The debate Tim Challies generated about Pope Francis comes down to a simple question: Are devoted and faithful Catholics really Christians? I am still amazed at how many evangelicals assume that few (if any) Catholics are truly born of the Spirit of God. This was more common twenty or thirty years ago but it is still the “party line” in many places. The more ex-Catholics influence the thinking the more likely the problem will remain. Catholic converts are very often zealots against their former church. But they are not alone. Ex-evangelicals do not generally condemn their family and friends to perdition but they are quick to make sure that we all know they are the only ones inside the “true church.” Most have never met an ecumenical conversation they wanted to really share in deeply. I have found several kinds of Catholics who love to pursue ecumenical work; e.g. those deeply taught and formed cradle Catholics who love their church, converts who came into the Catholic Church through an adult RCIA program because they married a Catholic, former Protestant mainliners who converted to Catholicism out of growing frustration with their own church, or former non-Christians who are now devoutly Christian and Catholic. Among evangelicals I have found that those who married Catholics, those who went to school with Catholics, those who have engaged in deep loving conversation with Catholics for some time, and those who have read good Catholic books are almost all very open to this process of seeking the unity of the whole church. Add to this list those people who have served in the pro-life movement side-by-side, those who have co-labored in campus evangelism, those who are involved in prison ministry and those who have worked together in some other common cause for their community in the name of Christ and you get the picture. When people know each other, read each other’s books and talk in love things can change.
Let me be very clear my friends – Catholics are Christians! There can be no serious doubt about this if the answer is based upon a proper confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. If you read the teaching of the Catholic Church, confess the ancient (faith) creeds of the early church and genuinely get to 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 various evangelicals. A Christian is someone who “believes” (the better word is trusts) that Jesus is the one who lived, died and rose again for their salvation and that of the whole world. A true Christian believes that they have sinned and that Jesus alone 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 your point. But so does every Catholic theologian that I have ever met. Every serious Christian church knows that there is no guarantee of salvation because of belonging 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 it also clouds the true story. If you peel away some layers it will be clearly shown to be a partial truth. First, the Council of Trent has been badly misunderstood by both Catholics and Protestants. I still recall sitting down for a meal with a Catholic priest (a very dear friend now) and asking him, “Why would you bow and pray with me if I am condemned by the Council of Trent? I am a Reformed minister you know.” He answered me by asking a question: “John, do you believe that you will be welcomed into the eternal kingdom of Christ because of an act of faith that you had in this life that included no good works or charity?” I said, “Of course not.” He then said, “Then the anathemas regarding justification by faith and grace alone did not apply to you.” I responded by saying, “Then it seems to me that Trent was responding to something that they believed was being taught by the Reformers but in fact was not their intent, or clear teaching, at all.” He completely agreed with my analysis. I have been digging into this question for years, before and after that day. I now understand why this theologian spoke that way when I asked him about the anathemas and my soul.
The part of the comment given to the iMonk that is all to common can be heard in the testimony of many who are now ex-Catholic evangelicals. These ex-Catholics wrongly heard that they could “earn” salvation step-by-step by gaining merit through their acts of mercy and personal charity. Then they heard a more “evangelical” message that God deeply moved them to understand that God saves all who call upon the Lord Jesus Christ for his grace in humble faith. They found peace with God through the forgiveness of their sins and discovered joy in the good news. For various reasons they left their birth church. They 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. ( Such as Fr Dimitri Sala who I previously wrote about.)
Pope Paul VI, in On Evangelization, wrote:
Evangelization will also always contain–as the foundation, center and at 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. Cantalamessa said 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). Honestly, could Billy Graham have said it any more clearly?
I could site many more references that would show how the Catholic Church believes that baptism is the external sign of conversion. This baptism calls the faithful to a total interior renewal that comes about by the gracious work of the Spirit. The Catechism (1226) adds, “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) is what constitutes an essential component of accepting the salvation that God offers to the sinner.
A distinction however is necessary, a distinction that is not always clearly made by some Catholics. Conversion is a process. Yes, for sure. But this process has a definite beginning. Like marriage you “get married” and then you remain in the marriage, and your work on your marriage, day-by-day. We are saved and we are being saved to use Pauline language. This is simply biblical language. And finally, we will be saved in the final day. But we must be delivered from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.
I now tell my Catholic friends that there is no substitute for “faith in the Gospel” because such faith is essential to new life (cf. Catechism, 1427). Baptism alone is not enough. (Remember, the church teaches that grace is really given in baptism but so do most Protestant churches!) The point is this – faithfulness to the visible, sacramental life of the church is not enough. These are a big part of discipleship but saving faith must have a beginning. Conversion may not begin at a point known to us but all of us must begin somewhere. 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 holy faith, that I find common ground.
Next: The Question I Ask Everyone About Faith and Salvation