The ways and means by which people come to faith are many and varied. Nevertheless, I suspect if you were to ask the average Evangelical – particularly those who hold to the kind of Reformed soteriology I and my ilk do – they would offer you a relatively straightforward pathway they would expect in the story of somebody coming to faith. We can sometimes try to set up our formula and engage in some furious hand-wringing when people appear not to tread the path we have concocted for them.
I was reminded of this as I recently received a Christmas card from one of our former church members. They had come to the UK seeking asylum, having been imprisoned and tortured by their own government for involvement in political activism. As they got to the UK, they were placed into a detention centre. It was there that they encountered their first professing Christian: a chaplain who was a Catholic priest.
The kindness and care of the Catholic chaplain set my friend on a journey to discover what Christianity was all about. As they were released from detention and placed in a house, they searched for a church. Knowing nothing of denominational differences, and never having anything to do with church or Christians before, they wandered into our church. It was there they encountered the Christian gospel and, in time, went on to profess faith in Christ, get baptised and join the church in membership.
But let’s not ignore the crux of the story. There is a turning point, one event, that started my friend on their journey to faith. If it were not for that Roman Catholic chaplain, my friend would never have come to encounter the gospel. It was the kindliness and concern of a Catholic who would teach a false gospel that caused my friend to encounter an Evangelical Protestant church teaching the true gospel. And there can be no denying that this is what the Lord ordained for the simple and obvious reason that this is how it happened.
There are those who would fret about this story. How can a Catholic priest have anything to do with leading someone to Christ? They aren’t going to teach the gospel! But it’s a relatively obvious question to answer. That priest can have something to do with leading someone to Christ because his behaviour and kindness toward my friend caused them to seek Christ. Things are often best said in gif form, so here it is:
It may be the case that I would not – were I in any position to plan and control these things – actively pursue that path as an optimal approach to evangelism and mission. But I can think of dozens of stories – some with far worse input from even dodgier sources – that nonetheless led to salvation through means that I find utterly bizarre and entirely unlikely to yield gospel fruit. So what are we to do with it?
I suppose we could let it perturb us. I’m not sure what that achieves and it doesn’t change the fact that it was the means by which somebody came to faith. We could let it perplex us. But there isn’t anything here that is difficult to understand. I suspect our reaction (such as we have a negative reaction) is that it feels unorthodox. That’s not how we feel it’s supposed to happen. Those who teach a false gospel surely can’t be the ones to push people towards the true gospel, can they?
But as we look in the scriptures, this sort of thing happens all the time. Balaam blesses God’s people; Shamgar saves God’s people; Babylon are God’s agent of judgement and Nebuchadnezzar ends up writing an evangelistic tract to the entire world; Cyrus is God’s means of saving God’s people; Rahab saves the Israelite spies. And none of it is a problem when we understand that it is all under God’s sovereign decree. All these things were means God uses to achieve his purposes in the world – whether judgement, blessing, salvation or anything else.
So how can it be that a Catholic caused my friend to find the Biblical Jesus? That was the means God used to set my friend on a search for the Biblical Jesus. And in their search for the Biblical Jesus, they happened to walk into a Biblically faithful church who taught them about him. My friend didn’t come to imbibe the demi-gospel of Catholicism because of that Catholic priest; they came to accept the Biblical gospel because they went searching for Christ as a result of the kindness of that particular priest. God can use whatever means he wills to bring about his purposes.
I’m not saying let’s be sanguine about people going to churches that teach a false gospel. I’m certainly not telling you to encourage people to go to such places and presume that they will somehow encounter Christ. If they do come to faith in such a place it will evidently be in spite of, rather than because of, it. But what I am saying is that even such places may be a means God uses in some way to bring people to a real understanding of the gospel and into his kingdom. It may very well not be through the things they are taught formally, but it may be a means of moving people closer to Christ.
I think there are a million and one variants of this. There are people, churches and ministries – were I in any position to do anything about it – that I’d put a lot of energy into helping people avoid. But even in all those varying stripes of error, there are those who have been put in a position to encounter the gospel. Sometimes it is through snippets of truth that make their way out in those places. Other times, folk are encouraged to accept enough truth that – when they come to encounter the gospel as it really is elsewhere – they are in a position where they might receive it. Other times still it is through the contrast of having such a terrible ordeal in these places that when they encounter a gospel preaching, Christ-honouring church community it has a drastic impact on them and they see the gospel as it really is. But all of them are means by which God draws people to himself.
I am put in mind of a friend who was once a church minister but, by way of some egregious sin, disqualified himself. He drifted away from the church but recounts how he received many letters from people. Some were gracious and compassionate, some just chewed the fat, others were painfully honest but evidently loving, some were downright unpleasant. But he was able to say that all of them – even the most unkind and unpleasant ones – played an important role in bringing him to repentance and back to the Lord. Is that a path I would encourage anyone to walk? Of course not. Is it the means the Lord used to bring someone into lasting fellowship with himself? Evidently so.
The point here, then, is that the Lord may work through means we cannot understand. The Lord may bring people to places, or move people in ways, that are beyond our understanding and certainly do not tally with the pathway we have concocted in our own mind as to how it should be done. It may not be what we would encourage or endorse, but if folk are led to the Lord as a result, we must simply fall back onto the goodness and mercy of our sovereign God and declare that he does, indeed, move in mysterious ways.