Romanian Josef Tson recounts God’s grace amid suffering
It was late in the summer of 1977 and Romania was under communist rule when the Baptist minister put all his worldly concerns in order after the manner of a dying man. Buoyed by the courage of his wife, Elizabeth, Tson prepared himself for certain martyrdom.
He was to meet an officer from the secret police in the restaurant of a nondescript Romanian hotel. The communist officer had pledged to do what previous secret police officials had failed to do: silence Tson’s ministry by offering him a secular job in exchange for a promise that he never again preach the Gospel. Turning down the job spelled at least hard time in a prison camp. It might very well mean execution.
Tson met with the man and without flinching turned down the job.
“I told the man, ‘Now I am ready to die,’” Tson said. “‘You said you were going to finish me as a preacher. I asked my God and he wants me to continue to be a preacher. Now I have to make one of you two angry and I decided [it is] better [to] make you angry than God.
“‘But I know you, sir; you cannot stand this kind of opposition and you will kill me in one way or another. But I accepted that and you should know that I have even put everything in order and made ready to die. But as long as I am free, I will preach the Gospel.’”
The communist officer was equally unflinching in his response: He told Tson to go and preach the Gospel.
“He [the officer] made up his mind that if I was ready to die for it, then I should have it,” Tson said. “And for another four years until they exiled me, I continued to preach with nobody disturbing me because that man, a key man in the secret police, decided I should be free to preach because I was ready to die for it.”
Tson related his testimony as one of the keynote speakers during the 22nd annual Southern Baptist Founders Conference July 13-16 at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., with the theme “The Fellowship of His Sufferings.”
Tson’s testimony is one of both grave persecution and the grace of God.
He was arrested and imprisoned several times in Romania during the 1970s and charged with being a Christian minister. Each time he underwent several weeks of intense interrogation, beatings and mind games before finally being exiled from the country in 1981.
It was in this climate that he began to understand the "theology of martyrdom," which later became the subject of his book, “Suffering, Martyrdom and Rewards in Heaven.” From a practical standpoint, Tson said his imprisonment helped him form a clearer view of the biblical response to persecution.
“When the secret police officer threatened to kill me, to shoot me, I smiled and I said, 'Sir, don't you understand that when you kill me you send me to glory? You cannot threaten me with glory.’ The more suffering, the more troubles, the greater the glory. So, why say, 'Stop this trouble’? Because the more [suffering], the greater the glory up there.”
During one particularly harrowing session of interrogation, Tson told his inquisitors that spilling his blood would only serve to water the growth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Part of the theology of suffering, he learned, was that tribulation is never an accident but is part of God’s sovereign plan for building His church.
“I told the interrogator, ‘You should know your supreme weapon is killing. My supreme weapon is dying,’” Tson said.
“‘Now here is how it works, sir: You know that my sermons are on tape all over the country. When you shoot me or crush me, whichever way you choose, [you] only sprinkle my sermons with my blood. Everybody who has a tape of one of my sermons will pick it up and say, ‘I had better listen again. This man died for what he preached.’ Sir, my sermons will speak 10 times louder after you kill me and because you kill me. In fact, I will conquer this country for God because you killed me. Go on and do it.’
“Dying for the Lord is not an accident. It’s not a tragedy. It’s part of the job. It’s part of the ministry. And it’s the greatest way of preaching.”
Tson has been president of the Romanian Missionary Society since 1982 and is pastor of the Baptist Church in Brasov, Romania.
Romania had been under communist rule since 1948 when the party took control of the country and modeled its government and economy after those of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
After his exile from Romania, Tson spent several years ministering in the United States before returning to his newly liberated homeland in 1991. He has since founded Emmanuel Bible Institute, built a Christian publishing company and established the Christian Radio Voice of the Gospel.
Tson said he has learned that Christians suffer for two primary reasons: as witnesses to the Gospel and to perfect the church of Christ. He recalled being encouraged by a valuable truth that a British theologian taught him: The cross of Christ was for the propitiation of sins, but the cross each Christian is called to bear is for the propagation of the Gospel.
Believers must be ready to give their lives if necessary for the perfection of the church, Tson said, because God’s grace spreads when the church suffers in the manner of its Savior.
“It is the job of Christ to perfect His church but I [am to] come and say ‘My Lord, I give You my body to suffer through my body to complete Your sufferings for the perfection of Your body, the church,’” Tson said.
“The agony of every pastor for his unperfected church and of every pastor who wants that church pure [is] the agony of Christ. When we do this we understand the beauty of sharing with Christ in His own sufferings.”