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 evangelized, 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
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 classit was my soccer
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 extrabiblical 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
rejustified. Upon their death they enter purgatory, where they must be
purified from all their temporal sins through suffering its purging
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 spanand 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
brokenhearted evangelical parents whose children decided upon such a
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
favorite 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
evangelizing 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
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, Norm 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
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 notin 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"