Closeness on ethics doesn’t lessen the gulf over eternal matters of salvation

With the death of Pope Benedict XVI, there seem to be a great number of evangelicals paying homage. Indeed, there has been a small trend among evangelicals to want to note their “closeness” to Roman Catholicism. Whilst I don’t doubt there has been historic anti-Catholicism among evangelicals that bordered on hatred of Catholic people themselves, I fear something of an over-correction afoot when I hear these things.

Secularists and non-Christians have long sought to play down the differences between Protestant and Catholic faiths. That is not usually for malevolent reasons, but because of the evident historic tensions between the two and – in some cities and areas – the ongoing tensions that prevail. You don’t have to spend too long in Belfast, Glasgow or Liverpool (among a few other places) to see what drives the impulse. There is an element of “can’t we all just get along” going on that is not at all unreasonable and, frankly, all the more understandable when it is coming from outsiders who have no religiosity to speak of at all. Two groups of people you disagree with loathing and attacking each other for beliefs you reject and cannot fathom why anyone holds any of them will lead to bemusement and a sense that the whole thing is a big fuss over nothing.

It should go without saying – but it seems worth saying nonetheless – if Catholics and Protestants both claim Jesus as their own, we would all do well to follow his example. That is, not joining together to damage our apparent enemies but rather doing good, even to them who (so some believe) hate us. As all Christians of every stripe have known for some 2000 years now, there really is no ground for attacking those with whom we disagree nor hating those outside our camp, no matter how wrong we might find them to be.

But, these things are not all one thing or the other. It isn’t either batter people because you disagree with them or affirm everything they say, expressing our closeness with them. There is a middle ground that may rightly affirm our quite serious differences without attacking anyone. But being clear about those differences is really quite important. Not least – whether you are Catholic of Protestant – because the answers concern (all sides believe) matters of eternal life and death. Whilst those who wouldn’t even claim to be Christian of any stripe might look on perplexed and wonder what all the fuss is about, those of us who claim to follow Christ – whatever we may call ourselves and to whichever camp we belong – reckon these things matter, not just today, but eternally.

Which is why I am somewhat disturbed by evangelicals who want to note their closeness and sympathy with Roman Catholicism. Whilst I don’t doubt Pope Benedict XVI wrote some things that were true, when taken at face value, we cannot ignore the fact that the pope was actually a Catholic who upheld the teaching of the Catholic Church. He was a man who saw an essentially Calvinistic covenant theology in the scriptures, but as a true Catholic, could not accept it – despite what he saw – because the historic teaching of the church supersedes the authority of scripture. He was a man who unwaveringly held to the Roman Catholic understanding of salvation by faith and works. These are matters – according to an evangelical Protestant understanding – that will not lead you to Christ nor secure your eternal life.

Like any Catholic who holds to the official teaching of the Roman Catholic church – as Steve McAlpine highlights in this post – Benedict was clear that he could not have assurance of salvation. He notes Tess Livingstone – writing in praise of Benedict in The Australian – quotes him saying the following:

Never one to presume on God’s mercy, he also wrote that when he encountered the Lord, “I will plead with him to have leniency towards my wretchedness.’’

Benedict could not ‘presume on God’s mercy’. There was no guarantee. If trust is not in Christ alone, it is (at least to some degree) in oneself. The faith plus works doctrine of the church, that supersedes scripture, means there is no ultimate assurance, even for the pontiff.

By contrast, the Baptist preacher C.H. Spurgeon put the Protestant position this way:

Jesus having taken the place of the believer- having rendered a full equivalent to divine wrath for all that His people ought to have suffered as the result of sin, the believer can shout with glorious triumph, “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?” Not God, for He hath justified; not Christ, for He hath died, “yea rather hath risen again.” My hope lives not because I am not a sinner, but because I am a sinner for whom Christ died; my trust is not that I am holy, but that being unholy, He is my righteousness. My faith rests not upon what I am, or shall be, or feel, or know, but in what Christ is, in what He has done, and in what He is now doing for me.

C.H. Spurgeon, Morning & Evening, September 25th Morning Reading

There is assurance of salvation for any sinner who repents. Salvation is not guaranteed by our goodness, our works or even on God’s leniency. It is based on God acting like a just God, punishing the fullness of our sin in Christ and applying the saving effects of his death and resurrection to our account. We receive those benefits by faith in Christ alone; by giving up our efforts to earn salvation and trust solely in Jesus’ finished work. He wins and secures our salvation so we can be confident before God’s throne of judgement. Our sin has been paid for in whole, nothing more is required from us, because Jesus has paid it and our only plea before God is not that we tried our best, or made up something Jesus left undone, but that we are in Christ, he died for us, sin is the only thing keeping us out of Heaven and our just God has already punished it once in Jesus and he doesn’t double-dip.

I appreciate there are those tempted towards Catholicism because it seems to offer an historic, and apparently more robust, stance on certain current cultural issues compared to other branches of Christendom. But it bears remembering that the same might be said of Islam too. If all we want is robust ethics in the face of a secular liberalism that brooks no dissent, Catholicism is not the only boat we might jump into. Indeed, Islam perhaps offers a more robust defence still much of the time. But such a focus misses the point. In the end, whilst scripture does tell us that standing on the wrong side of certain ethical issues necessarily means we have departed from the gospel, a right stance on those ethical issues is not the grounds of our faith nor the basis of our salvation. It is possible to stand on the right side of every current ethical issue going and yet still find ourselves on the wrong side of God at the judgement.

Which is why the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism are not to be downplayed in favour of co-belligerence on current cultural and ethical issues. Whilst I am not saying those things are unimportant, some matters are more important still. To paraphrase Jesus himself, what does it profit a man to stand with the bible on every ethical matter facing our culture today, and yet lose his own soul?

That is what we are talking about when it comes to such differences. Not reason or cause to attack or hate anybody else. But nevertheless, matters of eternal consequence. Matters that, if we play up our closeness because of shared opposition to cultural mores, may lead people to a church that embraces some biblical ethics whilst missing out on the far more important reality of knowing Jesus, his total forgiveness of sin and the certainty of eternal life he brings. Which, in the end, seems quite important, doesn’t it?