Are Catholics Brothers and Sisters in Christ?

Several months ago, Paul Grimmond of Matthias Media asked me the following question in an interview. Because it regularly emerges as among the most popular questions, I have chosen to include it in this second installment of our apologetics series.

QUESTION: Chris, in your book Holy Ground you clearly articulate some of the significant differences in doctrine between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics while also continuing to call Roman Catholics "brothers and sisters in Christ" (p. 163). For many of the Reformers, the doctrinal differences led to quite different conclusions about where Roman Catholics stand in their relationship with God. I’m wondering if you can explore further for us what believing basic Roman Catholic doctrine means for the average Roman Catholic’s relationship with God? How do we juggle the importance of calling on our Roman Catholic friends to turn away from Roman Catholic belief and practice with the reality that they believe in God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

ANSWER: First, thanks Paul for the privilege of this exchange.

In Holy Ground I use the word “some.” I call some Catholics “brothers and sisters in Christ.” In context, my statement on p. 163 is of my Catholic classmates from Boston College who were ardent defenders of Jesus’ literal death and resurrection, over and against our liberal classmates who appeared to be lost in the morass called postmodern relativism.

I would also say that many Catholics are not brothers and sisters in Christ (in the same way that many Protestants fail to posses genuine faith). God alone knows the condition of one’s heart, but I would go so far as to say that a Catholic who honestly believes what the Catholic Church teaches about justification—that it is based upon a mixture of faith and meritorious works—is likely not a brother or sister in Christ. I say “likely” because there are some Catholics who trust fully in Christ even though their religious confession relies upon unscriptural elements of Catholic tradition. In other words, it seems to me that the Bible teaches that one must believe with faith alone (Rom 4:4; Eph 2:8-9; Titus 3:5), but it doesn’t require that he or she believes in faith alone as a body of doctrine. John Piper makes this point, for instance, quoting John Owen who wrote: “‘Men may be really saved by that grace which doctrinally they do deny; and they may be justified by the imputation of that righteousness which in opinion they deny to be imputed.’ …Owen’s words are not meant to make us cavalier about the content of the gospel, but to hold out hope that men’s hearts are often better than their heads.” Accordingly, some Catholics appear to fully trust in Jesus, despite the teaching of their church. (John Owen, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, chapter VII, “Imputation, and the Nature of It,” [Banner of Truth, Works, Vol. 5], 163-164. in John Piper. The Future of Justification. [Wheaton: Crossway, 2007], 25).

If this sounds anti-Catholic, please keep in mind that the Catholic Church says essentially the same thing about Protestants. From the Catholic point of view, the evangelical’s hope in justification is found in our observance of baptism which reflects the Catholic sacrament of baptism. We Protestants may think that we’re justified by faith alone, says the Catholic, but it’s actually on account of our baptism, which finds legitimacy in the sacrament of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Am I offended by the Catholic view? Well, maybe a little. But I can deal with it because I realize it’s not personal and that Catholics are simply expressing the teaching of their church with candor. Hopefully, my comments are read in the same light.

Your reference to the Reformers is interesting. It’s undoubtedly true that many of them regarded Catholics to be without salvation, yet not all of them did. In fact, there is a significant tradition in Reformed theology of those who regard Catholicism to be an orthodox expression of Christianity, consisting of brothers and sisters in Christ, even while vehemently disagreeing with basic tenets like sola Scriptura and sola fide. Following are some notable examples.

For all of the sharp invectives that Martin Luther launched against the papacy and clergy, he wasn’t as harsh toward all Catholic people. This was so because under the barnacles of unbiblical Catholic tradition Luther recognized a scriptural core that could truly generate and nurture faith. In his words, “the Roman Church is holy, because it has God’s holy name, the gospel, baptism, etc.” (Gustaf Aulen, Reformation and Catholicity, trans. Eric H. Wahlstrom. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1962. pg 76).

Calvin expressed a similar sentiment in his letter to Sadoleto that despite serious differences of doctrine “[it doesn’t mean] that Roman Catholics are not also Christians. We indeed, Sadoleto, do not deny that those over which you preside are Churches of Christ.”

Over three hundred years later in 1869, Princeton theologian Charles Hodge wrote to Pope Pius IX declining an invitation to attend Vatican I. After citing the reasons why his attendance and that of his delegates would not happen, he offers the following conclusion:

“Nevertheless, although we cannot return to the fellowship of the Church of Rome, we desire to live in charity with all men. We love all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity.

We regard as Christian brethren all who worship, love, and obey him as their God and Saviour, and we hope to be united in heaven with all who unite with us on earth in saying, ‘Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen’ (Rev. 1:6).”

Finally, after Charles Hodge we read this statement from another theologian of Princeton, J. Gresham Machen. Writing 50 years later about the relatively close proximity of Catholics to Evangelicals, compared to the chasm separating us from liberals, Machen highlights the common ground upon which we stand:

“Yet how great is the common heritage that unites the Roman Catholic Church…to devout Protestants today! [As significant as our difference is]…it seems almost trifling compared to the abyss which stands between us and many ministers of our own church” (J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (New York: Macmillan, 1923), p. 52).

This leads me to the final part of your question, Paul: “How do we juggle the importance of calling on our Roman Catholic friends to turn away from Roman Catholic belief and practice with the reality that they believe in God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit?”

In Holy Ground, I challenge readers to follow the Protestant Reformers, and, more importantly Jesus himself, by expressing honesty about where we differ and, at the same time, extending true love and grace in our areas of disagreement with Catholics. The primary biblical touchstone for this is John 1:14 where it says of Jesus that he came “full of grace and truth.” There you have it. That’s the how. As our Lord maintained these virtues with a perfectly balanced poise, we must work to do the same. We can’t justify being irritable and crotchety, certainly not from the Bible, like foaming at the mouth pit bulls who go for the jugular of every Catholic who crosses our path. On the other hand, we must not be so open-minded that our brains fall out of our heads, lacking the theological chutzpah to be honest.

When a Catholic confesses the gospel and lives for Jesus, I’m applying the love about which 1 Cor. 13 speaks, love which “bears all things, believes all things, and hopes all things,” a love that extends the benefit of the doubt, puts its arm around this Catholic friend and calls him brother. I’m also going to proclaim the gospel and extend discipleship so that I and my Catholic friend together realize a greater level of sanctification. Would I like to see this friend eventually leave the Catholic Church? Yes, of course. I’m a Protestant Pastor who believes that on such issues of Christian authority and soteriology, Protestants are fundamentally right. To say otherwise would be disingenuous. And yet, I’m not going to insist that such a departure happen in my time frame. The Lord is my friend’s shepherd as much as he is mine. Indeed, I must apply my Calvinism at this precise point by faithfully and winsomely trusting in God’s sovereignly timed oversight. Thus, in the final analysis, we must approach this enterprise as Peter says in his first epistle, “honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15-16).

Thanks again Paul for this opportunity. Richest blessings to you and yours!

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