The recent debate about whether the pope is a true Christian reminded me of the helpful book written by my friend Mark Noll, Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008). I am honored that he mentions me as one person who believes the “Reformation Wars” are over. Mark did not know my church affiliation at the time he wrote this book but he got my story right. It is a tiny part of the whole narrative that he tells very well. I encourage you to read the book.
Various comments that readers recently posted on Michael Mercer’s original iMonk post – “The War Is Over” – moved from responding to the anti-Catholic rhetoric of Tim Challies to making comments about what they felt prompted this debate. One such comment said:
Can all Neo Cals (neo-Calvinists) please never mention Tolkien or Chesterton ever again? This will clear up lots of confusion. Or maybe those are the only two Catholics in heaven or maybe the Neo Cal doesn’t actually think they are really elect but still reference them because they were good writers who God in his common grace used for his glory while damning them of course.
A rather clever respondent then followed the above quote by adding: “Catholic traditionalists should not use C. S. Lewis or Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” Touché!
This kind of banter underscores a serious point about these comments that have made a powerful impact upon my own journey into missional-ecumenism. When I was finding my way out of an anti-Catholic, confessionally rigid and deeply Reformed stance I realized that I failed to actually read Catholic theology from the actual sources. Simply put, I had never had a serious conversation with a Catholic theologian about Catholic theology. Something seemed wrong with this, especially with the part about how I viewed the historical church until after the sixteenth century. If most Catholics before and since the Protestant Reformation were not true Christians (because they believed doctrines that we commonly equate with what we have decided is wrong with the Catholic Church) then why do we quote so many of them as if they were great Christians? To put this another way, “Where was the church of Jesus Christ before the sixteenth century?” And yet further, “Why do hyper-conservative Catholics (often employing apologetics that are clearly aimed at converting Protestants or at explaining why those writers became Catholics) seek to proselytize evangelicals, especially by using voices like C. S. Lewis? I find it amusing, and at times exasperating, that some of these media-driven (popular) Catholic apologists try so hard to show that C. S. Lewis was actually a “closet” Catholic. The same argument has been used to suggest that the late Brother Roger of Taizé was a “secret” Catholic because he was (and this is a fact) communed by Catholics such as Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. These three men were all dear friends and mutually supported the ecumenical movement. Some have even insisted that Brother Roger converted (in private) but this is simply untrue. It was never encouraged or done. I believe this is because his iconic status as a global leader in deep ecumenism was respected by both popes and a host of other godly Catholics.
Still another writer noted to the iMonk:
In an interconnected world of 6+ billion people how many false-by-my-standards teachers are there? This is a ludicrous construct in the 21st century. If Tim Challies does not believe I am a true Christian, I am completely comfortable with that.
Bravo! I know more than a few neo-Calvinists who have concluded that I am not a “true Christian” either. I am “completely comfortable” with that opinion since that is all it is – their opinion. My all-knowing and all-loving Father in heaven knows me and this is all that matters. I am safe in his grace and love.
I often ask this: How many people are not true Christians because they are “false-by-my-standards”? When you set up a standard, especially one rooted deeply in your (near) private reading of the Bible, and then decide by this standard who is and is not a true Christian, then you have not only put yourself in the role of the judge of the universe but you have reduced the knowing of Jesus Christ to an agreement with some items in your doctrinal checklist.
Are Catholics Christians?
Yes, Catholics are Christians! There can be no serious doubt about this if the answer is based on a proper confession of Jesus as Lord and Savior. If you read the teaching of the Catholic Church, confess the ancient (faith) creeds and genuinely know Catholics who love Jesus as deeply as you do then you will have no doubt either. Catholics are Christians just as much as Protestants and evangelicals. A Christian is someone who “believes” (trusts) Jesus is the one who lived, died and rose again for their salvation and that of the world. A true Christian believes they have sinned and that Jesus will save them if they trust him and love him. If you wish to argue that within the Catholic Church there are individuals who are not genuinely “born from above” then I freely grant that point. But so does every Catholic theologian that I have ever met. Every serious Christian church knows that there is no guarantee of salvation by membership in it just because you belong to the right church. And every serious Christian should grant that you do not have to pass a “doctrine test” to be a child of God.
The apostle John writes:
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world (1 John 3:23–4:17, NRSV).
A respondent to the iMonk cleverly wrote: “But do some Catholics have some un-Christian doctrines. No doubt about that. (The Council of Trent – “Let anyone who says that we are saved by faith alone be anathema.”) It’s hard to change things that one has taught for hundreds of years. So many of these errant doctrines become entrenched. But, they are STILL Christians. Albeit a bit less free (from the spiritual ladder-climbing project) than we would like to see.”
This comment is helpful but only if you peel away some layers. First, the Council of Trent has been badly misunderstood by both Catholics and Protestants. I still recall sitting down to a meal with a Catholic priest (a dear friend) and asking him, “Why would you bow and pray with me if I am condemned by the Council of Trent since I am a Reformed minister?” He answered me by asking a question: “John, do you believe that you will be welcomed into the eternal kingdom by Christ because of an act of faith you had in this life that bore no works or charity at all?” I said, “Of course not.” He then said, “Then the anathemas regarding justification by faith and grace did not apply to me.” I responded by saying, “Then it seems to me Trent was responding to something that they believed was being taught or might be taught by the Reformers but which I believe was not their intent at all.” He completely agreed with that analysis. I have been digging into this for year since that day and I now understand why he spoke that way when I asked him about the anathemas.
The part in this comment that is all to common can be heard in the testimony of many former Catholics who are now evangelicals. These Catholics wrongly heard that they could “earn” salvation step-by-sep by gaining merit through acts of mercy and charity. Then they heard that God saves all who call upon the Lord Jesus Christ for his grace in humble faith. Finding peace with God through the forgiveness of their sins they discovered joy in the good news and (eventually) left their birth church. They had experienced what this writer calls: “the spiritual ladder-climbing project.” Upon hearing the good news that God would accept them on the basis of Christ’s grace and mercy alone they found new life in the Spirit. It should be noted that many other Catholics have discovered the same reality without ever leaving their church.
Pope Paul VI, in On Evangelization, wrote:
Evangelization will also always contain–as the foundation, center and the same time the summit of its dynamism–a clear proclamation that, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, who died and rise from the dead, salvation is offered to all men, as a gift of God’s grace and mercy (On Evangelization in the Modern World, an apostolic exhortation, December 8, 1975, 27).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is equally clear when it says:
Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed (Catechism, 1431).
One of my favorite Catholic teachers and writers is Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the papal household for decades, put it this clearly in a 1995 sermon: “To say, ‘Jesus is Lord” means, in fact, to make a decision. It is as though saying: Jesus Christ is ‘my’; Lord . . . (cf. “Faith in Christ Today and at the Beginning of the Church,” 2, Homilies in the Papal Household, December 2, 1995, from web site www.cantalemess.org/en.predicheVIew.php?id=69).
I could site many references that would show how the Catholic Church believes that baptism is the external sign of conversion. Baptism calls the faithful to a total interior renewal that comes about by the gracious work of the Spirit. The Catechism (1226) says, “Baptism is seen as connected with faith: ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved’ . . .” The point I wish to make here is that the inner reality (repentance is referenced here) is what constitutes an essential component of accepting the salvation God offers to the sinner.
A distinction here is necessary, one not always clearly made by some Catholics. Conversion is a process. But the process has a definite beginning. Like marriage you “get married” and you remain in the marriage, and work on your marriage, day-by-day. We are saved and we are being saved. This is biblical language. Finally, we will be saved in the final day.
I now tell my Catholic friends that there is no substitute for “faith in the Gospel” is essential to new life (cf. Catechism, 1427). Baptism alone is not enough. Faithfulness to the sacramental life of the church is not enough. These are a part of discipleship but faith must have a beginning. Conversion may not begin at a point where we recall everything that happened to us but all of us must begin. We must trust Christ alone to save us. There is nothing in Catholic teaching that opposes this truth and a great deal that supports it. It is here, and in our moving toward Christ alone who stands at the center of our most holy faith, that I find common ground.