Letters to Carlos: My “Secret” Weapon
Letters to Carlos: My “Secret” Weapon
Thank you for asking, “After the Bible, what book has influenced your life and ministry the most?” I know you are aware of my love for theology and perhaps thought this might take a bit of reflection on my part. You may also think I might select a book from my favorite theologian, Martin Luther. My answer, however, may surprise you. And for that, I’m very grateful you asked because I believe my answer may help you more than anything else I could ever write or say to you. But first, I am going to take you on a little journey…
I remember feeling as if I had “hit a wall” after four years of preaching and teaching on my radio program in Cuba. The program was called “Wings of Morning” for which I had to prepare and deliver messages each week. Not only was I was struggling with keeping these talks fresh and alive, but as the program became more popular, listeners began writing in and asking difficult doctrinal questions. One listener asked, “How do we understand the grace of God while at the same time the judgment of God?” Another asked, “How do you explain the threatening violence in David’s Psalms when God tells us to ‘love our enemies?’” A popular question expressed in many different ways was, “If saving faith does not require any works, doesn’t the Bible contradict itself when it clearly requires works?” Not only were these types of questions difficult to answer for highly educated Bible scholars, but I was fresh out of Bible school and struggling with many of these same questions myself.
I knew I needed to study more and claimed the promise of James 1:5, believing that “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” And what a beautiful way God answered my prayer. It wasn’t through a vision or special word from a close friend or mentor. No, God answered my prayer in what for me was one of the most unlikely of people and places.
After four years of ministry in Cuba, it was time to report back to the churches and families who were supporting us back in the United States. I was looking forward to a much-needed furlough, visiting family, catch up with old friends, and report on what God was accomplishing through our ministry in Cuba. On the invitation of my wife’s parents in Bellingham, Washington, we excitedly looked forward to spending our year-long furlough there.
Those were wonderful days! The grandparents loved being with our boys and it was a great time of rest filled with much love. It’s hard, however, to survive financially on love alone. I needed to care for my family and pay the bills during our sabbatical—I needed work. Since I was a minister, the most logical thing to do was find work in a church. I got out my Baptist credentials and made a list of all the Baptist churches in the area and began visiting them one after the other. Not one of them, however, was able to use me. So, I made a new list of all the independent churches and visited them. Nothing was available there, either. Seeing my frustration and concern, my father-in-law said, “Have you tried the Presbyterian churches? There’s a big one across town that may be looking for someone.”
Now as you know, Baptists and Presbyterians keep a cold, critical eye on each other…as well as every other denomination. A Baptist would never hire a Presbyterian and a Presbyterian certainly wouldn’t hire a Baptist. So when my father-in-law made his suggestion I let out a sarcastic laugh and said, “Impossible.” After all, I had heard that Presbyterians were liberal, their doctrines were all wrong; they had abandoned the truths of God’s Word. They were cold and without joy, and some of them danced, drank and smoked.
Sometimes, however, necessity makes you do things you never dream of doing. Finally, I summoned up my courage, swallowed hard, and went to the visit the big Presbyterian Church across town. To my surprise, Dr. Harrison, the pastor, warmly welcomed me. He had a contagious smile and laughed easily. He seemed remarkably likeable. He invited me into his office and there, after offering me a cup of coffee, asked all about my missionary work, my family and myself. It was more than just being polite. He was genuinely interested. When I was finally done he said, “We have been searching for a youth pastor. I like what I’ve seen and heard. I’d like to give you the opportunity. When can you start?”
I was dumbfounded. I had even told him I was a Baptist and he never flinched. I once again swallowed hard, shook his hand and told him I could begin immediately. I left his office telling myself I had found a new mission field: preparing to win lost Presbyterian hearts and souls, since I presumed they were all lost.
The following Sunday I was introduced to the congregation and had my first meeting with the young people. I’m not exactly certain what I was expecting, but everyone was so kind and genuine and seemed to really love the Lord. I steeled myself for the Sunday sermon knowing I would hear a message void of the truths of God’s Word. I was ready with my pen and paper to jot down all the heretical things the pastor would give in his sermon.
To my utter amazement, however, the pastor gave a wonderful expository sermon, true to the Scriptures, full of passion and love for the Lord and the congregation. Instead of filling my notebook with biblical errors, I was filling the pages with significant Scriptural truths. “Surely this is an exception,” I said to myself. So the next Sunday I again was prepared to catch the subtle distortions of the truth, but once again my notes were filled with words of hope from God’s Word. This continued for a few weeks. To put myself at ease, I had to talk to the pastor.
Dr. Harrison warmly received me and offered many words of thanks and encouragement for the work I was doing with the youth. I then managed to blurt out all my doubts and preconceived ideas about “Presbyterians,” to which he enjoyed a good laugh. He sadly admitted that, yes, many Presbyterians had wandered far from the truth. As he elaborated, I couldn’t help but think of some of my Baptist brothers who had also strayed far from the truth. He went on to say how there were many like himself who remained faithful to the Scriptures. It didn’t take long for all my preconceived notions and prejudices to melt away.
That year I enjoyed many long and wonderful conversations with Dr. Harrison and truly came to admire his teaching and love for the Lord. In one of those conversations I told him about my struggle over some of the doctrinal issues and questions stemming from my radio program. After giving him a few examples of the questions, I remember his smile as he jumped up from his chair and walked over to his bookshelf, and pulled down a book. “After the Bible,” he began, “this book has helped me more than any other.” He handed me the book and joyfully said, “It’s my gift to you.”
What Dr. Harrison pulled off his shelf and placed in my hands was The Westminster Confession of Faith, a historical manual giving direction for the church regarding doctrine, worship, government and discipline. Back in 1643, the English Parliament asked “prepared men, with godly character and good judgment” to meet at the Westminster Abby to prepare this manual which to this very day reflects the theological position of the majority of conservative evangelical churches. Just imagine a government in our day doing the same!
The rest of that day and through the night, I read The Westminster Confession of Faith. I immediately realized it was full of doctrinal statements that addressed many of the questions with which I was struggling. I carefully read and studied each one, comparing paragraph after paragraph with the biblical proof-texts given. I continued studying all the next day. Things I had been unsure of in the Bible now began to make sense. Each topic was well explained, documented and backed up scripturally—verse by verse. Through this book (and many conversations with Dr. Harrison) God opened my mind to give me a better understanding of His Holy Word. What a wonderful answer to my prayer!
The Westminster Confession of Faith awakened in me a new interest in church history. I began reading various biographies, including several on the life of Martin Luther (these made such an impression on me that I later wrote a book, El Triunfo de la Fe (The Triumph of the Faith), now on our website. I also came to understand the importance of the Protestant Reformation and the call to fervently study God’s Word and live out the biblical principles taught by these great defenders of the faith.
Since the day Dr. Harrison gave me his copy of The Westminster Confession of Faith, I have come to realize many pastors and Bible leaders are as unfamiliar with this wonderful tool as I was. That´s a tragedy. In my judgment, it should be one of the most read and consulted texts a pastor uses. I can assure you it would take away much of the doctrinal confusion we have today in our churches.
Well, Carlos, I have told you about something that has been and continues to be very important in my life as a Bible teacher. Since we have made it available —and free— to anyone at logoi.org. It has been my “secret weapon” that should not be a secret to anyone anymore. I continue praying that God will pour His blessings on you and your ministry. I look forward to your next letter with great joy.