Witnessing to Roman Catholics
1. The Roman Catholic in focus
Roman Catholics differ a great deal from one another. The Roman Catholic Church is quite different in Ireland from what it is in Holland or the U.S.A. But in spite of these differences there is a specific kind of religious tension in most Roman Catholics: The typical Roman Catholic is unsure of grace.
This may come as a surprise to some. Traditional Roman Catholicism has been given over almost entirely to structuring, rationalizing, and preparing for grace. This is what Thomas Aquinas is all about.
But there are two reasons why this is so, and they are closely related.
First, there is a strong strain of legalism in Roman Catholic thought and practice. According to this theological system, Christ's death removes the guilt and corruption of original sin for those baptized; but this 'first justification' must be followed by a 'second justification' based upon deeds of love and mortification of the flesh. Inevitably, this leaves the devout soul filled with questions: Have I done enough? When I did that deed of love, what was my real motive? How can I know whether God approves of my way of living?
Second, salvation is understood as the descent of a higher reality. It is not that Roman Catholic teaching completely overlooks the juridical aspect in salvation. Its theology has a limited place for the merits of Christ resulting from his faithful keeping of God's law and from his sacrificial death to atone for man's guilt.
But this is mixed in with the mystical notion that, in Roman Catholic worship, there is a higher reality coming down. This divine presence is especially manifested in the sacrifice of the Mass. On this basis redemption of the individual sinner involves not simply the forgiveness of sins, but God's coming down and lifting up the sinner to partake of the divine nature.
Thus salvation for Catholics is not only redemption from the curse of the law, but also and more centrally a deliverance from the physical, the material, and the mundane. Salvation is as much mystical and metaphysical as ethical.
Because of this legalism and mysticism, the sincere Roman Catholic is not at all sure of grace. In spite of the authoritarian claims of the Roman Church, the individual worshipper is given little solid basis for thinking all is well with his soul. How does he know whether he has obeyed God from the heart? How can he be sure that some day his flesh will not break forth and negate the power of the higher reality in his heart and life?
Hope in a shaken authority
Recent developments within the Roman Catholic Church have acted to heighten this tension. In the past, the devout could always say, 'Yes, I have doubts about my spiritual state. But I am sure I am a member of Christ's own Church. Though I lack personal assurance of salvation, I know that salvation is found within the priesthood and sacraments of the one holy universal and apostolic Church.'
Today this external source of authority is in deep trouble. Recently Hans Kung has directly challenged the infallibility of the Pope. Before this, theologians like Leslie Dewart (The Future of Belief) and Edward Schillebeeckx (God, the Future of Man) had moved away from the traditional foundations. In Holland a whole national church has become rife with theological modernism.
Thus some Roman Catholics, like Michael Novak (Belief and Unbelief), have come to wonder if there is any God or grace at all. Catholic novelist Graham Greene gives the problem fictional expression in his book, The Heart of the Matter. At the close of the novel, Father Rank and Mrs Scobie are discussing her husband's suicide. Father Rank says:
For goodness sake, Mrs Scobie, don't imagine you — or I — know a thing about God's mercy.
The Church says...
I know the Church says. The Church knows all the rules. But it doesn't know what goes on in a single human heart.'
The truth is that security for the typical Roman Catholic was never grounded in a first-hand knowledge of God through Christ. Rather, his hope was in an infallible Church and now this basis for assurance has been thoroughly shaken. It is no longer adequate to state that 'the Church says'.
2. Preparation for witness
During this crisis over religious authority, our primary task is to introduce Roman Catholics to Jesus Christ, the source of true assurance. In the past, many Protestants sought to win Roman Catholics by pointing out real or imagined abuses in the life of the Church of Rome. There may well be a place for discussing the failings of the Roman Church; but this can hardly be the central issue. Protestants who criticize practices in Catholicism must take great care to represent things as they really are. It has been a common sin of Protestants to spread falsehoods about the character and conduct of priests and nuns.
It is much better to stick to the central issue. That central issue is simply the biblical teaching about the nature of grace. In summary, grace is the free gift of God. Grace means that we cannot find eternal life in ourselves, that we have no power to ready ourselves for God's forgiveness, that we can in no way co-operate in our own salvation. We must go outside ourselves in surrendered faith to Christ and to Christ alone. Grace also means that through faith we can come to a personal knowledge of God and his Son, without the mediation of priests or religious ceremonies.
It should be clear what this means for our witness. The biblical doctrine of grace implies that sinners can have a first-hand knowledge of God. This is what we want for every man, Roman Catholic or otherwise. But it is absolutely essential that you, who wish to witness, have first tasted of the grace of God. Otherwise you are a contradiction in terms, an apologist for grace who knows nothing of the life and power of divine grace.
Defective 'Protestant' legalists
Many Protestants are sadly deficient in this respect. Their knowledge of God is no more first-hand than that of the Roman Catholic who mixes works with grace. Their minister or other Christian leader is their priest; and in spite of formal adherence to the doctrines of grace, they are legalists at heart, trusting their own faithfulness, religious service, or suffering to keep things right with God. Because Roman Catholicism is permeated with the spirit of legalism, such 'Protestants' can offer only peripheral criticism, not living bread they have tasted personally.
A former Roman Catholic priest is said to have put the matter like this:
When I was in the Roman Catholic Church, everything was done to minimize my sinfulness, to keep me from discovering that I was a sinner. It left me frustrated because only sinners can find grace. With joy I became a Protestant; now I could be what I was in reality, a sinner in need of grace.'
But I was greatly disappointed by Protestants — including the most orthodox in confession. The Protestant creeds portray man as a sinner; but I found that in practice everything was done in Protestant churches to keep me from seeing myself as a sinner.'
What this ex-priest knew was that only transgressors can be forgiven. The reason is that only the man who knows he is a sinner wants forgiveness or can have a first-hand experience of God's forgiving grace. The paradox is that it is only sinners freed of their guilt who, in joy over the revelation of God's forgiving grace, are eager to teach transgressors the way of the Lord (Psalm 51:12,13).
Only a sinner is saved by grace
This is not to be construed as saying that men should sin that grace may abound. The fact is that sin abounds in every man's life until he comes to Christ. But the spirit of blindness within him leads to self-deception (Jeremiah 17:9) and to self-righteousness (Isaiah 65:6; Luke 18:9-12). And the (self-)righteous do not need the mercy of the Physician (Luke 5:31-32).
Martin Luther's experience powerfully illuminates this truth. A monk of the Augustinian order, he was a devout man who gave the Roman system of salvation his whole heart, mind and soul. But the system left him suspended, up in the air with no place to set his feet.
From the teachings of the Church he learned he was a partial sinner, a sinner up to a point. But the matter was not so serious that it could not be remedied by strict use of the system of penance and the Mass. Luther was told he was sick, but that his wounds were not fatal. Confess, pray, do penance, and all will be well — at least as well as they can be.
But honest Martin's heart could not be satisfied. The harder he tried to satisfy the demands of conscience and God's law the farther he found himself cut off from God and God's grace.
Then, trembling under the awareness of the wrath of God, the stricken monk came to see that his wound was fatal. He cast himself entirely upon the mercy of the Great Physician — and was forgiven by free grace. He became a sinner, a saved sinner, a sinner who knew unutterable joy. He knew forgiveness; he knew God. Because of the righteousness of Christ imputed to him and received by faith alone, Martin Luther had heaven and eternal life as a free and present gift.
As an inevitable consequence, his joy overflowed to others, bringing about multiplied conversions: 'Dear Christians', he sings, 'let us now rejoice and dance in joyous measure!' And it is this kind of joyous knowledge of God that qualifies one to witness to Roman Catholics. Be sure you have it, for without drinking of Christ the fountainhead, you have no business going forth with the Word of God to others.
3. Confrontation with the gospel
It follows then that the only way to go with the gospel to Roman Catholics is with humility and holy joy. Let the knowledge of your own utter unworthiness compel you to humble yourself before God and man, and lead you to confess that only the Lamb of God could have saved you. Let this consciousness determine your acting and speaking, because only this accords with the nature of the gospel message. Guard your soul so that you are not proudly and unwittingly resting in your conversion experience rather than in Christ for salvation and for power in witnessing. Do not permit your integrity to be flawed by a secret return to a works-righteousness, for trust in a conversion experience can be just that.
Therefore, the first step in confronting the Roman Catholic with the gospel involves your total reliance upon Christ through his Holy Spirit. Anything less than this is hypocrisy; and your Roman Catholic friend may have a good nose for the smell of hypocrisy! He comes from an old church, and old churches have a long exposure to the corruptions of the flesh and spirit. So, beware! He may have insight into you that you wish he didn't have.
To put the matter positively: You want your whole life to be a demonstration of the transforming power of Christ. To use the language of Galatians, justification by faith is virtually synonymous with sonship to God and being possessed by the Holy Spirit. This means that the inevitable consequence of faith is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). So, have your Roman Catholic neighbour into your home for dinner, and let him see how you love your wife and children. Let your Christian graciousness, the product of God's grace to you, overflow in hospitality and concern for him and his problems.
The second step is to introduce him to the law of God as set forth in the Ten Commandments and interpreted by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. This is very important. Under the Roman system, the idea of sin is sadly confused by the distinctions between mortal and venial sins, by Church rules on such matters as birth control, and by the doctrine of penance. The average Roman Catholic will not see much need of Christ because he is so little aware of sin's being rooted in the depths of his heart, but yet exposed to the wrath of a holy God.
Sin must be seen in the heart
For example: A neighbour, in a burning anger, threatened to knife her daughter. Happily the mother calmed down without executing her threat. But she was terribly conscience-stricken and went to the priest for guidance. Since she had not carried out her intentions, she was only required to say a few extra prayers and warned to watch her temper. The priest apparently did little to inquire about the state of the poor woman's heart before God. Even though her hand struck no blow, there was a murderous intensity in her anger that alarmed the neighbours. But under the Roman Catholic system, it was easy to classify her sin as venial and to forget the whole thing.
The Roman Catholic thus tends to evaluate sin in terms of the religious value-system of his Church. Sin, on this basis, consists primarily in actions. It might be unfair to say that the inner life is entirely ignored; but it remains true that most sins laid bare in the confessional are act-sins, not attitude-sins. Consequently, guilt is minimized by ignoring its root in man's inner character; and the nature of sin as rebellion against a holy God is also minimized.
In other words, 'sin' often is not seen as an affront to a holy Father, but as a breach of a legalistic code. It can then be made right by a minimal restitution prescribed in the ecclesiastical system of satisfaction. Such a light view of sin makes biblical repentance superfluous. Penance now and purgatory later will suffice to make things right with God.
The effect of all this is to leave the Roman Catholic guilt-ridden but not consciously guilty in the profound biblical sense. Hence he must be shown God's own view of the origins of sin in the human heart (Matthew 15:19; Jeremiah 17:9; Ephesians 4:17-19), and the biblical rejection of the concept of venial sin (James 2:10).
Christ, and Christ alone can save
The third step is to present the Roman Catholic with the Scripture teaching about Christ. Do not misunderstand; these steps are not to be pursued mechanically. Under certain circumstances you should begin with Christ. And there is no better way to demonstrate the exceeding sinfulness of sin than by preaching on the cross. Still, your friend needs to know about the depths of men's moral sickness before he will be constrained to apply to the Lord for healing. For this reason it is valuable to present the biblical Christology after some discussion of the doctrine of sin.
You will find the word 'Christ' as familiar to the Roman Catholic as the word 'sin'. You will also find the typical Roman Catholic considerably confused about Christ's person and work. If you ask him if he believes that Christ is the eternal Son of God who died for sinners, he is very likely to agree with you. If he is devout, he may even call him 'Our blessed Lord' and mean what he says. But this does not guarantee that he has a personal knowledge of Christ any more than a similar confession would necessarily reflect genuine faith in an outwardly orthodox Protestant. It is one thing to say, but quite another thing to know that Christ died for my sins.
The problem is this: the Roman Catholic lives under a religious system so arranged that the exclusiveness of salvation through Christ alone is obscured. Yes, 'salvation is through Christ' — but there is no period after Christ. It is always Christ and ... Christ and penance, Christ and the priest, Christ and Mary, Christ and my good works.
It is not simply that this approach contradicts Scripture in a merely formal sense. It certainly does that. You need only to read Romans 3 or Galatians 2 in order to see that this is so. But it creates a major obstacle to saving faith. For saving faith consists in resting in Christ alone for salvation. To rest in man and his works is to render grace null and void in one's life (Galatians 2:21).
The manipulated Christ of the Mass
The Roman Catholic is likely to identify Christ with the liturgy of his Church, especially with the Mass. In effect, the priest holds 'God' in his hands as he celebrates Mass. And the typical Catholic may well be profoundly awed by the mystical power of this rite. In a word, he may for all practical purposes see Christ in the Mass. Or, if he is more thoroughly instructed in the theology of Rome, he may believe that the Roman Church is a continuing incarnation of the body of Christ. For the Roman Catholic, faith in Christ is faith in a religious ceremony or in the Church itself.
The power of this liturgy can hardly be exaggerated. One Roman Catholic expressed it this way: 'The Mass has a binding power over your whole being. The only thing I can compare it with is the act of sexual intercourse, with all its mystery and power.' But the biblical witness is not powerless in the face of such a religious system with its mystical Christ. On the contrary, let the witnessing believer be absolutely confident of the power of the Scripture's Christ to destroy the 'mystical Christ's' of men. Let him take the Roman Catholic to books like Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews where Christ is set forth in all his sufficiency and glory.
The fourth step concerns instruction in the nature of saving faith. This has been implicit at every point; but now it needs to be made explicit.
Saving faith consists in accepting, receiving, and resting in Christ alone for salvation, and in turning away from human merit as a ground for acceptance with God. What needs emphasis for the Roman Catholic is the central element of trust based upon personal knowledge of God. He may well think of faith in intellectual terms, the acceptance of the teaching of his Church on a package basis. He has 'faith' in the things believed by the Church. What he really means by 'faith' is not so much trust but acceptance of the dogma of the Roman Church.
The Roman Catholic, like everyone else, needs to be shown through Scripture that faith has for its centre a surrender in trust to Jesus Christ as the only Mediator of God's elect.
An effective way to pose the question of justification by faith is to ask the Roman Catholic: 'How will you answer, when you die and appear before the holy God, if he asks you why he should let you into his heaven?' Of course, this may recall the jokes about St Peter and the pearly gates. But you need let nothing of that tone or spirit slip into your speaking if you are walking in the Spirit.
This question can be effective with Roman Catholics. First, it bypasses the whole issue of purgatory and confronts the sinner with the living God as the Judge of all. Second, it lets you know exactly what the other man believes on the issue of eternal life, and how he expects to obtain it. He will not be simply repeating what you have just taught him. If you wait or even rephrase the question, you will almost certainly learn that he hopes to be saved by a combination of divine mercy and human works.
Then you can bring to bear upon him the wonder of salvation, full and free, by grace through faith in the one Name given among men by which we may be saved.
4. Special problems
There are a number of special problems you should be alert to while presenting the gospel to Roman Catholics.
The substitute priest danger
You must take care that you are not being made into the man's new priest. Large numbers of Protestants use their pastors or other Christian leaders as mediators to God. But with Roman Catholics this can be an even more difficult problem because they often have an inherent respect for religious people. When they see the fruit of the Spirit abounding, they frequently seem prone to worship the messenger rather than the God who sent him forth. Such adulation can be most flattering to the flesh. So, beware! You can become the man's exit so that he does not need to face the living God. Of course, the most effective way to cope with this challenge is to make it very clear that you yourself are only a sinner saved by grace!
The difficulty of true repenting
It is difficult for many Roman Catholics to understand the biblical teaching about 'repentance to life' (Acts 11:18). In their experience they have learned to 'deal' with sins by doing penance. The emphasis falls upon the doing, and for almost every sin they have learned to expect a formula to guide them in doing something to get the matter straightened out.
The Roman Catholic is fully prepared to work, confess, sorrow, and suffer. But it is possible to do all these things and miss the point of divine grace rather badly. Genuine repentance involves a radically different kind of doing. True repentance centres on our giving up all that we have been doing. It means, simply, that we are undone and know it (Isaiah 6:5; Luke 18:13).
Repentance thus includes grieving over sins, seeing them as God sees them, and turning from them in a total way to seek and serve the living God. This is the exact opposite of doing a good work, of attempting to satisfy the demands of conscience by self-laceration in any form. Such repentance beautifully harmonizes with saving faith. The two together make up one act, a turning from sin and self-trust by going outside of the man and a turning to God and his Christ for the promised salvation.
The error of the Mass
If the Roman Catholic has truly come to know Christ, it is likely that he will soon see that this knowledge is in conflict with the Mass. Still, the Mass almost always poses a serious problem because of its mystical and emotional power. The Mass is the centrepiece for the Roman Church's worship. I suspect it would be possible to preach to a Roman Catholic congregation most of the things said so far in this study, and change very little so long as the Mass remained central.
What you must bring out, in tact and meekness, is the fundamental error of the Mass. And that consists in its blurring of the biblical distinction between the Creator and the creature through the worship of the material elements of the rite. This is most serious, because God's law strictly forbids the giving of divine honours to any created thing (Exodus 20:5).
To be sure, the apologists of the Roman Church maintain that there is not the slightest intention on the part of the Church to practice idolatry. And very refined distinctions are drawn between worship (latreia) given only to God, devotion (douleia) to the saints, which is further subdivided into ordinary devotion (douleia) given to saints and special devotion (hyperdouleia) given to Christ's human nature and to Mary. (See Oehler, Symbolik, p 331).
Although we should accept the Roman Catholic statement that there is no intention to practice idolatry, this does not prove that idolatry is not being practised. Scripture knows nothing of these subtle distinctions regarding worship. It is true that in Scripture honour may rightly be given to a man, but not religious honours given in a worship service. Hence, we insist that adoration of the physical elements in the Mass is part of the worship, and that these material elements are part of the creation. But created things may not be worshipped in any way or manner whatsoever.
Ambiguities and ambivalences
You should be alert to the ambiguities and ambivalences in many modern Roman Catholics. I can remember talking with a Panamanian student for over two hours. During the whole time he vigorously defended the Roman Catholic doctrinal system and the practises of the Church. He did so with enough personal feeling to leave me completely speechless when, as he was going out of the door, he suddenly confided that he did not believe anything he had said. 'Personally', he explained, 'I am an unbeliever. I was just telling you what the Church believes'. But I also noticed that soon after he began again to worship in the Roman Catholic Church. Part of the reason for this is the age-old tension in Roman Catholic theology between faith and reason, grace and nature. Reason has a way of wiping out faith until a life crisis comes; then the claims of revelation as interpreted by the Papacy have a way of reasserting themselves in the life of the Roman Catholic.
Another reason for such ambiguities in the typical modern Catholic is the way many Roman Catholics received their religious convictions. Doubtless there is considerable variation, but as a rule they seem to have been largely passive in the process of instruction. They respect the authority of Church and priest because they have been told many times that theirs is the true Church and that the Pope is successor to St Peter. In other words, the Roman Church has made a deep impression upon these reared in its communion, but it is often an impression based upon repetition of doctrinal concepts over a period of years. Nevertheless, this kind of religious authority is obviously no match for the God-given authority of the Holy Scriptures.
At present Roman Catholic authority is in deep trouble, and Roman Catholics are often open to listening to the doctrines of salvation by free grace. Accordingly, there is reason to believe that in our day Christ, the only infallible Head of his church, will be pleased to graft into his own body many who previously had trusted in human forms of mediation between God and man.
No matter how often and how loudly the voice of human authority speaks, it cannot expose the inner world of the human heart, nor call the sinner out of darkness into the marvellous light shed by divine grace. But Scripture, as it is applied by the Spirit of Christ, can do this very thing (Hebrews 4:12).