Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Serving Christ by the Grace of God

(A brief journey in the faith and ministry of Vic Bernales first shared at MEANS monthly meeting in Huntley, Illinois on April 2007).

Thank you for the privilege of joining you today. I was supposed to be here last month but God thought it best for me and my family to come here today instead. So I praise the Lord that I can be with you. I hope that my testimony of God's in my life will also help you reflect on the grace of God in your own life.

I grew up in a Roman Catholic family in central Philippines, in Capiz to be specific. I was baptized as an infant, catechized as a child and received confirmation in the Roman Catholic Church. I had known and believed in the doctrine of the Trinity and the virgin birth of Jesus Christ since I was a child. I also learned the Ten Commandments and I was active in Catholic youth activities in high school. Out of these experiences I have desired to serve God in full-time ministry as an ordained priest in the Catholic Church. How many of you here are converts from Roman Catholicism? Please do not misunderstand me. I am not here to criticize the RCC (or any religious group, for that matter). I am here to testify of the goodness of God in my life as I relate to you my experiences and my journey in the Christian faith.

I grew up a disobedient child alien to the concept of the fear of the Lord. I may have looked nice and okay outwardly but deep within I was miserable. My conscience would always bother me and give me a strong feeling of condemnation and uncertainty of the future. It wasn't very obvious to others, but I was so afraid to die. Although I was told that Christ saves still I did not have the faith to trust Him fully. So I tried hard doing penance and other good things that would make me feel good. I was taught that in doing good works and sacrifices for the Catholic Church I can sort of get a pass on the way to heaven. But it did not help me at all and I was quite frustrated. There was something that I was looking for that I haven't found and tasted during those years.

I don't know if you have heard this but it was French physicist and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) who spoke of people's need for Jesus when he said, "There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man, which only God can fill through his Son Jesus Christ." Do you agree with Pascal?

About 1200 years before Pascal it was Augustine (354-430) who said, “You [Oh God] have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” That's how I felt before. There was a vacuum in my life that needs to be filled, and there was some kind of restlessness that I didn't know how to put to rest. Did you have similar experience? Do you know what I'm talking about?

In God’s appointed time, around February 1986, I came to meet this Baptist minister who shared with me what I called 'a strange teaching about God.' He was trying to explain to me the holiness of God, the sinfulness of man and the person and work of Jesus Christ in a way that I did not see in my Catholic upbringing. Gradually I was beginning to understand old concepts differently, like grace, faith and being born again.

In my Roman Catholic upbringing, grace is an obscure concept, and somehow one has to do something to receive it. Faith likewise was understood as something that man can and should do all by himself. To be born again you must be baptized (as a child, of course) and faithfully receive Christ in the Holy Eucharist during mass.

My basic belief was being challenged by this Baptist minister whom I meet only once in my life. Do you have that kind of experience when somebody comes to you and share with you about something that at first it doesn't sound right, and it doesn't correspond with what you know?

At first I was so skeptical at what he was telling me but later, I was enabled to believe that Christ indeed saves and through Him, by faith, I can truly be assured of my salvation. Seeing this gracious act of God in Christ toward sinners like me, I was led to confess my sin and repent from all my known wickedness – you know, lying, stealing, disrespect to parents, envy, covetousness, idolatry, etc.

Oh after confessing my sins and renouncing all those horrible, shameful acts, I felt that sense of joy and satisfaction and gratitude deep within. The things that Augustine and Pascal were talking about are now real to me. That peace within that wasn't there before starts to overwhelm me.

My contact with this Baptist minister was short. But when I entered college in 1987 one of my older brothers who was a new convert to a growing Pentecostal, full-gospel church, was instrumental in my decision to leave the Catholic Church and join this new religious group. One good thing I've experienced in this new group, though, was learning to submit to the Lordship of Christ by submitting to the authority of His Word in every area of my life – from my daily, ordinary choices to future, long term, major decisions – everything. Isn't it true that when we are truly born again our attitude to the Bible also changes?

God has used the experiences I had in this group to develop in me the love for His Word in spite of the group’s tendency to regard 'spiritual experiences’ higher than the truth of the Bible itself in relating with God. Do you know what I mean?

About a year and a half later, I became discontented and uncomfortable with the group, specifically with their practice of ‘speaking or praying in tongues.’

So in 1989 I moved to a conservative Evangelical church where Kuya Elvin Mijares was pastoring. (Another brother of mine and his family were actually members there). During this time I also became actively involved with Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). I was drawn to join IVCF in the campus partly because of the sound teachings about the Bible and God, and the priority of Christian discipleship and missions that I was getting. Not to mention, there were many beautiful and intelligent young ladies whom I wanted to know and befriend with.

But aside from that, I was really impressed by the kind of relationship that the members and leaders have toward one another and toward other people. There's something unique and attractive in them that I also wanted to experience.

So I first became a small group member, then a leader. I attended many leadership and discipleship camps and conferences and the most memorable and life-changing camp of course was the month-long Kawayan Camp (known to many IVCF folks as KC) in Cebu in 1990.

Then in 1992, a year after college, I was surprised to receive an invitation to join the Inter Varsity staff team. After considering the invitation and after several months of prayers and seeking godly counsel I finally decided to join the staff team. And in the providence of God my five-year ministry with Inter Varsity was one of the most faith-building experiences in my life.

While with Inter Varsity I was greatly influenced by the writings of many authors, one of those of course, is Bill Hybels. But my top two favorites are John Stott and J.I. Packer. Oh I am greatly indebted to these two evangelical giants in my understanding of the Christian faith. Stott’s Basic Christianity increased my knowledge of my sinfulness and misery through his clear exposition of the Ten Commandments. I was convicted of my sin. But at the same time, because Stott also emphasized in that book the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ at the Cross and how that sacrifice provided for me the assurance that all my sins are forgiven in Him, I was also comforted and delighted that I don't need to do anything to save myself. Wow, that's a profound truth! Simply said, Christ did everything for my salvation. Oh isn't that liberating?

Dr. Packer’s Knowing God also deepened my knowledge of and devotion to God. His scholarly yet practical exposition of God's sovereign grace in the salvation of mankind through Jesus Christ has left me dumbfounded. Through Packer’s various expositions I was able to understand the gospel better and became more grateful to God. I'm just curious, how many of you here have read Dr. Packer's Knowing God?

Since then, the peace that I have been longing for has come as a result of the knowledge of God’s grace in Christ. My reading of the Scripture, like that of the prophet Isaiah, especially his words in chapter 53 verse 5 became very meaningful to me. There it says, "But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him and by his wounds we are healed." There’s a lot of comfort that comes from the knowledge that God will not take my sins against me anymore. All because somebody has taken my stead and paid for the penalty of all my sins. That’s really amazing! And that’s grace. It gripped me from the inside out. Does the grace of God grip you, too? Does it move you to serve God faithfully too?

Shortly after I moved out of Inter Varsity in 1997 I was introduced to the writings of R.C. Sproul and James M. Boice. These authors contributed in shaping and strengthening my theological and Biblical perspective. Sproul has helped me grasp clearer many 'difficult' Biblical doctrines.

Providentially, God led me and my wife to regularly attend a Reformed Bible study in 1999. This was led by Mr. Nollie Malabuyo, a Wycliffe Bible Translator missionary who is now a church planter in Pasig City area with the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA). This Bible study later became a small congregation in January 2000. It has become what is now the United Covenant Reformed Church (formerly Davao Covenant Reformed Church or DCRC), a member congregation of the United Covenant Reformed Church in the Philippines (UCRCP).

My desire to serve God in full-time ministry did not wane after my move from Catholicism, Evangelicalism and to the Reformed tradition. To some extent it has actually strengthened my desire to be formally trained and be equipped to do the ministry. Through various providences the Lord has given me the opportunity to study at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in 2001. However my seminary study was interrupted in 2002 when I and my family have to return to the Philippines in June of 2002. The American missionary who was then ministering to the small congregation in Davao City was recalled due to some security reasons occasioned by the 9/11 bombing. So he and his family were asked by their sending church to leave the Philippines immediately.

By the grace of God, the congregation has continued to exist after this missionary family left in November 2001. So in June 2002, having been examined and was given the license to minister by the supervising church in California, we arrived in the Philippines and continued the ministry in the Davao City church. My one year seminary training has helped me a lot although I kept on hoping that one day I could return to the seminary to finish my training.

I praise the Lord for granting that desire in 2006. I am thankful to the Lord for using several individuals, churches and organizations who have become instrumental in my return to the seminary to finish my formal, rigid, but very edifying theological and Biblical training. I am now on my second year in seminary hoping to graduate next year. Please keep me in your prayer that by the grace of God I will be able to fulfill all the seminary requirements and graduate. My family and I are hoping to return to the Philippines next year to serve the small congregation in Davao City.

(P.S. In 2008, I was able to finish my Master of Divinity degree. A month after graduation, my family and I returned to the Philippines to minister to our congregation. By the grace of God, in September 2010, I was examined by the pastors and elders of UCRCP during our special classis meeting and I was able to sustain (pass) the examination. On October 19, 2010, I was ordained to the Ministry of the Word and installed as the pastor of the Reformed congregation in Davao City. I thank God for the great privilege He has given me to bring the good news of salvation in Christ to our own people, by His grace. And I hope you would keep on praying for me and my family in our desire to serve the Lord among our "kababayans" [countrymen]).

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