With the visit of Pope Benedict to the UK in full swing many issues that have exercised Christians for years are, for a short season, exercising the minds of a wider audience. Beyond the perennial and seemingly endless scandal of child abuse at the hands of Catholic priests, a scandal that goes back a thousand years, questions are being asked about the popularity of this pope, the relevance of the church and the relationship between Rome and Canterbury.
Religious correspondents and media and newspaper commentators are talking about what divides them and what might bring them closer. As the pope highlights the challenges of militant secularism and urges young people to find fulfilment in the spiritual some are seeing a common cause and asking whether they are now close enough to work together in mission.
Some insist that a bigger threat than any sectarian controversies is modern liberal values against which we should be working alongside Roman Catholics. This makes sense on some levels and there is much to be gained in being co-combatants with Rome against the secularism that is threatening us; but how far down that road might we safely go?
The issues with which the Reformers were concerned were fundamental to biblical faith and we must ask is the gap on these issues now so small as to be unimportant, or are there still significant issues that prevent us embracing across the Lord's Table? For me the issues have always been more fundamental than gay clergy, women priests and church government. It is about the question of whether we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone. Whether he is our sole and sufficient mediator or whether there need be a priestly class to mediate Christ.
Christ Alone, Faith Alone, Grace Alone
The Catholic and Evangelical understandings of Christ's death and what it achieved are profoundly different. Those who seek common ground with Catholicism fail to address this problem. Yet it is the most important aspect of the New Testament message and it is essential to get it right:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then the Twelve...” (1 Co.15:3-5)
What we believe about these things is “of first importance”.
To the Catholic Christ died for “sins” and not for “sinners”.
To the Catholic Christ's death earned a "treasury of merit" on which the believer draws time and again by means of the sacraments to gain forgiveness and purification from sins today. This adds works of merit to Christ's work of Atonement.
To the Evangelical Christ's death was a "once for all" act that won complete salvation "for all who believe", i.e. “sinners”. This is the classic "penal substitution" doctrine denied by Rome.
When Paul writes in 1 Co.15 about Christ dying “for our sins” he is not saying that Christ died for sins and not sinners. He means “for the sake of” our sins, or “because of” our sins. In other words, it is because we are sinners that Christ died. Sin in man was the reason for Christ dying. But in dying Christ died for sinners:
To purchase people – Rev.5:9; 14:4
With his blood – Acts 20:28
Bought at a price – 1 Cor.6:20; 7:23
To ransomed many – Mt.20:28
The picture is of one purchasing, buying and redeeming and not one of simply making grace available on condition of a quid pro quo:
“If justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purposes” (Gal.2:21)
Christ’s death won a complete salvation:
“But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb.10:12-14)
The Catholic and Evangelical understanding of how we receive salvation are irreconcilably different.
To the Catholic salvation is gained, first, by continually applying to Christ's store of merit and applying Christ's merit to themselves daily. Secondly, this merit is mediated through a priesthood and ritual activity - the sacraments.
"If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is this confidence alone that justifies us, LET HIM BE ANATHEMA" (Council of Trent, Canons Concerning Justification, Canon 12).
To the Evangelical salvation is a gift that is received all at once. To deny faith alone is to deny Christ alone. To add to Christ's work is to subscribe to a profoundly different ecclesiology which includes essential rituals and priesthood mediation.
“Unlike the other high priests, [Christ] does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself” Heb 7:27
Faith alone safeguards the more important Christ alone.
The Catholic understanding of grace is piecemeal, applied daily in our pilgrimage in order to win a little more salvation each day. This puts the emphasis on the activity and attitude of the believer.
"If anyone says that the justice received is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works, but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not the cause of its increase, LET HIM BE ANATHEMA" (Council of Trent, Canons Concerning Justification, Canon 24).
The Evangelical understanding of grace is that it is God's unmerited favour toward the sinner that cannot be accessed via fallen man's activity but through faith alone in Christ alone. This puts the emphasis on the activity and attitude of God.
A State - Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Ro.5:1-2)
A Companion - But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me (1 Cor.15:10)
Christ’s Work - For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people,
training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ (Titus 2:11-13)
God’s Gift - Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith (Ro.12:6)
Catholics have conflated justification and sanctification; the gift of life and the course of life.
The Power of “Believing”
"What must we do to do the works God requires?" Jesus answered:"The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent" (John 6:28-29)
To believe”, of course, does not simply mean to give intellectual assent. In the Bible to believe is to put your full trust in. The believer has put his or her full trust in Jesus for salvation.
In John’s gospel he uses the verb “believe” 98 times (Mt.11; Mk.10; Lk.9). John can teach us something about “believing”. We can believe “that” something happened; believe “what” people say, but John uses the verb with the preposition “into”, as in
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ--by grace you have been saved--and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph.2:4-9)
He is saying that our standing before God is such that, in Christ, we are seated in heavenly places. Of course we do have the rest of our lives to go through on this earth. But Christ has paid for our sins and we can now walk in confidence, in him, knowing that we have eternal life, a life that has been won for us by him and that we appropriate by trusting “in” him.
Of course, a gift must be appropriated and this gift is appropriated by believing. The recipient of the gift has put their trust in the giver and the worth of the gift and thereby receives the gift. John 5:24 clearly shows this; Hear, believe and receive eternal life.
Of course works follow, but they follow, they don't lead to salvation. The person whose works have worth is the saved person. The unsaved may work and work but to no avail because they have not trusted. They have refused the gift by the very act of trying to prove worthy of it!
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Ro.6:23)
Sin pays wages! Eternal life, on the other hand, is a free gift "in Christ Jesus our Lord" What does that mean, "in Christ Jesus our Lord"? It means that those are in him who have put their trust in him. If you put any trust at all in anything you can do by way of works then you are, by definition, not in him but in yourself; because that is what you have trusted in.
The Australian theologian Leon Morris called the following the most important paragraph in history:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it-- the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.
For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.
It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.
For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law (Romans 3:21-28)
Catholicity has been described as a local community with a world-wide vision; the people of God, gathered around the word of God, ready to do the will of God. Catholic, in this sense, is not a structure, or church order, but a description of God’s people, the universal church. It is not a divide between laity and clergy but a fellowship of all prepared to work the works of God. It is a means of mediation only in that it mediates God’s grace to a fallen world, not insisting it is the way but humbly pointing to the One who is the way so others may come too and know salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.