The National Association of Evangelicals (hardly a beacon of uncompromising orthodoxy) and Lifeway Research (affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention) recently teamed up to develop a “standard definition for what it means to be an Evangelical.” See the article here. With input gathered from a diverse group of theologians, Evangelical leaders, and sociologists (?), and tested via scientific survey, the NAE and Lifeway assembled a list of four core beliefs they say define an Evangelical. They are:
- The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
- It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
- Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
- Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
Well, I must say that’s a pretty good list! I strongly believe in all four statements. But how does Catholic belief square with these four beliefs? I’ll be happy to answer for Catholics because I was one for 27 years.
1. The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
Like Evangelicals, Catholics also believe the Bible is God’s Word. But for Catholics, their church’s teaching office, the magisterium, which includes the pope and bishops, is the highest authority. Catholic are obliged to believe the church’s extra-biblical dogma and to accept the church’s interpretation of Scripture. Catholics aren’t generally encouraged to read the Bible and most don’t.
2. It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
Catholics believe in salvation by sacramental grace and obedience to the Ten Commandments and church law. Catholics believe God gives them the graces, administered by the church through the sacraments, by which they can be saved, but they must also “cooperate with grace” and perfectly obey the commandments and church rules to merit their salvation. So Catholics don’t encourage non-Catholics to just “trust Jesus as their Savior.” What they might do is encourage interested non-Catholics to enroll in their year-long RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) program, be baptized by a priest, and systematically participate in their works-righteousness sacramental system. But since Catholics are now taught that everyone, even atheists, can merit Heaven as long as they “follow the light they have been given” and are “good,” the conversion of non-Catholics no longer has the priority it once had.
3. Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
Catholics believe they must strive to keep their souls completely free from all sin. They believe this is actually possible! They believe the sacrifice of the mass provides the grace to help them avoid “mortal” sin and cleanse “venial” sin. The mass is repeated thousands of times daily throughout the world. Catholics insist they don’t repeat Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary. They engage in sophistry and call it a “re-presentation.” Catholics call Jesus their “Savior” but they essentially believe they must save themselves by perfectly obeying the Ten Commandments and church law. If they ever do happen to commit a “mortal” sin, Catholics believe the sacrament of reconciliation removes some of the penalty of sin but not all of it. They believe any remaining temporal punishment will be meted out in purgatory.
4. Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
Catholics will say they believe eternal salvation is “a gift” but then will insist they must merit the “gift” by perfectly obeying the Ten Commandments and church laws. They believe people of all religions and even atheists are also able to merit heaven as long as they “follow the light they have been given” and are “good.”
So if Catholic beliefs differ soooooooooo much from Evangelical beliefs, especially in regards to justification, how is it that many in the NAE are able to embrace Catholics as fellow Christians?