The Gift of Salvation [A Document for Religious Ecumenism]
An Anaylsis: Robert Michael Zins
Due to the negative fall-out ensuing upon the Spring of 1994 release of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together Statement (ECT), there has been a re-formulation of sorts among the signers of ECT. This re-formulation appears in the document entitled: The Gift of Salvation (GS). Having already analyzed the original ECT, it behooves us now to examine this new document.
We first notice that the fundamental theme of ECT appears as well in the opening statement of The Gift of Salvation (GS). This theme is that Roman Catholics and Evangelicals are taken for granted as brothers and sisters in Christ.
"We give thanks to God that in recent years many Evangelicals and Catholics, ourselves among them, have been able to express a common faith in Christ and so to acknowledge one another as brothers and sisters in Christ." (GS)
The grounds given to us by GS for avowing that Catholics and Evangelicals are one in Christ are as follows:
1. We confess together one God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
2. We confess Jesus Christ the Incarnate Son of God.
3. We affirm the binding authority of Holy Scripture; God's inspired Word.
4. We acknowledge the Apostle's and Nicene creeds as faithful witnesses to that Word. (GS)
What is missing from this confession should warn all who hope to find consolation in this new statement. The missing element is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We also note that the language used in this confession is "safe" language. But being "safe" is not the same thing as being accurate. Even at the outset we notice that Sola Scriptura (the Bible alone) is negotiated away by only "affirming the binding authority of Holy Scripture". The word "alone" is conspicuous by its absence.
Confessing belief in the Trinity, Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God, the binding authority of Scripture and the Nicene/Apostle's creed does not give evidence that Christianity is present. In order to have Christianity, we must have the Gospel. According to this document, the glue which holds Evangelicals and Catholics together is something called "the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ." Hence the title of the document.
Once again, we caution that the terminology "gift of salvation in Christ" is carefully chosen. This catch phrase can mean different things to different people. We know Romanism views everything as a gift stemming from the "gift of salvation in Christ." The entire Sacramental System, as well as temporal suffering and Purgatory, is considered a gift from God. So, to speak in terms of the "gift of salvation in Christ" is futile unless it is spoken of in biblical nomenclature. Also, all terminology must be "fleshed out" to see if it withstands all non-biblical models of the Gospel. The jargon employed by the framers of GS, in their introductory paragraphs, is not sufficiently defined to indicate that Christianity is present. Later, GS will go on to say, "The restoration of communion with God is absolutely dependent upon Jesus Christ.." But, as we shall see, this means one thing to the Roman Catholic religion and quite another to Christianity.
As we maneuver into the document, there are some statements which tip us off as to the direction they are going. We begin by finding discomfort with this telling admission:
"... we have found that, notwithstanding some persistent and serious differences, we can together bear witness to the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ." GS
From this we gather that how one understands the "gift of salvation in Jesus Christ" is not an issue with the signers of GS. We are told that there are persistent and serious differences but they do not inhibit or prohibit the proclamation of the "gift of salvation in Jesus Christ." It is alleged that either community can proclaim the same "gift" in the same terms meaning the same thing from the same bible. But, as we shall see, the persistent differences make it impossible to assert that the "gift of salvation in Christ" in Roman Catholicism is the same as in Christianity.
We take a moment to point out another observation found early on in this document. The point may appear small but it is not. The document states this concerning the creation and fall of man.
"God created us to manifest his glory and to give us eternal life in fellowship with himself, but our disobedience intervened and brought us under condemnation." GS (italics ours)
We point out that, according to Romans 5:12-21, it was not the sin of us that did us in. It was the sin of Adam. We only make this point because any mediate view of our condemnation in Adam will open the door for a mediate view of our justification in Christ. The Roman Catholic religion is well known for an infusionary, mediate view of justification stemming from an infusionary mediate view of condemnation. The authors have been careful not to correct the Romish error right from the start.
We now move into the heart of the document. The framers of ECT were called into question for their failure to affirm the biblical doctrine of Justification through Faith Alone. The ECT failed miserably to protect the Gospel from Romish errors pertaining to Justification. In hopes of improving on things, the authors of GS have found more convincing language. But is it an improvement over ECT, or simply smoke and mirrors?
Once again, we find "safe" terminology which both the Romanist and the Christian can affirm.
"We agree that justification is not earned by any good works or merits of our own; it is entirely God's gift conferred through the Father's sheer graciousness, out of love that he bears us in his Son." (GS) [italics ours]
Christians can affirm the above statement because we know what we are saying when we say "no works or merits of our own." It means that nothing we do or can do, regardless of the source of our motivation, can assist in God's verdict of Justification. Romanists, however, could affirm the above statement albeit with a totally different bottom-line understanding. To the Romanist, "no works or merits of our own" means passivity in the Sacrament of infant baptism as the process of Justification begins. It also means "God inspired, God induced good works stimulated by graces received in the Sacraments" are absolutely necessary to complete Justification. Christians and Roman Catholics have an absolutely antithetical and contradictory understanding of what it means to be Justified through the grace of God apart from any of our own works and merits. So, to simply state this formula means nothing. Christianity is not guaranteed to be present unless the meaning of the assertion is "fleshed out."
Another "safe" declaration is attempted by the authors of GS which serves to open another door for scrutiny which will eventually sound the death bell for this ill-fated attempt to mix the unmixable.
"The New Testament makes it clear that the gift of justification is received through faith, "By grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God." (Ephesians 2:8). By faith, which is also the gift of God, we repent of our sins and freely adhere to the gospel, the good news of God's saving work for us in Christ. By our response of faith to Christ, we enter into the blessings promised by the gospel. Faith is not merely intellectual assent but an act of the whole person, involving the mind, the will, and the affections, issuing forth in a changed life. We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide). (GS) [Emphasis ours]
We need to un-pack this carefully drafted paragraph a little at a time. First, the formula "through faith" [dia pisteos], given to us by the apostle in Ephesians 2, needs to be understood. Faith is the instrument and not the ground of justification. Justification comes "through" or "by" faith; never "because of" or "account of" faith. Secondly, the authors focus here is on "faith itself" and not the ground of justification. While the Reformed Tradition would champion faith over and against works, it would equally be careful to include the ground of Justification i.e., the imputed righteousness of Christ. The document is careful to avoid this and thus voids out any meaningful connection with the Gospel. Here again, the Roman Catholic and the Christian can both affirm the above assertion but from radically different definitions. In Rome, "saved by grace through faith" means saved on account of grace given through the sacramental system when partaking in faith. Thirdly, the "by our response of faith to Christ" in Roman Catholicism means faithful participation in the Mass, Adoration of the transubstantiated wafer, Adulation of Mary and a firm faith in the existence of Purgatory among other things. This is not the "by faith" of the Christian. Fourth, the framers of GS proclaim that what they have affirmed here from Ephesians 2:8 [despite two radically opposite grids of interpretation] is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by "justification by faith alone." Notice the document does not affirm "justification by faith alone" (Sola Fide). It only affirms that what has been said here is what the Reformation traditions have meant by "justification by faith alone." We take sharp exception.
The Reformation produced specific and clear language that often juxtaposed the Christian doctrine of Sola Fide with the Romish doctrine. Here GS can only be in agreement with what the Reformation meant by "justification by faith" if what GS says is understood through the grid of the Reformers. But, without additional data, as to what "justification by faith alone" really meant to the Reformers, it is an empty boast. Furthermore, any Roman Catholic could filter what little has been said here through his own sacramental grid and conclude that the Reformers were in essential agreement with Rome!
But worse, it is patently untrue that what has been said in this GS agreement is what the Reformers meant by "justification by faith alone." If GS means to say that only what is said here is what was meant by Sola Fide, then it is a lie. The document leaves this impression. The fact is that any correspondence between what has been said in GS about Sola Fide and what the Reformers meant by Sola Fide is analogous to the tip of an iceberg and the iceberg itself. The Reformers were never so careless as to limit a definition of "justification by faith alone" with "the gift of justification is received through faith." This is not what is meant by Sola Fide. The Reformers knew that all Romish theologians could affirm language like this employed by GS and still miss the Gospel. Here is a small taste what the Reformers meant by Sola Fide.
"Those whom God effectually calleth he also freely justifieth; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous: not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone: not by imputing faith itself, the act of righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith: which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God." (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 12)
"Hence also it is proved, that it is entirely by the intervention of Christ's righteousness that we obtain justification before God. This is equivalent to saying that man is not just in himself, but that the righteousness of Christ is communicated to him by imputation, while he is strictly deserving of punishment. Thus vanishes the absurd dogma, that man is justified by faith, inasmuch as it brings him under the influence of the Spirit of God by whom he is rendered righteous. This is so repugnant to the above doctrine (of justification) that it can never be reconciled with it." (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book III, Chapter XI)
The GS document not only fails to tell us exactly what the Reformers meant by Sola Fide, they are silent on what Rome means as well. Here is what Rome means by justification by faith. Notice we omit the word "alone" from any meaningful discussion with Rome. We do so because they do so.
"If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ's sake, or that it is this confidence alone that justifies us, let him be anathema." (Council of Trent, 6th Session, Canon 12)
The Gift of Salvation Statement fails to capture the meaning of the Reformers and fails to report the meaning of the Romish religion pertaining to justification. Instead, it tries to accommodate by deliberately using language that can be affirmed by both religions. Such attempts are to be rejected and the author's should be held accountable for their sleight of hand theology.
We move next to the issue of Christian baptism. Something has to give before the Romish sacrament of infant baptismal regeneration can be squared with Christian baptism of confessing believers.
We listen carefully to GS:
"By baptism we are visibly incorporated into the community of faith and committed to a life of discipleship. By their faith and baptism, Christians are bound to live according to law of love in obedience to Jesus Christ the Lord." (GS)
In yet another attempt to use "safe" language, the authors have managed to say something which can be taken any way we want to take it. If I am a Romanist, I read that infant baptism for admission into the Body of Christ begins my life of grace and obedience. If I am a Christian, I highlight the word visibly and read it through my grid. I am showing publicly my faith in the risen Savior and allegiance to His Body by my public baptism.
However, a careful theologian would never be comfortable with the wording of the document. Baptism does not incorporate anyone into the Body of Christ. Only the Lord can do this and it is in virtue of regeneration i.e., being born from above. This has nothing to do with baptism. Also, baptism does not grant supernatural faith for the ongoing Christian life. To say that it does is implied by the wording, "By their faith and baptism" Christians are bound to live etc. This, of course, is news to the Christian but not to Rome. The author's must have faced the ire of Rome here in formulating such a patently Roman Catholic assertion on baptism.
As we come toward a summation of this document, we are left with uneasiness over the language employed by the authors to summarize important theological constructs and doctrine. We are left uneasy over the use of terms which can be taken any number of ways. The terms appear to be deliberately vague in their context to allow for ingestion by either the Romanist or the Christian reader. Here are some examples:style='font-size:10.0pt'>On Sanctification
"Sanctification is not fully accomplished at the beginning of our life in Christ, but is progressively furthered as we struggle, with God's grace and help, against adversity and temptation. In this struggle we are assured that Christ's grace will be sufficient for us, enabling us to persevere to the end." (GS)
There is no definition of grace offered to us in GS with which to digest what all of this means. The grace of Christ in Rome refers to a "treasury of merit" that Christ has allegedly purchased. From this treasury of merit Christ is said to dispense grace through the Sacramental system. Yet, to the Christian, grace is the unmerited kindness of God akin to God's love bespeaking God's kind disposition toward His own in Christ.style='font-size:10.0pt'>Of Forgiveness
"When we fall, we can still turn to God in humble repentance and confidently ask for, and receive, his forgiveness." (GS)
We have no idea if the forgiveness of God here mentioned is through the Romish or Christian understanding of forgiveness. In Rome, the penitent confesses to a priest and does penance for forgiveness of sins. He ultimately hopes to go to Purgatory to finish off paying the penalty of sins committed. In fact, in Rome, sins are forgiven but still have to be paid for through penance or time in Purgatory. This is not Christian forgiveness. The language here is "safe." but also empty of any meaning.style='font-size:10.0pt'>Basis of Hope
"As we have shared in his sufferings, we will share in his final glory." (GS)
That Christians suffer for being in Christ is no secret. But to say, "as we have shared in his sufferings", admits to an alien understanding of Christ's atonement. In Rome, sharing with Christ's suffering means just that. In Rome, one merits grace through suffering with Christ. Hence, the advent of the monastery and the cloistered monks. There is also a "hope" based upon such sufferings which is part of the Romish religion. But this is not Christian.style='font-size:10.0pt'>Of the Gospel
"As believers we are sent into the world and commissioned to be bearers of the good news, to serve one another everywhere. It is our responsibility and firm resolve to bring to the whole world the tidings of God's love and of the salvation accomplished in our crucified, risen and returning Lord." (GS)
There is not a word of definition as to what this gospel might be. What exactly is the good news that is to be shared in the world? The authors do not say. The closest to a definition we come is their firm resolve to bring "the tidings of God's love and the salvation accomplished in our crucified, risen and returning Lord." But exactly how does one participate in God's love? Exactly how does one become a recipient of the salvation accomplished by the Lord? What was accomplished by the Lord? All these questions require an answer. As we have seen, the gospel according to Rome is contrary to the Gospel of Christianity. In Rome, salvation awaits all those who by faith attend the Romish system. In Christianity salvation is given to all those who through faith take for themselves the righteousness of Christ.
In light of this it is startling to find the author's insistence that "Evangelicals must speak the gospel to Catholics and Catholics to Evangelicals.." What could possibly be meant by this? Surely, the mandate of the document is not that Evangelicals should convert Rome and Rome should convert Evangelicals. This would be absurd.
More to the real point is the author's willingness to do an end run on the Gospel and reframe the question in terms of "fulfillment" and "completion" language. Once you have brought Rome "in" by testifying that Rome has the Gospel, what do you do with real Christianity? The answer is this. We are essentially asked to simply accept Rome as Christian and "fulfill"Rome with what Evangelicals have to offer. Also, we are asked to take a less than full "evangelicalism" and "complete" it with what Rome has to offer. In this way one community can "speak the gospel" to the other without endangering either right to be called Christian. The document does not say, "Evangelicals must evangelize Catholics or vice versa." It only says, "We [Evangelicals and Catholics] must evangelize everyone. Hence, the document allows for the speaking of the Gospel to Rome and from Rome but does not allow for evangelization from one religion to another. This is very clever. However, it is not pleasing nor clever to God.
Thankfully, if our assessment of this document does not de-rail the express of Evangelical and Roman Catholic ecumenism, perhaps the document itself will. We read at the end of this manuscript all that makes it an exercise in futility. The authors mention some things that need to hammered out.
"...we recognize that there are necessarily interrelated questions that require further and urgent exploration. Among such questions are these: the meaning of baptismal regeneration, the Eucharist, and sacramental grace; the historic uses of the language of justification as it relates to imputed and transformative righteousness; the normative status of justification in relation to all Christian doctrine; the assertion that while justification is by faith alone, the faith that receives salvation is never alone, diverse understandings of merit, reward, purgatory, and indulgences; Marian devotion and the assistance of the saints in the life of salvation; and the possibility of salvation for those who have not been evangelized." (GS)
It is troubling to us that despite all that has been observed and readily admitted by the author's themselves, they would insist that those holding such nefarious doctrines are Christian.
"All who truly believe in Jesus Christ are brothers and sisters in the Lord and must not allow their differences, however important, to undermine this great truth, or to deflect them from bearing witness together of God's gift of salvation in Christ." (GS) [italics ours]
We ask, "all who truly believe what in Jesus Christ?" We ask, "what is God's gift of salvation in Christ?" How can two absolutely and diametrically opposite views of the Gospel of Jesus Christ be right? The author's may as well have said, "all Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses who truly believe in Christ are brothers and sisters and we must not allow our differences to undermine this great truth." We submit that the great truth is missed by the authors. The great truth is that all those who believe in the true Jesus and His true Gospel are brothers and sisters in the Lord." The issue is not "truly believe", it is rather, "believe the truth."
We close our analysis with some reflections on the ending of the GS document. The writers are disingenuous with us when they boldly say:
"As Evangelicals who thank God for the heritage of the Reformation and affirm with conviction its classic confessions, as Catholics who are conscientiously faithful to the teaching of the Catholic Church, and we as disciples together of the Lord Jesus Christ who recognize our debt to our Christian forbear and our obligations to our contemporaries and those who will come after us, we affirm our unity in the gospel that we have here professed.(GS) [italics ours]
The authors do not in fact affirm with conviction the classic confessions of the Reformation as they touch upon Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura. They seem to have deliberately ignored the entire reason for the Protestant Reformation. Incredibly, they wish us to believe that they can affirm the confessions of the Reformation while affirming Romanism as Christian. This, of course, is precisely what the classic confessions of the Reformation are quite unwilling to do. 1
The Roman Catholics who signed this document cannot possibly think that they can affirm Sola Fide as meant by the Reformers and all Christians since. For to do so would fly in the face of the teaching of the Catholic Church.
It is goofy-speak when professing Evangelicals can commit themselves to the classic Reformation Creeds while affirming Romanism as Christianity. It is beyond goofy-speak to affirm a conscientious faithfulness to the Roman Catholic religion while affirming the Gospel of the Reformation Creeds.
The above foolishness of "game playing" with words (word-smithing) is only outdone by their outrageous conclusion which mercifully marks the end of this tawdry folio.
"We affirm our unity in the gospel that we have here professed." (GS)
We have no doubts that the signers are in unity of affirmation over the gospel which they have professed. But it is not the Gospel of Christ or the gospel of Rome. It is a gospel of ecumenism. And as such, it is both ludicrous and dangerous. Ludicrous for its lack of truth and mooring to anything Christian. Dangerous because it is believed and advanced by those who have gained the confidence of some in the genuine Christian Community. A confidence, we hope has been throughly decimated by this discussion.
1 - We urge any careful student of history and Theology to re-visit the classic creeds of the Evangelical Reformed Churches as well as the early Baptist and Presbyterian Creeds. One will come away with a hearty denial of the Romish Sacraments, Purgatory and the Roman Catholic definition of Justification among other distinctives of the Roman Catholic religion. The writers of GS would have done well to have borrowed from the Belgic Confession of 1561. "As for the false Church, she ascribes more power and authority to herself and her ordinances than to the Word of God, and will not submit herself to the yoke of Christ. Neither does she administer the Sacraments, as appointed by Christ in his Word, but adds to and takes away from them as she thinks proper; she relieth more upon men than upon Christ; persecuting those who live holily according to the Word of God, and rebuke her for her errors, covetousness, and idolatry. These two Churches are easily known and distinguished from each other." (Belgic Confession, Article 19. a.d. 1561) At least they were to the collected minds of the classic Creeds of the Reformation. The authors here try unsuccessfully to have the Creeds and Romanism. Sadly, they end up with 436 years of egg on their faces.