Are We Catholics?
Historic Protestantism is different from evangelicalism in its current incarnation. But is historic Protestantism really Catholicism without a Pope and a Mass?
by William Smith
This is a time in the history of the church when to speak the language of historic Protestantism is to sound suspiciously like a Roman Catholic I believe that, if you want to become, be, and continue as a Christian, you should go to church. The reason you should go to church is that Christ has given to the Church the means of grace – the Word (read and preached), the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and prayer. These are the instruments the Spirit of God uses to convert, sanctify, and preserve. Because Christ has given these means to the Church, and to its ministers to administer, and since He works through these means for our salvation, we need the Church as much as a baby needs his mother for life and nourishment. This high view of the Church, of the ministry, of the Word and sacraments is historic Protestantism, but it sounds Catholic to many evangelicals today.
Evangelicals believe that one’s relationship with God is a much more private, personal, and individual matter, and, therefore, much less related to the church, its ordinances, and its ministers. How did evangelicals come to think in this way? Several factors contribute.
One is the unintended consequences of the Reformation. In pointing out the errors of Roman Catholicism and attacking the corruptions of that system, the Reformers never intended to demean the Church as an institution or to weaken its spiritual authority. In teaching the priesthood of all believers, they never meant to undermine the role of ministers of the Word and sacraments. In getting rid of of the tyranny of the Pope, they never intended to replace it with the tyranny of the individual conscience. However, over the last 500 years, this is just what has happened.
Then there is pietism. Pietism had a healthy concern. That concern was that people not just go through the motions, depending on perfunctory participation in church attendance, sermon hearing, sacrament reception to make and keep one a Christian. Pietism was concerned with the heart. Hence pietism, in the interests of reality, emphasized ‘closet religion.’ There is nothing wrong with these concerns, but pietism led to elevation of one’s private devotional exercises over one’s participation in the ordinances of the church. What happened when you were ‘alone with God,’ not in church, became where the ‘rubber meets the road’ in religion. The motto might be, ‘Go to church if you can, but by all means don’t miss your quiet time.’
Revivalism is another contributor to evangelical diminishment of the importance of the church. What are revivals? They are times when God seems to do something extraordinary. Large numbers of unbelievers are awakened to their danger, disturbed, and converted (or at least seem to be); a large number of professing Christians discover that their religion has been merely "nominal" and become ‘true’ Christians; and a large number of believers are stirred from their spiritual slumber to a new seriousness and vitality. Both Arminians and Calvinists can believe in and seek revivals. The difference is that Arminians believe revivals can be worked up (human activity), while Calvinists believe they must be prayed down (divine intervention). There is no doubt that in history there have been revival events. Over time revivals tended to question reliance on the ordinary means of grace, to doubt the adequacy and genuineness of ordinary Christian experience, to move outside the ordinary church structures to form other organizations, and to diminish the role of ordinary ministers settled in churches in favor of revivalist preachers (who might be ordained or not since it doesn’t make any difference).
Historic Protestantism is different from evangelicalism in its current incarnation. But is historic Protestantism really Catholicism without a Pope and a Mass? No. Historic Protestantism differs from Roman Catholicism in that it teaches that the ordinances of preaching and sacraments do not work automatically. They must be accompanied by the work of the Spirit, and the Spirit must work faith in the one who hears the Word or receives the sacraments. There is a freedom and mystery about the Spirit’s work. Some who hear do not hear Christ speaking in the preached Word; some who are baptized are not united to Christ; some who take the Lord’s Supper are not nourished with the sacrificed body and poured out blood of the Savior. At this critical point (and many others) historic Protestantism separates itself from Roman Catholicism. But historic Protestantism sounds strange to evangelical ears because it believes the means of grace are just that – means whereby, with the blessing of the Holy Spirit, God’s grace enters our lives. Hence historic Protestantism says, ‘Go to church, because the Church has the means of grace. Use the means, for God has established a bond between the means and the regenerating, converting, sanctifying, preserving work of the Spirit.’
But does the Bible teach what historic Protestantism teaches about the means? Paul tell us in Romans 10:13 that "Œeveryone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’" Then his logic becomes relentless: "But how will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?So faith comes from hearing and hearing from the word of Christ" (10: 14-15a, 17). How do people come to faith? It is through hearing the word of Christ in preaching.
The Great Commission is a ‘Word and sacrament’ commission: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:19, 20a). The command is to ‘make disciples of all the nations.’ To do that, we must ‘go.’ But when we go for the purpose of making disciples, how do we go about making them? We baptize them and we teach them. Jesus’ method is an ‘ordinary means of grace’ method.
What the Church and we Christians need is a confidence in and reliance upon the means of grace. The Church fulfills its mission by faithful administration of the means. Christians become Christians, grow as Christians, and remain Christians by the faithful use of the means of grace. It’s not Catholic. It’s historic Protestantism, and it’s Biblical.
WILLIAM H. SMITH
Westminster Presbyterian Church, Huntsville, Alabama. USA
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