A Church of Mercy

Jan 21st, 2011 | By | Category: Blog Posts

I heard a story in seminary of a pastor who made late night visits to a local diner when he couldn’t sleep. Prostitutes frequently visited the diner and the pastor couldn’t help overhearing some of their conversations as he sat reading. He was grieved as he gathered bits and pieces of these women’s tragic lives. One night he overheard an older prostitute bemoaning her upcoming birthday. He listened as she reflected on the work she lost every year she got older. The pastor, who had become friendly with the owner, asked if could throw the woman a surprise birthday party the following night. The pastor, with members of his church, decorated the diner for a birthday party, which included a personalized cake and balloons. When the prostitute came in and saw her name on the balloons and cake she began to cry. She asked her friends not to touch the cake because nobody had ever made a birthday cake for her before. As the pastor was leaving the restaurant owner asked him, “What sort of church throws birthday parties for prostitutes at three o’clock in the morning…I don’t go to church, but I think I’d like to go to yours.”

This story profoundly demonstrates the way in which the Church ought to love the unbelieving world. When the seminary professor finished this story many seminarians in the class were nearly moved to tears. One student, however, found reason to object. He raised his hand and asked the professor, “well…didn’t the pastor tell the prostitute and the restaurant owner about Christ?” The seminary professor looked at the student and said, “I think he did tell them about Christ, in a very powerful way.” The class spent a few minutes debating the value of performing acts of charity and other acts of mercy without verbally articulating the gospel afterward.

The conversation these seminary students had illustrates a point that Tim Keller makes in the introduction to his new book, Generous Justice. Keller points out that many evangelically minded and conservative Christians have come to associate acts of mercy (such as feeding the poor, or volunteering at an orphanage) with the liberal social gospel movements of the early 20th century. Since the social gospel movements were marked by an attitude of indifference and laxity toward upholding traditional theological dogma, many evangelicals have become skeptical of mercy driven churches. Conservative evangelicals can be quick to assume that a church acting like a food pantry only does so because it has squandered its real responsibility to preach the gospel. Many Protestants have thus wrongly interpreted the Catholic Church’s prodigious humanitarian work as evidence of a church unconcerned with matters of salvation.

A fresh look at Scripture should, however, should remind believers that the calling to “cloth the naked” and “feed the hungry” is not followed up by a call to immediately articulate the gospel. Instead, Scripture calls the Church to be both a vessel of mercy to a dying world and also the voice of faithful gospel proclamation. Nowhere does Scripture say that both activities must take place simultaneously. The practice of trying to match every act of mercy with a gospel presentation, as is often the case in many Reformed circles, is without biblical warrant. Such a mentality even condemns the work of the Good Samaritan.

The biblical picture for how mercy ministry and gospel proclamation work together is found in the person of Christ. Christ cared deeply for both the physical and spiritual needs of humanity. There are some instances in Scripture, such as the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus seems solely concerned about theological truth. In other places, such as the healing of Jairus’s daughter, Jesus seems solely concerned about physical healing as he mentions nothing of theological import while he raises her from the dead. In other places, like the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus’ reason for taking care of physical needs is directly tied into the ministry of the word. Christ’s ministry, as well as the subsequent mercy activity of the Church, frequently takes the form of God blessing the proclamation of the gospel through acts of mercy.

One of the most powerful examples of how God blesses the proclamation of the gospel through works of mercy can be found in the work of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Before Mother Teresa began her work in Calcutta, India, several missionaries had already preached the Christian faith. Their efforts, however, were met with little success and few converts. The problem was that the gospel directly contradicted the worldview of the predominately Hindu populace in Calcutta. For centuries Indian people believed that all of humanity was divided into five separate groups or castes; Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra, and Harijans. The last group, the Harijans, are commonly known in the west as the “untouchables.” This group, made up of completely impoverished peasants, had for centuries been viewed as almost subhuman by the other groups in the Indian caste system. Therefore, the Christian idea that all humans are made in the image of God and are of immeasurable worth, made the gospel sound absurd to the people of Calcutta.

Mother Teresa’s ministry, however, demonstrated to the people of India that the “untouchables” really are image bearers of God. As Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity began to cloth, bathe, feed, and bury the poorest of the poor with dignity, people began to see that the Christian idea of all people being made in the image of God might actually be true. Suddenly missionaries noticed a new openness to the gospel among the people of Calcutta. The work of Mother Teresa, like the radical love the pastor showed the prostitute at the diner, is thoroughly and profoundly Christocentric. The fact that the Catholic Church has led the world in acts of mercy for the past two thousand years should be a clue to separated brothers that the Catholic Church truly is the one true Church of Christ that she claims to be.

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  1. great post. i am a separated brother and am curious to hear the following statement expounded upon a bit:

    “The fact that the Catholic Church has led the world in acts of mercy for the past two thousand years should be a clue to separated brothers that the Catholic Church truly is the one true Church of Christ that she claims to be.”

  2. Hi Brendan,

    Thanks for commenting. I think that there is great apologetic value in the charitable works of the Catholic Church. Throughout Scripture, God has called upon his people to care for those who are hungry, poor, homeless, orphaned, and widowed (Isaiah 58, Luke 10, Matthew 25). In the Old Testament God’s people consistently failed to truly care for those in need. In fact, the anger God expressed to His people through the prophet Isaiah primarily had to do with Israeli’s indifference towards the poor. Under the New Covenant, however, God’s people have greater access to God and a super abundant flow of His sanctifying grace through the Sacraments. Therefore, God’s people in the New Covenant are more attuned to God’s care for the poor, the sick, and the weak. Although sin lives on in the Church, believers living under the New Covenant, generally speaking, have the potential to be more completely sanctified in this life than the average Old Testament saint. I don’t think there’s anywhere this shows up more clearly than in the Catholic Church’s concern for the poor. Even people who despise the Catholic Church are forced to recognize the love the Church has for those in need. There’s a famous quote from the Apostate Roman Emperor, Julian, from the 4th century that illustrates this point:

    “Why do we not observe that it is their [the Christians’] benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead, and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism [unbelief of the pagan gods]?… For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute to public service of this sort”?

    Peace in Christ, Jeremy

  3. […] be able to put it down, and then you won’t be able to get it out of your head.  Also, Jeremy Tate has just written a wonderful post of being a Church of mercy.  While I don’t agree with his conclusion that her consistent acts of mercy show the Roman […]

  4. Tim Challies (www.challies.com), who I believe is the most popular Reformed as measured by regular readership, exemplifies the very attitude you described. One of his earliest posts went viral across the web, and gained him a ton of readership. It was titled “The Myth of Mother Teresa” (http://www.challies.com/articles/the-myth-of-mother-teresa). In the article, he denounces the saintliness of Mother Teresa on the basis that she often engaged in works of mercy without explicitly proselytizing. He closes with this sentence:

    “The reality, though, is that if she preached at all, she preached a false religion. In so doing she provides us with an example not of a Christian responding to God’s call, but an example of deeds of charity and compassion completely separated from the Truth.”

    How someone can look at the compassion and writings of Mother Teresa and see someone “not responding to God’s call” blows my mind.

  5. Hey Brandon,

    Wow. That’s disturbing. I would be willing to bet that thousands more have come to know Jesus through Mother Teresa’s work than through the average street preacher. I wonder how Mr. Challies would critique the work of the Good Samaritan, who, according to him, also failed to proselytize.

    Peace in Christ, Jeremy

  6. Thank you, Jeremy. Convincing and beautifully written.

  7. Thanks for expressing yourself so thoughtfully and well, Jeremy. I don’t disagree with the “apologetic value” of mercy. I think the Lord probably used the Pastor’s actions toward the prostitute to “till” some pretty hard soil in the preparation of that woman’s heart. I also think your exegesis of the culture of Calcutta, and appreciating the value of Mother Teresa’s ministry is probably spot-on. Where I don’t follow is when you say that these observations now, somehow, clue us in to the true-ness of the Catholic Church. The reason that I am not a Catholic isn’t because I am disappointed in the amount of mercy ministry being done by Catholics. The reason I am not a Catholic is because I disagree with Catholic doctrine. No amount of mercy ministry done by Catholics is going to make me embrace doctrine that I believe to be unbiblical. There are many Catholics who are more virtuous than I am (Jeremy you know me, so you know this is true:-). There are also Muslims who are more virtuous than I am (and no, I’m not saying that Catholics and Muslims are on equal footing with regard to orthodoxy). But the virtue of a Muslim does not persuade you of their unbiblical theology. So why would you suggest that Catholic mercy ought to persuade me with regard to doctrine that I view to be unbiblical?

  8. Hi Dan, the reason for believing in the Catholic Church isn’t simply because of her acts of mercy. Jeremy’s post here was the 273rd post we’ve written on Called to Communion and as far as I can remember, it’s the first one that has even mentioned this reason for believing the Church. So there are many good reasons for believing the Church. The Muslim would say the same thing about Christianity: “Christianity has a lot of virtuous people, but it has false doctrine.” Everyone thinks that doctrine other than their own is false; the question is how to evaluate the truth and falsity of competing claims.

    If someone were a perfect biblical scholar, and had a mind and will perfectly in line with the intent of the Holy Spirit, I suppose that person could read through the Scriptures and come up with the correct faith, whichever that one is (carrying as an assumption our mutual belief that the Scriptures are actually inerrant). Well I’m not that man. I can (and had) come up with a series of beliefs that I thought were perfectly in line with and even necessary conclusions from the Scriptures. But as it turns out, some of my beliefs were incredibly different from what most Christians had always believed. I thought apostolic succession was a stupid doctrine and had no biblical precedent or logical reason to believe it. But I had to question my belief in face of the brute force of so many fathers, doctors, and martyrs of the faith who explicitly believed it.

    “Maybe there’s something I’m missing.” I thought; and that’s simply the first step to submitting to a higher (visible) authority.

    So while Jeremy can speak for himself, I just wanted to interject that his point isn’t that simply because the Church has done a lot of merciful acts we should all be Catholics. It’s just one point among many that, I think, ought to cause one to scratch their head. If the Catholic Church is wrong, then she is of man at best, and maybe of the devil. But if either of those are the case, then why does she do so much good? The comparison to Muslims is not completely without merit, but it is without much force because it is comparing an ocean to a small pond. There are virtuous Muslims, many of them in fact, but Islam is a long way from Catholicism in overall charity. The Catholic Church is a visible force of mercy and charity in the world, so much so that she dwarfs all “competitors.”

    If it were of man or of Satan, there would still be some good done. Evil always inheres in some good; the best lies always contain some attractive truth as C.S. Lewis was wont to affirm. But the good would be a superficiality, a mask. This is not what we see with the Catholic Church. Her goodness, her good works, proceed directly from who she is: the Bride of Christ.

  9. Hi Dan,

    Thanks for commenting. To answer your question I would have to say that the 2000 year history of mercy ministry in the Catholic Church is too profound to explain apart from unique access to the Holy Spirit. God’s people in the Old Testament refused to concern themselves with the poor. Despite rebuke, they refused to change. As you know, no amount of “trying harder” can transform people. It’s no small point that the Catholic Church has shined in the exact area where Old Testament believers clung to darkness. Ultimately, the merciful heart of the Catholic Church demonstrates to the world that it is truly the body of the merciful head, Jesus. In the early Church, and perhaps through the Reformation, no splinter group or sect has been marked by a deep concern for the poor as its most salient characteristic or feature. Instead, splinter groups like the Arians, Donatists, or Nestorians, identified themselves by their theological stance that made them distinct from the Catholic Church. I do not believe a person could do what Mother Teresa did on their own apart from real conduits of divine grace (the Eucharist). To suggest that a Muslim could just as easily have done what she did is to ignore everything she said about her complete dependence on Christ, which alone gave her the strength and hope to live and minister in the despair of the slums.

    Let me ask you if I may, where do you believe the official teaching of the Catholic Church is most clearly in conflict with Scripture?

    Peace in Christ brother, Jeremy Tate

  10. Thanks for your response, Jeremy. I absolutely agree with your comment, and was also curious to hear a bit more about how the RCC’s actions of mercy should be a mark “that the Catholic Church truly is the one true Church of Christ that she claims to be”. I am familiar with the RCC’s claim to be the one true Church of Christ, but usually hear the evidences of this claim in topics such as Apostolic Succession and its impact on the sacraments. What about the RCC’s consistent acts of mercy over two thousand years should be cluing me, as a separated brother, that I am not in communion with the one true Church of Christ?

  11. please disregard my previous question. i had written it and walked away for a few hours before posting. my question was covered in that time in the other questions. thanks!

  12. Thank you, both Tim and Jeremy, for your gentle responses. Jeremy, I think your question is a fair one. But I’d rather not distract this exchange from the issues that you’ve raised in your post. The disagreements over doctrine between Catholics and Reformed-folk are well documented over centuries. I’d be happy to have coffee with you and discuss them as brothers. I don’t have anything to rebut from what you or Tim have said. In fact, I completely agree with Tim that this is but one issue among many. But neither am I persuaded that the preponderance (sp?) of merciful deeds sponsored by the Catholic Church demonstrates “unique access to the Holy Spirit”. I think the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of many in the Catholic Church. But I also find it ironic that most of the guys who sponsor this dialogue came to Christ outside of the Catholic Church– either by way of “Protestant” ministries (churches) or parachurch organizations. I know you have an explanation for that, too :-). But all this reference to the “one, true, unique…” is not compelling.

  13. I am so blessed to have responded in the affirmative to Christ’s call to “come home” to His Catholic Church. Thank you Jesus! MARANATHA!

  14. Dan, again not meaning to speak for Jeremy but the “unique access” comment is probably less offensive than it sounds. We do not believe that the Holy Spirit is uniquely at work in the Catholic Church to the exclusion of His work in other faith communities. ‘Unique’ should not be understood (if it is to be used) as ‘exclusive.’ The Holy Spirit is absolutely at work in other faith communities and this isn’t just my opinion; it’s officially taught by the Catholic Church and is in her catechism.

    But I gotcha – none of this is enough to compel, especially when there are other (apparently) insurmountable obstacles to reunion. We can only continue to pray because with man, unity is obviously impossible.

  15. Beautiful article. However as an Indian – I would like to clarify this… “For centuries Indian people believed that all of humanity was divided into five separate groups or castes; Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra, and Harijans. The last group, the Harijans, are commonly known in the west as the “untouchables.” ”

    There are only 4 classes – Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra.

    Brahman – Learned Men. Scholars.
    Kshatriya – Warriors.
    Vaishya – Businessmen
    Shudra – Laborers.

    These were based on social dynamics rather than castes. It had nothing to do with people being higher or lower than. It was through time and ignorance and the tactics of SOME power hungry (Brahmins – because knowledge is power] that sought to oppress the downtrodden, that the Shudra’s began to be “thought” of as “untouchable.” Not so different than what hapens in any country or under the guise of any religion.

    It was then Gandhi – who gave them the name “Harijan” – which translated means “children of [‘Hari’]God.”

    What Mother teresa has done – is no doubt and act of God Love and Service for humanity…

    Just facts. Important article none the less. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.


    The Shudra’s

  16. See Forbes top 10 US charities….only religious org: Catholic Charities. 637 Hospitals in the US (17% of all US hospitals). 122 Home health care orgs. Largest operator of private schools in the us (if you consider education a charitable act). Note: a number of organizations recognize the Catholic Church as the largest charity in the world.

    What was more compelling to me when I was a protestant was to learn that 1.2 billion people call themselves Catholic. At the very least, that statistics seemed to be the most appropriate effect for God becoming flesh. Further it speaks to the futile argument that the reformation caused some kind of collapse in the Church. Even more telling, was that the Catholic Church grew by 43% during the pontificate of Venerable JP II.

    One might argue that (1) other religions (mormons included) have grown at even a higher rate or that (2) Protestantism (at least low-church) has grown at an incredible rate as well. But, those arguments miss the mark for (1) we are not concerned with all religions but Christian ones, and (2) it is easier to grow a small number at a higher rate, than a large number (I can grow 2 by 50% more easily than 1,000,000). Nonetheless, during the 80’s and 90’s, the Catholic Church added over 400 million to its ranks while Pentecostalism added similar numbers, yet because of the disunity of the group “Pentecostals”, the largest single denominational growth was the Assemblies of God (4th Largest Christian group) @ a total of 55+ million members (total), or about 12% of the GROWTH of the Catholic Church in just the past 30 years.

    I call this the givenness of reality…

    In Christ through Mary,


  17. Welcome to Called to Communion Priya and thanks for commenting. Please forgive me for misrepresenting the class structure of Indian society. My grandpa has been a missionary to India since he served on the railroad there during WWII. He recently gave me the film “Born into Brothels”, maybe you have seen it, which really got me thinking. His heart for the Indian people and ministry experience were the impetus behind this post. I would have been wise though to have consulted some more reliable sources.

    Peace in Christ, Jeremy

  18. Beautiful words and cogent thoughts as always, Jeremy. Thanks for your generosity in offering your gifts to the world!

    To all: this is my first post here (or anywhere for that matter). By way of background, I’m a Catholic, but grew up in an evangelical home. My family wasn’t of the Reformed persuasion. My father is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and though I (and, I assume, many of you) disagree with DTS’ dispensationalist theology, I admire my father’s articulate exposition of that school of thought, as well as his deeply committed walk with Christ. My own formal training is in history, not theology proper.

    There is a possibility that hasn’t been discussed in this thread. Namely: that Mother Theresa’s (Catholic) Gospel differs fundamentally from (what I take to be) the evangelical definition of the Gospel. In short, the Catholic definition of “Gospel” is broader to such an extent as to be substantially different. I think that this is due to the inclusion of (indeed emphasis upon) different metaphors for Christ’s saving work: legal/forensic vs. medical/sacramental.

    What I mean is this. One’s definition of the Gospel hinges on one’s understanding of the Incarnation. If God became man to offer forensic justification (substitutionary atonement) of individual human beings, then a work of mercy is little more than a marketing tool (to induce an audience to listen to The Pitch), or perhaps more significantly, a potential means of forensic justification (e.g., a “works vs. grace” dichotomy). But if God became man to reclaim/refurbish/heal His Image in man (both as individuals and as a race) — to sacramentally re-connect the Creator’s Life to His Creation, then a work of mercy is both a manifestation of, an extension of, and a mode of participation in that Life.

    (To digress. Think of what this means, for instance, for our vision of His 40 days in the desert. Because I see Jesus as the Creator reclaiming his rightful Creation, re-infusing it with the same Life that flowed through Him at the beginning of time, I imagine that every footstep Jesus took in the desert was suddenly filled with tender green shoots of grass. How could the soil not respond to its Creator’s touch with fecund abundance? And I imagine every desert animal for miles trailing after Him, nuzzling forward to touch Him. How could they not flock to their Source? Rejoice!)

    Consider yesterday’s Gospel reading for Sunday Mass (Matt 4:12-23). After calling the first apostles, Jesus began preaching in the synagogues, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” This is, word for word, John the Baptist’s message. The difference is that Jesus (and the apostles) start healing every kind of disease. And later (Matt 11:1-4), Jesus offers His healings to John the Baptist’s disciples as evidence that He is the One.

    Of course, Jesus’ healings could be taken as “proof” that Jesus is the “worthy” sacrificial substitute, but I agree with Jeremy’s point here: that notion doesn’t jibe with the tone and thrust of the Gospel accounts. Over and over again, physical healing (combined with forgiveness of sins…prior to Calvary) is the action that accompanies Jesus’ teaching. So, we must assume that healing is His demonstration of His message, His implementation of it. Indeed, I’d propose that healing IS His work, and His death is a key aspect of that mission of healing (i.e., providing the ultimate Medicine). In short, works of mercy ARE the work of the Kingdom, not the work by which it is built, but the substance of which it is built.

    So, in this sense, Mother Theresa’s Gospel is much broader than the evangelical Gospel. Perhaps they’re compatible, but in my heart, I fear not. There’s room to argue that she’s manifesting the same Gospel in a better manner, that the difference is one of technique. But how much room?

  19. Tim,

    Welcome to Called to Communion and welcome to the world of blogging :) I really appreciate your clarity in describing what “works of mercy” become if the gospel is simply forensic justification. You said that works of mercy becoming little more than a “marketing tool to induce an audience to listen”. I think many evangelicals can relate to what you’re saying as so many have experienced the deep sense that there is something profoundly wrong in serving people merely to get them to listen to you. Well said brother!

    Peace in Christ, Jeremy

  20. Dan S. said:
    “But I also find it ironic that most of the guys who sponsor this dialogue came to Christ outside of the Catholic Church– either by way of “Protestant” ministries (churches) or parachurch organizations.”

    They were all raised in a majority Protestant country. There is no irony there, just numbers.

    Tim Feist:
    Please, by all means digress! Your vision of Christ’s 40 days in the desert was beautiful! Do you have more digressions I could read online somewhere?

    -David M.

  21. David,

    No more “digressions” on the web. But there’ll be more I’m sure, and not only from me, as discussion such as this one spur us all to meditate more deeply on the mystery of the Incarnation.


  22. What I also see in Mother Teresa’s example, and all examples of preaching the Gospel through works of mercy is the affirmation that our bodies are God given. We are not angels, we are humans, comprised of soul and body. Catholics worship God with all five senses (sight – icons, statues, paintings, stained glass windows in addition to reading the Bible, sound – music, homilies…, touch – rosary beads, relics, smell – incense, taste – the Holy Eucharist)… so it makes perfect sense that we would also see the value in preaching the gospel to others through their senses. God gave us our senses as inputs for information, all five of them, not just our ears and eyes, the other three senses God also uses for input, even depositing His Gospel. Mother Teresa’s work is a shining example of this.

  23. Tim Feist: I’d propose that healing IS His work, and His death is a key aspect of that mission of healing (i.e., providing the ultimate Medicine). In short, works of mercy ARE the work of the Kingdom, not the work by which it is built, but the substance of which it is built.

    Well said, Tim!

    And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, `I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matt 9:11-13

    “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. Matt 23:23

    Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Matt 25:32-36

  24. I saw this brief on a speech from the Pope today and thought that it was pretty relevant to the thread.


    VATICAN CITY (CNS) — It is “unacceptable” to evangelize without addressing the urgent problems of poverty, injustice and oppression, Pope Benedict XVI said.

    To not be concerned with life’s temporal problems would be to forget the Gospel teaching to love one’s neighbor who is suffering and in need, and “it would not be in harmony with Jesus’ life,” which combined proclaiming the Good News and curing people of disease and illness, the Pope said in his message for World Mission Sunday 2011.

    And Brandon V. (#3), I find it pretty ironic that Mother T is accused of charity without evangelistic motives when I have seen her attacked vehemently by atheists like Christopher Hitchens for being a fraud who was only interested in spreading the gospel.

    Attacked on all sides…sounds a lot like a Jewish carpenter I know!

  25. Methinks that last post is spam.

  26. Maybe someone can clarify a perspective for me… Let’s agree that “It is “unacceptable” to evangelize without addressing the urgent problems of poverty, injustice and oppression”. Is it “acceptable” to evangelize without articulating how Christ has atoned for sin? In other words, are we saying that the Gospel may NOT be “preached” without deeds of mercy (where required); but that the Gospel MAY be preached without words… such that the substitutionary atonement of Christ may not even be understood by the receivers of our preaching?

  27. Dan S.,

    I would throw in my two cents as well vis-a-vis people coming to the Catholic Church through Protestantism.

    One reason this happens is because the bar for entering Protestantism is much lower. I can walk right into most any Protestant church and become a member quickly. Not so in the Catholic Church. I have to spend months (sometimes years) in the catechumenate or as a candidate, doing RCIA classes, learning the faith, preparing to receive the sacraments. Many people also have impediments to becoming Catholic like previous marriages which (in the Catholic Church) must be investigated and resolved one way or the other before they can enter. No Protestant church I know of makes issues out of those things.

  28. Dan,

    I think there is some equivocation regarding the phrase “preach the gospel” that is causing some confusion. When we say “preach the gospel” to refer to acts of mercy and to refer to the literal transmission of the gospel by word, we are not using the phrase univocally. “Preaching the gospel” in the symbolic sense is a living out of the gospel, a demonstration of what it means to have been changed by the gospel message. “Preaching” in the other sense is the literal transmission of the gospel and essential to this method of sharing the gospel is Christ’s atonement. You cannot possibly share the gospel in words without sharing the central fact that Christ atoned for sin.

    It is possible, however, to share the gospel in the other sense of sharing by demonstration without explicitly mentioning Christ’s atonement. This is because “sharing the gospel” in that (symbolic) sense does not essentially entail that any truths be stated explicitly. In fact, as soon as you explicitly state any truth, you go from the symbolic type to the literal type. It is essential to the symbolic type (so long as it remains merely the symbolic type) that the message be carried out in signs, not in literal or direct terms of communication.

    Of course, not everything about the gospel needs to be shared at one time even when sharing it explicitly. It is essential to the emergence of the plant that the seed be watered; yet it is not necessary to water the ground at your first encounter. You sometimes need to till the ground first or remove weeds. That is to say, someone may not be ready to hear of Christ’s atonement at first encounter. You can begin to tell them the story without mentioning all its essentials; in such case you will genuinely have begun the task of sharing the gospel. But you cannot finish the task without carrying out all of the essential elements. The seed will never grow unless properly nourished; the gospel will never be shared without explicit teaching of the atonement.

    I think the “preaching the gospel” in the symbolic method is not only said in a different sense than the literal transmission; it is merely the beginning, the tilling of the ground.

  29. I’m grateful for this conversation. Tim and Dan’s, may I ask you to clarify your terms? How do you know that you share a common definition of “the Gospel”? Tim, you seem to be responding to Dan’s questions with a shared vocabulary. But I wonder: How can key concepts such as “atonement”, “salvation”, “grace”, “sin”, “wrath”, etc. be cogently understood in the same sense by both of you, when Tim’s Church baptizes babies (i.e., persons utterly unable to understand preaching) into forgiveness of sins and the full indwelling of the Holy Spirit Dan’s baptizes them as a purely figurative act?

  30. Tim F, I’m very confident that Dan and I do not share a common definition of “the gospel” if considered in its entirety (or what we respectively take to be its entirety). But I think we share enough common ground to be able to speak meaningfully on the subject especially considering that we both (I assume) have a good idea of which related issues are contentious. By ‘atonement’ for example I don’t mean to imply any mutually held model; I assume he holds to penal substitution which I would reject except as perhaps a very limited analogy.

    These differences notwithstanding, I don’t think we’re hindered in this discussion. I don’t fundamentally understand the gospel as something other than what I held it to be as a Presbyterian. The Catholic understanding of the gospel goes deeper and wider than the Reformed understanding (I don’t mean Catholic Joe has a deeper understanding of the gospel than Reformed Rick). The Reformed gospel is a reduction of the Catholic gospel; it is not something entirely alien or different; it is the core of a once healthy apple.

    The point I’m trying to get at is this: two people can effectively talk about a thing even when one (or more) of them has seriously flawed beliefs about said thing so long as the aspects discussed are not essentially dependent on correct beliefs in the areas where said flaws exist. I have to start shortening my sentences. Two men can effectively discuss the location of Paris, France even if one believes it to have a population of ten million and the other believes it to have a population of fifty thousand. They cannot, however, effectively discuss the location of Paris if one of them is quite certain it is a hotel heiress and the other believes it to be a city.. Make sense?

  31. Sorry for the lull in my response (snow, no electricity, etc… :-).

    Tim T, You’re right– I’m not troubled at this point by the fact that we would define the Gospel differently. But I do appreciate Tim F’s concern. I think the main reason that we can have this discussion is because you have history in my tradition. Therefore, you have a pretty good handle on what I mean when I say “Gospel”. This conversation, while already complex, would be even more difficult if I were trying to have it with someone who had no appreciation at all for the Reformed tradition.

    I appreciate the distinction that you’ve made between the “literal” Gospel and the “figurative” Gospel. But you can certainly understand the confusion that is created when these two nuances are discussed with very little qualification. It requires that we assume that the listener/reader knows to which of these aspects the speaker/writer is referring. And I would suggest that this is too much to assume. If you and I are struggling to know what we’re talking about; how much more will the average Catholic struggle? In fact, in my experience, the average person doesn’t struggle at all… they just don’t know what the heck we’re talking about. Hence, one of my concerns with what is actually taking place in the church. “Whatever this Gosepl-thing is, it can be less than a message, because it can be communicated by simply making someone’s circumstances better.” One of the ways that many in my circles are seeking to bring some clarity to these nuances is to refer to the “message” (that is articulated as propositional truth) as the Gospel; and then referring to the “living out” as the Implications of the Gospel. We do not divorve the “living out” from the Gospel; but clarify that there is a cause/effect relationship between them. The Gospel (and belief in it) is what brings about the “living-out” of its implications. And if the “living-out” is not present, then it’s right to question the presence of the “belief in the Gospel” in the first place. I think we would agree that James is making this point (Faith, without works, is dead…).

    With regard to the shallowness/narrowness or deepness/wideness of “my” Gospel, it is my opinion that this has fluctuated within the Reformed tradition due to the influence of liberalism. As I’m sure you know, a half-century, or so, ago liberal Presbyterians began to argue that the ministry of the church should be limited to deeds of mercy (improving circumstances)– and not include “preaching” (proclaiming propositional truth). The overeaction by most conservatives was to equate mercy and social-justice with liberalism. But I think time and perspective has brought about a return, among many Presbyterians, to a fuller understanding that Christ came to ultimately bring renewal to everything contaminated by the Fall. So we perceive our calling to be about concern for the souls of people, as well as their hurts, poverty, sickness, injustice, as well as the environment that we all live in (that God made, and will one day renew!). But this is not new! This is a return to what the Reformational understanding of the Gospel had always been, prior to the relative “hiccup” of the mid-1900’s. I’m not interested in counting charities; but it is clear that, for example, prior to the mid-1900’s, Presbyterians founded many hospitals, universities, and charities. I’m not arguing that Presbyterians are better than Catholics at this. I’ll grant that we’re not! But what I am arguing is that I really don’t believe that it’s accurate to make the simplistic statement that Presbyterians have a narrow, shallow understanding of the Gospel; whereas Catholics are deep and broad. This is why I replied to Jeremy’s post in the first place. The arguement sounded like, “Catholics are better at mercy, so this proves we’re the true church…” (I know, I’m way oversimplifying…) And I understand your previous points about this only being one idea among many. But if the goal for this venue is to promote discussion between Catholics and non-Catholics (and maybe I misunderstand the goal), then I’d suggest seeking clarity and areas of common ground before driving the wedge.

    Please know that I write with much respect and growing affection. -DS

  32. @Dan S., Tim T., and Tim F.,

    I believe that from the Catholic point of view, (1) the explicit verbal announcement of the faith of the Church with the call to repentance and baptism (e.g., St Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, where, incidentally, I find nothing about “substitutionary atonement”), and (2) the so-called “social” Gospel of corporal works of mercy and justice are not essentially different things. They are both proclamation of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; they are both the Gospel. Accordingly, neither is complete without the other. This is why, as Pope Benedict XVI explained so simply and beautifully in his thirteenth and fourteenth catecheses on St Paul, there is genuine harmony in the teaching of St James (esp. ch. 2), St Matthew (esp. ch. 25), and St Paul.

    All our myopic attempts to sunder Christ’s Gospel in two—to separate faith, without which it is impossible to please God, and charity, which fulfills the Law—have been vigorously opposed by the Saints through the centuries. The difficulties are exacerbated, I think, for American Christians (including Catholics), who have fallen heir to the twentieth-century Protestant divisions over the “social gospel” (à la Walter Rauschenbusch) and the “gospel of eternal salvation.” (I see that you’ve pointed this out, Dan, while I was in the process of writing this comment.) The very fact that so many well-meaning Christians talk about these two as though they have to be fitted gingerly together, as though they were two fundamentally distinct “gospels” that have to be fused through some sort of theo-rhetorical alchemy, indicates that we’ve lost the plot.

    Still, in practical terms, I agree that on the ground we do have to make prudential decisions, listening prayerfully to the promptings of the Spirit, about when to say what, and when to shut up and serve. All the Church documents on evangelization that I’ve read recently are quite attuned to this practical question while simultaneously refusing to divide up the One Mystery of Christ into “social” and “spiritual” components. So, Tim T., you’re quite right that we can have this conversation about practical evangelistic decisions with the Reformed.

    But, Tim F., you’re also right that there’s a fundamental difference, insofar as, for the Reformed, “evangelization” through works of mercy are generally seen as preparation for the work of evangelism proper: the presentation of their gospel of penal substitutionary atonement, appropriated through faith alone. For Catholics, the works of mercy are participations in the Incarnation, concrete instantiations of the one Gospel of Christ, and so they belong already to evangelism proper.

    in Christ,


    1 Cor 16:14

  33. Dare I say it again?: what a great conversation! I think Christ must be honored by the thoughtful, skillful and generosity of all concerned. Tim T. & Dan S., thanks much for taking the time to clarify your terms — if there’s one thing that bothers me, it’s the possibility of talking past one another. And thanks TC, for reminding us that our current puzzles existed as unities. If I had the knowledge, my instinct would be to bring the Fathers’ words to bear on these issues: I suspect they had much to say. Thanks too the link to the Pope’s recent catecheses — didn’t even know they existed.

    I’m far less well schooled than most of the respondants here, if this is a silly question ignore it. And I’m new to the conversation, so if it’s been addressed previously, please just link me to the post. But a lot of this concern has to do with the role of propositional truth in salvation, so: is propositional, conscious knowledge about the person of Christ necessary to be united to Christ? From the evangelical Reformed perspective, explicit comprehension and assent appears to be, if not sufficient or coterminous with salvation, then at least a sine qua non — hence, the phrase “saving knowledge of Christ.” What then constitutes sufficient rational capacity (how measured)? And how can those people (unborn, newborn, puerile, senile, mentally handicapped, vegitative, etc.) who lack such capacity relate to Christ? But the Catholic view seems to be that rational/logical knowledge/comprehension/assent is a possible (possibly very important) route to salvation, but not the primary or essential ingredient. If so, how can this work? (No doubt I’m mis-stating or misunderstanding a number of things about perspectives, so clarifications — my favorite dish! — would be most welcome.)

  34. Tim Feist,

    You said,

    And thanks TC, for reminding us that our current puzzles existed as unities.

    Of course, you’re quite welcome, but I only understood myself to be reformulating what you said so gorgeously in #17. So, thanks yourself!

    in Christ,


  35. Tim F., I anxiously await the response to your question. This is a rather large part of my obstacle. The Reformed view concedes that God is able and willing to bring to Himself those who are unable to intellectually discern the propositional truth. But we typically see this as the exceptional case; not the norm for instruction. After all, Paul says in Romans 10:14, “How can they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?” It seems to me that at some point we need to have some truth to believe.

  36. Dan S., Could you unpack that “exceptional case” a bit? I’m genuinely curious — it really troubled me when I was an evangelical (albeit not Reformed, so…what?…quasi-anabaptist, I guess). There seem to be quite mature parameters surrounding the “normal” process for appropriating Christ’s atonement. Is there a similarly detailed understanding of the exceptional case? What light does it throw on the normal case? — Tim

  37. Hi Tim and Dan,

    About ten years ago the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a declaration titled “Dominus Iesus”. The declaration offers helpful insights into the current conversation. What I love about it is that upholds two parallel truths that many Christian faith traditions have found inherently contradictory. “Dominus Iesus” is clear that the need to preach the gospel for the salvation of man is urgent and ongoing. At the same time, the declaration articulates how some might be saved without hearing the gospel. This second truth does not diminish the significance of the first. An analogy might help. A small child might walk across a busy road without getting hit by a car. Does the possibility that they might not get hurt, however, mean that the need to warn children about crossing the street is somehow less urgent?

    Peace in Christ, Jeremy

  38. Tim, As you’ve experienced, in most evangelical circles there is a great emphasis placed on “personal faith” in Christ for salvation. There is much to say about this, that I will not go into for lack of space and time. But suffice it to say that, as an evangelical, I too place great importance on personal, saving, faith. Well, if it is true (as we evangelicals believe) that personal, saving faith is essential for salvation, then what of those who, due to their station in life (i.e., the examples that you listed) do not seem to be able to understand that which they are to embrace by faith? The place in Scripture, to which many like to appeal, is 2 Samuel 12:23 where David says of his deceased child (born from Bathsheeba), “I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” (Lest we digress into a sacerdotal distraction, let me point out that the child died on the 7th day, therefore we have no reason to believe that the child had been circumcised). Many conclude from this passage that all children of “believers” who die before maturing to the point of being able to express intellectual faith will automatically receive God’s grace. I’ll not follow into that digression either; but I think we can at least conclude that David had confidence (as is recorded in the Word of God) that this particular child was saved. This, then, clearly represents an example of one who has been saved apart from intellectual understanding. So what do we do with this?

    Well, rather than tossing aside the abundance of scripture that we believe teaches the imnportance of saving faith, we understand that God is sovereign and gracious, and may apply salvation to anyone, in any way that pleases Him. We believe that God places great value on His covenant promises (generation to generation), and so is free to save many who are not able to fully understand all that God has done for them in Christ. Nevertheless, we do not interpret this passage as a doctrinal treatise on how salvation is applied– except that it is by God’s grace. Instead, we see this as a gracious provision toward those who are hindered (by the effects of sin) from responding to the Gospel by ordinary means.

    I am not familiar with the document that Jeremy has just mentioned; but I’d be curious to read it.

  39. Dan, first let me apologize for not making my qualifications explicit enough. If you’re not willing to draw out the qualifications of something that doesn’t sound nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all. That’s what mama always said anyhow.

    I’m referring to this comment of mine:

    The Catholic understanding of the gospel goes deeper and wider than the Reformed understanding (I don’t mean Catholic Joe has a deeper understanding of the gospel than Reformed Rick). The Reformed gospel is a reduction of the Catholic gospel; it is not something entirely alien or different; it is the core of a once healthy apple.

    To which you responded:

    I really don’t believe that it’s accurate to make the simplistic statement that Presbyterians have a narrow, shallow understanding of the Gospel; whereas Catholics are deep and broad.

    I don’t have the right to say “you’re misunderstanding me” because I wasn’t clear and did not make a sufficient effort to explain the important qualifiers that I had in the back of my mind. (If you could take some courses on ESP that would help this conversation go a little smoother. Just something to consider…)

    I guess the reason I didn’t explain it better is that it would take a lot of qualifiers and explanations of my thought process to present what I’m saying in a minimally offensive way so I’m just being lazy. Let me try a different approach. The average Reformed Joe Schmoe I know has something in the neighborhood of ten times the grasp on the fundamentals of the ‘gospel’ than does the average Catholic I know. The same would go for the Scriptures and several other things. Maybe this isn’t exactly true because most of the Catholics I ‘know’ are theology geeks but — you get what I’m saying!

    There is something important and central (again like the core of an apple) that the Reformed have that so many Catholics lack. But unfortunately that’s all the Reformed have (because that’s all that’s available to them — not because they’re bad or shallow people..) If they start to acquire more of the apple, the mere core looks less and less attractive and they soon want the whole thing – holy water man! icons! rosaries outside abortion clinics! confession! incense! purgatory! indulgences! ya know…the whole gospel – the rest of the apple. I know you don’t think most of those belong in the gospel, but if what I believe is true, then they do. And if they do, then a gospel without those things — I mean without ALL of those things, is a reduction, a shallower gospel, an incomplete apple — the core perhaps but not the whole thing.

    A great number of Catholics wander around with hollow apples. At least from the outside, that is from one angle, they appear to have a fuller gospel; but they’re missing the core. They do not fundamentally understand the gospel because of lack of catechesis and sloth. These are almost always the Catholics who end up becoming Protestant. They had the externals, the peripherals, the tangibles; they knew purgatory, they prayed to saints, they confessed a baptism for the remission of sins, but they did not understand the heart of the gospel. So they traded in the outer parts of the apple for Protestantism’s core; and it seemed like a good trade… there certainly is something unique and special about that core.. You don’t actually have an apple without the core; but a core alone is a little more of an apple than a coreless one- don’t you think? But it’s best to have the whole thing.

    That’s all I meant – that I believe the Catholic gospel is the full gospel and that Protestantism reduces it to its important fundamentals but nevertheless discards many things handed to us by the Apostles.

    Everything contained in the Protestant gospel is also contained in the Catholic gospel – salvation by grace alone through faith. Affirmative. Impossible without Christs meritorious/atoning death. Check. Only way to heaven. Check, etc.

    Then the remaining question is whether these other things are Catholic additions or Protestant subtractions. I know we disagree there and probably best not to digress any more with those. Hope this comment helps make me look like less of a jerk anyway. :-)

  40. Tim,

    Loved the apple analogy; it was perfect. :)

  41. Regarding Tim T.’s comment #38. You’d previously explained (#29) that the Reformed gospel is a “reduction” of the Catholic gospel. Here it sounds as if the phrasing’s inverted: Catholicism is an expansion of the Reformed gospel. The only things reduced are non-core elements/peripherals/non-essentials…which is pretty much what I’d suppose any (reasonably generous) Protestant would also say. What is so important about those non-essentials that they’d warrant the heart-wrenching trauma of leaving homeland and family and journeying far afield to Rome? If you already acknowledge that I’ve got the core, and I don’t happen to like apple pie, then why bother? Aren’t we just talking about a matter of discretionary taste (a.k.a., “style” of worship, types of prayer, calendar, etc.)? Is Catholicism just basically a Reformed cake with a little plastic Pope on top for fun decoration? Do Reformed Christians enter the Church merely to have their schema ratified entire and intact? Does a Reformed Christian have nothing to gain from conversion, save perhaps some new techniques (a la Mother Teresa)?

  42. Tim F,

    In the apple analogy I didn’t mean for ‘core’ to be equated with ‘essentials’ only with a certain centrality but I can see how what I said could come across that way.

    Every doctrine is essential. It’s not as if you can believe that rape is permissible so long as you believe in the Trinity. No part of the gospel is optional. As St. Thomas explains, any heretic who disbelieves a single article of faith cannot have either living faith, or even dead faith in any other article. (I emboldened ‘heretic’ so as to show that I’m not saying e.g. Dan does not have actual faith; he is not a heretic and therefore not subject to this criterion.) Here we are talking about the objective issues surrounding the gospel and its essential components. We are not commenting on whether any particular individual actually affirms that true gospel. Just want to clarify that.

    So you are correct that the apple analogy breaks down if we try to view it in terms of essential/accidental components. That is not how I intended it.

  43. Tim Feist:… is propositional, conscious knowledge about the person of Christ necessary to be united to Christ?

    That is a good question, and the answer depends on what you mean by conscious knowledge of the “person of Christ”. Christ is a divine person, the Second Person of the Trinity, the eternal Word. Christ says this about his relationship to the truth:

    “I am the way, and the truth, and the life …” John 14:6

    If any man other that Christ made this statement, we would think him to be quite mad. It is one thing to say “I speak the truth“, it is quite another thing to say that “I am the truth.” As a human being, I can know the truth, and that truth is something other than my being. But it is a mistake to say that about God. The eternal truth is not something that God comprehends that exists apart from God – God is the eternal truth that he knows. Which is why the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word, can say “I am the truth.”

    And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us … John 1:14

    The truth that philosophers call the natural law – that truth has became flesh and dwelt among us. All men have some knowledge of that truth (however imperfect their knowledge), even if they don’t know explicitly that that truth became flesh and dwelt among us. A man can be saved even if is invincibly ignorant of the Gospel, if he follows the dictates of his conscience, and he cooperates with the saving grace that God gives him.

    There are, of course, those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy religion. Sincerely observing the natural law and its precepts inscribed by God on all hearts and ready to obey God, they live honest lives and are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace.

    AUGUST 10, 1863

    A just man that is ignorant of the Gospel, can still have “conscious knowledge about the person of Christ”, since a just man that is in a waking state is conscious of the truth to which his conscience points, and that truth is the Truth, the Second Person of the Trinity that became flesh and dwelt among us.

  44. Tim F.,

    RE: Mateo,

    Now we’re talking! To be clear, this is NOT common ground. :-)

  45. Tim F, Mateo, Dan,

    I think the question regarding propositional knowledge need not necessarily lead directly into the issue of extra ecclesiam nulla salus although there is a connection. The difference on this question between Catholics & Reformed directly relates to the differences in the more fundamental question of justification.

    Imputed justification wherein the change occurs not in us but in God (i.e. God changes the way He sees us or the way He looks at us) seems pretty well committed to the concept that propositional knowledge is essential to justification since nothing ontologically happens regarding the sinner at the point of initial justification. The only change is elsewhere – if not in God then in some medium between us. The way we are “seen” by God is altered. This propositional knowledge, taking the form of a fiduciary faith, becomes the cause of this extrinsic change.

    It could have been the case (philosophically) that something other than propositional knowledge could be the cause of this extrinsic change; but it turns out, according to the Reformed, “saving knowledge” so-called is the cause by God’s decree. In other words, I am not claiming that there is a necessary causal relationship between propositional knowledge as essential to justification and extrinsic justification models ala Calvin and company. I’m only saying that propositional knowledge as essential to justification is more fitting, and hence more often affirmed, given the Protestant doctrine than it is given the Catholic doctrine on justification.

    The Catholic doctrine wherein grace is supernaturally infused into the believer posits an actual change in the person, and not in God or in any extrinsic relationship between us, such as how He views us. For this reason, neither propositional knowledge nor any thing else in man, can be called the first cause of justification but only a secondary cause subordinated to saving grace. Propositional knowledge of God would always be a part of this where the capacity existed (that is barring infancy, invincible ignorance, or some other obstacle). Propositional knowledge relates to justification, I think, as eyes relate to humans. All humans have eyes barring some genetic defect. But a man born without functioning eyes is still a man. And in justification, man is raised to friendship with God by grace, and this is possible even in extraordinary circumstances where propositional knowledge is not possible. Justification is more than propositional knowledge just as man is more than his eyes.

  46. Tim, this is a helpful elaboration. But just for clarity, I would say (being Reformed) that I, too, believe that God’s grace is “infused” (not a word that most are comfortable using, for other reasons to be addressed in a moment) and IS the first cause of justification. Without this divine (and sovereign) grace, none would come to faith. But this not withstanding, I would argue that faith is still required. Faith, then, would be a secondary cause.

    The “allergy” that Reformed folks have to the word “infused” relates to righteousness. It is my understanding that the Catholic view is that the faithful are “infused” with righteousness, such that “you” now have righteousness “coursing through your veins”. The Reformed concept denies this “infusion” and prefers “imputation” (covering). I would say that those who have faith in Christ are clothed (as with a robe) in Christ’s righteousness. Thus, Christ both lived and died for me. Whereas, for the Catholic, Jesus died for original sin (and Baptism washes away original sin); and now we must produce righteousness to get ourselves above the “zero balance” that we now have… I would say that, absolutely, Christ died for my sins; but ALSO that Christ’s perfect obedience in my place covers me with HIS righteousness such that I am already more loved and accepted than I will ever appreciate! It is not a righteousness that comes through the Law (Galatians), as if I obeyed it. It is the righteousness of God, covering me, such that I now share in Christ’s inheritance.

    Further, this is not merely an extrinsic (no real change) transaction. When the Spirit of God imparts His divine grace that quickens our hearts to embrace Christ by faith, our old, sinful nature is renewed (even replaced) by a new spiritual nature that longs to please the Lord. (Ezekiel 36:24-28; 2 Corinthians 5:17). Is justification a legal declaration made by God? Being Reformed, I certainly say “Yes”. But God is not just pretending. He has accepted the atoning sacrifice of His Son’s humiliating life and death. By His grace, God has made a decree AND He has changed the core of who I am! Now I walk in newness of life– which has implication for how I approach the Throne of Heaven (direct access– not needing any intercessor but Christ) as well as how I live (doing justice, loving mercy, seeking to glorify the One who created me, sustains me, and has redeemed me).

  47. Tim Troutman: I think the question regarding propositional knowledge need not necessarily lead directly into the issue of extra ecclesiam nulla salus although there is a connection.

    What, exactly, is the proposition we are discussing? Is it the proposition that we must acknowledge the incarnate Word as our personal Lord and Savior in order to be saved? Or is it the proposition that Tim Feist proposed, i.e. is “conscious knowledge about the person of Christ necessary to be united to Christ?”

    What struck me about Tim Feist’s statement is his reference to the person of Christ. Christ is not two persons, a human person and a divine person. Christ is one person, He is a divine person. The person of Christ is the eternal Word that dwelt with God before the Word became flesh. What I am trying to say is that every human that has reached the age of reason has a conscious knowledge of the “person of Christ” because every person that has reached the age of reason has knowledge of the truth that became incarnate.

    I see two distinct propositions here. One, the proposition that if you don’t explicitly acknowledge that Christ came in the flesh, you cannot be saved. That is a proposition of Protestantism, i.e. if a man does not acknowledge Christ as his own personal Lord and Savior, he will be damned.

    The other proposition is this: can a just man that does not know that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us be consciously united to the person of Christ. And I am saying “yes” to this proposition. The reason I say “yes” is this: a knowledge of the natural law is a knowledge of the eternal Word. It is a limited knowledge of the Word, to be sure, but it is nevertheless a real knowledge of the Word.

    Dan Smith“ RE: Mateo,

    Now we’re talking! To be clear, this is NOT common ground.

    I am curious as to what you make of this teaching of scriptures:

    When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

    Dan, is not the law written on the hearts of the Gentiles a true knowledge of the Word?

  48. Dan,

    I would like to respond to what you said about Jesus’ atonement and the zero balance. The Church does not teach that Jesus died only for original sin and that we must now produce righteousness to get ourselves to get above the zero balance. None of our righteousness is from ourselves, or produced by us, rather God’s righteousness infused into us. At the same time, the Bible says over and over and over again that eternal life is awarded based on our deeds. So we’re holding up two truths simultaneously: On the one hand, faith is the root of justification, which is the changing of our heart and our translation from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of the love of God and His Son. This comes to us freely, wholly apart from our merit. Nor do we even say that our faith itself merits justification. This can be found in the eighth chapter of the sixth session of the Council of Trent. I will copy the text here:

    And whereas the Apostle saith, that man is justified by faith and freely, those words are to be understood in that sense which the perpetual consent of the Catholic Church hath held and expressed; to wit, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and the root of all Justification; without which it is impossible to please God, and to come unto the fellowship of His sons: but we are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification-whether faith or works-merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle says, grace is no more grace.

    On the other hand, however, we also uphold the scriptural teaching that eternal life is awarded according to the merit of good works. The key, though, is that even those works which we perform are not of ourselves, rather we cooperate with the grace of God in those deeds which he prepared for us in advance to walk in. By our free will we “lean” on God’s grace, as St. Augustine puts it, and it can truly be said both that our salvation is all of God’s grace and that we merited eternal life. Chapter 16 of the sixth session of Trent deals with this:

    Before men, therefore, who have been justified in this manner,-whether they have preserved uninterruptedly the grace received, or whether they have recovered it when lost,-are to be set the words of the Apostle: Abound in every good work, knowing that your labour is not in vain in the Lord; for God is not unjust, that he should forget your work, and the love which you have shown in his name; and, do not lose your confidence, which hath a great reward. And, for this cause, life eternal is to be proposed to those working well unto the end, and hoping in God, both as a grace mercifully promised to the sons of God through Jesus Christ, and as a reward which is according to the promise of God Himself, to be faithfully rendered to their good works and merits. For this is that crown of justice which the Apostle declared was, after his fight and course, laid up for him, to be rendered to him by the just judge, and not only to him, but also to all that love his coming. For, whereas Jesus Christ Himself continually infuses his virtue into the said justified,-as the head into the members, and the vine into the branches,-and this virtue always precedes and accompanies and follows their good works, which without it could not in any wise be pleasing and meritorious before God,-we must believe that nothing further is wanting to the justified, to prevent their being accounted to have, by those very works which have been done in God, fully satisfied the divine law according to the state of this life, and to have truly merited eternal life, to be obtained also in its (due) time, if so be, however, that they depart in grace: seeing that Christ, our Saviour, saith: If any one shall drink of the water that I will give him, he shall not thirst for ever; but it shall become in him a fountain of water springing up unto life everlasting. Thus, neither is our own justice established as our own as from ourselves; nor is the justice of God ignored or repudiated: for that justice which is called ours, because that we are justified from its being inherent in us, that same is (the justice) of God, because that it is infused into us of God, through the merit of Christ. Neither is this to be omitted,-that although, in the sacred writings, so much is attributed to good works, that Christ promises, that even he that shall give a drink of cold water to one of his least ones, shall not lose his reward; and the Apostle testifies that, That which is at present momentary and light of our tribulation, worketh for us above measure exceedingly an eternal weight of glory; nevertheless God forbid that a Christian should either trust or glory in himself, and not in the Lord, whose bounty towards all men is so great, that He will have the things which are His own gifts be their merits. And forasmuch as in many things we all offend, each one ought to have before his eyes, as well the severity and judgment, as the mercy and goodness (of God); neither ought any one to judge himself, even though he be not conscious to himself of anything; because the whole life of man is to be examined and judged, not by the judgment of man, but of God, who will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts, and then shall every man have praise from God, who, as it is written, will render to every man according to his works. After this Catholic doctrine on Justification, which whoso receiveth not faithfully and firmly cannot be justified, it hath seemed good to the holy Synod to subjoin these canons, that all may know not only what they ought to hold and follow, but also what to avoid and shun.

    This teaching essentially echoes what St. Augustine says in his treatise On Grace and Free Will, which you can find at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1510.htm. St. Augustine upholds the truths of human free will of choice, and the grace of God, and states that justification is simply unmerited grace, whereas eternal life is both grace and reward.

  49. It seems to me that one of the closest points of contact between the Catholic and Reformed understanding of justification is in the need for regeneration. On the one hand, Reformed theologians want to insist that we are not saved by anything that happens inside of us. Here’s is how the Westminster Larger Catechism explains it.

    Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardons all their sins, accepts and accounts their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.

    Yet, five questions later, the Westminster Larger Catechism makes it clear that those who come to faith are given the Holy Spirit and transformed. The Reformed view insists that in order to be saved a person must be regenerate. But what is regeneration if not a work that God does inside of us? Ultimately, the Reformed view, which maintains the necessity of regeneration, is simply an affirmation of the Catholic view that men must possess an inherent righteousness in order to be saved. I’ve heard Seminary Professors attempt to differentiate the difference between the Catholic insistence on “inherent righteousness” and the Reformed insistence on “regeneration”. Maybe somebody can help me out, but I can’t pin down how these distinctions constitute a fundamental disagreement.

  50. Dan,

    David said much of what I was going to say already so I’ll just make a few notes. If you deny an extrinsic change in justification, then the only other option is intrinsic. This is exactly the Catholic doctrine; so if that’s what you hold (the Catholic doctrine on justification) then you should reconsider whether you should remain in schism from the Church since the first Protestants split for this very reason. What you are describing (intrinsic change) is not what Calvin/Luther, et al believed. e.g. Calvin says:

    For it is especially to be observed, that faith borrows a righteousness elsewhere, of which we, in ourselves, are destitute; otherwise it would be in vain for Paul to set faith in opposition to works, when speaking of the mode of obtaining righteousness. – Commentary Upon the Book of Genesis, Vol I, 1:407

    Justifying faith, according to Calvin, is something which obtains access to a foreign righteousness, not a making of such foreign righteousness one’s own, but as if it were one’s own. I don’t deny that there’s some room or some instances of the use of the word “infusion” in Protestant theology, but that they either mean something different by it or do not understand it. Infusion is not compatible with the imputation doctrine. And a “clothing” can in no way be called something infused or intrinsic. Clothing is essentially extrinsic. A covering is necessarily something outside of that which is covered. Words like “intrinsic” and “infusion” can only be used correctly in the Catholic way. i.e. that we are actually elevated to a state of grace.

    Part of the problem is that — daggonit, we’re still sinners!! How can we say that Christ’s righteousness has actually been infused?! This was the heart of Luther’s dilemma. No matter how hard we try, we simply can’t measure up. Well it becomes pertinent to discuss the difference between actual sin and the proclivity to sin, i.e. concupiscence. According to Catholic theology, concupiscence is not sin but the inclination to sin. It is a curse under which we remain, even in a state of grace. So while Christ’s righteousness has been infused into us at the point of justification, His freedom from the curse of Original Sin has not. This is why it is intelligible to say that we, while yet sinners by inclination (and often by actualization), are actually full of Christ’s infused righteousness, i.e. in a state of grace. The difference between this and the Protestant simul justus et peccator is that
    such a phrase presupposes an extrinsic change resulting from justification. You cannot both be in sin and in grace at the same time if the change is intrinsic. You could, however, have an inclination to sin while at the same time be in a state of grace. The other major difference that we’d have to work out is the distinction between mortal and venial sin. None of this is believable without such a distinction which Protestants of course reject.

  51. Not sure I can answer all of you at once… Mateo (46): I’d say that this simply recognizes that the Law condemns everyone. Even those who have never read the Scriptures have enough awareness of the Law (by nature) in order to be “without excuse”. But I don’t think this says anything about justification– only condemnation (judgment).

    David (47): “At the same time, the Bible says over and over and over again that eternal life is awarded based on our deeds.” I simply don’t agree that the Scriptures teach this. I understand that the Catholic Church teaches this; but I don’t see it in the Scriptures. In fact, it seems to me that Paul writes the entire letter to the Galatians to refute such an idea.

    Jeremy and Tim (48,49): I’m comfortable with Jeremy’s observation about “regeneration” (common ground). My understanding is that Pelagius was excommunicated for denying this. But I’ve probably misused the word “extrinsic”. I thought I’d grab hold of a word that Tim used and run with it. But I think I’ve confused the conversation. Yes, as Jeremy has noted, the Westminster Confession teaches that we are justified by an “alien righteousness”. Yes, this is an “outside of myself” righteousness– inputed, not infused. And yes, as a simultaneous accompaniment to regeneration there also comes a “new heart” that desires to please God… And I believe Paul when he says that we continue to have this propensity to sin; but are now no longer enslaved to it (Romans 7), such that I am (as Luther said) “simul justus et peccator”. I understand that this is different from what Catholicism teaches. But I don’t agree that it is inconsistent. I believe that justification is Christ’s work FOR me, and that Sanctification is Christ’s work IN me. Are they done by the same Spirit? Yes. But I don’t think these two aspects of the Spirit’s work must be lumped together in our understanding. In fact, I think its possible to lump them so close together that they become confused. I actually think that’s where David’s (47) point originates. The Bible teaches “over and over and over” that God has good works for us to do, that flow out of our regenerate hearts (like fruit). But I disagree that our works are part of our justification. Peter and James clearly teach that works are evidence (produced by the Spirit) of saving faith; but these works are not what saves us. As you probably see, I’m not at schism with my church :-).

    Sorry if I’m disjointed. I’m about out of time and I wanted to give some reply before leaving a long silence. Thank you all for your thoughtful discussion.

  52. By the way, David (47) and Tim, your clarification with regard to my incorrect summary of Catholic doctrine (original sin & “zero balance”) is helpful. Thank you for correcting me. I apologize for misrepresenting your view. I really don’t desire to oversimplify (or misrepresent in any way) the teaching of the Catholic Church. Thank you. -Dan

  53. Sorry for the pile up Dan. Great conversation. I think we probably believe a lot of similar things; some of it is a matter of terminology.

    I don’t think that the way you just put it is inconsistent; I think it is inconsistent to say that an intrinsic change is imputed to us which is what I took you to be saying earlier. It strikes me as wanting to have your cake and eat it too.

    I don’t want to keep piling it on especially realizing that you need to take a break for a while and will not likely be able to respond but I really need to take an issue with your comment about James. James may mean what you say (given a Reformed lens for how to interpret it) but that’s certainly not what he said. He said, in fact, the exact opposite — that works do justify a man. I understand that there is a self-consistent way of interpreting this passage in light of other verses, namely Pauline passages esp. in Romans, that leads to your conclusion, but we cannot use the terms “clearly” and “he says” simultaneously in this regard. If he means what you say he means, it’s certainly not clear from the text itself. It would only be discernible at all given a certain system of interpretation (which doesn’t mean it’s not true – but it certainly isn’t clear from the text alone.) What he said was this: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. ” – James 2:24 RSV.

    You are right that he does talk about works as evidence of justifying faith – but that is not incompatible with works also being part of justification. What he said, however, is incompatible with your statement, “but these works are not what saves us.”

    I’ll also mention that, as you may or may not know, we are ok even with the phrase, “faith alone” so long as such faith is a living faith, i.e. a faith formed by love. (This was recently confirmed by Pope Benedict). I know that the Reformed also agree that only living faith (and not dead faith) justifies, but according to the Reformed, only the faith part is considered in justification. Do you see how nuanced the difference really is? It is unintelligible to say that such a fine distinction is perspicuous from the Scriptures and the Reformed position’s weight depends entirely on that supposed perspicuity. If that’s perspicuous then I’m an idiot because I don’t see it at all. I see that there is a self-consistent method to read Scripture and come to that conclusion, but not that such a self-consistent method is actually correct.

    Sorry again for the pile up and long responses.

  54. Dan,

    It’s a pleasure to have this discussion with you, and I’m glad that you found my post helpful. If I may, I would like to offer another response, this time to your response to me in #50.

    The thrust of my response is this: in Galatians, Paul does not say that we inherit eternal life apart from our own merit. It is true that he says, repeatedly in chapters 2 and 3, that we are justified by faith apart from the law, but this only necessitates the conclusion that we inherit eternal life apart from any merit if we conflate the concepts of justification and the awarding of eternal life as if they were one and the same thing. But why should we accept this soteriological model, and import into Paul’s language in Galatians 2 and 3 that by “justification by faith” he means forensic double imputation, rather than what the Catholic Church teaches is meant by “justification”? So that you may compare, I will quote the definition given in chapter 6 of the sixth session of the Council of Trent:

    …a description of the Justification of the impious is indicated, as being a translation, from that state wherein man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace, and of the adoption of the sons of God, through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Saviour..

    Here the Church is obviously drawing on Paul’s statement in Colossians 1:13, that God “has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of His beloved Son.” The fathers of Trent expand on this in chapter 8, which I quoted above, but will quote again so that it can be seen directly in relation to chapter 6…

    And whereas the Apostle saith, that man is justified by faith and freely, those words are to be understood in that sense which the perpetual consent of the Catholic Church hath held and expressed; to wit, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and the root of all Justification; without which it is impossible to please God, and to come unto the fellowship of His sons: but we are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification-whether faith or works-merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle says, grace is no more grace.

    And so while justification is seen as that moment when we become children of God, when we are regenerated, when we are given a new heart, etc., it is not seen as some kind of proleptic final judgment, as if there were no actual need for the judgment that we must face when we die (Hebrews 9:27). But if our justification were the Calvinistic notion of forensic double-imputation, the last judgment would be at best redundant. The whole point of the last judgment is to declare that we have either lived a life “worthy of our calling” (Ephesians 4:1) and finished the race (2 Timothy 4:7) by “making every effort to make our calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10), or that we have “turned our backs on the sacred command that was passed on to us” after we had once “escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord Jesus Christ and become again entangled in it” (2 Peter 2:20-22).

    If what happened after our justification by faith had no bearing on our being awarded eternal life, it would not make sense for Peter to tell us to confirm our calling and election. It would not make sense for him to add the conditional phrase “if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:10 – notice how Peter directly links living a godly life and receiving a rich welcome in the eternal kingdom.) It would not make sense for Paul to tell us to “hold firmly” to the word he preached to us if we would be saved and not have our belief be in vain (1 Corinthians 15:1). He talking precisely about renegging on our justification by faith by refusing to continue to cooperate with God’s grace and grow in the love without which our faith is worthless (1 Cor 13). This is exactly how Paul and James’ theologies are saying the exact same things. But because the first Reformers did not understand what Paul was talking about in places like Galatians 2 and 3, they have been ever since having to explain away what James says as “different kinds of justification.” In fact, they introduce all kinds of schemes foreign to the scriptures and to the ancient church in order to re-interpret the rest of the bible to suit their misreading of Paul. Too much of the Bible doesn’t fit with that systematic theology. Thus the history of biblical studies is full of problems swirling around reconciling James and Paul, Jesus and Paul, etc., only after the Reformation introduced its novel exegesis and foreign dichotomies. It may be because you have been taught these methods, for example, that you probably do not see that scripture very plainly teaches, in every possible location, that the final judgment is based on deeds, and that the reward of eternal life is given based on the merit that we obtain by cooperating with God’s grace.

    To illustrate my point, let me introduce another bit from St. Augustine’s treatise On Grace and Free Will, to which I have linked above. He says, for example:

    No man, therefore, when he sins, can in his heart blame God for it, but every man must impute the fault to himself. Nor does it detract at all from a man’s own will when he performs any act in accordance with God. Indeed, a work is then to be pronounced a good one when a person does it willingly; then, too, may the reward of a good work be hoped for from Him concerning whom it is written, He shall reward every man according to his works (Matthew 16:27).

    Here Augustine is expanding on his point that God would be unjust to condemn someone who acted evilly but not freely. The corollary to this, as the quote indicates, is that good deeds, if they are also not done freely, would not rightly merit reward. But he quotes Matthew 16:27 to show that God will, in fact, reward us according to our good works. Later on, he applies this principle specifically to the concept of eternal life:

    It is, however, to be feared lest all these and similar testimonies of Holy Scripture (and undoubtedly there are a great many of them), in the maintenance of free will, be understood in such a way as to leave no room for God’s assistance and grace in leading a godly life and a good conversation, to which the eternal reward is due.

    In this passage, Augustine is transitioning from defending “free will of choice” (as he calls it) based on scripture to defending God’s grace based on scripture, and showing how neither one of these negates the reality of the other. As he says here, the “eternal reward” is due to leading a godly life, which we are able to do by assenting with our free will to the grace that God offers us after our initial justification (i.e. everything I discussed above).

    In Chapters 19 and 20, St. Augustine gets to the heart of this matter, which is also extremely relevant to our discussion, because he has established that scripture teaches a) that man has free will, b) that it would be unjust for God to punish evil done without free will and also to reward good deeds done without free will, c) that the eternal reward is given to us based on our good works, and d) that salvation is by grace. I don’t want to quote two whole chapters here, so I really do recommend that you check out that link and read them if you have the time. But I do want to quote both his framing of the problem and his conclusions:

    And hence there arises no small question, which must be solved by the Lord’s gift. If eternal life is rendered to good works, as the Scripture most openly declares (Then He shall reward every man according to his works: Matthew 16:27), how can eternal life be a matter of grace, seeing that grace is not rendered to works, but is given gratuitously, as the apostle himself tells us (To him that works is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. Romans 4:4)?

    The conclusions of chapter 20:

    This question, then, seems to me to be by no means capable of solution, unless we understand that even those good works of ours, which are recompensed with eternal life, belong to the grace of God, because of what is said by the Lord Jesus: Without me you can do nothing. (John 15:5) And the apostle himself, after saying, By grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9), saw, of course, the possibility that men would think from this statement that good works are not necessary to those who believe, but that faith alone [fides sola] suffices for them; and again, the possibility of men’s boasting of their good works, as if they were of themselves capable of performing them. To meet, therefore, these opinions on both sides, he immediately added, For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God has before ordained that we should walk in them…

    There are three extremely important points here:

    1) Augustine, whose soteriology the Reformed credit themselves with reviving, very clearly distinguishes between justification, by which we are made children of God, and the reward of eternal life, which is not awarded based on the imputed righteousness of Christ, but in recognition of our good works wrought through our cooperation with God’s grace.

    2) Augustine anticipates errors on two sides. One of them is the Pelagian error, namely that we do not need God’s grace to do the good works that merit eternal life. The other is, interestingly enough, the Reformed error, that our good deeds do not form part of the basis for our inheriting eternal life.

    3) Augustine’s statements line up exactly with the teaching of the Council of Trent as I’ve quoted it here for you. The sixth session, dealing with justification, can be found in its entirety at http://history.hanover.edu/texts/trent/ct06.html.

    Lastly, I just wanted to add a few more passages of scripture that illustrate the point about our grace-filled works meriting the eternal reward, since you said that you do not see this anywhere in scripture. I found these verses by going to Biblegateway.com and clicking on the cross-reference link next to the verse Augustine quoted above (Matthew 16:27). All passages are from the ESV version.

    For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. [Matt. 16:27]

    But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. [Romans 2:5-7]

    For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. [2 Corinthians 5:10]

    As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear. [1 Peter 1:14-17]

    And I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works. [Revelation 2:23, cf. 20:12 and 22:12]

    Thank you for taking the time to read all of this. I did initially mean for it to be this long, but I hope you have found it helpful, and I hope that it will get you thinking about the assumptions you may be bringing to certain texts of Paul, from a scriptural and patristic point of view, as well as on what the Catholic Church officially teaches.

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