Preaching the Great Commission

Even Purgatory:

Today at my parish we had a missionary priest from India. I am happy to say that after years of disappointment, it was refreshing to finally here a missionary actually talking about bring people to Jesus. To talk about salvation. It was wonderful. And he wasn’t a traditional order priest or anything; he was just a Novus Ordo diocesan priest. But he preached about the Great Commission. About the necessity of bringing Christ to people. About baptism. About India’s great Christian traditions, both those begun by St. Thomas as well that brought by St. Francis Xavier and the 16th century Jesuits. He offered actual spiritual insights that were relevant.

I remember recently on one of my travels I heard a priest saying how he was preaching on Purgatory at this parish. And afterward a woman came up to him and said, “I never really thought about it, but I think that was the first sermon I heard on Purgatory in thirty years!” I think the same is true with the necessity of bringing the Gospel to pagans. Maybe intellectually Catholics know the Great Commission is out there, but it is so seldom preached about these days.

This is no surprise. Muslims worship the same God. Jews are no longer in need of conversion. Protestants are brethren. Orthodox are not to be expected to return to unity with Rome. Aberrosexuals are not to be made uncomfortable in any way. Pagans are able to find God in their own rituals and mythologies. Given all this, one wonders who is left that actually needs to hear the Gospel. Mafioso and arms dealers, according to Pope Francis; but they are a lost cause because the pope has already said they are going to Hell.

The point is, you can’t mentally affirm one thing but act in a manner contrary to it for forty years. You can’t affirm the Great Commission is still a mandate while acting as if there is no particular class of people who actually need Christ and His Church.

What hath salvation to do with conversion?

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The Fine Print about Truth

I recall Francis Schaeffer talking about “true truth” to make the point, if memory serves, that Christians do not endorse relativism. But among the apologists for Rome I don’t recall hearing so many appeals to abstract truth — that is, the idea that the church stands for the truth (but see if you can figure out what that truth is). It’s like Dwight Eisenhower’s old line about America’s faith: “In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

Here’s one apologist on the first leg of the truth-goodness-beauty-three-legged stool:

So, this Church that the Bible tells us was founded by Jesus Christ; this Church that the Bible tells us is the pillar and ground – the upholder and foundation – of the truth; this Church that the Bible tells us is the fullness of Jesus Christ – the fullness of the truth; this Church that the Bible tells us is guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Truth; this Church must teach us what? Error? No! This Church must teach us truth. It cannot teach us error. The Church founded by Jesus Christ must teach the truth he fullness of the truth. It cannot teach error!

Does God want everyone to be Catholic? According to the Bible, the Church founded by Jesus Christ contains the fullness of the truth that He has made known to us about Himself. What does the Catholic Church claim about itself? Well, it claims that it contains the fullness of the truth given to us by Jesus Christ. The Bible tells us that the Church founded by Jesus Christ contains the fullness of the truth, and here is the Catholic Church claiming to contain the fullness of the truth, and claiming to have been founded directly by Jesus Christ. If whatever church you are in doesn’t at least claim these things for itself, then you have some thinking and praying to do.

Another appeal to truth that makes the church’s truth qualities more important that Scripture’s:

Truth is truth. It cannot be error, by its very essence and defi­nition. How can truth’s foundation or pillar or bulwark or ground be something less than total truth (since truth itself contains no falsehoods, untruths, lies, or errors)? It cannot. It’s impossible, as a straightforward matter of logic and plain observation. A stream cannot rise above its source.

What is built on a foundation cannot be greater than the foundation. If it were, the whole structure would collapse. If an elephant stood on the shoulders of a man as its foundation, that foundation would collapse. The base of a skyscraper has to hold the weight above it. It can’t be weaker than that which is built upon it. The foundations of a suspension bridge over a river have to be strong enough to hold up that bridge. They can’t possibly be weaker than the bridge, or the structure would collapse.

Therefore, we must conclude that if the Church is the founda­tion of truth, the Church must be infallible, since truth is infal­lible, and the foundation cannot be less great or strong than that which is built on it. Truth cannot be built on any degree of error whatever, because that would make the foundation weaker than the superstructure above it.

Accordingly, given the above biblical passages and many oth­ers, the Catholic “three-legged stool” rule of faith may be defined in the following way:

In the biblical (and historic Catholic) view the inspired, infallible Bible is interpreted by an infallible, divinely guided Church, which in turn infallibly interprets and formulates the true doctrinal (apostolic) tradition.

Here’s another who links truth to freedom (which is oh so American and modern):

The Catholic faith is about freedom because it is about the Truth, the deepest truth about God and about our existence. It appeals to the deepest sanctuary of the heart. If it promotes social institutions, it does so to make space for the voice of conscience in human affairs. Whether it concerns the sacredness of marriage, or of motherhood, or of family, or of life itself, the Church has a responsibility to speak the truth in love.

That sounds like Christianity is an IBM-like institution which supplies the workings that make a society run smoothly. Not sure what the truth is except for something deep.

But that kind of bland identification of Truth with Roman Catholicism, especially with the institutional church instead of with what the Word of God teaches, runs the danger of setting the church above the truth. Rod Dreher relayed the remarks of one of his friends about the dangers of so exalting an institution:

‘Institutionalism’ affects both traditional and progressive Catholics in equal measure. It is one might say – to borrow and misuse a term – the “structural sin” of Catholicism, living in its very bones, in seminaries, parish structures, canon law, etc. Institutionalism can be summarized as something like: ‘the excessive trust in institutional structures – including a complacent belief that the institution takes care of itself, an expectation that those vested with institutional authority can and will exercise sound if not perfect judgment, and finally, and most importantly, the conviction that all problems are institutional ones to be solved by ever-more refined rule-amending, making, or keeping’.

The most obvious manner in which institutionalism manifests itself is in attitudes toward the papacy and ‘creeping infallibility’ (in which the pope is assumed to be infallible even in his ordinary teaching). However, one can also see it among progressive Catholics and their attitude toward Vatican II as well as their oft- vocalized belief that we need a Vatican III to ‘address contemporary problems’ or that this or that rule needs to change. It is this obsession about the institution that makes mincemeat of both the tradition of faith (we need to adapt to the contemporary worldview or else no one will go to church anymore!), cover up evil (we cannot let anyone know about this or else no one will come to church anymore!), or place sole responsibility on Church institutions for failure (if it weren’t for those progressives at Vatican II, everyone would still be coming to church!).

When you look for defenses of or references to truth in the Shorter or Heidelberg catechisms, you don’t find much. The Shorter Catechism refers to truth as one of God’s attributes and defends telling the truth — ahem — in its explanation of the ninth commandment. Heidelberg goes a little farther in equating truth with the gospel:

Question 21. What is true faith?
Answer: True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits. . . .

Question 40. Why was it necessary for Christ to humble himself even “unto death”?
Answer: Because with respect to the justice and truth of God, satisfaction for our sins could be made no otherwise, than by the death of the Son of God.

That may explain why some Protestants don’t convert, because the truth about salvation is more important than the truth abstracted:

. . . when my friend asked how I could remain theologically conservative in spite of my great learning (not as great as he gave me credit for, by the way), I replied somewhat glibly,”I kept reading the Bible and it kept talking about me.” Although I certainly simplified the matter, the truth was that as I read more, learned more, and thought more, the evangelical understanding of the biblical narrative of creation–fall–judgment–redemption impressed itself upon me, continuing to recount the story of my own life while making sense of the world in a way that nothing else that I studied did. I knew that my own life was peppered by self-deception and sin and needed the grace of God offered in Christ. Further, I saw a world populated with human beings who regularly and vigorously sinned against one another. They too needed the grace of God offered in Christ. Finally, as my more progressive colleagues helped me to discern, there were (and are) sinful structures of oppression the permeated the world. Those caught in them–as either oppressed or oppressor–need the grace of God offered in Christ, while the structures themselves need the perfect king to come in righteous judgment and tear them down. In the end, all other explanations regarding the troubles of this world seemed insufficient, while all other solutions regarding how to address them seemed utterly inadequate. And thus I remained (and remain) evangelical.

A Church I Could Believe In

What if popes sounded like this?

The Catholic Church then is, and always will be, violent and intransigent when the rights of God are in question. She will be absolutely ruthless, for example, towards heresy, for heresy affects not personal matters on which Charity may yield, but a Divine right on which there must be no yielding. Yet, simultaneously, she will be infinitely kind towards the heretic, since a thousand human motives and circumstances may come in and modify his responsibility. At a word of repentance she will readmit his person into her treasury of souls, but not his heresy into her treasury of wisdom; she will strike his name eagerly and freely from her black list of the rebellious, but not his book from the pages of her Index.

Was Leo XIII as jealous of God’s rights when it came to the Word of God?

The Church aims, not at making a show, but at doing a work. She regards this world, and all that is in it, as a mere shadow, as dust and ashes, compared with the value of one single soul. She holds that, unless she can, in her own way, do good to souls, it is no use her doing anything; she holds that it were better for sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions who are upon it to die of starvation in extremest agony, so far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, though it harmed no one, or steal one poor farthing without excuse. She considers the action of this world and the action of the soul simply incommensurate, viewed in their respective spheres; she would rather save the soul of one single wild bandit of Calabria, or whining beggar of Palermo, than draw a hundred lines of railroad through the length and breadth of Italy, or carry out a sanitary reform, in its fullest details, in every city of Sicily, except so far as these great national works tended to some spiritual good beyond them.

That doesn’t sound like a Social Gospel. But it does sound like a view of sin that would drive you to confession — forget weekly or, ahem, weakly — but daily. Sort of like what Luther experienced when he considered his sins and how to atone for them.

But from most of the “converts” I read, my soul is not in peril by remaining outside the Roman Catholic Church. If I “convert,” I get an upgrade. But I’m not apparently in danger of going to hell.

Forensic Friday: Warfield on Justification

Sometimes we are told that Justification by Faith is “out of date.” That would be a pity, if it were true. What it would mean would be that the way of salvation was closed and “no thoroughfare” nailed up over the barriers. There is not justification for sinful men except by faith. The works of a sinful man will, of course, be as sinful as he is, and nothing but condemnation can be built on them. Where can he get works upon which he can found his hope of justification, except from Another? His hope of Justification, remember – that is, of being pronounced righteous by God. Can God pronounce him righteous except on the ground of works that are righteous? Where can a sinful man get works that are righteous? Surely, not from himself; for, is he not a sinner, and all his works as sinful as he can offer to God as righteous. And where will he find such works except in Christ? Or how will he make them his own except by faith in Christ?

Justification by Faith, we see, is not to be set in contradiction to justification by Works. It is set in contradiction only to justification by our Own Works. It is justification by Christ’s Works. The whole question, accordingly, is whether we can hope to be received into God’s favor on the ground of what we do ourselves, or only on the ground of what Christ does for us. If we expect to be received on th e ground of what we do ourselves – that is what is called Justification by Works. If on the ground of what Christ has done for us – that is what is mean by Justification by Faith. Justification by Faith means, that is to say, that we look to Christ and to him alone for salvation, and come to God pleading Christ’s death and righteousness as the ground of our hope to be received into his favor. If Justification by Faith is out of date, that means, then, that salvation by Christ is out of date. There is nothing, in that case, left to us but that each man must just do the best he can do to save himself.

Justification by Faith does not mean, then, salvation by believing things instead of by doing right. It means pleading the merits of Christ before the throne of grace instead of our own merits. It may be doing right to believe things, and doing right is certainly right. The trouble with pleading our own merits before God is not that merits of our own would not be acceptable to God. The trouble is that we haven’t any merits of our own to plead before God. Adam, before his fall, had merits of his own, and because he had merits of his own he was, in his own person acceptable to God. He didn’t need Another to stand between him and God, whose merits he could plead. And, therefore, there was no talk of his being Justified by Faith. But we are not like Adam before the fall; we are sinners and have no merits of our own. It we are to be justified at all, it must be on the ground of the merits of Another, whose merits can be made ours by faith. And that is the reason why God sent his Only Begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish but have everlasting life. If we do not believe in him, obviously we must perish. But if we believe in him, we shall not perish but have everlasting life. That is just Justification by Faith. Justification by Faith is nothing other than obtaining everlasting life by believing in Christ. If Justification by Faith is out of date, then salvation through Christ is out of date. And as there is none other name under heaven, given among men, wherein we must be saved, if salvation through Christ is out of date then is salvation itself out of date. Surely, in a world of sinful men, needing salvation, this would b a great pity. (“Justification by Faith, Out of Date,” Selected Shorter Writings, I, pp. 281-282)

What is interesting to notice, at least for this forensically obsessive compulsive oldlifer, is the way Warfield identifies salvation with justification as in: “If Justification by Faith is out of date, that means, then, that salvation by Christ is out of date. There is nothing, in that case, left to us but that each man must just do the best he can do to save himself.”

Warfield may be in error, and may need correction by the likes of — insert the name of your favorite union theologian here. But he does exemplify the way some of us old timers have regarded the centrality of justification to the Reformed faith. It also accounts for why some become a tad concerned to hear that without union in the picture to supplement justification we have an impoverished understanding of salvation. Warfield explains well that justification is at the heart of the gospel.