Protestants and Catholics: Do They Now Agree? – Program 3

By: Dr. John McArthur, Dr. R.C. Sproul, Dr. D. James Kennedy; ©1995
Should Evangelicals and Catholics refrain from evangelizing each other? Aren’t members of both equally true Christians?



Today on the John Ankerberg Show. Do Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants now agree? Catholics and Protestants have increasingly found themselves working together. Protesting against abortion, fighting pornography and guarding against the loss of religious freedoms in the courts. And now some of Evangelical Christianities most highly respected leaders have linked hands with Roman Catholics leaders in signing an accord, calling for full identification of Catholics and Evangelicals as brothers and sisters in Christ. And are uniting together in evangelism, mission and indefending the Christian world view. But is all of this possible Biblically?

My guests today who will answer these questions are: Dr. D. James Kennedy senior minister of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian church. Dr. John MacArthur, pastor of the Grace community Church, and Dr. R. C. Sproul, Chairman of Ligonier Ministries and Professor of systematic theology at the Reformed Theological Seminary.

Certain statements in the Evangelicals and CatholicsTogether document have become divisive, and raised genuine concerns over whether it clearly represents what Evangelicals believe. Today you will hear about a private meeting where Evangelicals met together to discuss these issues. At that meeting, our fellow Evangelicals who signed the ECT document were not willing to withdraw their names from it, nor revise it. But they were willing to write a brief statement of clarification. What was clarified? And can it be said the Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants now agree? We invite you to join us.


Ankerberg: Welcome. We’re here in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in this beautiful Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. My guests are Dr. D. James Kennedy, who is the pastor of this church; Dr. John MacArthur, and Dr. R. C. Sproul. Gentlemen, we’re glad that you’re here with us.
We’re talking about the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” document, as well as a new clarifying doctrinal statement that was just written by the Evangelical signees of this document. We had a private meeting with Chuck Colson and J. I. Packer and Bill Bright and we forged out this clarifying statement. But as I have told Chuck, we would talk about some of the things in the ECT document that we have felt, since we wrote a clear doctrinal statement to clarify some of the things that were in there, that there would be no way we could talk without sounding a little bit critical of that document simply because we felt there were things that did need to be clarified.
One of those things has to do with “sheep-stealing,” “proselytization,” that comes into the Great Commission. Jesus commanded every Christian to go into all the world and preach the Gospel. The ECT document, though, in talking about this area says, “the one Christ and one mission includes many other Christians, notably the Eastern Orthodox and those Protestants not commonly identified as evangelical.” And we assume that means liberal Protestants. All Christians are encompassed in the prayer: “May they all be one.”
Now, before we get on to the “sheep-stealing” and “proselytization,” I think that we wanted to stop right there, Dr. Kennedy, and we took exception to the assumption that all of these folks under these church titles were automatically Christians. Now, Chuck says, “That’s not what he intended!” He never intended to say that they were all Christians, but that’s the way a lot of people have interpreted it, including Dr. Carl Henry who said that as he looked at the mass media, that’s how they interpret it. Now, we clarified that, but let’s start at the beginning.
Do you assume that everybody that’s a member of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, an Evangelical church, or everybody that’s in a Roman Catholic Church, just because they are a member of a Catholic Church, or a liberal Protestant church, that all of these under these titles, that they are automatically true Christians?
Kennedy: I certainly don’t make any such assumption, John. In fact, I said from this pulpit right here that there are a number of members at my church that I would not want to be handcuffed to when they die. The ECT document says that all “active Roman Catholics” are “brothers and sisters in Christ” and therefore should not be evangelized. Well, I am certainly not ready to give up evangelizing active Presbyterians, much less active Roman Catholics or anybody else.
My wife, to use a very personal example, went to the Presbyterian church six times a week all of her life. She was a soloist. She was a choir member. She played the piano. She taught Sunday school. Her father was an elder. She was as active a Presbyterian as Paul was a Jew. And yet she was not saved. And I witnessed to her and someone else witnessed to her and finally she accepted Christ. And I can tell you this: my wife would be very happy to stand up here and tell this audience that she is very happy that I did not assume that all Presbyterians, active Presbyterians, were Christians.
I don’t assume anything about anyone and when we evangelize, we use diagnostic questions.
“Do you know you have eternal life? On what are you basing your hope? Why should God let you into Heaven if you were to die tonight?” So we find out. I don’t care what the label on the person’s back says, whether it says Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic or Muslim, if that person is not trusting in Jesus Christ alone for his salvation, that person, in my opinion, and I believe certainly in the historic opinion of all Protestants churches is not really a Christian and is desperately in need of hearing the Gospel and being saved. And we have, among the thousands of members of this church, thousands of them who have been active members of all kinds of churches, including Roman Catholics, who discovered years into their maturity, after 30, 40, 50 60 years of active service in this church or some other church that they really never understood the Gospel; they have never put their trust in Christ alone, and they had never experienced the saving power of the grace God which can not only declare us righteous in the sight of God, but it can change and transform our lives and make us new creatures and turn us around and start us off in a new direction and give us a joy and a purpose and a meaning in our life that we’ve never had before. And that is what I believe every Christian ought be doing, not checking to see the label in the coat before you decide to share the Gospel with them, but finding out, diagnostically, in whom are they trusting for their salvation. And that, I believe, is what the Great Commission commands everyone to do.

Ankerberg: Dr. Kennedy, I think you would be great on instructing Christians no how to witness, you know that?
Kennedy: I thought about starting that.
Ankerberg: John MacArthur, let me come to you, because I want to get to this thing of “sheep-stealing.” I’ve heard you preach on this and you’ve got some neat illustrations here. There is a necessary distinction,” ECT said, “between evangelizing and what is today commonly called proselytizing or sheep-stealing. We condemn the practice of recruiting people from another community”–Protestants from Catholics or Catholics from Protestants–“for purposes of denominational or institutional aggrandizement and we call upon Christians to refrain from such activities.” One more statement. It says, “In this country and elsewhere, Evangelicals and Catholics attempt to win converts from one another’s folds. Such efforts at recruitment,” ECT says, “undermines the Christian mission by which we are bound.” Talk to me.
MacArthur: That’s a frightening statement. And that little, sort of caveat in there about “for institutional aggrandizement” is meaningless, because they come right back and use the word “convert” people which is a distinctively spiritual term, not an organizational term.
Look, I got started as a pastor of a church, like Jim has seen, and my church is particularly filled with ex-Roman Catholics because of the large Hispanic community in southern California. And the most conservative figure that I could give you would be that 50 percent–the upper end would be 70 percent–of the entire membership of our church–and we probably have 10,000 people on a Sunday–50 to 70 percent of those people are converted Roman Catholics. Now, you’re talking about a massive amount of people who have had Roman Catholic influence. Every Sunday night in our church, every Sunday night of the year, we have baptism and when we have baptism, people stand there who are confessing Christ publicly and they give their testimony. There is not a Sunday night that goes by in my memory when there hasn’t been at least one, two, three and there will be anywhere from five to ten people on a Sunday night who say, “I was in the Catholic Church. I went through Catholic school. I grew up in that whole system. I never knew Christ. I never knew God. I was in a system. The Church is a surrogate Christ. The Church has all the authority. I sucked my life from the Church, from the system, but as far as a knowledge of Christ or the reality of the forgiveness of sin or the power of the Holy Spirit in my life, absolutely didn’t have any idea about that.” I’m talking from a pastoral standpoint. The Catholic Church, from my vantage point, is the single most fertile ground for evangelism that exists in this community in which I minister. These people know about Christ, they know about the Bible…

…they believe all that. What they don’t know about is how to become a Christian; how to be genuinely converted and saved. They don’t know that. And for somebody to try to back me off of that would be to bring me under the judgment of God! Because I am commanded to be faithful to the discharge of the Gospel to the ends of the earth and to every creature that I can reach.
And I think what that document did was just immediately with one sweep just sanctify or justify, whatever you want to say, all the Roman Catholics and say, “Hands off!” All the Protestants unloaded all their guns and said, “Oh, well, that’s good news. We don’t have to bother with those folks. We’ll just relabel them.” I mean, that’s the way the thing reads, and that’s what frightened me because people actually in my church came to me in tears saying they had read that thing and if somebody hadn’t given the Gospel to them, I mean, they would have never come to know the Lord Jesus Christ to that point. So I think it’s a tragic thing.
And I think as far as this “unity” thing goes, I need to add a footnote. I’m really kind of weary of this misinterpretation of John 17, where Jesus is praying that “they may be one,” that they may be one like, “Oh, please, I just really want you to do this. And I really hope it works out this way.” Listen. When Jesus prayed that “they may be one,” that prayer is fulfilled in the baptizing work of the Holy Spirit that takes every single believer and baptizes them into the one body. That is a fact, that’s not a wish. And they are one. But the ones that are one are he that is joined to the Lord is one spirit. So we can’t just say, “Oh, the Catholics, He wants them to be one with us, and He wants the Orthodox to be one, the liberals to be one, and He’s hoping we’ll all get together in an organizational way.” That’s not it. That prayer is fulfilled in the baptism of the Spirit.
Kennedy: John, Just a few weeks ago I was out on visitation and I ended up in a home where there were 17 people present. There was a mother of one of the adults there, an elderly woman from Brooklyn and she was a Roman Catholic. Now, these other people…there were some other people, other relatives there. They came from four or five different…five or six, maybe, different churches and backgrounds and I went around and asked them these questions. I asked them, all of them, each of them, one-by-one: “In what were they trusting for their hope of eternal life? Why should God admit them into Heaven?” And this woman before had said, Everybody had their own religion, their own views, they’re all different and she didn’t like this idea. Everybody had a different religion. They all ought to be one.
And it was fascinating to see that one after another after another, the person said, “The reason God should let me into Heaven is Christ died for my sins.” “Jesus paid for my sins.” “I have no hope but Christ.” “Christ is my Savior.” “I have no hope but Jesus.” And on and on it went and this woman said, “Because I’m good!”
But she was stunned by the fact that what she thought were all of these different churches in disunity, were all in perfect unity when it came to the essence of the Gospel.
And I like the statement that Paschal said. Paschal was a Roman Catholic, semi-Calvinistic Roman Catholic. Looked on a little strangely by the Vatican. But a great philosopher, scientist, and theologian. And he said, “In essentials: unity; in non-essentials: liberty; and in all things: charity,” the original meaning of that word meaning “love.” And I think there’s a lot to be said for that. And I think, as John has said, there is a unity of Christians, of true believers, and you can go anywhere in the world, as many of you have, and you’ll find a person is a true Christian and you have discovered a brother or sister in Christ, regardless of what denomination he’s in. If he really trusts in Christ, you have been joined together in one and you are one in Him.
Sproul: That gets, I think, John, to the crux of the matter. I think what Dr. Kennedy has just said gets to the heart of the concern of those who did sign ECT, as well as getting to the heart of the concern of those who would never sign ECT. And let me explain what I mean by that. Chuck Colson, Jim Packer, Bill Bright, they say, “We don’t embrace the system of doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. We acknowledge that there are long-standing things that divide us and that these matters are serious. But we want to affirm,” as the document did, “that everyone who accepts Christ as Lord and Savior is a brother and sister in Christ and that Catholics and Evangelicals are brothers and sisters in Christ, and what’s behind that, I believe, is a conviction that though there are serious divisions, historically, between Roman Catholicism and Evangelicalism, there is an agreement at the essential level of historic Christianity. For example, both communions affirm the Apostles’ Creed. All Evangelical confessions historically have reaffirmed the so-called ecumenical councils of Nicea, Chalcedon, etc., and we share a common catholicity in terms of essential things to the Christian faith like the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, the Atonement of Christ, the Resurrection of Christ–all of these doctrines that have been attacked by modern liberalism. You know, and at least the Roman Catholic communion has been heroic in defending the Deity of Christ, the Resurrection of Christ, the supernatural elements that the Protestant liberals have jettisoned. And so they say, “Hey, the Catholic Church has been heroic and faithful in holding to these essential truths.” And I say, “That’s right. Those are essential truths.”
The tragedy that breaks my heart is that I believe that justification by faith alone is an essential truth. And oh, that Rome would repent of her rejection of sola fide and be as heroic and consistent in reaffirming the Gospel of Jesus Christ as well as the Person of Jesus Christ, we wouldn’t have this problem. But what is the dispute here is the essential aspect of the work of Jesus Christ. And so I cannot sign ECT because I cannot recognize that we have a common faith and a common witness and a common ecclesiastical vision for the simple fact that we don’t agree on the Gospel. And that’s essential.
Ankerberg: Yes, and I think we need to say that on this area of sheep-stealing, proselytization and evangelism, we have two points in the new doctrinal statement that Chuck and J. I. and the Protestant signees have agreed to. But Dr. Kennedy, with a minute left, for people that, again, are listening. The Gospel is always “good news.” When you start to grasp it, it really grabs your soul. For the person that’s listening and saying, “Hey, don’t leave me hanging now. How do I get into this relationship with Jesus? Tell me more.”
Kennedy: God is holy and we are sinful. That’s the problem. And if that were all there were to the problem, God would solve it very simply: He would send us all to hell. But God is also loving, infinitely so. And because He loved us, He sent His own Son into the world and He imputed, or laid upon Jesus Christ, all of our guilt and sin and then, something which astounded me when I first learned it, as a Father, God poured out all of His wrath for sin upon His own Son, and Jesus Christ in body and soul suffered infinitely in our behalf and paid for the penalty of our sins. As I’ve told many, the problem for you is simple: your sins are going to be punished by God.
The question is, are they going to be punished on you in hell forever, or on Jesus Christ on the cross. If you would prefer the latter, you need to abandon all trust in yourself, repent of your sins and receive Him into your heart as Savior and Lord, trusting in His atoning death and perfect life as your only hope of salvation. And His promise is, “He that trust in Me already has everlasting life.” That’s the Good News.
Ankerberg: All right, next week we’re going to continue our conversation and we’re going to look at, Where is the dividing line? What is it that you must believe to be accepted biblically as a Christian and where is it not enough? It’s a very controversial area and I hope that you’ll join us then.

Read Part 4

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