Throwback Thursday: One of those old and angry ex-Catholics?

Welcome to this week’s edition of “Throwback Thursday.” For today’s installment, we’re going to revisit a post that was originally published back on October 9th, 2015 and has been slightly revised.

[The information in this post is closely associated with the “Throwback Thursday” post that was published just a few weeks ago. See here.]

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In 1994, Chuck Colson’s and, Catholic priest, Richard John Neuhaus’s ecumenical “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT) alliance issued its first declaration; “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.” The gist of the statement was that both camps recognized the other as “Christian” and resolved to join as allies in the culture war against secularism. Several notable evangelicals supported the statement, but perhaps the most surprising signatory was J. I. Packer (photo above), an influential Reformed theologian best known for his book, “Knowing God.” Packer’s endorsement of ECT was met with shock and strong criticism from many evangelicals.

One year later, ECT leadership released “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission,” a collection of articles defending the ECT declaration, written by six of the document’s signers, including Packer. In his article, Packer argued that his endorsement of ECT was not an approval of the doctrines of Catholicism. He stated, in so many words, that if Catholics are saved, they are saved in spite of their church’s standard theology, not as a result of it. But, as I noted in a previous post, as a signatory of ECT, Packer was quite willing to give every Catholic the benefit of the doubt.

In defending himself from his critics, Packer wrote:

“The most poignant expressions of these criticisms come from middle-aged and elderly individuals who found Christ and spiritual life in evangelicalism after failing to find either in the Roman Catholicism of their birth and who cannot believe that Protestants who back ECT know what they’re doing” (p.156).

Packer’s statement is condescending at best and insulting at worst. Well, J. I., who best to comment on a false religious system than one who was once held in bondage by it? Who best to answer whether Christ and spiritual life can be found in Catholicism than ex-Catholics who have accepted Christ and come out of that church with its false gospel of salvation by sacramental grace and merit? On the one hand, Packer readily admits that salvation cannot be found in the standard theology of the Catholic church, but then he turns around and backhands the ex-Catholic critics of ECT as being a bunch of bitter, old fogeys! Well, it’s easy to see that J. I. was quite stung by the well-deserved criticism of his participation in ECT and lashed out irrationally and uncharitably.

In some cursory readings, I see Packer was always a bit of an ecumenist, being an ardent admirer of C.S. Lewis, which eventually led to his break with David Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Lloyd-Jones! Now there was a man of God who knew the danger of cozying up to Rome and wasn’t afraid to speak about it!  To read Lloyd-Jones’ sermon, “Roman Catholicism,” see here.

It’s been twenty-one years since the first ECT document was published and the fruits of Colson’s, Packer’s and other ecumenists’ efforts are everywhere. It’s a rising tide. A recent survey found that 58 percent of self-identified evangelical Christian pastors agreed that pope Francis was a fellow Christian and a “brother in Christ,” while another 19 percent responded that they were not sure. What that means is only 23 percent of the evangelical Christian pastors who were polled disagreed with the statement that the pope is a fellow Christian and a “brother in Christ.” I shouldn’t be surprised at the rising apostasy. The Bible does speak about it. And, no, I shouldn’t be hateful towards Packer and other misguided evangelicals who embrace the RCC and serve as the Vatican’s “polezni durak” (useful fools). However, I love my Catholic family members, friends, and Catholics in general who endlessly toil to be “good enough” to merit Heaven. Ach! What a rat race they run! They need evangelicals who will confront them with their sinful state and present them with the genuine Good News! of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. They don’t need accommodating and compromising evangelicals like J.I. Packer, who betray them and the Gospel.

“Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” – Isaiah 1:18

I’m clothed with my Savior’s imputed perfect righteousness. Now THAT’S something to REJOICE about! Yep, I am a HAPPY guy! Repent of your sin and accept Jesus Christ and trust in Him as your Savior by faith alone, not in your own efforts or the man-made traditions your church.

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Throwback Thursday: Ravi Zacharias impersonates Fred Astaire while compromising the Gospel

Welcome to this week’s “Throwback Thursday” installment! Today, we’re revisiting a post that was originally published back on October 29, 2015, but has been revised substantially.

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Ravi Zacharias is a very familiar name to many evangelicals. The apologist has written several popular books, makes appearances all across the country, and his half-hour daily radio show is broadcast by many Christian radio stations. Mr. Zacharias* is an intelligent and very well-spoken orator and can be a pleasure to listen to regarding some topics. But, as an ex-Catholic saved by God’s grace though faith in Jesus Christ alone, it troubles me greatly that Mr. Zacharias often references committed Roman Catholics in his presentations as if they were Gospel Christians. I have personally heard him extol St. Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, and Malcolm Muggeridge. All three were committed to Rome’s false gospel of sacramental grace and merit. Mr. Zacharias also appeared as a speaker at the “Together 2016” ecumenical event in Washington D.C., which included a video-greeting from pope Francis.

Above is a 6-minute YouTube video that gives some additional perspective on Mr. Zacharias’ accommodation of Roman Catholicism. At an evangelical seminar, a young man has a question for Mr. Zacharias. He states that he’s been involved in street evangelism for six or seven years and has often encountered members of religious groups widely identified as cults, such as the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. But he also mentions that he regularly encounters Roman Catholics. The young man asks Mr. Zacharias, albeit somewhat inarticulately because of nerves, to clarify for him whether Roman Catholicism is a cult or an apostate church?

Well, Mr. Zacharias tap dances around the question like Fred Astaire for about five minutes and manages to avoid giving anything resembling a forthright answer. It’s actually quite stunning to witness. Why the great hesitancy, Mr. Zacharias? Why the obfuscation? Can people be saved through the Catholic church’s standard theology of salvation via sacramental grace and merit or not? Is the genuine Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone the only way to Heaven or not? What was so extremely difficult about the young man’s question, Mr. Zacharias, that caused you to hem and haw for five long minutes? Yes, Gospel-preaching churches and denominations have their secondary-belief distinctives, but, at its core, does the Roman Catholic church preach the genuine Gospel or not? That was the crux of the question as you very well knew.

The audience heartily applauded Mr. Zacharias for his “wise” and “gracious” non-reply, but that young man left the hall more confused than when he entered.

Catholic apologists and priests have absolutely NO problem proclaiming that their church is the “one true church” and that it alone possesses the “fullness of the gospel.” Catholic apologists and priests have absolutely NO problem disparaging “Bible-thumping evangelicals” and their “easy-believism” Gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. So why then are evangelical preachers and apologists, like Mr. Zacharias, so deferential when it comes to Roman Catholicism? What are Mr. Zacharias and the others so afraid of? What spirit is driving them to cooperate, accommodate, compromise, and tap dance on egg shells? The young man mentioned Charles Spurgeon and his uncompromising stand regarding Catholicism. Where are the Spurgeons of today?

Lord, thank you for watchmen who are faithful to the Gospel of grace and who continue to work the ripe fields of the Roman Catholic lost.

*Some may be assuming that I am being disrespectful by referring to Ravi Zacharias as “Mr.” rather than “Dr.” in this post. In my first draft of this Throwback Thursday revision, I did refer to Ravi Zacharias as “Dr. Zacharias,” however, I subsequently learned that questions were raised recently regarding his academic credentials and, as per a statement on his own website, he is requesting that no one refer to him any longer as “doctor.” I point that out not as an attack (academic credentials can be absolutely meaningless as we all know), but for purposes of clarification.

Throwback Thursday: ECT – Toward a Common Mission of Apostasy

Welcome to this week’s edition of “Throwback Thursday.” For today’s installment, we’re revisiting a post that was originally published back on September 19th, 2015 and has been slightly revised.

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Evangelicals & Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission
Charles Colson, Richard John Neuhaus, editors
Word Publishing, 1995, 236 pages

1 Star

Before I begin discussing this book, I’d like to provide a little background. In the late 1970s, influential evangelical theologian, Francis Schaeffer, challenged American pastors and para-church leaders to enter the political arena in order to “reclaim America for Jesus!” Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and other popular figures picked up the gauntlet, determined to stem the tide of “secular humanism.” Evangelicals soon found themselves as co-belligerents with conservative Roman Catholics in culture and morality battles. Predictably, political alliances paved the way for religious accommodation and compromise. Irreconcilable doctrinal distinctives were overlooked and some evangelicals began to accept unabashed salvation-by-merit Catholics as “brothers in Christ.”

Bombastic Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority eventually flamed out, but another evangelical would soon carry the ecumenical torch. Chuck Colson had been Special Counsel to President Nixon, but his involvement in the Watergate scandal landed him in prison where he claimed to have had a born-again experience. His 1975 memoir, “Born Again,” was a national bestseller and launched Colson’s new career as a popular para-church leader. Taking his cue from C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity,” ecumenism became increasingly dear to Colson’s heart.*

In 1994, Colson and Catholic priest, Richard John Neuhaus, began “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT), an ecumenical project calling for evangelicals and Catholics to unite in the battle against secular humanism and to recognize each other as Christians. The organization’s 1994 declaration was signed by a number of influential evangelicals and Catholics. However, a number of other evangelical leaders voiced their strong opposition to the declaration, which embraced works-righteousness Catholicism as a Christian entity and called for an end to evangelizing Catholics.

This book, “Evangelicals & Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission,” was published in 1995 to explain and defend the controversial ECT declaration. The evangelical contributors were Colson, Mark Noll, and J. I. Packer, and the Roman Catholic contributors were George Weigel and priests Avery Dulles and Neuhaus.

I really don’t care to expend too much energy reviewing the details of this book. In my view it’s a tragedy from the first page to the last. The three evangelicals who participated flagrantly accommodate error and compromise the truth. What is the Gospel? For genuine evangelicals faithful to God’s Word, the Gospel is salvation by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ alone. In contrast, the Catholic gospel is salvation by sacramental grace and merit. The two views are irreconcilable and cannot be bridged. Colson and Noll heard Catholics concede that “salvation is by (sacramental) grace through faith” and eagerly jumped the gun, declaring, “Close enough,” yet also knowing full well that Catholics actually adhere to “cooperation with grace,” aka merit or works, as an essential component in their salvation system. Packer? He correctly writes that if any Catholics are saved, they are saved IN SPITE of their church’s standard theology, but he’s willing to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

“And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.” – Romans 11:6

ECT went on to publish several additional declarations over the years (via Neuhaus’ conservative Catholic and ecumenical journal, “First Things”), although it faded from view after the deaths of Neuhaus in 2009 and Colson in 2012. But, regrettably, Colson did accomplish some of what he set out to do. He would be pleased that works-righteousness Catholicism has been embraced as a Christian entity by a large number of Gospel-compromising evangelical pastors and their followers.

*I’m speculating that Chuck Colson’s great desire to unite evangelicals and Catholics was at least partially motivated by his 48-year marriage to Patty Hughes Colson, a “devout” Roman Catholic. Colson regularly attended mass with his Catholic wife. To see more on Colson’s proclivity for Roman error, see here.

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Partners in ecumenism: Chuck Colson, left, and priest, Richard John Neuhaus

Throwback Thursday: The Dark Side of the Papacy

Welcome to this week’s “Throwback Thursday” installment! Today, we’re revisiting a post that was first published back on September 22nd, 2015 and has been slightly re-edited.

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Vicars of Christ: The Dark Side of the Papacy
By Peter De Rosa
Crown Publishing, 1988, 484 pages

3 Stars

The Roman Catholic church presents a fanciful, pollyannaish, idealized version of itself as the “one true church,” perpetually guided by the Holy Spirit through an infallible pope from an unbroken line of apostolic succession all the way back to Peter, the alleged first bishop of Rome. But history tells quite another story.

In “The Vicars of Christ: The Dark Side of the Papacy,” former Jesuit priest, Peter De Rosa, plays the “devil’s advocate” by examining the role of the papacy throughout history. Credulous Catholic readers will be shocked to learn that many popes were devoted only to furthering their political, financial, and ecclesiastical power by whatever means necessary. De Rosa refutes claims to divine guidance and papal infallibility by recalling the early church’s metamorphosis into an all-powerful, authoritarian institution which initiated the Crusades, the Inquisition, the persecution of Galileo (an unbreachable repudiation of infallibility), mandatory clerical celibacy, condemnation of civil democracies and freedom of religion, and the ban on contraceptives. Further historical embarrassments for the papacy and the RCC include:

  • Previous popes were sometimes denounced as heretics by their successors.
  • For centuries, popes reigned over a church that was ferociously anti-Semitic.
  • The Bible was placed on the Catholic church’s Index of Forbidden Books.
  • In their personal affairs, popes were often paragons of avarice and debauchery.

When this book was written, De Rosa was not privy to the pedophile priests and cover-up scandal tsunami that followed and that has rocked Catholicism to its foundations.

De Rosa is not an academic historian (no footnotes), but he credits a lengthy bibliography of scholarly sources. Intransigent Catholic traditionalists have slandered this book, but the muck is just too deep to overcome.* What is liberal Catholic De Rosa’s aim in exposing the papacy’s dark side? By demonstrating that the alleged vicars of Christ were not divinely guided, the author hopes Catholics will realize many of the current controversial dogmas (ban on contraceptives, clerical celibacy, male-only hierarchy, exclusion of remarried divorcees from the sacraments, etc.) are concocted traditions without foundation that the hierarchy perpetuates to its own peril.

De Rosa pines for the liberality of pope John XXIII who “threw open the windows of the church” at Vatican II. But the church is reluctant to abandon its allegedly inspired doctrines for fear of losing credibility, for Rome has always boasted that it never changes. But didn’t Rome once teach that everyone not baptized a Catholic would go to hell? The current pope, Francis, now says even atheists will go to heaven if they lead “good” lives. Of course! If works are the means to salvation as Catholicism teaches then, taken to its logical conclusion, everyone who tries to lead a “good life” will merit heaven. So why should Catholics bother with their scrupulously legalistic religion if even atheists are “good to go”? Recent surveys reveal 75% of Catholics wonder the same thing and no longer bother to attend obligatory Sunday mass. But the house of cards came down decades ago for many Catholics when pope Paul VI forbade all forms of contraception while eagerly endorsing the natural family planning (aka rhythm) method. Most married Catholics legitimately asked, “What’s the difference?”

What is an evangelical Christian to make of the “Vicars of Christ”? Despite exposing the dark side of his church’s history, De Rosa is still an advocate of Rome’s salvation system of sacramental grace and merit with priests as the ordained mediators between God and men. The Catholic church’s story is that of early-Christianity’s transformation into a legalistic, authoritarian institution whose cruelties, depravities, and corruption eventually overshadowed even pagan Rome.

The Reformers abandoned the legalism and ritualism of Catholicism and reclaimed the beliefs of the early church, which were based upon the scriptural Good News of salvation by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Unlike pope Francis who preaches Universal salvation for all who are “good,” the Reformers pointed to the Bible, which proclaims that there are none who are good or righteous and can earn their way to heaven (Romans 3:10). But the Good News! is God so loved the world that He gave His Son to die for our sins, and that whoever places their faith in Jesus Christ as Savior by faith alone will not perish, but will have eternal life (John 3:16).

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*Since the above post was written four years ago, several conservative Roman Catholics have written books which cite embarrassing and unflattering episodes in their church’s history. An absolutely amazing development! Their strategy? By showing that the church has survived corrupt and/or heretical prelates in the past, the authors contend that the church will also survive the heterodoxy of progressive pope Francis.

Throwback Thursday: Did you ever wonder how early-Christianity devolved into Roman Catholic imperialism?

For today’s “Throwback Thursday” installment, we’re revisiting a re-edited post that was originally published back on August 9th, 2015.

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Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity
By James J. O’Donnell
Ecco/Harper Collins, 2015, 293 pp.

5 Stars

This book, by respected classicist historian, James J. O’Donnell, is an extremely interesting and informative examination of that period of the Roman Empire when the traditional pagan religion was gradually replaced by Christianity.

What Christians would refer to as Roman paganism was belief system in a large pantheon of gods, each of whom supposedly had jurisdiction over a particular realm, occupation, or activity (like the Catholic “saints” who followed). Prayers and sacrifices were offered to the capricious and unpredictable gods in temples throughout the empire in hopes of attaining success in business, warfare, and personal circumstances. People were apt to adopt the god/s favored by a particularly successful person in the hopes of replicating their good fortune. Paganism was an impersonal, pragmatic religion largely based on ritual and tradition. Zealots and “true believers” were few.

As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, its adherents encountered persecution due to its peculiar monotheistic and exclusivist claims. Christians had also refused to worship the emperor, which resulted in severe persecution. However, Christianity grew despite the opposition (or because of it), and was eventually legalized by Emperor Constantine in 313 AD and proclaimed the official religion of the empire by Theodosius in 380 AD. Between 389 and 391, the emperor issued the “Theodosian decrees,” which proscribed extremely harsh penalties for all remaining pagan practitioners.

As an extremely important pillar in the empire’s structure, the church became increasingly institutionalized, taking on the imperial trappings of its patron and focusing on the accumulation of wealth and power. Personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior, as taught in the New Testament, devolved into sacramental ritual, complex liturgy, exacting legalism, and evolving “traditions,” all tightly controlled by the ascending clergy-class.

O’Donnell does an excellent job of presenting the tensions between the dying, old religion and the new. However, he also addresses the many accommodations made by the new state church to the old religion once it gained the advantage. As pagan “converts” streamed into the church for reasons of social, political, and financial expediency, the church made concessions and absorbed (aka “Christianized”) many of the beliefs and practices of the preceding religion. I’ve already referred to the replacement of patron gods with patron “saints” (see here), but another illustrative example of this syncretism was the appropriation of the title of the pagan religion’s high priest, “Pontifex Maximus” (Latin: greatest priest), by the Roman bishop. 

O’Donnell isn’t a believer, but he has provided an excellent introduction into the nuts and bolts of how the Christian church initially began its degeneration from the preaching of the Gospel and simple, saving faith in Jesus Christ into an iron-fisted, worldly institution focused on wealth, power, and absolute control, shielded by a veneer of ostentatious piety. Excellent. Highly recommended.

Postscript: I praise God for raising up the 16th-century Reformers to reclaim the Gospel of grace, however I believe there was always a remnant of genuine believers, even within the authoritarian Catholic institution, who were trusting in Jesus Christ as Savior by faith alone.

Throwback Thursday: “The Gospel According to Rome: Comparing Catholic Tradition and the Word of God”

For today’s “Throwback Thursday” installment, we’re revisiting a slightly re-edited post that was first published back on August 13th, 2015.

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The Gospel According to Rome: Comparing Catholic Tradition and the Word of God
by James G. McCarthy
Harvest House, 1995, 408 pp.

5 Stars

The Gospel According to Rome is a well-researched and well-written comparison of Catholic theology with Scripture. McCarthy, an evangelical Christian and ex-Catholic, uses Catholicism’s own source material including its official 1995 catechism to present the church’s position on various doctrinal issues and then responds with counter-arguments using relevant passages from the Bible.

Of course, the main disagreement between Catholics and evangelicals is in regards to the issue of justification and McCarthy expounds upon that disagreement thoroughly. Is a person saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ alone, as the Bible teaches and evangelicals believe, or does salvation come from the Catholic church through the dispensation of its sacraments and by merit? A Christian rests securely in Christ’s imputed perfect righteousness while a Catholic believes their salvation will ultimately depend on how well THEY “cooperate with (sacramental) grace” and obey their church’s rules and the Ten Commandments. Is that “Good News”? A person who adheres to a religious legal system like Catholicism could never possibly justify their standing before a Holy God according to how well they obeyed His commandments. The law teaches us we are all sinners (Galatians 3:24) and that we all need a Savior; justification doesn’t come from trying to obey the law. Christ came to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15-17) NOT the self-righteous. Jesus Christ has made complete and final atonement for us, but we need to repent of our sin and accept Him as our Savior by faith alone. Pride in their religious system and its traditions and their false confidence in their ability to ultimately merit their salvation prevent Catholics from trusting in Christ by faith alone.

McCarthy examines the errors of many other Catholic doctrines including the sacerdotal priesthood, the sacrifice of the mass and transubstantiation, Mariolatry, the papacy, purgatory, sacred tradition, and baptismal regeneration. I’ve read many books which critically examine Catholicism and “The Gospel According to Rome” is easily one of the best. McCarthy’s tone is charitable yet uncompromising in his examinations of the Roman church’s fallacies. Order from Amazon here.

The following books were also written by McCarthy and published by Harvest House. They’re all available through Amazon.com:

*Roman Catholicism: What You Need to Know (Quick Reference Guides) (1995)
*What Every Catholic Should Ask (1999)
*Letters Between a Catholic and an Evangelical (2003)
*Talking with Catholic Friends and Family (2005)

Throwback Thursday: Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment

For today’s “Throwback Thursday” installment, we’re going to take a look back at this post, which was first published on August 19, 2015 and has been only slightly revised.

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Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment
by Gregg R. Allison
Crossway, 2014, 496 pages

5 Stars

At a time when some evangelical pastors and para-church leaders are ignoring doctrinal distinctives in the interest of “Christian” unity, noted evangelical theologian, Gregg R. Allison, gives us “Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment,” a clinical examination of the many differences between Bible Christianity and Roman Catholicism.

Allison begins by outlining Rome’s two major theological constructs: the nature-grace interconnection which posits the concrete conferring of grace through nature (e.g., priests, sacraments, sacramentals, shrines, relics, etc.) and the Christ-Church interconnection, whereby the Catholic church presents itself as the prolongation of the incarnation of Christ. Allison then examines Rome’s catechism, reviewing each major doctrine in light of the aforementioned constructs and how they compare to God’s Word and evangelical theology. The author notes that Catholicism and evangelicalism agree on some doctrinal issues, but disagree on a myriad of others. Most importantly, Catholicism teaches salvation by sacramental grace and merit while evangelicals profess Biblical salvation by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ alone. There is no bridge over this theological chasm despite the best efforts of some accommodating, doctrine-light evangelicals.

This new book is a VERY welcome addition to the evangelical-Catholic debate. Every evangelical pastor who works with Catholics and ex-Catholics should own a copy. Many of the Protestant books about Catholicism written in the past were uncharitable and did not present Rome’s doctrines accurately. Allison’s tone leans toward the irenic almost to a fault, but he’s also firm in his critique of Catholicism’s un-Biblical and anti-Biblical doctrines.

Unfortunately, Allison ends this book on a bit of a disappointing note. After spending the first 450 pages carefully analyzing Rome’s errors, he avoids drawing any overall conclusions. Does he believe Rome is at its foundation a Christian church that happens to teach many doctrines not found in the Bible (see Norman Geisler) or does he believe Catholicism is an apostate church that turned from the Gospel of Jesus Christ to legalism and ritualism and that no person can be saved by adhering to its standard theology? After reading the first 450 pages the reader will definitely assume Allison’s position is the latter, but, unfortunately, for reasons only he knows, he’s not willing to commit himself in a forthright summation and conclusion. Instead, the six-page final chapter offers evangelicals advice on how to share the Gospel with Catholics. That criticism aside, this book is a timely and intelligent clarification of Catholic teaching for evangelicals, some of whom are disturbingly too eager to embrace a “church” they actually know very little about.

Available from Amazon here. Please note: This book is definitely on the academic side and wouldn’t appeal to a number of readers. For an excellent book on Roman Catholicism that will appeal to the general reader, tune in to next week’s installment of Throwback Thursday!

Throwback Thursday: Nuns Gone Wild!

For today’s “Throwback Thursday” installment, we’re revisiting a slightly re-edited post that was first published back on August 30th, 2015.

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The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal
By Hubert Wolf
Knopf, 2015, 496 pp.

5 Stars

Protestant literature of the 19th and early-20th centuries abounded with “convent escape narratives,” first-hand accounts of abuse and debauchery in Roman Catholic convents as reported by ex-nuns. Naturally, the veracity of those reports was attacked by Catholic spokespersons who dismissed the books as “Protestant pornography.”

Now we have “The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal” by award-winning German historian, Hubert Wolf. From the archives of the Office of the Holy Inquisition, opened for the first time to scholars only as recently as 1998, Wolf gives us this tale of fraudulent mysticism, struggle for power, lesbianism, fornication, and murder all within the walls of this single Roman convent in the 1850s.

The story centers around German Princess, Katharina von Hohenzollern–Sigmaringen, who entered the Sant’Ambrogio convent as a middle-aged novice and quickly became a victim of the diabolic intrigues of the mother vicaress, Sister Maria Luisa. Katarina barely escaped the convent and certain death only because of her connections to powerful nobility. A subsequent church investigation uncovered more filth than a boardinghouse cesspool.

It’s ironic that the sheer vileness of what transpired within this convent as recorded in the pages of once-secret, official Catholic sources far eclipses those Victorian-age, blushingly restrained and inexplicit Protestant accounts. Perhaps even more interesting than the nuns’ tawdry behavior is how the scandal was used as a pawn by competing factions within the Catholic church at the time; Dominicans vs. Jesuits, Modernists vs. New Scholastics. A few reviewers gave this book low grades complaining it was too dry. Perhaps from the title they were hoping for something a bit more salacious? Quite the contrary, I found “The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio” to be an extremely well-written, well-researched history. Very rare is a history book that presents such a complex subject in such a readable, illuminating fashion.

Devout Catholic readers will be nonplussed by the revelations of what transpired behind the convent walls of Sant’Ambrogio and by the subsequent political machinations both inside and outside of the Vatican. There’s no doubt that similar diabolical debaucheries took place in countless other Catholic convents and rectories (and bishops’ palaces and at the Vatican) throughout the ages fueled by the church’s unnatural rule of celibacy for its clergy. Reports of pedophile priests abusing children have been in the headlines for the last twenty years as we well know.

After Christianity was adopted as the state religion by the Roman Empire, the church quickly became institutionalized and “faith” for most of its members meant adherence to religious ritualism and legalism. In general, Catholics are taught salvation is through the administration of the seven sacraments, all tightly controlled by the clergy, and by obeying the Ten Commandments and church rules. Asceticism became the rule for many of the religious orders leading to expressions of fanatical mysticism of the type exhibited by the nuns of Sant’Ambrogio. In contrast, God’s Word tells us salvation is only by the grace of God through simple faith in Jesus Christ alone.

Throwback Thursday: A look at “Mere Christianity” aka the armchair theologian has no clothes

For today’s “Throwback Thursday” installment, we’re going to take a look back at this slightly-revised post that was first published on August 26, 2015.

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Few books are as revered by evangelical Christians as “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. Evangelical pastors across the country quote snippets of “Mere Christianity” to their congregations every Sunday. But Lewis’ wide-is-the-way, bottom-line, mere Christianity is problematic for Bible Christians. This post will undoubtedly upset some readers, but we should allow “Mere Christianity” speak for itself.

Mere Christianity
By C.S. Lewis
Harper Collins, 2001, 256 pp.

1 Star  Only 1-star because of the wide-is-the-way theology

Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) was a distinguished British author, educator, armchair theologian, and a former atheist. “Mere Christianity” (first published in 1952) was adapted from a series of talks given by Lewis on BBC radio between 1942 and 1944.

Many evangelical pastors and para-church leaders refer to “Mere Christianity” with unqualified high praise. Christianity Today magazine even names it as the “absolute best religious book of the twentieth-century.” Well, after hearing all the hoopla for many years, I finally got around to reading this “classic” and I must say I’m surprised by all the adulation. There’s no doubt Lewis was a talented writer and pleads the case for many of the basic tenets of Christianity in an enjoyable let’s-discuss-religion-over-a-few-pints-at-the-pub manner. But there are more than a few difficulties with Lewis’s lowest-common-denominator theology which should give all conservative evangelicals pause. All quotes below are from the Harper Collins 2001 edition which I borrowed from my local library.

* The author, an Anglo-Catholic, cuts the widest swath possible in his definition of Christianity. He is purposefully inclusive, identifying Christianity as a large hallway which has many doors to various denominational rooms (p. XV). Roman Catholicism, a propagator of salvation via sacramental grace and merit, is presented as a totally valid Christian entity. Chuck Colson cited “Mere Christianity” as the inspiration for his ecumenical Evangelicals and Catholics Together alliance.

* Lewis is deliberately vague about how one actually becomes a Christian. He sets forth three things that “spread” the “Christ-life” to us: “baptism, belief, and that mysterious action which different Christians call by different names – Holy Communion, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper” (p. 61). While Lewis confesses that a Methodist friend of his would prefer more emphasis be given to belief than to the two “sacraments” as the way to “Christ-life,” the author declines to do so. High-church Anglicans generally believe the Holy Spirit is first received at infant baptism and that Christ is really present in the eucharist. Catholics believe that at their mass the priest brings Christ down from heaven to be sacrificed again and again under the forms of bread and wine as an offering for the sins of the participants. However, God’s Word states that priestly sacrifice for sins ended with Jesus’s once-for-all-time sacrificial death at Calvary and that He is now seated at the right hand of the Father (Hebrews 1:3 & 10:12), not on Catholic altars as a broken victim.

* Lewis correctly states that at some point a person on their way to becoming a Christian will realize they cannot merit their way to God, but must accept Christ’s completely free gift of salvation by the grace of God through faith in Him as Savior alone (p. 147). But how Lewis reconciles this with his previous approval of sacramentalism is unclear. Also, Rome unequivocally condemns the belief of unmerited salvation by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ alone (see Council of Trent canons), yet Lewis cites Catholicism as a valid branch of Christianity. So which is it? Is salvation by grace or works? Lewis’ theological dissonance suggests to his readers that there are two gospels.

* Lewis affirms his unscriptural belief in purgatory. Putting words into Christ’s mouth, Lewis writes, “Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect…” (p. 202). Lest anyone believe I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill in regards to this somewhat nebulous reference, Lewis greatly expounded on his belief in purgatory in other writings.

* Lewis is an unabashed Universalist: “There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it” (p. 209). Chapter and verse, Clive Staples? What about John 14:6? But Lewis is not the only evangelical darling to preach Universalism. In a May 31, 1997 interview with ecumenical minister, Robert H. Schuller, Billy Graham stated, “God’s purpose for this age is to call out a people for His name. And that’s what God is doing today, He’s calling people out of the world for His name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world or the non-believing world. They are members of the Body of Christ because they’ve been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have, and they turn to the only light that they have, and I think that they are saved, and that they’re going to be with us in heaven.”

* Lewis outright dismisses the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ, not a minor triviality (p.182), and in other writings he doubts the inerrancy of Scripture. Lewis confessed his sins weekly to Anglican priest, Father Walter Adams, beginning in 1940. After Adams’ death in 1952 Lewis continued the practice of auricular confession with the priests of St. Mary Magdalen Church in Oxford.

C. S. Lewis’s deviation from Biblical orthodoxy on several extremely important issues raises the question of why so many evangelical pastors stumble over each other to sing the praises of “Mere Christianity”? The fact that many Roman Catholics have adopted Lewis as one of their own and are convinced he was on the path to joining their religion says volumes. Lewis’s spiritual inspiration, ardent Catholic apologist, G. K. Chesterton, was certainly no friend of evangelical Protestantism. Is intellectual snob appeal part of what fuels the attraction to the troubling writings of Oxford professor, Lewis? I’m guessing that’s some of the appeal.

My advice is don’t waste one second of your time with this wide-is-the-way “classic.” There are much more doctrinally sound books on the basics of the Christian faith from solid evangelical authors that deserve your attention. I would neither recommend “Mere Christianity” to an unbeliever or to a Christian of many years. I can only surmise that the undiscerning herd enthusiasm for this book among some evangelicals is guided by the same spirit that persuaded Billy Graham to invite Catholic bishops and priests to participate in organizing his later crusades.

Throwback Thursday: Next time you drive past a Catholic church on Sunday morning…

For today’s “Throwback Thursday” installment, we’re going to revisit a slightly re-edited post that was first published back on August 28th, 2015.

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Many evangelicals pass a Catholic church on Sunday morning and probably think to themselves, “Sure, Catholics worship God a little differently than we do, but we’re all worshiping the same God, that’s the important thing.” But let’s examine that thought. At an evangelical worship service there’s typically some announcements and singing of hymns and songs of praise for about a half an hour followed by an hour of preaching from God’s Word by the minister. The Gospel is presented and the unsaved are invited to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.

The Catholic “mass” is quite different. At the mass, there are also announcements, singing, a couple of very short readings from the Bible and a short seven or eight-minute “homily” (sermon). But the main focus of the mass is the lengthy ritual whereby the priest allegedly changes bread wafers and wine into the actual body and blood of Jesus. Jesus spoke about being the “bread of life,” but Catholics interpret those passages in a literalist sense that defies sound exegesis and a spiritual understanding of God’s Word. The priest then offers up Jesus the “host” (i.e., “victim”) to God the Father as a sacrifice for the sins of all the participants and any others who are mentioned. The mass attendees then line up to take the Jesus wafer and Jesus wine from the priest and consume them, believing grace is imparted that will wash away “venial” sins and supposedly help them avoid committing “mortal” sins in the future in order to hopefully merit their salvation at the moment of their death.

Catholicism is really an extension of the Old Testament Levitical sacrificial system with the priest serving as a mediator between God and the people. The priest is essential to the Catholic sacramental and works-righteousness system. Without his ordained “powers” and role as mediator, the people are doomed and the Catholic hierarchy has always desired to keep it that way.

“For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” – 1 Timothy 2:5.

However, Jesus completely did away with the Old Testament sacrificial system when He was crucified and breathed His last breath with the words, “It is finished,” and the veil to the Holy of Holies of Jerusalem’s temple was torn in two, giving all people direct access to God through Jesus Christ the Savior. God’s Word says Jesus is currently seated at the right hand of the Father, NOT on Catholic altars as a broken victim, being sacrificed again and again, thousands of times daily all over the world.

“Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God” – Hebrews 10:11-12.

Here’s a passage from a Catholic source that should put the Catholic priesthood and the mass in stark perspective for all evangelicals:

“When the priest pronounces the tremendous words of consecration, he reaches up into the heavens, brings Christ down from His throne, and places Him upon our altar to be offered up again as the victim for the sins of man…The priest brings Christ down from heaven, and renders Him present on our altar as the eternal victim for the sins of man – not once but a thousand times! The priest speaks and lo, Christ, the eternal and omnipotent God, bows his head in humble obedience to the priest’s commands.” – from “The Faith of Millions” by Father John O’Brien, Nihil obstat; Rev. Lawrence Gollner, Censor Librorum Imprimatur: Leo A. Pursley, Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend; March 16, 1974.

What anti-Biblical BLASPHEMY!

So when you drive by that Catholic church next Sunday morning, remember they’re NOT worshiping God the Son inside, rather they believe they’re sacrificing Him on their altars as part of a process to merit their salvation. Rather than trusting in Jesus Christ as Savior by faith alone for their salvation, they’re relying on priests, sacraments, “good” works, and “obeying” the Ten Commandments (impossible!)