On Monday morning we got up at 2:30 a.m. to catch a 4:30 a.m. flight to Recife, then drove for two hours over bumpy roads and through beautiful scenery to finally arrive by noon at the Praia Dourada Hotel, Maragogi, in the state of Alagoas. Attendees were ministers, seminarians, elders, families, and young people, most of whom appeared to be hungry for biblical, Reformed truth. From Monday evening to Friday morning, the conference was packed with seventeen sessions, of which four were given by Brazilians, six by Dr. Jones, and seven by me. We repeated the messages given at Belem and then added more. Breno’s colleague, Rodrigo Brotto, the senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Teresina and professor of systematic theology and philosophy at the Presbyterian Seminary at Teresina (where Breno also serves), joined Breno as another able translator.
Dr. Jones and I felt particularly helped at this conference. We did considerable pastoring between sessions as well, ranging from counseling a new convert, to counseling a woman whose husband left her and another man whose wife had left him, to a variety of questions on various doctrinal issues. Ten young people approached me to discuss questions about the love of God, especially wondering how God could love His people with the same love with which He loved His own unique Son.
Once again, I enjoyed my time Rev. Josafá Vasconcelos, pastor of the Reformation Heritage Presbyterian Church in Salvador. He has been a dear friend for years—I recently dedicated one of my books to him. Decades ago he was known as the “Brazilian Billy Graham,” but is now a solid “sovereign grace” man with a big heart for the Lord and the spiritual welfare of people. A gifted itinerant evangelist and conference speaker who has preached to as many as tens of thousands of people at once, he turned away from “free-will decisionism” a few decades ago largely through the Lord blessing the reading of Puritan theology to his soul. This brother is a precious, godly man who can articulate in broken English how he was converted in such a manner that it is difficult to remain dry-eyed. It was not easy for him to become an experimental Calvinist, but by the grace of God he has become a man of immense faith, notwithstanding the great price he has paid in his ministry. The crowds are now much smaller, but he is being invited to speak all over the vast country of Brazil. He told me that when the Lord finally persuaded him of the truth of sovereign grace, “it was both terrible and wonderful—terrible because of all the people I have deceived for years, and wonderful because I may finally bring a gospel message in which salvation depends upon God rather than upon man.” At this conference, he did a magnificent job at leading the conference in Psalm-singing—something that is quite new in Brazil. How I wish you could hear these people sing the Psalms with all their heart! And we think that we sing them heartily!
Numerous serious and informal conversations transpired throughout these busy conference days. Three young men met with me to talk about attending our seminary. All three have considerable potential and qualifications and seem seriously called to ministry, but once again, the problem is that we don’t have sufficient scholarship money to offer to all of them. As in most foreign cultures, Brazilians want the author to sign every book they buy. This opened the door for more conversations. We can only pray that these symposiums supply Reformed and Presbyterian believers with renewed hope for their church life and deeper insight into God’s Word, and that those who may yet be unsaved will be awakened and learn to flee to Christ alone for salvation.
On my long return flight, my name was called before take-off, and I was suddenly bumped up to a great exit row seat with leg room where I could use my computer to edit Anthony Burgess’s little book on Assurance of Faith, completing it by 2:30 a.m.Meanwhile, that opened the door for me to evangelize the Roman Catholic sitting next to me who had never heard of Martin Luther. When I explained that I was a Protestant minister, he said he had long wanted to know what the word “Protestant” meant but didn’t know who to ask. So we started at the beginning and talked about what Luther did, and how he saw the difference between salvation by works and salvation by grace, etc. He listened well but asked lots of such elementary questions that I realized I had to become even simpler. What privileges we have!
Once again, we were privileged to see how the Lord is working to bring needy sinners in another part of the world to faith in Jesus Christ. What an encouragement to come to know people who hold firmly with mind and soul to the teachings of Scripture, summarized in the Reformed Confessions! Earnest Reformed believers in Brazil are struggling to remain faithful as they wrestle with the erosion of preaching, man-centered worship, dysfunctional churches and leaders, and a cultural religion bound by superstition. But the differences, in comparison to our circumstances, are humbling. Our Brazilian brothers and sisters have few resources at their disposal, such small numbers amid the millions who struggle with poverty and crime, and such a pervasive need for good literature, competent leadership training, and an understanding of what Reformed experiential religion truly is.