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.