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Catholicism and False Advertising

You Can’t Have an Evangelical Without the Gospel

This past week, I stumbled across a misleading and saddening headline relating to one of the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in the United States. The editorial was titled: “Is Rick Santorum Catholic or Evangelical? Yes.” Now, we live in a culture that has little time for history and which, under the influence of postmodern thinkers, does not have much care for the meaning of words. So it’s not surprising to find those that think one can be both Catholic and evangelical; in fact, even among bona fide evangelical Christians there is a disturbing amount of confusion on this important point.

The article actually does a good job explaining why many evangelicals are willing to see Santorum, a devout Catholic, as an example of a “Catholic evangelical.” What makes Santorum seem evangelical? The article says: “What’s really important is that Santorum espouses their values, because in a multi-front culture war, an ‘ecumenism of the trenches’ prevails over Reformation-era disputes about doctrine.”

First, brothers and sisters: beware those who appeal to a so-called “ecumenism of the trenches.” In fact, while evangelicals and Catholics may be (temporarily) fighting the same enemy, our worldviews and faith commitments and values and authorities remain fundamentally incompatible. The evangelical “alliance” with Catholics in the culture wars has far more in common with the alliance between the West and the Soviets in World War II than, say, the enduring alliance between Canada and the United States. And like that World War II alliance, even if we win this culture war, such “ecumenism” is ultimately doomed.

Why the attraction of this alliance? Because, as the article points out, to many evangelicals “shared [social] values” are more important criteria of “evangelical” faith than “doctrine.” So, the fact that both Catholics and evangelicals uphold marriage as being properly between a man and a woman, plus the fact that both bitterly oppose abortion, is blurring the distinction between Catholicism and evangelicalism in the eyes of many.

The article goes on to name three other factors: “‘an evangelical style’… which can be seen in his references to home-schooling his children, his support for teaching creationism in public schools, and his regular testimony about his personal relationship with Jesus.”

Even leaving out the fact that many evangelicals don’t homeschool, it’s a pretty good description of the current state of evangelicalism, I think—a movement that, over the last few decades, has minimized the importance of rightly understanding and teaching the Bible (in other words, doctrine and theology) in favour of other elements of Christian faith. A movement that has forgotten the depth and meaning of its heritage and imitated the world in its obsession with “style.”

Yet if we define “evangelical” by these four criteria (traditional marriage, pro-life, creationism, and personal relationship—again, leaving aside homeschooling) it would (if consistently applied) force Christians to accept many Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, as evangelicals – despite the fact that they believe in a different Jesus altogether! Similarly, many Mormons might claim to fit under this definition, as long as they follow the mainstream LDS church and disavow polygamy. Various quasi-Christian cult groups would probably qualify as well. Conceivably, so could many in the Orthodox churches.

The fact that these factors are so broad that they would leave room for all these groups should be an alarm bell for those who care about the truth. Indeed, they point to the real heart of the problem: they fail to define the term “evangelical” by either its historical usage or its actual, literal meaning.

The root word in the term “evangelical” is evangel, or “Gospel” or “good news.” What does that mean? It can be summed up in five “alones.” The “evangel” or Gospel message, according to the Bible, and as taught by evangelicals, is simple. God gives us an incredible and undeserved gift: while we were sinners, rebelling against him, Christ died for us. We didn’t do anything to earn or deserve it. Grace alone! Christ did it all. He paid the whole price for our salvation, taking all the punishment we deserved. We don’t have to finish it ourselves. Christ alone! And we receive this salvation, not by our own feeble works—as if we could ever be good enough!—but simply by trusting in Christ, who did it all, to be enough to save us. Faith alone! All this is according to God’s own words, as found in the Bible—our final and ultimate authority is Scripture alone! So who gets the credit and the glory? God alone. This is the “evangel” that gives the term “evangelical” its meaning.

See, as important as traditional marriage, the life of the unborn, and the doctrine of creation are, they are not the Gospel.

The Catholic church, by contrast, denies all five of those “alones.” It teaches a different “evangel,” a different way of salvation. Salvation is not the work of Christ alone; the church and its priests, through its sacraments, offer Christ repeatedly in the Mass (Calvary was not sufficient) and demand the addition of the merit and good works of men to qualify the sinner for salvation. It is not received by faith alone; all the sacraments of the Catholic church need to be observed and added to faith, and the cleansing of purgatory even then remains necessary for most. It is not by grace (that is, God’s free and undeserved gift) alone, because the sinner must make himself worthy by accessing the sacraments and accumulating merit. As the Roman Mass in its traditional form, the doctrine of transubstantiation, the priesthood, the “treasury of Merit,” the Immaculate Conception and sinlessness of Mary, prayer to the saints, the papacy, and other key elements of Catholic doctrine are not supported by the Bible, the Catholic church asserts “Sacred Tradition” and the teaching authority of the Catholic Magisterium as fellow supports for its “three-legged stool” of authority alongside the Bible. Consequently, the institution of the church and the office of the priest, as well as the efforts of the sinner, share the “glory” and credit for salvation alongside God’s own work.

Again: the Catholic church teaches an entirely different gospel than do evangelicals. To say otherwise is “false advertising.” If their “evangel” is different, it is impossible in any meaningful sense to call Catholics “evangelical,” regardless of their (commendable) social work. They may be nice people; many of them do great work. But they follow a false Gospel. Their faith opposes what evangelicals believe the “evangel” is.

We in the evangelical church really need to take stock of what we believe. Is this Good News we believed for our salvation really important? If so, if it is as vital as the Bible teaches and our fathers believed, we dare not empty it of its meaning by applying the title “evangelical” to those whose tradition is actively working to destroy it. No matter how bitterly they oppose the evils of abortion, or fight for traditional marriage, or display a committed family life. The Gospel is even more vital, and without it, even those good things have no lasting value.