” The strategy has continued to modern times and blurred doctrinal distinctives clearly taught in the Scriptures, especially concerning the person and work of the Way, the Truth, the Life and the only Mediator between God and Man (Jn. 14:6; 1 Tim. 2:5). In early 1500`s, Jesuit missionaries “converted” the natives of Brazil and the imported slaves by replacing the names of the spirits they feared with the names of saints. For example, Ogun became St. Anthony, Iemanja the Virgin Mary, and Exu Satan and Oxala, Jesus Christ. As a result, at least half of those who call themselves Catholics also practice some form of Spiritism. This is true, not only in Brazil, but also in other countries where Catholicism predominates cultures previously given to animism. This is also evident by the fact that the image of Semiramis, Nimrod`s high priestess wife, is stamped on all Brazilian currency.
What does this have to do with fear? Fear is the force behind superstition which is powerfully at work as you converse with practicing Catholics about Christ. This explains the nightly bedside ritual of being sprinkled with “holy water from Lourdes” (the location of one of Mary`s supposed apparitions) by my mother. It was a protection against evil spirits. Fear is a tool of Satan to blind the mind from seeing the “perfect love that casts out all fear” (1 Jn. 4:18)—the same love expressed in John 3:16.
Common Grounds & Divergences
In communicating Christ, common grounds are usually the best way to lead/open the conversation. Catholicism gives at least lip service to cardinal biblical doctrines such as Creation, the Trinity, Virgin Birth, Heaven and Hell etc. The problem is the additional infusion of pagan religions couched in Christian terminology or so-called Christian traditions, resulting in the adulteration and corruption of the pure gospel. One of these pollutions is the teaching that Mary is a co-redemptress with Christ and that she herself was born without sin. This perversion and others serve as a
vaccine in reverse, almost immunizing the person against the pure gospel of Christ.
I do not advise to initiate the conversation calling attention to these divergences. Rather, ask questions that would reveal what they really believe about the person and work of Christ, eventually aiming for them to discover what they are really trusting in to be accepted by God the Father. When I asked my father if he was trusting in what Christ has done for him or what he himself was doing for salvation, he responded without hesitation: “Of course, I am trusting in those things (i.e., rituals, good works). Why do you think I do them?” I think his answer surprised himself, as his conversion almost 20 years later would tend to support.
Another possible approach would be to ask if your friend considers herself a practicing Roman Apostolic Catholic. Having started our first church in a “bairro” nicknamed “Little Italy” (containing dozens of Italian restaurants, one of which can seat over four thousand at one time), I learned this is a good way, at least, to insert the token. If the answer is yes, as in most cases it was, I would then ask if they had ever read the letter written by Apostle Paul to the very first church in Rome, from which they considered themselves a spiritual descendent. In those early days most Catholics were unaware of the letter`s existence in the Bible. My parents were part of a generation that were actually told there was no use in reading the Bible because laypeople did not have the capacity to understand or interpret it. Their parents were practically forbidden to read it for themselves. But due to the emergence of the prosperity gospel in Brazil, the Catholic church has reversed its course and began to encourage the attendance in “Bible Study” groups. Of course, as with the prosperity movement, the same old doctrinal definitions regarding salvation are only dressed up in texts taken out of context. If you spark a curiosity of your Catholic friend to read the Bible for himself, especially Romans, it will go a long way in helping the token to fall. It almost goes without saying that whatever questions you ask, friendly relationship building moved by kindness must be the bridge you take to get to those questions.
Some think, given my background, that I must have greater success in convincing Catholics for Christ. No, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and the Holy Spirit does the convincing; not my background or upbringing. What I mentioned above are not intended to make us more “effective” in convincing Catholics for Christ—just more patient. And loving patience pays off. My father came to Christ just a few weeks before he died at the age of 83. Time does not permit, nor is it in the scope of this blog, to share the multiple expressions of his new standing in Christ during those short few weeks. Suffice it to say that it is the gospel of Christ that is “the power of God unto salvation” as Paul wrote to the very first church in Rome.
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The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.