Rescuing the Gospel

by | Apr 28, 2018

A number of years ago a Catholic couple came to me for counseling. The only other time something similar happened was when a Protestant man brought his Catholic wife in for counseling.

In the second case, the wife was quite convinced I was a heretic and so whatever I said fell on deaf, even hostile, ears.

In the first case the wife expressed to my wife and I (my wife often assists me in counseling) that she “liked how you Protestants apply the Bible.”  Her husband, who was European, did not have much to say but it did seem clear he loved her and was trying to be a good husband despite a job that took him back to Europe frequently. (His time away from her and their family seemed to bother her the most.)

As a counseling case their situation presented a number of complicating problems. At the top of the list was a lack of biblical understanding as to the nature of the gospel. Without a biblical view of the gospel in the first place, the application of the gospel or the Bible, in the second place is impossible.

Why, you may ask?

Without a biblical understanding of the gospel in the first place, the applications simply become behavioral modifications that do not involve a change of heart.

Whatever Scripture is shared in counseling becomes a series of “do’s” and “don’ts” that amount to a performance type attitude (that earns favor with God and\or others). In this counseling situation the wife had high expectations for the husband based on Ephesians 5:25, “husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” She seemed to take the passage to mean he would do whatever she wanted.

The problem with the wife was that while she did come to the right church for biblical application help, she was still sitting in a different church on Sunday that did not have a biblical view of the gospel or the application of it to daily living. Although they were an extremely nice couple, it soon became clear she became suspicious as we explained the gospel first. They terminated the counseling after about three sessions.

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My mind went back to that nice Catholic couple after I read the last chapter in Lutzer’s book, Rescuing the Gospel-The Story and Significance of the Reformation

The last chapter, Chapter 17, is titled, Is the Reformation Over? In this chapter, Lutzer discusses the relationship between Catholics and Evangelicals at the ecumenical level during the Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT for short) discussions orchestrated by the late Charles Colson and others in 1994.

While Lutzer acknowledges some relative good in those discussions (like being on the same side in regards to abortion and marriage being between one man and one woman), the fundamental chasm between Rome and conservative Protestantism remains the same.

The chasm is the nature of the gospel itself. The controversy in Reformation times came down to how a person could be saved.  Was a person saved by grace [alone] through faith [alone] in Christ [alone] or could a person contribute something to his or her own salvation?

That “something” is usually called “works.” Works might include the practice of the seven sacraments (in Catholicism) or in general, “being good” or “having morals” or commandment keeping.

Ligonier Ministries sums up the issue like this:

Martin Luther declared his position: Justification is by faith alone, our works add nothing to our justification whatsoever, and we have no merit to offer God that in any way enhances our justification. This created the worst schism in the history of Christendom.  (Read Ligonier’s full article here)

The doctrine is called sole fide meaning faith alone. Luther was excommunicated and nearly martyred for taking the position he did. Contemporary Catholicism has never backed off faith plus works. The Council of Trent in the 1560’s during the Catholic Counter-Reformation condemned justification by faith alone as a damnable heresy and that remains the official position of the Roman Catholic Church today.

This is not to say that individual Catholics and even some priests are not evangelical in their understanding of the gospel. I have known a few but they are in the minority.

So to answer Lutzer’s question is the Reformation still necessary; I say it is not only necessary to define the issues that separate conservative Protestants from Roman Catholicism but also for evangelicalism in general lest we forget what it was we were and are protesting.

Lutzer’s book traces the history of The Reformation in a readable, enjoyable, non-technical way that begins with Wycliffe and Hus, both martyred for bucking Rome. From there, Lutzer traces the life of Martin Luther.  Luther never intended to break from Rome and only wanted to reform it in order to conform to Scripture. It was not to be and Luther narrowly escaped martyrdom himself.

Lutzer is refreshingly honest about Luther. He discusses Luther’s heroism in sticking to his guns and taking on Rome, but he also discusses Luther’s glaring character flaws like his anti-Semitism and the position he took during The Peasants War in Germany as well as the horrific treatment of the Anabaptists.

It’s important to note that Lutzer does not defend Luther in those cases but does seek to help us understand that Luther was the product of his times. What he means by that is that both Catholics and Protestants connected the state to the church and disloyalty to one meant disloyalty to the other. That often meant death because it was thought of as high treason. It would be a long time before there was a healthy separation between church and state and that largely took place in America in the late 18th century following our War for Independence.

Lutzer does devote latter portions of the book to John Calvin and his influence on what we now understand as Reformed Theology. I recommend this book to my evangelical friends and Roman Catholic friends. History is important, especially church history. There is only one gospel and Lutzer’s book does a great job of rescuing it.

Lutzer ends Chapter 16 with the battle cries of the Reformation:

Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone)
Sola Gratia (Grace alone)
Sola Fide (Faith alone)
Solus Christus (Christ alone)
Soli Deo Gloria (to the glory of God alone)

“On this we stake our lives and our eternity.” (Erwin Lutzer, Rescuing the Gospel)