By Tom McMahon
Executive Director ‘The Berean Call’
PART ONE [June 2002]
Recently I returned from a conference sponsored by the Wheaton College Graduate School Department of Bible and Theology and InterVarsity Press. Titled “Catholics and Evangelicals in Conversation,” the event brought together 14 theologians from both traditions, including Catholics Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago, and Richard John Neuhaus, co-originator with Charles Colson of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium” (ECT). Leading ‘evangelicals’ included Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School, and J.I. Packer, well-known author of Knowing God. However, before sharing my observations concerning the significance of the conference and the increasing influence of ECT, let me share my experiences with the students of Wheaton College.
First of all, I took nearly all of my meals on campus just for the opportunity of dialoguing with students. Only a few with whom I talked attended the conference, but all of them thought it was a very good thing to build relationships between Catholics and evangelicals. The closest point to an objection came from a student who felt the conference was no more important than a “conversation between Baptists and Methodists.” That was a stunner to me. Was I talking to young people whose thinking was the exception rather than the rule, on a campus with a widespread reputation for being evangelical? To get a better representation, at the end of the conference I drafted a survey and spent the afternoon roaming the campus interviewing about 100 more students.
I asked them to categorize themselves one of three ways: a) they knew almost nothing about Roman Catholicism; b) they had a general understanding about what Catholics believed; or c) they were pretty knowledgeable about the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Only a few felt they knew little about the Catholic Church; the overwhelming majority put themselves in category “c.” Then I asked, “Based upon what you know about Roman Catholicism, do you believe Catholics need to be evangelised, i.e., presented the biblical gospel of salvation?” Two said yes. A few acknowledged “probably, ” and one thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea. The rest responded with an emphatic no, including a young man who was a former Catholic.
My final question (given the responses, in retrospect it seemed inane) was this: “Have you ever had a class here in which you were taught about Roman Catholicism, and then encouraged to witness to Catholics?” All but one student said no. Excitedly I asked the young man to tell me the name of the class and his professor. “Oh,” he said, “it wasn’t a class it was my soccer coach!”
I rarely get depressed, but this moved me to the fringe of that condition. Could it really be that this next generation of evangelicals is convinced there is no significant difference between Catholics and biblically born-again Christians? Even my talks with some students who were attending the conference from Covenant College, Taylor University, and Moody Bible Institute indicated a lack of real understanding of the gospel of Rome. But how prevalent is this? (I would greatly appreciate anyone with access to a school claiming to be evangelical to try out my survey on campus and let me know the results.) More importantly, what might be the consequences of such a lack of understanding among our young people? Before we address those questions, however, let’s clarify the fundamental (and critical) difference between Roman Catholic salvation and what the Bible teaches about salvation.
Catholic salvation, i.e., qualifying for heaven, is a lifelong process. It begins with the sacrament of Baptism; nearly all of one billion Roman Catholics are baptized as infants. Catholics refer to their baptism as the sacrament through which they are “born again” or justified and through which they first receive “sanctifying grace.” This grace is necessary in order to be eligible to earn salvation, which is why Catholics claim to be “saved by grace alone.”
The sacraments of Penance, Holy Eucharist, and Confirmation are crucial to staying and growing in the state of sanctifying grace. Also contributing to this salvation process are a host of extra-biblical teachings and practices (liturgies, indulgences, sacramentals, good works, sufferings, penances, rituals, prayers, Mass and Holy Day of Obligation attendance, etc.) which are said to bolster one in grace. All that, however, can be lost by committing a “mortal sin,” which eradicates the sanctifying grace required for entrance into heaven. If a Catholic dies without sanctifying grace, he or she is condemned to hell for eternity. Upon confession and a priest’s absolution of a mortal sin or sins, Catholics are restored to the state of sanctifying grace and re-justified. Upon their death they enter purgatory, where they must be purified from all their temporal sins through suffering its purging flames. Roman Catholicism teaches that every person must become perfectly righteous before he or she can enter heaven. Meritorious works and the expiation of one’s own sins contribute to one’s infused righteousness necessary for eternal life with God.
My survey of the Wheaton students did not include details of what they knew about Roman Catholicism, so whether or not they really comprehended the basics of Catholic salvation is uncertain. On the other hand, if they indeed understood Rome’s teachings (as most claimed), I’m very concerned about their understanding of the biblical gospel.
The gospel of salvation as taught in the Scriptures is exceedingly profound, yet very simple. Although created originally in perfection and without sin, Adam and Eve nevertheless sinned against God, bringing condemnation upon all mankind. The divine penalty imposed upon all sinners is death, i.e., separation from God for eternity; and because He is perfect in justice, the penalty had to be paid. Yet God is also perfect in love and mercy; therefore He became a Man in order to save mankind through His perfect life and substitutionary death. The Bible proclaims that all who turn to God and by faith receive His gift of salvation are declared perfectly righteous in His sight and will spend eternity in heaven with Him. What Christ accomplished on the cross (being God’s perfect Lamb who alone could take away the sin of the world) is imputed to everyone who puts his trust in Him.
A number of important issues separate Roman Catholicism from evangelical Christianity. However, the most critical issue presents a chasm so wide that it cannot be bridged by any ecumenical span and that is “faith.”
The Bible states repeatedly and unequivocally that a person is saved by faith and only by faith. The reason, like the gospel itself, is simple: only Jesus, who is both God and Man, could pay the infinite penalty required by God’s justice. Faith in Him and His finished work on the cross, then, is mankind’s only means of salvation. That is not only what the Bible teaches, but logic and reason demand the same conclusion. What can we do to assist in something which God says He alone can do and has done? Any such attempt to add anything to Christ’s perfect atonement is a rejection of God’s salvation. Yet Roman Catholicism majors on “finishing” the finished work of Christ. It teaches that man must merit heaven through his own “grace-assisted” good works, sufferings, obedience to Church laws, receiving the sacraments, expiating his own sins, and on and on. Furthermore, the Catholic Church claims that it alone possesses the treasury from which are dispensed the graces necessary for salvation.
Again, it troubles me deeply that our next generation of evangelicals appears unable (or unmotivated) to discern between the gospel Paul preached, which alone saves, and what he called “another gospel,” which can save no one. That false “gospel,” by the way, was an attempt to add circumcision to faith in order to be justified. Paul was so troubled by this one addition that, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he condemned all who preach such a gospel. Yet the Catholic Church condemns all who reject their hundreds of additions to faith which it says are necessary for salvation!
How could this evangelical generation become oblivious to the clear teaching of Scripture? Well, there are lots of contributing influences. Postmodernist ideas such as “truth is relative” and “one point of view is as valid as any other” are prevalent in our culture and particularly in our schools; consequently, they have been easily assimilated by evangelicals young and old. Seeking after truth, then, hardly becomes a worthy pursuit.
Many of today’s youth have been persuaded that the division between Catholics and Protestants is the archaic product of a past age of bigotry and ignorance. And sadly, there are still enough examples around today to give this thesis credence. Furthermore, tolerance has been the social rallying cry for the last decade or so, and therefore anything that smacks of intolerance (regardless of its basis) must be avoided at the very least. If you think this isn’t typical of your own evangelical kids or their peers, ask them if they see any problem with one of them deciding to marry a Catholic. I can almost guarantee that their first response will not be what the Bible says about being unequally yoked with an unbeliever, nor concern for the Church’s insistence that the children be baptized and raised Catholic. Rather, it will be how “intolerant” (even bigoted!) it is to impose a view that would keep apart two people who love each other. I have a few letters from broken-hearted evangelical parents whose children decided upon such a rationale.
However, the strongest influence regarding the current attitude about Catholicism among sincere evangelical young people is not from the world, but from the professing evangelical church. You would be hard pressed to find among highly visible church leaders more than a few who speak out against the growing ecumenical bond-building between Catholics and evangelicals. That ratio would be very similar among evangelical pastors. It is also rather tragic that those who understand the issues biblically fail to address it in their churches and therefore fail their young members because of their reluctance to “offend” by instructing them accordingly.
So who can blame this generation? Their favourite music groups celebrate the Pope at the Catholic World Youth Day event. The largest of the national conferences for evangelical youths and youth pastors invites priests as the keynote speaker and a workshop leader. Catholic parishes around the country are thrilled to have their young people participate (there’s obviously no fear that they will be converted). The hot item at one such conference last year was introducing kids to the contemplative approach to spirituality, a practice which draws almost entirely upon teachings of Catholic mystics. Most of the popular parachurch ministries, rather than evangelising Catholics, work with them as Christians. These ministries include Prison Fellowship, the Billy Graham Association, Campus Crusade, YWAM, Promise Keepers, InterVarsity Fellowship, and Focus on the Family.
Chuck Colson, J.I. Packer, Luis Palau, Robert Schuller, Hank Hanegraaff, Pat Robertson, Billy Graham, Elisabeth Elliot, Paul and Jan Crouch, Jack Hayford, Jack Van Impe, Benny Hinn, Norman Geisler, and a host of others have furthered the belief that although there are differences between Catholics and evangelicals, they are after all our brothers and sisters in Christ.
In addition to the blatant disregard for what the Bible teaches, the organizations and individuals mentioned above (hardly an exhaustive list) are influencing our young people (and others as well) to abandon a billion souls in bondage to a false gospel.
Then there is ECT.
The original “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” document was presented to the public in 1994. The Catholic participants/signers were esteemed representatives of the Church, including John Cardinal O’Connor and now Cardinals Francis George and Avery Dulles. Evangelical participants/signers were also highly influential church leaders (among them Chuck Colson, J.I. Packer, Pat Robertson, Bill Bright, and Jesse Miranda). Although there were cases of strong protest from the evangelical community, characterizing the document as a “compromise” and “betrayal” of the gospel, these were lost in the praises from Christian and secular media (from Christianity Today to the Wall Street Journal). The perception left with most people was that ECT had made great strides in resolving the issues which “divided Christianity at the time of the Reformation.” The document itself seemed to be designed to give that impression.
Although no information was presented from either side to substantiate changes in doctrinal positions (which had separated them for 450 years), nevertheless the language of the document implied great strides forward without compromise. While ECT encourages unity among all “1.7 billion Christians,” it specifically applies to Catholics and evangelicals, whom it confidently calls “brothers and sisters in Christ.” However, it never establishes how one becomes a brother or sister in Christ, or for that matter, one of the 1.7 billion “Christians.”
The goal for both communities is “working and witnessing together in order to advance the one mission of Christ.” How do two entities with contrary gospels witness together “to advance the one mission of Christ”? That’s never brought to light. In fact, it’s buried beneath the propaganda of ecumenical enthusiasm and feigned fidelity: “We reject any appearance of harmony that is purchased at the price of truth. Our common resolve is made imperative by obedience to the truth of God revealed in the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures, and by trust in the promise of the Holy Spirit’s guidance….” This is self-delusion or worse. Although the first ECT document was clearly a sham, offering what it didn’t (and couldn’t) deliver, nevertheless it was terribly successful. It spawned a perception of new “Christian unity” which both church and world embraced with delight. And why not in this day when image is everything, and substance is for a few experts to decipher?
Our impressionable next evangelical generation was in middle school when Chuck Colson and Richard John Neuhaus first presented ECT. That was followed by ECT II, “The Gift of Salvation,” which furthered the image of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” The third phase of ECT will reportedly examine the authority of Scripture alone in light of Christian tradition. Thus the ecumenical line of the “emperor’s new clothes” is being firmly established in the eyes of evangelicals. Although ECT is biblically “naked,” few will be able to resist its having been paraded down the fashion runway of the Cliff Barrows Auditorium in the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton. The price, however, is the forsaking of a billion Roman Catholic souls and revising the gospel of Christ.
Next month we will cover details and implications of the “Catholics and Evangelicals in Conversation” conference.
PART TWO [July 2002]
The Bible tells us clearly that the last days before the return of Christ will be marked by apostasy and the rise of the world religion of Antichrist (2 Thessalonians 2:3,4; Revelation 13,14). Yet for multitudes of Christians, including many who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, the actual fulfilment of that prophecy seems hardly likely. A number of things today seem to run counter to such an anti-Christian end times scenario.
Lately, ‘evangelical’ Christianity is experiencing a rise in acceptance. Less than a decade ago evangelicals were near the top of the those-you-would-least-want-to-live-next-to list. Certainly President George W. Bush’s brand of Christianity, along with his ecumenical overtures and “faith-based” initiative, has helped to alter the perception of ‘evangelicals’ as being “narrow-minded and intolerant.” Increasing numbers of evangelical churches are reaching mega-proportions, with more than a few the sizes of (and favourably likened to) shopping malls. Contemporary Christian music has become the rising star in the music industry. Nearly all the large evangelical Christian publishing companies are now profitable subsidiaries of massive secular corporations. For example, media mogul Rupert Murdoch (HarperCollins Publishers, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Fox TV, etc.) would hardly have acquired Zondervan if Christian books were not money-makers. More than all of this, however, is the public’s awareness and approval of the supposed settling of historic differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics. So wouldn’t all this growing interest and appreciation for things Christian be counterproductive to an antichrist religion?
It might seem so—if the Antichrist and his religion were only a frontal attack against anything that smacks of Christianity. However, as Dave Hunt pointed out in his 1990 book, Global Peace and the Rise of Antichrist,
While the Greek prefix “anti” generally means “against” or “opposed to,” it can also mean “in the place of” or “a substitute for.” The Antichrist will embody both meanings…. He will cunningly misrepresent Christ while pretending to be Christ. And by that deceit he will undermine and pervert all that Christ truly is.
His “Christianity” then will be a counterfeit, “having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” (2 Timothy 3:5). Furthermore, the Antichrist’s religion won’t just pop onto the scene the day he does. Rather, he will fit into it, just as one slips into a tailor-made suit. This theology was first presented in the Garden of Eden as a perversion of God’s Word and has spread like a virus ever since.
In fact, it began as a dialogue.
Satan started the process of conditioning humanity when he entered into conversation with Eve, persuading her to turn from God’s truth to her own subjective evaluation of what she felt He had said. But God’s command had been explicit and simple. Adam and Eve were not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; to do so would bring certain death (Genesis 2:16,17). Notice the absoluteness of God’s statement and its consequence; yet notice Eve’s addition and rationalizations (Genesis 3:3,6). The serpent’s cunning questioning of her understanding (“Yea, hath God said…?”) induced her to reconsider what God meant. After all, “the tree was good for food… pleasant to the eyes, a tree to be desired to make one wise.” Surely God wouldn’t want to withhold such “benefits” from His creatures.
Satan’s modus operandi has never changed: to get humans to deny the absolute truth of what God says and to look to their own (read relative, subjective, experiential, self-serving, sinful) understanding.
No doubt because it is crucial to our walk of faith, twice in Proverbs we find these words: “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (14:12, 16:25). The solemn meaning is clear: When man interprets God’s Word to suit himself, its life-giving truth is blatantly rejected (2 Corinthians 3:6). Consequently, destruction and death (separation from Him) follow. This is a pitfall inherent in ecumenical dialogues which have as their goal the unification of professing Christian groups, and which extend in some cases even to non-Christian religions.
What then of “Catholics and Evangelicals in Conversation,” a conference recently presented at Wheaton College and sponsored by its Department of Bible and Theology and InterVarsity Press? (See last month’s issue for some background information.) It was a further development, and the first public endeavour, of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium” (ECT), which Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship and Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus organized in 1994. Highly influential Catholic clergy and evangelical leaders had participated in ECT in the hope of developing closer ties and greater collaboration in activities of common interest to both traditions, especially working together for the moral good of society and winning souls to Christ. Neuhaus reminded the Wheaton conference attendees that the most significant declaration in the original ECT document had been “the simple statement that we [Catholics and evangelicals] recognize one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Indeed, so convinced were all of the conference speakers regarding one another’s membership in the Body of Christ that this supposed faith was treated as a foregone conclusion rather than a question for discussion! According to Richard Neuhaus, our being “brothers and sisters in Christ” is the foundational premise “which drives the entirety of the ECT effort.”
But what of that premise? Are all Catholics and evangelicals brothers and sisters in Christ? If that is indeed the case, it would be important to know the basis for this relationship. None of the ECT documents tells us explicitly. The Catholic Church teaches that salvation is only through the Sacrament of Baptism. The Bible declares unequivocally that it is only through faith. Some Catholics may come to biblical faith in Christ, but that would be in spite of the soteriological teaching of Rome—not because of it. Moreover, as the new believer recognizes the Bible’s clear opposition to the beliefs, rituals, and practices of Catholicism, he must reject them in order to be consistent with God’s truth. So, if one is not born again of the Spirit by grace through faith alone as the Word of God teaches, he or she is not a member of the family of God.
Catholic teachings on salvation cannot be reconciled to the Bible. What we have here are two gospels: the biblical gospel, and, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “another gospel” (Gal 1:6,7) which can save no one. Emphasizing that point, Paul twice calls the preachers of such a gospel “accursed” (Gal 1:8,9). How then could any true evangelical advocate the partnership in winning souls to Christ proposed in Evangelicals and Catholics Together? He could not. But that fact has neither deterred the participants of the ECT dialogue nor dampened their enthusiasm.
At the Wheaton conference, J.I. Packer shared the following: “What I dream of and long to see is evangelicals and Roman Catholics standing together on the same platform to tell the world that Jesus Christ is the Saviour whom everybody needs.” He then amplified his vision:
I dream of those who respond to that good gospel word being taken through what would be a revived catechumenate [a basic instructional program in the faith], a matter, incidentally, on which Roman Catholics, I think, have got further in these last few years than evangelicals have. A revived catechumenate that is a grounding for new converts in which they are told that for the first year or two years they should postpone the question of which church they are going to identify with, and simply concentrate on getting the benefit of ministry of the Word and Christian fellowship in whatever churches in their part of the world provide these. Catholic or Protestant. And it might be either.
He left no doubt as to his commitment to the Evangelicals and Catholics Together dialogues:
If through ECT there was for the future less evangelical apartheid in relation to Roman Catholics than there has been in the past, and less Roman Catholic triumphalism…and more of Roman Catholic and evangelical together[ness] in the re-Christianising of society and the re-evangelising and discipling of the world community which is so largely drifting away from Christianity, then I should feel that we have not failed. That’s what I hope for and pray for, and it’s to that effort that I for one hope that God in this whole project will prosper what we’re doing, keep us from folly, and enable us to be as influential in these ways as [best] we can be.
Sound doctrine is the bane of ecumenical exchanges, and will inevitably give way to “dreams” supported by experiences and what “seemeth right unto a man.” Why? Because the purpose of such conversations is convergence, i.e., togetherness. Biblical doctrine (what God says) is absolute, inflexible. It doesn’t dance to the tune of ecumenical dialogues. When concerned appeals were made to the specific teachings of Scripture during Q & A segments of the conference, most in the audience seemed annoyed. Speakers’ responses ranged from “Hey, come on…cut us some slack here!” to chiding any who dared to suggest that those representatives of various Christian traditions down through history having an unbiblical understanding of essential doctrines were not fellow believers. Timothy George, one of the evangelical developers of the ECT documents, as well as a Wheaton Trustee, committee member on the World Council of Churches, and (along with J.I. Packer) an executive editor of Christianity Today, was quoted as follows:
To think that [early formulators of Roman Catholic dogma] Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas…are all consigned to perdition because they do not properly define justification in precisely Reformation terminology—is that not to deny the grace of God and God’s sovereignty? It is, in short, to turn justification by faith alone to justification by doctrinal erudition alone, which is another form of justification by works.
No. We’re not to judge anyone’s heart, nor use the Reformation as our standard—simply the Scriptures (Is 8:20).
In his talk, Neuhaus presented another criteria:
In the pro-life movement and in the Charismatic Renewal, in all these ways evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics were in fact encountering one another in a way that they could not, without sinning against the Holy Spirit, [refrain from] acknowledging what was an encounter with brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s the reality. Then it’s just up to the theologians and the church bureaucrats and so forth to get accustomed to that reality and try to understand it.
Following Neuhaus’s address, in which he presented his own dream of “full communion” of all Christian denominations with Rome, I asked him who would be in charge when this full communion took place. He replied that it was not plausible for everyone to “pack up and return to the [Roman] Catholic Church.” He felt such a thing would do “great injustice” to the gifts and works of the Holy Spirit, which have manifestly flourished over the last 500 years “outside the boundaries of the Catholic Church.” He sees “full communion” as a “new thing” which acknowledges “the Apostolic Deposit,” the “Petrine Ministry… Peter among us [i.e., a Vicar of Christ] to keep everybody in communion.” He then candidly added,
But what would it look like and who would call the plays? Please God, it would not look like the bureaucracies of Protestant denominationalism. Please God, it would not look like the wrangling, debased forms of democratic governments and argumentative church assemblies where faith and morals are thrown open to vote. Please God, it would not mean domination by a conclave of elderly Italian prelates, as too often has been the case in the Catholic Church…. There wouldn’t even be something we would call the Catholic Church, that is, certainly not the Roman Catholic Church. There would simply be the Church of Jesus Christ—East and West.
This is what ECT and other ecumenical dialogues are all about. While I grant the sincerity of many who participate in such conversations, I’m astonished that they don’t see the glaring eschatological implications.
Although repeatedly professing their desire for unity based only upon the truth found in Jesus Christ, ECT’s goal of “togetherness” has blinded them to what the Bible clearly says about religious unity in the last days. Where is organizational “full communion” found except in the one-world religion of Antichrist?
Biblical unity in Christ, the true fellowship of brothers and sisters in Christ, can only come about by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). Anything added, Paul tells us, is a rejection of the gospel. Jesus will deny ever knowing those who have come to Him on any other terms but His own, even though they sincerely cry, “Lord, Lord…” (Matthew 7:22,23).
Having been a Roman Catholic for 32 years, an evangelical for 25, and one of the founders of Reaching Catholics For Christ (RCFC), I was inclined during the panel discussion to reprove the evangelical speakers for their participation in ECT. Instead, however, I simply identified myself and my association with RCFC * (which was met with indignant groans) and directed my question to the evangelicals (only Timothy George was absent) as follows:
The Philippian jailor of Acts 16 cried out to Paul, ‘…what must I do to be saved?’ The response was both simple and explicit: ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” What else is necessary?
Only two panel members responded. Both dodged the biblical imperative. Why would these evangelicals, including J.I. Packer, not instantly respond, “Nothing!”? Because if that were taken seriously, it would quickly end the dialogue unto death with Rome—a false church which has continued to add to the gospel for more than 1,500 years.
Let your loving conversations with Roman Catholics be to this end: to help them understand and receive the biblical gospel of salvation. TBC
All quotes are taken from the audiotape series “Catholics and Evangelicals in Conversation,” available from Wheaton College.
* T.A.McMahon’s identification of himself and RCFC, as well as his question to the evangelical panel members and their responses, was not included on the panel discussion tape, because (he was told) of a failure to record the first 11 minutes of the session.