Evangelicals and Catholics Together: An Evaluation/Part 3
|By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2004|
|Are Catholics and Evangelicals “brothers and sisters in Christ”? What does the Bible say about how someone gets “in Christ”? Are Catholics taught the same thing, or is Catholic understanding of salvation different? The authors comment.|
Evangelicals and Catholics Together: An Evaluation—Part 3
What Is the Basis of the New Unity?
The basis of the new unity proclaimed by the leaders who signed the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” report can be found in numerous statements scattered throughout their document. In essence, the new unity is said to be based on the familiar biblical phrase “in Christ.” The agreement states:
- Evangelicals and Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ.
- However difficult the way, we recognize that we are called by God to a fuller realization of our unity in the body of Christ.
- We do know that God who has brought us into communion with Himself through Christ intended that we also be in communion with one another.
We agree that all who accept Christ as Lord and Savior are brothers and sisters in Christ. But this begs the question, “How does a person get in Christ?” Because the document does not tell us this, we disagree with the assumption that both Evangelicals and Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ.
Historically, Evangelicals have held that the only way a person gets in Christ is by admitting that he is a sinner and placing his total trust in Christ’s atoning work for him. If he does not do this, he is not in Christ and, therefore, not a genuine Christian. So this little phrase is crucial to understanding this issue.
In the Bible, the apostle Paul always used the phrase “in Christ” to designate genuine Christians. He never once used the phrase to designate non-Christians.
- Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come (2 Corinthians 5:17 NASB, emphasis added).
- Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus (Romans 16:3 NASB, emphasis added).
- To the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:1, emphasis added).
- And I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea which were in Christ (Galatians 1:22 NASB, emphasis added).
When these people are designated to be “in Christ,” this is an important designation to the apostle Paul. It is so important that he leaves no ambiguity whatever about how a person gets to be “in Christ.” He goes to great lengths to show that it is not by sacraments or by works of any kind. It is not by accepting simultaneously two different paths of salvation. It is only by faith in Jesus Christ.
- For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23 NASB).
- He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy (Titus 3:5).
- Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses (Acts 13:38,39).
- For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10 NASB).
So how can Roman Catholics be considered “in Christ” if they continue to deny the only basis for coming to be in Christ—justification by grace through faith alone? Those who signed this document do not tell us. They just start from the false premise that all Catholics are “in Christ.”
The agreement claims that the Evangelical Protestants and Catholics have been led “through prayer, study, and discussion to common convictions about Christian faith and mission.”
They commend their joint declaration to the prayerful consideration of Christians everywhere, including “the Eastern Orthodox and those Protestants not commonly identified as Evangelical,” all of whom they claim “are encompassed in the prayer [of Jesus], ‘May they all be one.’”
But is this sentiment biblically accurate? The first thing that should be noted about Jesus’ prayer for Christian unity in John 17 is that this unity is based on Jesus’ assumption that those united to Him have already experienced regeneration or spiritual rebirth (John 3:3). He also clearly states this unity is based on the truth of Scripture:
- I manifested Thy name to the men whom Thou gavest Me out of the world; Thine they were, and Thou gavest them to Me, and they have kept Thy word…. Sanctify them in the truth; Thy word is truth…. And for their sakes sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth. I do not ask in behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one (John 17:6,17,19-21 NASB).
When Jesus referred to those “whom Thou gavest Me out of the world” He was referring to all believers that the Father had given to Him for salvation. In His prayer to the Father He spoke of those God had given Him: “To all whom Thou has given Him, He may give eternal life. And this is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:2,3 NASB).
In Ephesians chapter 2 the apostle Paul also refers to the unity of believers and that, whether they are Jew or Gentile, they are made into one body in Christ Jesus. This occurs as a result of our belief in what He did at the cross:
- But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off [the Gentiles] have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity…. For through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father (Ephesians 2:13-18 NASB).
In the above verses the apostle Paul makes clear that he is referring to those who are in Christ Jesus. He also says that it is Christ who is “our peace,” who has reconciled all believers into a unity by abolishing “the Law of commandments.”
Again, here it is clear that true unity between people is to be based on their belief in Christ’s substitutionary death. If one group claims that salvation is to be maintained by keeping the commandments, then there is no possible way for a Christian group to have unity with them.
Finally, Paul says that it is through Christ that every believer has access “in one Spirit to the Father.” In other words, only those who come to God through Christ and accept what He did for them on the cross can participate in Christ’s unity and have access to the Father through the Holy Spirit.
Later, in Ephesians 4:13, Paul refers to all true believers attaining “to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ” (NASB). Here the unity of the faith is based on proper knowledge of the Son of God and the fullness of what Christ has done for us.
Nowhere in the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” statement do we hear from the Evangelicals’ side how Roman Catholics (those that Evangelicals have historically defined as being “outside of Christ” and therefore as not participating in Christian unity) have now suddenly become biblically qualified to partake of that unity.
The apostle Paul never told the young Christians in his churches to unite in harmony with the Judaizers—even though the Judaizers also believed in the one true God, the deity of Christ, the inspiration of the Scriptures, and going to church. Why such a harsh stance? Because, in spite of believing all these good things, the Judaizers taught a different gospel and therefore were not “in Christ.”
The report goes on to state, “As Evangelicals and Catholics, we dare not by needless and loveless conflict between ourselves give aid and comfort to the enemies of the cause of Christ.” The question is, “Are those who wrote this document equating ‘needless conflict’ with disputes over the definition of what the gospel is?” Isn’t it true historically that the very center of all “our communal and ecclesial separations [which] are deep and long standing” has been the Protestant and Catholic disagreement over the gospel?
If so, one then wonders if the Evangelicals who signed this document would consider saying to Luther that the Reformation was a “needless conflict.” Hopefully not. Why? Because the Reformation went to the heart of what the gospel message was.
In fact, in Scripture itself we are told that the gospel will precipitate conflict and that the gospel by its very nature is offensive to some and divisive to others (Matthew 10:22; John 15:18; 17:14; Romans 9:33; Galatians 5:11).
So biblically can it be maintained that Catholics and Evangelicals are part of the body of Christ while disagreeing on the gospel message itself? Is there any way to avoid conflict as long as this disagreement exists? The apostle Paul gives an emphatic “No” to this question in writing to the Galatians who were dealing with this same problem.
- I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is realty no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! (Galatians 1:6-8).
- This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? (Galatians 3:2 NASB).
- Behold, I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you (Galatians 5:2 NASB).
- You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace (Galatians 5:4 NASB).
- I have confidence in you in the Lord, that you will adopt no other view; but the one who is disturbing you shall bear his judgment, whoever he is (Galatians 5:10 NASB).
The declaration states:
- The love of Christ compels us and we are therefore… resolved … to explore patterns of working and witnessing together in order to advance the one mission of Christ.
- Without ignoring conflicts between and within other Christian communities, we address ourselves to the relationship between Evangelicals and Catholics who constitute the growing edge of missionary expansion at present and, most likely, in the century ahead.
- The mission that we embrace together is the necessary consequence of the faith that we affirm together.
But this raises the questions, “What exactly is the one mission that Catholics and Evangelicals are to embrace? Can it be truthfully said that we are witnessing together if both parties disagree on the basic gospel message which is to be proclaimed?”
Those who signed this agreement do not answer these questions, though they seem to be aware of the importance of the issues since they state, “We reject any appearance of harmony [or unity] that is purchased at the price of truth.”
But aren’t statements about Christian unity, witnessing together, and advancing the one mission of Christ, when they are made without any biblical basis or explanation, projecting the appearance of harmony at the price of forfeiting truth?
Anyone who compares the gospel of Roman Catholicism with the gospel of Scripture must conclude that there can be no agreement between Evangelicals and Catholics. If Catholics now agree to doctrines they formerly rejected, then why didn’t this agreement document that?
- “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium,” published by Truth Ministries, P. O. Box 504M, Bay Shore, NY 11706, vol. 1, no. 10, April 1994, p. 5.
- Ibid., p. 8.
- Ibid., p. 1.
- Ibid., p. 2.
- Ibid., p. 4.
- Ibid., p. 4.
- Ibid., p. 3.
- Ibid., p. 4.