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Checkpoint Summer 2021: Grace – from beginning to end

CMS missionaries Howard and Michelle Newby have had a long-term connection with the Philippines and notice that the role of ‘obedience’ can often cause confusion in relation to grace. Howard speaks of how he is learning to teach God’s grace to people with long-held animist beliefs.  

When we first arrived in the Philippines, we were confronted with teaching that promoted obedience as the sign of a true follower of God, often with a question: “If you are not doing [insert good works here] then you have to ask yourself, are you really a Christian?”    

At face value this seemed to undercut the Bible’s clear teaching that we are saved by grace, not works. But in our training at St Andrew’s Hall, we’d been reminded not to rush to judgement, but to observe and ask questions. So, our questions to ourselves included: Is this a straightforward denial of grace? Are we hearing grace plus works salvation? Or are those speaking, simply expressing their desire to honour God by emphasising his lordship?    

Are we hearing grace plus works salvation? Or are those speaking, simply expressing their desire to honour God by emphasising his lordship?”    

In our part of the Philippines, phrases like, ’Jesus is Lord’ are often emblazoned on vehicles and shops, almost like a magical talisman seeking the blessings of safety or success. Is this expressing true belief, or is it about gaining blessing in this life?  The answer to our questions, is probably a bit of ‘yes’ to both.  

But one of our important questions was this: How does the lens through which locals view the world—animism–shape belief and behaviour?  

Understanding worldview 

Animism is the belief that the world is full of easily angered spirits that must be appeased. This appeasement consists of rituals and practices (protective amulets, signs on shops or vehicles) designed to avoid harm and bring blessing. Angry spirits can mean illness, failed crops, bad weather, even death. Our landlord would not allow us to destroy termite mounds because it might bring sickness from angry spirits living in them. 

In 1521 the Spanish arrived in the Philippines, bringing teaching that ‘grace plus works’ was essential for salvation. The Spanish Catholic priests publicly burned wooden idols and then introduced their plaster saints. Such teaching dovetailed nicely with animism, for in both systems good works and rituals were and are, essential to making spiritual progress. Then in the early 1900s, Protestant missionaries came with their brief message of salvation in Christ alone, plus a long list of rules and expectations for Christian living.   

Fast forward to today and animistic beliefs still linger, often combined with remnants of other Christian teachings.  

Grace from the beginning 

Along with other missionaries in similar animist contexts, we are responding to these syncretistic beliefs through ‘Chronological Bible Teaching’. As the name suggests, we work from the beginning of the Bible story onward. People hear, by listening to the Bible’s message from the beginning, that God created all—including the spirit world. Therefore, God alone has ultimate spiritual authority. Animistic spirits are not to be feared.  

Other profound truths become clear as the Bible story unfolds: God is holy, mankind is sinful, God requires death for sin. Yet God always keeps his promises to bless! Through the Old Testament the message is clear: ‘Like Israel, I break God’s law, I cannot save myself. I need a saviour’ We are praying for God to work through his Word to bring people to this understanding in his good timing.  

Here in the Philippines, we long to see people no longer bound in spiritual fear, no longer seeing God as a means of gaining material blessing. We want to see them living to serve the promised Saviour, safe in the security of eternal blessing through the forgiveness of sins. 

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Do you have the patience to listen and learn how to share God’s grace meaningfully in another culture? God may be able to use you in cross-cultural mission. To discover more about the opportunities, speak to your local CMS branch. 

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In the article Howard refers to Chronological Bible Teaching, a tool that has been used by several CMS missionaries in different contexts. Go here for an in-depth discussion of this tool.