Unlocking the Convert's Heart - The Bible as a Key to Conversion
by Marcus Grodi
I was recently asked to give a talk on the biblical defense of Catholicism. Initially this seemed like an easy task, for the primary reason my Presbyterian heart was turned toward home was because the truthfulness of the Catholic Church was proved to me through the study of Scripture. Books upon books upon tapes upon CD s reiterate the sound biblical footing of our Catholic faith. Regardless, I encountered difficulties as I thought of my perceived audience.
First, I remembered that from which I came and the hoards of anti- Catholics who believe there is no biblical defense of Catholicism. They believe the Bible is their book and that if it defends anything, it defends their theological platforms. If this were true, my talk would have been very short and this article over.
But this isn’t true. The Bible is not their book. It exists today first because of the grace of God, but secondarily because of the Catholic bishops, priests, monks, and laity who preserved, protected, copied, and venerated the canon of inspired books we now call the Bible. The entire biblical canon from Genesis to Revelation is a defense of the Catholic Church. From this standpoint, one talk or brief article merely scratches the surface.
Second, I remembered the many people who have been so swayed by the opinions of biblical critics that any biblical defense of the faith is useless, for the Bible to them is at best a collection of myths and fables. Again, this makes for a short presentation.
Third, I remembered the many lifelong Catholics who believe a biblical defense of their faith is unnecessary. From birth and baptism they have believed it all, and though they greatly revere the Scriptures, they need no proof. Yet, I know from personal experience where this attitude leads: Thirty percent of my Protestant youth groups and churches were made up of ex-Catholics who could not defend their faith against our biblical onslaught. Eventually they not only became convinced that the Bible defended Protestantism, but that they had been saved from "the whore of Babylon." It is very important, especially in this day of high-tech Internet evangelization, that Catholics rediscover the biblical defense of their faith.
But there was a fourth difficulty. As in sports, there is no one simple defense against all attacks. For example, in football the defense changes with each play to address the changing offense. So with the defense of our faith, the challenges are as varied as Protestantism itself. The verses that might unlock a Presbyterian’s heart are radically different than those that might convince a Baptist or a Lutheran or a Pentecostal or Methodist or a Mormon. You get the idea.
So where does one begin? How does a Catholic use the Word of God to unlock the heart of a friend or family member outside the faith? My approach is what I call "The Verses I Never Saw." This is what sparked my own conversion, as well as those of hundreds of others we have worked with through the Coming Home Network International.
Scripture Says What?
Not unlike any average Evangelical Protestant minister, I loved my Lord Jesus Christ, I was committed to proclaiming and following His truth with abandon, and I believed in sola scriptura—that the Bible was the one inspired, infallible "firm foundation" of my life and faith. I also believed that I knew the Bible very well, from cover to cover, and that it held no surprises that could shatter my Protestant faith.
Then a long-lost seminary classmate introduced me to the first "verse I never saw." Scott Hahn pulled the same trick on me that someone had once pulled on him. He asked me, "What is the pillar and bulwark of your faith?"
My knee-jerk response—as had been his—was, "Why, the Bible, of course!"
"But what does the Bible specifically say is ‘the pillar and bulwark of faith’?"
I was puzzled. I could not remember any place where this specific phrase was found in Scripture.
"Let’s look at 1 Timothy 3:14–15, then," he said. Now, I had studied and taught through 1 Timothy many times and expected no surprises, so I read aloud without hesitation, "I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth."
For a second, I wondered whether someone had somehow secretly inserted that never-before-noticed text into my Bible! The apostle Paul tells Timothy that the pillar and bulwark of the truth is somehow the Church. I had no mental file folder for this idea. As a Calvinist, I believed that the Church was an invisible fellowship of all true believers, not identifiable with any one institutional communion. How could this invisible, universal hodgepodge of opinions be the "pillar and bulwark" of anything? And could my Presbyterian denomination qualify as this trustworthy foundation for truth? Hardly—nor in my opinion could any other denomination I knew. So, what did Paul mean by "church"? This verse left me weak in the knees, not yet leaning toward Catholicism, but shaken in my confidence in sola scriptura.
Traditions to Contend With
Then I discovered another "verse I never saw": 2 Thessalonians 2:15, "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter."
Oh, I had seen this verse before, but what I had not noticed before was that the traditions—or "teachings," as my Protestant Bible had translated this term—that Paul insisted the Thessalonian believers follow and adhere to were not merely the written documents that would one day make up the New Testament, but also oral traditions.
In fact, as I re-examined all of Paul’s letters, several things became very clear: First, Paul’s normal, preferred way of passing on the faith was through preaching and teaching; second, the only reason we have any letters at all was because he could not get to the people in person; and third, what he taught in his letters presumed upon the knowledge they had already received from him in person—much of which is never recorded in any New Testament document!
Then a third "verse I never saw" raised its ugly head: 2 Timothy 3:14– 17, "But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work."
I was certainly quite aware of this text, for it was upon the second half of this text that I taught and defended sola scripura. Whenever I quoted this text, I would hold up the Bible as the presumed equivalent of what Paul meant by "all Scripture." What I had not previously considered, however (already a bit wobbly from the first two surprise verses), was whether this was an accurate representation of what Paul understood as "Scripture." When he wrote this letter, the New Testament was not even entirely written, let alone collected into a book. The canon of Scripture would not be finalized for another 300-plus years by gatherings of Catholic bishops at the councils of Carthage, Rome, and Hippo. This meant that Paul could only have been referring to the Old Testament! Did I believe that only the Old Testament was "inspired by God and profitable for teaching"? No, of course not. So this verse not only did not teach sola scriptura, but the first half again taught the importance of oral tradition.
The Spirit of Unity
A fourth "verse I never saw" was John 14:26, "But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you." Coupled with John 16:13—"When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come"—this verse made me painfully aware of a contradiction in my life and ministry.
These verses emphasize how the Holy Spirit will teach the followers of Christ so that they know and remember all that Jesus taught to be true. So what happened? Why was there so much confusion and contradiction between those who love Jesus, who have received the Holy Spirit, and who diligently study His inspired, infallible Bible? What I had not seen in these very familiar verses is that Jesus was not implying that every Christian throughout all time would have this guaranteed knowledge of the truth: He was speaking primarily to His hand-chosen Apostles! They would be the ones to receive this special gift of the Holy Spirit to give them a special infused knowledge and wisdom so that they could initiate and lead the Church in truth. All Christians would receive the Holy Spirit (through Baptism) at differing levels according to the gifting of God (cf. Eph. 4:7, 11–14).
In time, a fifth "verse I never saw" crept up on me: John 17:11, "And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to thee. Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one."
So where was this unity, especially among faithful Christians who accepted the Bible as the Word of God yet could not agree on what it said? In this prayer, Jesus was praying specifically for His Apostles, upon whom He would build His Church, and Scripture teaches that "the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects" (Jas. 5:16). In other words, unity is something that therefore must already exist, but where and how?
The sixth "verse I never saw" startled me in a familiar spot. My favorite, most-preached-upon portion of Scripture was the familiar metaphor of the vine and the branches. I especially emphasized to my congregations the truth of John 15:4, "Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me."
For years I had given my interpretation of what it meant to "abide in" Jesus and how He abides in us, but as far as I knew, there was no place where He specifically defines what this meant . . . until a friend drew my attention back to John 6:56, "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him." Whoa! Jesus abides in His followers and we abide in Him not just through our diligent obedience but through partaking of Him in the Eucharist! Again, as a Presbyterian, I had no mental file folder for this.
The seventh "verse I never saw" was another one that I preached on often and assumed I had an adequate response to for any Catholic apologist: Matthew 16:17–19, "And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’"
There’s much to discuss here, but in short I had always assumed that pointing to the original Greek undercut any Catholic proof for Petrine authority. The Greek word here for Peter is Petros, which can mean "pebble" whereas the word for rock is petra, which means "large boulder." Like so many other Protestant pastors, I explained that Jesus was obviously not building His Church on this "pebble" called Simon Peter but upon the faith he had been given from God the Father.
But then someone pointed out what was truly obvious: Jesus didn’t speak Greek; He spoke Aramaic, and in both cases He would have used the same word, Kepha: "Thou art Kepha and upon this Kepha I will build my church." The differences in the Greek arose from the translators changing a feminine noun into a masculine name.
Unlocking Our Hearts First
These are only seven of the many "verses I never saw" that opened this convert’s heart to the Catholic Church. Are these verses "silver bullets"? Are they the guaranteed keys to unlock the mind and heart of any non-Catholic friend or relative? No, I’m afraid not. I know many faithful non-Catholics who see these verses and others, who know all the Catholic answers to them, yet are far from ready to come home. Few conversions come about primarily through biblical proof texts and arguments, though these texts can be used by the Holy Spirit. All conversions come about by grace, and so the most important thing we can do to unlock the hearts of potential converts is to pray for them and love them.
So why learn these verses? For this we need to take some advice from the airlines. Whenever we fly, what does the flight attendant tell us to do in the event of a loss of air pressure? Are we to first put the air mask on our children or on ourselves? Ourselves. We cannot adequately help anyone unless we first take care of ourselves. We need to know our faith and why we believe what we do, and we especially need to know the wonderful truths of the Bible so we can pass them on to others. But in all cases, the first heart that always needs to be unlocked by the Bible is our own.
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Marcus Grodi is host of the popular EWTN program The Journey Home and president of the Coming Home Network International, an organization that provides support for Christians from other traditions who are interested in converting to the Catholic Church. For more information about the Coming Home Network, please visit www.chnetwork.org. This article first published in Lay Witness Magazine and reproduced with permission of Catholics United for the Faith
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