Some time ago, I read the short book Are We Together? A Protestant Analyzes Catholicism written by the late Reformed preacher R.C. Sproul. It was a good read; I thought that Sproul treated this controversy with a degree of fairness and accuracy that was not present in other books that I have read on this subject. He basically laid the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Westminster Confession side-by-side as he worked through the major differences. Sure, there were some snarky comments here and there but I overlooked these since it was clear that the book was being targeted mostly at people who already agreed with him.
By the time I was finished with the book, however, another question loomed large in my mind. Clearly, a great gulf exists between Catholics and Protestants. Anyone who knows history shouldn’t need much convincing of this. But there is an even more important question that cannot be ignored. Forget about unity among Protestants and Catholics. I think that the Lord will come back before that happens. What about Protestants? Are they together? Are they unified on the important issues? Do Protestants really have a leg to stand on when confronting Catholics?
While this post is really not about the Catholic Faith, the lack of unity within the Protestant world can be demonstrated by examining the way in which various Protestant groups react to Catholicism.
For example, I have noticed that when Nazarenes or Wesleyans or the like discuss theology with Catholics, they hone in on Mary, the Pope, and Purgatory. When Calvinists interact with Catholics however, they often skip over the “popery” and “idol worship” and dive straight into “justification by faith alone.” This is because Calvinists, unlike Nazarenes and a number of other denominations, do not believe that one can choose to walk away from the faith. If you are “called”, then congratulations, you are in “for good”! What bothers the Calvinists that I know most about the Catholic Faith is the idea that a person whom is walking with the Lord could choose to walk in the other direction and lose his salvation.
“But wait just a minute!” I ask my Calvinist friends. “Aren’t there a large number of Protestant Churches which also believe that you can lose your salvation if you continue to sin? How is what the Catholics teach different from what a Holiness church teaches about the importance of obedience unto salvation?”
“Well yes,” they acknowledge. “A few churches here and there may teach that you can lose your salvation but they are wrong too! We are justified by faith alone so we can never lose our justification. Christ’s righteousness was imputed to us and that is the basis of our salvation. We can never lose that”.
“So what about someone who believes that salvation can be lost? Can a person with such beliefs still go to heaven?”
“Well of course! Just because they’re wrong doesn’t mean they’re going to hell”.
“But you told me earlier that Catholics aren’t saved–”
“Well Catholics are different! They believe in works-salvation. This is not the same as what our Holiness friends believe. Our Holiness friends preach justification by faith alone just like we do!”
Really? You could have fooled me. I grew up in a Holiness church. We were taught that even after the initial salvation experience, one had to live a holy life in order to “maintain” his salvation. There wasn’t much talk about Sola Fide. This sounds very similar to what the Catholic Church teaches.
Ironically, although most do not realize it, the issue of justification by faith alone is a huge dividing line even among Protestants. After many hours of dialogue with a Calvinist recently, he was forced to admit that any church which teaches that you can lose your salvation does not really adhere to the doctrine of Sola Fide. This is true. If you believe that your salvation hinges solely on the basis of faith (which has been given to you through God’s grace) how can you then also believe that sin could ever separate you from God? Ironically, Calvinists (and other churches that teach Perseverance of the Saints) and Catholics are the most consistent on this issue, albeit on opposite sides. Calvinists proclaim Sola Fide and preach that one cannot lose his salvation while Catholics reject Sola Fide and teach that a person can choose to walk away from God. Every other position in between these two makes little sense if one is trying to remain intellectually honest.
What troubles me most about this are the Calvinists who walk around condemning Catholics to hell while at the same time giving many of their Protestant brothers a pass for believing almost the same thing as Catholics. Calvinists may be theologically consistent about their beliefs on Sola Fide but they are most certainly inconsistent on how they treat those who disagree with them. Apparently, as long as you call yourself Protestant and profess Sola Fide with your lips, you are still a “brother” even if you are dead wrong. How’s that for unity?
But I don’t want to just pick on Calvinists. That would be unfair. There are plenty of other examples to choose from which clearly demonstrate a lack of unity within the Protestant Faith.
What about Communion? Some Protestant churches believe in the Real Presence while others treat the bread and the wine as mere symbols. Or what about baptism? Is it necessary for salvation? The Church of Christ certainly seems to think so. But not the non-denominational church across the street from my house. And what about infant baptism? The Methodist Church performs these as do some Reformed Churches but most of evangelical America thoroughly rejects this practice as unbiblical. And then there are other issues such as whether a Christian should drink or which version of the Bible to use (see my post on KJV Onlyism) or whether the earth was created in six literal days or six million long years.
“Those aren’t salvation issues!”, they protest at me. “At least none of us worship Mary or confess our dirtiest secrets to a Priest”.
Really? So whether or not you can lose your salvation is not a salvation issue? That just seems silly. And infant baptism isn’t a big deal all the sudden? Or whether Christ is truly present in the bread and the wine? This line of thinking boggles my mind. These are huge issues. How do we know? Because we can look around the Protestant world and see how these issues divide and conquer people. This is why there are so many sects of Protestantism. There is a flavor for every belief. And even then, many people that I know still have a hard time finding a church that fits them.
What a mess.
A better title for R.C. Sproul’s book might have been Are We Together? A Calvinist Analyzes Catholicism. Or better yet Are We Together? R.C. Sproul Analyzes Catholicism. Because at the risk of making some real enemies, allow me to say that I am not convinced that R.C. Sproul spoke for most Protestants or even for the majority of Calvinists.
I just don’t see much evidence of unity anywhere in the Protestant world.
But perhaps you do.
Let me know what you think below. As always, I am opening to dissenting opinions. Just keep it civil.