Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Reformed vs. Catholic: Is the Pot Calling the Kettle Black?

Robert is a Reformed Christian.  He is concerned for one of his friends, Alfred, who is a Catholic.  Robert knows that Catholics believe in works righteousness and empty rituals and have abandoned the simplicity of Christ and the purity of his Word for man-made traditions and human mediators.  Robert is concerned for Alfred's salvation in such a corrupted system.  He decides to go and talk to Alfred and try to help him understand and accept the freeing truths of the simple gospel of Christ.

On his way to see Alfred, Robert runs into another friend of his, Greg, who is a non-denominational Christian.  After hearing that Robert is going to talk to Alfred, Greg decides to come along, since the weekly praise and worship meeting at his church has been canceled this week.  Robert is not particularly thrilled about this, as he and Greg do not always see eye to eye theologically, but he doesn't want to be rude, and so the two go to see Alfred.

Alfred: Hello, Robert!  Hello, Greg!  It's nice to see both of you today!  What brings you here?

Robert: Hello, Alfred.  Actually, I was wondering if we could talk about God and the gospel.  You've always said that you welcome intelligent and civil conversations on religious matters, so I thought I'd take you up on it.

Greg: And I thought I'd come along as well!

Alfred: Well, that sounds great.  I'm always glad to discuss God and his gospel!

Grace and Works

Robert: One of my biggest concerns about the Catholic religion, Alfred, is that it teaches a man-centered works righteousness.  The Bible says that we are saved by the grace of Christ, not through human works or efforts.  The Apostle Paul says in Galatians that if we seek to be justified by our works, Christ will be of no use to us!  We must rely humbly on his grace rather than trying to work our way to heaven.

Alfred: Robert, I totally agree with you.  We are saved not by human effort but by the grace of God in Christ.  Why do you think we Catholics think otherwise?

Robert: Well, the Catholic Church teaches that grace is a power that enables us to do good works, and if we cooperate with that grace and do good works, we can merit God's favor and get to heaven.  The Bible, on the other hand, says that God's favor and eternal life are gifts of grace, not earned by human merits.

Alfred: You've misunderstood Catholic teaching.  Our view is that Christ's death on the cross has purchased for us grace which forgives our sins and makes us holy.  The inward holiness produced in us by God's grace is pleasing to God and receives his favor, and he rewards it with an increase of grace and eventually, if we continue to the end, eternal life.  But all our holiness and the good works that proceed from it are a gift of God's free grace in Christ.  We've done nothing to earn that gift, nor can we contribute any good thing towards our salvation on our own that is not given to us as a gift.  So it's all grace!

Robert: But, in the Catholic view, don't you have to cooperate with grace and respond to it and live it out in order to be saved by it?  And doesn't that mix human will and works with the free grace of God?

Alfred: Sure, we must cooperate with God's grace and respond properly to it.  As St. Augustine put it, "Although God created us without ourselves, he does not choose to save us without ourselves."  He does not bring us to salvation without our will and our works.  He does something far better!  He changes us and makes us holy, so that we will choose to follow him and do works that are pleasing to him, works that are fit for his reward.  It is the greatest privilege to be holy, to love God with all our hearts, to please him with our lives, and that is the gift God has given us in Christ.  But it is all a gift of grace.  Even the cooperation of our will with grace is itself a gift of grace!

Robert: But you say that you can merit salvation with your works, don't you?

Alfred: The Catholic position is that our works, produced in us by grace, are truly pleasing to God and warrant his favor.  He cannot but love his own image he has stamped upon his people by his grace through the Holy Spirit!  But you must remember that our holiness and its works are a gift of grace.  We cannot take ultimate credit for any of it!  Consider an analogy:  A friend gives you money as a gift so that you can buy groceries.  When you buy your groceries with that money, the grocer gives you your groceries as a "reward" for the money you have given him.  But that doesn't change the fact that the money was a gift, and so the groceries you bought with the money were a gift as well.  Similarly, God will reward his own work in us, but that doesn't change the fact that it is his work!  We cannot boast of it.  As St. Augustine, once again, put it, "When God crowns our merits, he is crowning his own gifts."

Robert: But that's not good enough!  You are still making your works necessary for salvation!  In the Bible, we are justified only by Christ's righteousness imputed to us.  No human works, even works done through grace, can merit anything with God, for all our works are as filthy rags!  In your view, Christ is not enough.  We need Christ plus our works.  Christ's righteousness imputed to us is not enough to justify us.  We need Christ's righteousness plus our own (grace-influenced, but still our own) works and righteousness.

Greg: Teach it, Robert!  You put that beautifully!  All we need is Christ!  He saves us by his grace!  We don't need human works to add to that!  But you know, Robert, you Reformed people are just like the Catholics on this point.

Robert: What do you mean we are just like the Catholics?

Greg: Well, you Reformed people teach that Christ is not enough!  You talk a lot about grace, but then you still say we need good works.  You say that no one who is "living in unrepentant sin" can be saved unless they repent, and that we have to live holy lives.  Now, don't get me wrong.  It's good to live a holy life.  But it's not necessary!  We are saved by grace!  If we add our works to God's grace as necessary for salvation, we are not trusting in Christ alone!  If I come to Christ and accept him into my heart, hopefully I will live a holy life to please him.  But if I don't, my salvation is still secure, for it is all of grace!  By saying holiness of life is required, you Reformed people take away with one hand what you seem to give with the other.  You mix human works with the pure grace of Christ!  You're just like the Catholics!

Robert: Now wait a minute!  Yes, of course we say that holiness of life is necessary for salvation.  The Bible teaches that clearly.  But that doesn't mean we are mixing human works with grace!  Remember that our works are a gift of grace to us.  They don't add to God's grace; they are a work of God's grace, produced in us by the Holy Spirit.  So God gets all the glory!

Greg: That's exactly what the Catholics say!

Robert: Well, yes . . . but we also add that although we must have good works and holiness of life (produced by grace!), even these works produced by grace do not justify us.  Only Christ's righteousness imputed to us, credited to our account, justifies us, makes us acceptable to God.  Human works, even works produced by grace, play no role in that at all.  That's what makes our view totally different from that of the Catholics!

Greg: But if human works (even produced by grace) do not justify us, then why are they required?  If God finds us totally acceptable without them because Christ's righteousness is imputed to us, why would he require more?  You see how you take away with one hand what you seem to give with the other?  You say that Christ's righteousness is enough, that it's all we need to be fully justified, fully acceptable to God; but then you turn around and say that actually it's not all we need, that we also need to be sanctified, to be holy and do good works, and if we don't we will go to hell!  Imagine if I were to give you a ticket to a concert, telling you that this ticket is all you need to totally satisfy the concert doorkeepers.  But when you get to the concert and hand in your ticket, the doorkeeper tells you that you also need another separate ticket to get in.  You would be angry with me for misleading you, and rightly so!  If all we need to be acceptable to God is Christ's righteousness, then you can't turn around and insist on the contrary that God won't accept us without something additional--namely, holiness of life!  You say you rely only on Christ's righteousness, but in reality you add human works (though produced by grace) to Christ, just like the Catholics do.

Robert: But saying that sanctification is required is not to add to Christ, because sanctification is not really an addition; it is merely the fruit of Christ's righteousness applied to our lives.  It is the fruit of justification.

Alfred: But that's just what we Catholics would say, Robert.  Our holiness and good works do not add to what Christ has done or to his merits.  They are simply the fruit of Christ's merits applied to our lives.  God requires holiness of us, but that holiness is nothing more than the grace of Christ's sacrifice and merits applied to our lives.  So it is all grace!

Greg: There, you see how Catholic you are, Robert?  I'm the only one here who really believes the word of the Scriptures that we are saved by grace alone!  Even carnal Christians who have asked Christ into their hearts will be eternally saved!

Robert: But you Catholics say that we can fall away from grace, so where is the assurance of salvation?

Alfred: If we do not continue to follow Christ through our lives but instead decide to reject him, he will honor that choice.  That is why we must be diligent to stir up the grace of God that is in us, so that we can persevere to the end.  But we must remember:  Those who persevere to the end do so entirely by God's grace.  Just as initial conversion to Christ is a gift of grace, perseverance in grace to the end is also entirely a gift of grace.  We can be sure that Christ will help us, and if we are living in him we can have confidence that his grace is with us, and that he will help us to continue to grow in his grace.  But it is true that we cannot be absolutely certain of our eternal salvation in this life, for we must finish the race before we can count the crown to be ours with infallible certainty.

Robert:  Aha!  You see what I mean?  Catholics have no assurance!

Greg: But Robert, don't you Reformed people say as well that we have to persevere to the end in order to be saved, and if we fall away we will not be saved in the end?

Robert: Yes, but we add (unlike the Catholics) that God will make all the regenerate truly persevere to the end, so that everyone who is regenerate can be assured that he will be eternally saved.

Greg: But how do you know if you are truly regenerate?

Robert: Well, you look inside yourself to see that you truly love God, choose to follow him, etc.

Greg: But lots of people seem to follow Christ, or follow him temporarily, but then, as the gospel says, "the cares of the world rise up" and choke him out.  How do I know I'm not one of those temporary believers who will fall away?

Robert: You know because you truly love God in a deeper and more ultimate way than the temporary believer.

Greg: I'm not sure what that means, Robert!  I'm not feeling terribly confident here!

Alfred: And I should add, Robert, that though in the Catholic view there cannot be an absolute certainty of eternal salvation, there can be a great confidence when one looks at the grace of God in one's life.  If God's grace is working in us, and we are cooperating with that grace and growing in it, we are building a foundation of grace within ourselves which will help us continue to grow in the future.  So the more we live holy lives, the more confidence we can have.  We can "make our calling and election" more sure, as St. Peter says.  And we must also remember that God will always help us.  He will never abandon us unless we reject him; and whenever we come back to him, he is always willing to receive us.

Greg: Sounds pretty much like the same thing to me, Robert!  In my view, we don't have to worry about these things at all!  I rely entirely on Christ, and not on what I will do in the future!  If I've accepted Christ into my heart, I'm eternally secure!  The future can't hurt me!  Christ alone!  Solo Christo!

Robert, feeling frustrated with the direction of the conversation, decides to switch to a different subject.


Priests and Confession

Robert: I admit you Catholics are wily when it comes to salvation, but I think I've said enough to make my point.  Let's switch topics a bit and talk about the Church.  You Catholics are not content with Christ.  You add the Church in as another mediator between God and man!

Alfred: Can you be more specific?  What do you mean?

Robert: In Catholicism, the priests stand between the people and Christ.  Catholic language even calls the priest "alter Christus"--another Christ!  He is a mediator between the people and God.  But the Bible says that Christ alone is the one mediator between God and man.

Alfred: Of course, Christ is the one mediator between God and man.  Priests are not mediators in the sense that Christ is.  The term "alter Christus" doesn't mean that the priest replaces Christ or is on the same level as Christ.  That would contradict all of Catholic theology!  Rather, the idea is that the priest is Christ's ambassador, the one sent by Christ to represent him to the people.

Greg: You Reformed people have the same idea, Robert.  I was just in one of your church services the other day and they were having communion.  I heard the pastor say this:  "Our Lord Jesus Christ, the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, as I, ministering in his name, give this bread to you."  You have pastors (you don't call them priests, but it's the same thing) who stand between Christ and his people!  For my part, I don't believe in pastors who stand between Christ and his people.  Sure, there are people who are good at teaching, and so we listen to them, but our relationship with Christ is direct!  We don't need any human mediators!  We don't have to submit to pastors and obey them or listen to them!  We only have to listen to Christ!  Chirst told us to call no one on earth father or teacher.

Robert:  No, our views are not the same as the Catholics'!  Sure, we Reformed believe that Christ has appointed pastors to minister in his name, and we have to obey them, but that does not mean that they stand between Christ and his people!

Alfred: It's kind of in the terminology, isn't it, Robert?  If you mean by "stand between" that the priest (or pastor) replaces Christ, or blocks the people from Christ, then I agree with you that no priest stands between us and Christ.  But if you mean by "stand between" simply that Christ sends his pastors, his priests, as his ambassadors, to shepherd his people, then I think we're on the same page here, Robert.  We both agree that Christ has sent ambassadors to shepherd his people, and his people are required to listen to them and submit to them.

Robert:  No, there is a great difference between our views and yours!  I'll show you by being more specific:  The Bible says that only God can forgive sins.  When we sin, we are privileged to go directly to God to confess our sins, and he forgives us!  But you Catholics say that we have to confess our sins to a human priest in order to be forgiven.  You've replaced Christ with the priest, making the priest a mediator between God and man when there is only one mediator!

Alfred: The priest does not replace Christ or become another mediator along with him.  Again, the priest functions not as a replacement for Christ or an addition to Christ but as an ambassador of Christ.  The priest is Christ's ambassador to pronounce his forgiveness of sins on the penitent (or to withhold that forgiveness from the impenitent).  This is the authority Christ gave his priests when he gave St. Peter and the apostles the keys of the kingdom, which, as St. John says, includes the authority to retain or remit sins.

Robert: That's a nice-sounding way of putting it, but it's still replacing Christ with the priest as the one who forgives sins!

Greg: But Robert, you Reformed people have exactly the same doctrine.  While you were talking, I was just looking up your Westminster Confession, chapter 30, section 2, which says this, speaking of church officers:

To these officers, the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed: by virtue whereof, they have power respectively to retain, and remit sins; to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the gospel, and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require.

You see!  You've got the same teaching as the Catholics!  It even uses the word "absolution"!!  Your pastors stand as intermediaries between the people and God, just like Catholic priests!  I've seen this in action.  Just the other day, your church excommunicated one of your former members for living in unrepentant sin!  And you told him that if he repented, he could come back to you and be forgiven and received into the Church again.  You pronounced judgment on him!

Robert: This is not the same!  We do not have private confession, where one person confesses his sins secretly to a priest.  The elders of our churches only deal with public matters.

Greg: OK, so you don't do things exactly the same way.  But in both cases, your ministers are standing in the place of Christ, ministering judgment and forgiveness!  It's fundamentally the same thing, even though the Catholics do it a bit more than you do.

Robert: No, it isn't the same thing!  Another important difference is that we do not believe that the elders of the church are actually forgiving or condemning anyone.  They are simply pronouncing Christ's forgiveness or condemnation, and that fallibly--for after all, they cannot see into people's hearts to determine their inward moral condition.

Alfred: We'd say the same thing, Robert.  When a person confesses sins to a priest, the priest is not originating Christ's forgiveness, or forgiving instead of Christ, but merely pronouncing Christ's forgiveness as his ambassador.  Likewise, when the Church issues a judgment like excommunication.  As you say, these judgments are fallible.  If I go to confession and lie to the priest, saying I am repentant when I am really not, he may pronounce absolution upon me according to my appearance; but God, who sees my heart, still holds me guilty, and I have not received forgiveness.  The priest's absolution assumes, but cannot guarantee, that my words express the true state of my heart.  Similarly, the Church might excommunicate a person, and yet, in that person's heart, he may have mitigated culpability for some reason or another.  God knows.  The judgment of the priests and the Church does not replace the judgment of Christ, but it pronounces it and makes it tangible, though imperfectly, on a human level.

Robert: But we can go to God directly and confess our sins!

Alred: We say the same.  We should go to God directly.  But we should also go to the priest, for our sins put a breach not only between us and God, but also between us and the rest of the Body of Christ.  And God has appointed priests for our help and comfort, to make his grace more tangible to us.

Greg: Robert, you Reformed people say the same thing!  You say we can go to God directly, but then you require people to submit to some human "session of elders."  We can't just say we're sorry to God alone (if our sin is public enough); we have to confess to the elders and receive absolution from them.  They get to say if we're accepted back into the Church or not, as if they are the gatekeepers of Christ's Church instead of Christ!  How repugnant to the Word of God, which allows no human mediators to be added to the unique mediation of Christ!  My view is the true biblical one:  Away with "pastors" and "elders" and "sessions" and "priests" and all other human fabrications that add to the simple relationship of the soul to Christ!  Paul says we should not become servants of men, for we are servants of Christ.  That's why I don't believe in "formal church membership," or "submission to elders," or "ministers in Christ's name exercising the keys."  I don't believe that I have to confess my sins to a priest or to a session, or submit to "censures" from men.  I belong to Christ!  Christ alone accepts me or condemns me!  And he always accepts me, for unlike you two, I believe that I am saved by the grace of Christ alone, and I don't add human works to it and condemnation for "unrepentant sin," diluting the gospel of grace with additional human works and additional mediators.  Solo Christo!  Sola Gratia!  Soli Deo Gloria!

Robert, wishing very much that Greg's praise and worship night had gone on as planned, decides to make one last try.

The Sacrifice of the Mass

Robert: Alfred, I've tried very hard to help you see that you should abandon all of this human tradition for Christ alone, but I don't seem to be getting through to you.  Perhaps one more example of Catholic perversion of the simple gospel will help.  Consider the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist.  You believe that in the Eucharist, Christ is sacrificed again and again in order to save us from our sins.  You don't believe Christ's one sacrifice on the cross was enough.  But the Bible says that he sacrificed himself once for all to take away sin.  You say that Christ is really present in the appearances of bread and wine, and that your priests have the authority to sacrifice him daily, making true atonement for our sins!  How blasphemous!  Christ alone is our mediator, and his priestly work and sacrifice are sufficient!

Alfred: You've seriously misunderstood Catholic teaching on the Eucharist.  We do not believe that Christ is sacrificed over and over again in the Eucharist.  As you say, Christ was sacrificed once for all, and that one sacrifice is fully sufficient to take away all sin.  What happens is the Eucharist is rather that Christ makes himself and the fruits of his sacrifice to be present.  The priests, as Christ's ambassadors, offer up that one sacrifice to God for the forgiveness of sins and give the elements to the people as a means of their receiving and feeding on the one sacrifice of Christ.  Christ's sacrifice on the cross is all we need; the Eucharist is simply God's appointed way in which the Church comes to receive and to share in the fruits of that sacrifice.

Robert: But why does Christ's sacrifice need to be offered up again by the priests if he already offered it up to God on the cross?

Alfred: God chooses to work through means.  Christ's sacrifice was fully accomplished on the cross.  But God likes to use tangible means to bring us in contact with his grace.  He used apostles to write his words in the Bible.  He uses pastors to teach his word to us.  He uses sacraments to provide tangible means of grace to us.  If God has chosen to "activate" the sacrifice of Christ and apply it to his people by means of the sacrament of the Eucharist, who are we to complain?  Again, the Eucharist does not replace the one sacrifice of Christ or add to it; it merely makes it present and applies it.

Robert: Hmm, that's not what I've heard before.

Alfred: It's always wise to consult with original sources.  Also, consider the biblical doctrine of Christ's intercession for us before the throne of God in heaven.  If Christ's sacrifice on the cross was sufficient to take away our sins, why is Christ's intercession in heaven necessary?

Robert: Christ's heavenly intercession does not add to the merits of his sacrifice.  He merely presents that sacrifice before the Father on our behalf.

Alfred: And we would say something similar about the Eucharist.  The priests, on Christ's instructions, lift up Christ's one sacrifice on the cross, made present in the Eucharist, to the Father on behalf of the sins of the world.  This does not imply that Christ's sacrifice was insufficient.  Rather the contrary.

Robert: But you think that the bread and wine actually turn into Christ!  And then you worship the bread and the wine!  Isn't that blasphemous?!

Alfred: You just said we believe the bread and the wine turn into Christ.  If that's so, then when we adore the Eucharistic elements, what are we adoring?

Robert: Well, Christ, I guess.  But it's pretty superstitious to say that what looks like bread and wine really isn't, but is Christ instead!

Alfred: Why is it superstitious to say that what looks like ordinary bread and wine is something more than what it appears to be?  I suppose many have said this with regard to proclaiming Jesus, who looked like a mere human, to be God.  Sometimes we have to go beyond mere superficial appearances in order to follow the evidence.  But let me clarify:  It is not that the Eucharist creates a deceptive illusion.  All we ever experience with regard to bread and wine (or any other physical substance) are the empirical characteristics of those objects--color, texture, taste, smell, shape, etc.--for that is all our senses are designed to sense.  But these empirical characteristics truly remain when the bread and wine become the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ, when Christ chooses to manifest his presence in them in a unique way.  The substance, or the essential identity, of the bread and the wine have changed fundamentally, for what before was mere bread and wine is now the presence of Christ, but Christ is present under the remaining empirical characteristics of bread and wine.  So we are not seeing an illusion when we see these empirical characteristics; they are just as truly there after the change as they were before.

Robert: But you worship the bread and wine!

Alfred: No, we worship Christ, who is present under the "species"--that is, the empirical characteristics--of bread and wine.  We do not worship the empirical characteristics themselves.

Greg: You know, Robert (Robert groans), you Reformed people really believe the same thing as the Catholics!  Don't you say that Christ is truly present in the bread and wine in communion, and that you truly feed on Christ and receive the benefits of his death on the cross in that sacrament?  I was just reading the Westminster Confession, chapter 29, and it seems to be saying that:

1. Our Lord Jesus, in the night wherein He was betrayed, instituted the sacrament of His body and blood, called the Lord’s Supper, to be observed in His Church, unto the end of the world, for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of Himself in His death; the sealing all benefits thereof unto true believers, their spiritual nourishment and growth in Him, their further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto Him; and to be a bond and pledge of their communion with Him, and with each other, as members of His mystical body. 
7. Worthy receivers outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually, receive and feed upon Christ crucified, and all benefits of His death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.

Robert: No, it's not the same!  We do not say that the sacrament of communion is a sacrifice, but only that it is a means of grace that makes present to believers Christ and his one sacrifice on the cross!

Greg: But that's just what Alfred was just saying.

Robert: But we don't call it a sacrifice!

Greg: OK, but if it's the same thing, well, "a rose by any other name . . ."

Robert: But we say that Christ is only spiritually present, not physically present!

Greg: But the Catholics say that Christ's body is glorified, and so it transcends space and time.  So how is his physical presence different from his spiritual presence?  And that misses the main point anyway, since you both still say that Christ is truly present, and that something real actually happens in communion.  You both think you really feed on Christ and receive grace from his death through this ritual!  You both think that Christ's sacrifice is not enough, but we need this additional ritual to bring its benefits to us.  That's the main thing!

Robert: But we would say that Christ can save us by his cross even without communion--say, for example, if someone can't get to it.  Communion is simply one of the main ordinary ways in which Christ communicates the grace of his sacrifice to us.

Alfred: We say the same, Robert.

Greg: Well, it sounds to me like, just as on the other issues, you guys are birds of a feather!  But I don't play along with all this superstitious nonsense!  In my view, nothing happens in communion.  It's just a way of remembering that Christ died on the cross for us.  It doesn't actually mediate grace.  I trust in Christ alone, and in his death on the cross!  That's all I need.  I don't need some ritual added to Christ and his sacrifice to give me grace.  Christ gives me grace, because he died for me on the cross!  Solo Christo!

Figuring that he's given Alfred enough to think about for one day, Robert decides to call it a night and heads home.  But I think that after this conversation, Robert's view of Catholicism was just a little more sympathetic than it had been before.  Greg, on the other hand, continued to consider them both nuts.

For more, see here and here.

Published on the feast of St. Aloysius Gonzaga

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