Only recently, LifeWay Research conducted a survey of over 1000 Protestant and Evangelical pastors regarding their positions on the Pope and Roman Catholicism. The results came back last week in an article published by Christianity Today, From Antichrist to Brother in Christ: How Protestant Pastors View the Pope. Those results were not good. Alarmingly, nearly 60% of evangelical pastors now believe that the Pope is a Christian. Almost 20% don’t know. Not only that, but 92% of evangelical pastors seem to think that you can be a Roman Catholic and be a true born-again Christian (I think the state of being verb “be” is crucial to the discussion here. It is to say that you can indefinitely remain in Roman Catholicism and participate in its practices).
And you can’t make the argument that they’re just ignorant here. These are the pastors. They know better. They know what Catholicism is and they know what biblical Christianity is. In other words, they can’t say, “I was mistaken, I thought Roman Catholicism taught justification by faith alone.” The religion is completely apostate. Completely – and it’s just as condemning as every other false religion like Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, or even Atheism (which I also count as a religion of its own). So, you know what that tells me? At the very least, 58% of evangelical pastors (assuming a high statistical accuracy) are confused about the Gospel. Depending on how you understand the question, “Can you be a Roman Catholic and be a born-again Christian,” that number can even be upward towards 92%. And you can bet that if they’re confused, that means their congregations are even more confused. That only shows us just how far we’ve come since the Protestant Reformation.
There is little doubt that the Reformers who were willing to give their lives for the doctrine of Sola Fide (justification by faith alone) would be rolling over in their graves if they knew how readily many Christians will affirm fellowship with today’s Roman Catholics. It was quite clear to them how far the Catholic Church had deviated from biblical truth and the Gospel. In fact, even the Catholic Church was aware of this, but to preserve its power, they outlawed the publication of the Bible in the public’s spoken language everywhere they could. They could not allow the general public to read Scripture for themselves, so they even chained the Bibles to the church pulpit to ensure no one could take them home. Ironically, this was under the guise of preventing heresy. In reality, it was all about the preservation of it.
What’s worse is that many Christians will vehemently defend friends and loved ones who belong to the Roman Catholic Church, and will often angrily oppose the very notion that Catholicism is in direct opposition to the Gospel. Others will praise the Pope for popularizing Christianity throughout the world by his good works. The problem is, the Pope only popularizes hypocrisy. But why so much confusion?
It was in 1545-57 that the Roman Catholic Church anathematized any who would proclaim that salvation is by faith alone (the Protestant Reformers) at the Council of Trent. It was at this point that “Catholic” really took on a new meaning. Before this (and yes, this is a somewhat simplistic historical overview), the catholic church referred to the “universal,” “orthodox,” “true,” or “global” church. Gradually, the churches between the East and the West divided, and the western church set its headquarters in Rome.
Through time, “the” church morphed into “The Church,” and while there was much corruption and false teaching in the Catholic Church by the 1500’s, the Council of Trent marked when the RCC became outright heretical. Before that point, even Martin Luther believed that there was the possibility for the Church to return to biblical orthodoxy, but now there was no question. The RCC left the faith. Even when Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517 (Reformation Day), he did so in Latin. Why? The general public could only read German. Only the trained clergy would be able to read his protests – because Luther initially believed that there could be reform from within the church. It quickly became obvious that this wasn’t the case.
But how is it that so many people could blindly follow an apostate religion? The answer, as the RCC knew, was through ignorance. If the public couldn’t read the Bible, the public would have to depend on what the “Church” told them the Bible said. They’d be ignorant. In that regard, little has changed, if anything has changed at all.
Of course, Catholics today can readily get their hands on a Bible in their own language, so the Catholic Church preys on its people in a different way.
They play on people’s laziness, and depravity. Depravity will keep someone from reading the Scriptures (to understand it) on their own unless the Holy Spirit is prompting them to do so. So, if the RCC doesn’t encourage their congregation to read the Scriptures, they know their congregations won’t. But, the RCC doesn’t keep people ignorant regarding what they teach. In fact, to become a member of the RCC, you must go through a series of examinations, either through Confirmation or RCIA classes, that ensure you have a relatively comprehensive understanding of the core tenants of Roman Catholicism. So, members of the RCC know what the Catholic Church teaches, just not what Scripture teaches. That’s why you hear many stories of Roman Catholics (like Martin Luther) getting saved, simply by reading the Scriptures. They quickly come to understand that what the RCC teaches, and what the Bible teaches, are completely different gospels.
But today’s Evangelicals are also ignorant, and ignorance is the reason that many Christians believe Roman Catholics are saved. We can probably trace much of today’s confusion about Catholicism to an event in 1983, but even so, there was still a lot of confusion even before. Even in the earliest years of the Billy Graham Crusades, Graham shared the pulpit with Catholic bishops and even referred new “converts” to RC churches. Ecumenical thinking had already infiltrated many of the seminaries in the United States who adopted the liberal “scholasticism” of the European schools. But in 1983, a group of Lutheran and Catholic theologians announced that they had “come to agreement on justification.”
But really, no such agreement occurred. The “bilateral talks” that produced a document called “Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue” in 1985 was unofficial and wasn’t even accepted by Rome, in spite of all the media attention it got. Even so, the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” was an official follow-up, because of so-called “insights of recent biblical studies” referring to the aforementioned dialogue.1 Truthfully, all that was produced was a document that said, in so many words, “we’ll say we agree even though we’ve said we won’t agree, and without changing what we said about not agreeing.” If you’re confused by that, so am I, because what happened was the Lutherans and Catholics came together and produced an official document that said words don’t really mean what they say, and we can say we agree even though our doctrinal statements say we disagree. So really, there was no agreement.
All that happened was that vernacular was simply modified, leading many to believe that the Catholic Church was affirming the evangelical doctrine of justification (the matter of justification was a main issue in that document). Nothing could be further from the truth! All it did was affirm what Catholics already believed about justification, and the RCC never rescinded what it canonized in the Council of Trent.
So how do we respond to the ecumenical culture? What is the underlying distinction between biblical Christianity and Roman Catholicism? What do they believe versus what we believe? How can I so assertively say that to accept Roman Catholic doctrine is to reject Christ? It is to answer those questions that we’re going to begin a special series on Sunday evenings to evaluate Roman Catholicism under the scrutiny of God’s Word. It is important. We must be prepared and equipped to evangelize our Catholic friends and families. We must be able to expose the heresy and error of their system, and offer to them the only hope found in Christ.