by C Michael PattonMarch 28th, 2012 192 Comments
First, some fun:
- What is an Evangelical? A nice fundamentalist.
- How do you tell the difference between an Evangelical and a Fundamentalist? Ask them if they like Billy Graham. If they do, they are Evangelical. If they don’t, they are Fundamentalist (Fundamentalists believe he has compromised).
- Finally . . . How do you tell the difference between an Evangelical and a Fundamentalist? Ask if Roman Catholics are going to heaven. If they say “no,” they are Fundamentalists. If they say “maybe,” they are Evangelical.
Are Roman Catholics Saved? Short answer: I don’t know. However, don’t read to much into that. I don’t know if Protestants are Christian. I don’t know if many who go to my evangelical church are Christian. By “Christian” I mean someone who has truly been regenerated by God and is, as a result, a genuine disciple of Christ.
Of course, a better question that people are getting at is this: Do I believe that someone who is a committed member of the Roman Catholic Church can be a true Christian? To this I answer “yes.” Now, to be fair, I do not feel that the majority of Roman Catholics with whom I have come in contact are true believers. But, to be fairer, I don’t believe that the majority of Protestants (and Eastern Orthodox for that matter) with whom I have come in contact are true believers either! It is the problem of nominalism. Simply confessing to be a part of any Christian tradition does not mean that one truly embraces the ideals of said tradition. Christians are those who truly believe in who Christ is and do their best to follow him.
I think the most important question that has ever been asked in the history of the world is, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). The confession of Roman Catholicism, along with that of Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy, has been united concerning this for two thousand years: “Jesus Christ is the God-Man who died for our sins and rose from the grave.” Getting that right is no small thing. In fact, I would say that to have a true belief in such a creed requires the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. Roman Catholicism is to be commended, in my opinion, for being an ardent defender of the Trinity, the resurrection of Christ, and the necessity of belief in such. Though there are many passages I could turn to, I think 1 John 4:2 says more than we often give it credit for. In fact, I would say that this is one of the most neglected passages which could be used to defend the deity of Christ. Notice:
1 John 4:2
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.
Without getting too much into this (as it deserves its own blog post!), this passage teaches that a true belief that Christ is man and God is an indication that someone is “from God.” You may say that it only talks about his humanity (“in the flesh”) and not his deity. But I believe that implied within this is an assumption of Christ’s deity. Why? Because there would be no reason to deny that Christ had come in the flesh were it not assumed that he was God. I mean, how hard is it to deny that someone has come “in the flesh”, if they were only thought of as being human? It is a foregone conclusion that they have ”come in the flesh”! This passage makes no sense, unless it is assumed that a person believes that Christ is God. But the point that I want to make right now is that it is a big deal to believe in the humanity and deity of Christ. Think about how rare this really is outside of Christianity. Obviously, atheists do not confess this, but what about Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, and agnostics? They don’t have as an essential core to their confession (to say the least) that Christ is the God-man. The best of Catholics do. The best of Protestants do. The best of Eastern Orthodox do. It is because of this that I don’t easily dismiss Roman Catholics’ status before God. They get the “Who do you say that I am?” question right.
Not only this, but Catholics believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ. They believe that we are sinners in need of grace. Even though they lean toward inclusivism since Vatican II, they still believe that there is no other name by which we must be saved. Again, this is significant stuff which, if truly believed, I don’t see how an unregenerate person can confess without salvific implications. All of this can be said about Eastern Orthodoxy as well.
Having said all of this, I am sure that many of my Protestant brothers and sisters are getting hot under the collar right now. I understand. Many of you are saying, “What about their worship of Mary?” “What about their acceptance of Purgatory?” “What about the Apocrypha?” “What about the Pope?” And, most importantly, “What about their denial of justification by faith alone?”
All of these are good questions and significant differences (some more so than others). I don’t want to undermine the importance of doctrine by saying that Roman Catholics can be saved. I hope you don’t see me doing this (though some will inevitably think I am). I am simply saying that the most central question in Christianity is, “Who do you say that I am?”, and they get this right.
So the question becomes, “How can someone believe and confess that their works contribute to their salvation and be saved?” (as Roman Catholics do). My answer is this: perfect doctrine does not save anyone. Sufficient doctrine is an indication that someone is saved. I believe deeply that justification is by faith alone (sola fide). However, I don’t think that justification comes through a belief in justification by faith alone. Put it this way: Heaven will not be inhabited by anyone who contributed to their justification. Some will get to heaven and they will find out how radical grace really was. In fact, I think all Christians will be overwhelmed by grace. The sanctification process, in some ways, can be summed up as this: the progressive realization that grace (undeserved and unmerited favor) is our only hope. I don’t think any of us really grasp this. Therefore, both Protestants and Roman Catholics will stand before God with a greater realization and confidence that our works had nothing to do with our present state of eternal blessedness. Roman Catholics will have a bigger learning curve than Protestants, in my opinion, but both of us will be overwhelmed by what grace really is. Most Roman Catholics will have a sudden realization that it truly was their faith in Christ alone that justified (Eph. 2:8-9).
So, where does that leave us? Does this mean that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is not important? Most definitely not. Paul exhorted the Galatians (who were justified, yet were replacing grace with the burden of law and works) not to “get saved,” but to live out the benefits of their salvation. The degree to which we are preaching justification without works is the degree to which we are preaching the grace of God. So we continue, as Paul did, to encourage people to take the burden off their backs…it is not ours to carry. I encourage Roman Catholics to do the same: realize how crazy, insane, radical, and beyond belief grace really is.
Protestantism is not perfect by any means. I believe we have a “fuller” Gospel understanding than Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox (otherwise, I would not be Protestant!), but this does not mean we have a perfect understanding of the Gospel. However, we need to continue to spread the message of the Gospel that grace is only realized once we see that it is completely undeserved.
But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.
- First Things Blogcast #4: Catholics vs. Evangelicals on Justification
- An Emerging Understanding of “Orthodox” – Part 4: Are Catholics Orthodox?
- Does the Roman Catholic Gospel Save? or “Getting the Gospel ‘Righter’”
- The Great Reformation in a Nutshell
- 51% Protestant