I work part-time as an English tutor with a supplemental education company, and every week, I see 15-20 grade-school aged children to help them with reading problems, standardized test preparation, or homework and study skills. Often, because of the many Catholic private schools in the area, I am in the position of helping a Middle School student study for his or her required “Religion” class. A few of these children are from Catholic families, but most are from nominally Christian homes and rarely attend church or mass. I often am able to share the gospel in considerable depth in this environment because the students are generally interested to know that, though I am in seminary and have some specialized knowledge in the field of “religion,” I am not Catholic and I even have a wife! Often, differences between the beliefs of the Protestant and Roman Catholic branches of Christianity are the jumping-off points for conversations about the gospel. Following is one of the more interesting conversations of the past few weeks...
"Andy" is one of my regular students, a sixth-grader. Our normal focus is on his writing skills and grammar, but last Friday we had a conversation during which I was able to clearly explain the gospel and clear up some of the misconceptions he had about God and his relationship to people. Andy was required to memorize the Decalogue for his Religion course, and he asked me to help him create a memory aid for the task. I couldn’t teach him the one I learned in Sunday School because the version he was required to learn was modified slightly. When he found out that I knew them already, he remembered that I had told him that I was in Seminary studying to be a minister, and asked, “If you’re going to be a priest, how can you be married?”
“Well,” I said, “I’m not actually going to be a priest. I’m going to be a pastor, and that’s a different thing than a priest.” Andy is usually one of the more rebellious of my students, even for his age, but he seemed attentive at this point, so, since part of his religion test was to know some of the differences between Catholicism and “Fundamentalism,” as the false dichotomy was stated in his textbook, I took the opportunity to advance the conversation.
“What’s the difference? Do you not believe in God or something?” he asked.
“No, no, no. I believe in God,” I said. “I’m just not Catholic. I’m what’s called a Protestant. We’re Christians, too, we just hold a few different beliefs than Catholics do.”
He had heard of Christians who weren’t Catholic, but he said, “My teacher said that Fundamentalists believe every word of the Bible literally. Is that you?” I told him that I did believe that the Bible was literally true and that it was God’s way of speaking to us about how we can come to know Him. Then, he asked the obvious next question.
“What does it say, that we’re all going to Hell?”
“It says that, since people all sin, or do things that are against God’s law, yes, we all deserve to go to Hell. But that’s not all it says. It also says that, since the very first person, Adam, sinned, God has had a plan to fix the world from the mess we made of it. He made a way that, even though we deserve Hell, we don’t have to go there when we die. He made a way for us to be with Him instead, as if we hadn’t done anything wrong.”
“Is that why we go to confession?” he asked, “Because I haven’t been since last year. I always forget all the stuff I’ve done.”
“Well,” I said, “you really don’t need a priest to confess your sins to God for you. You can do it yourself. Because Jesus took the punishment for our sin – that’s why he died – we can speak directly to God about our sin, and he will forgive us if we believe and trust Jesus.”
“Do you have to confess every single thing?”
“Of course, you can never specifically confess every single thing you’ve ever done, and God doesn’t expect you to. Jesus didn’t just die; he also lived a perfect life and, after he died, he was raised from the dead – that’s why we celebrate Easter. If you believe, God will make a trade with you. He will give you credit for all the good that Jesus did and blame Jesus for all the bad you’ve done. Since we can obviously never confess all of our sins, and since we can never become perfect and never earn our way to heaven by being good (because only perfect is good enough), we have to believe and trust that God will make that trade when we ask him to have mercy on us.”
He still seemed interested, and he asked me if that meant that we then had to be perfect for the rest of our lives. I explained to him about repentance and that the “trade” was done once and for all, and that when God does that to us, He also gives us new ways of thinking and acting. We want to please him and become more like Jesus. He nodded his head in approval but said that it all sounded “pretty weird.” When I asked him after our tutoring session if he wanted to know more about what we had talked about, he said that he would “think about it.” He seemed uncomfortable with talking any more, and his mother was waiting in the parking lot.
I see Andy every Wednesday and Friday, so I plan to find ways to raise the subject in subsequent sessions that will be faithful both to my desire for him to know the Lord and to my responsibility to use the time his parents bought to tutor him in Reading and Writing. He is my last student on Wednesdays, so I’m praying for other opportunities to follow up on our conversation in the time after our session.