For most Evangelicals around the world, the issue of Roman Catholicism arises if and when they are dealing with friends, neighbors, family members, or colleagues who are Roman Catholic and with whom they want to share the gospel. Their interest in Roman Catholicism has primarily an evangelistic thrust rather than a theological one. They want to know “how to” share the gospel in a meaningful way, rather than asking questions about the nature of the Roman Catholic system and how it differs from the evangelical faith. This is understandable given the fact that some look for ready-to-use “practical” help rather than seeking to approach Roman Catholicism as an integrated whole to be carefully studied. Of course, even when one’s own initial concern is to witness to Roman Catholics, some theological homework always needs to be done when communicating the gospel.
Here are four tips which could be of some help in engaging Roman Catholics with the gospel. They are neither a four-step process nor a recipe for success. They are rather lessons that I have learned over the years in sharing the gospel with Roman Catholics.
Practical Tip #1: Don’t assume or rely on common language
Roman Catholics share much of our vocabulary, but they understand it differently. For example, if you think of words such as salvation, cross, sin, and grace, they are all the same terms that the Bible uses, but Roman Catholics understand them very differently. Salvation is thought of as an open-ended process where our works and the merits we gain are necessary for it to be received. The cross is understood more as the eucharist celebrated by the priest than the once and for all sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary. Sin is seen more as a sickness than spiritual death. We could go on and on. The point is that the same words have different meanings.
Instead of relying on an alleged common ground (that is more rhetorical than real), let the Bible define your language and lead your conversation: engage your Roman Catholic friends in Bible reading, Bible study, and Bible conversations as much as possible. Don’t approach them with an “us” versus “them” attitude but invite them to be exposed to Scripture and pray that the Holy Spirit will open their hearts.
There may be “fears” of the Bible (remember that the Bible was a forbidden book for Catholics up to 60 years ago) and “skepticism” around it (absorbed via modern critical readings), but the Word of God is powerful to break through in people’s hearts.
Practical Tip #2: Be prepared to wrestle with the exclusive nature of the Gospel
As you read or share Scripture together with your Catholic friends, all kinds of interesting conversations will come up. Usually, they will revolve around the sharp edges of the gospel.
For example, Roman Catholics may have a high respect for the Bible, but for them, it’s not the ultimate authority. When confronted with something the Bible says that contradicts what their church teaches, they will rather question the authority of Scripture than the authority of the Roman Church. Moreover, Roman Catholics do commend believing in Jesus, but faith in Christ is not sufficient to be saved: something more needs to be done by men and women. Additionally, Roman Catholics often show a kind of love for Christ, but they also rely on other sub-mediators (e.g. Mary, the saints) who detract attention from Him. In other words, what is at stake with them is the rejection of the Scripture Alone, Faith Alone, and Christ Alone principles of the biblical faith.
Practical Tip #3: Be ready to show the personal elements of the Christian life
In reading the Bible together, make sure to share how the Bible impacts your life. In other words, combine biblical reading with your personal testimony. This step will be very helpful because it will encourage your friends to move:
- Beyond religion: Nominal Roman Catholics tend to separate “normal life” from religion. Make sure you carefully show the impact of the Word on daily life, e.g. personal experience, work, church, and society.
- Beyond tradition: Roman Catholics tend to see religion as a set of practices to be repeated. Show the centrality of the relationship with Jesus who is the Lord of the whole of life.
- Beyond the divide of the clergy/laity: Many Catholics tend to consider religion as a responsibility of the clergy that lay people don’t have. Show the fact that we are all responsible to nurture our Christian life in personal devotion and witness.
Practical Tip #4: Be prepared to integrate personal witness and church life
Engaging in Bible reading and showing the power of the gospel in life cannot be limited to our individual lives only. Invite other Christian friends into the conversation to show how the gospel creates communities of followers of Jesus. Remember:
- Believing and belonging go together. Roman Catholics tend to emphasize the latter at the expense of the former. Show the reality that the gospel forms a new community (i.e. the church). Invite them to church to see what a community of the gospel looks like.
- The importance of the ordinances instituted by Jesus Christ for the church, especially the Lord’s supper. Catholics are not used to “listening” as their primary way of receiving a message; their religious mindset is shaped to see and experience through the other senses (e.g. sight, touch, taste) and in the context of community. Your local church services are wonderful evangelistic tools to invite your friends to see and experience.
Every conversion to Christ is a miracle. As you communicate the gospel to your Roman Catholic friends, pray that God will move in their hearts to open them to see the truth of the gospel and to respond to its message in obedience and faith.