As one who was born and raised a Protestant and became a Southern Baptist minister before entering the Roman Catholic Church, I am perplexed by the evangelical Protestant charge that Catholics misunderstand salvation.
As one who was born and raised a Protestant and became a Southern Baptist minister before entering the Roman Catholic Church, I am perplexed by the evangelical Protestant charge that Catholics misunderstand salvation. The constant teaching of the Catholic Church throughout the ages has been that salvation is bestowed alone by Gods grace. This was not the singular discovery of the Reformation.
As Louis Bouyer has shown definitively in The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, all three of the Reformation theses the authority of Scripture, the necessity of faith, and our justification in Christ were alive and well in the Catholic tradition long before they were singled out and thematized by the Reformers.
I discovered, as have many other converts from Protestantism, that there is no need to give up, or even minimize, the Gospel teaching on these matters. Rather, Catholic teaching reveals the richest and most profound meaning of the very principles evangelicals strive to defend. In this sense, they are our Christian brethren, and we speak to them in this spirit.
There probably is a tendency in popular piety to mistake the sacramental act of penance for some sort of spiritual merit. No doubt it is due to our fallen human nature that we take credit for the gifts we receive. Those Protestants who have dealt with tongue-speaking charismatics know how easily pride can be generated by spiritual gifts.
While Catholics believe it is Christs death and resurrection that puts the believer in a new relationship with God, this is not the whole story of Christian salvation. What some evangelicals consider salvation by works is merely an expression of Catholic belief in spiritual rebirth and regeneration, the on-going blessing of grace in a persons growth toward God. What Catholics properly understand as an effect or fruit of salvation some evangelicals unfortunately interpret as its cause.
These evangelicals also object to the role, the sacramental role, played by parish and priest in the drama of salvation. They argue that Jesus Christ needs no other mediator than himself, that the believer has been provided direct access to his saving love. This, I think, is the more important, more substantive difference between evangelical and Catholic than the issue of faith alone. We can agree with evangelicals that faith in Jesus Christ saves us from our sin but it is much harder to agree on the form, sacramental or otherwise, of that acceptance.
Catholics are rightly confused by the evangelical insistence that Jesus Christ is something other than his Church, his priests, and his sacraments. Isnt this exactly how Christ is concretely present to us? a Catholic would ask in reply. The Church as Christs Body, the priest as Christs representative, the sacraments as visible signs of Christs grace are all inextricably connected in the Catholic mind.
The power of the evangelical Protestant movement is seen in its emphasis on an encounter with Gods word as preached and encountered in the Bible. Catholics in America still have much to learn from this tradition of continually revitalized worship. Some evangelicals claim that their brand of Christianity to be more genuine, more akin to the early Church of the New Testament. They claim to practice a more immediate spirituality, a Christian faith shorn of its unnecessary accoutrements.
Yet evangelical Christians, if they are honest with themselves, are not without a form of religious faith and practice. They exude tremendous confidence in the mediation of the Protestant pastor, the sermon, their worship, and the study of Scripture.
Christ, we can agree, established these means for our conversion. But it is also true that he gave us more the sacramental reality and priesthood of the Catholic Church. Thus, Protestants continue to find a home in the Catholic Church not because Catholics are Christian and Protestants are not, but because of the fullness of Gods revelation which they find there.
Hudson, Deal W. Grace Alone. Crisis 13, no. 9 (October, 1995).
Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.
Deal W. Hudson is the director of the Morley Institute for Church & Culture, and is the former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine, a Catholic monthly published in Washington, DC. He is the author of seven books: Onward Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States; Understanding Maritain: Philosopher and Friend; The Future of Thomism; Sigrid Undset On Saints and Sinners; Happiness and the Limits of Satisfaction and his autobiography, An American Conversion.Copyright © 1995 Crisis
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