Why aren’t you a Roman Catholic? That probably seems like an odd question to many of you. Yet, have you ever considered it? If you are a former Roman Catholic, you might have an answer to that question. But is it a valid answer? A solid answer? If it is an answer that involves “Father Mike was mean to me” or “I really don’t like votive candles,” then your reasons for leaving are probably less than sufficient.
I am not a Roman Catholic because Roman Catholicism is a false religion. It is headed by an imposter, a man who claims to be something he is not. The Pope is not the Vicar of Christ, he is not the head of the Christian Church, he is not a “Holy Father,” and I owe him no fealty, honor, nor respect in the religious sense. Roman Catholicism is a man-made perversion of the truth. While it retains elements of the truth (having moved away from the faith slowly and over a great deal of time), it falls under the condemnation of the Apostle Paul in Galatians 1. If the Judaizers were properly anathematized for their additions to the gospel, it is very clear to me that they never came close to dreaming up half the stuff Rome has added to the gospel over the centuries. Nor do we have any evidence that they attacked the sufficiency of Scripture, included grossly unbiblical offices (priests, Cardinals, Popes), or elevated anyone like Mary to the lofty heights of nigh unto divinity that Rome has over the past few centuries. The Papacy has embarrassed the Judaizers in the realm of innovation and gospel-corruption, to be sure.
So I am not a Roman Catholic by positive conviction that the gospel of grace found in Scripture is not the gospel of Rome. My positive conviction of the gospel that saves utterly precludes my consideration of Roman Catholicism, for to embrace that system would require me to abandon all I believe about Scripture (its inspiration, its preservation, its supremacy, its sufficiency), all I believe about the gospel (the sovereign decree of God, the perfection of the atonement, the power of the Spirit in bringing the elect to salvation), all I believe about the church (its form, function, and purpose). In other words, Roman Catholicism is a different religion than I profess. It is not just a variant, “another flavor.”
One is either convicted that the gospel is something that matters or not. There really isn’t any middle ground. Saying the gospel is important, but, not really definitional, is absurd. It is no wonder that so many today find Paul a disagreeable character, because as far as I can see, I am following very closely in his footprints on this issue. There is a divine gospel whereby God glorifies Himself in the salvation of His elect, and anything less than that isn’t the gospel at all. It’s a sham, a fraud, a deception. Now that kind of thinking doesn’t sit well in a post-modern world, to be sure, where it smacks of “epistemological arrogance.” But to say otherwise is to insist that God has not spoken with clarity and that the Lord has not preserved the gospel for His people.
The fact of the matter is that most “Protestants” in the world today are Protestants of taste rather than Protestants of conviction. They just prefer their religion the way they have it. Maybe they don’t like old cathedrals, or they don’t like backwards collars, or the smell of candles. Maybe they think the Pope’s hat is funny. Whatever the reason, they are not Roman Catholics basically because they don’t feel like it. They are not convinced that Rome’s gospel is false or that her theology is blasphemous. No, they have never really given all of that much thought. They might find the Marian dogmas a bit odd, but in the final analysis, their current religious affiliation is just a matter of taste, nothing more. And let me tell you: those folks are ripe for conversion: either conversion to Rome, or, conversion to apostasy, either one. For if they have no passion for the gospel, they have no passion for Christ, and hence no foundation of faith.
A couple of years ago I wrote a review for the CRI Journal of Mark Noll’s book, Is the Reformation Over? While thought provoking, the book was horribly imbalanced and unfair. I only had 775 words, so I could hardly go in-depth in my review. But Carl Trueman from Westminster Seminary had a much less restricted word limit in his review. Toward the end he wrote the following:
When I finished reading the book, I have to confess that I agreed with the authors, in that it does indeed seem that the Reformation is over for large tracts of evangelicalism; yet the authors themselves do not draw the obvious conclusion from their own arguments. Every year I tell my Reformation history class that Roman Catholicism is, at least in the West, the default position. Rome has a better claim to historical continuity and institutional unity than any Protestant denomination, let alone the strange hybrid that is evangelicalism; in the light of these facts, therefore, we need good, solid reasons for not being Catholic; not being a Catholic should, in others words, be a positive act of will and commitment, something we need to get out of bed determined to do each and every day. It would seem, however, that if Noll and Nystrom are correct, many who call themselves evangelical really lack any good reason for such an act of will; and the obvious conclusion, therefore, should be that they do the decent thing and rejoin the Roman Catholic Church. I cannot go down that path myself, primarily because of my view of justification by faith and because of my ecclesiology; but those who reject the former and lack the latter have no real basis upon which to perpetuate what is, in effect, an act of schism on their part. For such, the Reformation is over; for me, the fat lady has yet to sing; in fact, I am not sure at this time that she has even left her dressing room.
I interpret Trueman to mean “default position” in a historical sense, surely not a biblical sense. Be that as it may, his words touch upon the real problem with so many so-called evangelicals today. Thoroughly infected with a post-modernistic allergic reaction to objective truth and divine revelation, bombarded day and night by naturalistic materialism and its soul-sapping, corrosive effect upon faith, these people live in blissful ignorance of history and the reality of the centrality of the gospel to the event of the Reformation. They are far more likely to be embarrassed by the truth than convicted about it.
A true Protestant is a person who has made that act of will, that act of faith, in purposefully embracing the gospel of grace in opposition to a gospel of works and who recognizes that what he has embraced is fundamentally opposed to what he has rejected. The Apostle put it clearly and bluntly:
4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Rom 4:4-8 ESV)
Paul draws a 180 degree contrast between the faith of the one who does to receive and the one who believes. Clearly the Apostle did not think that the one “who works” was holding a “variant” of the same gospel. This was not a matter of mere taste, of preference. The one message saves, the other does not. But there is the rub: today you are strongly denounced by cultural orthodoxy if you think that there is a right and a wrong in matters religious, and even within “churchianity” today, you will gain many a frown by actually thinking we know enough about the gospel to identify anything, no matter how perverse, as “false” and hence “unsaving.” And that is even more true in much of “academia.”
It is the Easter season, and around this time you hear all about the next crop of celebrity “converts” to Rome. When people leave Rome they rarely get star status for so doing (and they rarely wait till a particular day on the liturgical calendar, either). But the “convert traffickers” like Steve Ray and the Coming Home Network will make a star of anyone. This year we have Newt Gingrich swimming across the Tiber. Do we have any reason to believe he was ever firmly planted on the other side? Not that I know of, but don’t expect that to slow down the adoration and triumphalism. But once again, what do “convert” stories prove? Depends on the convert story, of course! When you encounter someone who was knowledgeably convinced of a position and they abandon it and provide sound, fair refutations of the best arguments of their former position, then you can put weight upon the conversion. But without that, all you have is another personal story that is probably a cover for a far more complex set of personal issues that lead a person from one viewpoint to another. The point being that we should not be surprised when people change their tastes. I recently started eating more vegetables. I am sure those who knew me in younger years are in utter shock! But I changed my tastes! Since “personal preference” is the foundation of many a person’s religious views, then alteration of those views is hardly a surprising thing. And for the sound thinking person, when those views change, they have little impact upon the truth claims of either the religion left, or the religion embraced–except in the mind of the post-modernist, who acts upon feelings, emotions, or trends, rather than upon objective truth.
So if you really believe the gospel, you really believe the negation of the gospel is evil. Just as the person who loves God and holiness will hate sin, so too the person who really believes the gospel will find its negation, its corruption, its perversion, an object of hatred. Can they remain balanced in not tipping over to the side of those who confuse their own traditions, their own narrow personal preferences with the gospel? Yes, they can, for the Scriptures provide that balance. That danger must be faced as well, which is why we so often challenge people to examine their traditions and hold to sound, challenging, and even difficult standards of exegetical discipline. But the spectre of the shallow minded theological bigot cannot be allowed to force us over into the other extreme of “everyone’s personal views are equal, there is no truth, no error.” Balance comes from humility before God’s Word. And that Word tells us the gospel is definable, knowable, and believable. If we really believe it, we will know what we believe, and why we believe it.