(March 1998 – Volume 4, Issue 3)
“The Gift of Salvation”
A few years ago a coalition of evangelical believers headed by Chuck Colson, and including men such as J. I. Packer, Max Lucado and Bill Bright, shocked the Christian world by composing and signing a document with several well-known Roman Catholics, led by Father John Neuhaus. That document is known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together(ECT). It basically declared that the gospel proclaimed by evangelicals and Catholics is the same gospel, and always has been — we have just been misunderstanding each other since the time of the Reformation.
Evangelical Protestants were of course amazed and surprised, since they have claimed for almost five hundred years that the gospel of the Roman Catholic Church is a different gospel than that which is taught in the New Testament. Some applauded the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document, others were outraged. How, this latter group protested, can we possibly think that evangelicals and Catholics are preaching the same gospel? Hasn’t the Roman Catholic Church always added works to faith?
In response, the Evangelicals and Catholics Together committee went to work. The fruit of their labor is a second document entitled, The Gift of Salvation. This is an attempt by Colson and his friends to define the “true gospel.” After all, as Paul clearly affirms in Gal. 1:6-9, there cannot be two gospels — one for Catholics and one for evangelicals. Here is the “gospel” as defined by the ECT committee:
We agree that justification is not earned by any good works or merits of our own: it is entirely God’s gift, conferred through the Father’s sheer graciousness, out of the love that he bears us in his Son, who suffered on our behalf and rose from the dead for our justification. Jesus was “put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). In justification, God, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone, declares us to be no longer his rebellious enemies but his forgiven friends, and by virtue of his declaration it is so. The New Testament makes it clear that the gift of justification is received through faith (Ephesians 2:8).
This certainly seems to be in line with sola fide (faith alone) — so why not throw down our arms and accept one another as brothers and sisters in Christ? Well, there seems to be at least two problems:
First, Sola Fide is not the official teaching and doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Church has long taught faith + works = righteousness. Stand outside of any Roman Catholic Church and ask the attendees how they can be saved and you will quickly discern that Catholics are not being taught the true gospel. By watching the Catholic Television Station you will discover the same thing.
The Reformers knew this and broke away from Rome, which in turn pronounced anathemas on the Reformers for teaching sola fide. The Catholic Church was not at all ashamed of any of this, and at the council of Trent they declared:
If anyone says that by faith alone the sinner is justified, so as to mean that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification. . . let him be anathema (Trent, sess. 6, canon 9).
If anyone says that the righteousness received is not preserved and also not increased before God by good works, but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not a cause of its increase, let him be anathema (Trent, sess. 6, canon 24).
The Roman Catholic Church has never recanted these anathemas. How can the Evangelical and Catholics Together committee claim that the Roman Catholic Church teaches sola fide when it officially damns those who believe in it?
The second problem is that both of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together documents, even while making strong statements to the contrary, actually present or allow for two different gospels. In the original document this statement is made: “Those converted — whether understood as having received the new birth for the first time or as having experienced the reawakening of the new birth originally bestowed in the sacrament of baptism. . .” Which is it? Regeneration by faith or by baptism? It cannot be both! The gospel cannot be presented in plan A and B forms, in which we choose the option that best fits our views.
In the latest document, after declaring that both Evangelicals and Catholics believe in sola fide, this incredible disclaimer is found:
We recognize that there are necessarily interrelated questions that require further and urgent exploration. Among such questions are these: the meaning of baptismal regeneration, the Eucharist, and sacramental grace; the historic uses of the language of justification as it relates to imputed and transformative righteousness; the normative status of justification in relation to all Christian doctrine; the assertion that while justification is by faith alone, the faith that receives salvation is never alone; diverse understandings of merit, reward, purgatory, and indulgences; Marian devotion and the assistance of the saints in the life of salvation, and the possibility of salvation for those who have not been evangelized.
Who is kidding whom here? How can the subjects of baptismal regeneration, sacramental grace, diverse understandings of merit, purgatory, indulgences and universalism still be on the table, yet with great conviction pronouncement is made that agreement concerning the gospel has been found? Colson seems to have borrowed a page or two from his political days, where a politician can affirm two opposites and expect his audience to believe both. But we are not playing politics here; we are talking about eternal salvation. If an individual (Protestant or Catholic) claims to believe in sola fide, but also believes in baptismal regeneration, or saving grace being received through the elements of the Lord’s table, then he clearly does not believe in sola fide — case closed! Apparently the Evangelicals and Catholics Together committee believes that if they tell the Christian community that the emperor is wearing clothes, then though he is as naked as a new baby, he is wearing clothes. Maybe the Evangelical and Catholics Together signatories should review a couple more anathemas from the Council of Trent (1545-1563):
If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification let him be anathema (Canon 9).
If anyone says that after the reception of the grace of justification the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out to every repentant sinner, that no debt of temporary punishment remains to be discharged either in this world or in purgatory before the gates of heaven can be opened, let him be anathema (Canon 30).
Strange words for believers in sola fide.
What Catholics Believe
Before it can be decided whether or not the Roman Catholic Church is teaching the same gospel as the evangelical church, it is only right that we examine the official teachings of Rome. What does Rome teach in regard to soteriology?
Roman Catholicism is a sacramental religion, meaning that Catholics believe that grace does not come directly from God, but indirectly through another source — sacraments. It is not denied that Christ died on the cross for our sins, but it is said that that atoning act is mixed with the sacraments to effect salvation. The seven sacraments of Rome are understood to be means of infusing grace into the life of the participant. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (published in 1994 and accepted by Rome as official teachings of the Church) says, “Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify. They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies. . . . The church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation” (italics are in the original) (p.292). Take baptism for example — Rome says, “Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte ‘a new creature,’ an adopted son of God, who has become ‘a partaker of the divine nature,’ member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit” (ibid, p.322). Especially in light of the fact that in the Catholic Church it is usually infants who are being baptized, babies who are incapable of expressing faith, it is rather obvious that it is the act of baptism that is supposedly producing new life.
The Seven Sacraments
(The Roman Catholic Church believes that the following sacraments infuse saving grace into the believer.)
Baptism: This was explained above.
Confirmation: A sealing with the Holy Spirit that enables mature defense of the faith.
Penance (confession): Certain sins (known as mortal) committed following baptism cause an individual to lose his or her salvation. The church however, having been given — supposedly by Christ — the power to forgive sins, restores lost justification through the sacrament of penance.
Holy Eucharist: The Eucharist (or thanksgiving), which takes place during the Mass, is very different from the partaking of the Lord’s table, as observed by most evangelicals. To Rome the Eucharist is the continuing sacrifice of Christ on our behalf. See below for more details.
Anointing of the sick (extreme unction or the Last Rites): “Bestowing of grace on the sick, old, or near death and helps in forgiveness of sins and sometimes in the physical healing of the body” (Protestants and Catholics, Do They Now Agree, p.68).
Marriage: “Theologically it (marriage) is considered a sacrament because it reflects Christ’s union with His bride, the church. . . . For Catholics who receive it properly in the fellowship of the church it is a sacrament because it is viewed as a means of encountering Christ in a special way and of bringing about the salvation of spouses” (A View of Rome, pp.67,68).
Holy Orders: “This is the sacrament in which a bishop imposes hands upon a man, and uses the prescribed prayer, to confer spiritual power and grace to conduct ordained ministry in the Catholic Church” (Ibid, p.67).
The Mass — the Heart of Catholicism
To understand the Roman Catholic religion one must understand the Mass. Catholicism centers around the Mass in general, and the Eucharist in particular. According to A Cathechism of Christian Doctrine (a standard catechism of the Roman Catholic Church) “The Holy Mass is one and the same with that of the Cross, inasmuch as Christ, who offered Himself, a bleeding victim, on the Cross to His Heavenly Father continues to offer Himself in an unbloody manner on the altar, through the ministry of His Priests” (page 47).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, concerning the Mass, says “The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice. . . .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 is offered in an unbloody manner” (page 344). “The Eucharistic sacrifice is also offered for the faithful departed (in purgatory) who have died in Christ but are not yet wholly purified, so that they may be able to enter into the light of peace of Christ” (page 345). And “Holy Communion . . . preserves, increases, and renews the life of grace received at Baptism. . . . The Eucharist cannot unite us to Christ without at the same time cleansing us from past sins and preserving us from future sins” (page 351). The significance of these quotes will become more evident as we better understand Rome’s view of justification, but at this point it would be hard to miss the role that the Mass is believed to play.
How central is the Mass to Catholic theology? The council of Trent leaves no doubt in its Canons on the Sacrifice of the Mass:
Canon 1. If anyone says that in the mass a true and real sacrifice is not offered to God; or that to be offered is nothing else than that Christ is given to us to eat, let him be anathema.
Canon 3. If anyone says that the sacrifice of the mass is one and only of praise and thanksgiving; or that it is merely commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the cross and not a propitiatory one, let him be anathema.
Rome pronounced (and still pronounces) an anathema on any who dare claim that the Lord’s supper is a memorial, rather than a propitiatory act (an act that pleases God so as to appease His divine wrath).
It must be kept in mind that the Catholic Church believes in the doctrine of transubstantiation (i.e. that the bread and wine are converted into the actual body and blood of Christ at the miracle of the Mass). Thus Christ is truly being offered as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind. In the mind of Rome, the Eucharist is not another sacrifice of Christ, but a continual sacrifice. Christ, in a very real sense is still on the Cross, and without the sacrifice of the Mass we cannot be saved.
As stated in Protestants & Catholics, Do They Now Agree?, “Clearly, [Mass]
carries out the work of redemption;
- forgives sins;
- helps purify those in purgatory;
- “increases the life of grace received at baptism;”
- cleanses past sins and sanctifies or preserves from future sins — even mortal ones; and
- pours out the grace of salvation upon all the Church. Who then can deny that participation in the Mass is necessary for salvation and also is a form of salvation by faith/works” (page 78)?
Given the facts above, how do the evangelical signatories justify the signing of the original ECT document and the more recent The Gift of Salvation? Perhaps I am a reductionist, but I can only think of two possible reasons why Christian leaders who claim to be evangelical would sign these documents. The first would be that they do not really understand the issues. I could possibly buy this explanation for men such as Chuck Colson, Bill Bright and Max Lucado, largely popularizers of the Christian faith. But the same slack cannot be afforded to Os Guinness, Mark Noll and of all people J.I. Packer. As a well-studied and highly respected Reformed theologian, Packer’s support of these documents has brought gasps of amazement and disbelief. How can a man like Packer, who has spent a lifetime defending Reformed theology, sign documents that in essence declare the Reformation a mistake? In response, Packer wrote an article for Christianity Today (Dec. 12,1994) entitled “Why I Signed It,” in which he clearly presents his case. Early in the article Packer affirms that he could not become a Roman Catholic because he disagrees with many of its fundamental doctrines including, sacramentalist soteriology, the Mary cult, purgatory, indulgences and claims of infallibility. Then he enumerates the reasons he signed the document anyway:
1) Because good Catholics and good evangelical Protestants are Christians together. I find this concept, which is the heart of the ECT position, absolutely incredible. A “good” Catholic is one who believes the doctrines of Rome — including its sacramental form of salvation. While the New Testament pronounces an anathema on any who teach and believe such doctrines (Gal 1:6-9) — Packer declares them Christians!
2) Because the enemies: relativist, monist, pluralist, liberationist, feminist, etc. need to meet a united front. He greatly minimizes that which divides us (and ought to) by stating, “Their domestic differences about salvation and the church should not hinder them from joint action in seeking to re-Christianize the North American milieu.”
3) Because evangelicals and Catholics are already linked in ministry. His three examples are Francis Schaeffer’s co-belligerence on the social front, Billy Graham’s ecumenicism in the area of evangelism, and the experience oriented unity of the various charismatic rallies. “So the togetherness that ECT pleads for has already begun,” he affirms. In other words, if we can’t beat them — join them. This is leadership at its best(?).
The second reason that I would posit as to why evangelical leaders would sign these documents, is simply because unity (at almost any cost, it seems) has now become more important than truth — even the truth of the gospel. Colson claims that “when confronting the non-Christian world — whether in evangelism or political activism — we should present a united front. This is the goal of ECT” (CT, 1994). If, in order to present this united front, we must lay down, or at least ignore cardinal doctrines, then it is apparently a small price to pay. Case in point — is any doctrine more important than that of the gospel? Surely not! Do Roman Catholics and evangelicals embrace the same gospel message? Packer, in a sad piece of “double-speak” says “Yes and No.” Packer knows that Catholics do not preach the gospel but since they focus on many of the same things that evangelicals do, “This constitutes a sufficient account of the gospel of salvation for shared evangelistic ministry.” Just how far Packer is willing to compromise is evident when he states, “We need to put sola fide in small print because it is no longer one of the large-print issues that ought to divide us, nor should it divide us in common mission.”
Rome’s doctrine of salvation is so divergent from that of the evangelical (Rome teaches that righteousness is infused and then built upon, rather than imputed) that one theologian writes, “The authors of Evangelicals and Catholics Together are guilty of almost criminal deception to say that both parties can affirm the doctrine of justification, when the distinction between their understanding of this doctrine constitutes two entirely different systems of religion” (Dr. James Grier as found in Sword & Trowel, 1997, Issue 4).
The signers of this new document assure us that, “For the first time in 450 years, evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics have publicly agreed to a common understanding of salvation.” Others rightly challenge, “The basic agreements regarding salvation appear to be nullified by the questions which the document says require further exploration. How is it that sacramental grace is still an outstanding question [when] salvation by faith alone is affirmed by the document” (Phil Roberts, Christianity Today, Jan 12,1998). I fear that Dr. Grier is correct when he writes, “I say to you with sorrow that the foundations are crumbling, and people who once appeared to stand with us have become our opponents” (op.cit.). Just how true this statement is will be reflected in our next paper when we carefully examine Evangelical’s and Catholics Together’s official defense of its positions in their book, Evangelicals and Catholics Together Toward A Common Mission.
For further study I recommend:
Protestants and Catholics, Do They Now Agree, by John Ankerberg and John Weldow
A View of Rome, by John H. Armstrong