Monday, October 29, 2007

Counseling a Person Tempted to Become Catholic or Orthodox

Michael Horton's answer to the question: " What would you say to an Evangelical tempted to become Catholic or Orthodox?"
Here’s how I would counsel such a person: Start with the gospel. The gospel creates and sustains the church, not the other way around. If the Evangelicalism familiar to you has been a constant stream of imperatives—moral exhortation, whether in rigid and legalistic or warm and friendly versions—the antidote is not to follow different rules for attaining justification, but a constant, life-long, unremitting immersion in the good news that Jesus Christ’s obedient life, death, and resurrection are sufficient even to save miserable Christians.

That is what the Reformation was all about, and it is why we need another one, even in Protestantism as much as in any other tradition. If our salvation depends on anything done by us or even within us by the Spirit, then our situation is hopeless.

Despite their own differences, Rome and Orthodoxy are at one in telling us in their official doctrinal statements that this message is wrong—not just in emphasis, but in the doctrine itself. According to Roman Catholic teaching, it is a serious error—heresy, in fact—to believe that we are accepted by God in Jesus Christ apart from any virtuous activity on our part and while we remain in ourselves actually sinful. Our meritorious activity must play some part in our final justification, according to both Rome and Orthodoxy.

One might hear more of God’s grace in the Mass or in John of Damascus’ The Orthodox Faith than in a month of Sundays in many Protestant churches today, even some of our own churches that are confessionally bound to teach otherwise. But in Rome’s official teaching, not to mention in its popular piety, the doctrine that we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone—apart from any inherent righteousness—remains “anathema.”

As the Vatican made clear, the Joint Declaration between the Lutheran World Federation and Rome regarding justification in no way rescinds or qualifies Trent. Only because the LWF partners no longer believe what Trent condemned could the ban be lifted.

There are many insights that we can—indeed, should—learn from the wisdom of these traditions and from ecumenical conversations. Distance breeds suspicion, while personal interaction often not only dispels caricatures but also provides opportunities for genuine spiritual fellowship even where our visible communions remain divided. We should not misrepresent each other’s views or engage in grandstanding polemics, but hope for a genuine reformation of all professing churches that will restore visible unity.

In fact, Reformed and Lutheran churches consider the church fathers and, in Calvin’s expression, even “the better doctors” of the medieval church a common inheritance. Our older systems freely draw on these sources. Continuing the tradition of the apostles communicated normatively through the biblical canon, proclaiming the gospel and administering the sacraments as means of grace, appealing to everything that is conformable to Scripture in every time and place, Reformation Christianity is catholic and Evangelical.