Previous article in this series: March 15, 2019, p. 273.
Evangelical Protestants who can see their way clear to return to Roman Catholicism have let go of Protestantism. Although they identify as Evangelicals—gospel churches—they embrace theology that distances itself from being gospel and come closer to Rome. The ‘protest’ in Protestant first diminished to a whimper, then shifted to an apology for leaving Rome in the first place.
From the other side of the River Tiber (see the last editorial), Rome signals openness to unity talks. One hundred years ago Rome pulled up the drawbridge and closed the gates to conversations with Protestants, afraid such would water down their Catholicism. Now Rome signals readiness to talk because Protestantism is coming her direction. To put it straight up, Rome is ready to talk reconciliation not because she repents of her errors, but because she sees that her former adversaries are repenting of theirs. Welcome home to Rome.
Last time I explained Evangelicalism’s ability to look Rome-ward in her loss of the three marks of the true church. Our Belgic Confession (Art. 29) identifies the marks: Pure preaching of the gospel, proper administration of the sacraments, and right exercise of Christian discipline. It is possible to classify these marks in terms of 1) doctrine, 2) worship, and 3) church government. That is, the true church adheres to and preaches true doctrine; she engages in biblically governed worship (administering sacraments is an essential part of worship); and she exercises biblical church government (Christian discipline is an essential part of church polity). But Evangelicalism’s government is no longer biblical, her worship has become ungoverned, and her doctrine is Arminian or Pelagian like Rome’s.
In the last editorial, I explained Evangelicalism’s loss of the marks of proper worship and right government. Here, I emphasize her loss of truth.
Basic to Evangelicalism’s return to Rome is the overthrow of two key doctrines: justification by faith alone and the bondage of the will. These two doctrines were at the heart of Protestantism’s protest against Rome. But over the last 100 years, most of Protestantism has adopted Rome’s teachings that justification is by faith plus, and that natural man has a free will.
If we in our generations will remain faithful to the Lord, we must first see that Evangelicalism relinquished these two doctrines. Wisdom compels us also to ask how that could have happened. Then, God permitting in His mercy, we may avoid the path that leads back toward Rome.
Justification by faith alone
Reformation teaching of justification is that our approval by God is by the gracious imputation of Christ’s righteousness alone through faith alone. Our righteousness is not at all based on our works but exclusively on the works and worth of Christ.
Rome, however, taught justification by faith and our works. Their entire system of doctrine was built on the error that the righteousness that makes us acceptable to God is given to us partly based on what Christ did and partly based on what we do, even if what we do (Rome says) is by Christ’s work in us. For Rome, our righteousness is partly from Christ’s obedience (imputed righteousness) and partly from our obedience (infused righteousness).
Today, Evangelicalism is overrun with Romish teachings. Man is justified by faith and faithfulness, by faith and faith’s fruits, which are obedience. Or, man is justified now by faith alone but justified in the end by faith and something more.
A sad but striking illustration of this is Bethlehem Baptist’s John Piper. Piper involves himself in Rome’s error when, in a foreword promoting another man’s book on justification, he says, “Be sure you hear this carefully and precisely: He says right with God by faith alone, not attain heaven by faith alone. There are other conditions for attaining heaven, but no others for entering a right relationship to God. In fact, one must already be in a right relationship with God by faith alone in order to meet the other conditions.” According to Piper, faith alone justifies, but other conditions he fulfills gets him to heaven. No works are conditions for justification, but works are conditions for other aspects of salvation, in this case glorification.
Piper writes this in his foreword to Thomas Schreiner’s Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification. This book that Piper promotes contains the same error. But the subtitle of the book is What the Reformers Taught… and Why It Still Matters and is one of a series on ‘The Five Solas’ of the Reformation. That is, the book purports to teach Reformation theology, but in fact is an attack on Reformation theology. It is endorsed by Albert Mohler, Jr. and the whole series is praised by Michael Horton. Is one permitted to wish that these men wrote the endorsements without reading the books? But who would do that? And these are the teachers of those few on the most conservative side of Evangelicalism still interested in reading theology.
The bondage of the will
Second, much of Evangelicalism denies the bondage of natural man’s will and teaches instead free will. Orthodox teaching holds that natural man’s will is in bondage to sin; his will can only will sin. Deliverance from this bondage is only by the regenerating Spirit of Jesus Christ to liberate the will so that it can truly desire good. Only Christians have wills delivered from this slavery; their wills are free (see the Canons of Dordt, III/IV, Arts. 11-16).
The importance of this teaching Luther expresses in his conversation with the heretic Erasmus in the book Luther considered to be his most important, The Bondage of the Will. Luther told Erasmus that the doctrines of purgatory, indulgences, even the papacy, were mere “trifles” compared to his doctrine of free will. “You alone have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot. For this I heartily thank you.” Luther believed free will to be the peculiar teaching of Antichrist by which he seduced the world. Free will is indeed the chief article of the Roman Catholic faith by which Rome undermines all other doctrine.
Evangelicalism betrays Reformed teaching in many ways, but especially two are crucial. First, by denying limited atonement and teaching that Christ died for all. If Evangelicals will claim to be Calvinist, most of them would call themselves four-point Calvinists. The point they cannot accept is limited atonement: Christ died for the elect and the elect alone. Instead they teach Christ’s death for all. Thus, Evangelicalism cannot teach that Christ’s death is the ultimate reason for man’s salvation, since Christ died for all. Man’s own decision for Christ by his own free will is the ultimate reason for his salvation. A bound will cannot choose for Christ.
The other way Evangelicalism denies the bondage of man’s will is by teaching that God wills (wants) to save all men and invites all men to be saved if only they will (want to) be saved. Here too salvation then depends on man’s will—his free will. It does not depend on God’s will, for this theology has God willing that all men be saved. Probably man’s will is assisted by some enabling grace so that he can will to be saved. But this is no different from Rome’s old teachings and ends up in the same place: it is not the enabling grace that explains his decision for Christ, because others who have the same enabling grace do not make the right decision. In the end, salvation is by his own will, his free will.
Understand the importance of this doctrine and you will understand why Dordt was truly the safeguarding of the Reformation, in that Dordt reestablished and clarified the doctrine of man’s natural bondage to sin.
J.I. Packer wrote a fine introduction to one translation of Luther’s The Bondage of the Will. Sadly, this author of sound and influential books has changed and become one of the most prominent Evangelical signers of the ECT (Evangelicals and Catholics Together) statements of faith.
Evangelicalism is changing, actually changing. Most of her members would not admit this, or do not realize this, but they are becoming Rome-like.
Rome’s theological shapeshifting
Rome, on the other hand, does not change. She makes a show of changing, of moving toward Evangelicalism. She is willing to dialogue about theology with Protestantism now. She is willing to say that she repents of old errors. But her repentance is merely of failing to be evangelical (do evangelism), or of being weak in practice, or of lacking zeal. Hers is not a godly sorrow for teaching gross and God-dishonoring errors. She will not admit that the Reformation was God’s necessary instrument to preserve Christianity itself by reformation of doctrine.
Rome ‘shapeshifts.’ In order to lure gullible Evangelicals to “the door of her house” without them knowing that her “end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two- edged sword” (Prov. 5:4, 8), Rome makes herself out to be something other than she actually is.
In ancient mythology, certain creatures were able, by supposed divine abilities or magic, to make themselves appear as some other creature. If you watch only news or sports on television, the advertisements between segments make clear enough that Western culture is obsessed with the possibility of shapeshifting. But Christians must remember the false church can shapeshift. “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness…” (II Cor. 11:13-15, emphasis added). It would not be far off to translate transformed as “shapeshifted.” Such is the ability of the false church.
Evangelicals cannot recognize the shapeshifting
Evangelicals meander toward the false church like the foolish young man to the honeycombed lips of the strange woman. And Evangelical leaders lure them by repeating Rome’s smoother-than-oil lies: “some divisions are the result of confusion, or of historical arguments burdened by the history that shaped them” (no longer applicable), and in these areas “real breakthroughs are possible.” They tell members that “other divisions may be irreconcilable,” but even here “serious theological dialogue [I have come to despise that expression in these contexts, because it is a smokescreen] about them has the capacity to deepen appreciation for both sides.” ECT proclaims to Evangelicals, awed by the grandeur of Rome, “we are not as divided as we may have thought.” Any lingering doubts are dispelled in this way: “Divisions that remain are not enough to keep us and Rome apart because at the top of our mutual agenda, truly, are not those old, divisive doctrinal concerns at all, but the far greater and pressing social problems of the world.”
The note of sarcasm in the previous paragraph—usually unbecoming of Christians—is intended only to call attention to the sarcasm with which the ECT writers speak as they celebrate their 20th anniversary: “It should come therefore as good news to Christians everywhere that two communities in North America, who throughout our history have regarded one another with mistrust—[cue sarcasm] sometimes even competing for the hearts and minds of converts—have sought to repair the wound of disunity.” The sarcasm (literally, to cut flesh) on their part is to lacerate any of you who imagine that in those days long past it might have been proper to seek to convert a Roman Catholic to Protestantism. Imagine!
Their shapeshifting strategy includes other elements:
First, they misapply Scripture to describe their ecumenical efforts. Here is the ECT’s own defense of friendly dialogue between Evangelicals and Catholics:
There is good precedent for fellowship. Christians have been discussing the significance of Jesus Christ since he rose from the dead. ‘That very day’—the day of Jesus’s resurrection—two of his disciples were on a seven mile trek from Jerusalem to Emmaus. While they were walking, they were ‘talking with each other about all these things had happened.’ . . . Two thousand years later, ECT has picked up the discussion about Jesus and his significance for today.
Second, emboldened by how naive some are, they openly lie about the doctrinal stands of historic Roman Catholicism. With feigned surprise, they express disbelief that anyone thinks Rome ever erred on justification. “The most ancient and deepest strains of catholic teaching never intended to affirm justification by works alone.” By works alone? Of course not. Neither does Rome presently. Neither did Rome at the Reformation. But that was never the Reformers’ charge.
Third, using an old tactic, ECT re-names theological differences “differences of expression.” They are merely different ways of expressing the same thing. They use Rome’s Latin expression, translated “diverse but not adverse.” That is, our forms of expression may be different, but they are not opposed. Catholics and Evangelicals believe the same thing; they just say it differently. Historically, that is a lie. Presently, it comes closer and closer to reality.
Finally, ECT borrows a page from the Arminians’ playbook at Dordt. When they came to their fifth doctrinal point, regarding preservation of the saints, the Remonstrants pretended to punt, as it were: “We need more time. We’re not sure about this. Further study will bring us to a good answer for you.” In the same way, ECT concludes on justification: “Discussion is yet needed on whether justification is by imputed righteousness or transformative righteousness, and what it means that the faith that justifies is never alone.” If you believe that, you would do well to remember the Arminians at Dordt.
 Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015, 11.
 This, and much information for this article, are from the pro-ECT book, Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty: Vital Statements on Contested Topics, eds., Timothy George and Thomas Guarino (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015).