A group of Evangelicals and Roman Catholic theologians have agreed that "justification is not earned by any good works or merits of our own; it is entirely God's gift." Their six page document, The Gift of Salvation (GOS), attempts to reconcile their fundamentally different views about the meaning of salvation that began at the Reformation. The new document of compromise marked the first time Evangelicals and Catholics "have publicly agreed to a common understanding of salvation," according to Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic signer, who also coauthored the Evangelicals and Catholics Together Accord with Chuck Colson. Bill Bright, and J.I. Packer. Colson and 16 other Evangelicals signed The Gift of Salvation along with 15 Roman Catholics.
The language employed by the authors to clarify important theological doctrines appears to be deliberately vague so that terms can be affirmed by both sides. Consider this statement, "We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone." Are the signers telling us the Reformation debate is now over? This is not the first time Catholics have tried to convince Protestants that sola fide (faith alone) has been the essence of Catholic teaching all along, and that the Reformation was just a misunderstanding of Catholicism.
In 1541 at Regensburg, King Charles V invited three Lutheran and three Catholic theologians to search for a compromise to heal the breach in the German church. The six men issued a statement expressing full agreement with the doctrine of sola fide. Their language was also ambiguous so as to allow for opposing views of justification to be harmonized. The Roman Church has always taught that justification is a process that begins at baptism. Through good works and receiving the sacraments Catholics can then merit for themselves and others, "all the graces needed to attain eternal life."2 The Reformers, on the other hand, taught that justification is the immediate imputation of Christ's righteousness through faith alone in Christ alone. It is only by having the alien righteousness of Christ that we can ever be acceptable to God. Luther, who was keenly aware of this, immediately rebuked the Regensburg agreement with these words:
"Popish writers pretend that they have always taught, what we now teach, concerning faith and good works, and that they are unjustly accused of the contrary; thus the wolf puts on the sheep's skin till he gains admission into the fold."1
The creators of the GOS document may want us to believe they are affirming "justification by faith alone." However, they are merely affirming a "misrepresentation" of what the Reformers meant by "justification by faith alone." The Reformers were never so careless as to limit the definition to "the gift of justification is received through faith," as GOS proposes. The Reformers knew that Catholic theologians could affirm language like that and still miss the Gospel. If we choose to be ambiguous on the doctrine of justification, then we end up with a gospel that anyone can embrace, a gospel void of the power of God to save. It is quite strange that leading RC priests and theologians would agree to sola fide, knowing that it brings condemnation upon them from their church. From the 6th Session of the Council of Trent, Canon 9, we read: "If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification...let him be anathema."Thus, in doctrine and practice, Rome denies justification by faith alone.
Another statement from the GOS is disturbing: "We have found that, notwithstanding some persistent and serious differences, we can together bear witness to the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ." For the signers to profess they have "some persistent and serious differences" is an admission to professing different gospels. Paul gave the strongest of warnings to those teaching another gospel: "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed." (Gal 1:8)
Another apparent contradiction with Catholic teaching is the GOS statement: "The restoration of communion with God is absolutely dependent upon Jesus Christ, true God and true man, for he is the one mediator between God and men." (I Timothy 2:5) The Catholic Church nullifies this truth in stating that Mary, the Mediatrix, also mediates salvation. "Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gift of eternal salvation."3
Many questions arise from the GOS statement: "As believers we are sent into the world and commissioned to be bearers of the good news, to serve one another in love, to do good to all, and to evangelize everyone everywhere." Which gospel have they agreed to proclaim? The essential elements of the Gospel are nowhere to be seen in this document. Where do the authors say how one receives the salvation accomplished by Jesus? Rome's gospel directly opposes the Gospel of Christ, yet the authors insist that "Evangelicals must speak the gospel to Catholics and Catholics to Evangelicals."
The Gift of Salvation concludes with: "...we recognize that there are necessarily interrelated questions that require further and urgent exploration. Among such questions are these: the meaning of baptismal regeneration, the Eucharist, sacramental grace...diverse understandings of merit, reward, purgatory, and indulgences; Marian devotion and the assistance of the saints in the life of salvation; and the possibility of salvation for those who have not been evangelized." If the evangelical signers of this document really wish to "urgently" explore these elements which oppose the Biblical Gospel, we wonder what is keeping them from doing so. They are all readily available in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church. Is it more likely they are trying to say something like this? "We must urgently explore language vague enough so that these disagreements can also be affirmed by both sides."
The compromise of the Gospel is made clear with this final statement: We affirm our unity in the gospel that we have here professed." The gospel which they have professed is neither the Gospel of grace nor the gospel of Rome. It is a gospel of ecumenical unity that will only bring a deeper division within the evangelical church.
Quoted in James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification, (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1977).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1994), 2010.