Evangelicals & Catholics: The Next Generation?
By T.A. McMahon
Recently I returned from a conference sponsored by the Wheaton College Graduate School Department of Bible and Theology and InterVarsity Press. Titled “Catholics and Evangelicals in Conversation,” the event brought together 14 theologians from both traditions, including Catholics Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago, and Richard John Neuhaus, co-originator with Charles Colson of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium” (ECT). Leading evangelicals included Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School, and J. I. Packer, well-known author of Knowing God. However, before sharing my observations concerning the significance of the conference and the increasing influence of ECT, let me share my experiences with the students of Wheaton College.
First of all, I took nearly all of my meals on campus just for the opportunity of dialoguing with students. Only a few with whom I talked attended the conference, but all of them thought it was a very good thing to build relationships between Catholics and evangelicals. The closest point to an objection came from a student who felt the conference was no more important than a “conversation between Baptists and Methodists.” That was a stunner to me. Was I talking to young people whose thinking was the exception rather than the rule, on a campus with a widespread reputation for being evangelical? To get a better representation, at the end of the conference I drafted a survey and spent the afternoon roaming the campus interviewing about 100 more students.
I asked them to categorize themselves one of three ways: a) they knew almost nothing about Roman Catholicism; b) they had a general understanding about what Catholics believed; or c) they were pretty knowledgeable about the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Only a few felt they knew little about the Catholic Church; the overwhelming majority put themselves in category “c.” Then I asked, “Based upon what you know about Roman Catholicism, do you believe Catholics need to be evangelized, i.e., presented the biblical gospel of salvation?” Two said yes. A few acknowledged “probably, ” and one thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea. The rest responded with an emphatic no, including a young man who was a former Catholic.
My final question (given the responses, in retrospect it seemed inane) was this: “Have you ever had a class here in which you were taught about Roman Catholicism, and then encouraged to witness to Catholics?” All but one student said no. Excitedly I asked the young man to tell me the name of the class and his professor. “Oh,” he said, “it wasn’t a class—it was my soccer coach!”
I rarely get depressed, but this moved me to the fringe of that condition. Could it really be that this next generation of evangelicals is convinced there is no significant difference between Catholics and biblically born-again Christians? Even my talks with some students who were attending the conference from Covenant College, Taylor University, and Moody Bible Institute indicated a lack of real understanding of the gospel of Rome. But how prevalent is this? (I would greatly appreciate anyone with access to a school claiming to be evangelical to try out my survey on campus and let me know the results.) More importantly, what might be the consequences of such a lack of understanding among our young people? Before we address those questions, however, let’s clarify the fundamental (and critical) difference between Roman Catholic salvation and what the Bible teaches about salvation.
Catholic salvation, i.e., qualifying for heaven, is a lifelong process. It begins with the sacrament of Baptism; nearly all of one billion Roman Catholics are baptized as infants. Catholics refer to their baptism as the sacrament through which they are “born again” or justified and through which they first receive “sanctifying grace.” This grace is necessary in order to be eligible to earn salvation, which is why Catholics claim to be “saved by grace alone.”
The sacraments of Penance, Holy Eucharist, and Confirmation are crucial to staying and growing in the state of sanctifying grace. Also contributing to this salvation process are a host of extrabiblical teachings and practices (liturgies, indulgences, sacramentals, good works, sufferings, penances, rituals, prayers, Mass and Holy Day of Obligation attendance, etc.) which are said to bolster one in grace. All that, however, can be lost by committing a “mortal sin,” which eradicates the sanctifying grace required for entrance into heaven. If a Catholic dies without sanctifying grace, he or she is condemned to hell for eternity. Upon confession and a priest’s absolution of a mortal sin or sins, Catholics are restored to the state of sanctifying grace and rejustified. Upon their death they enter purgatory, where they must be purified from all their temporal sins through suffering its purging flames.
Roman Catholicism teaches that every person must become perfectly righteous before he or she can enter heaven. Meritorious works and the expiation of one’s own sins contribute to one’s infused righteousness necessary for eternal life with God.
My survey of the Wheaton students did not include details of what they knew about Roman Catholicism, so whether or not they really comprehended the basics of Catholic salvation is uncertain. On the other hand, if they indeed understood Rome’s teachings (as most claimed), I’m very concerned about their understanding of the biblical gospel.
The gospel of salvation as taught in the Scriptures is exceedingly profound, yet very simple. Although created originally in perfection and without sin, Adam and Eve nevertheless sinned against God, bringing condemnation upon all mankind. The divine penalty imposed upon all sinners is death, i.e., separation from God for eternity; and because He is perfect in justice, the penalty had to be paid. Yet God is also perfect in love and mercy; therefore He became a Man in order to save mankind through His perfect life and substitutionary death. The Bible proclaims that all who turn to God and by faith receive His gift of salvation are declared perfectly righteous in His sight and will spend eternity in heaven with Him. What Christ accomplished on the cross (being God’s perfect Lamb who alone could take away the sin of the world) is imputed to everyone who puts his trust in Him.
A number of important issues separate Roman Catholicism from evangelical Christianity. However, the most critical issue presents a chasm so wide that it cannot be bridged by any ecumenical span—and that is “faith.”
The Bible states repeatedly and unequivocally that a person is saved by faith and only by faith. The reason, like the gospel itself, is simple: only Jesus, who is both God and Man, could pay the infinite penalty required by God’s justice. Faith in Him and His finished work on the cross, then, is mankind’s only means of salvation. That is not only what the Bible teaches, but logic and reason demand the same conclusion. What can we do to assist in something which God says He alone can do and has done? Any such attempt to add anything to Christ’s perfect atonement is a rejection of God’s salvation. Yet Roman Catholicism majors on “finishing” the finished work of Christ. It teaches that man must merit heaven through his own “grace-assisted” good works, sufferings, obedience to Church laws, receiving the sacraments, expiating his own sins, and on and on. Furthermore, the Catholic Church claims that it alone possesses the treasury from which are dispensed the graces necessary for salvation.
Again, it troubles me deeply that our next generation of evangelicals appears unable (or unmotivated) to discern between the gospel Paul preached, which alone saves, and what he called “another gospel,” which can save no one. That false “gospel,” by the way, was an attempt to add circumcision to faith in order to be justified. Paul was so troubled by this one addition that, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he condemned all who preach such a gospel. Yet the Catholic Church condemns all who reject their hundreds of additions to faith which it says are necessary for salvation!
How could this evangelical generation become oblivious to the clear teaching of Scripture? Well, there are lots of contributing influences. Postmodernist ideas such as “truth is relative” and “one point of view is as valid as any other” are prevalent in our culture and particularly in our schools; consequently, they have been easily assimilated by evangelicals young and old. Seeking after truth, then, hardly becomes a worthy pursuit.
Many of today’s youth have been persuaded that the division between Catholics and Protestants is the archaic product of a past age of bigotry and ignorance. And sadly, there are still enough examples around today to give this thesis credence. Furthermore, tolerance has been the social rallying cry for the last decade or so, and therefore anything that smacks of intolerance (regardless of its basis) must be avoided at the very least. If you think this isn’t typical of your own evangelical kids or their peers, ask them if they see any problem with one of them deciding to marry a Catholic. I can almost guarantee that their first response will not be what the Bible says about being unequally yoked with an unbeliever, nor concern for the Church’s insistence that the children be baptized and raised Catholic. Rather, it will be how “intolerant” (even bigoted!) it is to impose a view that would keep apart two people who love each other. I have a few letters from brokenhearted evangelical parents whose children decided upon such a rationale.
However, the strongest influence regarding the current attitude about Catholicism among sincere evangelical young people is not from the world, but from the professing evangelical church. You would be hard pressed to find among highly visible church leaders more than a few who speak out against the growing ecumenical bond-building between Catholics and evangelicals. That ratio would be very similar among evangelical pastors. It is also rather tragic that those who understand the issues biblically fail to address it in their churches and therefore fail their young members because of their reluctance to “offend” by instructing them accordingly.
So who can blame this generation? Their favorite music groups celebrate the Pope at the Catholic World Youth Day event. The largest of the national conferences for evangelical youths and youth pastors invites priests as the keynote speaker and a workshop leader. Catholic parishes around the country are thrilled to have their young people participate (there’s obviously no fear that they will be converted). The hot item at one such conference last year was introducing kids to the contemplative approach to spirituality, a practice which draws almost entirely upon teachings of Catholic mystics. Most of the popular parachurch ministries, rather than evangelizing Catholics, work with them as Christians. These ministries include Prison Fellowship, the Billy Graham Association, Campus Crusade, YWAM, Promise Keepers, InterVarsity Fellowship, and Focus on the Family.
Chuck Colson, J. I. Packer, Luis Palau, Robert Schuller, Hank Hanegraaff, Pat Robertson, Billy Graham, Elisabeth Elliot, Paul and Jan Crouch, Jack Hayford, Jack Van Impe, Benny Hinn, Norm Geisler, and a host of others have furthered the belief that although there are differences between Catholics and evangelicals, they are after all our brothers and sisters in Christ.
In addition to the blatant disregard for what the Bible teaches, the organizations and individuals mentioned above (hardly an exhaustive list) are influencing our young people (and others as well) to abandon a billion souls in bondage to a false gospel.
Then there is ECT.
The original “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” document was presented to the public in 1994. The Catholic participants/signers were esteemed representatives of the Church, including John Cardinal O’Connor and now Cardinals Francis George and Avery Dulles. Evangelical participants/signers were also highly influential church leaders (among them Chuck Colson, J. I. Packer, Pat Robertson, Bill Bright, and Jesse Miranda). Although there were cases of strong protest from the evangelical community, characterizing the document as a “compromise” and “betrayal” of the gospel, these were lost in the praises from Christian and secular media (from Christianity Today to the Wall Street Journal). The perception left with most people was that ECT had made great strides in resolving the issues which “divided Christianity at the time of the Reformation.” The document itself seemed to be designed to give that impression.
Although no information was presented from either side to substantiate changes in doctrinal positions (which had separated them for 450 years), nevertheless the language of the document implied great strides forward without compromise. While ECT encourages unity among all “1.7 billion Christians,” it specifically applies to Catholics and evangelicals, whom it confidently calls “brothers and sisters in Christ.” However, it never establishes how one becomes a brother or sister in Christ, or for that matter, one of the 1.7 billion “Christians.”
The goal for both communities is “working and witnessing together in order to advance the one mission of Christ.” How do two entities with contrary gospels witness together “to advance the one mission of Christ”? That’s never brought to light. In fact, it’s buried beneath the propaganda of ecumenical enthusiasm and feigned fidelity: “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….” This is self-delusion or worse.
Although the first ECT document was clearly a sham, offering what it didn’t (and couldn’t) deliver, nevertheless it was terribly successful. It spawned a perception of new “Christian unity” which both church and world embraced with delight. And why not—in this day when image is everything, and substance is for a few experts to decipher?
Our impressionable next evangelical generation was in middle school when Chuck Colson and Richard John Neuhaus first presented ECT. That was followed by ECT II, “The Gift of Salvation,” which furthered the image of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” The third phase of ECT will reportedly examine the authority of Scripture alone in light of Christian tradition. Thus the ecumenical line of the “emperor’s new clothes” is being firmly established in the eyes of evangelicals. Although ECT is biblically “naked,” few will be able to resist its having been paraded down the fashion runway of the Cliff Barrows Auditorium in the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton. The price, however, is the forsaking of a billion Roman Catholic souls and revising the gospel of Christ.
Next month we will cover details and implications of the “Catholics and Evangelicals in Conversation” conference. TBC