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.
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An evangelical Protestant missionary in a predominantly Roman Catholic country working for renewal within the Catholic church? What a wonderful, exciting idea. But what Protestant church or denomination would support missionary work that is not ultimately geared toward making its own numbers grow? This challenges the very nature of an earthly Christian organization, forcing a choice between self-interest and the kingdom of God.
May I suggest that you or anyone else interested read “Getting the Gospel Right” by R.C. Sproul. I am on the side of those who agree that Roman Catholics who believe everything Rome teaches are not Christians, yes there are individual Catholics who are Christians no doubt but they are the ones who reject Rome’s false semi-Pelagian Gospel of “Meriting (earning) Grace”.
I also suggest that one read the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent on Justification. Rome has never rescended either these Canons and Decrees or lifted the Anathemas they carry against those who oppose those Canons and Decrees. Once I accepted and trusted in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour and began studying His Written Word the Bible I clearly saw that I could not believe the true Gospel and remain Roman Catholic. I agree with many that when a person accepts the true Gospel they will eventually leave the Roman Church if their Faith and Trust in Christ in genuine and they have been truly regenerated and converted to Christ by the Holy Spirit and God’s Grace.
What if the focus of this conversation would be “Are Evangelicals really Christians or not?” If we are truly going to be self-critical, and that is how I read the Bible, then the focus is not on are some people in some other group really Christians but am I a Chrsitian? Am I really living the Christian life? And what is the Christian life? I think if you ask these questions to many Evangelicals, people would be surprised at the plethora of many different answers.
This whole discussion reminds me of R. C. Sproul and company who have challenged whether N. T. Wright gets the gospel right? I quess Wright is lumped in with the Catholics in getting it wrong.
The irony in all this to me is when one truly listens to Wright (rather than just critiqing him), one finds that Wright is more concerned about putting the attention on knowing and getting Christ right rather than some doctrine on justification. Does the doctrine of justification save a person or does Christ? If we don’t undestand this distinction, I am afraid we will miss something important.
If we could just get this down first, it does change the discussion and challenge us in a different way. Do Catholics know and believe in Christ for their salvation? If they believe in a different Christ, how is that Christ different than the one you are putting your faith and trust in?
I agree with JonW, and I would urge John Armstrong not to be hoodwinked here.
The historical issue is NOT whether RC doctrine embraces the idea of faith in Christ (implicit OR explicit). The issue is that they do NOT believe, nor teach, faith in Christ ALONE. There’s the rock of offence. It’s always Jesus PLUS the church, works, baptism, etc. Not only is the institution corrupt to the core, but it’s soteriology is wrong (because it is unscriptural).
There is nothing at all loving in leaving Catholics lost in a system of “works righteousness”. Tell our RC friends the truth that they might be saved. “True and faithful are the wounds of a friend”.
To Chris C, I agree that having the right and proper view of Christ is important. What did Christ accomplish? Who was He? Answers to these questions is crucial the getting the right Soteriology. Unfortunately the RC Church is wrong about what Christ accomplished, especially by His Life, Death, and Resurrection.
If the RC Church taught the proper view of why Christ died and what His death accomplished then there would be no need for some “Purgatory” after physical death here on Earth. This is just one example out of many that a wrong view of what Christ did for us leads.
Whew!! Say a few kind words about us Roman Catholics and out come the hornets!! JonW, I have read RC Sproul, James White, John MacArthur, etc. Your comments seem to imply that you have not thoroughly read nor understood the Catechism of the Catholic Church. If you have really understood what it teaches, you would realize that you and Phil Morgan are misrepresenting what the Catholic Church does in fact teach about Christ, redemption, grace, faith, soteriology. It may not be written in the manner which you think it should be, but it’s overall presentation of the teaching about salvation is that WE ARE SAVED BY GRACE THROUGH FAITH IN JESUS CHRIST! We merit NOTHING in and of ourselves. Any place where the RCC speaks about merit in relation to eternal justification, it is always referring to the merits Christ gained for us and we receive purley by GRACE. I don’t mean to get heated here, but nothing is more insulting than to have your faith misrepresented in a discussion by people who should know better. You are not the only two Christians who have ever had to wrestle through these issues.
Chris, I loved your comment about always first asking the question “Am I a Christian”? Do I truly know and follow Christ?
John, thank you for this post. I couldn’t agree with you more, and I think Dave does too. 🙂
There’s actually some precedent for this sort of Catholic / Evangelical cooperation, involving none other than the beloved John Paul II. If you’re not familiar (and I can’t remember – you may have been the one who showed me this, for all I know), this Christianity Today article is fascinating:
So Nick, let’s just be crystal clear then:
(1) Are you saying the RC church has finally renounced the Council of Trent which says that the Mass is the same sacrifice of Calvary? To quote: “The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different. And since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and offered in an unbloody manner… this sacrifice is truly propitiatory” (Doctrina de ss. Missae sacrificio, c. 2, quoted in Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1367).
(2) Likewise are you saying the RC church has now renounced the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding baptismal regeneration? … “The Lord himself affirms that baptism is necessary for salvation [John 3:5]. . . . Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament [Mark 16:16]” (CCC 1257).
(3) And you are suggesting that any person who has previously been excommunicated or otherwise declared a heretic by the RC church may nevertheless be saved simply by faith in Christ without the church?
I won’t go any further to ask you about the false doctrine of absolution by priests, or indulgences and baptisms for the dead. I won’t ask you about the unscriptural idea of Mary as co-redemptress with Christ. All of which clearly are in conflict with the doctrine of salvation through Christ ALONE.
Nick, you charge me with misrepresenting the teaching of the Catholic Church, but I humbly submit that you do not UNDERSTAND the vital differences between what your church teaches and what the Christian church believes. We are called protestant, and we are still “protesting” … not out of malice for Catholic people, but out of consciences bound to the Word of God alone and out of sincere concern that you should know the saving truth of the gospel.
NickM wrote: It may not be written in the manner which you think it should be, but it’s overall presentation of the teaching about salvation is that WE ARE SAVED BY GRACE THROUGH FAITH IN JESUS CHRIST! We merit NOTHING in and of ourselves. Any place where the RCC speaks about merit in relation to eternal justification, it is always referring to the merits Christ gained for us and we receive purley by GRACE.
If the RCC meant what says about Grace the RCC would teach that “We are saved by Grace ALONE by Faith ALONE. I was a Roman Catholic so I fully understand what Rome teaches IE if you want to say what Rome REALLY teaches then it goes something like this:
“Our “good works, done in and of ourselves without Grace do not “merit” Justification/Salvation, however Christ “merited” all the Grace we need for our Justification/Salvation. We receive that “Sanctifying Grace” by being Baptised and having Faith in Christ because NOW we have that “Sanctifying Grace” we can then “merit Grace” by doing “good works” which in turn “merits” (earns) “final Justification” and Salvation” Or as the Catechism puts it
“Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.”
All this teaching of Rome is contrary to the Gospel and what St. Paul taught in his Epistles, especially Romans and Galatians.
I had tried to post a rather lengthy and comprehensive response to the responses of Phil and JonW to me, but it disappeared,:-( so I’ll just leave an abbreviated post. For those who are interested in referencing the OFFICIAL teaching of the Roman Catholic Church regarding this discussion, you may reference the “Catechism of the Catholic Church”, (CCC) sections 1356 to 1369; and on the teaching of Justification and grace, sections 1991 through 2003. Also, here are various scripture passages that are heavily referenced in the early Church Fathers and the CCC:
Matt. chaps 5-7; 25; and 28:16-20; John 6:25-59; John 14:15-31; John 17; Rom. chaps 5-6; I Cor. 11:17-32; I Cor. 15; Heb. 11; James 2; I Pet. 1:13-25; 2:1-12; 3:12-19; II Pet. 1:3-21; and I John 4.
I could quote endlessly here, but these passages of the CCC and the coresponding scriptures I have referenced accurately and faithfully sum up the OFFICIAL teaching of the RCC regarding grace, justification, and the sacrament of the Eucharist.
I have learned much from my Evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ, and I thank God for all of you! But as a Roman Catholic “revert”, I’m striving to grow in the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I love the RCC, and I’m convinced I’m exactly where God wants me in the Body of Christ.