Previous article in this series: April 1, 2019, p. 298.
How could some Evangelicals imagine Rome as their church home someday (or wish to cozy up to Rome)? Because they have given up most of what made them Evangelicals in the first place; and because Rome dissembles. That is, Evangelicals have actually changed, and Rome pretends to have changed. Evangelicals (gospel-oriented Protestants) have gradually given up their Reformation church polity, their Reformation worship, and their Reformation doctrines. And the false church of Rome gussies up as the “strange woman” of Proverbs 7, “flattereth with her words,” and with subtle heart and much fair speech causes young Evangelicalism to yield. With flattering lips she forces him.
The deepest common bond
In one area especially, Rome and Evangelicals agree and have agreed for a long time. Because of this, nothing will stand in their way of reconciling. In this area both have changed, so neither needs to try to fool the other. All that is needed is the unspoken agreement to ignore the stubborn reality that in their past neither of them thought that social issues take priority over gospel truth. But now they do. Only they do not call it the “social gospel” anymore, because the emphasis by liberal Protestantism on “social gospel” was one main reason Evangelicalism separated from liberal Protestantism 100 years ago. At that time, Protestantism had become more concerned with social change and improving the physical conditions of man than with spiritual change and the condition of man’s heart. Evangelicalism’s strength was her desire to return emphasis to church and gospel and grace and missions and Scripture’s infallibility. Gradually, though, Evangelicalism herself has become enamored of social concerns. But instead of calling it the ‘social gospel,’ it is rebranded as ‘redeeming culture’ and ‘world-transformation.’ And instead of calling it ‘social concern,’ it is ‘advancing God’s kingdom,’ with ‘kingdom’ redefined as ‘the world Christianized by the church.’
Evangelical Protestants, in even the most conservative Reformed churches, have bought into this vision.
This social vision is the main bond between Evangelicals and Catholics. What binds them is not pulpit and worship with the crucified Christ at the center, or the gospel of salvation from sin and redemption, but world transformation. For all their talk about justification, Scripture, holiness, and the Virgin Mary, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT) seeks agreement on these things so that they can be on to their deeper purpose—establishing God’s kingdom. In doing so, ECT preachers do not direct the hope of God’s people to Christ’s second coming to raise the dead and establish His heavenly kingdom (unless, of course, Christ’s ‘coming’ is not His bodily coming and the raising of the dead is not the physical resurrection, and unless the new creation is defined as ‘this world Christianized’). ECT focuses on this world renewed in a righteousness that is not Christ’s imputed righteousness to guilty sinners, but a ‘righteousness’ in which all men—Christian and non-Christian—can engage.
“Ecumenism of the trenches”
When Evangelicals and Roman Catholics talk, their discussions are aimed at culture and politics, that is, civil righteousness: the civil good of alleviating poverty, advancing world peace, and witnessing to the sanctity of life and marriage. Because they found each other in the ‘trenches’ of the culture wars, their united labor is referred to as the “ecumenism of the trenches.” Another expression to describe their united efforts is “co-belligerency,” that is, they are cooperating in their belligerence toward a common enemy. In the book celebrating ECT’s 20th anniversary, their work is described so: “Such solidarity in opposition to the forces of unbelief is aptly called co-belligerency.”
The trenches filled with the most warriors were dug in the battle against abortion. Most of the impetus to unite Evangelical and Roman Catholic forces came through the pro-life movement.
The editors of the ECT anniversary book are open about their primary concerns: “We are concerned with moral and cultural foundations of American public life.” Their burden is “the long-term health of the American republic…” to “reverse the deterioration in our public life…” and to have “an educational system that inculcates virtues necessary for democratic self-governance to succeed.” “We need to be fully engaged in the complex social, cultural, and political questions that the nation faces.”
The prominence of social and political matters on their agenda explains why ministers in these churches sometimes focus on politics in their sermons. Sometimes they even leave sermon-making and preaching for others to do, in order that they can enter politics where they can have a louder voice and greater influence in areas that are most important to them. I saw this firsthand when a few years ago I bought a used car from a Reformed minister who was leaving the ministry in order to run for political office.
This primary interest in politics and social concerns also explains why doctrinal differences must be eliminated or minimized, and Christians who press the importance of them must be swatted away like pesky flies.
Turn these stones into bread
By adopting this mentality, the churches are succumbing to the first temptation Jesus faced, the temptation which is first in a principle way. This temptation to turn the desert’s stones into bread would have been the quick end of Jesus’ ministry; the devil was swinging for a homerun on the first pitch. “Feed the world, Jesus. You have the power to solve the problems of world hunger. And (since “bread” in Scripture stands for all man’s physical needs) all her poverty, war, murder, and division among nations. You can make the world a good place, safe and peaceful for all.” The Tempter wanted Jesus to perform this miracle, not so that He would simply satisfy His own hunger, intense as it must have been, but so that He would gain the world’s following apart from the cross. Turn these stones into bread. Solving the ‘bread question’ became a temptation that Jesus faced repeatedly.
Because Jesus would not feed the world, the Jews crucified Him.
Still today, men are frustrated by the faithful church that steadfastly refuses to attempt to solve the world’s social problems. Frustration turns to anger when that faithful church teaches that Jesus Christ’s fundamental mission was the spiritual salvation of His elect people by a substitutionary sacrifice in which He sustained God’s wrath. So vehement will be their anger, Scripture prophesies (see Rev. 13, for example), that those who refuse to attempt to feed the world and solve her social problems will be squeezed out of the world as Jesus was.
‘Father’ Abraham Kuyper
To a certain degree Abraham Kuyper succumbed to this very temptation to ‘feed the world’ when he proposed union with the Roman Catholics in the Netherlands to fight the culture wars of his day. Abraham Kuyper gave the proposal a theological foundation—the teaching of common grace. The common grace worldview taught that God has a double purpose in the world: to save the church by special grace and redeem creation by common grace. Then, common grace itself enabled even non- Christians to perform the civic good needed to change society and redeem creation. A Christianized culture in the Netherlands was so important to Kuyper that he left the office of the ministry to go into politics.
This connection of Abraham Kuyper to Evangelicals going to Rome is not the logical deduction of a Protestant Reformed magazine editor opposed to the doctrine of common grace. The connection of Kuyper to this effort is ECT’s own. From their documents comes the assertion: By the doctrine of a common grace worldview, Abraham Kuyper believed that he and his Reformed flock “might be enabled once more to take our stand by the side of Romanism in opposition to modern pan- theism.”3 For Evangelicals and Roman Catholics who want to join forces to fight the culture wars, Abraham Kuyper has become their ‘patron saint.’ For the participants of ECT, Abraham Kuyper is champion for his development of the doctrine and worldview of common grace.
If the hinge on which the entire Reformation turned was the doctrine of justification, and the hinge on which Rome turns is free will, reconciliation between Protestants and Rome turns on the hinge of the teaching of common grace. On the basis of this common grace of God to all, all men—not just Roman Catholics and Protestants, but all men, Christians and non-Christians alike—can participate in the joint project of redeeming the creation and transforming it into the ‘kingdom of God.’
And to do that, all nominal Christians are called to unite. But at the expense of doctrinal integrity, the truth of sovereign, particular grace in Jesus Christ. Justification through faith alone and by grace alone is compromised for this union.
“Dear Galatian churches, I have changed my mind.” Signed, apostle Paul
For Protestants to engage in this union would be like the apostle Paul sending a revised epistle to the Galatian Christians:
Dear Galatian Christians,
My sorrow and regret for writing my first letter to you could not be deeper. I have recently reconsidered and now retract my anathemas. When I said that the man would be condemned by God who proposed that circumcision was necessary for salvation, I was carried away with untoward zeal. When I warned in clearest language that you lose the gospel itself when you add only one little work to the works of Jesus Christ for justification, I was sadly under the influence of misguided zealots. It would have been better for me to focus on the dangers in your society, and now I do. Paganism prevails in your area. Nero in Rome is promoting homosexuality and worse. For the sake of God’s kingdom in Asia Minor, let us put aside our differences and join forces against these evils.
But the truth of Galatians unrevised—the unchangeable truth for all Christians—is that to add just one work, just circumcision, to the work of Jesus Christ as ground of salvation, is to lose the gospel itself, is worthy of the anathemas (“let him be accursed”) that Christ pronounced through the apostle Paul. Remember, the Galatians wanted Christ! They professed their love for and allegiance to Him! They would not deny their love for Christ! Yet Scripture says that if the Judaizer’s additions were allowed, those additions turned the gospel into an accursed ‘no-gospel.’
What is written here is not the position of a denomination that wants to be “ecclesiastical isolationists,” as some Evangelicals might call them. And those who believe what is written here may take comfort that today’s Evangelicals would give the same hurtful, untrue label to Paul. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
What of your generations?
We want to be a faithful church, and for that we pray for grace for the generation to come. Let the churches hold fast their doctrinal traditions, rooted in the teaching of justification by faith alone. Let the churches hold fast the tradition of antithetical living in an increasingly wicked world, antagonistic to godliness in powerful ways. And let us pray for humility, a chief fruit of God’s sovereign grace. For a practical denial of grace is no less offensive to God than a doctrinal denial by a competent (or incompetent) theologian, and God’s judgments cannot be any less severe for proud Christians who with pen and pulpit defend the doctrines of grace but deny it in their conduct.
May the Lord be merciful to, and restore to truth and right, those of His who are being deceived by the new social gospel.
For the true gospel of Jesus Christ, may we Christians stand together even if it brings the suffering Jesus Himself endured.
1 Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty: Vital Statements on Contested Topics, eds., Timothy George and Thomas Guarino (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015), 59.
2 xiv, xvii, emphasis added.