When I was in middle school and up until about half-way through high school, my best friend and I would walk the two blocks from our school to our church to join the youth group in “soul-winning” every Wednesday afternoon, which was, in all actuality, a social event for us. We would get to walk somewhere by ourselves, be reunited with the friends we longed to see since Sunday, go on a field trip, have dinner, sing in choir and then have Bible study that night.
The weekly field trip, as it were, was more often than not to a poor or lower-middle class area to go knock on doors and frighten people into Heaven. Armed with little Gideon’s New Testaments, flagged with neon page markers and underlined verses, we waylaid harried mothers in the middle of cooking dinner, children playing kickball in the yard, and fathers just stepping out of the car into the driveway and asked them point-blank if they died this instant would they be in Heaven or Hell. We passed out little pamphlets and invited them to the only truly “Bible believing” church in the area. Many times we were swatted away like flies; sometimes people ignored us even though there were signs of life within the home. I have been guilty of this myself, when I see a Jehovah’s Witness coming up the walk, I have been known to hit the floor and hold my breath until I hear their retreating footsteps. Sometimes, though, people would humor us—they would listen politely and go through the motions of praying the prayer of salvation and then promise they would come to church on Sunday. We would walk away from the house, feeling self-important, to report the number of souls we won to Christ that day to the rest of the group waiting on the bus. It became almost a contest to see who could win the most souls, and it was a special prize if anyone converted a Catholic.
We had a specific tactic–a favorite of all Evangelical Protestants–the Roman Road coupled with the Four Spiritual Laws. Specific verses, plucked out of context, arranged in such a way to scare the living daylights out of anyone that believed them and cause a smirk or sneer of derision out of those that didn’t. In all my years of soul-winning, I cannot recall even one time when I met an unbeliever and convinced them to believe—like, TRULY believe. Later, I would learn this is because I didn’t believe it myself fully, at least not in the context in which they were presented. Even though I doubted their sincerity, I still counted those that humored my efforts as “wins” and kept a little tally on the inside cover of my New Testament.
Until this one day…..suddenly everything seemed so….ridiculous. Almost 20 years later, I can picture the whole thing as vividly as 20 minutes ago.
It was August, which is a time of pure torture in Central Florida. You are never completely dry, your hair is never laying down, and the air is always like that puff of wicked-hotness that blasts you when you open a 400 degree oven. I was wearing a Monica Gellar inspired black and white floral print skirt that touched the toes of my super-trendy black mary-janes (so Clueless, right?). My partner, who I viewed as my arch-nemesis throughout my teenage years because we vied for the same boy’s attention, was wearing a barely legal pencil skirt that juuuuusst touched her knee and her beautiful strawberry-blonde hair lay smoothly down ignoring the 112% humidity. The rickety bus dropped us off in the poorest part of our poor town and we were assigned the right side of the street before it lumbered away. Never saying a word to each other, we plastered welcoming smiles on our faces when we approached each house.
Walking up to a teenage Haitian girl feeding a baby rice on the top step, we introduced ourselves and proceeded to accost the dear with verse after verse pointing to her clear damnation. The girl distractedly fed the baby one rice grain at a time and occasionally nodded in assent. When my partner asked her if she would like to go to Heaven she said yes in a thick accent. She began to pray with her, and I also bowed my head, but kept my eyes open. The young girl wasn’t praying at all, but steadily feeding the baby grains of rice; she even looked side-eyed at me and caught my gaze. “She doesn’t speak English”, I thought, “she has no earthly idea who these creepy white girls are praying over her!”
My partner and I walked back to the bus when it stopped to pick us up and I looked back at the girl, who was continuing to feed the baby. She looked up at me with a completely bemused look before diverting her attentions back to the infant, who began squalling for his dinner to be fed in a proper manner. Back on the bus, my partner triumphantly announced that she led that girl to the Lord as I slid into my seat and propped my knees up on the back of the seat in front of me and pondered what the heck I was doing there.
I started rifling through my memories of each afternoon of soul-winning…and I could not recall ever seeing one face again after my initial contact. I never saw them in church—and buddy, I’d notice if they were because I was there a LOT. I never remembered anyone thanking me or crying or walking away with a new bounce in their step. I felt like a dismal failure as a Christian as I looked forlornly at my tally marks that stood for nothing. I tried to give myself hope—maybe I planted a seed and Christ would water it! Maybe I did…who knows, but I began to feel that maybe the tactic was all wrong, because I cannot remember any of us ever bringing anyone to church from those Wednesday trips, so it wasn’t just my failure. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I never felt a sudden change or even a cozy comfort from my own knowledge of the salvation plan and the day I said the prayer. Why not? It was not the first time, nor the last, the “one and done” doctrine had bothered me—it just felt so incomplete, somehow.
Being a public school kid, I had exposure to outside ideas, which, coupled with my naturally curious mind, marked me as a potential trouble source in my fundamentalist world. I toed the line for many years, wanting acceptance and desiring so badly to have the fire in my heart that I perceived that many of them had, but I was not buying any of it and my skepticism brought suspicion upon myself. As a cocky teenager, my questions got bolder, my remarks got sassier, and my smirk more frequent. It wasn’t long before not only was I uncomfortable around people I knew my whole life, but I was becoming justifiably unwelcome.
It would be years before I felt true fire in my heart, as my journey to the Catholic faith was not an easy Point A to Point B journey. However, after truly discovering Catholicism, I felt an inner glow and peace I had never known, and I feel sure it radiates outside of me—maybe not all of the time because I am human with bad days and good days, but certainly it never goes out and it is genuine. My evangelism and discipleship have changed and I attempt to allow the Holy Spirit to use me to show kindness and work for unity to help bring people closer to Him.
Recently, I have re-visited the Roman Road through Roman eyes. It is hard to argue with the black and white divinely inspired word of God, and indeed, Catholics have no argument against it at all despite what Protestants may think (Catholic friends, check this out for a hearty LOL—my favorite phrase is “The Vatican has redefined many of its keywords”). In fact, Catholics walk further down that Roman Road to the finish line to include the sacraments, instead of taking the first exit off at the end of a prayer.
It may seem more complicated, but it is really not. Catholics believe we are saved through God’s Grace—not works (Ephesians 2: 4-9), as commonly believed by those outside the faith. By accepting the free gift of God’s Grace, we are professing our faith and receiving Him into our heart, but we live our faith through works. Our Baptism, even if done as an infant before we are aware of what it entails, is the opening of the channel of grace and the beginning of our salvation. What we do from there either hinders or increases the flow of grace; the grace is still free and it is always your choice to accept it or throw it away. Our sin separates us from God and blocks the channel of grace that He continually bestows upon us, but confessing it and repenting re-opens the channel so blessings can flow anew. Jesus paid the price for our sin and the grace provided through His mercy enables our faith and works through faith, which are not innately valuable on their own and do not merit us salvation without His grace.
Nothing about the Roman Road implies that it is a “one and done” deal. Yes, we are saved by accepting the grace of God through faith—absolutely. We continue to be saved by grace, through faith, which is lived through works. The saving does start at a moment in time, but it continues on throughout our lives, and does not end at the end of a prayer. Jesus himself makes it very clear in the Sermon on the Mount that faith and works go hand in hand and neither by itself is justification. He continually preached this in his parables, as well, and instilled this in his disciples. This teaching is most clear in the Book of James, “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man can say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works…Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only…For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:14-18, 24, 26).
That being said, let’s revisit the famed Roman Road:
- Romans 1:18 “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness” —I think all Christians can agree that men deserve God’s righteous wrath for our offenses against Him and against each other, and that men suppress God’s truth and attempt to pervert it for their own purposes.
- Romans 3:10 “As it is written, there is none righteous, no, not one.”–I think that is pretty straightforward. Catholics believe we are all born tainted with original sin thanks to our first parents, Adam and Eve, choosing their will above God’s
- Romans 3:23 “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God”—Again, no argument here.
- Romans 6:23 “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”—Yep. Sounds legit to Catholic ears. We deserve death because of our sin, but God gives us the gift of salvation through His Son, and in Him, we are alive forever, even after we shed this earthly body. Catholics believe this better than most, because we profess the communion of saints and practice it.
- Romans 5:8 “But God commendeth His love toward us, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”—True, John 3:16 repeated. God loves us, even when we don’t deserve it, and because He loves us so much, Christ died for us so we can be in full communion with Him again. Mankind continually broke God’s covenant, but instead of killing us, He died instead, to form a new covenant.
- Romans 3:24 “Being justified freely by his grace through redemption that is in Christ Jesus”—Uh…yeah. Grace. We think so, too. We are reading the same thing, after all!
- Romans 10: 9-10, 13 “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart of man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For whosoever call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”—We totally get that, too. We even confess it over and over again at every Mass, every time we pray the Rosary—all the time. We continually ask and pray for salvation.
- Romans 8:30, 35, 38-39 “Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”—We agree, no outside forces of any kind can take us away from the love of God. We, can, however, remove ourselves. God would still love us, but we would be rejecting Him and His grace. Paul was speaking to the early Christians that were being martyred, giving them hope and courage to face whatever might befall them because the reward of heaven would be theirs.
It has always made me squirm when I have confided to my new Catholic friends that the vast majority of evangelical Christians do not consider Catholics true Christians. They are always shocked because they would never say that about a Protestant, though they will wonder sadly why Protestants will reject lovely sacraments, sacramentals, and devotions that bring us only closer to God. Catholics take turns from being genuinely hurt to heartily amused when confronted with what Protestants think Catholics believe. Archbishop Fulton Sheen said it best when he said “There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church—which is, of course, quite a different thing.” Protestants, Go ye therefore teaching all nations, baptizing them, and all that, but please read up on the first Church and understand you are preaching to the choir when you knock on a faithful Catholic’s door.
Your sister in Christ,