Whatever Happened to the Gospel?
It may well be one of the most significant documents produced in our generation. The signers represent a broad spectrum of men and women, representing numerous denominations and perspectives. It is carefully crafted and written. It addresses weighty and important issues. And sadly, it demonstrates for all to see that Christians have forgotten a basic truth of the New Testament: the Gospel is the power of God.
I am referring to Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium, (hereafter ECT) a 26-page, double-spaced document released early in 1994. Quite quickly it became associated primarily with the names of Charles Colson (Prison Fellowship) and Pat Robertson, at least from the non-Roman Catholic perspective. Colson was key in the drafting of the document, along with Roman Catholic scholar Richard John Neuhaus of the Institute on Religion and Public Life (Robertson was not involved, according to the release, with the actual writing). It’s important to note some of the signatories: Dr. Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ; Dr. Richard Land of the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention; Dr. Larry Lewis of the Home Mission Board of the SBC; Dr. Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary; Dr. Mark Noll of Wheaton College, Dr. John White of Geneva College, and most surprisingly to many of us, Dr. J. I. Packer of Regent College. From the Roman Catholic perspective one might note Avery Dulles of Fordham University, and Professor Peter Kreeft of Boston College.
Obviously there are some “heavy-weights” on that list. And when one finds in the document such statements as “As Evangelicals and Catholics, we dare not by needless and loveless conflict between ourselves give aid and comfort to the enemies of the cause of Christ” and “Evangelicals and Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ,” we are called to attention. What does this document represent? How should we respond to it? Before answering that question, we need to review the document’s contents and stat ements. Sadly, very few of the news reports have given anything more than a few quotations from the document, leaving most of us wondering what it really says.
What It’s About….
ECT is broken into seven sections: Introduction. I. We Affirm Together. II. We Hope Together. III. We Search Together. IV. We Contend Together. V. We Witness Together. Conclusion. The introduction lays out the purpose of the document. I quote extensively due to the need to accurately represent what has been written, and I include commentary that I feel is important.
As Christ is one, so the Christian mission is one. That one mission can be and should be advanced in diverse ways. Legitimate diversity, however, should not be confused with existing divisions between Christians that obscure the one Christ and hinder the one mission. There is a necessary connection between the visible unity of Christians and the mission of the one Christ. We together pray for the fulfillment of the prayer of Our Lord: “May they all be one; as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, so al so may they be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17) We together, Evangelicals and Catholics, confess our sins against the unity that Christ intends for all his disciples (ECT: Introduction).
It seems that the document’s authors feel that the “existing divisions” are not “legitimate.” This is an important point to follow through the work. Secondly, we note that there is a confession of sin against “the unity that Christ intends for all his disciples.” Does this mean that Roman Catholics are admitting that Rome has erred in the past with reference to the condemnation of Protestant theology? How does this relate to Rome’s claimed infallibility? This is not directly addressed. On the fourth page we read,
We enter the twenty-first century without illusions. With Paul and the Christians of the first century, we know that “we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6) As Evangelicals and Catholics, we dare not by needless and loveless conflict between ourselves give aid and comfort to the enemies of the cause of Christ.
The final sentence has often been cited by the news reports regarding this document. It is important to ask of the authors what is meant by “needless and loveless conflict”? What is needless conflict? We shall see how the work defines these issues. Indeed, the authors recognized that this was a vital point, and it seems that they recognized that it would be at this very point that most criticism would be aimed. The next paragraph reads,
The love of Christ compels us and we are therefore resolved to avoid such conflict between our communities and, where such conflict exists, to do what we can to reduce and eliminate it. Beyond that, we are called and we are therefore resolved to explore patterns of working and witnessing together in order to advance the one mission of Christ. Our common resolve is not based merely on a desire for harmony. We reject any appearance of harmony that is purchased at the price of truth. Our common resolve is made imperative by obedience to the truth of God revealed in the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures, and by trust in the promise of the Holy Spirit’s guidance until Our Lord returns in glory to judge the living and the dead.
Anyone must applaud the attempt to reject “any appearance of harmony that is purchased at the price of truth.” It is just this desire that causes so many of us to have a problem with the final conclusions of this document, however. Does the document manage to find a way to hold to the alleged unity in Christ that it affirms between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals without sacrificing truth? I don’t believe so.
The second section is entitled “We Affirm Together.” This is a fairly short section that focuses upon the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord. Here are some of the important statements:
Jesus Christ is Lord. That is the first and final affirmation that Christians make about all of reality….We affirm together that we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ. Living faith is active in love that is nothing less than the love of Christ….All who accept Christ as Lord and Savior are brothers and sisters in Christ. Evangelicals and Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ. We have not chosen one another, just as we have not chosen Christ. He has chosen us, and he has ch osen us to be his together. (John 15) However imperfect our communion with one another, however deep our disagreements with one another, we recognize that there is but one church of Christ….The only unity to which we would give expression is unity in the truth, and the truth is this: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4). We affirm together that Christians are to teach and live in obedience to the divinely inspired Scriptures, which are the infallible Word of God. We further affirm together that Christ has promised to his church the gift of the Holy Spirit who will lead us into all truth in discerning and declaring the teaching of Scripture. (John 16) We recognize together that the Holy Spirit has so guided his church in the past. In, for instance, the formation of the canon of the Scriptures, and in the orthodox response to the great Christological and Trinitarian controversies of the early centuries, we confidently acknowledge the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
There are a tremendous number of questions raised by this section. “We affirm together that we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ.” What does a Roman Catholic mean when he says this? The document does not address Trent’s anathemas, wherein the doctrine of sola fide, justification by faith alone, is condemned, though it will later admit that Rome’s doctrine that one is justified by baptism differs from the Evangelical view. Rome’s doctrine of justification is very far removed from the position enunciated by the Reformers (see my books, The Fatal Flaw and Justification by Faith, or my debates against Dr. Mitchell Pacwa, S.J., of Loyola University [San Diego, 1991], and Gerry Matatics [Boston College, 1993], both on this vital topic). Does this not mean, then, that the document is using language which means one thing for Evangelicals and something completely different for Roman Catholics, all the while asserting that this is, in fact, a point of unity?
The document also asserts “All who accept Christ as Lord and Savior are brothers and sisters in Christ. Evangelicals and Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ.” This is probably the key affirmation of the document, and everything else hinges upon this statement. We could wish to ask what the authors mean by “accept Christ as Lord and Savior,” and if this would also include Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Bahais. Given the fact that the Apostle’s Creed is included as a basic confession that all sides can accept, we would suspect that they would exclude these groups. But if a Mormon understands the Apostle’s Creed in an LDS-fashion, would they then have to accept this confession, and embrace such a person as a brother or sister in Christ? Such problems are glossed over by the document. But most importantly, every other issue, including, as we shall see, the very nature of the gospel itself, is subjugated under the affirmation that “Evangelicals and Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ.” No amount of doctrinal difference can do away with the ultimate belief that Evangelicals and Catholics are both Christians, and are both members of the Body of Christ.
Furthermore, the document dances between two very different positions with its affirmation that there is “but one church of Christ.” It cannot be denied that Rome has taught, infallibly, that she, and she alone, is that Church, and that anyone outside of her fellowship is, in fact, outside the fellowship of the one true Church. As the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) of Vatican II said,
This Church, constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in union with that successor, although many elements of sanctification and of truth can be found outside of her visible structure. These elements, however, as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, possess an inner dynamism toward Catholic unity. (The Documents of Vatican II, Walter Abbott, S.J., editor (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1966) p. 23)
And later we read,
This sacred Synod turns its attention first to the Catholic faithful. Basing itself upon sacred Scripture and tradition, it teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. For Christ, made present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique Way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism (c.f. Mark 16:16; Jn. 3:5) and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by God through Jesus Christ, would refuse to enter her or to remain in her could not be saved. They are fully incorporated into the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ, accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and through union with her visible structure are joined to Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. (Ibid., pp. 32-33)
One can hear shades of the 14th century Pope Boniface when he said in his bull Unam Sanctam,
Consequently we declare, state, define and pronounce that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.
Surely this is not what an Evangelical understands regarding the Church, yet the language of the document is, purposefully it seems, ambiguous on the matter, allowing both sides to “affirm” something without defining, with necessary exactness, what is being affirmed. The same thing holds true with the statements regarding the leading of the Holy Spirit. At this point the document may seriously compromise the historical Protestant position, depending upon what is meant by the authors. No one would argue t hat the Holy Spirit continues to guide the Church. However, Roman Catholicism affirms this guidance as a dogmatic belief, and that through the Magisterium of the Church, and most specifically, through the Bishop of Rome, the Vicar of Christ, the Holy Father, the Pope. As Lumen Gentium said,
This is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith…, he proclaims by a definitive act some doctrine of faith or morals. Therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable, for they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, an assistance promised him in blessed Peter. (Ibid., p. 49, emphasis added)
Even when addressing the Scriptures, ECT engages in obfuscation. Protestants have historically affirmed that the authority of Scripture lies in the fact of their inspiration; they are authoritative because they are God speaking to us. Their authority is not derived from any outside source, but from their nature as revelation. Because the Scriptures are “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16-17), they are sufficient for the Church; that is, the Scriptures alone are the sole and sufficient rule of faith for the Church (sola scriptura). Rome vehemently denies this, of course (see my debates with Gerry Matatics [Omaha, 1992] and Patrick Madrid [San Diego, 1993] for examples of this), and asserts the existence of a broader “tradition” which includes the element of “oral tradition” that is, at times, drawn from in defining dogmatic beliefs such as the Marian doctrines of the past few centuries. Beyond this, the canon of Scripture, that the document confidently affirms was formed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is a matter of debate between Protestants and Catholics, Rome asserting that the Apocryphal books are, in fact, inspired (see my debate against Gerry Matatics on this subject [Boston College, 1993]). What is more, the idea that the Church defines canon (over against canon as a function of inspiration) makes the idea of a “common affirmation” between Catholics and Protestants on this issue rather empty.
The simple fact of the matter is that the historical Roman viewpont has seen the work of the Spirit functioning in the Magisterium of the Roman Church. That is not, we would hope, what Charles Colson is affirming, for the same Magisterium that Roman Catholics look to for such doctrines as the canon of Scripture is the same Magisterium that taught the following at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215):
… Convicted heretics shall be handed over for due punishment to their secular superiors, or the latter’s agents. If they are clerks, they shall first be degraded. The goods of the laymen thus convicted shall be confiscated; those of the clergy shall be applied to the churches from which they drew their stipends. … If a temporal Lord neglects to fulfil the demand of the Church that he shall purge his land of this contamination of heresy, he shall be excommunicated by the metropolitan and other bishops of the province. If he fails to make amends within a year, it shall be reported to the Supreme Pontiff, who shall pronounce his vassals absolved from fealty to him and offer his land to Catholics. The latter shall exterminate the heretics, possess the land without dispu te and preserve it in the true faith…. Catholics who assume the cross and devote themselves to the extermination of heretics shall enjoy the same indulgence and privilege as those who go to the Holy Land…. (As cited in Documents of the Christian Religion edited by Henry Bettenson, 2nd Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967) p. 133)
Did the Holy Spirit guide the Church in this condemnation of “heretics” to death? Or is this one of the “sins” that the Catholics confess having perpetrated upon their brethren in Christ? If so, does this not then demonstrate, beyond question, that the Roman Church has not been infallible in its teaching down through history? Such questions are side-stepped by the document.
The next section is entitled “We Hope Together.” We read,
Our communal and ecclesial separations are deep and long standing….Whatever may be the future form of the relationship between our communities, we can, we must, and we will begin now the work required to remedy what we know to be wrong in that relationship. Such work requires trust and understanding, and trust and understanding require an assiduous attention to truth. We do not deny but clearly assert that there are disagreements between us. Misunderstandings, misrepresentations, and caricatures of one another, however, are not disagreements. There distortions must be cleared away if we are to search through our honest differences in a manner consistent with what we affirm and hope together on the basis of God’s Word.
Surely no Christian should embrace misrepresentations and caricatures of another’s position (such is the reason all truth loving Christians should eschew the rabid “anti-Catholicism” of certain “fundamentalists” who obviously engage in just such caricaturization of the Roman Church’s beliefs). But what do the authors of this document believe are the real, rather than the imagined, differences between Evangelicals and Protestants? The next section, “We Search Together,” answers that question. It begins, a gain, with fine sounding words:
We now search together in confident reliance upon God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, the sure testimony of Holy Scripture, and the promise of the Spirit to his church (ECT: p. 9)
And yet we have already seen that these words carry different meanings for Evangelicals and Catholics; indeed, the differences they note on the next page address some of these very ideas! How, then, can such things form the basis upon which this “searching” is going to take place? We are simply not told. It is admitted by the authors that they cannot solve the deep and long standing differences that divide Evangelicals and Catholics. But, as the tenor of the entire document reveals, these differences ar e not sufficient to overthrow the already noted central affirmation: Evangelicals and Catholics are brothers in Christ.
We are given a list of differences and disagreements on page 10:
- The church as an integral part of the Gospel or the church as a communal consequence of the Gospel.
- The sole authority of Scripture (sola scriptura) or Scripture as authoritatively interpreted in the church.
- The soul freedom of the individual Christian or the Magisterium (teaching authority) of the community.
- The church as local congregation or universal communion.
- Ministry ordered in apostolic succession or the priesthood of all believers.
- Sacraments and ordinances as symbols of grace or means of grace.
- The Lord’s Supper as eucharistic sacrifice or memorial meal.
- Remembrance of Mary and the saints or devotion to Mary and the saints.
- Baptism as sacrament of regeneration or testimony to regeneration.
The authors recognize that this list is at best partial, and at times almost misleading. Lutherans, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Baptists, etc., might disagree with one or more of these formulations, even amongst themselves. Hence, the list is only meant to generalize the differences. As such, it touches upon the main elements of the disagreements that have marked the past 400 years of debate. One could cut the list down to three: authority, the gospel, and Mary. And yet the document does not include the gospel itself as one of the differences. How can it, when it has already asserted that Evangelicals and Catholics are brothers in Christ? Hence, we are left to assume that whether one sees the Lord’s Supper as a memorial meal, or an unbloody sacrifice, is not relevant to the Gospel itself. And, we have to assume that whether baptism is in fact the means of regeneration itself (the Roman view), or a testimony thereto (the Protestant view), makes no difference when it comes to joining together to proclaim the gospel. This list is followed by an interesting paragraph:
On these questions, and other questions implied by them, Evangelicals hold that the Catholic Church has gone beyond Scripture, adding teachings and practices that detract from or compromise the Gospel of God’s saving grace in Christ. Catholics, in turn, hold that such teachings and practices are grounded in Scripture and belong to the fulness of God’s revelation. Their rejection, Catholics say, results in a truncated and reduced understanding of the Christian reality (ECT: pp. 10-11).
Note that the Protestant position is said to allege that the Roman doctrines “compromise the Gospel of God’s saving grace in Christ.” This is very true. Yet, one wonders what happens to this very statement in the rest of the document. If this statement is true, upon what basis can fellowship take place? Can Christian fellowship thrive when the gospel is compromised?
The next section is entitled “We Contend Together.” This section, I believe, provides the real impetus behind the writing of this document. We can see this in the following paragraph from page 12:
In the exercise of these public responsibilities there has been in recent years a growing convergence and cooperation between Evangelicals and Catholics. We thank God for the discovery of one another in contending for a common cause. Much more important, we thank God for the discovery of one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. Our cooperation as citizens is animated by our convergence as Christians. We promise one another that we will work to deepen, build upon, and expand this pattern of converg ence and cooperation.
This is a vital paragraph. What has led to this “convergence” amongst the authors? It is quite obviously their common cause in political and social concerns. When one stands shoulder to shoulder with a person against the holocaust that is abortion in the United States, it is easy to understand how a common bond can be developed, theological issues aside. Surely it is from the unity that exists in opposing the moral decay that is rampant in American culture that this document springs. Indeed, on page 15 we read,
The pattern of convergence and cooperation between Evangelicals and Catholics is, in large part, a result of common effort to protect human life, especially the lives of the most vulnerable among us.
The rest of this section is taken up in addressing a number of important social issues, issues upon which Catholics and Evangelicals can agree. We dare not understate the importance of these issues, and the central position they hold in the thinking of the authors. We shall take the opportunity to comment on this at a later point.
The next section is entitled “We Witness Together.” At this point we encounter some very interesting statements:
Today, in this country and elsewhere, Evangelicals and Catholics attempt to win “converts” from one another’s folds. In some ways, this is perfectly understandable and perhaps inevitable. In many instances, however, such efforts at recruitment undermine the Christian mission by which we are bound by God’s word and to which we have recommitted ourselves in this statement. It should be clearly understood between Catholics and Evangelicals that Christian witness is of necessity aimed at conversion. Authentic conversion is — in its beginning, in its end, and all along the way — conversion to God in Christ by the power of the Spirit (ECT:p. 21).
What then, of seeking to proselytize each other’s “flocks”? The document says:
It is understandable that Christians who bear witness to the Gospel try to persuade others that their communities and traditions are more fully in accord with the Gospel. There is a necessary distinction between evangelizing and what is today commonly called proselytizing or “sheep stealing.” We condemn the practice of recruiting people from another community for purposes of denominational or institutional aggrandizement. At the same time, our commitment to full religious freedom compels us to defend the legal freedom to proselytize even as we call upon Christians to refrain from such activity.
One is immediately struck with many questions, but the most important point we must note is that given the already stated presupposition that Evangelicals and Catholics are brethren in Christ, any kind of “proselyting,” even when carried out by those of us who feel it is necessary, becomes “sheep stealing.” The authors obviously accept the Roman “shepherds” as having just as valid a claim over their “flocks” as a Protesant pastor in his church. Hence, the differences noted before are, obviously, reduced t o a position of mere externals, with a believer being able to grow and thrive in accordance with God’s will in either community. Given that the document recognizes no legitimate grounds upon which a Protestant could seek to share the gospel with a Roman Catholic, we are left with no other reasons for our proselyting activities than “denominational or institutional aggrandizement.”
The result of this affirmation is seen in what follows:
Three observations are in order in connection with proselytizing. First, as much as we might believe one community is more fully in accord with the Gospel than another, we as Evangelicals and Catholics affirm that opportunity and means for growth in Christian discipleship are available in our several communities. Second, the decision of the committed Christian with respect to his communal allegiance and participation must be assiduously respected. Third, in view of the large number of non-Christians in t he world and the enormous challenge of our common evangelistic task, it is neither theologically legitimate nor a prudent use of resources for one Christian community to proselytize among active adherents of another Christian community (ECT: pp. 22-23).
Surely this follows from the over-arching beliefs of the authors: if it does not matter whether one worships in a Roman Catholic Church or an Evangelical one, “proselytizing” in each other’s back yards is indeed silly and a waste of time. And all of this is based upon the assumption that we have a “common evangelistic task,” that is, that we are bringing the same message to the world. Yet, it is just here that reality breaks in upon those who would cry, “Peace, peace!” We don’t have the same message to share with the world. We don’t preach the same gospel. And, what’s more, the document as much as admits this in a following paragraph, but in doing so, I believe, demonstrates how far men are willing to go to produce a unity based on something other than the truth of the gospel:
Repentance and amendment of life do not dissolve remaining differences between us. In the context of evangelization and “reevangelization,” we encounter a major difference in our understanding of the relationship between baptism and the new birth in Christ. For Catholics, all who are validly baptized are born again and are truly, however imperfectly, in communion with Christ. That baptismal grace is to be continuingly reawakened and revivified through conversion. For most Evangelicals, but not all, the experience of conversion is to be followed by baptism as a sign of new birth. For Catholics, all the baptized are already members of the church, however dormant their faith and life; for many Evangelicals, the new birth requires baptismal initiation into the community of the born again. These differing beliefs about the relationship between baptism, new birth, and membership in the church should be honestly presented to the Christian who has undergone conversion. But again, his decision regarding communa l allegiance and participation must be assiduously respected. There are, then, differences between us that cannot be resolved here. But on this we are resolved: All authentic witness must be aimed at conversion to God in Christ by the power of the Spirit. Those converted — whether understood as having received the new birth for the first time or as having experienced the reawakening of the new birth originally bestowed in the sacrament of baptism — must be given full freedom and respect as they discern and decide th e community in which they will live their new life in Christ (ECT: pp. 23-24).
I would very much like to believe, given the obvious intelligence of the drafters of this document, as well as of those who have signed it, that there is some way to understand these paragraphs other than the obvious way, but I simply can’t think of one. Are we honestly to believe that we are to provide to each new convert (by what message they are converted, we can hardly say) an unbiased, neutral presentation of two completely contradictory viewpoints, so that they might “discern and decide the community in which they will live their new life in Christ”? How can the authors seriously suggest such a thing? And yet I cannot see any other possibility from the words of the document itself. I can only hope we will not soon see publications coming forth suggesting how we might go about counseling new “converts” in a neutral or unbiased way!
A Brief Response
And so we have the outlines of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. I have already voiced most of my concerns in the commentary I have provided along with the rather extensive citations of the document itself. I will only briefly expand upon those issues.
I first note with irony that this document has indeed created some unity: while writing this response I was sent a tape of one particular session of Michael Horton‘s radio program, The White Horse Inn. Patrick Madrid of Catholic Answers was on the program, and they were discussing this document. Patrick had many of the same criticisms that I had already noted in this article, though, of course, from the Roman Catholic perspective. The simple fact is that any honest Protestant or Roman Catholic can see that this document, for all its assiduous claims otherwise, compromises both the Roman Catholic and Protestant positions. Both sides have to admit that one can not firmly believe that the message he preaches from his pulpit is true and believe that the message preached by the other is equally true. The contradictions are too large to be hidden by the language of a document such as this.
ECT was born out of the common alliance between Roman Catholics and Protestants in our land against such travesties as abortion, pornography, and the general decline in moral values that is readily seen on all sides. Until one recognizes the power that such an alliance can bring to bear upon a person, one will not be in a position to criticize the authors. Many will have nothing but a knee-jerk reaction to this document, rejecting it out of hand without learning from it a very important lesson. We do not live in vacuum; our theological beliefs are impacted by the world around us, and by our interaction with it. When we feel very strongly about an issue, we can allow that perspective to influence many other aspects of our lives.
As an example, a few years ago I became involved in protesting the murder of unborn children. I believe to this day that abortion is murder, plain and simple, and that those who engage in this activity will answer to God, either now, or in the judgment to come. Indeed, abortion may well be one of the many aspects of God’s judgment that is already coming upon one of the most wicked societies the world has ever known. Be that as it may, I became involved with Operation Rescue on a local level in the Phoenix area, even debating abortion rights advocates on local radio stations, and appearing as a representative in the media. It is vital for everyone to understand how strongly one can feel about this kind of issue, and how that strong feeling can overshadow every other consideration.
It was not long, however, before I became aware of a real problem. It was not, in my situation, stated in writing, but it was understood by all that everyone involved in the work was to be considered a Christian if indeed they claimed to be one. On the practical level, this meant that if I were to find myself in a jail cell with a Roman Catholic it was my duty and obligation to join hands with this person as a fellow believer in Christ, no questions asked. I could not address the issues that separated us. I could not contrast the finished work of Christ, and His free grace, with the Roman concept of the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice, and the idea of merit. I could not, if convinced of its necessity, share the gospel of grace with this Roman Catholic, for this would amount to a “division in the ranks” so to speak, and would detract from the focus of the work. This reality quickly drove me from the organization, and helped me to see the very error that has now been enshrined in Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
The trajedy of ECT is to be seen in the fact that while seeking to accomplish something that seems good, it abandons the one thing that can, in reality, bring about the very good it seeks. This was the lesson I learned when fighting against the murder of unborn children. While I may wish to bring an immediate stop to this hellish activity, I had to realize that there is only one true long-term solution, only one means by which I as a Christian can overcome the powers of evil that seek to destroy and kill and maim. It’s not like I had forgotten the truth; it just got buried under strong emotions. The truth is rather simple:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).
It is a verse almost every Christian knows, and yet its truth is so often forgotten. If I want to stop abortion, I must seek to change the hearts of those who would kill little children. How can I change hearts? I can’t, but God does, and that by one means, and one means only: the gospel. The gospel of Christ. The gospel of grace. The gospel that speaks of God’s holiness, His wrath, and His love demonstrated in the cross of Christ. The gospel preached by the Reformers, the gospel of Paul preached wit h such power by men like Edwards and Spurgeon. That is how I can see hearts changed. “But that takes time!” we are told, “and we don’t have that kind of time!” Such is not, however, a statement of faith, but of disbelief. God saves, in His time, in His way. I have to accept His will in these matters, if I am faithful to the Scriptural witness.
ECT seeks to provide a basis for a common front against the evils of our age, but in the process, it does away with the single means by which those goals can be obtained: the gospel. The simple fact is that Roman Catholics and Protestants, if they are honest, are far apart on the issues of the gospel. There is no unity with reference to the message we preach to the world, and it is pure make-believe to say otherwise. ECT is a lie: it lies to the world when it speaks of a unity that does not exist, and it lies to Christians when it does not properly represent the positions it attempts to make compatible. We may sympathize with the motivations of the authors, recognizing the power of the emotions evoked by abortion and other such evils; but if we wish to honor and love God, we cannot allow our sentiments to overthrow Biblical truth. Instead, Protestants such as Charles Colson should use their positions to powerfully and clearly proclaim the great truths that shook the world four centuries ago, sola gratia, sola Christi, sola fide, sola scriptura. Such would not be politically correct, but it would be Divinely Correct, and such should be the aim of the believer.
The framers of ECT have done a disservice, first and foremost to the gospel of Christ, and secondarily to their communities. We call upon such men as Charles Colson, Richard Land, Larry Lewis, Richard Mouw, John White, and especially J.I. Packer, to rethink their position, and withdraw their support from a document that can do nothing more than cause confusion and “give aid and comfort to the enemies of the cause of Christ.” We call upon these men to place the gospel in the first place in their priorities , and so to order all other priorities under the Lordship of Christ by so doing. And we call all Christians to consider again the truth that the power of God, which we long to see at work in our nation, is found in the preaching of the cross of Christ, not in compromise with those who would replace God’s all sufficient grace with a system of merit and works.Tags: Featured-RomanCatholic