I have previously alluded to an unusual childhood experience in my “About” profile and also in a post written several months ago that I’d like to elaborate on a bit more.
I was born into a Catholic family and baptized as an infant. My parents were not rich and sacrificed greatly to send my five older sisters and myself to a Catholic grammar school and high school where all of us were thoroughly indoctrinated into the church’s salvation system of sacramental grace and merit. As a young child, I was mesmerized by the ritual and ceremonialism of the mass. I observed the great respect and even adulation that adults and children extended to the parish priests and I decided to become a priest when I grew up. In fifth grade, I became an altar boy and served at masses on Sundays and weekdays and Saturdays until the end of eighth grade. Looking back, I was probably a bit more religious than your average boy at that age.
As far as I know, we didn’t have a Bible at our house. I never saw one. When I cleaned out my parents’ house four years ago, I didn’t come across a Bible. But my sisters and I received plenty of Catholic religious instruction from the nuns (technically, they weren’t nuns but “religious sisters”). There were both sisters and lay teachers at our school.
In 1967, I was in sixth grade and Mrs. Ellis was my teacher, but for religious instruction, all of her students moved next door to the classroom of the other sixth grade teacher, Sister Gemma. We had to squeeze in with the other students in those old-fashioned wrought iron and wooden desks with holes for inkwells that were created before the days of ball-point pens. There were sixty to seventy of us children packed into that single classroom like sardines.
Despite the large amount of children in tight quarters, things stayed relatively calm. Sister Gemma was not a happy woman and you definitely did not want to cross her. During one particular class, she told us a bizarre and extremely inappropriate story about an occurrence at a hospital emergency room (the details I will withhold), which caused me, even at the age of eleven-years-old, to wonder about her sanity! Anyway, I digress.
One day, Sister Gemma taught us about Luke 23:39-43 and the repentant thief on the cross. The lesson had a huge impact on me. I, like all of my classmates, had been taught up to that point the standard Catholic teaching that salvation began with baptism, which was followed by reception of the additional sacraments, followed by obedience to the Ten Commandments and church rules in order for a person to be in a mortal-sinless “state of grace” so as to hopefully merit Heaven at the moment of death. But the nun was now telling us about a man who had never been baptized and was a criminal to boot, but who repented of his sin and humbly appealed to Jesus to save him on the last day of his life. Even in my young mind, I realized this story was very significant, and the more I thought about it the more troubled I became. Soon afterward, I was standing in one of the church’s vestibules (see photo), and a question hit me full force, “If attaining Heaven is a matter of obeying the Ten Commandments and church rules as I’ve been taught, then why did Jesus have to die on the cross?”
I was totally overwhelmed by this question (I can still remember the circumstances from 51 years ago like it was yesterday) and I wondered if I was the only Catholic who had ever had this thought? I felt totally alone. Although it bothered me deeply, I knew I could not ask the question of Sister Gemma or one of the priests or even my parents because to do so struck me as being defiant and disrespectful. So I held my peace, but with the thought that I had stumbled upon something very significant, although I couldn’t be aware of the ramifications at the time.
Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not boasting about what happened to me. This was not something that I did. My life didn’t change dramatically after this insight. It would be another sixteen years before I accepted Christ. But looking back, I can see that this unresolved question I was given, which sharply contrasted Catholicism with God’s Word, was the working of the Holy Spirit and would grow and eventually bear fruit. Praise God for His Holy Word and for freeing me from the chains of works-righteous religion and granting me the gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ through faith alone!
Catholicism is not oblivious to how Luke 23:39-43 contradicts it’s complex salvation system. Catholic apologists argue that the thief would have gotten baptized and would have received the other sacraments and would have sought to merit salvation through obedience to the Ten Commandments if he could have done so, therefore, they say he was saved by his “baptism by desire” and by his “act of perfect contrition.”
Catholic friend, salvation is not through baptism or trying to merit your way to Heaven. As the early church became increasingly institutionalized and devolved into Roman Catholicism, it replaced the simple Gospel of grace with legalism and ritualism. Follow the example of the thief on the cross. Repent of your sin and ask Jesus Christ to be your Savior today!
“I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” – Galatians 2:21
Postscript: The Catholic church actually identifies the penitent thief on the cross as Saint Dismas, another tradition that has its source in religious fakery.