The Hispanic Challenge

C. A. Sandoval
Wednesday, January 2nd 2008
Jan/Feb 2008

If you’ve ever played the popular party game, Taboo, you know that the goal of the game is to get your teammates to guess secret words without using any of the closely related words listed on the game cards. For example, if the secret word is “car,” you have to describe what a car is to your teammates without using words like “automobile,” “drive,” “road,” or “tires.” Now imagine trying to explain to someone what it means to be Reformed or what a Reformed church is without using words like “confessional,” “Westminster Confession of Faith,” “John Calvin,” or even “Reformation.” This is the challenge I frequently face when interacting with and ministering to U.S. Hispanics; and it is a challenge that arises not out of a lack of intellect, but out of a lack of certain historical and cultural contexts.

Contextual Voids and the Bible

In general, a Hispanic is anyone of any race who has some ancestral, cultural, or historical ties with Spain, its former New World colonies, and the Spanish language. In this sense, the term “Hispanic” is very much like the term “American.” Not all Americans are Anglo-Saxon, but all Americans-by virtue of being American-have some ancestral, cultural, or historical ties with Britain, its thirteen American colonies, and the English language. In the U.S., the vast majority of Hispanics are either first generation (i.e., the generation that first immigrated to the U.S.) or second generation (i.e., the first generation’s children born in the U.S.), although there is a growing number of third generation and beyond. As with most other Americans of immigrant descendent, by the third and fourth generation, Hispanics are more American than anything else and so have closer ties with the American culture, history, and religious background. First-and second- generation His panics, however, still maintain most of their Hispanic ties, and thus lack the historical and cultural contexts needed to make sense of Reformed “jargon.” And for these Hispanics, the contextual voids are the result, in my opinion, of the two largest religious movements that currently define Hispanic Christianity, namely Roman Catholicism and charismaticism.

Historically, the Roman Catholic Church (by way of the Spanish Inquisition) did an amazing job of preventing the Reformation from making any significant or lasting impact upon Spanish subjects in Spain or the New World. As such, a virtually impenetrable fortress was erected around Spain and its colonies, and to this day the Reformation and its return to biblical Christianity form no real part of the Hispanic culture or religious background. More recently, after more than 450 years of Roman Catholic dominance and very little Protestant influence, the charismatic movement has swept through Latin America with its supposed return to the apostolic church’s teachings and supernatural gifts. The movement claims to provide hundreds of thousands of Hispanics with a closer, more immediate, and more intimate relationship with God, which is missing in Roman Catholicism. Charismaticism, however, ultimately fails to ground itself in all of God’s Word and ignores not only the Reformation but most of the last 2,000 years of Christianity as well. Lastly, although pockets of historic Protestantism do exist in Latin America, many Protestant Hispanic churches and denominations have increasingly absorbed charismatic practices and doctrines.

While the history of Hispanic Christianity in Latin America is of course much more complicated, the majority of first- and second-generation Hispanics in the U.S. who call themselves Christian tend to be either Roman Catholic or charismatic in one way or another. Explaining what Reformed Christians and churches are, therefore, requires something other than a crash course in European or Protestant history. It requires an explanation that is both relevant to the Hispanic context and fundamental to our Reformed doctrines. And that explanation is simply this: that a Reformed Christian is one who takes all of God’s Word seriously, and that a Reformed church is one that preaches, teaches, and does everything according to only the Bible.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the Roman Catholic and charismatic influences upon Hispanic Christianity and the Hispanic culture in general, many Hispanics still have some form of respect for the Bible. In the minds of many Hispanics, the Bible may not be the final and only authority on religious and spiritual matters, but it remains authoritative none-theless and is still viewed as containing some level of supernatural or mystical power. Of course, respect for the Bible doesn’t always translate into obedience to it; but in most of my interactions with Hispanics, I don’t have to spend much time (if any) convincing them that the Bible is the Word of God. They may not have any clue what the Bible contains (again, due in part to the Roman Catholic and charismatic influences), but Hispanics still revere it on some level, either for religious convictions and traditions or superstitious motivations. And this remnant of reverence and respect for the Bible is precisel y the point of contact and context that I make most use of when explaining what it means to be Reformed.

Taking God’s Word Seriously

When interacting with Hispanics I explain that being a Reformed Christian means that I must take the entire Bible seriously, not just the parts or passages that are most convenient or easiest to understand. It means that I must have a serious belief in, obedience to, and application of the whole of God’s Word. For example, I must believe all that Scripture teaches concerning salvation-not just man’s responsibility to respond to the gospel in faith and repentance, but also God’s sovereignty in determining who is saved. In John 10:24-25 we are told that many had chosen not to believe that Jesus was the Christ despite having heard his words and seen his works themselves. Immediately afterwards in vv. 26-30, however, Jesus tells the unbelieving crowd that they don’t believe in him because they are not part of his flock; i.e., God the Father has not (sovereignly) given them to Jesus. In these verses we see not only humanity’s responsibility to re spond in faith to God’s words and works, but we also see God’s sovereignty in selecting whom he will give to and preserve in Christ. The same two truths are simultaneously taught in Acts 2:37-41. Those who heard the gospel being preached in their own language on the day of Pentecost were “cut to the heart” and asked the apostles, “What shall we do [to be saved]?” In response, Peter tells them they must “repent and be baptized,” and that they must “save [themselves] from this crooked generation.” Yet he also tells them that the promise of salvation is for everyone whom God “calls to himself.” Neither Jesus nor Peter shied away from preaching and teaching God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility in salvation, and so a Reformed Christian is someone who humbly believes and applies (but perhaps not fully comprehends) both of these biblical truths.

As a Reformed Christian, I must take seriously what the entire Bible says about God’s perfect law because it reveals who God is, who I am, and what Jesus did for me. God’s law demonstrates that he is a morally perfect, holy, and just Judge whose judgment is blameless, righteous, and impartial (Ps. 51:4, Rom. 2:5, 11), who has always required perfect obedience for justification and salvation (Rom. 2:6-10, 12-16), and who alone is “lawgiver and judge” (James 4:12). At the same time, God’s law shows me who I am without Christ-a sinner whose sin is ever present and offensive to God (Ps. 51:3-4), a foolish and idolatrous creature who suppresses the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18-32), a thoroughly depraved rebel who is unable to justify himself (Rom. 3:9-20), and a transgressor who is held accountable to all of God’s law (James 2:10). And yet God’s law also reveals what a great Savior I have in Jesus. He is a Savior who has justified and saved me not only by dying for me (stricken, smitten, afflicted, and crushed in my place for my sins; Isa. 53:4-6; Rom. 3:21-26), but also by living for me (perfectly obeying God’s law in my place; Rom. 5:10-21; Matt. 5:17-18; Gal. 4:4-5).

According to God’s Word Only

Additionally, I tell Hispanics that a Reformed church preaches, teaches, and does everything the Bible commands and nothing more. A Reformed church, I explain, preaches all of God’s Word as one continuous story of how God saves his people through Jesus Christ. From the very first book in the Bible, God promised to save Adam and Eve through one who would be the very offspring of Eve, one whose defeat of Satan would come with a personal and painful price (Gen. 3:15). Toward the middle of the Bible, Jesus himself instructs his disciples that the whole of Scripture centers on him and directs our attention toward his work as Christ and Savior (Luke 24:25-26, 44-47). At the end of the Bible, John describes as best as possible a vision of the host of heaven worshipping and praising him who is both the Lion of Judah and the Lamb of God, who was slain for God’s people yet lives in power, wisdom, honor, and glory for ever and ever (Rev. 5).

A Reformed church also teaches all of God’s Word as one cohesive and unified structure, not a random collection of disconnected truths. In Acts 17:10-12, we find the noble and eager Jews at Berea studying, comparing, and “examining the Scriptures daily” to see if what Paul was teaching corresponded to the truth of Scripture; and as they did so, many of them believed. In 2 Peter 3:14-18, Peter not only states that the sinful manipulation of Paul’s writings and the rest of Scripture leads to destruction, but in doing so he also recognizes that Paul’s writings are as authoritative as the rest of Scripture and therefore contain the same unified, structured truth. Paul himself tells the saints at Ephesus that to God’s apostles and prophets and also through God’s church, the “mystery of Christ” and “the manifold wisdom of God” have been revealed and made known-the mystery and wisdom of not only the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ’s body, but also the unity of God’s eternal plan and purpose expressed throughout all of Scripture (Eph. 2:19-3:12).

Lastly, I briefly explain that a Reformed church worships, evangelizes, and even organizes itself according to all of God’s Word and for his glory, not according to human-made ideas and desires or for humanity’s glory. A Reformed church worships God according to God’s commandment, not adding or taking away from it, not absorbing or even inquiring how a fallen world tries to worship its gods according to “human precepts and teachings” (Deut. 12:29-32; Col. 2:18-23). A Reformed church also evangelizes according to God’s Word, guiding people through the Scriptures (Acts 8:26-38) while relating and connecting to their particular culture and background (Acts 17:16-34). By fully complying to the Great Commission, a Reformed church makes “disciples of all nations” by more than merely bringing people into the faith (expressed through baptism), but also nurturing and teaching them in the faith (Matt. 28:18-20). Moreover, because the Church is the manifestation of God’s k ingdom here on earth, the Reformed church organizes itself according to the King’s commands, with pastors, elders, deacons, and accountability structures generally prescribed in God’s Word (Acts 15:1-35; Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9). In short, if the Bible says it, a Reformed church preaches, teaches, and does it; and if the Bible doesn’t say it, a Reformed church doesn’t preach, teach, or do it.

Biblical to Its Fullest Extent

Ultimately, explaining to Hispanics what it means to be Reformed reminds me, and it should remind us all, that being Reformed is not so much about our beloved confessions, creeds, and catechisms, as it is about being biblical to its fullest extent; and that our Reformed doctrines (contained in our confessions, creeds, and catechisms) are the clearest summary of God’s truth and gospel this side of glory.

Wednesday, January 2nd 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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