One of the most difficult (and seemingly intractible) questions that Protestants must engage with is our common response to the Roman Catholic Church (“RCC”). Anyone with even a limited grasp of the events of the Reformation must acknowledge that there were profound and axiomatic differences between the Protestant Reformers and the Church of Rome, differences that led to a firm and clear break that still exists today.
These debates are resurrected in each generation when a new catalyst comes along, most recently energised by the work of men such as Tom Wright. Some of our current discussions over this perennial question flow out of the clarity with which Wright has helped us delineate exactly what we mean by “the gospel”. There is certainly some confusion for us as we ask whether “the gospel” is simply the narrative of the life of Jesus contained in the New Testament, perhaps a smaller more compact “kerygma” (declaration) that summarises that narrative, or even a far more comprehensive system of belief that we point people to.
The cutting edge of this discussion for some of us is whether the boundaries we place upon what the authentic gospel is (and therefore who can in any sense be said to “have” the gospel) are in the right place. Most pointedly for Protestants we must included in this discussion the question of whether Rome “has” the gospel.
So where to start? Well certainly a good place may be with our definitions. Back in 2008 The Gospel Coalition helpfully summarised Wright’s definitions of “the gospel”. These are useful for all of us.
“The gospel is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, has been enthroned as the true Lord of the world. When this gospel is preached, God calls people to salvation, out of sheer grace, leading them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the risen Lord.” – Christianity Today, June 2009
“The gospel itself refers to the proclamation that Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, is the one, true and only Lord of the world.”
– from “Paul in Different Perspectives: Lecture 1″
When Paul talks about “the gospel,” he means “the good news that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and therefore the Lord of the world.” Now, that’s about as brief as you can do it.
Wright also helpfully reminds us that the language of “gospel”, as well as primarily having solid roots in Isaiah, also had a specific contemporary usage; “it was used in the Roman world of the accession, or birthday, of the emperor.” Thus the New Testament usage of the term is an easily understood subversion – there is a new emperor to be declared to the world!
The Gospel Coalition are right, I think, to commend this understanding to us and I’d recommend you read through all the material they have there. In bringing this reminder to us, Wright has served us well. It is a massive encouragement to ensure that we remember that gospel work necessarily involves telling people “the gospel” and that “gospel” is not simply a life lived in love but a clear declaration about Jesus and who He is. That’s why, of course, so many of us ground our evangelistic efforts in simply reading one of the four gospels with people. We want them to meet the Lord Jesus Christ as He walks off the page – the writers of the gospels are called The Evangelists with good reason.
So far so good. Even the Pope himself would (I’m pretty confident) agree with us up to this point.
But now we begin to engage with some difficulties. The argument some want to make now is that since the Roman Catholic Church points us clearly to the New Testament, which contains “the gospel”, they therefore “have the gospel”. Immediately I need to point out that this is a different question to “can Roman Catholics be saved?” to which I would affirm “yes, but not because of what Rome teaches, rather despite it”. The question here, however, is not about individuals within the Roman Catholic Church but about the official teaching of the the RCC. That being said, there is some impact for individuals in the RCC that arises from our eventual conclusions.
We now move into the realm of discussions around the doctrine of “Justification by Faith Alone” – one of the key Reformation doctrines. As they read the Bible the Reformers asserted the motto sola fide, “faith alone”; i.e. faith apart from works is what saves. They understood this from key texts such as Rom. 4:4-5, Phil. 3:8-10 and, perhaps most critically, Gal. 2:16. Rome, in response, anathematised the doctrine of sola fide at the Council of Trent and reasserted it’s sacramental understanding of salvation which it taught was not an immediate forensic/imputed righteousness but, rather, something that was actually infused into the Christian and could be “defused” again. The hope for the Christian under Rome was grace imparted through the sacraments, and in particular through not only repentance but also penitance. Rather than being saved unambiguously by repentance leading to faith in Jesus, Rome insisted that we are saved by repentance, faith and then acts of penance (and that as part of an ongoing cycle wherein reaching a certain state of grace was theoretically possible but practically unatainable). Paul anathematised in one direction. Rome, in startling and stunning clarity, anathematised in the other direction! Trent, of course, still stands today as Roman doctrine.
CANON IX.-If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.Canons of the Council of Trent, Session 6.
For the Reformers this amounted to work added to faith and thus was in clear violation of their reading of the New Testament. So much so that Reformed confessions of faith make particular reference to this issue. So, for example, the Anglican 39 Articles state,
Of the Church
As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch have erred: so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.
The greatest concern “in matters of Faith” was precisely this question of Justification,
Of the Justification of Man
We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.
For the Reformers this wasn’t just details, it was a fundamental issue and many of them went to their death over it (not least many of the Anglican Reformers).
Nevertheless we hear the argument that since Rome has the New Testament it “has the gospel”. This is more and more popular in our age of renewed ecumenism, particularly in scholarly circles. We want to strive for maximum unity and it’s just not good form to point out differences, particularly profound ones. So, under this way of thinking, who is anyone to challenge the notion that a sincere Roman Catholic is not saved? Surely that’s the height of arrogance; theological nitpicking of a most divisive type? Isn’t it putting boundaries in place that the New Testament with it’s bold and universal gospel proclamation nullifies?
Well no. It’s actually quite the opposite. The same Paul who Wright tells us gives us a clear simple gospel also puts very clear boundaries not only on what the gospel is but also its implications for salvation and how it is appropriated. For the Apostle this was a first-order issue:
Gal. 1:6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
Paul’s language could not be stronger. The Galatians’ adoption of a new way of thinking is, according to the Apostle
- a desertion of God
- a turning to a different gospel
- troubling the church
- a distortion of the gospel
- a matter so serious that the proponents of this “different gospel” should be cursed by God.
As we read on through the epistle it becomes clear what this “different gospel” is,
Gal. 3:1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— 6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?
This whole chapter is, of course, one of the key texts used to explicate Justification by Faith Alone. What is incredibly important to observe here is that there is absolutely no indication that the content of the gospel message has changed. If Wright were to comment on the facts being taught about Jesus in Galatia he would have no cause for concern. There would still be a clear announcement of His kingship, His perfect life, His substitutionary death and His powerful Resurrection and Ascension. The problem in Galatia was not that they did not have the testimony to Jesus to call people to trust (“have faith”) in Him, but that the false teachers were insisting that it became efficacious through not just faith but works.
This is, of course, the Reformed critique of Rome. That she may have the gospel proclamation but that she disfigures it by insisting upon works being added to faith. So much so, that it is no longer the gospel. Surely the Apostle Paul is clear – a gospel with works added to faith is not “the gospel” with some unhelpful errors, it is actually “a gospel contrary to the one received”.
For clarity, the content of the declaration about Jesus was identical to the gospel, but the insistence by the Galatian false teachers that works be added to faith in Christ made “the gospel” into “a gospel contrary to the one received”.
Perhaps a brief illustration will help.
Imagine that in the news tomorrow an amazing announcement is made; a cure for cancer has been found (perhaps in the nectar of a rare Amazonian flower). But part of this announcement is a definitive statement by the scientists involved that the nectar will only work when no other drug is used or medical procedure applied. In fact, to enter into any other course of medication or treament will utterly negate the effect of the new cancer cure. This is, of course, exactly how Paul presents the gospel in Galatians. To add works to faith in Christ is to no longer be simply trusting Christ. It is “a gospel contrary”.
Now imagine an oncologist, Dr. Vatican. Dr. Vatican receives the news of the new cancer cure with delight and sets about telling as many of his patients as he possibly can. But when those patients visit him to enter into a new course of treatment he tells them that not only must they use the nectar as instructed by its discoverers, but they must also apply a steriod ointment since this will, he insists, enhance the uptake of the nectar.
Could we rightly say that Dr. Vatican “has the cure”? I trust you can see that the answer is “not at all”. He may have exactly the same nectar that all the other oncologists have but he is telling his patients to appropriate that cure in a manner that actually negates it. The tragic reality is that, despite his best intentions, he has “a cure contrary to the one received”. His insistence that he knows the best way to apply the wonder-nectar is actually a terrible blight upon his patients who lose out on any possibility of a cure. The nectar is exactly the same, but Dr. Vatican has presented it to those in his care in a way that utterly distorts it. He ought not to be praised or defended as somehow in the right ballpark, albeit with a few errors, but actually struck off. Paul might very well say,
Vat. 1:6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting those scientists who showed you the wonder-nectar and are turning to a different cure— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the cure of the wonder-nectar. 8 But even if we or a Nobel Laureate in Medicine should give you a cure contrary to the one we prescribed to you, let him be struck off. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is prescribing to you a cure contrary to the one you received, let him be struck off.
And so it is with Rome. Yes she has the wonder-nectar of the gospel, the declaration in the New Testament of the wonderful Jesus Christ. But she presents it to her flock in such a way as to actually be presenting a different gospel, since she does not present Jesus to be trusted alone as the bringer of justification without works on the part of the believer.
This also means we need to speak clearly about those in the Roman Catholic church who wholeheartedly adopt Rome’s “gospel” of works added to faith. Just like Dr Vatican’s patients, their sincerity will not save them since they have followed their doctor into a purported means of salvation that, by it’s very nature, cannot save.
This does not for a moment, of course, mean that no Roman Catholic can be saved. On the contrary – they have the Scriptures and can read in there “the gospel” and, as a result, place their confidence entirely in Jesus and not in their own works in any way. But the sincere Roman Catholic, following Rome’s prescription of adding their effort and works to their faith, is in a desperate state.
All of this is vitally important because eternity is at stake. It may make us unpopular to state this clearly, we may be less well thought of by those whose approval we seek, but it does mean we will have clarity on what needs to be done. The Reformers understood this clearly. The Apostle Paul understood this clearly, going so far as to rebuke the Apostle Peter over the issue. We Anglicans in our 39 Articles and Homily on Justification take this seriously. Or at least we should do.
The gospel is a wonderful thing. It is the “wonder cure” that we have all been waiting for. It’s a privilege as an ordained Anglican minister to be part of a church that affirms this gospel in its foundational documents. It was no hardship to promise to uphold them when I was ordained, here in Sydney (and in other places) we take this stuff and our vows seriously. But a love for this gospel and the Lord Jesus Christ that it points us to means we also ought to defend it where necessary. This is not being contrary but actually a right and proper quest to get the gospel right. It is not drawing boundaries in far too narrow a way but, rather, simply setting them clearly where the New Testament sets them because outside that boundary the gospel is not an “unclear” gospel but actually no gospel at all. And promoting or defending that is, surely, a terrible thing to do.