Protestant Reformation: The Day After

Two days ago was Reformation Day (and Halloween, of course, but that’s less interesting), and I never did get around to writing anything or throwing in my token of celebration. So I’m taking up a different topic on this later day: the aftermath of the Reformation. I want to offer a few thoughts on the way the Reformation has turned out and what lies ahead. Specifically, I want to highlight some of what I see as the good, the bad, and the hopeful.

The Good

  • Yay for the abolishment of indulgence sales! Many Catholics took Luther’s critiques to heart. Indulgences still exist, but as more of a formal relic than they did, and they are no longer sold for money and don’t exploit the poor. And of course this whole nonsense has never been a part of the Protestant churches which sprung from the Reformation. By Biblical standards, this was clearly one of the worst and most reprehensible problems with the medieval Catholic church.
  • Yay for the rejection of advanced Mariology! I’m not going to say that the official Catholic dogma technically transgresses into idolatry, but in any case I think the fixation on Mary in Catholic theology goes far beyond what is Biblically warranted. The accumulations of doctrines like her immaculate conception and assumption are painful for me to even contemplate. Mary was certainly a good example and should be remembered as such, and she was certainly blessed with a very unique role in redemptive history, but I’m happy that Protestantism is not concerned with thoughts of how Mary could stay a virgin forever, be taken body and soul to heaven, and be preserved from sin through the entirety of her life.
  • Yay for the rejection of independent, created grace and human righteousness! While I disagree with many of my Protestant brethren on the precise way that Catholicism went wrong on these issues and the exact way of a Biblical response, the Catholic system, especially in its medieval days, did have serious problems. We depend on Christ alone at every step. Grace is not created into us in some way of generated habits of righteousness. We do not have any hold over God’s grace; it is not an object which can be put in us and which we can then manipulate for better or worse by our wills. The union we share with Christ, by which we are righteous, is personal and alien and Spirit-ually connected at every moment by nature.
  • Yay for the rejection of papal and magisterial authority! Whatever role Scripture ought rightly to play in relation to tradition, reason, and experience, the idea that any infallible doctrinal authority might be placed in the hands of a vicar of Christ of a single body of scholars is simply foreign to the Kingdom of God in Christ. In addition to the formal problem of whether such authority is legitimate, much of the doctrine they have propagated from that authority is problematic.
  • Yay for the collapse of church/state unity! While the original Reformers continued to unite church and state, it was nonetheless the overall movements begun with the Reformation which eventually toppled this destructive practice. We now (particularly in Baptist circles) strongly resist the idea the Church should make such use of the powers of this age, and even the Catholic Church has come to understand this.

The Bad

  • Boo for the divisions in Christ’s body! While I am glad for the Reformation, and I don’t think we can or should pursue institutional unity between Catholic and Protestant churches at this point in history, I hate the way so many people on each side (especially ours) condemn those on the other. We have serious disagreements that make full unity impossible, but it is to our shame if we refuse to at least be united in love, good works, and our witness to the world and so divide Christ’s Body. (Because, as I have written on multiple occasions before, I don’t believe Catholics are heretics.)
  • Boo for the reintroduction of created grace in Protestant theology! After the Reformers rejected so forcefully the idea that God actually creates an independently operating grace in the believer which he can use and manage on his own, modern theologies of regeneration tend to reproduce precisely this error.
  • Boo for replacement of magisterium with confessions! Confessions are important, even vital, to establishing certain doctrinal standards and maintaining boundaries of unity. But they are not infallible, and there is not one single confession from the Reformation or any other context which has no errors, no shortcomings, or no room for reformulation (maybe reformation!) as the Church marches on. Yet in many circles, primarily Reformed ones, the classic confessions (particularly the Westminster Confession) are treated as absolutely authoritative. Sure, the people who do this admit they are subservient to Scripture, but they act naively as though any confession repeats univocally the truth of God revealed through Scripture, and thus they create a de facto replacement for the Holy Tradition which so repels them from Catholicism.

The Hopeful

  • So much work has been done on the topic of justification in the past century (or centuries) that I truly believe a unified doctrine could be worked out, given sufficient effort, in the next century. That will depend on willingness and cooperation, but I believe the theological and exegetical work necessary to do this has already been accomplished. A unified doctrine of justification accepted by Protestants, Catholics, and the Orthodox is a goal visible on the horizon of the Church’s future, if we just reach out and take it.
  • Despite the many advances since the Reformation, it is not truly over. Much work still needs to be done, both in places where the Reformation never really took root (like Italy and many South American regions) and in places where people are as Reformed as can be. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbi Dei: “the church is Reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” The Reformation will, in a certain sense, never be finished even if we one day reach some glorious reunification of a purified Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox Church. Until Christ comes, we will always need to reevaluate, criticize, destroy, rebuild, repackage, rediscover, and relearn how to respond, both theologically and practically, to the truth of the Word of God spoken by the Spirit. Fortunately, I see great evidence that this work is ongoing and will be quite fruitful.
  • In the near future, I have hope we may see more interdenominational cooperation between conservative Christians of all traditions as the West becomes increasingly hostile in culture and law to orthodox Christian values and ways of life. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Catholics, and Orthodox will all need to work together to do the work of the Kingdom and sustain our Christian witness in the coming dark ages, and I am convinced that many, if not all, will rise to the challenge and make the Church appear more united that it has in a long time.
Protestant Reformation: The Day After

Could Protestants and Catholics Ever Reunite? (Continued)

Continuing from my last post, here are my responses to the other 4 reasons why Catholics and Protestants supposedly cannot at all reunite. I think type A unity, explained in the last post, is a minimum requirement to fulfill the commands of Scripture for a Church of one mind and one love, so I want to deal with as many of these obstacles as possible.

Reason #3: The Sufficiency of Christ’s Mediation

The next charge leveled against Rome is that they deny that Christ is the “one mediator between God and man” (1 Tim. 2:5):

By setting up Mary as Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix with Christ, Rome explicitly denies the sufficiency of Christ’s mediation on His people’s behalf. As the Scripture says in 1 Tim. 2:5, there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. Thus neither Mary nor any other besides Jesus Christ can be a mediator between God and men. Rome also sets up saints as mediators, hence they pray to saints, that the saints might make appeals to God for them…Rome’s doctrine of the mediation of saints is nothing but a dressing up of pagan superstition with pseudo-Christian terminology.

The largest problem with this accusation is that Catholics quite explicitly deny that anyone else can be considered a mediator in the sense that Christ is called “Mediator.” But in truth, we all accept at least one thing that might loosely be called “mediation” from people besides Christ: prayer requests.

We Protestants all ask for other people to pray for us, and this is perfectly Biblical. Yet it is also possible to label prayer for others under the word “mediation.” This doesn’t endanger us, though, because we know that our prayers for each other are radically different from and inferior to Christ’s unique mediation. No problem here.

This is, however, more or less what Catholics are attempting to do in invoking the saints. Like other things I’ve mentioned, this is an oversimplification and not perfectly accurate, but shows the gist. In Catholic theology, what’s basically going on is asking people who are in heaven with Christ to pray for you, and since the prayer of a righteous man is very effective, the prayers of saints who are done with sin must be especially so. If we are going to have a problem with this Biblically, we can argue that it’s not possible to talk to dead Christians, but that’s a far less serious matter than challenging Christ’s sole role as Mediator.

Of course, the application of titles like Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix to Mary bring their own host of problems, and these matters are actually a source of debate within Catholicism. Catholic theologians tend to be quite careful in elaborating what each of these do and do not mean, making sure that they do not impinge on Christ’s sufficent, once-for-all person and work. Are these terms problematic? Probably. Should they be abandoned? I tend to think so. But when they are specifically articulated so as to preserve the centrality of Christ, I don’t think they have to constitute heresy.

Reason #4: The Glory of God vs. Images

Another serious criticism:

The Second Commandment states,  Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thingthat is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments (Ex. 20:4-6). Thus, worshipping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his Word, is forbidden and is equated with hating God…However, against the precepts of Scripture and the reason of a sane mind, Rome multiplies images of God and saints to be worshipped…To simply observe the gross idolatry and worship of images in Roman worship ought to make any biblically informed conscience cringe. All the justifications of images and the evasions futile; they are simply nullifying the precepts of God so that their traditions can be maintained (Mk. 7:9).

Basically, this criticism comes down to the Reformed view that any and all pictures of Jesus Christ, but especially, those which might be used in any worship context, are necessarily idolatrous. This view even includes, say, the painting of Jesus on your grandmother’s wall or the artwork in a children’s Bible.

The problem is, I don’t think the first part of this, that making images of Jesus is always idolatry, has a solid Biblical foundation. While it is true that the divine nature itself, the Godhead, cannot be imaged in any way, and that the person of the Father must never be imaged, the Son has taken a human body into His person and made it Himself. An image of the human body of Jesus Christ is not an image of the divine essence, even if it is an image of the Second Person of the Trinity. If Jesus had a body, then the body could be seen by men, and if it could be seen by men, it could imaged by them. Even a mental image in memory, say by the aging John while writing his Gospel, should be idolatry according the logic of this criticism.

It is not only Catholics who disagree with the Reformed on pictures of Jesus, but Lutherans, the Orthodox, and (de facto) most Baptists. The precise details vary between them, and it must be admitted that such images are given a possibly uncomfortable prominence in Catholicism, but the point remains that Christ alone is worshipped, and that the 2nd Commandment isn’t necessarily transgressed. This issue I definitely think precludes type C unity, and possibly B, but not A at all, in my opinion.

Reasons #5 and #6: The Pope and Catholic Church as Antichrist and Whore of Babylon

So they charge:

The Scripture prophesies of a time of great apostasy from within the Christian Church, led by the Man of Sin (2 Thes. 2). This Man of Sin can be none other than the Pope of Rome.3 “Question: Who is the Antichrist?  Answer: With all Protestants we reply: the Pope of Rome. The papists deny this strongly.” (Wilhelmus à Brakel,The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 2, p. 44).

In the book of Revelation, the Church of Rome is called the Whore of Babylon, as the Jewish Church was often called a whore when she veered off into idolatry. The Church of Rome is the second of Beast of Revelation 13. Whereas the first Beast was the pagan Roman empire, the second is the Papal Roman empire.  And I beheld, another beast coming out of the earth, which had two horns like the Lamb, but he spake like the dragon. (Rev. 13:11, 1599 GNV)

To be blunt, this is just ridiculous fantasy. The Reformers fell prey to the great temptation in every age to identify the Antichrist and his kingdom with our own enemies, and the enemy of the Reformers was the Catholic Church under the Pope. There are no legitimate grounds for this entirely nonsensical assertion.

Honestly, I don’t feel the need to go into much depth on these two points. Let it suffice to say that the enemies of Revelation are mostly likely intended to be understood either as Rome (the empire) or Jerusalem. Both of those are possible, though Rome seems more so, and the position that the Roman Catholic Church is in view is obviously anachronistic eisegesis. Whatever happened to the sola Scriptura defended in the first point of the article?

Obviously, if this charge were true, all forms of unity with Catholicism would be unacceptable. But it’s not.

Conclusion

These six reasons for why Catholics and Protestants can never are mostly off-base. While many of them can be granted as reasons for ruling out type C unity, none of them are good reasons for preventing type A unity. With enough work in the future, with revisions and compromises in unswerving commitment to Scripture truth on both sides, improvements can be made, and certaintly greater unity within the whole Body of Christ is possible. Will Protestants and Catholics ever be one Church again? It’s impossible for now, and probably for a very long time to come, though in the distant future we should recall that with God all things are possible. But in the mean time, there room to work together and embrace each other as truly following our one Lord, Jesus Christ.

Could Protestants and Catholics Ever Reunite? (Continued)

Could Protestants and Catholics Ever Reunite?

From time to time, calls arise for cooperation between Protestants and Catholics. Some of those times the call is actually stronger. Some people argue that Catholics and Protestants should or must reunite and become one Church again. If nothing else, many would like to see some kind of full communion between Catholic and Protestant churches. Basically, there are three main possible courses of unity:

  1. Cooperation and deanathemization. The easiest level of unity would be simply for Catholic and Protestant churches and institutions to freely cooperate in ministry and to drop any charges of heresy against one another. Each would recognize the other as fully Christian and work together for the Gospel. Nonetheless, Protestant churches would remain Protestant in their own denominations and associations, and Catholic churches would remain a single Roman Catholic Church.
  2. Intercommunion. There exists between the Catholic and Orthodox churches something which is often called “intercommunion,” in which under the right circumstances a Catholic can participate in Orthodox sacraments and vice versa. This would be a major step for Protestants, and one which is incredibly unlikely for the majority of Protestant churches in the near future. In particular, denominations like Baptists which tend to strongly deny any form of Christ’s real presence in Communion would never be allowed without substantial revisions on both sides.
  3. Institutional unity. In this last possibility, certain Protestant churches and the Catholic Church would become one, unified Church, one single “denominational” body. This, of course, sounds like pure fantasy to most on both sides, and if it were ever to happen it would be in the very, very distant future.

So what I’d like to consider are the obstacles to these different kinds of unity. I am personally strongly in support of type A (though I have a slight for that someday before Christ returns type C may happen). There are obstacles to it, but they are not too many, and I believe they can be overcome. But some people would oppose all of these types. As an example, my attention was recently brought to this article on Purely Presbyterian: 6 Reasons Protestants and Roman Catholics Can Never Unite. The reasons given in this post would be accepted by many Protestants as a reason to not only reject any form of unity with the Catholic Church, even type A, but to condemn the majority of Catholicism as damnably heretical. My purpose in this post is to evaluate these 6 reasons and offer responses to each in relation to the types of unity I mentioned above.

Reason #1: The Sufficiency of Scripture

The article states this:

Rome denies the sufficiency of Scripture and supplants it with human tradition. The Scriptures are wholly sufficient for all things pertaining to life and godliness…The human innovations in Roman worship are more than can be listed here. From the use of images of God and saints, to the multitude of manmade ceremonies, rites, and holy days, to the most despicable and blasphemous Mass, in all these, the imaginations of men’s hearts and man’s traditions are observed, while God’s commandments are rejected. We are reminded of Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees in Mark 7:9, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.

This is, to be sure, a strong criticism. It is also, I believe, one that entirely precludes type C of unity. Catholics believe in an infallible, authoritative Holy Tradition which is not necessarily identical in content to the Scripture but contains other doctrines and practices which cannot be derived from Scripture (though some of them might find a verse or two of hint, perhaps). Moreover, they understand as authoritative 7 apocryphal books which Protestants do not regard as inspired. These differences make for a difference in the final authorities over doctrine and practice, and as such make strong forms of Catholic/Protestant unity impossible.

That said, I do not believe this ought to preclude type A of unity. That Scripture is holy, inspired, and authoritative is accepted by all churches and is taught by Scripture itself, but that there is no other, originally unwritten revelation from God through the Apostles is not stated in Scripture. Thus, ironically, adopting the principle of sola Scriptura seems to make it at best difficult to find grounds for condemning as heresy the belief in certain inspired traditions, since Scripture does not explicitly rule out that possibility. This doesn’t mean I’m suggesting that many or all of the Catholic traditions are true, only that they are not automatically signs of a heretical, apostate church.

The problem is, to oversimplify and use a loose analogy, in Catholicism it is almost like Holy Tradition is just another book of Scripture, just not one originally written down in the first century. Just as it is invalid to us for someone to say, “Well doctrine X isn’t in Mark, so it isn’t true!” if doctrine X is found in Ephesians, it would appear to Catholics invalid for us to say, “Doctrine Y isn’t in any of the books of the Bible, so it isn’t true!” if doctrine Y is found in Holy Tradition. Thus we deal with questions of canon and inspiration, complications which are enough to divide the churches as institutions to be sure (preventing type C unity), but are they enough to divide them as brothers? It’s hard for me to say “yes” to that without sufficient Biblical grounding, and so I am willing to support type A of unity even with this issue between Protestants and Catholics.

Reason #2: Salvation through Faith Alone

The criticism:

Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, glory be to God alone. The Scriptures everywhere so plainly attest to this, and yet Rome so arrogantly denies it…By placing its anathema on on the Biblical Gospel, Rome has placed itself under the anathema of God Almighty (Galatians 1:8, 9). Let all those who affirm this doctrine be blessed, but let Rome’s curse fall on her own head.

This is also a serious charge, but not one which I think holds up to scrutiny in the modern theological world. It is true that Catholics deny the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone, but a large part of the difference is due to different semantics and conceptual models. To Catholics, James 2:24 is essential to articulating properly a doctrine of justification, for it says, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Now, it is not hard to argue that Catholics misinterpret this verse, but it is also hard to see why a doctrine of justification so directly compatible with this verse at face value must be anathema.

Part of the key here involves realizing that Catholicism does not actually teach salvation by works rather than by grace. While they believe works are required for justification, what they mean by “justification” and “salvation” is not identical to Protestant usage. Both agree that salvation is all because of Jesus, that we can’t earn it, and that our own works are nothing but sin apart from the grace of God. Depending on which Catholic you ask, you may hear them say that salvation can be said to be by faith alone if we mean a faith which necessarily produces works, a position which is frequently said to be the true meaning of sola fide by many Protestants!

There are actually many possible routes to reconciliation between the two parties on justification. Promising leads include the theology of Thomas F. Torrance, a Scottish Reformed theologian whose works Incarnation and Atonementare loved and appreciated by both Protestants and Catholics, the works of N. T. Wright, an Anglican bishop who has made major efforts in reclaiming the original Jewish context of Paul’s doctrine of justification, and the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. It is not hard to imagine, if you’re sufficiently familiar with these leads and their details, a future where Reformed, Catholic, Lutheran, and even Eastern Orthodox theologians can all mostly agree with one articulation of Paul’s major Gospel doctrine. If this is true, then many charges of heresy could be dropped, and the way could be opened for greater unity in type A.

To Be Continued

At this point this post is already too long, so I will address the final four objections to Catholic-Protestant unity in a second post. Even so, I think these two objections are the most important, and I hope what I have said in response to them can be useful in bringing further unity to the Body of Christ.

Could Protestants and Catholics Ever Reunite?

Communion means Communion

Every Sunday (ideally) we who believe in Jesus Christ gather together to take His Supper. This meal we often call “Communion.” Yet it seems personally that too often we forget the significance of that name. There is a reason that we call Communion “Communion.” In this post I want to briefly explore that reason and offer some suggestions about how we can better honor it.

The word “Communion” reflects two aspects of the Lord’s Supper. On the one hand, it refers to the way that we commune with Christ by taking His body and blood. When we eat the bread and drink the wine through faith, the Holy Spirit ushers us into the presence of God in heaven through Jesus Christ, whose body and blood given for us gain us entrance into the divine glory. On the flip side of that, you could say that when we take the bread and wine the Holy Spirit brings Jesus Himself, His atoning body and blood, to us in a supernatural way. In Communion then we commune with Jesus, having sweet fellowship with God in Christ by the death which reconciles us to Him, represented in the real-symbol of bread and wine. On the Cross Jesus gave Himself for us, and we when recall that sacrifice in Communion He gives Himself to us.

That said, the aspect of communion with Christ the Supper is not my main focus in this post. For the most part, we are quick to pick up on at least something along these lines, and the way that we tend to do Communion shows that. But most of the time it seems to me that this is the only dimension of Communion we adequately capture. There is another, often neglected side, too. In Communion, we don’t just commune with Christ. We also commune with each other as His body. As we eat of Christ’s body in the Supper, we as the Church are formed into His one body ourselves.

Biblically, the Lord’s Supper is a meal which we share with each other in Christ. This meaning is the whole point of Paul’s criticisms of the Corinthian church in 1 Cor. 11. He starts off by referring to their taking Communion as when they “come together” (something I also think supports weekly Communion). Then he immediately starts condemning their internal divisions. When he says that they aren’t truly eating the Lord’s Supper, he says it is because “each one eats his own supper ahead of others.” And when he tells them what to do about it, he says they must “wait for one another.” The running theme is that the way the Corinthians were celebrating Communion was divided and individualistic, but it was supposed to be a unified meal of a single body. Communion is meant to be something the members of the church do together as one people.

This dimension is also seen later in the same letter, when in chapter 10 Paul warns against participating in meals for worshipping idols. He draws this view idea of double communion—communing with the god in question and with the other people present—as applying in those cases. Here is what he says:

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I am speaking as to wise people. Judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we give thanks for, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread. Look at the people of Israel. Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in what is offered on the altar? 

1 Corinthians 10:14-18

Pay close attention to what Paul says here. On one hand, he tells us that eating a meal in the context of idol worship is a participation in that idol worship itself, just as Communion is a participation in the body and blood of Christ. This reflects the vertical aspect of the Supper, our Communion with God in Jesus Christ. Yet he also adds that “we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread.” This is the horizontal dimension I am highlighting. When we partake of a meal in worship of Jesus together, we are united as His one body. We are His one body because we share the one bread of His body.

This is something that the early Christians understood well. The Didache, one of the earliest Christian writings after the New Testament, contains this Communion prayer:

We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you be the glory forever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. To you is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.

They got it. Communion is communion, both with Jesus and with each other. Our shared identity as those “in Christ” is bound up with our shared reception of His gift of Himself in His body and blood offered for us on the Cross and to us in Communion. We are people-who-receive-Jesus-together.

Now, this is all well and good to know, but I want to add something. It is not enough just to think of Communion as involving the unity of God’s people. We must also be sure to do Communion that way. So often in so many churches Communion is done otherwise. The focus in on individuals as they introspectively examine themselves and their personal relationship with Jesus before taking the bread and wine on their own. In some cases the focus is on families as they partake one group at a time. Yet this is a shared experience for all the Church, not just the local but the universal. We must be sure to remember that, and so when we do Communion, however the details, we should do it in a way that we can tell, feel, and know that we are in this together. One body receiving one body from one Lord. Amen.

Communion means Communion

Jesus Prayed, “May They Be One as We Are One” (My Growing Passion for Church Unity)

Unity. This word frequently presses on my mind in relation to the Church. There appears to be little unity these days. We’ve splintered into thousands of denominations. Even the large denominations and groups are internally divided in many ways. Churches split from churches for stupid reasons. Churches fall apart because of horrible, divisive people. So many groups make their distinctives as though they were the Gospel itself. Baptists condemn those who baptize infants, conservative Protestants in general condemn those who don’t follow sola fide, Pentecostals accuse other groups of lacking the Spirit, Catholics anathemize anyone who doesn’t follow the Pope, Calvinists accuse all others of compromising God’s sovereignty or even works-righteousness, many evangelicals (or more fundamentalist ones) condemn everyone who doesn’t subscribe to strict Biblical inerrancy, progressives accuse conservatives of bigotry, etc.

This is to our shame. Do we have the right to divide Christ? Of course we must stand up for truth, and rebuke and correct fellow believers when they go wrong, and rally around the Gospel of Christ as opposed to all false Gospels, but where is the line? I believe wholeheartedly that the line is Jesus Christ Himself, the Son of God and Lord of All. Those who trust in Him are all bound in a way that condemns and transcends their divisions.

I, alas, do not have all of the experience and eloquence to make the case I want to make, so I want to highlight an amazing series of blog posts by Alastair Roberts. I deeply agree with and resonate with almost everything he says in these posts about church unity and denominations. I’m just going to link to his posts on this and provide an excerpt from each.

#1: The Denominational Church

The Gospel itself is not as complicated as our various ways of articulating its logic are. The Gospel itself is remarkably simple: the declaration that Jesus is Lord and that God raised Him from the dead. It is this that is central. The central truths of the Christian faith are well summarized in the Nicene Creed. If these central truths are comparable to a language like English, the varying articulations of the Gospel that one encounters among the different denominations are like regional dialects. While there are better and worse ways of articulating the Gospel and some ways of articulating the Gospel that are at risk of becoming a different ‘language’ altogether, we must beware of so identifying our ‘dialect’ with the ‘language’ that we exclude some other ‘dialects’ altogether.

#2: Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 1

We can often take a posture similar to that of Jonah in relation to Nineveh. We see the liberal church and delight to pronounce divine judgment upon it, not thinking that God may have a purpose of surprising grace in the situation. The story seldom ends in quite the same way as we think that it will do. Our God is a god who adds the twist to every tale.

It has been almost five hundred years since the Reformation began and yet, despite numerous predictions of its imminent demise over the last centuries, the Roman Catholic church is still with us. In fact there are exciting signs of new life in many quarters. There has been a resurgence of biblical scholarship. Among the laity in many areas there has been an increased reading of the Bible. As Mark Noll has observed, with the new Catholic lectionary more Scripture is read in Catholic worship than is read in many Protestant congregations. Some of the finest theology of the last century has come from Roman Catholics. Undoubtedly many of the errors are still widespread. However, the story is far from over. I would not be surprised if God still has wonderful purposes for the Roman Catholic church.

#3: Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 2

I believe that one of the reasons why God has saw fit to split His Church is in order to ensure that various important perspectives and insights are not lost in a premature union. Rather than permitting the creation of a weak, unsatisfactory and compromised union between various parties, God wishes to preserve the insights that He has given to various parties intact, until the time comes when the Church as a whole is mature enough truly to take these insights on board. Among the various denominations God has scattered lessons that He wishes His people to learn. When the lessons have been learnt — and not until then — the denominations will cease to be necessary.

#4: Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 3

Theology is the Church’s task of narrating the itinerary that will lead us to God. Theology must retain both the simplicity and the complexity of the gospel. Theology should not lose us in the back alleys, but must always keep us directed towards our destination. Theology, when done well, will help us to see the finest details of the varied sights along our path, all the while identifying the path itself with the most wonderful simplicity and clarity.

The theologian should always recognize that the path is so much greater than his itinerary can ever be. Other guides might have noticed things that he has missed. Furthermore, the fact that another guide does not mention some of his favourite sights does not necessarily mean that they are directing people along different paths.

Jesus Prayed, “May They Be One as We Are One” (My Growing Passion for Church Unity)

How to Feel God’s Love in Jesus’ Arms

“I want to feel.” Isn’t that a common desire? I mean particularly for us Christians, especially evangelical Protestants. We want to feel God. Jesus Christ loves us to (literal) death, has brought us full forgiveness, and is our eternal life. Yet we cannot see Him. We cannot touch Him. He is physically away for now, and in the mean time we long to experience that He is still with us as He promised.

Unfortunately, we often find ourselves stuck and frustrated on that point. Unless we go the way of wild youth groups and Charismatic excess, intentionally working ourselves up into emotional frenzy with clever devices of music and social pressure, there’s only so much feeling we can get out of reflecting in our minds on truths about God. It’s just a bit abstract. One of the major methods of devotion is simply prayer and meditating on Scripture, but there’s only so much nourishment we can find in pondering such churchy words as “grace,” “salvation,” “atonement,” or “forgiveness of sins.” In fact, using these words so much often makes them less powerful than they deserve.

There’s another dimension to this. Not only do we want to feel God’s love and presence, but sometimes above all we need to feel His forgiveness and acceptance. When we do wrong, and our conscience beats us down, or when we know we are unworthy and feel ashamed to approach God, there is nothing so necessary to our soul’s health as to feel forgiven. We must experience God’s unconditional acceptance of us who are in His Son. Yet hearing people talk about forgiveness rarely does the trick. Even the best psychologically-devised plans to feeling better won’t always work, nor is it obvious that they even should. We hear about the Holy Spirit living in us, but often don’t feel like that makes any difference on our emotional/psychological state.

So what is the solution? How are we supposed to feel the mercy and grace of a Savior who is, for the moment, ascended to the right hand of the Father instead of present before our eyes? And what does the Spirit do to help beyond those occasional moments of emotional refreshment?

If I am at all on the right track, the answer is relatively simple. We need a hug in Jesus’ arms. And where are His arms? Since His physical body is away for now, we resort to His body by the Spirit.

All of you are Christ’s body, and each one is a part of it.

1 Corinthians 12:27

See, we are Jesus’ body on earth. The major role of the Holy Spirit is integrating Jesus’ life into our lives. So it is up to us to be Jesus’ love, be Jesus’ forgiveness, be Jesus’ acceptance. Since our Lord isn’t around to give us the hugs we need, we need to give each other those hugs by His Spirit.

Everyone should know that we need our senses to truly experience life and relationships. A compassionate hand on your shoulder, a graciously spoken word, or even just an understanding look can make all the difference. Jesus cannot do any of that for us while He is in heaven, but we can do that for each other, filled with His love by the Spirit He has given us. So when our fellow believers come in our churches, looking to know God’s love, we are called to give it to them with our love. You may not be able to feel grace all the time by reading Ephesians 2 (though it can help!), but how can you avoid feeling God’s kindness when your brothers and sisters in Christ treat you as more important than themselves?

None of this should be a surprise, honestly. Throughout the New Testament, we find commands to have unity, to share our hearts with each other, to show compassion and encouragement and mercy. We are repeatedly called to love one another, and we are told that we are all members of each other as Christ’s body. All of this, we are told, is to be done from the Spirit. Should there be any surprise that this is how we can experience our Savior’s love?

This is especially the case with forgiveness and acceptance. I have seen many times the damage that guilt and shame can do on a conscience, especially a believer’s. So often we feel the weight of our sin and unworthiness. How can we feel forgiven? What tangible proof is there that God accepts us in spite of it all? There is nothing more helpful in this matter than to see God reaching out with His forgiving hand through His children. When we forgive and accept each other, bearing with each other’s faults in patience and love, how can we not see that this is God’s own heart?

I actually want to make a serious practical emphasis of this last point. Too often church is associated with judgment. Even in good and supportive churches, it is hard to escape the feeling, “If I let them see me for who I am, they won’t see me the same ever again. They’ll judge me as someone less than them.” Yet too often the very things we are afraid to let everyone else know that we do are things we all do or have done. So why not drop the charade? Why keep pretending that we’re all doing better than we are? That doesn’t show God’s unconditional acceptance of everyone who believes in His Son. 

What we really need to be doing at church is showing the radical nature of God’s grace revealed in Jesus. We need to be able to look at the man who admits he didn’t pray at all last week, or the boy who confesses to a porn addiction, or the girl who says she gave in to peer pressure and got drunk at a party, and give the same response that overflowed from the heart of Jesus: “Neither do I condemn you.” To be sure, we can’t forget the “Go and sin no more” part, but we can’t expect them to listen to that when they’re too busy protecting themselves from a condemning reaction to their failures. Only when we all commit to truly forgive, and truly accept, and then truly encourage towards holiness, can we all enjoy the benefits of knowing Jesus’ love through His own hugs by His body on earth.

It’s simple, really. If we are Jesus’ body as the Church, then we need to be in the business of making His love, grace, and forgiveness things that you can see, touch, and feel for yourself. Otherwise we’ll all be left wishing and longing to feel the presence of our Life. And if you find yourself needing to know God’s love, find believers who by God’s Spirit actually make it real. If we all do this, maybe Jesus will shine bright enough through us for the whole world to see just what kind of God we serve.

How to Feel God’s Love in Jesus’ Arms

In Defense of My Catholic Brethren

Are Catholics Christians? To phrase it better, is Catholicism truly Christian, a thing which genuinely preaches and follows our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? Do faithful, educated Catholics actually know Him?

I do believe the answer is “yes.”

I’ve wanted on some level to make a post on this for a very long time, but in all honesty fear has held me back, fear of how my evangelical Protestant friends, relatives, and other readers will react. I believe this was wrong of me, because if I am right that Catholics and Protestant are united as children born from the Father, then I should be willing to own my brothers instead of be ashamed.

So why do I believe that Catholicism is a legitimate part of the Christian religion, that Catholics are as born again as Protestants? Well, I’m not a Catholic apologist, so I won’t bother answering common objections about Mary, prayer to saints, images, transubstantiation, or baptismal regeneration. I don’t believe in these things, and I do think they’re problematic. My research and discussions with Catholics have at least led me to believe, though, that they are far from damnable heresies.

Where I believe things count the most, Catholics agree with us. We follow one God in the three persons of Father, Son, and Spirit. We agree that Jesus Himself was/is that Son, God become human for us and for our salvation. We believe He died and rose to set us free from sin and for Him. We believe in the coming final judgment and resurrection of the dead.

The core of this all is Jesus. Unlike every cult, false religion, and demonic ideology out there, Catholics get Jesus right. They trust in the one and only Mediator, the God-man, who lived and died to bring salvation to the human race. They preach Jesus the crucified Messiah and risen Lord. What else must we ask of them?

The truth is that God never listed for us certain doctrines about salvation, or the church, or praying which we absolutely must believe to be a Christian. He only says to throw ourselves on His Son as our only hope. Our good doctrine or bad doctrine, just like our good and bad works, are not the ground of our salvation. That is Jesus Himself. And as long as He alone is our hope and trust, we are promised that we will never perish but have eternal life, even if you’re Catholic.

None of this is to say that right beliefs are unimportant, or that there are no Catholic practices that are legitimately wrong. But the same goes for us. We all have something wrong, and probably all have some big stuff wrong. From what I see of Jesus in the Scriptures, and from the history of His Church, we are in no place to judge others for what we do ourselves on this matter.

The reason I bring this up at all is because I’m convicted about unity. Paul repeatedly commanded believers to have one heart and one mind, pounding unity over and over in his letters. John insisted that everyone born of God must show love to all of his brothers and sisters. Jesus Himself prayed to the Father asking that the coming church would be one just like He and the Father are one. This radical call to unity in Jesus our Savior means it is shameful, even sinful, for me to hide my belief that Catholics are fellow participants in God’s eternal life.

Unfortunately, in the average evangelical Protestant church, no one really knows or understands what Catholics actually believe and why they believe it. So we resort to inaccurate one-liners, gossip, and misrepresentations to maintain the wall of separation. This is clearly a shame. Because of this, I plan to ask some of my Catholic friends to continue guest posts to help give you more of their perspective on things, so that we can at least unite around the common love we have for Jesus and understand each other, even where we disagree.

In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas.

In Defense of My Catholic Brethren