The Gospel: Our Foundation of Christian Unity

A genuine unity among Christians is indeed something for which all believers must strive.  Indeed, the Scriptures exhort us to avoid fruitless disputes and unnecessary division (Titus 3:9).  We are to live peaceably with one another as best we can, our mutual love for one another covering a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).  This is the type of unity described in such passages as Ephesians 4:4-6.  As one excellent maxim states: in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.  I’ve articulated this sentiment for years and it’s served to remind me of how love for the brethren ought to supersede second-tier and third-tier issues.

I wholeheartedly believe that this unity transcends secondary issues: disagreements over the mode of baptism, church government, or the use of musical instruments in the worship service.  These issues are indeed important, but Christians need not divide over them.  I’m a Baptist, yet most of my seminary classmates are Presbyterians and this includes all of the faculty.  I can’t tell you the wealth of knowledge which they’ve imparted to me.  When I lived in Woodbridge, one of my annual traditions included attending Good Friday service at a local Anglican church.  I miss that fellowship very much.  If you look on my bookshelf, you’ve find a variety of authors from various denominations–everyone from Dutch Reformed theologians to Lutherans and everyone in between.

Yet the beauty of all this is not found in the unity itself, but in the very source of that unity: the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Without the Gospel, there can be no unity.  This is not overly complicated, for the Gospel itself is very simple: we are saved by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone.  Though simple, this message is incredibly radical and runs directly counter to the thinking of this present evil age.  The world considers the truth of the Gospel to be foolish (1 Cor. 1:18) and subjects it to open ridicule.  Put another way, the overt rejection of the Gospel is a mark of the world and not of the church.

A rejection of the Gospel (or otherwise twisting or distorting it) is a serious heresy which damns the soul.  This is the point of the Apostle Paul when he says in Galatians 1:6-9 that anyone who turns to a different gospel is anathema:

I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.

The Gospel is perhaps the greatest example of an essential doctrine within the Christian faith.  Yet in recent decades it has become common for Evangelicals to overlook the essential importance of the Gospel, mostly for the sake of political efforts.  Since the rise of the “Moral Majority” in the 1980s, Evangelicals have joined forces with Roman Catholics on common-cause issues like abortion, marriage, and religious liberty.  This culminated in 1994 with the singing of a document called Evangelicals & Catholics Together (ECT).  It was supposed to be a joint proclamation of political unity addressing those aforementioned issues, but it went way too far because it stressed a theological unity as well–a unity which does not and cannot exist.

Let me be clear: I have no problem marching alongside people of different religions when it comes to defending the unborn, preserving the family, and standing for the free exercise of religion.  However I make it a point to say that political unity doesn’t equal theological solidarity, for the differences we have with Roman Catholics are not secondary but essential.  Rome teaches another Gospel than what we profess as Protestants.  It’s that simple.  Roman Catholicism rejects the Gospel statement that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone.  Simply put, the gospel of Rome teaches that we are saved by a combination of faith plus works.  They do not believe that God’s grace alone is sufficient to save sinners.

A number of days ago, an article was brought to my attention which expressed the same sentiments of theological unity that was behind the ECT movement.  In full disclosure, I know the author and I firmly believe that she was sincere in what she wrote.  But I don’t think she fully understands or appreciates the fundamental difference between Protestants and Roman Catholics.  Not once in her article did she articulate this essential difference.  Indeed, the question of how we are justified before God was the material cause of the Reformation itself.  It is difficult to fathom calling someone a brother or sister in Christ when that individual emphatically rejects the very Gospel message which brings lost sinners into the family of God in the first place.

I hope I’ve made my point clear in this brief post.  Certainly men in the faith whose beards are much longer than mine have made this point long before I stepped onto the scene, saying these things better than I ever could.  As R.C. Sproul said, “One of the ironies of ECT was that, among other things, the framers wanted to overcome relativism in the culture.  However, they ended up relativizing the most important truth of all–the gospel.”  He goes on to say that things like ECT are fueled by a misunderstanding among Protestants about where Rome really stands today theologically.  In point of fact, Rome never repudiated their doctrine of justification as stated at the Council of Trent.  Vatican Councils I and II kept the Trent definition intact.  Sproul also points out, accurately, that there is far more separating Roman Catholics and Protestants today than there was in the 16th century.

My purpose in posting this was not to cause rancor in the blogosphere, but to convey truth in opposition to error.  I hope that I have responded with charity as much as I have with conviction.  Regarding the Gospel, Rome teaches its view and Protestants teach another–one of them is wrong.  Getting the Gospel wrong is a heresy so serious that it will damn one’s soul for eternity.  As Protestants, we do a great disservice by downplaying or even ignoring this difference.  The most loving thing we can do for our Roman Catholic neighbors is to show them the true Gospel as it is revealed in the Scriptures, over and against the false gospel proclaimed by Rome for centuries.  Christian unity can only exist when it has the Gospel as its foundation.

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6 Responses to The Gospel: Our Foundation of Christian Unity

  1. Andrea says:

    I agree, Josh. We should keep the “main thing” the “main thing.” The problem is that some groups don’t agree on what the “main thing” is! That is why a clear presentation of the gospel is so important, and there should be no wavering on that!

  2. Josh,
    I was directed to your blog here by your linking to my guest post in this piece; my apologies that I’ve found your commentary almost two weeks later.

    I believe my post acknowledged the fact that doctrinal divisions do indeed divide us. I understand full well that you regard Catholic doctrine to be “another gospel,” but that was certainly not the point of my post. In fact, the tagline of the guest post was “Not only can Protestants and Catholics work together, but we can learn from one another too.” Which part of this “thesis statement,” if you will, resembles an attempt to gloss over our theological differences? The post was about social action from start to finish, for goodness sake! It was about people of faith accomplishing common goals in the name of Christ (regardless of how ‘Christian’ one person finds another). I suspect all this was necessary to overlook before you could link me in a blog post and use your “heresy” tag.

    As for your determination that I fail to understand our theological differences, you are of course woefully mistaken. That is a discussion not fit for this quick comment, but I’d be remiss for not defending my intellectual integrity. I understand – and we strongly disagree.

    In Christ,
    Christina C.

    • Christina,

      Thank you for your reply.

      Let me apologize for two things. First, I’m sorry that it took me so long to reply to your comment. I don’t get on here as often as I would hope. I also delayed responding just because of all the emotional stuff happening elsewhere in the media right now. All of us need to be sober-minded before responding to issues like this. Second, I apologize if I have misinterpreted what you said in your article. I did read your article several times before publishing this reply, though I acknowledge that I’m certainly fallible and that I may not have understood your main point aright.

      I do indeed acknowledge that your post talked about social action from start to finish. I also acknowledge that you pointed out the doctrinal differences which separate us. I certainly acknowledge that the point of your post was not the issue of the Gospel, which is exactly why I decided to write a reply.

      The very title of your post had to do with Christian unity and this was indeed the theme of the entire article from what I read. You articulated that Christian unity can exist between Protestants and Roman Catholics on the basis of being partners in social action, coming together on the issues where we have common ground. Was that not the thesis of your post? If that’s the case, then I respectfully–and deeply–disagree. The reason I wrote my response is the firm conviction that genuine Christian unity cannot exist among two different groups of people who preach two fundamentally different gospels.

      Let’s look at a hypothetical example. Going along with the theme of your post, let’s say that you and I were both ministering outside of an abortion mill, talking to a young woman who was going there to do the unthinkable. By the grace of God, she decides not to follow through. That’s great. That’s wonderful. But now what? I don’t believe that I’m there just to persuade pregnant women not to murder their children. The fundamental reason I’m there is to proclaim God’s truth and the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. When it comes to that, you and I wouldn’t be saying the same thing at all. That’s where the partnership ends and that’s the crux of the issue in my response.

      A dear brother in our church experienced this recently when he was attempting to reach people entering an abortion mill in Manassas. There was a Roman Catholic gentleman there preaching something entirely different, of a totally different spirit. There’s a common cause against abortion, sure, but there’s no Christian unity there. I know that the Gospel wasn’t at issue in your post since it wasn’t addressed or even mentioned. That’s very telling. And for the record, I have no problem laboring alongside Roman Catholics on political issues, fighting for religious liberty in the courts, and other common grace areas. Yet that stuff is not Kingdom work. Social action is important, but it’s not the Gospel.

      Something can only be done in the name of Christ when the Gospel which He taught and proclaimed is at the center of it. Having a common cause like abortion does not unite us in Christ. It doesn’t. Believing the Gospel message that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone–that is the basis of Christian unity. And to be frank, that is the very creed which you as a Roman Catholic must vehemently reject. Your own church has declared that people who believe as I do are anathema–and they’ve never repudiated that. I do not believe the things that Rome says I must believe for salvation, so how can you say that I’m a brother in Christ? You can’t.

      I do not consider the Gospel to be a matter of secondary doctrine. I also choose my words carefully, too. When someone says that we can have Christian unity with people who don’t preach the same gospel, then I will indeed call that heresy and I will not apologize for saying it. No, that’s not a popular thing to say and I’ve lost friends because I’ve said it. This is not about who is “more Christian” than the other. It’s about who is really a Christian and who is not. That might make us uncomfortable, but we have to go where the truth leads us.

      I don’t know if/when you’re going to read this, but I wish you and your family a merry Christmas and a blessed new year. I mean that sincerely. Know too that Hollie and I pray for you and your family, that the Holy Spirit will graciously work in your hearts. We care about the direction of your souls. Think of me what you will, but everything I’ve just said is true. I’m not out to get you or to harrass you. That wasn’t the purpose of my post. Thank you for taking the time to consider my words.

  3. HI again Josh,

    Thank you for explaining your post a little more. Of course, I take no issue with you reading an article and providing commentary from your own perspective. I just wish to be as clearly understood as possible.

    In the example in my original guest post, I spoke briefly about a benefit for a pro-life pregnancy clinic. That event actually was about coming together to support the cause of fewer abortions. The primary focus of the evening was fundraising to achieve this very goal (and thanks be to God, it was very successful). In the past, I know that you yourself have donated funds to this event, which I and countless others appreciated very much. In that instance, its safe to say that you were working in solidarity with people of all faiths (some not even of a faith at all!) and helped accomplish the goal of fewer abortions. Indeed, in DeKalb County Illinois, we’ve seen a decrease.

    Of course, another important goal of pro-life ministry is to spread the gospel of Christ. As a Catholic, I have no opposition to the gospel message that is presented to the clients that come through our doors. Given your willingness to help me with fundraising in the past, I can assume that you have no opposition either. You and I could have sat at the same table at this fundraising dinner with common goals. If this was a Catholic ministry (its not), I’m sure you would support the life-saving work but not the gospel work. Fair enough. I honestly wouldn’t blame you if side-by-side ministry outside an abortion clinic is not something you were comfortable with. I think that’s a different scenario than the fundraiser I was describing though.

    (I wanted to touch on the issue of anathema but I may have sent Hollie a message about it on Facebook sometime in the last year. I’ll look at my message history.)

    Anyway, that about sums up my original post. I specifically mentioned social action and not the gospel because I know how some Protestants feel regarding Catholic teaching. After all, Kirra (the owner of the “Thoughtful” blog) is a Protestant herself and so are the bulk of her readers from what I can tell. She asked me to give insight about where our goals can overlap and I think I did exactly that.

    Blessings to you and your family, Josh. I hope you have a wonderful remainder of Advent and Christmas season.

    • Christina,

      Thank you for your follow-up comments. I hope you and yours had a wonderful Advent season and Christmas celebration.

      Just as a point of clarification, I did indeed give money to support the organization you mentioned. The organization was never “marketed” (for lack of a better term) as being a specific denomination. We also give money to Care Net which has the support of everyone from Roman Catholic priests to R.C. Sproul. Frankly, I have no idea to what degree evangelism takes place and by whom. From my standpoint, that was never the primary purpose of those organizations. I always saw them as common grace institutions, not even para-church organizations.

      If I knew that such an organization was exclusively Roman Catholic and evangelizing Rome’s gospel, then I certainly would not give my support to it. And this issue is not going away. This cleavage between Protestants and Roman Catholics will only increase and be more pronounced, especially given the gradual collapse of Evangelicalism and the “mushy middle” many of them tried to buttress. Those individuals who are defecting from Evangelical churches are heading in many directions, but the bulk of them are going either to the Reformed camp or to Roman Catholicism:

      http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/swimming-the-tiber/

      I bring this up simply to make the point that this discussion is not going away. I could be wrong, but it seems your post was designed to ameliorate those differences rather than confront them directly. But those differences can’t be ameliorated by platitudes of professed unity. I ask again: a unity in what?

      I’m sincerely glad to hear that the number of abortions in your county went down. That’s God’s grace at work. I pray for the success of that organization just as I do the success of our efforts here in Virginia. But I think abortion (and the myriad of other societal problems we face) will only be solved by a culture transformed by the Gospel. That’s another reason why the Gospel itself is so important. God’s sovereign grace–changing the hearts of individuals through the preaching of the Gospel–is the only thing that will ultimately bring abortion to an end.

      • I’m happy to hear you give to Care Net! That is the organization our pregnancy clinic is affiliated with. They’re a fantastic leader in the pro-life world. Thank you again for your contributions in the past.

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