Missionary Spotlight: Esteban Toloza
In July of 2014, HeartCry will begin supporting Argentinian missionary Esteban Toloza. Several years ago, together with HeartCry missionary Nicolás Serrano, Esteban helped plant Family of Grace Church in Rosario, Argentina, where they now co-pastor the growing congregation. In addition to this, the Lord has opened the door for Nicolás and Esteban to train and assist pastors of new church plants throughout Argentina. Our prayer is that HeartCry’s support will increase both of these missionary-pastors’ effectiveness in caring for the local church and allow them to devote themselves to the study of the Word as they prepare to train and equip men for future ministry.
I was born in an Evangelical home. My father was saved by God in his youth, having been rescued from a life of bad habits, crime, and violence. My mother began attending an Evangelical church as a young woman after being raised in a Catholic home. When I was born, they were both members of a denomination that began as a holiness movement in Argentina in the 1950’s and 1960’s. My parents were some of the first members of a congregation that eventually reached over one thousand members. From the time I was born, I was surrounded by Bibles, Christian books, Christian music, evangelistic campaigns, etc.
My parents sought to raise me according to what they understood and what they had learned in their denomination. I had learned from a very early age the central facts of Christianity. However, there was not much clarity with regard to the Gospel and its meaning, especially with regard to justification by faith. Thus, I never had a true understanding of the Gospel and its implications. It was not until I was an older teenager that I began to understand what the Gospel meant and to see my need to be saved by God.
The denomination in which I was raised had two basic teachings that were crucial components of my pilgrimage. First, they taught that a person must be baptized to be born again. Second, they put a very strong emphasis on the pursuit of personal holiness and self-denial.
When I was ten years old I came to understand, according to what I was being taught, that I must be baptized if I wanted to be a Christian. So I spoke with the leaders, and in a short while, I was baptized. From that point on, I considered myself to be a Christian. Also, because of what I was taught regarding self-denial, I wanted to take seriously Jesus’ strong demands for holiness. However, since I did not have a new heart and did not understand the Gospel of justification through faith, I was wrapped up in an endless struggle and pursuit of holiness, with the only result being constant failure and sin.
When I was in my teen years, the tension was very strong within me. A strong sense of internal morality made me see that many things about me were sinful and did not make sense; and yet, everything within me seemed to quickly drag me toward sin. I knew that the things I was doing were wrong, but I confess now with shame that I loved them much more than the things of God. I loved the world, the things of the world, the way the world thinks, and everything that opposed Christ. Inevitably, all of those things drove me to a false religiosity, hypocrisy, and condemnation. To everyone else I was a Christian; but in the depths of my heart I knew that I did not love God, but rather that I was ashamed of Him. And I did not really love holiness; I hated it. Sometimes, in the depth of my being, I felt that God and holiness were really just things that had come to take away all my hopes for delight and enjoyment.
When I was sixteen years old, I began striving harder than ever to take seriously the demands for holiness. I diligently devoted myself to the congregation and began discipling other young men. Once or twice a week, I visited men who were living on the streets and talked to them about what I believed to be the Gospel. In fact, I was very bold during that time and even devoted myself to visiting known criminals in the most dangerous neighborhoods in my city. I saw clearly (or rather, I thought I saw) that nothing mattered except living for Jesus and His Kingdom. At one point, I even considered dropping out of my high school in order to study in a seminary, but my parents prevented me from doing so.
In the end, it simply became an impossible burden for me to carry. I knew what I was supposed do, but I was incapable of doing it; and in reality, I did not even desire to do it. Rather, I found myself as the men described in Romans 1:31: “And although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.”
Testimony of Conversion
It was in 2008, in the midst of all of this, that I began to understand who God really is. One of the pastors of the congregation gave me a video of a sermon on the Gospel. I remember that as I watched the sermon I was invaded with a sense of the majesty, holiness, and justice of God like I had never before experienced. I began looking for and listening to as many sermons by this preacher as I could, and every word I heard, every sermon, every lecture, was like an arrow that went through me and mortally wounded me. I literally shut myself in my room to listen, to meditate, and to pray about the things that I was hearing. Little by little, I abandoned all my religious activities and spent hours seeking to understand the Gospel and to know God. Today I can see that it was God working in me through these different stages.
The first thing that happened to me was that I truly awoke to the majesty of God. Before this time, I thought I knew my wickedness and my sin, but I really did not know. I thought I knew something of the holiness of God because of all my legalistic efforts, but I knew nothing of God’s holiness. I began to see that God was more interested in an upright heart than in external works rooted in the strength of one’s own will. When I began to understand this, I discontinued my activities in the church because I saw that they had no meaning if my heart was not upright. I was more and more consumed by the majesty of God. He was the greatest, the most holy, the most awesome, and the most righteous. He was more than I had ever imagined before, and I realized that I never really knew Him at all.
Together with this awakening to the majesty of God, I was also awakened to my own wickedness and perversion. The pursuit of morality had produced in me frustration and condemnation; but when I saw who God was, it was then that I really found out what it meant to be condemned, guilty, filthy, and wicked. I was invaded by a sense of my sin, and I knew that I was lost. I told my friends about what was happening, but they only said, “No, that cannot be true. You are just confused.” But I knew that it was more than that. I knew that I was not confused, but rather that I was lost, dead in my transgressions and sins.
This began a period of great struggle. With all my heart, I determined to find God and know Him. Nonetheless, because I did not entirely understand the Gospel, my struggle was very intense. The glory of God was a terrifying reality to me, but I still had not come to know that His glory shines intensely bright in the face of Jesus Christ, full of grace and truth! My struggle was principally due to the fact that I did not want to simply “convince myself” that I was saved. During that time, I ignored many of the truths of Scripture with regard to the Gospel, the love of God, and Christ; and this ignorance was one of the great stumbling blocks in my pursuit of the Lord. Yet there remained in me a determination to seek to know the Lord day after day, even if it meant dying in the pursuit.
Little by little, God was putting an end to my darkness. After several months of seeking, the true Way was becoming clearer to me. As I began to grasp in my heart and mind the truth of the Gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, the clouds of doubt began to flee.
I remember listening to a sermon series on justification by faith, and oh, how my heart rejoiced to receive that word! It was then that I understood that in order to reach salvation, my gaze must be placed not on myself, but on Jesus and His perfect work on behalf of sinners. Though I have failed many times, Jesus never failed, and He did not fail in the hour of His saving work! The precious truth of justification by faith, based upon the merit of Christ, broke the shackles of my legalism and self-righteousness, and it also ripped apart the chains of condemnation. At the same time, I understood that the work of regeneration, the transformation of the heart, was a work that God must accomplish purely by His grace and that my greatest concern ought to be to look to Jesus. I needed to rely on Him, rest entirely in Him, trust only in His merits, seek after Him, and love Him with all my heart.
To come to such a conclusion was liberating because until that point I was constantly examining myself in a strictly introspective way. When I saw that my great concern must be Christ and His work, the joy of salvation became a reality in my life. Of course, I did not stop examining myself, nor did I stop seeking to conform my life to holiness and uprightness as Christ commanded His disciples. Rather, I understood that I was never going to find hope by looking at myself, and at the same time, I would never lack any hope if I looked constantly to Jesus.
It is not possible for me to discern the specific moment in which Jesus freed me from the claws of Satan and from my sin. But not knowing the exact moment of my salvation does not darken in any way the joy and freedom that I have found in Jesus. Joy and freedom have accompanied me to this day, and they will accompany me forever. All this has happened so that for all eternity angels and men might adore and wonder at the marvelous, inexhaustible, and indescribable mercy of Christ, who has saved a miserable wretch like me. Blessed be our Lord forever and ever, who is and who was and who is to come! Blessed be our Savior, who has washed all my sins away with His blood and who will soon come to find me and take me to be with Him for eternity!
Call to Ministry
When I look at the way in which God was working in my life to lead me to serve in the pastoral ministry, I can say that even as an unconverted man He was preparing me for this work. Of course, that does not mean that as an unconverted man I understood that He was doing so, but looking back I see that even that period of my life was designed by God so that my future service would be more effective. The primary way that He was preparing me at that point was by allowing me to be around men that worked in the ministry. Although I recognize that some of them had (and still have) major deficiencies with regard to doctrine, I also must recognize that several of them were (and are) men of integrity who sought to live with a pure conscience and give their lives for the spiritual growth of others. In several of them I could see an intimate relationship with Christ and such a profound commitment to their mission that even in my unconverted state I was convinced that to live with that kind of purpose was to give true meaning to life. In these men I saw a sacrificial love and a dedication to “present every man complete in Christ.”
Also, when the Lord saved me, several other things happened that I interpret today as part of the calling of the Lord on my life. In the first place, an enormous passion to proclaim what I had come to know overpowered me. Now that I had found Christ and His Gospel, what was there that had any meaning except to live for Him? Another thing that happened some time after my conversion was that I began to see an enormous need in our country for biblical churches centered on Christ and the Gospel. I saw that the majority of the churches had been dragged off by unbiblical methods and doctrines: “easy-believism,” a false gospel of prosperity, carnal methods to attract people, ignorance with regard to regeneration, and more. Seeing such a panorama left a heavy burden on my heart, both for the glory of the Lord and for the good of the people.
In addition to the things I have already mentioned, there was another significant event that contributed to my calling. The Lord used a comment made by a pastor saying the following: “Everyone is complaining, ‘Where is a biblical church? Where is a biblical church?’ Well, my question to them is, ‘Where are the men to plant biblical churches? Where are the men to rise up and do what needs to be done?’”
Even though that sermon was preached many miles from my house, those words were directed at my heart like burning arrows, igniting a fire within me that was never to burn out. It was as if I had received a divine charge or a solemn admonition: “You must do this, and you cannot refuse.” It was then that I planted the church, Family of Grace, together with Nicolás Serrano.