The Challenge


Psalm 137

This morning we conclude our series on the contemporary challenge of Roman Catholicism. We began our study by noting that thoughtful evangelicals — ministers and laypeople alike — were abandoning their Protestant churches, including the Presbyterian Church in America, in unprecedented numbers. We considered some of the reasons why that was so, none of which reflected very well on the present condition of evangelical Protestantism in America. Then, in the following weeks, we considered some of those aspects of Roman Catholic doctrine and practice that have historically separated Protestants from Catholics. We considered the Catholic doctrine of an extra-biblical apostolic tradition that serves as an additional authority for faith and life, the Catholic doctrine of justification, their practices of penance and the veneration of and praying to Mary, the office of the Pope, their doctrine and practice of the assurance of salvation, of the Mass, and, finally, last week, their doctrine of purgatory, with its related practices of prayers for the dead and indulgences.

It has been a polemical series, one argument after another seeking to demonstrate why the Roman Catholics are mistaken in their views, dangerously mistaken, and why no Protestant ought to join himself to Rome no matter how disgusted he may be with the state of Protestantism. I do not apologize for the polemic. The Bible says that it is necessary to expose and contradict false teaching. We read that in the OT and emphatically in the NT. Indeed, a great deal of the Bible is devoted to precisely this polemical work — pointing out what is wrong in the teaching of folk within the church who are quite sure they are right and doing the will of God. Polemics was a large part of Jesus’ ministry, as it was of Paul and the author of the letter to the Hebrews. The Bible is a book of truth; Christianity is a religion of truth. And, in a world of falsehood, in the Devil’s world, the world of the Father of Lies, truth must be fought for and defended.

And it must be fought for negatively as well as positively, as it is in the Bible. Heresies must be exposed, the error in them demonstrated, the dangers inherent in these views explained. You have that too in the Bible, very often. In one of Augustine’s writings fully one hundred Christian heresies are mentioned. We have hundreds more now, many of which are enshrined in various Christian sects or denominations. But, we live in a day that is increasingly uninterested in polemics, in truth itself, an age increasingly doubtful that questions of truth and error are really all that important. Years ago now, J. Gresham Machen, fighting a losing battle for the truth in the Presbyterian Church wrote:

“Presenting an issue sharply is, indeed, by no means a popular business at the present time… The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from ‘controversial’ matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life. In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight.” [Christianity and Liberalism]

Well, what was true in Machen’s day is only the more true today.

But controversy, necessary as it is, must at the same time be well managed, carefully practiced, or little good will come from it and much harm. The truth, rather than being defended and upheld, will be defamed and besmirched. In particular, the negative principle — the pointing out of error — may never be allowed to overwhelm the positive, the assertion of truth. The negative work is necessary, the Bible makes that clear enough, but it is all too possible for the negative, the denunciatory to begin to take the chief place in teaching about the Christian faith, and the results of that are never profitable. [Murray, Lloyd Jones, ii, 680]

John Newton described this danger in a more personal and homely way when he wrote, “There is a principle of self, which disposes us to despise those who differ from us.” To give too much place to criticism, even theological criticism, is, therefore, an invitation to a hateful approach to those with whom we disagree, and hateful folk have never advanced the interests of the gospel, never protected the church from the inroads of error, and never persuaded others to abandon their errors to come home to the truth.

I do not want any of you, ever, to become a Roman Catholic. Over these last weeks I have told you why. But it will be an altogether pyrrhic victory if all we succeed at doing is making ourselves more anti-Catholic. As one old Reformed writer put it, “Faith is not the negation of errors, but the affirmation of the truth.” [Francis Burman, in Sepp, ii, 181]

After all, at the end of the day, as we said repeatedly over these past weeks the errors we believe we have demonstrated in the Roman Catholic system are, in kind, the same errors it would be easy enough to find in Protestantism, and, indeed, always lurking in our own hearts. To know a certain idea to be a mistake is not the same thing as embracing the truth and living by it.

C.S. Lewis, in a famous quotation, reminded us of the prevalence of error in all its parts and of the relative unimportance of the different shape the errors took depending upon what part of Christendom was under view.

“When Catholicism goes bad it becomes the…religio [religion] of amulets and holy places and priestcraft: Protestantism, in its corresponding decay, becomes a vague mist of ethical platitudes. Catholicism is accused of being too like all the other religions; Protestantism of being insufficiently like a religion at all. Hence Plato, with his transcendent forms, is the doctor of the Protestants; Aristotle, with his immanent forms, the doctor of Catholics.”

We were treated in the last few days to the account of a United Methodist heresy trial in which a minister who had “married” two homosexuals was exonerated of any wrongdoing. “A vague mist of ethical platitudes” has it just right. What finally does it matter, after all, on what road one chooses to walk to hell? The Catholic road or the Protestant road?

So, let us finish our study of Roman Catholicism with the affirmation of truth, by setting before ourselves what great gospel truths we have reminded ourselves of in our study of Roman Catholicism and must recommit ourselves both to live by and to proclaim to the world.

I want to say there are five. There are many more, but these five above all; these five to which we have returned over and over again in our studies of the Christian faith from the vantage point of an examination of Roman Catholic doctrine and practice.

  • The first is the full sufficiency of the Word of God.

I will not repeat the case we made nor the arguments we used to refute the Roman Catholic notion that there is another authority for faith and life besides the Word of God. I will only remind you that for a long time, if you can believe it, the Bible, Holy Scripture, by the actions of Popes and Councils was on the official Index of Forbidden Books for Roman Catholics, and, for centuries, the Catholic laity was not permitted to read the Bible in their own language. We are glad that things are better now, that more Roman Catholics are reading the Bible. But, let that former error be recognized for the monstrous evil that it was — to keep the Word of life out of the hands and so out of the minds of the people of God. Paul wrote his letters, Isaiah preached his sermons, Luke wrote his church history, not for the priests and the theologians, but for the people of God. The Bible was put directly into the hands of God’s people. It is our inheritance, the inheritance of the whole world to have this book in our hands and to be able to read and know its truth.

Think of what it is called: the Word of God; the oracles of God, God-breathed writings, Holy Scripture. No wonder the great Dutch reformed scholar, Greijdanus, should have said, “Apart from the Word I am nothing and can do nothing and know nothing.” We say that if only the Roman Catholic church loved the Bible more it would be less threatened by its errors. But, it is no use complaining about Roman Catholic extra-biblical traditions unless we ourselves love and live by that Word of God we say is the sole and infallible rule of our faith and our living.

Thomas Goodwin, the great Puritan preacher and theologian, tells of going, sometime in the 1620s, to hear John Rogers, one of the most powerful of the early Puritan preachers.

“Mr. Rogers was…on the subject of…the Scriptures. And in that sermon he falls into an expostulation with the people about their neglect of the Bible;…He personates God to the people, telling them, ‘Well, I have trusted you so long with my Bible; you have slighted it, it lies in such and such houses all covered with dust and cobwebs; you care not to listen to it. Do you use my Bible so? Well, you shall have my Bible no longer.’ And he takes up the Bible from its cushion, and seemed as if he were going away with it and carrying it from them; but immediately turns and personates the people to God, falls down on his knees, cries and pleads most earnestly, ‘Lord, whatever thou dost to us, take not thy Bible from us; kill our children, burn our houses, destroy our goods; only spare us thy Bible, only take not away thy Bible.’ And then he personates God again to the people: ‘So you say? Well, I will try you a while longer; and here is my Bible for you. I will see how you will use it, whether you will love it more…observe it more…practice it more, and live more according to it.’ By these actions…he put all the congregation into so strange a posture that…the place was a mere Bochim, the people generally…deluged with their own tears…” [In Packer, Quest for Godliness, 97-98.]

The new converts to Rome call us Bible Christians. Let’s you and I prove them more right than they know!

Think of it carefully,

Study it prayerfully,

Deep in your heart let its oracles dwell.

Ponder its mystery,

Slight not its history,

For none ever loved it too fondly or well.

  • The second of these great gospel truths is the Majesty of Divine Grace.

We have said that Rome’s killing error is that it allows much to interfere with the heart’s grasp of the grace of God, it overlays that message of an omnipotent and sovereign love with so many layers of human performance in pious works that grace is finally buried out of sight, reduced to merely the availability of salvation for those who will avail themselves of the opportunity to do what must be done to go to heaven. The startling, the surprising, the heart-breaking, the humbling, the enthralling, the thrilling character of this wonderful love is so diminished as usually to be lost altogether. The converts to Rome will protest it is not so, but generation upon generation of catholic life, in comparison with both Scripture and Protestant evangelical spiritual experience, proves it is. This deafness to God’s almighty and sovereign grace is one reason why you don’t find revivals in Roman Catholic history, outpourings of the grace of God by which hundreds and thousands of people are swept up into salvation in a short period of time.

The one thing that cannot be permitted is for Christianity to be reduced to the level of every other religion, each in its own way teaching that God will save those who do this or that, perform this or that, fulfill this or that pious obligation. In this Catholicism is exactly, as Lewis said, far too much like every other religion.

Listen to Max Muller, in his time, a century ago, perhaps the most knowledgeable expert in world religions that there was in the Western world.

“I may say that for forty years now, in the fulfillment of my obligations as Professor of Sanskrit in the University of Oxford, I have dedicated as much of my time to the study of the holy books of the East as any other man in the world. And I venture to say of this collection that what I have found to be the fundamental accent, the unity of all these so-called holy books, be it the Veda of the Brahmins, the Purana of Siva and Vishnu, the Koran of [Islam], the Zend Avesta of the Persians, and so on, the fundamental accent, the unity which runs through all of these, is salvation by works. They all teach that salvation must be bought and that the purchase price is one’s own works and merits. Our own Bible, our Holy Book from the East, is from beginning to end a protest against this doctrine. Good works are, to be sure, also required in this Holy Book from the East, and indeed more strictly required than in any of these other holy books; but they are only the outflow of a thankful heart. They are only a thankoffering, only the fruit of our faith. They are never the ransom price of the true disciple of Christ. Let us not close our eyes to what is noble and true and sound in those holy books. But let us teach the Hindus, the Buddhists, and the Muslims that there is but one Holy Book from the East in which they can put their trust in that most serious hour in which they must cross over into the invisible world. [In Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, III, 553n.]

This is the only message in all the world worth being a champion of: the grace of God by which alone sinners can be saved!

  • The third of these gospel truths is that of glory of Jesus Christ as the Savior of Sinners, and their Savior to the uttermost.

We have argued that, whatever their intention, Roman Catholics with their doctrines of salvation and the works by which people are to merit their peace with God have displaced Jesus Christ from the place where he belongs in the hearts of all Christians, as the sole and only object of their faith and their hope of eternal life. Whether it is the pantheon of saints and, especially Mary, to whom they also pray and from whom they also seek salvation or whether it is the pious works by which they seek to complete the work that Christ did which by itself is not sufficient to save them, such traditions diminish Christ in the heart and in the faith of the church. Christian living is no longer an active, personal trust in a present Savior, but the employment of a technology of salvation of which Christ, at most, could be said to be the inventor or, perhaps even better, the administrator. But there is not nearly so much glory in that as the Bible is always lavishing on the Lord Christ as our Redeemer, King, Prophet, and Priest.

However clearly or dimly one understands all the doctrinal disputes, this is the key point: it is essential that the teaching about salvation places it beyond doubt that salvation comes from Christ and Christ alone and that ours is but to reach out to lay hold of him, never to add to what he has already done.

I will remember this day until I die. We were in Holland in 1984 and my folks had come to visit. They had first visited the Taits in England and had been treated to a church-historical tour of Devonshire where the Taits were then living. Among their stops was the parish church in Brixham where Henry Lyte had been the pastor. This is Henry Lyte the great hymn-writer, the author of “Abide with Me” and “Praise my Soul the King of Heaven.” Engraved on a tombstone in that churchyard Dad had found this poem and had copied it down on the spot. He read it over to me in our rooms in Laren and his voice caught as he read it.

What shall we write on this memorial stone?

Thy merits? Thou didst rest on Christ alone;

Our sorrow? Thou wouldst blame the selfish tear;

Our love? Alas it needs no record here.

Praise to thy God and ours? His truth and love

Are sung in nobler strains by thee above.

What wouldst thou have us write? A voice is heard,

‘Write, to each reader write, a warning word;

Oh bid him look before him and within.

Talk to his heedless heart of death and sin,

And if at these he trembles, bid him flee,

To Christ and find him all in all, like me!’

From beginning to the end of the Christian faith and the Christian life, and at every point along the way, that is the Christian mind, that is what it means to be a Christian, nothing more, nothing less! God forbid that I should boast save in the cross of my Lord Jesus Christ!

  • The fourth of the gospels’ truths is the supremacy of faith.

I will hurry over this point, because it is simply another way of saying what we just said about grace and about Christ and his work being our salvation and in no sense our works for him. What is faith, after all, but the way appointed for us to appropriate Christ and what he has done for us.

In the Bible faith is represented as receiving Christ (John 1:12), as coming to Christ (Matt. 11:28), as looking to Christ (Heb. 12:2), as trusting in Christ, believing in Christ, holding fast to Christ. As Bishop Ryle used to put it, faith is the ‘hand’ of the soul by which we take hold of Christ, the ‘eye’ of the soul by which we look to him, the ‘mouth’ of the soul by which we feed upon him, and the ‘foot’ of the soul by which we run to him.

“Faith in Jesus Christ,” our Shorter Catechism tells us, “is a saving grace whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.” To say that justification is by faith alone, to say that faith is the principle of our salvation is simply to say in other words that our salvation is by grace alone and Christ alone. Sola fide means sola gratia and solus Christus.

  • And then the fifth and last of these gospel truths is the honor all believers are to pay to the church of God as the kingdom of their Lord and Christ and as his own body.

 The Roman Catholics have a very high view of the church. A higher view than many Protestants, alas, who ought to know better. But one does not have to have a Pope, or to claim an apostolic succession of bishops, or to rest the hope of everlasting life on the priesthood or its rites and ceremonies of the house of God in order to have a high view of the church.

And, by church, I do not mean simply the company of God’s elect, the invisible church. For that is not the church about which the Bible usually speaks and that is not the church about which the author of Psalm 137 speaks in vv. 5-6. No that is the church in the world; the gathering of the saints, the church of ministers and elders and deacons and the people of God gathered in congregations, the church of the sacraments and the Lord’s Day worship, the church of preaching and fellowship and discipline. This church is the body of Christ, this church is the Lord’s means of his working in the world.

But it is always the church as needing to be faithful to the Word of God, needing always to be revived according to that Word and by the Spirit of God working within her. It is the remnant church, as well, as it has almost always been in the world. The church that is in the world but every definitely not of the world.

The Jerusalem that this man holds his highest joy is the visible church in the world. It is Christendom as we know it today. But it is precisely because he loves the church for Christ’s sake that this man cares also that her fortunes be restored. The church this psalm writer knows has been scattered to the four winds on account of her sins. But he prays and works to see her faithful to God and enjoying his blessing once again.

It is not enough to be a private Christian. Every faithful Christian, every gospel Christian must as well be a Churchman or Churchwoman. For Christ loved the church and gave himself for her. We Protestants are often amazed at the power the Roman Catholic church seems to have over her people, the way folk who were raised Catholic, even nominally so, continue to consider themselves Catholic all their lives. Well, every Christian who reads the Bible and Psalm 137 among other texts in the Bible should have that same fierce loyalty to the Church of Jesus Christ. She is, Paul says, our Mother. She is the apple of God’s eye. And she is the means by which God works his will in the hearts and lives of his children in the world. I feel strongly that one reason for the attractiveness of the Roman Catholic church to Protestants today is that they know, both instinctively because they are the children of God and from their reading of God’s Word, that the church ought to be greater to Christians and hold a higher place in their hearts and lives than it does in most Protestant circles. In this they are right. But the correction of that error cannot be the embrace of others. We must repair the Protestant indifference to the church rather than embrace the errors of Rome.

There we are, then. And there we are to remain. We are to be people committed to and full of the Holy Word of God, the glory of divine grace, and the Lord Christ as our only Redeemer. And we are to be people who live by faith and for the church of God. People of the Bible, of divine grace, of Jesus Christ, of faith, and of the Christian church. That is what we have reminded ourselves to be, so long as we are in this world. And if this series of studies in Roman Catholicism has done us any good, it will be in deepening our commitment to those fundamental principles of truth and life: church, faith, Bible, grace, and Jesus Christ. Those are truths worth fighting for, worth defending with our blood, and worth proclaiming from the rooftops, for they and they alone are the truth that set men free.

Nicholas Ridley, the English Reformer died for these very truths in the middle of the 16th century. And he died, remember, at the hands of a Roman Catholic Christian church which had lost sight completely of these basic tenets of the biblical faith. Ridley wrote in his quaint old English:

“…in the quarrel of Christ our Savior, in the defense of his own divine ordinances, by the which he giveth us life and immortality, yea, in the quarrel of faith and Christian religion, wherein resteth our everlasting salvation, shall we not watch? Shall we not go always armed, ever looking when our adversary…shall come upon us…”

And our adversary will come upon us and he will always be seeking to dislodge the great truths of our religion from our hearts and minds. And you and I must be as determined that he shall not succeed.

There is a story told in an English General’s Memoirs, entitled Recollections of a Military Life [cited in Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings, ii, 215].

“An English soldier coming on duty was heard to say to his comrade, ‘Well, Jim, what’s the orders at this post?’ Jim replied, ‘Why, the orders is you’re never to leave it till you’re killed, and if you see any other man leaving it, you’re to kill him.'”

It is a perfect picture of our duty in regard to the truth of grace and Jesus Christ that has been revealed to us in Holy Scripture. We are to defend these truths to the death — for they are life itself to us — and to show no mercy to any force or influence that would seek to dislodge them from our hearts or from the church of God.