Are Protestants Together?

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.

4 thoughts on “Are Protestants Together?

  1. As a person who started at Protestantism and a 4 year Bible degree, took a hard look at Catholicism, and then found a historically, theologically, ecclesiologically, and spiritually satisfying home in Eastern Orthodoxy, I’d recommend getting their take on things 🙂 God bless you on your search for knowing Him and being like Him!

    1. Hello! I only just was reminded of this from your recent email about your book! From a Protestant perspective, Catholicism and Orthodoxy are similar. Now looking back, Catholicism and Protestantism seem similar. Orthodoxy had all the heart issue that I valued in the non-denominational circles I used to roam, but it also had the unity of Catholicism, yet it did so without requiring a head, nor putting any higher doctrinal authority on any particular person. The Church, meaning the whole body of believers together, is the authority. Not individual interpretations, not a Pope or counsel, not even a group of believers at one time, but at all time. Having skeptically read many writers like Ignatius, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Maximus the Confessor, Anthony the Great, and others, the consistency puts Protestantism to shame. Even Catholicism is far removed from most of the first thousand years of Christianity, but the Orthodox teachings can easily be found in these writers. My love for C S Lewis also found its home here, as he got much of his theology from the early Church writers, and Til We Have Faces is an excellent myth about Theosis.

      Even more so, though, is that Orthodoxy and Catholicism only look similar in appearance. The heart of the practices are so widely removed. At the heart of Orthodoxy is the sovereignty that can be leaned on, that calls man to remove from his mind the idea that God needs him for anything, including evangelism. It is much more about being a different kind of person entirely, but also entirely by the Holy Spirit. In the West, rationalism came in and started attempting to explain all the mysteries, until the cross itself became a legal transaction, and so did suffering. The Reformers rightly saw this as problematic, but they instead argued over differing legal explanations. However, in early Church writers one will not find these legal explanations, but purely relational, mysterious, and humble explanations of a father who forgives all, even the devil, but also knows that the issue is not forgiveness, but that our hearts would self destruct, in a way, if they encountered pure love without being pure love. That is the Orthodox definition of salvation, of theosis, and what C S Lewis meant by having a “face.”

      And nobody could explain suffering to me, either. I didn’t think God was unjust like most who offer the “problem of evil.” I knew God wasn’t in the wrong. But I still wondered why He did it. If I had accepted Him, why couldn’t I just die and go to heaven? Why did I have to keep living, being hurt, hurting others, for no reason? Why were some people suffering as human vegetables for their lives? The “best” I heard was that it was so I could help other hurting people, but that just makes a cruel infinite regress, because then I ask why they are hurting? But when I practiced the practices of Orthodoxy, not for some sort of Catholic merit, for spiritual self-understanding, I came to understand not just as rules but experientially what scripture meant by the “Flesh.” I could feel the voice in the Orthodox fasts (which were about eating minimal portions, not eating nothing) that was the same voice in many other sins, telling me to gratify myself. I’m skinny so no Protestant ever called me out on my incredible gluttony. But I started to see in it all the gift of suffering, that it actually could be experienced (not just taught as some doctrine to debate) as directly crucifying the flesh, assuming one offered it to God. It changed everything for me when I could feel how glorious, though still painful, taking up one’s cross was. I could actually be shown by Christ how to love.

      Anyways, I can go on and on, haha, but that’s some of the stuff that first popped into my head in response. The shared rationalism of Protestantism and Catholicism, and the idea of penal substitution, are incredibly problematic to the Orthodox. I grew up debating and trying to “evangelize” people with apologetics, and arguing with people at my bible college about Calvinism, Arminianism, the many millennialisms, and more. What I realized swayed people was rarely along those lines, but actually being a person who was different, who had so submitted and humbled oneself as a slave to Christ, submitting even the ego (which most Christian circles I had been around were excellent at hiding, including me), and shining to those around them a peace that surpasses understanding.

      I hope that offers a little insight. I’m glad to hear you are writing about people leaving the Church, as it’s a problem that pervades Orthodoxy, too, especially those with emphasis on Orthodoxy because it’s part of their culture. I think one piece of the puzzle is that people need to feel as though their faith is their own. A blessing for us converts to Orthodoxy is we know we have gone on a journey to it, while children forced to participate with a doubt-fearing parent usually push their children away, because there is no real heart to the faith, only empty commands 🙁

  2. Each of these are what the scriptures describe as a sect. Protestantism and Catholicism are both the result of a sectarian spirit that penetrated the body of Christ, and created an uprising against the truth that was delivered by revelation to the Apostle to the nations. That sectarian spirit had already made its appearance in Paul’s day:

    “Have a pattern of sound words, which you hear from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. The ideal thing committed to you, guard through the holy spirit which is making its home in in us. Of this you are aware, that all those in the province of Asia were turned from me, of whom are Phygellus and Hermogenes.” (2Ti 1:13-15)

    Paul’s work to establish the many ecclesias throughout Asia had been subverted by the Judeaizers before he even reached the end of his life, subverting his ministry and bringing the body of Christ back under the evangel of the Kingdom :

    “I am marveling that thus, swiftly, you are transferred from that which calls you in the grace of Christ, into a different evangel, which is not another, except it be that some who are disturbing you want also to distort the evangel of Christ. But if ever we also, or a messenger out of heaven, should be bringing an evangel to you beside that which we bring to you, let him be anathema!
    As we have declared before and at present I am saying again, if anyone is bringing you an evangel beside that which you accepted, let him be anathema!” Ga 1:6-9

    The parallels between Judaism and Catholicism are many, and that spirit which Paul denounced and exposed in his Galatians letter is reflected in all the sects we have today, Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, or any other. They have all departed from the truth of God as revealed to Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.

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