Monday, September 1, 2008

Evangelicals and Catholics

Nearly two decades ago, a group of Evangelical Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars began work on a document entitled "Evangelicals and Catholics Together". Its premise was that Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants have reached a point where, in spite of some minor differences, they agree on the essential points of doctrine. Sixteen years later, both the Pope and a leading voice in the largest Protestant denomination in the United States still seem to disagree with them.

Many reading this will obviously respond with an indifferent "who cares?" But with the 75 million American Catholics and 16 million Southern Baptists making up more than 30 percent of the country's population, it is an issue worth discussing. And Pope Benedict XVIII's recent visit to the United States has brought the issue to the forefront.

Before looking at a few of the differences that still divide Catholics and Protestants (particularly Evangelicals) 500 years after the Reformation, it is good to acknowledge the many areas of agreement. Catholics and Protestants believe the same things about God's nature and about the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Catholics and Protestants also have essentially the same Bible; the Catholic Bible has the same 66 books of the Protestant Bible, but also adds the apocryphal texts. Catholics and Protestants also agree on a number of political and social issues, including opposition to abortion, euthanasia, and stem cell research.

But as both Pope Benedict and R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, have stated in recent days, while there is agreement on many things, the differences continue over the most important issues. In reacting to a statement released by the Vatican last July re-asserting that non-Catholic churches were defective or not true churches but merely ecclesial communities and therefore did not have the "means of salvation," and that the Roman Catholic Church is the only true church, Mohler summed up the impasse this way in a recent article:

"The Roman Catholic Church believes that evangelicals are in spiritual danger for obstinately and disobediently excluding ourselves from submission to its universal claims and its papacy," Mohler wrote. "Evangelicals are concerned that Catholics are in spiritual danger for their submission to these very claims. We both understand what is at stake."

The key issue remains, as it has since the time of Martin Luther, salvation and the "true" church. And a person's view on the concept of Scripture Alone vs. Scripture and Tradition will pretty much determine where they fall in the argument. Mohler is solidly in the Scripture Alone camp, with the Pope obviously on the Scripture and Tradition side.

One thing I can say from personal experience (having been raised Catholic and later becoming Southern Baptist) is that the teaching about salvation is more consistent (or dogmatic, if you prefer) on the Baptist side. Every Baptist preacher I've ever heard has said that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. They would likely point out various verses to support this (Ephesians 2:8-9, for example). The only time in the Bible that the question "what must I do to be saved?" is asked directly is in Acts 16:30-31. Paul's answer to the Philippian jailer was "believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved."

Yet if you ask this question of 10 priests you may get 10 different answers. In an ongoing correspondence with various Catholic priests and educators a few years ago, I asked what the Catholic Church teaches is necessary for salvation. Some of the answers I received included:

"Baptism (as an infant)"

"Faith and good works"

"Faith in Christ"

"We are saved by grace alone but not faith alone"

"Love of God and neighbor"


"Salvation is both a gift from God and a reward"

"The Sacraments, especially receiving the Eucharist"

"Salvation is a lifelong process"

Most lay Catholics, not surprisingly, would answer with some type of works-based response. An impromptu survey outside of St. Patrick's in New York several years ago had most respondents answering that since they had done more good than bad, they'd probably get in. The official teaching of the Catholic Church is found in its Catechism, which states: "Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods." (#2027, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994). The Catholic Church also sees the sacraments as necessary for salvation.

The two sides even disagree on the assurance of salvation. It is no secret that most Evangelicals believe that you cannot lose your salvation, although many mainline Protestant denominations take varying views on the subject. The Evangelical view is based, in part, on the following verses:

"My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand (John 10:27-29)."

"Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1)."

"These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life (1 John 5:13)."

The official teaching of the Catholic Church, however, says exactly the opposite. The Council of Trent stated: "if anyone says that he will for certain, with an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance even to the end...let him be condemned (Canon 16)." It is further stated that it is works that preserve justification, which means that if you don't have enough good works, your salvation will be lost.

In spite of all these crucial differences, Albert Mohler ended his article with an almost admiring tone, saying that "Protestants should appreciate the fact that Benedict stands for some theological absolutes in a world that often capitulates to secularism and postmodernism. The divide between evangelical Christians and the Roman Catholic Church remains -- as this Pope well understands. And, in so many ways, this is a Pope we can understand. In this strange world, that is no small achievement."

In an age when people actually see truth as subjective, it's no small achievement indeed.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Our Everyday Actions Impact the Great Commission

Christians of all denominations struggle with where the boundaries are in life, and what is right and wrong for us to do as Christians. Many of us do what we do simply because it's what we were taught, and we've never given any more thought to it. What many of us don’t realize is that people are watching our actions as much as listening to our words when evaluating our claim to be followers of Christ. Our decisions about right and wrong greatly impact our witness and affect our ability to carry out the Great Commission.

Fortunately the apostle Paul gives us a guideline to follow that we can apply to our own circumstances. In his first letter to the Corinthians, three chapters before the famous "love chapter," he makes it very simple for us to understand:

"Everything is permissible"-but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"-but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others. So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God-even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved." 1 Corinthians 10:23-24, 31-33 (NIV)

In this short passage, Paul tells us how to determine if something is right for us as Christians, and his guidance can be broken down into five main points:

1. Does it build me up spiritually?
In 1 Corinthians 10:23 above the issue is basically one of "I can do it, but is it really good for me?" There are many things we can do, but is doing them improving my relationship with God? In some ways, it's the old good vs. best argument, and it can be a difficult one because most of the time "good" is a lot easier to do than "best". But if we really want the right direction regarding our behavior, we must consider whether it is something that makes us grow spiritually.

2. Does it bring me under its power?
In 1 Corinthians 6:12 Paul makes a statement similar to that found in 1 Corinthians 10:23: "'Everything is permissible for me'-but not everything is beneficial. 'Everything is permissible for me'-but I will not be mastered by anything." There are many things we do that can become addictive, from gambling to eating to watching television. But these things do not affect every person in the same way. While one person may be able to have one glass of wine with dinner each night and suffer no ill effects, others might quickly become addicted to alcohol. So we must determine for ourselves whether a certain activity has the possibility of controlling us rather than the other way around.

3. Could it cause another person to stumble?
In Romans 14:15, Paul makes the following statement: "If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died." Here Paul is talking about Christians eating food that was sacrificed to idols, and how by eating it could be a poor example as a Christian in the first century. Today the situation is much the same. If you have no issue with alcohol, yet have a friend who is a recovering alcoholic, it would be wrong to invite him to a bar to meet you. Sure, he could drink club soda or water but you, by your decision, are putting your friend in a bad position.

4. Do I have an uneasy conscience about it?
Using the same situation as above (the eating of food sacrificed to idols) Paul goes a step further. In Romans 14:23 he says: "But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin." If your conscience bothers you about some activity, you would do well to take heed. Often we will ignore what our conscience tells us about something in order to fit in with the rest of our crowd. If this happens more than once or twice it's probably time to find a new crowd.

5. Does it glorify God?
This may be the most important question of the five. Do not mistake it for the much catchier "What Would Jesus Do?" that was so popular a few years ago, because if you try hard enough you can convince yourself that Jesus would have done all sorts of things. Asking if the activity glorifies God has much less wiggle room, and makes you take a much harder look at the things you do. As Paul wrote in I Corinthians 10:31 "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God."

If you'll ask yourself any or all of these five questions and give honest answers, you will no longer encounter situations where you have to wonder if it was right for you as a Christian. This will make your Christian walk much more consistent and productive and will be of great benefit when sharing your faith with others.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

What Is the Great Commission?

Jesus' command to his disciples, and ultimately his followers down through the centuries, to reach the world with the good news of salvation is recorded in the 28th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew; it has come to be known as the Great Commission. The Great Commission is one of the clearest passages in the entire Bible, and yet is also one of the least obeyed. It reads:

Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matt 28: 18-20 NIV).

In Matthew 28:19, Jesus said, "Go." He didn't say think about going, or even pray about going. He said go. Yet only a small fraction of Christians ever follow this clear command. I think there are several reasons why this is, ranging from a simple fear of talking to people to thinking it's the job of the pastor, missionary, or some other "professional clergy." But we are all called to do our part to take the gospel (or evangel, from which we get the term evangelism) to the world. In Acts 1:8 Jesus gave us the blueprint, elaborating on what "all nations" means:

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:8 NIV)

Let's break this blueprint down both in its 1st Century context as well as what it means for us today. Then we’ll clarify what is and what is not evangelism.

1. Jerusalem. In the first century, this obviously meant the city of Jerusalem. This was where the apostles spent time with Jesus following his resurrection, where the Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost, and where the first church was formed. Today, we can think of Jerusalem as whatever city we happen to live in, or even our own family. These are the people closest to us, the ones we care the most about.

2. Judea. Judea was the administrative region in which Jerusalem was located, roughly the equivalent of a state or province today. If Austin is your Jerusalem, then Texas could be considered your Judea. You still have a connection or kinship with folks in this area.

3. Samaria. Samaria was a region outside of Judea, and could thus be considered another state, like going to Oklahoma from Texas. But Samaria was much more than this. Jews and Samaritans were bitter enemies, and by specifically telling his disciples to go there, Jesus was making clear that everyone, whether friend or foe, was to be told the message of the gospel. That message is the same for us today, which means going places we might not otherwise be comfortable going.

4. The ends of the earth. This literally means the ends of the earth. In the 1st Century, the apostles went to most of the known world, from Paul's missionary journeys through Asia Minor and Greece to Thomas's journey to India. We are called to do the same, realizing that for us China may be "the ends of the earth," while for a Chinese believer New York or Boston is "the ends of the earth." It simply depends on where you're starting from.

In fact, there are many who would not use the contemporary examples above at all, arguing that Jerusalem is the actual city of Jerusalem, as are Judea and Samaria, and that all the rest of the world is the ends of the earth. For me the command is the same either way you look at it: we are supposed to tell those close to us, and whenever possible to tell even those in far away places.

We saw earlier that Jesus clearly commands us to evangelize, to reach our world with the gospel, but what exactly is the gospel? First, what it isn't. It isn't orphanages, hospitals, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, or any other charitable act or organization. These are all good, important, and evidence that we are believers in Christ, but in and of themselves they are not the message. If they were, then you would have to consider every Buddhist, Muslim, Wiccan, Agnostic, and atheist who did any of these things a Christian, and neither we nor they believe that. Good works also give an opportunity for evangelism, but they are not evangelism.

The gospel, the evangel, the good news that Jesus brought is not nearly as complicated as we often try to make it. In a nutshell, Jesus' message was that we have all sinned and none of us deserve Heaven. But God loved us enough, even while we weren't loveable, that He sent Jesus to take the penalty that we deserved. The apostle Paul put it this way:

"My friends, I want you to remember the message that I preached and that you believed and trusted. You will be saved by this message, if you hold firmly to it. But if you don't, your faith was all for nothing. I told you the most important part of the message exactly as it was told to me. That part is: Christ died for our sins, as the Scriptures say. He was buried, and three days later he was raised to life, as the Scriptures say. Christ appeared to Peter, then to the twelve. After this, he appeared to more than five hundred other followers. Most of them are still alive, but some have died. He also appeared to James, and then to all of the apostles. Finally, he appeared to me." (1 Corinthians 15:1-8 CEV).

The majority of us in America have heard this message in some form or other since we were children, although that is becoming less and less the case today. But many, if not most of us have never done anything once we heard the message. Jesus said in Luke 19:10 that he "came to seek and save the lost." How does He save us? When asked how to be saved, the apostle Paul gave this answer:

"Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved. For if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved." (Acts 16:31, Romans 10:9 NIV).

That's the Good News. We can have our sins forgiven and enter into a real, personal relationship with God. News doesn't get any better than that, and we shouldn't hesitate to tell others about it.