Catholics and Evangelicals Together
Last October a group of evangelical and Roman Catholic theologians meeting in New York City hammered out a statement of faith to which all parties could agree. The statement was published in Christianity Today (December 8, 1997), and Timothy George, a leading Calvin scholar at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, has invited “all Christians to consider what we have been able to say together about the gift of salvation.” The list of participants in the joint statement includes many well-known evangelicals in the US, such as Mark Noll, Thomas Oden, Max Lucado, Os Guiness, and Charles Colson (among others), as well as Dr. James Packer from Vancouver, BC. On the Roman Catholic side, familiar names also appear: James Buckley, Avery Dulles, Ralph Martin, Richard John Neuhaus, and George Weigel.
At the outset, we can state that the document is a remarkable achievement of new concord and understanding. We cannot but call it a crowning achievement, and that in the Melanchthon year! I mention this for he was the first person I thought of when reading the document. How much does not the tone, style and approach breathe the spirit of Philipp Melanchthon! Everything revolves around the cardinal doctrine of justification by faith!
Yet, there are other things to say about the document. Let’s listen to what I see as the more positive side of the statement, and then reflect on elements that raise questions and concerns. The document is very strong on the central confession of the gospel: justification by faith. The sola fide is unreservedly professed, to the point that we can only express heartfelt agreement at both the irenic tone and calm theological sensitivity reflected in the statement.
God created us to manifest His glory and to give us eternal life in fellowship with himself, but our disobedience intervened and brought us under condemnation. As members of the fallen human race, we come into the world estranged from God and in a state of rebellion. This original sin is compounded by our personal acts of sinfulness. The catastrophic consequences of sin are such that we are powerless to restore the ruptured bonds of union with God. Only in the light of what God has done to restore our fellowship with Him do we see the full enormity of our loss. The gravity of our plight and the greatness of God’s love are brought home to us by the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
God the Creator is also God the Redeemer, offering salvation to the world. “God desires all to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). The restoration of communion with God is absolutely dependent upon Jesus Christ, true God and true man, for He is “the one mediator between God and man” (1 Timothy 2: 5), and “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). He is the holy and righteous one who was put to death for our sins, “the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).
The New Testament speaks of salvation in various ways. Salvation is ultimate or eschatological rescue from sin and its consequences, the final state of safety and glory to which we are brought in both body and soul. “Since, therefore, we are now justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God.” “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” (Romans 5:9; 13:11) Salvation is also a present reality. We are told that “He saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of His own mercy” (Titus 3:5). The present reality of salvation is an anticipation and foretaste of salvation in its promised fullness.
Always it is clear that the work of redemption has been accomplished by Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). Scripture describes the consequences of Christ’s redemptive work in several ways, among which are: justification, reconciliation, restoration of friendship with God, and rebirth from above by which we are adopted as children of God and made heirs of the kingdom. “When the time had fully come, God sent His son, born of a woman, born under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).
Justification is central to the Scriptural account of salvation, and its meaning has been much debated between Protestants and Catholics. We agree that justification is not earned by any good works or merits on our part; 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. “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). By faith, which is also the gift of God, we repent of our sins and freely adhere to the gospel, the good news of God’s saving work for us in Christ. By our response of faith to Christ, we enter into the blessings promised by the gospel. Faith is not merely intellectual assent but an act of the whole person, involving the mind, the will, and the affections, issuing in a changed life. We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide).
In justification we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, through whom the love of God is poured forth into our hearts (Romans 5:5). The grace of Christ and the gift of the Spirit received through faith (Galatians 3:14) are experienced and expressed in diverse ways by different Christians and in different Christian traditions, but God’s gift is never dependent upon our human experience or our ways of expressing that experience.
While faith is inherently personal, it is not a purely private possession but involves participation in the body of Christ. By baptism we are visibly incorporated into the community of faith and committed to a life of discipleship. “We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
By their faith and baptism, Christians are bound to live according to the law of love in obedience to Jesus Christ the Lord. Scripture calls this the life of holiness or sanctification. “Since we have these promises dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything, that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). Sanctification is not fully accomplished at the beginning of our life in Christ, but is progressively furthered as we struggle, with God’s grace and help, against adversity and temptation. In this struggle, we are assured that Christ’s grace will be sufficient for us to persevere to the end. When we fall we can still turn to God in humble repentance and confidently ask for, and receive, His forgiveness.
We may therefore have assured hope for the eternal life promised to us in Christ. As we have shared in His sufferings we will share in His final glory. “We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2). While we dare not presume upon the grace of God, the promise of God in Christ is utterly reliable, and faith in that promise overcomes anxiety about our eternal future. We are bound by faith itself to have firm hope to encourage one another in that hope, and in such hope we rejoice. For believers “through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5).
Thus it is that as justified sinners we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. All this is the gift of God. Faith issues in a confident hope for a new heaven and a new earth in which God’s creating and redeeming purposes are gloriously fulfilled.
"Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father", (Philippians 2:9-11)
Up to this point, as I have hinted, we can find ourselves in the agreement that has been reached. I would also say: this concerns the heart of the statement, and therefore we have both a duty and a privilege to speak the appropriate word of commendation to those who have expended so much effort to come to this kind of a statement. Up to here we can say that we recognize the stated desire to promote unity in the truth, and not a superficial unity. Indeed, this statement flies in the face of the reductionist approach of the World Council of Churches!
But now the reservations. The second part of the report concerns putting faith into practice, and also reflects on outstanding issues. Let us listen to the participants’ statement:
As believers we are sent into the world and commissioned to be bearers of the good news, to serve one another in love, to do good to all, and to evangelize everyone everywhere. It is our responsibility and firm resolve to bring to the whole world the tidings of God’s love and of the salvation accomplished in our crucified, risen, and returning Lord. Many are in grave peril of being eternally lost because they do not know the way to salvation.
In obedience to the Great Commission of our Lord, we commit ourselves to evangelizing everyone. We must share the fullness of God’s saving truth with all, including members of our several communities. Evangelicals must speak the gospel to Catholics and Catholics to Evangelicals, always speaking the truth in love, so that “working hard to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace ... the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God” (Ephesians 4:3, 12-13).
Moreover, we defend religious freedom for all. Such freedom is grounded in the dignity of the human person created in the image of God and must be protected also in civil law.
We must not allow our witness as Christians to be compromised by halfhearted discipleship or needlessly divisive disputes. While we rejoice in the unity we have discovered and are confident of the fundamental truths about the gift of salvation we have affirmed, 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.
On these and other questions, we recognize that there are also some differences within both the Evangelical and Catholic communities. We are committed to examining these questions further in our continuing conversations. All who truly believe in Jesus Christ are brothers and sisters in the Lord and must not allow their differences, however important, to undermine this great truth, or to deflect them from bearing witness together to God’s gift of salvation in Christ. “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Corinthians 1:10).
As Evangelicals we thank God for the heritage of the Reformation and affirm with conviction its classic confessions, as Catholics who are conscientiously faithful to the teaching of the Catholic Church, and as disciples together of the Lord Jesus Christ who recognize our debt to our Christian forebears and our obligations to our contemporaries and those who will come after us, we affirm our unity in the gospel that we have here professed. In our continuing discussions, we seek no unity other than unity in the truth. Only unity in the truth can be pleasing to the Lord and Saviour whom we together serve, for He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
Here any Reformed reader cannot but see weaknesses in formulation, and the dangers of opening the door to compromises, even though the stated intention is not to compromise the truth. Where are the gaps?
This statement is weak on a clear statement concerning the counsel and decree of God. Can we say that our mission mandate is “evangelizing everyone everywhere?” Here we have the tone of Rome, but one which differs markedly from the Canons of Dort. For although Dort acknowledges a universal proclamation of the gospel, this cannot be done without the recognition of God’s own discrimination, that is, all “to whom God in His good pleasure sends the gospel.” If one truly confesses that salvation is entirely a gift of God, he must at the same time confess that it has pleased God to give it to some, but to withhold it from others (Canons of Dort I/6 and I/8). That is the depth and essence of the sola gratia and sola fide. In other words, the statement betrays a latent universalism, rather than holding to the universal truth of the gospel. To be sure, we must live the gospel before “everyone everywhere,” but the sheer magnitude of the task precludes that everyone conceivably could be reached, much less will be reached.
A similar comment applies to the statement on religious freedom. It is questionable that this freedom can be grounded in “the dignity of the human person created in the image of God.” Why not ground this freedom in Jesus Christ, who has received all power and authority in heaven and earth, and who also governs the lives of leaders, rulers, and presidents called to maintain order and promote the common good? I mention this because we cannot (in a rather simplistic mentality) defend religious freedom with a carte blanche. We defend religious freedom, but always within the limits of public morality and in the confines of obedience to the law in all other areas.
Then we have the issues of worship and the “interrelated questions” that require further study and exploration. Included here are terms such as “sacramental grace” and “Marian devotion,” “purgatory” and “indulgences.” Who cannot but think here of what Calvin wrote to Philipp Melanchthon:
Truly if I have any understanding in divine things, you ought not to have made such large concessions to the papists; partly because you have loosed what the Lord has bound in His word, and partly because you have afforded occasion for bringing insult on the gospel ... In our day indeed the enemy has not troubled us about circumcision, but that they may not leave us anything pure, they are tainting both doctrine and every exercise of worship with their putrid leaven.1
You can take away with the one hand what you have given with the other. One can, after a clear expression of the sola fide, still end up short changing the gospel by limiting the sola gratia and sola Christo. That will not do. The differences mentioned in the statement are more than internal congregational disputes which can be neatly covered with a reference to 1 Corinthians 1:10.
So our final assessment is: very mixed feelings. We have in the statement the looming danger of moving one step forward but two steps back. Melanchthon’s own disappointments should be a warning for us today! Unity in the truth implies more than just holding out one central doctrine. We need to set forth the entire doctrine of salvation and insist that, although there are indifferent matters regarding practice and worship, the entire doctrine of salvation must be maintained and confessed in order for the unity to be one in the truth, and a lasting reality.
The “Gift of Salvation” gives us a strong basis for unity on one point, (justification) but this is joined with weak supporting structures on others (mission, sanctification, glorification). At the end of the day, if these matters are not adequately tackled, this unity too will suffer the shipwreck of appealing too much to human ingenuity rather than divine obligation.