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The Reformation of Latin America

By Pedro C. Moreno
Published September 1, 1992

WE LIVE IN AN AGE OF PROFOUND transformations in Latin America – both spiritually and socially. It has been said that the recent spiritual revival that is taking place in the continent – mainly due to the Protestant expansion, but also within Catholic circles – may well be one of the last hopes for the economic and social advancement of Latin America.

According to recent statistics, in a region once considered a Catholic stronghold, Protestants are growing at a rate of 400 per hour, which leads demographers to predict that Latin America will be evangelical before the end of the 21st century. Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo from Nicaragua, addressing the Vatican College of Cardinals in 1991 pointed out that “Protestants in Latin America have grown surprisingly, from 4 million in 1967 to 30 million in 1985.”

Cardinal Ernesto C. Ahumada from Mexico stated that in the last 30 years “defections (from the Catholic church) to other religious groups have tripled in the Dominican Republic, have increased by 500% in El Salvador and Costa Rica, and have grown by 700% in Guatemala.” No wonder an evangelical president was recently elected in this country. It is estimated that 20% of all Latin Americans are now Protestant.

One could ask, what are the reasons, the causes, the motives for this spiritual transformation that has gone beyond the religious realm into economics, politics, law, and other areas? Some would say it is something to worry about. Others may look with expectation and hope at what has been termed by FORBES magazine a situation “quite literally revolutionary – more so that Fidel Castro or Che Guevara could ever be.” Referring to the specific Brazilian case, FORBES goes on to say that as a result of evangelical Protestantism having replaced Roman Catholicism as the country’s most widely practiced faith.

“The old Brazilian order, based upon a rigid hierarchy and social immobility, has broken down. A new social atmosphere, one more compatible with capitalism and democracy is emerging. Upwardly striving urban poor are encouraged by religious teachings and support groups that preach the power of individuals to change their lives through faith. This contrasts sharply with the old attitude of resignation to one’s fate and a glorification of poverty.”

Before we go further into the economic and social implications of this spiritual revival, allow me to situate this transformation, or one could say, Reformation, into its proper context. Much of the modern spiritual condition of Latin America resembles the spiritual condition of pre-war Germany, aptly described by Lutheran minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In his work, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer – who resisted the Nazi atrocities and was martyred at a concentration camp – referred to the grace of God, said that this grace is costly because it took the life of Jesus Christ.

Pure Grace vs. Cheap Grace

“It is the only pure grace, which really forgives sins and gives freedom to the sinner. We (WWII era German Lutherans) justified the world, and condemned as heretics those who tried to follow Christ. The result was that a nation became Christian and Lutheran, but at the cost of true discipleship…. But do we also realize that this cheap grace has turned back upon us like a boomerang? The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organized Church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available to all at too low a cost. We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation unasked and without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving. We poured forth unending streams of grace. But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard. Where were those truths which impelled the early Church to institute the catechumenate, which enabled a strict watch to be kept over the frontier between the Church and the world, and afforded adequate protection for costly grace? What had happened to all those warnings of Luther’s against preaching the gospel in such a manner as to make men rest secure in their ungodly living? Was there ever a more disastrous instance of the Christianizing of the world than this? What are those three thousand Saxons put to death by Charlemagne compared with the millions of spiritual corpses in our country today? … Cheap grace has turned out to be utterly merciless to our Evangelical Church.”

Much of this description clearly reflects the general situation of spiritual life in Latin America with the Catholic Church as the established one. Moreover, it even applies to the current situation in the U.S. and some European countries where the Protestant church, as the established or traditional one has lost its vision and the true meaning of the gospel.

But what is now making the difference in Latin America? As Mexican author Richard Rodriguez, himself a Roman Catholic, puts it: “Evangelicals (in Latin America) are the most Protestant of Protestants. Evangelical conversion hinges upon the direct experience of Christ – accepting Jesus Christ as one’s personal Savior. Evangelicals are fundamentalists. They read Scripture literally; they say yes when they mean yes, and no when they mean no.”

This reminds us of the Reformers’ principle of Sola Scriptura, the Bible and the Bible – only, which emphasized the paramount importance of the Bible over any other source of guidance in all areas of life. In describing “the problem of Catholicism” as Rodriguez terms it, he mentions that it is “all-embracing, so all-embracing that it defines an entire nation, a whole hemisphere.

“But when religion becomes so all-embracing. It is easily taken for granted. What does it mean that Brazil claims to be the largest Catholic country in the world if nobody goes to Mass in Brazil? The act of conversion does not define Catholicism. Catholicism is a way of life that need never come to a head; it never stands or falls on one decision…. According to evangelical faith, suddenness is holy. Change is a religious imperative. You can – you must – be born-again. Conversion defines faith…. I have sat in the back rows of evangelical churches, astonished by what I have seen: kids with tattoos, tough kids, kids to testify to having been on the streets as recently as last week, kids who spent their childhood on drugs, in gangs, in trouble; kids now in suits and ties, singing hymns to Christ. They are not converted to holy milksops. They are aggressive men who discovered spiritual empowerment.

“The genius of Protestantism seems to be that it is masculine,” says this Catholic author. Evangelicalism demands that you must “become your own man, take responsibility for your own life.”

The Call to a New Life

Of course, this is not new. Jesus Christ himself, emphasized the importance of an internal transformation through a new spiritual birth, as opposed to an external lifestyle, or what some would call a “cultural Christianity.” In Matthew 16:24-26, He said: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it. For what will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?.”

The call to a new life in Christ seems not to be exclusively coming from the evangelicals (mainly Pentecostals and Baptists), but even from the Catholic church itself. Pope John Paul II, in a recent Vatican meeting of Charismatic Catholics, that gathered 6,000 priests, 100 bishops, and three cardinals, warned: “The Gospel is not the truths that Jesus proclaimed, but a person: Jesus Christ.”

Ironically, in an age in which it is not fashionable to talk about sin, repentance, and modification of habits and lifestyles, it is precisely the call to repent and be transformed by the power of God which is hitting hardest the hearts and minds of men and women that have become tired of relativistic morality, religious syncretism, and humanistic attitudes and thoughts, that for all their good intentions, cannot and will not change their lives or their social and economic environment.

Lest we are deceived, we should also not forget that in order to drastically change our private lives, the life of our family, and the life of our society, spiritual salvation is not enough. The Bible clearly tells us that we should “not be conformed to this world”, but should “be transformed by the renewing of (our) mind” (Romans 12:2). That means that going beyond the spiritual change we experience as we surrender to Christ, we should strive to develop such qualities as self control, respect for others, integrity, good work habits, and a sense of purpose in life, and thus improve our social and economic condition.

Not without reason The Washington Post recently stated that the poor need not only opportunities for work, but the instilling of moral values as the “restoration of the moral environment in which (they) live.” The Post concluded: “(the poor) in New York, like in many other cities, needs a man on horseback. It needs John Wesley.”

Finally, let us remember that all these changes, this peaceful revolution, or this new reformation of Latin America, can continue only if we remember that the force that drives it is not the class struggle, or the forces of history, or simply destiny or coincidence, but it is the power of God, expressed through his undeserved mercy and love that He, sovereignly has chosen to pour on these people and at this time of history. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and we, as our final destiny and purpose in life, are to be conformed to His image and character. Not the other way around. As one theologian explains:

“The tension between God’s holy righteousness and his compassionate mercy cannot be legitimately resolved by remolding His character into an image of pure benevolence as the Church did in the nineteenth century. There is only one way that this contradiction can be removed, through the cross of Christ which revealed the severity of God’s anger against sin and the depth of his compassion in paying its penalty through the vicarious sacrifice of His Son. In systems which resolve this tension (between His righteousness and His compassion) by softening the character of God, Christ and His work become an addendum, and spiritual darkness becomes complete because the true God has been abandoned for the worship of a magnified image of human tolerance.”

May we receive the blessings of Christ’s sacrifice, and enjoy a new life that is not for the benefit of the self only, but that will abundantly be poured out on our families, and into our society.

Pedro C. Moreno San Juan, an attorney, is the President of the Rutherford Institute of Bolivia and its representative for Latin America.


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