“My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (Js 1:19)

As a pope courts popularity, saying things that sometimes startle, and then sometimes chime with us this is a very timely question. Just a generation ago the idea of any sort of relationship between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals would have been unthinkable. Today some are asking whether they are now close enough to work together in mission.

Catholicism are not viewed as the threat they once were, no bad thing in some ways since the “threat of Rome” was, historically, as much political as it was theological and the political threat is no longer Rome but secular liberalism and we should recognise that.

This, however, has led some to insisting that there are greater threats in modern secularism and liberalism against which we should be working alongside Roman Catholics. This makes sense on some levels and there is much to be gained in being co-combatants with Rome against the secularism that is threatening us; but how far down that road might we safely go?

The issues with which the Reformers were concerned were not transient, cultural, or political, but fundamental to biblical faith and we must ask is the gap on these issues now so small as to be unimportant, or are there still significant issues that prevent us embracing across the Lord’s Table?

Christ Alone, Faith Alone, Grace Alone

Christ Alone

The Catholic and Evangelical understandings of Christ’s death and what it achieved are profoundly different.

Those who seek common ground with Catholicism fail to address this problem. Yet it is the most important aspect of the New Testament message and it is essential to get it right:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then the Twelve…” (1 Co.15:3-5)

What we believe about these things is “of first importance”.

To the Catholic Christ died for “sins” and not for “sinners”.

To the Catholic Christ’s death earned a “treasury of merit” on which the believer draws time and again by means of the sacraments to gain forgiveness and purification from sins today. This adds works of merit to Christ’s work of Atonement.

To the Evangelical Christ’s death was a “once for all” act that won complete salvation “for all who believe”, i.e. “sinners”. This is the classic “penal substitution” doctrine denied by Rome.

When Paul writes in 1 Co.15 about Christ dying “for our sins” he is not saying that Christ died for sins and not sinners. He means “for the sake of” our sins, or “because of” our sins. In other words, it is because we are sinners that Christ died. Sin in man was the reason for Christ dying. But in dying Christ died for sinners:

To purchase people – Rev.5:9; 14:4

who are bought at a price – 1 Cor.6:20; 7:23

bought with blood – Acts 20:28

ransomed – Mt.20:28

The picture is one of purchasing, buying, and redeeming and not one of simply making available on condition of a quid pro quo:

If justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal.2:21)

Christ won a complete salvation:

But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb.10:12-14)

Faith Alone

The Catholic and Evangelical understanding of how we receive salvation are irreconcilably different.

To the Catholic salvation is gained, first, by continually applying to Christ’s store of merit and applying Christ’s merit to themselves daily. Secondly, this merit is mediated through a priesthood and ritual activity – the sacraments.

“If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is this confidence alone that justifies us, LET HIM BE ANATHEMA” (Council of Trent, Canons Concerning Justification, Canon 12).

To the Evangelical salvation is a gift that is received all at once. To deny faith alone is to deny Christ alone. To add to Christ’s work is to subscribe to a profoundly different ecclesiology which includes essential rituals and priesthood mediation.

Unlike the other high priests, [Christ] does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself” (Heb 7:27)

The Bread of Life: John 6:41-59

Something needs to be said about this John 6 text, which is the basis for the Catholic claim for transubstantiation, and for this continued return to ritual and works to gain merit. It is claimed that this points to the Eucharist and, therefore, to a ritual-based religion in which we earn merit by continually returning to the table. I can think of eight reasons why we cannot agree on this vital issue and interpretation.

  1. John does not mention the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist) in this passage, indeed, it has yet to be instituted; this interpretation is late and there is another, better, explanation for “flesh” and “blood.”
  2. The setting is a mixed audience in a Capernaum synagogue, and the audience would not have understood the references inferred by the Catholic interpretation.
  3. The formula (v.53) does not mention faith, repentance or conversion, all essential to salvation, to the saved life, according to the Bible.
  4. The Bible clearly teaches that the consequences mentioned (‘he will live forever’ v51) follow receiving Christ (‘looks to and believes in the Son’ vv 35,40,47); not repeated ritual, but a once for all sacrifice made effectual in all who believe.
  5. Eating and drinking was a metaphor for internalising spiritual truth. Today we still talk about devouring knowledge. Further, to believe here doesn’t signify simply to affirm certain truths, but to so trust in Christ as to have received him into yourself. Augustine says, “To believe is to have eaten.”
  6. Christ is in our everyday life and not confined to bread and wine.
  7. Flesh” is used in this text not “body” c.f. 1 Cor.11:24 Flesh and blood is a direct reference to Christ becoming flesh and blood and making the sacrifice in which we believe for salvation.
  8. Eat” and “drink” here are both aorist, once-for-all actions, not repeated, ‘believing’ in the sense of a settled decision and commitment.

Faith alone safeguards the more important Christ alone.

Grace Alone

The Catholic understanding of grace is piecemeal, applied daily in our pilgrimage in order to win a little more salvation each day. This puts the emphasis on the activity and attitude of the believer.

“If anyone says that the justice received is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works, but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not the cause of its increase, LET HIM BE ANATHEMA” (Council of Trent, Canons Concerning Justification, Canon 24).

The Evangelical understanding of grace is that it is God’s unmerited favour toward the sinner that cannot be accessed via fallen man’s activity but through faith alone in Christ alone. This puts the emphasis on the activity and attitude of God.

Grace is:

A state – Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Ro.5:1-2)

Companion – But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me (1 Cor.15:10)

Christ’s work – For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people,

training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ (Titus 2:11-13)

God’s gift – Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith (Ro.12:6)

Catholics have conflated justification and sanctification; the gift of life and the course of life. In the empty cross we find our justification before God, in the empty tomb we see the provision of God’s gift of grace for our daily living, issued by the risen Christ.

The Power of “Believing”

“What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered:“The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:28-29)

“To believe”, of course, does not simply mean to give intellectual assent. In the Bible to believe is to put your full trust in. The believer has put his or her full trust in Jesus for salvation such that it issues in works of service.

In John’s gospel he uses the verb “believe” 98 times (In Matthew it is 11, in Mark 10, and in Luke 9 times). John can teach us something about “believing”. We can believe “that” something happened; believe “what” people say, but John uses the verb with the preposition “into”, as in

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)

Paul writes:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved–and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph.2:4-9)

He is saying that our standing before God is such that, in Christ, we are seated in heavenly places. We do have the rest of our lives to go through on this earth. But Christ has paid for our sins and we can now walk in confidence, in him, knowing that we have eternal life, a life that has been won for us by him and that we appropriate by trusting “in” him.

The gift is received by believing. The recipient of the gift has put their trust in the giver and the worth of the gift, thereby receiving it. John 5:24 clearly shows this

I tell you the truth, whoever hears my words and believes him who sent me, has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”

Hear, believe and receive eternal life; has crossed over. Of course works follow, but they follow, they don’t lead to salvation. The person whose works have worth is the saved person. The unsaved may work and work but to no avail because they have not trusted. Their unresolved sinful nature taints and spoils every work, and they have refused the gift of forgiveness by the very act of trying to prove worthy of it!

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Ro.6:23)

Sin pays wages! How important to understand this. Eternal life, on the other hand, is a free gift “in Christ Jesus our Lord.” What does that mean, “in Christ Jesus our Lord”? It means that those are in him who have put their trust in him. If you put any trust at all in anything you can do by way of works then you are, by definition, not in him but in yourself; because that is what you have trusted in. This is clear from what the Australian theologian Leon Morris called the most important paragraph in history:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it– the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law (Romans 3:21-28)

Reaching Catholics

Reaching Catholics is no different from reaching any other group; it always comes down to one question – “Am I saved?” Address the person standing before you and not your preconceptions or the Roman Church. Don’t assume that people always believe what they are supposed to believe.

Catholics generally believe in the Bible

Their God is the God of Scripture; their Saviour is the Incarnate Christ, fully God and fully man, sent by the Father to die for sins. But they are not encouraged to read the Bible as we are and that gives us an advantage. They are not familiar with the Bible’s great themes and one encounter I had some years ago illustrates this.

Dead in Sin

I had the privilege of sitting in on a local Catholic house-group. The discussion revolved around Romans 6 and Paul’s charge to “count yourselves dead to sin” (v 11) They could not understand how that could be, since we sin every day. I was merely an observer but eventually gained their permission to explain the text, which the priest in the room either couldn’t, or wouldn’t explain.

Catholics are generally weak on sin

They tend to think, “I’m as good as the next man” and don’t really understand our rebellion against God. Their “guilt” comes from trying and failing to do good works rather than any sense of the sinful nature.

Catholics generally tend to be Universalists

They tend to believe that many roads lead to God. Man is basically good, people of other faiths are sincere and God basically kind, so most will be accepted in the end. But Jesus taught:

I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.” (John 14:6)

Catholics are generally confused on grace

They reject the teaching that Christ’s perfection is credited to our account and believe that grace is applied when the Christian co-operates with God and the church. We are judged on our works.

Catholics are generally weighed down by culture and family

We need to divorce gospel from culture. We are not asking them to become cultural Protestants but gospel believing people.

We need to marry gospel and culture. We need to help them apply the gospel to their culture and bring the good with them.