Zrim, one of my faithful commenters, has expressed a concern about a couple of my references to Roman Catholics. Those posts appear to imply that I don’t consider Roman Catholics to be fellow believers. I’d like to address that question and add some nuances to my position lest my brief earlier remarks give the wrong impression.

First of all, I do believe that official Roman Catholic doctrine is fatally flawed. In teaching that Mary is “co-redemptrix” with Christ the Roman Catholic church has denied something basic and essential about our redemption, however much they try to finesse what they’re saying. And in actively denying the doctrine of justification by faith alone, that church has, officially and on paper at least, denied the Gospel.

But not all Catholic priests preach these false doctrines. And when they do, not all Catholic laity heed them. Further, I want to say that it is possible to preach false doctrine confusedly and inconsistently. I am certain that I do so because I am fallible. So having articulated a false doctrine at one point or at several does not damn one to the consequences of that false doctrine. We are, after all, not justified by the purity of our articulation of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. We are, simply, justified by faith alone, our at times confused articulations of that doctrine notwithstanding.

If you look at the Roman Catholic liturgy, I think you will find that it contains the substance of the Gospel (though it may contain other things as well). The humble parishioner who hears that liturgy in faith can surely be saved by what he hears or, to be more precise, by Christ to whom the liturgy points. (And I’m not so sure I’d be this generous in assessing the worship at churches that believe in America as a “Christian nation.”)

But let’s bring this closer to home so we can gain some perspective. I find in Reformed literature statements that seem to deny the Gospel, sometimes with less subtlety than the Catholic catechism or the Council of Trent. Consider, for example this articulation of salvation by grace from Doug Jones: “Abraham was obligated to obey the Lord faithfully ‘by doing righteousness and justice,’ thus meeting the gracious conditions of God’s covenant.” Wow. How do we enter into and remain under God’s grace? By faithful obedience in doing righteousness and justice. This statement is clearly contrary to the Gospel, a perverse denial of Paul’s statements in Romans 4 and Galatians 3.

Yet this statement comes from someone who self-identifies as Reformed, who formally affirms the doctrine of justification by faith alone. And it comes in a book that states its mission with the following title: Back to Basics: Rediscovering the Richness of the Reformed Faith. (The book, by the way, makes no mention of either sola fide or sola scriptura.) And if you look at the comments on this book at Amazon.com, people are persuaded that this volume is the real deal.

Or consider this statement on sanctification by popular reformed author Jay Adams: “You will become that much more like God only because of what you have done and thought and said each day” (Godliness through Discipline). As a friend commented when I read this to him, “That lacks the subtlety of the Roman Catholic position.”

What shall we make of such statements, of the people who make them, and of those who approve? The statements are clearly contrary to the Gospel. Shall we say the authors are outside the faith? I would want more evidence. Shall we say that the authors and those who approve these statements have, at least in part, misunderstood the faith at a basic level? Yes, I think so.

What should be our attitude toward people in congregations where such errors are taught? Well, I think we ought to try to bring them to a better understanding of the Gospel. As they hear it, I think some of them, God willing, will come to understand the Gospel for the first time. They will confess that, though they had previously self-identified as Christians, they had not until now been born again.

Others will confess that, though they had been born again years previously (or had grown up believing), they had hitherto had a poor and clouded understanding of the Gospel.

Many will choose to leave the churches where these false doctrines are taught. Some will stay, hoping to effect reform from within.

My thoughts on this sort of thing remain the same when talking about the Roman Catholic church. I can’t agree not to evangelize Catholics as those who signed the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document did. In the same way, I can’t agree not to evangelize Reformed Christians in error-filled congregations, even if those congregations are in my own or a sister denomination. (One purpose of this blog would, in fact, be to pursue just that sort of evangelism among the Reformed.)

I take if for granted that many (but not all) Roman Catholics are unconverted and that, when converted, many will choose to leave that church. And I believe the great majority of Roman Catholics–even those who are genuinely converted–are poorly instructed in the faith. If someone “explains the way of God more accurately” to them, I think many (but not all) will choose to leave.

That’s my basic position. Whether it will decrease or add to the furls in Zrim’s brow, I don’t know. But I think this statement reduces the potential for misunderstanding occasioned by my earlier posts.