As I share the most amazing event in my life, I would like to interject along the way truths I have found from verses in the Bible, which explain the utter despair of my early life, indeed anyone’s life—apart from true faith in the Person of Jesus Christ and the amazing peace and joy that came from being made a “new creature” in Him. “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”
I feel it is most important, in fact essential, that anyone searching for absolute truth to determine the source he/she will utilize in that search. For me, that absolute truth was found in the Bible, the very Word of God, and nowhere else. We can learn from great preachers/teachers and church tradition, but everything must be tested and stand under the authority of Holy Scripture.
Additionally, I feel it is important to make a brief comment about the Catholic faith in which I was raised and turned away from when I was saved at the age of thirty-seven. I left the Catholic Church when I came to know Jesus as my personal Savior, not out of rebellion toward my upbringing, but because by God’s grace, I had come to know the Truth—and as Jesus had promised that Truth had set me free. I had come to realize I could never earn forgiveness for my sins and eternal life through anything I could or would ever do—a doctrine which stands in total opposition to the Catholic Church’s teaching that salvation must be “earned” through good works along with faith in Christ’s death on the Cross. The Catholic religion had placed a burden on me that I could never, ever meet. Saving faith in Jesus’ finished work on the Cross and that alone had set me free. “Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, ‘If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’”
The Early Years, Questions With Seemingly No Answers
I was raised in a strong Catholic family and attended Catholic schools up through my sophomore year in college. Looking back over those years, I believe it was in elementary school where I was most aware of spiritual things and the perceived need to strive to please God. Those first eight years of my education took place at our family parish where Irish nuns taught and ran the small school. I do not know if their Irish ancestry can be credited solely for their teaching style, but I do know we received a strong dose of discipline along with the academic studies. I distinctly remember them impressing on the students our sinfulness—particularly as it related to us boys. They seemed to be reading my mind when they spoke of “impure thoughts,” among other things. I will always be thankful for God’s providence in allowing me to be raised in this environment, for the one thing I did learn was to fear the Lord. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding,”
Those years of being brought up and taught the Catholic faith were filled with questions my inquisitive mind kept asking. My friends and I did not speak of it much, for religion was not “cool” for one thing, and for another, one had the sense we were to just believe and not question what was taught. I do not ever remember being encouraged to raise questions about the faith, so I did not, but I held those questions inside. Considering the multitude of questions I had, three were dominate in my early years.
- What Made the Priest So Special?
I was raised to respect all my elders but priests were placed on somewhat of a pedestal. They had that “special” power to turn an ordinary wheat host and regular wine into the actual body and blood of Jesus! As an altar boy, I watched them perform this mysterious act numerous times but wondered what really was going on. We were taught it was a “mystery” and so accepted it to a degree, but the question which lingered was, “Why would someone want to crucify Jesus over and over again?” And particularly at the whim of a man, even if he was a Catholic priest!” Did the priest get permission from God to crucify His Son every day of the week?
Catholic confession was another difficulty for me. I had to go a lot and, at least in my early years, entered the confessional with great sincerity and a true desire to find forgiveness. I was faithful at carrying out my penitence, but without fail, I never felt a relief from my burden of guilt. My mind would ask, “Did this priest really talk to God, and did he really have some “special” power from the God of the Universe to grant me forgiveness?” If I was forgiven from making those treks to the confessional, it never felt like it, and I knew I would be back the following week to repeat the same process.
Trying to find a satisfactory answer to this looming question was difficult for me, as my dad, who had many close friends who were priests, had one priest in particular who visited our home frequently. I really liked this priest, as he was Irish and a lot of fun—but he drank a lot. Often, I could easily perceive he was quite intoxicated at family occasions. I was searching for someone who indeed was almost perfect, almost sinless; whom I could depend on to be the way to God—it was not to be my dad’s friend. I felt sure no priest could measure up to what I felt I needed—a way to God. “Jesus saith unto him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.’”
Much later on in life my wife and I would see two close college friends’ marriage broken up when the pastor of our local Catholic parish began having an affair with the wife. Their encounters took place in the church’s residence hall. Once again, that something “special” about Catholic priests was brought to question.
The answer to that question which I arrived at only after coming to know the truth through God’s Word, was there is nothing “special” about a Catholic priest, be he pope or local pastor. As with every human being, and me, Catholic priest are sinners destined for an eternity in hell unless they repent of their sins and turn to faith in Christ and Him alone for their salvation. “As it is written, ‘There is none righteous, no, not one.’”
In addition the Bible tells us there is only one intercessor between man and God. His name is Jesus. “Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.”
- If the Bible is God’s Book, Why Did We Not Study It?
Throughout my Catholic education, and in our home, the Bible was spoken of as being from God to His people. Yet, we never read it in our family, never opened it at school (even through college) and treated it as some mysterious book not to be considered by the average person. The priests would read a few verses at Mass but even their sermons often wandered far from anything specific the Bible taught. This never made sense to me. It always seemed we should study the Bible, in addition to other religious material.
It would be years later before I posed the question to our parish priest. His answer was, “You wouldn’t understand the Bible if you did study it; only priests have the education to rightly decipher what the Bible teaches.” To me that was not a very satisfactory answer at all. My thought was, “If God wrote this book to His people, surely He would write it so His people (not priests alone) could understand it.”
Catholic history tells us that up to the early sixteenth century the Church of Rome (Catholic Church) had kept the original transcripts of the Bible under lock and key—away from the ordinary man. The only translation they allowed was Latin, which was not a common language among the people. During the Reformation, which began in 1517AD, godly men stood against the Church of Rome on many matters of apostasy, which the church carried out. One of the greatest outcomes of the Reformation was the translation of the Bible, God’s very Word, into German, and then English, so that the common man had access to Truth as revealed by God Himself. This was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, which turned the world upside down, and with the preaching of the Word, now in the hands of common men, people were set free. Outside of the beginning of the true church at Pentecost in 33 AD, I believe this was the most significant move of the Holy Spirit in the past two thousand years of human history.
O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day.
Thou through thy commandments hast made me wiser than mine enemies:
For they are ever with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers: for thy testimonies are my meditation.
I understand more than the ancients, because I keep thy precepts.
I have refrained my feet from every evil way, that I might keep thy word.
I have not departed from thy judgments: for thou hast taught me.
How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through thy precepts I get understanding: therefore I hate every false way.
Twenty-seven years ago when by God’s grace I came to believe in Jesus as my Redeemer, one of the first people I wanted to tell of the new joy I had found was our parish priest. I had served as a lay reader for years and felt I knew him well and anticipated he would join in my joy. However, he said I had joined a cult (small Bible based local church) and should renounce it immediately. Regarding the truth I had found in the Bible, he said I could not understand the Bible on my own and should leave the study of it to priests!
- It Seemed God Changed His Mind Often About His Decrees!
I grew up in the Catholic Church when Catholics abstained from eating meat on Fridays under penalty of sin. The number of meatless “meat” patties I ate during my early years would be almost impossible to count. I took the church’s command seriously only to find they dropped it years later for some reason. I was taught that church ordinances came directly from God Himself—so, why did He change?
In addition, there were a multitude of indulgences available by which we could earn merit before God and somehow gain His favor in various circumstances. One, I remember distinctly, had to do with the assurance of having a priest present when you were dying. God had impressed an awareness of eternity on my heart as a young man and that when I died I would stand before a holy and perfect God to be judged for my actions in this life. God’s Word tells us He has placed this awareness in the heart of all His human creatures: “He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.”
Because of this, I lived with a fear of death, feeling the need to at least have a priest present, should I die, to confess my sins. The particular indulgence I remember stated that if a person went to confession, attended Mass, and received communion on the first Friday of each month for nine consecutive months, they were assured a priest would be present as they died. I faithfully completed the requirements to only find out later in my life that that indulgence was no longer valid. None of this made sense. Surely the God I wanted to know and find acceptance from was not as flippant as these changing ordinances seemed to indicate. I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: Nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: And God doeth it, that men should fear before him.
The Emptiness Nothing On Earth Could Fill
Despite my reasonably faithful adherence to the Catholic religion, I always had a sense of fear concerning God and felt quite sure I would be doomed to hell should I die.
While I was blessed to have above average abilities and found success in most things I became involved in there was emptiness in my heart that nothing seemed to fill. I married the “love of my life” at twenty-one and spent the next four years in the Navy during the Vietnam War. After the service, I entered the University of Texas, in Austin, where I earned an electrical engineering degree—with honors.
Joe age 26 while serving in the Navy during the Vietnam War
Upon graduation I started work at a major electronics company in Dallas. I felt sure this was what I needed to fill that emptiness: a wonderful family (we were expecting our second child), a very promising career making more money than I had ever imagined I could make, and our first home.
Two years passed and, from the outside, everyone probably thought I was doing great; our children were healthy and doing well, my career was advancing, and we had “money in the bank” for the first time in our married lives. But that emptiness was still there. In a sense of desperation, I decided that I needed to get closer to God—for me that meant making a point to attend daily Mass during the week. There is a well-known saying attributed to a man named Augustine (often referred to as Saint Augustine) who served as the bishop of Hippo, Africa in the forth century; “Lord, You have created us for Yourself and our hearts are restless until they find rest in You.”
The shepherd, David, writes of God’s amazing involvement, not only in man’s creation, but everyday of our lives: My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them. How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! how great is the sum of them! If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand: when I awake, I am still with thee.
For the next two years, I faithfully attended Mass at least three to four times during the workweek—every week of the year. At the end of that exercise, I distinctly remember thinking; “I do not know God any better now than I did two years ago!”
Two Strangers Testify of God’s Mercy and Grace
Near this time, I received a phone call at home one night from an old acquaintance. We had worked together for eight to nine months at a small engineering company in the Dallas area where he served as my technician. His background was quite different from mine—he made most of his spending money at pool halls during the nighttime hours. He met his wife at a bar, and while my wife and I really liked her, she, too, was very different from us. He knew I was a practicing Catholic from occasional conversations we had concerning religion.
That night he called to invite me to church—not a Catholic church but an Assembly of God church! That night, which I will never forget, my “pool-hustling,” “bar-hopping” friend told me he had come to know Jesus and trusted Him as his Savior! From his voice, I was convinced he was sincere in what he was saying. To this day, I remember the feeling of fear that came from that conversation so long ago—here I had been really working to try and know the God in Whom I had always believed, and this friend, who seemed to have little interest in the things of God, claims he now knows God and the “key” is Jesus. My defenses rose up, and I quickly told my friend, “I am happy with my Catholic faith.” I lied! That was the first time I remember thinking there must be a way to really know God other than the way I had been trying.
After being in Dallas for over four years, I moved our family to the country in central Texas. Once again, I was searching for something to fill—to satisfy—to ease that emptiness. I designed and built my own home—it was as perfect as I could make it.
I soon began work in Austin at an engineering firm and began steadily advancing. Our family was quite involved with the local Catholic Church where I served as a lay reader. The pursuit of knowing God—truly knowing Him—was still my fervent desire, but I did not know the “Way.”
During the months while I was building our home, I received another phone call that has been forever etched in my memory. It was a cold and rainy night, with the wind howling and shaking the mobile home we temporarily lived in. The man on the phone introduced himself, but I could not place the name. He reminded me that he was the owner of a construction business I had used for remodeling our home in Dallas. That small project had ended with this man being less than totally honest when he billed us for the work. I had forgotten all about it, dismissing it as “business as usual.”
The words that followed shook my very being. This man, a forgotten stranger in my life, was calling to ask for my forgiveness for his dishonesty regarding that remodeling job three years earlier! The reason for this remarkable change of heart: he had come to know Jesus and forgiveness of his sins. He was calling long distance to repent before me and ask for my forgiveness.
Once again I had this astounding experience of hearing of changed lives—men no different from myself—sinners one and all, who had been set free through a faith, undoubtedly a true faith—in Jesus.
Faith Comes by Hearing
Well, I was beginning to sense that Jesus had to be the “key” to knowing God. I had not found Him after almost thirty-seven years of being “religious,” so I knew a new source of Truth had to be found. I was taught as a child that the Bible was God’s Word, so I felt that must be the source that could lead me to the “Truth.”
In the providence of God’s grace, about this time, my wife had joined a Bible study with a group of ladies near our town. Soon, we heard of a couples’ Bible Study at night, in town, and my wife and I decided to try it. It only took a few weeks of hearing the true gospel, as I had never heard it before, that I knew I had found that which I had sought for the first thirty-seven years of my life—God’s truth.
The gentleman who taught the Bible Study was the pastor of a small evangelical congregation. He invited the members of the class to worship with his church on Sundays. At this point in my life, I had never even entered any church other than Catholic, but I knew the joy I was discovering was worth whatever discomfort my old flesh might have to endure.
The Most Important Step I Ever Took
On the second Sunday in May of 1980, my wife, our three children, and I went to the Evangelical church. We loved the hymns, the pastor’s message, and sensed a joy we had not experienced before. During the service the pastor asked if anyone wanted to share their testimony of what Jesus meant to them. I didn’t respond to his offer that Sunday but when we arrived home I gathered our entire family and told them that I if the pastor makes a similar offer the next Sunday I would tell the congregation that I wanted Jesus more than anything in my life. The following Sunday the pastor did make a similar offer. I rose from the pew—everything in my flesh fought me that day—almost like I could not make my feet move to get out of that pew. But by God’s grace, I stood before the small congregation. When the pastor asked what I wanted to share, I spoke words that seemed to come solely from my heart. I spoke of my love for Jesus and of my need for forgiveness for a sinful life. That day, by God’s grace, I was made a new creature in Christ. Now I see that I had been saved by believing on Jesus Christ through faith alone, all by His grace alone, praise to His glorious name!
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 2 Corinthians 5:17
 John 8:31, 32
 Proverbs 9:10
 John 14:6
 Romans 3:10
 Hebrews 7:25
 Psalm 119:97-104
 Ecclesiastes 3:11
 Ecclesiastes 3:14
 Psalms 139:15-18