(If you have ever wondered why our church supports so many missionary projects you have to read this recently letter from Stetson Planck. Southern Hills has been honored to support this mission for several years.)
After having lived in Rome for over two years we returned there last weekend to visit friends for the first time since moving to Verona. Saturday evening while the kids played at their friends’ homes, I had a rare opportunity for a date alone with Sandy. As we walked from Piazza Navona to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant near Campo de’ Fiori we passed a number of priests actively engaged in what I would describe as “street proselytizing.” There were 4 or 5 standing near several crosses encouraging people to write their prayer request on a note and then nail it to the cross. There were several others gathered in a small piazza (public square) playing a game that was a mix between volleyball and soccer with some teenagers. One priest was walking among the people offering candles to burn in the church nearby. Another was seated by the door of the church lightly strumming a guitar. All of the priests were young, smiling and very engaged in making contact with the community.
As Sandy and I sat eating our fillet of cod she said, “You should go talk to one of the priests.” While I paid for dinner she walked out into the piazza to start a conversation with one of them. Just as I joined her near one of the crosses a priest named Giovanni approached. He asked if we were Catholic to which I politely replied, “No, we’re Christians.” He countered cheerfully, “Like us!” And so it began…
(translated from Italian)
I said, “I disagree. We believe very differently. For instance, in regards to salvation.”
In response to a question I directed to him about eternal life he gave a very obscure explanation about love, with absolutely no mention of Christ. When pressed further he talked about the fullness of the faith being revealed to those in the Catholic Church.
“You see Giovanni, we believe very differently.”
“No, we just have different ways of looking at it. For instance, if you want to go to Campo de’ Fiori, you could take this street right in front of us and it would be a direct path there. Or you could wind around all of the side streets and perhaps find your way eventually. The Catholic Church is like the street with the direct path to salvation.”
“I disagree. Jesus said in scripture, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” There is only one “street” for salvation and that is Jesus Christ, not the Catholic Church.
He continued to smile and say we were just looking at it differently.
“Okay. Imagine we have two boxes before us and this lady [I nodded toward Sandy who was standing beside me] wants eternal life and we have it in our ‘box’. What do you pull out of your ‘box’ to give her eternal life?”
“The sacraments… the Mass and baptism.”
“Asking forgives through confession.”
“Who does she confess to?”
“First to God, then to a priest.”
“So as a priest, are you a mediator between God and man?”
I didn’t have my Italian Bible with me but I asked Giovanni if he could read English to which he replied a little bit. I opened up the Bible app on my phone and showed him 1 Timothy 2:5, “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”
He smiled but had no reply.
“What else is in your ‘box’ to offer this lady for eternal life?”
“Yes, there are a lot of other things!”
“So in your ‘box’ you have the sacraments, confession, good works, and a lot of other things. Can you guess what’s in my ‘box’?”
“No. Jesus Christ. Eternal life is in Jesus Christ. Salvation is in Jesus Christ. Faith is how you receive the ‘box’. That’s what I would offer this lady.” At that moment he looked up to see Sandy with tears in her eyes. He was visibly moved by her genuine concern. The night seemed to take on a more somber mood for him.
The conversation continued. We discussed why Christ is still nailed to the cross in every Catholic Church. We spoke on the importance of the resurrection. Our conversation lasted for nearly an hour. He asked for my phone number and e-mail and said he would like to stay in touch. He offered to be our personal tour guide the next time we come to Rome. We welcomed him to visit us in Verona and we said good-bye. He recently wrote saying he thought of Sandy and I as family and he looks forward to seeing us again. Please pray for Giovanni.
There were several things I took away from the evening…
- Things different are not the same.
What are you trusting in for eternal salvation? The Catholic Church teaches a combination of faith and works. The Bible says that salvation is by faith alone apart from any work or merit of man. That one word “alone” determines if the faith of the man rests solely in an all-sufficient Savior or whether salvation depends upon the self-effort of the sinner. If salvation is based on some element of “trying” then it is not based on “trusting” and the faith coupled with works nullifies total dependence on God for salvation. It is faith alone which connects us to God’s grace, his unmerited favor. Faith is simply taking God at his word and allowing him to be God in any and every situation, most importantly in regards to salvation.
- People are influenced by their culture.
Giovanni was raised in Columbia and his mom prayed with him every night. Columbia is 80% Catholic, and he thought that he might satisfy his desire to know God by becoming a priest. As we spoke he could not give a clear explanation of the gospel and how one might have a connection with God according to the Bible. He only saw scripture through the distorted perspective of the Catholic Church.
The underlying influence of society cannot be overstated in regards to the shaping of a person’s ethics, values, world view and openness to the gospel. Some cultures are more naturally inclined to produce a higher “yield” of converts. In order for the seed of the gospel (Matt. 13:23) to take root, the soil of man’s heart must be prepared to receive it. The Lord uses many influences to “work the ground” and prepare hearts: people, gospel tracts, economic uncertainties, chance comments, political unrest, health issues, things that disrupt the normal routines of life, and of course being a part of a Christian family, etc., serve to open people to the gospel and move them from rebellion to faith. People with a Christian heritage or a culture based on Judeo-Christian beliefs can mistakenly think the whole world is at the same level of preparedness. We must consider that when someone is brought to a decision to trust in Christ as their Savior in the course of a conversation or two, considerable laboring and preparation has already occurred in their life before the “soul winner” arrived.
- There is only one issue: Who is Jesus?
Our singular objective is to communicate Jesus Christ. He is eternal life! Several of our Bible studies have been started with people who have been frustrated by the lack of emphasis on Christ in the Catholic Church. We will continue to lift him up in our community.
If you would like to financially help the Plancks and the other missionary projects we currently support, please click the link and follow the prompts to give.
Aaron CarpenterNovember 12, 2015 at 5:17 pm
Thanks for sharing this, Josh. I still meet many Baptists and other conservative evangelicals who simply don’t get the basic differences. Apparently we both “believe in Jesus,” and that’s as far as it goes. In fact, I spoke with a Baptist leader recently who saw nothing wrong with bowing to statues, praying to saints, and practicing the sacraments. In my opinion, when pastors cannot see the problems here, the future of the church is bleak.
Alice LangtonNovember 12, 2015 at 7:26 pm
Being first generation of Italian immigrant parents, I was steeped in Catholicism until one day I was invited to accept Jesus Christ as Savior. I did and was so burdened for my parents and whole family who sounded just like Giovanni the priest. Over the years my parents came to a saving knowledge and many of my family members. My husband and I have devoted our lives to honoring God. Thank you for this story and I pray Giovanni will come to know Jesus as Savior and affect many others along his way.
JudithNovember 14, 2015 at 2:09 am
I really enjoyed the explanations given. I’ve tried finding the words to talk to catholic members that don’t truly have a relationship with Jesus Christ and this conversation with Giovanni is extremely helpful. Thank you for sharing.
John AllenDecember 2, 2015 at 11:09 pm
Stephen’s quote sums up a problem with many evangelistic endeavors today: “The underlying influence of society cannot be overstated in regards to the shaping of a person’s ethics, values, world view and openness to the gospel.” Whether in Rome, or in Moscow, in Dallas, or in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, people have worldviews shaped by their culture that must be challenged by God’s Word. There is no room for rushing people to a decision for Christ. True conversion takes time; that’s why Jesus called it being “born again.”