Yesterday I began to answer a question put to me by a comment left on this site by a Roman Catholic reader. Today, I want to begin by expressing my deep appreciation to my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters who read this blog. The number of such readers continues to grow. I think the reason is rooted in the mutual charity and common faith of all who see in Christ the center of living faith, hope and love. I believe that there is a movement of the Holy Spirit that has been going on since Vatican II. This movement is gently pulling all of us along as the wind of the Spirit blows us to one another in the love of Christ for his holy mission. This is what I call missional-ecumenism. I hope you will read my book, Your Church Is Too Small, if you want to really understand my perspective. In the book I tell the story of my own journey and explain this vision that God gave to me for encouraging this process to continue to grow.
Yesterday I wrote about the evangelical impulse, pro and con. I pick up this theme again today.
The evangelical impulse is one of renewal by the Spirit in the good news of Christ. Vatican II opened the door to this impulse in a fresh way. We are seeing the fruit of this in our lifetime. I expect this to go on in the decades to come. What does all of this mean?
Dave Lipsiea wondered, in his question to me on July 14, if we could accomplish more if evangelicals stopped trying to convert Catholics. Well, the answer is a qualified yes. Evangelicals do not need to convert Catholics, if by this we mean pressuring them to leave their church. We should not proselytize! But if this answer means we do not share our faith and joy in Christ with everyone then I disagree. I also think Dave would agree with me on this point. I desire that every faithful, Spirit-filled, Christian believer share their faith with everyone they possibly can. The issue here is not getting people out of the Catholic Church and into a Protestant church but rather about influencing everyone (in every church) to believe the gospel and explicitly trust Christ. Let me explain my words here.
Many countries are deeply and historically Catholic. Evangelical missionaries would be well-served, in many such instances, to work for the renewal of the Catholic Church without attacking it about our theological differences. These differences do present real challenges to our common practice but they do not hinder our love or respect. I have a student who serves as a missionary in a country in Europe where he works openly with Catholics yet he does not try to get them to leave the Catholic Church. He recently introduced the Alpha Course and the priest has embraced it. People are being led to faith by this missionary being in their city. He is doing this by helping Catholics teach the course inside the Catholic Church. By this means many Catholics will likely come to a living faith in Christ. Every Catholic I know that really loves Christ welcomes Catholics coming to living (or deeper) faith if they do not have this faith. Everyone agrees that in every church there are individuals who do not personally know Christ as their Lord and Savior. Everyone should also agree that this is the really important issue. Catholics use these terms differently but at the end of the day Catholics are not opposed to teaching people that they should believe the good news for themselves. This is where the evangelical impulse can have its greatest impact on the larger church.
I learned this personally some years ago when a priest shared a platform with me in an evangelical church. We were asked to answer questions put to us by a moderator. The priest, who is now my good friend, was asked about the new birth and where it began. He referenced baptism as the beginning point. I decided not to push this point too hard. (This was about the only part of the evening I had not prepared for in advance, showing me again how the Spirit often works when we ask him to lead.) I decided in that moment to ask a different question: “Assuming baptism does grant the Holy Spirit to a person I have a follow-up question. What happens when this baptized person grows and then hears the gospel? Do they need to personally appropriate the grace of God by explicitly trusting Christ to heal/save them through his person and work?” I bore down on the meaning of explicit faith in Christ.
The priest answered me by saying, “Yes, all the baptized need explicit faith in Christ, not just the implicit faith of trusting in their baptism and the sacraments of the church.” I then asked, “Why is this not taught clearly to many Catholics?” He said, “Because we have failed and much of this is a reaction to the past and against the teaching of non-Catholics.” The lights went on in my mind. I have never lost that moment’s insight. I urge everyone to explicitly trust Christ to save them from their sins. There is nothing in Catholic dogma that opposes these words or what is behind them. The fact is, these words are in accord with Catholic teaching. The Gospels make it plain that Jesus calls everyone to believe, to follow and to trust him. If we would preach the clear message of the Gospels we would make immense gain. Opposing Catholic dogma will not save a soul. Leading people to explicit faith in Christ is what we all need. Evangelicals, at their best, can have a huge role in this regard.
Evangelicals, at their worst, are often mean-spirited and narrow sectarians. Catholics see this and believe that they have no need to know us or to learn anything from us. What I have been privileged to see is profoundly clear to me at this stage of my life: the love of Christ transcends this spirit and unites us in the “one church” bought with his blood.
So, I agree with Dave. We do not need to treat Catholics as non-Christians. This is a mistake. How can we treat anyone who openly takes his name upon themselves in holy baptism and outward expressions of Christian love as a non-Christian? It is obvious that we do not know the heart of anyone else. We hardly know our own heart. What good reason can we provide for telling others that we know for sure that they do not know him? Isn’t the better choice to love Christ, to tell people about his love and thus to urge all people everywhere to repent and believe the good news? When we do this we are not only standing on clear biblical grounds but on grounds that allow Catholics to hear us and us to really begin to hear them.
But I do not agree with Dave if this response means we cannot tell the good news to all Catholics everywhere. If we respect the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church then we can have this conversation and we can talk about this marvelous good news. If we disrespect the Catholic Church then the end result will be more dissension and disunity among Christians. The reality is that we have come a long way but we have a long way to go. The Spirit is working in millions of particular contexts to bring God’s people together. I am determined to work with the Holy Spirit in this regard, not against him.