When Catholicism Hinders the Gospel

It is okay to find common ground as long as it is really common.

We've had frequent discussions on this show about Roman Catholicism versus Protestantism.  Some of the standard Catholic/Protestant issues, though, are a tempest in a teapot compared to other issues, in my view.  I don't fuss with many things Protestants complain about with Roman Catholics because I think there are only a couple of things that are really serious. 

One of these is the doctrine of salvation:  What must one do to be saved?  The issue of justification is critical. 

There is such a fundamental difference between Protestant and Catholic views on this issue that it's impossible to reconcile them, and this is one reason why the recent efforts of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) have fallen short.  The issue of justification started the Reformation; it can never be abandoned by Protestants.  It's a critical point of division, a gulf that can never be bridged between the two groups.

The second serious difference is the issue of authority.  It underlies everything else because any theological view--like the doctrine of justification--is undergirded by a prior commitment to a certain authority.  It isn't enough for a Protestant to quote Scripture on an issue.  The trump card that Rome holds—this is their claim—is that they have the authority to tell you what the Scriptures actually mean

I don't want to take either of these issues on today, though most of you know I don't think Rome can sustain its authority claim, either biblically or in practice.  But there's one issue that's been very troublesome to me since the second Vatican Council in the mid sixties.  A trend in Christendom called "religious inclusivism" has gained momentum since that time. 

Being raised Catholic in the old tradition of Trent—raised to believe that only Catholics were going to heaven—I was shocked to hear this new view coming from priests and bishops.  I was aware of a doctrine known as "baptism by desire"—the idea that someone who didn't have access to a Catholic church or Catholic doctrine still, through a sincere pursuit of God, could be accepted by Him through their implicit faith. 

But this was considered a very rare thing.  The standard for salvation was to become a Catholic; there was no easy way out through other "heathen" religions.  That's what justified Roman Catholic missions around the world. When I was a kid I was taught that, without question, Protestants needed to become Catholics in order to be saved. Protestants didn't seem to qualify for the baptism of desire.  They followed a false and damnable interpretation of Christianity.  This was the case with the other world religions as well.

Protestants weren't idol-worshipping heathens, yet they didn't qualify for salvation in the '50's.  Though they were kin theologically to Roman Catholics, they were not precise enough in their belief to qualify for salvation.  Jews couldn't qualify, either, because of their rejection of Christ. 

Now, since Vatican II, all this has changed.  It's changed so radically and so completely and so thoroughly that it still has my head spinning. 

I first started doing public advocacy of Christianity on a secular program called "Religion on the Line" on the ABC affiliate here in Los Angeles (two hours on religious topics with a rabbi, a priest, a minister, and a host).  I was stunned when the first time a Protestant called in to share Christ with the rabbi he was opposed not by the rabbi, but rather by the Roman Catholic priest ("Rabbi, I'll handle this one.") 

The Jews have their own covenant, the priest argued.  They have their own way to God which does not require belief in Jesus.  That is also true for every other faith.  God can be found through virtually any religions.  The blood of Christ—which is necessary to forgive sins (this is the only sense in which Christ is the only way)—is not just for Christians, but is applied to anyone who sincerely and obediently pursues his own religion.  He is forgiven through Jesus, though he never believes in Jesus.  Put simply, the good Buddhist is saved by the blood of Christ.  This is called inclusivism.

I almost fell off my chair the first time I heard this.  Yet, every single Roman Catholic priest on that program since then—a show I'd done more than twenty times—held the same thing, even a bishop. 

Is this something new?  No, they claim, it's just the same “baptism of desire” they've taught all along.  Of course, my question is this:  If the baptism of desire couldn't even save Protestants 30 years ago, how is it able to save idol worshippers today?  No, this is not the same doctrine, but something entirely new.

Let me read to you from two different documents.  The first is the L.A. Times; the second is Paul's epistle to the Thessalonians.  On the religion page in the L.A. Times, Saturday, July 27 [1996], is a piece about Buddhists and Catholics finding common ground.  Apparently there was a summit in which Buddhists and Catholics got together to share their insights (BCT?). Even the Dali Lama was present. 

I have no problem with finding common ground with other religions, by the way, but I have a different purpose than is expressed here.  I think we ought to find common ground with other people so we can have dialogue with them about the truth.  I want to find common ground with a non-believer so I can use it as a platform from which to explain and persuade him of the truth of Christianity. 

A simple example of common ground might be language.  Missionaries learn the common language so they can communicate.  When I talk to someone even in my own culture, I try to find some kind of kinship with the other person.  If he believes in morality, then I believe in morality, too, and we talk about our beliefs in morality and see what view of the world makes sense out of those common beliefs.  If he denies morality I can adopt that same view with him and see where it leads.

So, common ground can be used as a way of communicating our faith, a springboard to persuade people about the gospel. 

But that isn't the way common ground is meant in this summit between Catholics and Buddhists.  The notion of common ground in this case—and the common practice of Roman Catholicism vis-a-vis other religions in the new era of religious inclusivism—is to find common ground so they can learn from others and see how many similarities, how many truths, they hold in common to bring unity rather than division.  The goal is understanding, not conversion.

For example, the L.A. Times says, "The Dali Lama's talks have been a high point of the conference.  Deliberately avoiding debates on arcane doctrine, he asserted in sketchy but plain-spoken English that members of different religions should not try to convert one another, but rather exchange ideas, study each other's traditions and conduct pilgrimages to each other's shrines.  'I feel the variety of religion is much better,' said he.  'Look at the requirement of the body.  More variety of food, much healthier.'"

Now, I think this is a mistaken view of religion, that a variety of religions is like a variety of foods; you take a little bit of each one and you're healthier.  I don't see religion like a smorgasbord.  I don't think the goal of religion is to satisfy tastes, but to give us the truth. 

This point of view says religion is like food, not medicine.  Like ice cream, not insulin.  It's there to satisfy a taste, not to heal a disease.  If you want to satisfy tastes, then you find what you like.  If you like variety, then taste from many religions.  If you want to heal a disease, though, you find the medicine that is specific to your ailment or else you die. 

True religion, my friends, is exactly like the second and nothing like the first.  The Roman Catholic view seems to be that healing comes by way of any sincere pursuit.  The Dali Lama is sincerely pursuing God through his religious means, and so are Jews, and so are Hindus, and so are Protestants.  Since we're all sincerely pursuing according to our own beliefs, then God manifests His grace towards each of us without bias.  He applies the blood of Christ and saves us all. 

Sadly, this is not the gospel of Jesus Christ; this is not the gospel of Paul or Peter and the Apostles.  It hasn't been the gospel of the church for 2,000 years, even the Roman church.  This is the message of the world, not the Scriptures.  Broadly applied, it's called religious pluralism; the Christian version is called religious inclusivism.  There are some differences between the two, but in ultimate consequence they are exactly the same.  This is the doctrine Rome has adopted. 

At this same seminar, Sister Mary Margaret Funk—a Benedictine nun from Indiana—said that we can learn about meditation from those in India and from the East so we can meditate better.  Never mind that Eastern meditation is totally different from biblical meditation.  Never mind that it's based on a totally different world view.  Never mind that going to other shrines in that fashion is tantamount to idolatry.  Never mind that she's legitimizing a religious view that is rebellion against God.  

It's bad enough giving false assurance to those who are on their way to Hell.  But this view also discourages Christians from bringing the true message of life to those who desperately need it. 

This brings me to I Thessalonians 2:15-16, which speaks of the Jews who "both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out."  Paul writes:  "They are not pleasing to God but hostile to all men…" (watch this in verse 16), "…hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved." 

This Roman Catholic teaching of inclusivism that other people are saved through their own religions—this teaching that Protestants must be silent and not annoy our Jewish friends with the gospel of Jesus Christ—is hindering us from spreading the gospel that we've been commanded to communicate.  It is guaranteeing their eternal separation from God by withholding from the Jews and from everyone else the only message that can save them. 

Friends, the message that saves is not the message of religious pluralism or religious inclusivism.  Rather, the only message that can save is the message of the cross of Jesus Christ.  And that's a severe stumbling block to many. 

When Catholics discourage us from speaking this message, then they're enemies to the cross of Christ at that particular point.  And if they're enemies to the cross of Christ, they cannot be the authoritative spokespersons for Christ on this earth at that particular point.  They cannot be infallible, which is a foundational claim of Roman Catholic theology.

Let me add this postscript here, lest I be misunderstood.  Twice I said that those who teach inclusivism are enemies of the cross of Christ "at this point."  In other words, it's at this point of error that they're enemies to the cross of Christ.  The Roman Catholic Church might be promoting Christianity or Jesus or devotion to Christ in other ways quite aggressively and quite accurately.  But if they teach that Christ already saves multitudes of people that the Scriptures condemn, if they count as healthy those whom God says are perishing, then they are enemies of the cross of Christ at that point. 

Anyone who withholds this gospel or who dissuades others from preaching this gospel to those who need it falls under Paul's condemnation in 1 Thessalonians 2.  These are not pleasing to God, Paul says, but are hostile to all men, hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles in order that they might be saved. 

The irony here is that Paul is talking about Jews keeping the gospel from the Gentiles.  The positions are switched now—religious Gentiles are hindering the gospel from going to the Jews.  Both desperately need it.  And this is why Paul said "to the Jews first and then to the Gentiles." 

Paul says, "If I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted?  Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished." (Gal. 5:11)  If Paul was just preaching what was appealing and pleasing to men (like the message of inclusivism), then why was Paul persecuted?  If the Jews didn't need the gospel of Jesus Christ, then why did Paul waste his time? 

Paul's said he was persecuted for telling the truth of Jesus and His cross, which is a stumbling block to the Jews, and to many Catholics, its seems. 

As for the "gospel of sincerity," Paul makes the issue very clear in Romans 10:2-4.  Mark this.  Speaking of his Jewish brethren, he says, "For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge.  For not knowing about God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.  For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

Paul's answer to religious inclusivism cannot be misunderstood.  It doesn't matter if you're following God in your own way.  It only matters if you're following God in God's way. 

Greg Koukl