Roman Catholic Grace

In light of all the commotion that has been stirred up by the document, Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), and the subsequent national press given to this document, and the corresponding fall-out from its signing by Dr. J.I. Packer, a prominent evangelical, it is time to get to the heart of the matter.

We have reviewed the ECT document as well as Dr. Packer's rationale for signing it as found in the December 12th, 1994 issue of Christianity Today. Both these papers are available for those who wish to catch up on the discussion.

What we would like to do in this article is interact with Alister E. McGrath, Professor of Systematic Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia. Dr. McGrath has given us another eye opening article in CT 12-12-94. Paged together with Dr. Packer's apology, these two articles may be the most significant of our time.

We applaud Dr. McGrath's article because he has handled the Reformation issues with a succinct clarity found in few writings. Dr. McGrath has gotten to the point on justification and other critical doctrines of the Reformation which have separated evangelicals from the Roman Catholic religion for almost 450 years.

However, we applaud only moderately. Despite Dr. McGrath's accuracy on the theological differences which separated the Reformers from Rome, we find Dr. McGrath to have failed to grasp the essence of Romanism on salvation. Also, Dr. McGrath fails to give the doctrinal differences their proper weight.

Dr. McGrath has made two grave errors. The first is not grasping Rome's use of terminology in such phrases as salvation by the grace of God. The second is not concluding from the evidence on justification that Rome preaches (heteron euaggelion) another gospel! In effect Dr. McGrath has loaded the proverbial theological gun, pointed it at Rome's gospel, taken careful aim and failed to pull the trigger! The trigger, for the sake of the gospel, needs to be pulled.

The problem begins with Dr. McGrath's misunderstanding of Catholic terminology. While accurately observing that Rome rejects Pelagianism (that we are justified on the basis of our works) he misleads in saying that the Catholic church, "does, indeed, uphold the principle of salvation on the basis of God's grace." He also misleads when speaking of Catholic justification as being from the grace of God.

Here is the point. Rome can say, we are justified by the grace of God and reject justification based upon our own works simply because Rome attaches preceding grace to all of man's works. Hence, to Rome, good works are not strictly our own works but those works wrought by God. God's grace is behind good works. These good works are then added as a part of the ground of justification. Any Catholic theologian will tell you that he is not justified on the basis of his good works. No, he is justified on the basis of good works, wrought by God, through graces given freely by God in the Romanist sacramental system. It is misleading to frame Catholic terms of justification by the grace of God as though they mean the same thing as the evangelical gospel of justification by the grace of God. It is the gospel that God, by grace, imputes the righteousness of Christ for our declared justification. Good works have their role. They are the necessary result of having been declared justified by God's grace based upon the imputation of Christ's righteousness alone.

The same thing holds true of salvation. Catholic theologians uphold the principle of salvation on the basis of God's grace but what do they mean? The phrase by God's grace is critical. The Roman Catholic sees God's grace everywhere, and so inflates the concept of grace as to make it meaningless! It is well documented that God's grace can be construed by Rome as God allowing us to suffer for our own sins! Incredibly, Rome says we must, by the grace of God, discharge the debt of sin by suffering! Trent is straight forward.

"If anyone says that after the reception of the grace of justification the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out to every repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be discharged either in this world or in purgatory before the gates of heaven can be opened, let him be anathema." Trent, Sixth session, January, 1547. Taken from The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, by H.J. Schroeder, pgs. 41-46.
By God's grace we can have a shorter stay in Purgatory! By God's grace we can be regenerated in the Catholic sacrament of baptism! By God's grace we can acquire more grace through the eating of Christ's actual body and drinking of His actual blood in the Catholic eucharist! By God's grace we can earn indulgences, buy Masses for the dearly departed and go directly to Mary to ask a favor of the Son!

It is the height of naivety to suggest that Roman Catholics believe in salvation by the grace of God as though these words had any correspondence to Paul's gospel of justification by faith apart from works of law or deeds of righteousness. They do not!

Evangelicals who try to explain the Roman gospel may get a bit zealous and say that Rome believes in a works salvation. This is more a matter of compressing the essence into a short dictum than a serious misrepresentation of the Catholic religion. For in the final analysis, Rome teaches the ground of our justification includes good works wrought by God. It utterly rejects alien righteousness in the verdict of justification. Also, the big work (after a passive baptism) in the Roman system is to avail oneself of the means of grace. Grace, in Rome, is a supernatural enabling which is procured! Thus, justification is dependent upon dedication to the sacramental system to get more grace, to do more works in order to suffer less penance or spend less time in Purgatory. The minute the Romanist stops doing his part he is lost. Dr. McGrath apparently has missed this point.

It is also entirely misleading for Dr. McGrath to say that Catholics are somehow orthodox with the gospel by saying that they hold, "Salvation is only possible through the cross of Christ." A Mormon or a Jehovah Witness could say this, not to mention an entire parade of quasi-Christian cults. It is equally misleading to say that,

"Roman Catholicism, from the Council of Trent in 1547 onwards, has unequivocally rejected this [justified on the basis of our works] doctrine."
In the first place, no one accuses Rome of begin justified on the basis of their own raw, inherent, non-baptized works! What we do accuse Rome of is proclaiming a gospel of salvation based upon faith plus grace produced works stemming from participation in Rome's sacramental system. This faith plus grace induced works gospel is foreign to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

To say that Rome does not believe works uninitiated by God can save us is of little comfort! Especially when Rome attaches merit to the initiated works of God! Listen to Trent.

"Hence, to those who work well unto the end and trust in God, eternal life is offered, both as a grace mercifully promised to the sons of God through Christ Jesus, and as a reward promised by God Himself, to be faithfully given to their good works and merits."

"we must believe that nothing further is wanting to those justified to prevent them from being considered to have, by those very good works which have been done in God, fully satisfied the divine law according to the state of this life and to have truly merited eternal life, to be obtained in its due time, provided they depart this life in grace."

"If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ's sake, or that it is this confidence alone that justifies us, let him be accursed."

"If anyone says that the justice received is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works, but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not the cause of its increase, let him be anathema." Ibid.
We believe Dr. McGrath has chosen his words very carefully so as to oblige the Romanist gospel. It is totally inaccurate to let stand Dr. McGrath's summary that,

We have already observed that today's Catholic church does, indeed, uphold the principle of salvation on the basis of God's grace. (italics ours) This statement is dangerous and not worthy of a careful biblical theologian.

Why Not Pull The Trigger?


We are at a loss as to how Dr. McGrath can so carefully and expertly clarify our differences with Rome and not call Romanism another gospel! Look, he finds Rome to be totally outside of the evangelical understanding of justification. He finds Rome's teaching on the church, assurance, indulgences, Purgatory and Mary (just to name a few) to be absolutely contrary to the evangelical understanding of the gospel. Yet, he will not say that Rome is outside of Christianity.

Ostensively, we feel his reluctance stems from a greater fear of living in a post-Christian world than a fear of unfaithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ! Dr. McGrath, like his colleague Dr. Packer, has a healthy fear of non-Christian religions but little fear of Rome. We are absolutely baffled! Rome does not preach nor teach the gospel of our salvation. Rome has not changed theologically from Trent. On top of this, Rome is leading the cavalcade in accommodations to the Muslims and Hindus of the world. Vatican II and post Vatican II speeches should make evangelicals extremely uncomfortable. Rome is engrossed in ecumenism while claiming to be Christ's Bride here on earth. Rome also comes close to declaring all religions to be in, some way, related to Rome, albeit, only Rome will there be the fullness of spirituality. If Rome's gospel is not enough to keep us out of Rome (and it most assuredly is) then what of Rome's ecumenism? Has not Dr. McGrath read Vatican II? Rome embraces what Dr. McGrath dreads the most. We offer an illustration taken from Lumen Gentium, and a speech given by John Paul II. In referencing the Muslim and Hindu religion, Vatican II states:

"The plan of salvation includes those also who acknowledge the Creator; foremost among these are the Muslims: they profess fidelity to the faith of Abraham and, with us, adore the one and merciful God who will judge mankind on the last day. Nor is God far from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God; for He gives to all men life and breath and all things" Lumen Gentium, Vatican Council II pg. 367, Austin Flannery, General Editor.
We find these sobering works given by Pope John Paul II at Manilla in February of 1981, while addressing several Asian churches.

"All Christians must therefore be committed to dialogue with the believers of all religions, so that mutual understanding and collaboration may grow; so that moral values may be strengthened; so that God may be praised in all creation. Ways must be developed to make this dialogue a reality everywhere, but especially in Asia, the continent that is the cradle of ancient cultures and religions. Christians will, moreover, join hands with all men and women of good will who share a belief in the inestimable dignity of each human person. They will work together in order to bring about a more just and peaceful society in which the poor will be the first to be served. Asia is the continent where the spiritual is held in high esteem and where the religious sense is deep and innate: the preservation of this precious heritage must be the common task of all." (This citation and a great deal more of what the Catholic religion is doing by way of ecumenism can be gleaned from The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Church edited by J. Neuner and J. Depuis, Alba House, New York, 1981.)
It appears to us that Rome is treating the other religions of the world precisely as Dr. McGrath and other evangelicals are asking us to treat Rome. The language is imprecise. The words are carefully chosen so as not to offend. The meat of the matter is lost in reconciliation language. The focus of the gospel and the gospel message is buried under an avalanche of poetic semantics.

In every theological disputation and argument there is a turning point where the entire article can be summed up as to its essence. We find that turning point on the last page of Dr. McGrath's article.

He calls our differences with Rome "continuing doctrinal disagreements." He identifies the real enemies of the gospel as mainline liberal Protestantism, secularism and, ironically, Islam! He then asks the question, "Can feuds between Christians be allowed when non-Christians seem to be winning the cultural battles?" At this point the entire issue of the gospel has been compromised! Dr. McGrath considers the gospel of Rome to be nothing more than a "doctrinal difference" which can be ironed out later when the world is safe for the gospel.

Essentially, we are being asked by a reputable theologian to set aside the gospel until the world is safer for the gospel! We are absolutely dumbfounded. We are asked to erase 450 years of history, throw out the gospel and join ranks with Rome to make this world a better place to live!

Although, Dr. McGrath expresses his uneasiness with the direction the train is headed, he does not withhold his fuel! He thinks that we can set aside our differences and get on with the task of quieting the world. But how shall we do this? Shall we preach the Roman Catholic gospel to Muslims? Hardly, they are to be esteemed and their doctrines held in high regard, according to Vatican II. Even so, are we willing to say a Muslim converted to Catholicism is now a Christian? Shall we turn the tide of secularism through the mighty gospel of Rome? Shall we elect Roman governors and presidents so that we can be safe and free to worship as our fathers did? We speak as if insane!

Another Gospel


There are no doubt some who have lost their identity, their mooring and gone apostate. Things are pretty bizarre when people are leaving liberal Protestant churches to join conservative Roman Catholic churches. True enough! But it is even more bizarre for high profile professing Christians to get rattled over this. Since when is the barometer of healthy Christianity measured by folks jumping from liberal ships on fire into the frying pan of Roman slave ships? There are plenty of conservative Bible believing churches to accommodate those who want to flee liberalism!

Christians have long given up on liberals who are looking for that elusive combination of meaningful ritualistic religion without any accountability to the God of Scripture. In Rome they may find the ritual but with it comes eternal death through a false hope.

Furthermore, we are extremely concerned at how easy it is for some to quickly desert the One who called them by the grace (evangelical definition) of Christ to a different gospel.

All of a sudden truth is in the way of some who are in a hurry to usher in the third century untied around moral, social and political causes. Hold on here! Perhaps we should take a lesson from the apostle Paul. He lived in dangerous times 2 Cor. 11:23f. The gospel was underground! The prospects for a long life upon becoming a Christian were slim. The Body of Christ was tiny and frightened by the great Roman empire. What to do? According to today's alleged consensus, the church should have pursued needed allies to bring in a safer social, moral and political environment. Why not join in with the Jewish nation? After all the early Christians had more in common with Judaism than they did with the Temple of Zeus! Now what should they have given up to form a political and social alliance against the dreaded Roman pagans and gods of the Canaanites? How about something insignificant like Circumcision? Why not just include it as part of being a Christian. After all, it is a minor doctrinal difference between Christian and Jew. For that matter, how about the law of Moses? We can think of nothing more moral than the law of Moses.

Hopefully you get the point! The apostle Paul thundered against the inclusion of anything that took away from the righteousness of Christ for our justification. He would not allow for even a minute the innocuous doctrine of circumcision! According to today's evangelical standards, Paul must have been narrow-minded indeed. Perhaps he was ignorant that belief in monotheism, Christ as the Son of God, and the judgment in the end was enough to make one a Christian. If we can form a political, moral and social consensus with those who preach circumcision, or the law, or the sacraments, or 5 steps to heaven, or baptismal regeneration, or oneness Pentecostalism, then all the better! After all, are not we all simply Jehovah's witnesses? We speak as if mad!

We are not aware of any passage of Scripture which informs us that having begun by faith we are to continue by ritual or sacrifice, or sacrament or evangelical obedience! However, we do see a tiny band of faithful refusing to blend Christianity in with another gospel. We do see the early Fathers willing to suffer death rather than compromise the gospel to an amalgamation of political strength! We do see Christians unwilling to set aside the gospel for even a second to accomplish some wide eyed idea of world peace!

We ask a simple question. If the Apostle Paul considered the simple rite of circumcision an intrusion on the gospel of Jesus Christ, to the point where he called it another gospel, what are we to think of Roman Catholicism? The Judaizers were moral, monotheistic, willing to believe that Christ was the Son of God and sold out to Moses. Why not adjust the gospel? We believe the answer lies in the uniqueness of the gospel and the power of God when it is preached. To the Jews it was a stumbling block, to the Greeks it was foolishness. The Roman Catholic gospel, having its origin with men, is neither foolishness nor a stumbling block to a world that relishes in fatal attempts to please God with its own righteousness.

Perhaps if the Christians of the world would not be afraid to call a false hope, a false hope we could begin to recapture the lost ground with the only message of mankind's salvation.

We have been sufficiently warned by Dr. McGrath that there is a great deal of confusion and fear among evangelicals. He is at the forefront. These anxieties stem from a wavering commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ which could lead to alliances with pagan gospels for political safety. As the nation of Israel forged alliances, which would later turn on them and take them captive, so now our leaders are asking us to open up our gates and welcome the Roman Horse! We say no. We say let our fear be in forsaking the gospel of the living God.

Print This Page