The Gift of Salvation:
A Camouflage for Catholicism
by Richard Bennett
On November 12th 1997, a document entitled "The Gift of Salvation" was signed and published by Evangelical and Roman Catholic leaders. The expressed intention of it is to demonstrate the "common faith" of Evangelicals and Roman Catholics and to further "acknowledge one another as brothers and sisters in Christ". Since the gift of salvation according to the Scriptures is found nowhere else than in the gospel of Jesus Christ, it is the intent of this critique to examine that document in light of the Biblical declaration of this gospel.
ROMAN CATHOLIC DOGMA: CONSPICUOUS BY ITS ABSENCE
"The Gift of Salvation" was published in the December 8th 1997, issue of Christianity Today with a cover article by Timothy George stating, "We reject the kind of ecumenical euphoria that assumes the way to peace in the church is to down play doctrine and theology... We are committed to an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation".
Very openly the Roman Catholic (RC) signatories to the document state that they are "Catholics who are conscientiously faithful to the teaching of the Catholic Church". Since the doctrine of justification is central to a Biblical understanding of what the gift of salvation is, one would expect to find in the document itself some official statement of Catholic Church teaching on the doctrine of justification. Oddly, no such teaching is quoted but rather much that is clearly contrary to official Roman Catholic teaching is clearly stated. In a document that is so reassuringly launched, such a signal omission as this cannot be dismissed.
Are Roman Catholics now in agreement with the gospel of justification by God's grace alone, through faith alone? And is it on the basis of Christ's perfect obedience and substitutionary sacrificial death alone? Or, conversely, is there an attempt in this document to gloss over the critical elements of the gospel in order to establish a man-made unity, Timothy George's introduction notwithstanding?
It is necessary, therefore, to examine the contents of the document in comparison to Scripture and to official RC doctrine on justification.
JUSTIFICATION: STILL THE ESSENTIAL ISSUE
One can be appreciative of the fact that the developers of this document spent the majority of their efforts in addressing the subject of justification. The document states, "Justification is central to the scriptural account of salvation, and its meaning has been much debated between Protestants and Catholics". Areas of alleged agreement are then pointed out.
It is to be held firmly in mind, however, that Evangelicals throughout the centuries have maintained that justification by faith alone is the way in which sinful human beings are made right and just before the all Holy God.(1) Justification itself is a judicial declarative act on the part of God alone by which He declares a man to be perfectly just before Himself who is the morally perfect Being and Holy Judge over all human beings. His judicial declarative act is not made on the basis of anything within a man, but rather it is made solely and wholly upon the righteous life and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ who lived a perfect life and paid the just penalty for sins upon the cross. Historically, Evangelicals have been in agreement with the Apostle Paul, "to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness" (Romans 4:5).
Do Roman Catholics now agree with this doctrine that has been the primary dividing point between Protestants and Roman Catholics for several hundred years? The document signed by these Catholics "who are conscientiously faithful to the teaching of the Catholic Church" states clearly,"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 the love that he bears us in his Son, who suffered on our behalf and rose from the dead for our justification. Jesus was "put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification" (Romans 4:25). In justification, God, on the basis of Christ's righteousness alone, declares us to be no longer his rebellious enemies but his forgiven friends, and by virtue of his declaration it is so".
In seeking to unravel the disparity thus presented, it is to be noted that the whole document avoids the Biblical language of justification which speaks of a LEGAL, JUDICIAL, IMPUTED RIGHTEOUSNESS, EXTERNAL to the sinner, not a familial and inward, infused thing.
The accusation of equivocation and sophistry is not being made at this time. If such a charge were made, it would be necessary to show that the purpose in this section of the document was to craft it in such a way that the Evangelicals could understand justification by faith alone as declared righteousness and the Catholics could understand it as infused righteousness. Taking the document to be what it claims, "in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide)", how can the Roman Catholic signatories continue to be Roman Catholic? A person cannot remain a Roman Catholic who denies essential RC dogma. The Church of Rome condemns the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone. This was done at the Council of Trent. Present day dogma of the RC Church not only upholds the teaching of the Council of Trent but declares that such Councils are infallible.(2) Concerning such justifying faith as taught in this document, the Council of Trent proclaims the following curse, Canon 12,"If anyone shall say that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ's sake, or that it is this confidence alone by which we are justified: let him be anathema [cursed]".(3)
A similar denunciation on evangelical faith is found in the Council of Trent dogma on the sacraments, Canon 8,"If anyone shall say that by the said sacraments of the New Law, grace is not conferred from the work which has been worked [ex opere operato] but that faith alone in the divine promise suffices to obtain grace: let him be anathema". (4)
Rome's reason for such a curse on those who hold to "justification by faith alone" is logical because of what she refuses to concede. For her, justification is not an immediate declaration of God; rather, she teaches that grace is conferred by the sacraments. Thus the Church of Rome is able to make a place for herself as a necessary means through which inner righteousness is given. Thus she teaches, "Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ. It is granted us through Baptism".(5)
That same teaching stated clearly four and a half centuries ago--that physical mediation through the sacraments is necessary for salvation--is stated emphatically by Rome in the present time, "The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation...." .(6) The statement of Rome that "Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy"(7) is a thousand light years away from the statement in this document that "In justification, God, on the basis of Christ's righteousness alone, declares us...." Only the gospel that proclaims the everlasting righteousness of Christ as the believer's righteousness is the power of God unto salvation.
ROMAN CATHOLIC DOGMA: IGNORED
The launching article did refer to the condemnations of the sixteenth century. Timothy George's words were, "...new questions are being asked about the status of the mutual condemnations of the sixteenth century, including those concerning the doctrine of justification". What he blatantly fails to mention is that such questions are not possible for the Roman Catholic. By definition, a conscientious Catholic knows and obeys RC dogma. Equally, an educated Evangelical ought to know the errors of the teaching of Rome. The signatories to this document have not simply ended up with egg on their faces; far more serious than that, they have documented publicly their own lie regarding the Church of Rome and the Gospel.
NO AGREEMENT ON THE GOSPEL REALLY ESTABLISHED
Towards the end of the document an astonishing statement is made, "While we rejoice in the unity we have discovered and are confident of the fundamental truths about the gift of salvation we have affirmed, 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".
These two long sentences utterly contradict the document's first statement on justification. These are not just ancillary questions, but rather are the heart and core of the differences that Protestants and Catholics have had over the justification of sinners throughout the centuries. Most of the doctrines designated by this document as "necessarily interrelated questions" deny the Biblical doctrine of justification. Of great concern is the topic that follows.
THE BELIEVER'S EVERLASTING RIGHTEOUSNESS
While both imputed righteousness and transformative righteousness are mentioned, the opposition between them is not mentioned. Rather, in a deft swipe both concepts are lumped together as if they were one more innocuous detail to be tidied up. The document treats as if it were simply a matter of vocabulary what in the Bible is the very crucial difference between the righteousness of Christ by faith and self righteousness. The inner righteousness that Rome claims as a basis of being right with God is what the Bible condemns. Thus the document has downgraded to the status of a "necessarily interrelated question" "the historic uses of the language of justification as it relates to imputed and transformative righteousness".
To attempt to cloud or undo the Biblical distinction between the two is a most serious matter. The Biblical Gospel maintains that transformed living is a result of--and not the cause of--the believer's right standing before the Holy God. This is an exact issue in which Rome upholds man as being pleasing to God in himself, thereby showing that doctrinally she has confused justification with sanctification.
As was seen above, the Church of Rome teaches, "Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy".(8) That inner righteousness can be achieved by means of her physical sacraments is what the RC Church consistently teaches. For example, in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, she states,"The Most Holy Trinity gives the baptized [person] sanctifying grace, the grace of justification:..."(9)
According to RC doctrine then, "the grace of justification" is here clearly defined as "sanctifying grace". It is this infusion (that is, sanctifying grace) which the Church of Rome claims makes the human person pleasing to God--rather than being covered with Christ's righteousness alone, as the Scriptures teach. Rome therefore states, "Sanctifying grace makes us 'pleasing to God'" .(10)
Such infused righteousness as a basis of justification is an negation of consistent Biblical teaching of positional legal righteousness in Christ alone. (See Ephesians 1:3-14, Philippians 3:8-9, Colossians 3:3-4, Romans 3:24, 5:19, Isaiah 45:24-25, Psalm 71:16, Jeremiah 23:6.) To minimize this signal doctrine as if it were secondary rather than to address it as key to justification disguises Catholicism on the very point where Scripture is most exact.
The power of God unto salvation of which Paul speaks is the gospel in Romans 1:16. It is clarified in v. 17 as "the righteousness of God revealed". God's righteousness credited to the believer at Christ's expense is truly "awesome" in the root meaning of that word. The believer is filled again and again with awe, worship, and praise to the Holy God Who Himself has provided the permanent finished work of justification for sin. This justification is located in Christ's righteousness alone and, therefore, imputed to the believer who has been placed in Him by God alone. This righteousness cannot be diminished; neither can it be increased. The believer is justified by the imputation of Christ's "everlasting righteousness"(11) to him, and hence forever.
With the Apostle Paul, therefore, the believer can proclaim boldly, "There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit".(12) God's primary and ultimate purpose for such imputed righteousness is given in Romans 3:26, "To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus". This is because of who God is; He alone justifies those who believe, because He alone is Holy. Under the law, for God the Father to judge any sinner righteous means that a perfect life under His perfect law had to be lived. Only the God-Man Christ Jesus could do this, and He has done it. It is finished.
Herein is the love of God shown through his Son, Jesus Christ, in that this gift of righteousness, which cost Christ Jesus his life, is a finished work and is freely given. For to whom does God owe anything? And who can meet His standards under the law? Who can bargain with God or with Christ Jesus, that he should even think of offering to God anything in exchange for God's righteous judgment of himself? To make such a natural and ridiculous offer would be to attempt bribery of the highest order. Again and again the Bible states, therefore, that Christ's righteousness is imputed to the believer freely by God, or by God's grace alone. The Apostle Paul makes the distinction in the clearest of words,"I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith". (Phillippians 3:8-9)
And in Galatians 2:21,
"I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness came by the law, then Christ is dead in vain".
In the Prologue to her 1994 Catechism and in plain terminology, the Church of Rome has given the official RC teaching, "The third part of the Catechism deals with the final end of man created in the image of God: beatitude [the blessedness of heaven], and the way of reaching it - through right conduct freely chosen, with the help of God's law and grace (Section One), and through conduct that fulfills the twofold commandment of charity, specified in God's Ten Commandments (Section Two)".(13)
This is as clear as if a Pharisee had written it: to reach beatitude [the blessedness of heaven], right conduct and the keeping of God's Law are required. Grace, where mentioned, is merely a help rather than the sovereign act of God. Yet this very distinction of counting on God's righteousness and not one's own was at the center of the conflict between the Lord and the Pharisees, Paul and the Judiazers, the Reformation and the RC Church. To seriously denigrate this crucial distinction is exceedingly serious, for imputed righteousness is an essential element the Gospel of Christ. In Roman teaching, one's conduct and keeping of the law is the way of reaching beatitude. This goal no human being can obtain since by definition a human being is imperfect. The Bible Good News to the sinner is "But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness" (Romans 4:5). The Biblical distinction is light in the place of darkness. To intimate sameness is to protectively whitewash Catholicism.
ROME'S FREEDOM FROM SIN THROUGH BAPTISM
Under the rubric of "interrelated questions" as if it were a subordinate matter and not effecting justification, is also the mention of baptismal regeneration. RC teaching on baptismal regeneration is contrary to Scripture. Rome teaches, "Baptism, the gate to the sacraments, necessary for salvation in fact or at least in intention, by which men and women are freed from their sins, are reborn as children of God..."(14) Rome also officially teaches that "...The [Roman Catholic] Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude;"(15) that "By Baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin;(16) and that "...The sheer gratuitiousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism. The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth."(17) According to the Bible, faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God (Romans 10:17). To propound that new birth is through the application of a physical sacrament is to negate the Gospel of grace alone through faith alone.
THE EUCHARIST AND THE GOSPEL OF CHRIST
The Eucharist is also a lucid example of a rejection of the Gospel of grace. Formally the Church of Rome expounds, "The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: 'The victim(18) is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different.' 'In this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner.'"(19)
Such an assertion in itself contravenes the total sufficiency of Christ's once offered sacrifice. "Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high" (Hebrews 1:3). If Christ is a victim being offered through priests each day on thousands of Roman Catholic altars, then His sacrifice was flawed and imperfect since continual offering by definition means incomplete. The confidence that the signatories to this document state that they have in "the fundamental truths about the gift of salvation" is totally invalidated by the Roman Catholic understanding of a victim-like "Christ" needing to offer Himself daily on their altars. To the signers of this document the words of the Lord apply, "Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen" (Romans 1:25).
BELITTLING THE HOLY SPIRIT AND THE GOSPEL
"Marian devotion and the assistance of the saints in the life of salvation", is another key Gospel issue. To claim, as does Rome, that Mary is "Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix" is not only something that voids the Gospel message, it also denigrates and belittles the Person and the role of the Holy Spirit. The exact words of Roman dogma are,"Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation ....Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix."(20)
What is so serious regarding these titles is the fact that in the Bible the Comforter, the Helper sent to take the Lord's place in the believer, is the Holy Spirit. He abides with the believer forever (John 14:16). He brings to mind Christ's words (John 14:26). He testifies not to Himself but to Christ (John 15:26). He guides believers into all truth (John 16:13). Truly the Holy Spirit is another Advocate, a divine Helper, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth. The seriousness of teaching that these divine roles of the Holy Spirit belong to the Roman Catholic Mary is that such teaching disparages the divine Person of the Holy Spirit. This is grave heresy. Salvation comes by Biblical doctrine and by the conviction of the Holy Spirit.
When it come to the claim that Mary is Mediatrix, Rome is bold enough to assert this in face of the clarity of Scripture. She decrees, "This, however, is so understood that it neither takes away anything from nor adds anything to the dignity and efficacy of Christ the one Mediator."(21) Here is a classic example of Roman Catholic double talk. While presenting two mediators, the allegation is made that Mary does not "obscure or diminish from this unique mediation of Christ.' Rather than upholding the truth of one mediator, they add to the truth to make place for a feminine mediator whom they call Mediatrix. Such naturalistic dogma and reasoning are set up "against the knowledge of God""(II Corinthians 10:5). For Evangelicals to mention Marian devotion as having any place in salvation is to promote falsehood pure and simple. For Evangelicals not to know the official teaching of Rome as they make formal statements about Catholicism, is crass and supine ignorance.
THE SAINTS AND SALVATION
In a similar way to call "the assistance of the saints in the life of salvation" a "necessarily interrelated question" rather than a heresy is deception of the first order. Rome's teaching on this topic is lucid, clear, and distinctly occult. She teaches, "In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy...In this way they attained their own salvation and at the same time cooperated in saving their brothers in unity of the Mystical Body".(22) Rome also declares,"Communion with the dead. In full consciousness of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the Church in its pilgrim members, from the earliest days of the Christian religion, has honored with great respect the memory of the dead...Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective".(23)
Scripture declares, "There shall not be found among you... a charmer or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer, [one who call up the dead]."(24) The whole concept of calling up the dead to help with salvation is an abomination to the Lord and His Gospel truth. Sidestepping such heresy and declaring "we have discovered and are confident of the fundamental truths about the gift of salvation" is a mendacity of the highest order.
PURGATORY AND INDULGENCES
Both the topics of purgatory and indulgences obviously detract from the all sufficient finished work of the Lord. Knowing RC dogma on these subjects and the history of conflict surrounding these subjects, it is astonishing that these topics could be mentioned as if they were secondary matter and not pertaining directly to the Gospel.
IN BIBLICAL LIGHT: THE VERDICT
The document ends with the statement, "...we affirm our unity in the gospel that we have here professed. In our continuing discussions, we seek no unity other than unity in the truth. Only unity in the truth can be pleasing to the Lord and Savior whom we together serve, for he is 'the way, the truth, and the life' (John 14:6)". Indeed only unity in the truth can be pleasing to the Lord and Savior. Unhappily, the conclusion that must be reached after a scrutiny of the document in the light of Biblical truth and official RC dogma, is that "unity in truth" has not been reached. The precise reason for this is that the affirmation of unity in the Gospel is a falsehood; rather what has been reached is a concealment of what Catholicism really is.
What is compromised in this document is the Gospel itself. Remembering the warning of Scripture we truly fear for those who have composed and those who have endorsed it. "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto let him be accursed As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:8-9).
In summary, the section on the Eucharist documented clearly that "the victim " on RC altars each day is in the words of 2 Corinthians 11:4 "another Jesus". The Mary displayed by Rome as "Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix" is a message that both voids the Gospel and denigrates the Person and the role of the Holy Spirit. Rebirth and the forgiveness of all sin in the sacrament of Baptism has been recorded in official RC teaching. It disparages Christ's words in John 6:29, "This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent". "Communion with the dead" are not just Rome's words, they are her practice.
The heart of the Gospel is justification which is the LEGAL, JUDICIAL, IMPUTED, DECLARED RIGHTEOUSNESS of the Lord Jesus Christ upon all them that believe. Not only does Rome deny this Gospel, but she has cursed officially all who do. For men who hold that they are Evangelicals, to cover up these heresies is a most horrendous thing. It is like unto what the Lord spoke in Luke 11: "as graves which appear not, and the men that walk over them are not aware of them". In the words of the Lord Jesus Christ the admonition solemnly given is, "Take heed that no man deceive you."
(1) See The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1646; The Baptist Confession of Faith, 1689; The Philadelphia Confession of Faith, Adopted by The Baptist Association, 1742; and others.
(2) Catechism of the Catholic Church (Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications, 1994) Para. 891. Hereafter referred to as CCC.
(3) Henry Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, Tr. by Roy J Deferrari from Enchiridion Symbolorum, 13th ed. (B. Herder Book Co., 1957), #822.
(4) Ibid., #851.
(5) CCC, Para. 2020.
(6) CCC, Para. 1129.
(7) CCC, Para. 1992.
(8) CCC, Para. 1992.
(9) CCC, Para. 1266.
(10) CCC, Para. 2024.
(11) Daniel 9:24
(12) Romans 8:1
(13) CCC, Para. 16.
(14) Code of Canon Law, Latin-English Ed. (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1983) Canon 849.
(15) CCC, Para. 1257.
(16) CCC, Para. 1263.
(17) CCC, Para. 1250.
(18) Christ was never a victim and the idea of His being victimized is nowhere in Scripture. Rather it was of His own free will that He chose to go to the cross. See John 10:15, 18 and elsewhere. The use of the term, victim, in this context makes clear the erroneous doctrinal base from which the Roman Catholic theology proceeds.
(19) CCC, Para. 1367.
(20) CCC, Para. 969.
(21) Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, Austin Flannery, O.P., Editor, 1981 edition (Northport, NY: Costello Publishing Co., 1975) Vol. I, pp. 418-419.
(22) CCC, Para. 1477.
(23) CCC, Para. 958.
(24) Deuteronomy 18:10-11.
Permission is given by the author to freely copy this analysis of "The Gift of Salvation" if it is done in its entirety without any changes and includes the following short biography of its author...
BIOGRAPHY OF THE AUTHOR
Richard Bennett was trained by the Jesuits all of his elementary and high school years in Ireland, where he was born. He had eight years of intense education and formation by the Dominican Order, finishing at the Angelicum University in Rome, Italy, in 1964. He spent twenty-one years as a Roman Catholic priest in Trinidad, West Indies.
In 1986, he was saved by God's grace alone and formally left the Roman Catholic Church and its priesthood. He is married and settled in Portland, Oregon. Since 1990, he has been director of the evangelistic outreach, Berean Beacon, whose primary task is to evangelize the lost, particularly Roman Catholics, and to inform evangelical Christians by speaking and by distributing literature and tapes concerning Roman Catholicism.
In 1994, he published the book, Far from Rome, Near to God: The Testimonies of Fifty Former Catholic Priests, of which he and Martin Buckingham of England are the editors. The book is presently in its second edition and is published by The Banner of Truth Trust. It is also published in Italian, and Polish, and will soon be available in Spanish, Chinese, and Tagalog. He has also published The Truth Set us Free: Twenty Former Nuns Tell Their Stories. He has written several tracts for evangelizing Roman Catholics, available in Spanish, English, and other languages.