Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Roman Catholic Conversion Stories: An Introduction
02/05/2007 - James SwanHave you read the book, Surprised by Sovereignty: 11 Converts Give the Biblical and Historical Reasons for Becoming a Calvinist? No, I don’t think you’ve read that book. Within Reformed circles, there is not a tendency to write about how one became a Calvinist. Sure, we talk about it sometimes. But it is not a primary tool of evangelism, nor are our testimonies a key method of directing people toward the “fullness of truth”. Rather, when one explains the basics of Reformed theology, Bibles are open and pages are flipping. What happened to me really doesn’t matter. Rather, It’s about “what are you going to do with the clear teachings of Scripture?” “Do you see that you bring nothing to Christ and that salvation is the result of His mercy on an undeserving sinner?”
With the contemporary rise of Catholic apologetics, there has been a consistent trend to highlight the, “conversion story”. That is, Joe or Suzy was previously some sort of Protestant, but now they’ve “converted” to Roman Catholicism. Books, television broadcasts, radio programs, and internet web pages, all tell a similar glorious tale of journeying to Rome, and so should you. These are not conversion stories of the broken sinner bowing his knee to the merciful God, given by the Father to Christ and irresistibly drawn (like Paul’s recounting in Galatians 1; cf. Acts 9); rather, these are accounts of people accepting the alleged Roman Catholic “fullness of truth”, and a rejection of Protestant essentials like sola fide and sola scriptura. In other words, the emphasis is not on spiritual rebirth, but rather the acceptance and realization of a “higher knowledge”. The conversion is not to Christ, but to an infallible church.
This apologetic use of the “conversion story” is directly borrowed from Protestantism. Being raised in an independent non-denominational church, I heard countless inspiring stories of the wayward sinner finding and choosing the love and grace of Christ. As a youth, I was always interested to hear how possibly my favorite rock star accepted Christ. These tales could be used as a “witnessing tool” to my non-Christian friends. “You see, person x converted, so should you.” With the current trend in Catholic apologetics, Joe Protestant became Catholic, so should you. As Evangelicals swam the Tiber, they brought their Evangelical methods with them to the shores of Rome. They brought their vocabulary and their communication skills: Catholic apologetics had been rejuvenated by disenchanted Protestants!
Listen to the description of the glorious journeys of finding Rome as told by Scott Hahn:
We converts have been made so rich. We have been given wealth beyond our wildest dreams! What words can express the sense of the child who, after passing through a series of orphanages and foster homes, finds himself standing in the doorway of an unfamiliar mansion staring into the loving faces of long-forgotten family members? He is reintroduced to his Father, Almighty God, and to Mary, his mother and queen, who is standing, arms outstretched in welcome, next to his elder brother, King Jesus- in the midst of that glorious company of angelic and saintly siblings who stretch forth from heaven to earth and under the earth. Can you imagine a more royal reunion? Few joys surpass the ones related here by these former theological step-children who have finally come home. [Patrick Madrid (ed), Surprised By Truth (Encinitas: Basilica Press, 1994), p.10)]These glorious tales of “former theological step-children” are nothing more than aspects of what Martin Luther called the “theology of glory”. The late medieval Roman church Luther was confronted with was a church filled with “glory.” By “glory,” Luther meant that the emphasis was not on the achievements of Christ, but on the achievement of the Roman Church, and those achievements were accomplished by the churches’ own power. Luther rejected the “glory of the church” and said the church is a suffering church, rather than a church of beauty and splendor. The church is not supposed to be a “glory” of political power and luxury. Conversion stories repeatedly put forth by Catholics are just that: examples of achievement and glory. They point to the abilities of a person and the supposed wisdom gained by crossing the Tiber. They do not point to Christ---they point to a triumphal entry into a magnificent human institution: the Roman Catholic Church. Their conversion stories are about what they did. They are about what wisdom and glory they achieved.
Rather, Paul informs us that the message of the cross is foolishness, and God chooses those who are weak, lowly, and despised to be his children. “It is because of Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God- that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.’” Becoming a member of the church is to be given a life of trial and tribulation (1 Thes. 3:1-5). The Scriptures do not speak of joining a powerful visible institution, as judged by the world’s standards. Rather, the strength and splendor of the church is Christ and his Spirit that indwells His people everywhere. His people comprise a church that the world despises and seeks to destroy. To join this body is to join with those the world sees as fools.
Hahn goes on to speak of the “anguish endured” by those who made the journey to Rome. The Bible though tells of how we should consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus, for whose sake we have lost all things. We should consider them rubbish that we may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of our own. Our conversions should be to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death (Phil. 3:7-11). When someone converts to Christ, they are receiving His Lordship and ultimate rule of His word over their lives.
I have not denied the Roman Catholic usage of the word “conversion” in their journey to Rome. For in this voyage, they have indeed made a decision from the heart, a conversion. They have received the Lordship of an alleged infallible church magisterium as the ultimate rule over their lives. It is not sola scriptura, but rather sola ecclesia. I submit the Scriptures do not speak of being transformed into the image of the Roman Catholic Church, but rather being transformed into the image of Christ. The Scriptures do not speak of the power of such a testimonial conversion to a “fullness of truth” in joining a particular church body. Rather, they speak of spiritually dead sinners being raised to spiritual life. By this resurrection they become members of Christ’s bride, His church. If you are to boast about your conversion, boast only that once you were blind and now can see. Boast only that you were once enslaved to your sins, but have now been freed by the perfect Savior.