Catholic Believers as Brothers and Sisters in Christ

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A reader posed the following question to me:

Chris, how can you clearly articulate some of the significant differences in doctrine between evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics and yet continue to call Catholic believers “brothers and sisters in Christ”? For many of the Reformers, the doctrinal differences led to quite different conclusions about where Roman Catholics stand in their relationship with God. I am wondering if you can explore further what believing basic Catholic doctrine means for the average Catholic’s relationship with God? How do we juggle the importance of calling on our Catholic friends to turn away from Catholic beliefs and practices that are in error with the reality that they already believe in God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

Here is what I would say. 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 one believe in faith alone as a body of doctrine. John Piper makes this point when he quotes theologian 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.”[i] According to Owen, some Catholics evidently appear to trust in Jesus alone for salvation, despite the teaching of their Church.

If this sounds anti-Catholic, please keep in mind that the Catholic Church has something similar to say about Protestants. From the Catholic point of view, the Evangelical’s hope in justification is mediated through baptism, which is thought to reflect the Catholic Sacrament of Baptism. We Protestants may think that we’re justified by faith alone, says the Catholic, but it is actually on account of our baptism, which finds legitimacy in the Catholic sacrament. Am I offended by the Catholic view? No, because I realize it is not personal; Catholics are simply expressing the teaching of their Church with candor while seeking to grant legitimacy to me as a Protestant brother. Hopefully, my comments are read in the same spirit.

This question’s reference to the Reformers is interesting. It is undoubtedly true that many of them regarded Catholics to be outside the pale of biblical teaching, yet not all of them did. In fact, there is a significant tradition in Evangelical theology of those who regard Catholicism to be an orthodox expression of Christianity, even as we strongly disagree on issues of authority and the doctrine of salvation.

For all of the sharp invectives that Martin Luther launched against the papacy and clergy, he was not as harsh toward all Catholic people. This was so because under the layers of 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.”[ii]

Calvin expressed a similar sentiment in his letter to Cardinal Sadoleto, stating 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.”[iii]

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). [Charles Hodge’s Letter to Pope Pius IX]

Finally, in addition to Hodge, we find this statement from another theologian of Princeton, J. Gresham Machen. Writing fifty years later about the relatively close proximity of Catholics to Evangelicals, compared to the chasm separating Evangelicals from liberals, Machen highlights our common ground:

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.[iv]

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

I suggest that we follow the Protestant Reformers, and, more importantly, Jesus himself, by expressing honesty about where we differ, and, at the same time, extending brotherly love in our areas of agreement with Catholics. The primary biblical touchstone for this is John 1:14 where it is written of Jesus that he came “full of grace and truth.” There you have it. That is the how. As our Lord maintained these virtues with a balanced poise, we seek to do the same. We can’t justify behavior that is irritable and crotchety, certainly not on the basis of the Bible. On the other hand, we must not be so open-minded that our brains fall out of our heads; we must have the theological chutzpah to be honest.

When a Catholic confesses the gospel and lives for Jesus, I want to apply the love about which 1 Corinthians 13 speaks—love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things” (NASB), 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? Eventually, yes. I am a Protestant pastor who believes that on the issues of Christian authority and salvation 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 doctrine of providence at this point by faithfully and winsomely trusting in God’s sovereignly timed oversight. Thus, in the final analysis, we must approach this activity as Peter says in his first epistle, endeavoring to “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 ESV).

[i] John Owen, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, chapter VII, “Imputation, and the Nature of It.” Banner of Truth, Works, vol. 5 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1998), 163–164; quoted in John Piper, The Future of Justification (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2007), 25.

[ii] Martin Luther, quoted in Gustaf Aulen, Reformation and Catholicity, trans. Eric H. Wahlstrom (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1962), 76.

[iii] John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto, A Reformation Debate: Sadoleto’s Letter to the Genevans and Calvin’s Reply, ed. John. C. Olin (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966), 69.

[iv] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (New York: Macmillan, 1923), 52.

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