Evangelicals and Catholics Together: An Evaluation/Part 6
|By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2004|
|Are we saved “once for all” or is it a continuing process? Are there different ways of being a Christian?|
Evangelicals and Catholics Together: An Evaluation—Part 6
Among the many paradoxes found in the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” document is this one: “We are bound together in contending against all that opposes Christ and his cause.” But what if Roman Catholicism opposes the gospel? Does this mean Protestants should oppose them? And from the Catholic point of view, are Protestants still anathematized for holding to justification by faith alone?
After reading all of the ambiguous statements in this agreement, one of the most striking declarations is found under the section “The Mutual Affirmation of Witnessing About Christ.” There we find this classic statement:
- The achievement of goodwill and cooperation between Evangelicals and Catholics must not be at the price of the urgency and clarity of the Christian witness to the Gospel[!]
The participants in this agreement take some very strong stands concerning “proselytization,” or what it calls “sheep stealing”:
- Today, in this country and elsewhere, Evangelicals and Catholics attempt to win “converts” from one another’s folds…. In many instances, however, such efforts at recruitment undermine the Christian mission….
- It is understandable that Christians who bear witness to the Gospel try to persuade others that their communities and traditions are more fully in accord with the Gospel. There is a necessary distinction between evangelizing and what is today commonly called proselytizing or “sheep stealing.” We condemn the practice of recruiting people from another community for purposes of denominational or institutional aggrandizement. At the same time, our commitment to full religious freedom compels us to defend the legal freedom to proselytize even as we call upon Christians to refrain from such activity.
The Oxford American Dictionary (1986) defines “proselytization” as “to try to convert people to one’s beliefs or opinions.” So isn’t the point of giving the gospel to those in a false religion to try and convert them, to try and rescue them from false teaching and opinions?
Then why would preaching the gospel to those who do not hold to the gospel undermine the Christian mission? Isn’t this the very heart of the Christian mission and how Protestants have viewed Catholics who still need to hear about true grace (Ephesians 2:8,9)?
Further, when the report talks about persuading others that their traditions are “more fully in accord with the gospel,” what does this mean? Are we to take this to mean that there are now degrees of being in accordance with the gospel?
If someone is 50 percent in agreement with the gospel, is that enough agreement to make him in accord with the gospel? What about 45 percent? 30 percent? 20 percent? 10 percent? Will someone who is only 10 percent in accord with the gospel undermine this unity?
Scripture tells us what the gospel is—not what 20 percent, 50 percent, or 90 percent is, but what 100 percent of the gospel is.
It’s not how close a person gets to the gospel, as if somewhere along the line he gets close enough to be constituted a Christian. Rather, biblically a person is either in accord with the gospel or he is not (Romans 11:6).
Is Conversion a Continuing Process?
The report also discusses the importance of conversion. It cites the Baptist/Roman Catholic International Conversation (1988) as setting forth an agreeable definition of “conversion.” That definition reads as follows:
- Conversion is a passing from one way of life to another new one, marked with the newness of Christ. It is a continuing process so that the whole life of a Christian should be a passage from death to life, from error to truth, from sin to grace…. We seek and pray for the conversion of others, even as we recognize our own need to be fully converted.
This is another example of the equivocation found in the statements of this document. All knowledgeable people know that Catholics and Evangelicals mean something different when they say that “conversion is a continuous process.”
For Evangelicals, conversion is only a continuing process when it refers to sanctification, our growth in holiness. As more commonly understood, conversion is the point at which salvation occurs. According to John 5:24, when a person believes, he has already passed “from death to life, from error to truth, and from sin to grace.” In other words, conversion has already taken place. Again, for Evangelicals conversion happens the moment a person believes. At that moment he is forgiven and eternally saved. But from that moment of justification springs sanctification, which is a lifelong, progressive spiritual growth.
On the other hand, for Roman Catholics sanctification begins the process of holy living and continues throughout life in order to attain God’s final justification. This is a teaching that no Evangelical familiar with biblical truth can accept.
When Catholicism refers to conversion as a continuing process, it also incorporates works done by the person in the power of Christ, and it states it is necessary for the Catholic to do these to attain ultimate salvation. That is why Protestants see Catholicism as teaching faith and works.
The surprising thing is that those who signed the report claimed to agree on the above statement concerning conversion. But is it right to make people think that agreement exists when it really doesn’t? If there really was agreement, why didn’t the signers tell us how they reconciled the historical disputes over the nature of conversion?
Different Ways of Being Christian?
The paper next argues, “There are different forms that authentic discipleship can take…. There are different ways of being Christian.”
What does it mean to say there are “different forms” and “different ways of being Christian”? Is it now valid for Catholics and Evangelicals to both accept that there are either two or seven sacraments? Catholic tradition or Scripture alone? Does it matter whether one venerates Mary and the saints or believes it is wrong? Can we hold to both justification by faith alone and justification by faith and works? Is regeneration both something that occurs at a point in time and a continuing process begun in baptism?
If there are different ways of being Christian, are there different ways of gaining salvation? If so, what religions around the world should we exclude as being illegitimate ways of salvation and on what basis?
Some might argue that perhaps all that the authors of the agreement meant was that once a person becomes a Christian, there are different churches, there are different ways of serving Christ and showing one belongs to Him. Obviously, we agree—if that is what they mean. But then why did they place these words in the section on conversion? Further, why do most of the statements in this section divulge a Catholic sense of conversion? For example, “We seek and pray for the conversion of others, even as we recognize our own continuing need to be fully converted.” Also, “Conversion is… a continuing process so that the whole life of a Christian should be a passage from death to life.”
By defining “conversion” in an ambiguous way, it almost seems to convey the fact that the authors agreed that either the Evangelical or Catholic interpretation of conversion is acceptable. Is this what they mean by saying, “There are different ways of being Christian”?
- “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. 11.
- Ibid., pp. 20, 22.
- Ibid., p. 21.
- Ibid., pp. 21-22.
- Ibid., p. 21.