From Works to Faith

by Eglon Harris

In the recorded history of the beliefs and religious customs of the Aztecs, or Mexica, who founded Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), it stands out that they were convinced that their gods demanded blood to appease their wrath, and that hearts had to be torn out of the chests of living people and offered on their altars. How close and yet how far they were from the truth!

Many beliefs characterised this religious and wealthy warrior tribe that subjugated all the other tribes, who had settled in the Mexican territory when Cortés and the Spanish conquerors arrived in 1519. Every tribe had their own religious ceremonies and customs, related to the different deities they worshipped. This presented a problem for the friars who later arrived with the conquerors. They attempted to solve it by integrating similar feasts and ceremonies into the Roman Catholic faith. The outcome was a syncretism between tribal religion and Catholicism that still prevails. Each town and village was given a patron saint and the festivities included great processions to the altar, going on their knees and scourging their backs. Blood had to be shed to honour their new gods. The most embedded beliefs and practices had not been uprooted, just changed. Will the Cross of Christ have a resounding triumph where other religions have failed?

The most embedded beliefs and practices had not been uprooted, just changed.

Octavio Paz, 1990 Nobel Prize winner in literature, who studied the Mexican culture, pointed out what he called the chameleon effect: outward changes to conform to its surroundings, but no permanent change. He himself commented that the monks and friars who came from Spain failed to change the religion of the Mexican tribes, as many rites and ceremonies coexist with the ones they tried to teach. Reading this brought to my mind the question: are we seeing the same chameleon effect in those who say they have received Christ as Saviour?

Grace Alone?

The requirement of works has been embedded in the Mexican culture for generations to appease the wrath of the gods, or to gain their favour. What will happen to their beliefs when they hear that salvation is by grace alone? First, it will be hard to assimilate, but to those who are able to understand God’s free offer, it is liberty, joy and amazement. There is nothing more to do! Nothing! So great was this truth to them that little was thought about what the Lord requires of those who are now His children. Hence, commitment to service is something that is often not fully understood and as the generations have passed, it has become a greater problem among believers.

First Fruits

The first Mexicans who received the gospel in Orizaba (1894-1920) worked in the newly opened cotton mills in this region. They felt compelled to share the good news with their families back home and 40 or more assemblies were established in agricultural districts in the neighbouring states of Puebla, Oaxaca and Tlaxcala over this period. These assemblies soon multiplied and, by the time of the Homecall of my grandfather, Eglon Harris, in 1932, they had grown to nearly 80 assemblies.

The Next Generation

What happened to the next generation? In 1968, university education was made available to all and many were willing to sacrifice some commodities so that their sons could attend. For them, a better life was more important than serving Christ in their village and, as some young men left, assembly growth slowed down remarkably.

For the present generation, the problem is even greater. Because many preachers seek only numbers, some have ‘believed in vain’ (1 Cor. 15:2) and little commitment is shown by others who confess Christ as their Lord. Many Christian parents do not encourage their teenagers to attend Sunday school and activities especially planned for them. Young people, whom we thought were believers, have turned their back on the Lord and others have been easily distracted and trapped by the world at their fingertips, as they were not truly convicted by God’s Word. Churches that were founded decades ago show little growth. In agricultural areas, a good number of young people leave to go to university and most find work in some other region and do not return.

A Living Sacrifice

We are saved by grace alone, yes, but God demands our life in sacrifice. If the Aztecs gave their hearts to their gods, why can we
not teach them to give their hearts to the Lord? It is hard work to get believers to spread the gospel in neighbouring communities. However, we thank God that we have four commended mission workers serving in the Nahuatl-speaking communities in the hills southwest of us and at least three more young men considering a call to this work. Encouragingly, a team of 25 believers are committed to camp work and young believers are engaged in effective children’s work in the local housing estates. Five children’s Bible schools are held weekly, with an attendance varying from 20 to 100; when they all gather for Bible competitions about 300 attend. Two gifted young men are leading the teenagers in our assembly. Orizaba is now a university city that enables local young Christians to stay here to study and work for the Lord at the same time. Although these are only a minority, the trend has raised our hopes. Two young men have been going to an assembly in the centre of the state of Veracruz every weekend for the last three months and have gone visiting within the community together with members of the church, with good results: numbers attending have grown from 20 to 70, and some couples are now carrying on the visitation. These two young men are now going to a different assembly nearby.

If the Aztecs gave their hearts to their gods, why can we not teach them to give their hearts to the Lord?

To encourage the same gospel emphasis, and care of the children and young people in other areas, we visit more than 50 assemblies and teach among the elders. Pray that they may be convinced and see the need to be involved in the Lord’s work.

A lot of gospel work might be done, but as we visit other assemblies, we see that effective teaching is needed. Some who say they are converted make little effort to live a life that is pleasing to the Lord; they are quite content just to sit in the meetings and enjoy the sermons. As a result, it is difficult to form a team willing to work on the many housing estates that surround each city, other than Orizaba. It is even more challenging to go out to the villages and settlements and work for the Lord in the hills where traditions and the Roman Catholic religion have a stronghold.

Those who hear the call to give their heart to the Lord need to understand that to give their heart to God means to die to their old life. In the time of the Aztecs those virgins dressed in their jewels were singled out for the ‘honour’ of dying for their gods. But for us, to die is to be born again in Christ, to a new and faithful life of service for the Lord. Our task, then, is to be used by God to present His demands with such zeal that we might not be a lukewarm church like Laodicea, but rather effective disciples and witnesses. With God’s help and your prayers, we shall be a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Rom. 12:1)!

One of the young elders of the Orizaba assembly has started a motivational camp for young men, looking for those who will commit their lives to the Lord and take up the challenge of these Nahuatl-speaking communities. Two camps have been held so far with good results. Three of our Nahuatl- speaking brothers have accepted the Lord’s call and are doing effective work in their communities. Oh that this could be seen in other assemblies in the neighbouring states of Puebla, Oaxaca and Tlaxcala!

“The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest” (Lk. 10:2).

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