As missionaries preparing to be sent to a country that is over 90% Roman Catholic it is inevitable that discussions about Roman Catholicism will ensue. Such conversations have been a regular part of our lives since we began pursuing ministry in Croatia and will continue throughout the duration of our service in that place.
As we travel to churches sharing our plans, preaching, and demonstrating the dire need for gospel witness in Croatia it is a natural question for God’s people to ask: “What is the primary religious background of Croatians?” This question comes from people who want to be informed prayer warriors. This question stems from the hearts of people who have considered the parable of the sower (Luke 8:4-15). They know that Satan seeks to snatch the seed of the Word after it is sown. They are aware that times of testing and external pressures from culture and family will yank at the roots of newly sprouted gospel produce, and if those roots are shallow they will be unearthed and quickly perish. So, I answer their question with the truth. I explain to them that the field where we go to sow is a field riddled with the gospel suppressing weeds, thorns, rocks, and satanic seed-eating birds of a culture steeped in Roman Catholicism.
Peoples’ responses: solidarity or surprise
Upon hearing what I have to say about the Roman Catholic false teaching, many people respond in solidarity. They see the dangers and fully agree that RC teaching undermines the gospel. Some are able to relate on a deeply personal level due to their own backgrounds in Catholicism. By the grace of God, their eyes have been opened and they look back at their time spent in the clutches of Rome as being filled with darkness and confusion.
However, there is another category of people I speak with on these matters: the surprised. There are people who are caught off guard by the strong distinction I draw between us and Roman Catholics. There are some who react in ways that show they find it strange that we would be going to evangelize people who are, in their view, ‘already Christians’. Of course, such a notion doesn’t make sense and contradicts the very definition of the activity of evangelism. But, it begs the question: Are Roman Catholics Christians? Are they truly saved people who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb?
The shocking truth and some explanation
Let it be clearly stated: Roman Catholics, insofar as they subscribe to the doctrine of Justification taught in the Roman Catholic church, are not true disciples of Jesus. To say otherwise is to dishonor Christ and to defile the gospel. To align with Catholics and fail to draw a clear distinction between the true gospel and the Roman Catholic perversion is to obscure the gospel and dishonor the sacrifice of Christ.
At this juncture, I believe it is important to point out that the underlined portion of the statement above is critical. I’ll explain. One can be said to be an unbeliever if they knowingly and with full understanding embrace the official teaching of the Roman Catholic church on justification. However, we ought not rule out the possibility of an uninformed or ignorant person who attends a Roman Catholic Church being truly regenerate. It is conceivable for such a person to possess the very childlike faith in Christ that is necessary for salvation. But, in such a scenario that faith is one that God has graciously produced in spite of the serious error taught by the church tradition this baby Christian is surrounded by in a Roman Catholic context. I do not presume to diminish God’s ability to save the soul of a person against all odds (think, Apostle Paul!). However, there is no mistaking that this is not an ideal environment for such a person to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. The fundamental confusion on core gospel truth prevalent in the Roman Catholic Church would certainly stifle the growth of such a one. Furthermore, if the Spirit of God truly indwells a person they are empowered with a desire for biblical teaching and the ability to respond in obedience to the Word of God. So, in the case of a truly regenerate (though uninformed and immature) person in a Roman Catholic Church, when the Word of God is opened, and the true gospel is exposed they will recognize it and love it.
It is a fine principle of apologetics that we must always make every effort to represent the position of the opposing side as accurately as possible, genuinely endeavoring to fully understand their view. The intent of this post is not to be an in-depth critique of the RC view of justification, but to discuss the challenges we have faced interacting with RC sympathizers throughout the course of our partner development. However, at the bottom of the post, I have included several official RC statements on Justification as they were codified in the sessions that comprised the Council of Trent (1545-1563). See below if interested.
What does the Bible say about how we should engage with Roman Catholics?
Scripture demonstrates that the Lord’s servant must oppose false teachers in an authoritative and simultaneously winsome way. I have been indelibly impressed with the flow of 2 Timothy 2 where the apostle Paul issues a serious warning against false teaching that spreads like gangrene, producing more and more ungodliness. Pre-penicillin, the only cure for a rotting, infected, festering wound would have been the amputation of that limb! There is no mistaking that this is a serious denunciation and somber warning about false teaching that is not to be tolerated in the church. But then, at the end of the chapter, Paul shifts to a discussion of the attitude and demeanor that the Lord’s servant must employ. He details the modus operandi of ministry.
2 Timothy 2:24–24 “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.”
And so, trusting in God’s ability to grant repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, we engage the false teaching of Rome with the uncompromising surgical instruments of amputation AND the loving, gentle, patient bedside manner of a doctor truly longing for his convalescent’s full recovery.
How does all this relate to the way we go about sharing our ministry?
While the majority of churches and individuals we have spoken with about partnership in the gospel for ministry in Croatia have strong convictions and a working understanding of the reasons for maintaining an uncompromising stance against the RC false gospel, there are some who are on a different page. We have received advice from certain well-meaning people counseling us to tone down certain statements we make against Roman Catholicism in our presentation of the ministry. I have had at least one individual walk out in the middle of my sermon on a Sunday morning, offended at by things I was saying about Roman Catholicism. Should we avoid potentially incendiary statements about the gospel and its obvious opposition to the teaching of Roman Catholicism? We need money to get to Croatia! It doesn’t seem like making everyone mad at us is the best fundraising tactic. Hmmm…
We must not devolve into evangelical sales guys. Some may think, “The gospel is really offensive. It could be better received if we weren’t so hard on sin.” The trouble with this is when we pull on that string we unravel the whole thing! Think about it, what is at the heart of the offense of the gospel?
1 Corinthians 1:18 “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
What is the folly? What is the foolishness? It is the cross. So, we learn that in an effort to remove the offense of the gospel it is possible to unwittingly remove the substance! There are sharp edges to this gospel. There is blood, death, wrath, and sin. You can’t sand that down without losing it all. Paul continued to preach Christ and Him crucified (even though he knew it was perceived as folly) precisely because he knew that this same (foolish) gospel was also the saving gospel.
Romans 1:16 “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
Why would Paul need to clarify that he is unashamed of the gospel? It is because he was proclaiming it to many who perceived his message as highly offensive. If our tone is about preserving people’s high opinions of themselves, we can be sure we do not have a very high opinion of the gospel. The gospel does not congratulate, but confront—and then convert!
So, what about this notion of embracing an “improved marketing plan” that is “much better for garnering support”… Not happening!
We must remember that the gospel is about the glory of God, not about the goals of Sam and Sarah or the fundraising necessary to get to Croatia. For this reason, it is counterintuitive to edit or invert the content of the gospel. It is inclined toward God, accomplished by God, and magnifies God. To pump ourselves up as the point of the gospel is to give the gospel a flat tire. It’s about God.
Since the content of the gospel is unashamedly offensive (Rom. 1:16) we have to keep in mind that we don’t necessarily have to be offensive ourselves. In our tone, our tact, our selflessness, our service, and our love we adorn the gospel! In this way, the Spirit of God may use our testimony of life as a means to remove the offense of the gospel and make it appealing to the eyes and heart of one whom He is drawing to God! In other words, the gospel is offensive because it unseats self from the throne of the heart and recognizes the one true God as Lord King. If we have God reigning on the thrones of our hearts we will not be quick to lash out or lack sensitivity in our witness. We come to unbelievers with the sensitivity and understanding that we too have been hungry and hurting from the hangover and lies of sin. We have been wooed by the hiss of the serpent. We know what it is like. Therefore, we can identify. We get it. We reach out in truth and love, not compromising on either… God help us!
Applying of 2 Corinthians 4 to partner development
This passage has been a great help to me as I consider these things.
2 Corinthians 4:1-6 (1) Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. (2) But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. (3) And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. (4) In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (5) For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. (6) For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
I’ll pull out a few pertinent principles and seek to apply them.
- verse 2– Paul addresses the very real temptation to soften the gospel, to remove its offense. He refers to such an activity as being “disgraceful” and “underhanded”. When I think about our presentation of the ministry in Croatia I am zealous to avoid being disgraceful and underhanded in the interest of potentially garnering more financial support. For one thing, God owns all the resources in the entire universe. He does not need people to fund His enterprises. He invites people to enter into the joy of supporting gospel ministry in many ways, including the giving of money. However, it is absolutely possible for an individual to give money to Sarah and I and be totally lacking the heart of worship that is pleasing to Christ. They could give out of obligation, guilt, seeking the praise of men, pride, etc… Jesus has made it abundantly clear that the simple act of transferring money to a missionary does not necessarily constitute worship. Deeper probing is necessary into the heart of the giver. Of course, it is not my job to regulate and ensure that everyone who gives to us has a worshipful heart. I am not called to this and it is an impossible task. However, I will make it a point to give every opportunity for people to fully know and understand these concepts. I will state plainly what our mission is, knowing that it will be offensive to some. I must do this. The second half of verse 2 demands this when it says, “by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”
- verses 3-4– Certainly it is true that as we present our gospel ministry to others, including a clear explanation of the false gospel of Roman Catholicism, people will reject it. People will choose not to support us. People may even be angry with us and we may lose friends and have to endure difficult relationships. In such situations Sarah and I must follow in the footsteps of the apostle Paul who said in Philippians 1:29-30 “…not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in Him but also suffer for His sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.” It is heart-wrenching to us when we encounter people who are “perishing”. People to whom the “gospel is veiled”. People who have been “blinded by the god of this world” keeping them from seeing the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ”. When we encounter such people, it is all the more reason to declare the true gospel in no uncertain terms so that perhaps God may grant them repentance.
- verse 5– I love this part! “What we proclaim is NOT OURSELVES”. This is so freeing. Sam and Sarah aren’t the message. Our plan for a life of ministry in Croatia is not the message. The fact that we need financial support to go is not the message. Jesus Christ is Lord! That is the message! In 2 Corinthians 2:14-17 (look it up) Paul expands on this idea reminding us that we are not “peddlers of God’s word”. As we spread the “fragrance of the knowledge of Him” to some it is an aroma of death and to others and aroma of life. God, the sovereign one, will determine this. Duty is ours to proclaim, “NOT OURSELVES, but Jesus Christ as Lord.” So, when people hear us explain the gospel and describe how we will face opposition from the false gospel of Roman Catholicism, this is us actually putting out a fragrant aroma. It is hard to imagine that drawing such a clear and offensive dividing line could actually be used by God as the very means of drawing one to Himself. But this is exactly what God does time and time again. What the Spirit chooses to do with a seed that has been sown is up to Him. It is our earnest prayer that when the sovereign God arranges for a Roman Catholic to be present and hear us present our ministry, the Lord would use the word fitly spoken to bring that person to saving faith.
- verse 6– This section of 2 Corinthians 4 is so encouraging. Just as God spoke and there was light on the first day of creation, He uses that same creative power to shine light on the hearts of people who are in darkness and without spiritual understanding. And so, we do not lose heart. It is all in God’s hands. Our week and feeble attempt to winsomely declare the gospel is not the thing which will accomplish their salvation. The successful implantation of saving faith in the heart of one who hears the gospel is not our work but God’s and God’s alone. All glory be to God.
- Are We Together: A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism
- The Roman Catholic Controversy
- The God Who Justifies
- The Fatal Flaw: Do the teachings of Roman Catholicism Deny the Gospel
**Roman Catholic statements on Justification as they were codified in the sessions that comprised the Council of Trent (1545-1563). These dogmas remain the official teaching of Rome to this day.**
“If anyone says that by faith alone the sinner is justified, so as to beam that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.”
– Council of Trent, Session 6, Canon 9
“If anyone says that the faith which justifies is nothing else but trust in the Divine mercy, which pardons sins because of Christ, or that it is trust alone by which we are justified, let him be anathema.”
– Council of Trent, Session 6, Canon 12
“If anyone says that the righteousness received is not preserved and also not increased before God by good works, but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not a cause of its increase, let him be anathema.”
– Council of Trent, Session 6, Canon 2
It is the Catholic understanding that Grace is infused into a person through the act of going through with the work of water baptism. This initial infusion of justifying grace that is given to Roman Catholic infants is then reinforced and added to by continued good works throughout the life of that person (i.e. attending mass, participation in Eucharist, penance, and so on).
“‘…through the observance of the commandments of God and the church, faith cooperating with good works,’ believers ‘increase in that justice received through the grace of Christ and are further justified…’”
– Council of Trent, Session 6, Chapter 10
And finally, in the teaching of Rome future justification is possible but not a guarantee.
“If one considers his own weakness and his defective disposition, he may well be fearful and anxious as to the state of grace, as nobody knows with the certainty of faith, which permits of no error, that he has achieved the grace of God”
– Council of Trent, Session 6, Chapter 9
“If anyone says that the guilt is remitted to every penitent sinner after the grace of justification has been received, and that the debt of eternal punishment is so blotted out that there remains no debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world or on the next in purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened; let him be anathema.”
– Council of Trent, Session 6, Canon 30