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Evangelicals & Catholics Together?
by Fred G. Zaspel
published by Word of Life Baptist Church


In the late spring of 1994 a now-famous document was released purporting to establish the "unity" that exists between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics. It was entitled, "Evangelicals and Catholics Together." The document was a significant one in many respects, chiefly in that it is the first time since the Protestant Reformation that such an idea has been seriously considered on a wide scale. Of further significance were the names attached to the document. Several men of both Roman Catholic and Protestant -- even Reformed -- repute signed on as either authors or endorsers.

Another significant factor involved is that in the document, generally speaking, the differences between historic Protestantism and Catholicism are not denied or even ignored; they are frankly acknowledged. The point the writers argue is that the differences are not sufficient to separate the two sides, but that the two should be able to work together in the world for their common cause. So, in the view of these men, the rift that has existed within Christendom since the sixteenth century is an unnecessary one. More, it is wrong.

What we want to do here is examine the issue to see where the Scriptures would have us position ourselves. Can Evangelicals and Catholics get together? And if some do, should we participate?

A Problem in Galatia

If you have ever read the apostle Paul's letter to the Galatians you will probably remember that when he wrote he was very upset. From the outset on through to the end of the letter he never tones down.

The Gospel to Galatia

The apostle had brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to the people of that area himself. He reminds them in the letter several times of some of the main emphases of that gospel. It was a message of salvation by free grace. His point made over and again is that in salvation God declares the sinner righteous. This is called "justification." Now God doesn't justify a man by overlooking his sin; He is Himself righteous, and could never save by pretending that sinners are really righteous. But neither does He make this pronouncement on the basis of the sinner's own accomplishments. That is, God does not tell the sinner that if he proves himself good enough, then he may be saved. The reason for this is obvious: by very definition, sinners can never be good enough. Whatever a sinner may do that is good and however many good things he may accomplish, at the end of it all he is still a sinner. Unless he can do perfectly all that God requires and that without any exception throughout his entire life, he deserves punishment and is under the law's curse (Gal.3:10). This is why "no man is justified by the law" (3:11); he simply can't obey the law well enough.

But it is just here that the Christian gospel presents the good news: "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us" (3:13). That is to say, the Lord Jesus Christ has come and in place of the sinner endured the law's condemnation. He, the sinless one, bore the punishment due sinners so that sinners would go free. God's justice was not side-stepped; it is perfectly upheld. The sinner is punished -- only, in the person of his Substitute.

This, then, is why justification is only "by faith" (3:11). Given the hopelessness of making ourselves good enough by our own efforts, God offers salvation to us freely -- by grace. He does not require that we show ourselves to be good enough. He requires that we trust Christ alone, Who is good enough. Trusting in Him our sin is His, and His righteousness is ours. This is called in the Bible "imputation" -- our sin is imputed (charged) to Christ, and His righteousness is imputed to us. There is this marvelous exchange, and it is made only by faith. This is the very heart of the Christian gospel, and it is in this way alone that we may be declared righteous before God. Salvation is by grace through Christ alone, and it is received only by faith. His work, not ours.

The Gospel Under Attack

Now, what has the apostle so worked up is that certain false teachers had entered the church and had begun to teach other things. We learn something about them in Galatians 5:2-4. "Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you allow yourselves to be circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing. And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. You have become cut off from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace."

Evidently, these teachers had come in saying that circumcision was also required for salvation. Paul was right as far as he went, so these men would say, but he just left out this one detail: unless a man is circumcised, he cannot be saved. He must keep this part of the law also.

Notice what a severe matter this was to the apostle. Anyone who believes this, he says, is "cut off from Christ" (Gal.5:4). He may very sincerely believe that by his circumcision he is gaining salvation, but Paul says that by believing that he is excluded from salvation entirely. This, he says, is "a different gospel" which will bring a man only to be eternally cursed (Gal.1:6-8).

Now before we go on, it is important to see precisely what is the issue at stake for Paul. There is no indication at all that these false teachers disagreed with Paul on any of the fundamentals of the Christian faith -- the trinity, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, His resurrection, His substitutionary atonement, etc. The only difference they had with Paul was this one word: and. They believed that they were justified by grace and circumcision.

To put it another way, they did not believe that we are justified by faith alone. This is how Paul saw it in Gal.5:2-4. He says, in so many words, "If you add that little word and, you are no Christian. Salvation is received by faith alone."

But we should ask, Why, Paul, are you so persnickety? Why do you get so worked up over such a little word? They have so much that is right, and all they add is this one little requirement -- can it really be that bad?

Yes, it can be that bad; and it is. Adding even one requirement to the terms of salvation makes salvation come by human effort, and that is a different gospel. If justification is by human merit, then it is not by faith. If it is by works, then it is not by grace. If it is by our working, then it cannot be by Christ's.

Indeed, Paul asserts, "If righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain" (Gal.2:21). Did He not in dying for us pay the price of our lawlessness? And if He did, then what is all this talk about our law keeping? The Christian gospel has a better message than that: it teaches us that Christ has kept the law for us and in our place bore our punishment for breaking the law. And if this is why He died and if this is how salvation comes to us, then to add anything to the terms of justification is to deny the Christian gospel altogether. Add anything, he says, and you are "cut off from Christ." The gospel that Paul preached allowed no additions.

Notice also the severe language the apostle uses of his opponents. In Gal.5:12 he even suggests that these who demand circumcision be physically castrated! Why? Why speak so harshly? Because to add anything to the gospel is to change it into something other than what it is. And Paul's point is that this gospel ) as it is) is the only message that can save (Gal.1:6-8).

Why the Protestant Reformation?

Now the question we are addressing is whether or not Evangelicals and Catholics can be "together." Perhaps it is best to begin by clarifying the reason for the division in the first place. In other words, why was there the Protestant Reformation?

Martin Luther was a loyal son of the Roman Catholic Church, faithful in all its rites and requirements. It was in keeping with a sincere oath made to St. Anne that he entered the monastery, and as a monk he was faithful in all that was expected of him. In fact, he later claimed that "If any monk ever got to heaven by monkery, I should have been that monk."

But it was in this service that Luther found himself struggling with a smiting conscience. His problem was not he was doing nothing that was good or sincere; his problem was that he still was a sinner, and he knew it. And it was for these sins that he tirelessly sought absolution.

In search of peace of conscience Martin Luther availed himself of precisely everything the church had to offer. He had his priests, in whose hands was held the power of forgiveness of sins. They in baptism claimed to wash away sins and infuse saving grace. This principle of righteousness infused at baptism then, they taught, would enable the faithful to achieve increasing levels of holiness until, at last, they would become inherently righteous to a sufficient degree that God then would justify them.

Notice here that justification is defined not in terms of imputation but of cooperation.

The church had an answer also for sins committed after baptism. Confession of these sins should be made to a priest, who then would prescribe a suitable work of penance -- prayers, rosary, alms, or some other act to make amends for the sins. In view of this work of penance the priest would grant absolution -- forgiveness.

Luther went through it all, vigorously and zealously. But still, he found no peace. He could only wonder if he had confessed all of his sins! So he would spend long hours in confession, trying so to cover them all, until his confessors dreaded to see him come! But for Luther, there was still this annoying problem of sin and what to do about it. And he still wondered how or if his efforts could really make amends.

So he gave himself to various acts of asceticism -- extreme self denial, even self flagellation -- for his sins. He would lay out all night in the cold German snow until he would have to be carried back inside, thinking that by it all he could make up to God for his wrong doings. But what he found through all this instead of peace was only more frustration. By sincerely paying more attention to his sinful condition, he only saw all the more clearly just how sinful he really was! And peace seemed further away than ever.

Then one day he was studying Psalm 22, the Psalm Jesus quoted when He hung on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" That was a puzzling thought for Luther. Why would Christ be forsaken? It was very evident to Luther why he himself should feel forsaken -- he was a sinner. But why Christ? Then gradually it began to dawn on him, the truth of this gospel which Paul preached to the Galatians: the Lord Jesus was forsaken for sinners. He went to the cross as a sinner and in the place of sinners. He was "made a curse for us" (Gal.3:13), and by His taking our punishment we go free. Then Luther saw that God accounts us righteous, not at all on the basis of what we do but on the basis of what Christ has done for us. And he saw that Christ is ours not by our merit but by grace and through faith. Not because we deserve it but because He is gracious.

Finally Luther found the peace he had sought so long. And he found that it came quite apart from anything that any priest or church or religion could ever provide: it came by simple faith in Christ. It was his own believing, personal relationship to Jesus Christ that made the difference.

Gradually Luther began to see what a mockery it was for him to attempt to make amends for his own sins. What an affront to the work which Christ did for us! And what arrogance for a man to take the place of Christ in calling himself a priest and claiming to grant forgiveness! How very wrong to claim salvation by grace andanything! It is only by what Christ has done, or it is not salvation at all.

With this Luther began to see that this error in his church was no mere aberration; it was pervasive in Roman Catholic teaching. The problem was not just with a priesthood and with his own efforts toward absolution in penance. The problem went to the very heart of the church's liturgy: the mass. After all, what do priests do? They offer sacrifice! For Rome, the mass is not primarily a sacrament but a sacrifice. By "transubstantiation" the elements of the Lord's Supper are miraculously "changed" into the actual body and blood of Christ. These then are presented as a "continual offering" of Christ, or as the Council of Trent called it, "a propitiatory sacrifice." The Baltimore Catechism says, "The mass is the same sacrifice as that of the cross." The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism says the same. In other words, the mass is a re-crucifixion of Christ, a fresh offering of His sacrifice for us. In it Christ is "re-presented" for us in sacrifice.

But all this, Luther found, flies right in the face of the apostolic teaching: "So Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many" (Heb.9:28). "For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified" (Heb.10:14). "Now where there is remission of these, there is no longer an offering for sin" (Heb.10:18). The glory of Christ's work for us is that by His one act of sacrifice He has paid our debt in full. Moreover, to speak of re-enacting that sacrifice is to deny its value. We do not need, Luther found, a "re-presenting" of Christ. We need faith in Him and His great work accomplished for us once for all on the cross.

But things got worse. A man named Tetzel came to town selling indulgences. An indulgence was a monetary payment for sin, a buying in to the "Treasury of Merit," which, in turn, is the supposed sum of the excess righteousness achieved by all the saints. In fact, he was selling these indulgences for the sins of those who were in purgatory. Now purgatory is the place where the faithful dead went to be "purged" from their sins, to finish making amends.

So Tetzel would preach:

"As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,
The soul from purgatory springs!"

Then he would lay it on: "Can't you hear your dear parents in purgatory crying out to you for help! Listen to them: 'We gave you your life! We provided so much for you! Now please help us! Buy us an indulgence so that we may be free from this torment!'" And poor peasants spent their hard earned money on this -- all, by the way, to finance the building of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

But again Luther began to think: What is all this about being "purged" for our sins? Isn't that what Christ did for us on the cross (Heb.1:3)? And by what right does anyone claim to buy off God? How can we think of His justice as being satisfied by money? Why, the whole idea is outrageous!

At the end of it all there is that one little word that has created the division: and. Salvation was now coming by grace through faith and baptism. And penance. Andpurgatory. And money. This was a rejection of the gospel of grace, and would render a man "cut off from Christ."

But still there's more. Think of what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about Mary. Among so many other things, she is called our "Co-Redemptress" In a papal Encyclical from Pope Benedict XV we read, "She may rightly be said to have redeemed the human race with Christ." In A Dictionary of Mary we read, "Mary's manifold sufferings were expiatory: not of her own sins, for she was sinless; but by the offering of those sufferings to God in union with the sufferings of Christ for the sins of all the world."

She is also called our "Mediatrix." An Encyclical from Pope Leo XIII reads, "Nothing according to the will of the Supreme Father comes to us except through Mary, so that, as nobody can approach the Supreme Father except through the Son, similarly nobody can approach Christ except through the Mother."

But can it be right to give this place to Mary? The apostle Paul emphatically declares that "There is one mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus" (1Tim.2:5); there is no one, not even Mary, who can share in this role. And what does it say of Christ and the efficacy of His work to speak of Mary as "redeeming human race"? Answer: it is blasphemy. It is blasphemy of the worst sort.

Again we find that difference is in that one little word. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that we are saved by Christ and Mary. And to affirm that, the apostle Paul carefully warns, is to render us "cut off from Christ."

It is clear enough, then, that there is good reason for the division between Roman Catholicism and Evangelicalism. Rome has departed from the faith of the apostles.

Are Things Different Today?

It is often claimed, however, that the Roman Catholic Church is different today. Those old reasons for division are no longer valid.

Now we readily agree that if these causes of division no longer remain, then there is no reason for division. But is it true that the Roman Catholic Church has changed? Let's ask her: The Church is semper idem -- "always the same." Moreover, Vatican II, the most recent church council, not only restated its doctrinal position but it openly declared its agreement with all previous councils, such as Trent, which pronounced such severe "anathemas" on those who teach justification by faith alone.

But to answer our question we should look at the church's most recent official publication, Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), which the present pope describes as "a sure norm for teaching the faith." The following are quotes from this catechism.

968. Her [Mary's] role in relation to the church and to all humanity goes still further. In a wholly singular way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope, and burning charity in the Savior's work of restoring supernatural life to souls. For this reason she is a mother to us in the order of grace.

969. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation. Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix."

1129. The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation" (emphasis in original).

1213. .... Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: 'Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word.'

1227. .... Through the Holy Spirit, Baptism is a bath that purifies, justifies, and sanctifies.

1365. In the Eucharist Christ gives us the very body which he gave up for us on the cross, the very blood which he poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

1366. The Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross, because it is a memorial, and because it applies its fruit.

1367. The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice.

1414. As sacrifice, the Eucharist is also offered in reparation for the sins of the living and the dead and to obtain spiritual or temporal benefits from God.

1422. Those who approach the sacrament of Penance obtain pardon from God's mercy for the offense committed against him.

1424. It is called the sacrament of Forgiveness, since by the priest's sacramental absolution God grants the penitent "pardon and peace" It is called the sacrament of Reconciliation because it imparts to the sinner the love of God who reconciles.

1446. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as 'the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace.

1459. .... Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must 'make satisfaction for' or 'expiate' his sins. This satisfaction is also called 'penance.'

It is plainly evident that the Roman Church has not changed at all on these things. She has only reaffirmed them.

So Why the Confusion?

Since this is such a common idea (that the Church has changed), I feel that I should go on to explain more. I do not say this simply to be critical, but because it is necessary to a right understanding of things. It seems that the reason so very many think that the Roman Church is now different is that the Roman Catholic leaders are masters of deception. This is not an unfounded accusation; it is evidently so. For example, Vatican II was supposedly much more open to cooperation and appears so much more flexible; so it is in many ways. Yet it reaffirms all the "anathemas" pronounced by earlier councils on those who believe in justification by faith alone. That is not change.

More, Catholic priests will agree that justification is by grace through faith, and when they do they sound like an Evangelical. But what they do not emphasize is that little word and. And what they do not let out is the fact that whatever it is that follows that little word and completely excludes the notion of grace and faith. It is the Scripture's declaration that salvation is by grace through faith alone and apart from works, or it is not grace or salvation at all.

Again, they will agree, "Yes, Mary called God 'her savior'" (Luk.1:47), but then they will go on to speak of her sinlessness.

Again, they will say, "Yes, we are saved by the work of Christ"; but then they will teach that forgiveness comes at the hands of the priests and in the sacraments.

Again, they will say that they believe in the substitutional death of Christ, but then they will speak of the mass as a "re-presenting" or continual offering of Christ in sacrifice.

The differences are not small. And the deceit is not at all difficult to see.


But we must say that this "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" document is just as deceitful. If Evangelicals can get together with Catholics, we must wonder why the inspired apostle wrote the letter to the Galatians in the first place. And we must wonder why he wrote in such severe terms (e.g., 5:12).

And I think we can safely say that the Evangelicals involved are more to blame. They knowingly overlook these major issues that divide us, issues that strike at the heart of the Christian gospel. And that is a price we cannot pay. Unity is wonderful; it is a high ideal, and we should strive for it. But we cannot and will not accept a unity that sacrifices the gospel by which we are saved.