Why This Evangelical Isn’t Crossing the Tiber

By Stan Guthrie

In the first posting of this article, on March 24, I made some statements with which some readers have taken issue. In the interest of clarity and charity, I offer this longer, slightly corrected version.

Ulf Ekman, the influential founder of the 3,300-member Word of Life church in Sweden, stunned the evangelical movement last month by announcing he is leaving his charismatic congregation to join the Roman Catholic Church.

“I discovered how little I really knew about [Catholics], their spirituality and their beliefs,” Ekman said in his resignation letter. “Unconsciously I carried many prejudices and bad attitudes and have been quick to judge them without really knowing what they actually believed. It has been good to discover and to repent from nonchalant and shallow opinions, based not on their own sources but on their opponents, and to discover a very rich heritage, a strong theological foundation and a deep love for Jesus Christ among them.”

The high-profile conversion of Ekman is just the latest in a string of evangelicals “crossing the Tiber” and becoming Catholics. In 2007, Francis Beckwith, a Baylor University philosophy professor, resigned as president of the Evangelical Theological Society after rejoining the Roman Catholic Church. Beckwith, who was raised as a Catholic, was “born again” as an evangelical during the height of the countercultural “Jesus movement” in the 1970s.

Other prominent evangelicals who have crossed the Tiber include Sam Brownback, Scott Hahn, and Richard John Neuhaus. Many have fled what they (sometimes rightly) see as the ahistorical, unrooted shallowness of evangelicalism. According to Adam Omelianchuk, a Protestant writing in the outstanding Catholic journal First Things, “This lack of formal theological identity is perhaps the most influential reason why evangelicals find themselves attracted to the Roman Catholic Church.”

If so, then evangelicals, who have inherited a rich and refreshing historical-theological legacy from the Reformers (who themselves claimed to have recovered the beliefs of the early church), have only themselves to blame when thirsty Protestants look for spiritual refreshment from other wells. (Of course, many Catholics have crossed the Tiber from the other direction, too.)

As impressive as these conversion stories of former Protestants are, this evangelical is not crossing the Tiber anytime soon. It’s nothing personal. I love Catholics’ commitment to community, their rich (though tragically checkered) history, their challenging social teaching, their heroic stands against tyranny, their awe-inspiring art and architecture, their bracing intellectual tradition, their mind-boggling charitable endeavors, and their sold-out missionaries. One cannot but give praise to God for the countless blessings mediated to the world through the Roman Catholic Church.

My reasons for not joining Catholicism are theological. True, Catholics and Protestants believe that Jesus the sinless Son of God died for our sins, but we differ on how that makes us right with God us and gets us to heaven.

First, Catholics do not believe in justification by grace through faith alone. Yes, while Catholics believe that salutary works “have their root in gratuitous grace, and consequently are of their very nature dependent ultimately on grace,” the fact remains that in Roman Catholic theology a person’s works must cooperate with God’s grace for salvation to occur.

Beckwith says, “The Catholic Church frames the Christian life as one in which you must exercise virtue—not because virtue saves you, but because that’s the way God’s grace gets manifested.” As Beckwith’s example illustrates, while Protestants and Catholics have worked to close this theological gap, the fact remains that Catholics assert that works are necessary in order to be saved.

“Christian faith teaches us,” the Catholic Encyclopedia states, “that the Incarnate Son of God by His death on the cross has in our stead fully satisfied God’s anger at our sins.” So far, so good—but then listen to the following: “Not, however, as though nothing were now left to be done by man, or as though he were now restored to the state of original innocence, whether he wills it or not; on the contrary, God and Christ demand of him that he make the fruits of the Sacrifice of the Cross his own by personal exertion and co-operation with grace, by justifying faith and the reception of baptism.”

In this, the Roman Catholic Church mixes justification, “the act of God by which he declares a sinful person to be no longer under judgment because of his or her guilt, but forgiven and righteous instead, because the sin-bearing righteousness of Christ is accredited to the person,”* with the necessary process of sanctification, or growth in holiness.

The New Testament, however, insists that such works of personal exertion are a result, not a component, of salvation and that our rescue from our natural state of spiritual death is purely by God’s grace through faith alone. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,” Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9, “not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Ephesians 2:10 clearly says that our works come from our saving faith: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Though not saved by works, saved people are to walk in them—not to keep their salvation, but to illustrate it.

To ensure that God gets all the glory, Paul elsewhere insists, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, 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” (Rom 3:21-25a).

In Isaac Watts’ great hymn, “Join All the Glorious Names,” we sing:

Jesus, my great High Priest,
Offered His blood, and died;
My guilty conscience seeks
No sacrifice beside:
His powerful blood did once atone,
And now it pleads before the throne.

Christ’s blood—that is, His death—did all the saving work. We contribute nothing to our salvation. Christ receives all the glory. Roman Catholic theology tragically obscures this vital point.

Further, Roman Catholics assert that a person’s salvation can be lost eternally. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Faith is an entirely free gift that God makes to man. We can lose this priceless gift…. To live, grow, and persevere in the faith until the end we must nourish it with the Word of God; we must beg the Lord to increase our faith; it must be ‘working through charity,’ abounding in hope, and rooted in the faith of the Church.”

Reflecting on the Council of Trent, the Catholic Encyclopedia states that “sanctifying grace may be lost by mortal sin, and that the loss of the state of grace ipso facto entails the forfeiture of all merits however great. Even the greatest saint, should he die in the state of mortal sin, arrives in eternity as an enemy of God with empty hands, just as if during life he had never done anything, meritorious. All his former rights to grace and glory are cancelled. To make them revive a new justification is necessary.”

With all due respect, I believe Roman Catholicism errs tragically here as well. Protestants (at least those of us who hold to eternal security) believe that all the works that the Catechism lists as necessary for us to “persevere in the faith until the end” are signs that we are already saved—not that we are already perfect in this life, but that saved, still-sinful people “press on” in sanctification until they receive salvation in all its fullness (Phil. 3:12-14).

Yes, Scripture is clear that we will be judged by our works (Rom. 2:6-11, 2 Cor. 5:10, Rev. 20:12). But our works are evidence of our salvation, not a means to get there. As Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (John 5:24) The judgment that brings death holds no terror for true Christians, for we already have “passed from death to life.”

Catholics, of course, readily agree that Christ’s death on the cross, and not any intrinsic goodness on our part, is what makes our good works good: “It is a defined article of the Catholic Faith that man before, in, and after justification derives his whole capability of meriting and satisfying, as well as his actual merits and satisfactions, solely from the infinite treasure of merits which Christ gained for us on the Cross.” Protestants agree that even our best works are tainted by sin and are received by God solely because of His grace.

But although Catholics clearly believe in the grace of God, this grace by itself cannot even keep saved Catholics from the temporal punishments of purgatory, much less the eternal punishments of hell. “The penitent after his justification gradually cancels the temporal punishments due to his sins, either … by conscientiously performing the penance imposed on him by his confessor, or … by self-imposed penances (such as prayer, fasting, almsgiving, etc.) and by bearing patiently the sufferings and trials sent by God; if he neglects this, he will have to give full satisfaction … in the pains of purgatory.”

I believe the grace offered in the gospel is “greater than all our sin.” Christians will stand before God clothed in Christ’s perfect righteousness (Gal. 3:27, Phil. 3:9), not their own. As Charles Wesley wrote:

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

Then there is the question of authority, which underlies the entire discussion. Protestants believe in the doctrine of sola scriptura, which says that our final authority as believers rests in God’s Word (cf. Deut. 4:2; Rev. 22:18–19). As Martin Luther stated so boldly, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”

However, the Catechism of the Catholic Church insists that the Church “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.”

Of course, Jesus had a thing or two to say to religious leaders who tried to raise their traditions to the level of God’s Word. I believe the Catholic Church is in danger of this same tragic mistake when it elevates anything—even good things—on par with Scripture. Scripture interprets our traditions, not the other way around.

Then there are the smaller problems (the perpetual virginity of Mary, the Immaculate Conception, papal authority and succession through Peter, the celibacy of the priesthood, etc.). But most of these smaller issues stem from our larger dispute over the authority of Scripture.

Yes, Catholic critics are right that Protestants and evangelicals are much too fragmented, and that this is a poor witness to a watching world (see John 17:21). We can learn much from our Catholic friends in this regard. Yet formal unity, as important as it is, shouldn’t supersede spiritual unity. Most of us contentious Protestants, after all, agree on far more than we disagree on.

And, yes, the Roman Catholic Church has much in common with Protestantism (after all, we came out of it). We both have recited the Apostles’ Creed for centuries. But we must recognize that, despite all these commonalities, the Roman Catholic Church has significant and irreconcilable differences with our Protestant faith.

Therefore, no matter how much I admire the Catholic Church, this evangelical happily is going to stay on this side of the Tiber, even as I pray for all God’s blessings to my Catholic friends on the other side.

*“The Bible in Christianity: Roman Catholicism,” ESV Study Bible (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001), 2614.

About Stan Guthrie

Stan Guthrie is an editor at large for Christianity Today magazine and for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. His latest book is God's Story in 66 Verses. He also is author of All that Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century, and A Concise Guide to Bible Prophecy. He is co-author of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Besides authoring, writing, and editing books, Stan is a literary agent, bringing together good authors, good books, and good publishers. Stan writes the monthly Priorities colum for BreakPoint.org. He has appeared on National Public Radio's €œTell Me More,€ WGN's Milt Rosenberg program, and many Christian shows, including The Eric Metaxas Show and Moody Radio'€™s €œNew Day Florida.€ A licensed minister and an inspirational speaker, he served as moderator for the Christian Book Expo panel discussion, Does the God of Christianity Exist, and What Difference Does It Make?
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