Trusting the Tradition


Matthew 23:25-39

Text Comment

We pick up our text in the middle of the Lord Jesus’ terrible accusation of the teachers of the law and Pharisees, who are identified as his subject in v. 2.

One thing becomes very clear if you listen carefully to the Protestant evangelicals who have converted to Roman Catholicism. They are passionate about this; it comes near to the heart of what led them to Rome. They feel that in returning to Roman Catholicism, they have “come home.” That is the language they use. The Catholic is the true church, this church and this alone is the mother of the faithful. In her bosom a man or woman can find the wisdom, the security, the solid foundation for life that the Protestant churches are all looking for but cannot find or provide their followers. They see the contrast in terms of the solid, lasting, permanent, central and universal tradition of Christianity in the world — that is, the Roman Catholic church — and the individualistic, temporary, contradictory fashions of the Protestant sects.

Scott Hahn, for example, speaks passionately about the defects, the weaknesses of his former life and work as a PCA pastor, of pastor-centered churches, and sermon-centered services — where the people meet who happen to agree with that pastor and those sermons, at least at that moment, but who might not agree with him next year and find themselves in some other church as a result. No, not for him, any longer, he says, with what is clearly a deep feeling. Not for him any longer just individualistic experiences of salvation and individual opinions running in every different way. Now he has found the family of God and has his feet planted on that deposit of eternal truth and life that Christ gave to his apostles and preserved through the church to this day, that is, he means, through the bishops of the Roman Catholic church to this day. Protestants differ over and separate over every conceivable issue, but in the Catholic church, he says, we’ve had one voice throughout the ages, the voice of Christ speaking in his church. [Tape on “Church is One” 2nd side]

Now, it will not surprise you that Protestants will take serious issue with that last statement, as a statement of fact. That the Roman church, even the church as it is conceived by Roman Catholics, has spoken with one voice throughout the ages, we would of course dispute. The Roman Catholic church today, including the present Pope, teaches things touching the most fundamental questions — such as what is necessary for salvation — that were not taught in the Catholic church itself a generation ago! But that is not my concern this morning.

I want to begin our study of the question of Roman Catholicism by engaging this most fundamental perspective that animates the enthusiasm of these loyal Catholics. I want to raise the issue of the Roman Catholic church as the representative of the central tradition of the Christian church in the world, as the body of Christ in the most complete sense as being not only the invisible and spiritual body of Christ, but as well the visible and physical successor of the generations of Christian life following the Apostles. This is how they see it: the Roman church as the highway, the Protestant sects as just so many detours leading nowhere.

We will, of course, have to return to this question of the Roman Catholic church as the true Christian church, the real, the authentic Christian church in connection with such issues as apostolic succession, the Pope, and the unity of the church. But I want to raise a more fundamental issue this morning.

I want to begin to explain why Rome has always had so much trouble persuading biblically oriented Christians that she is the true church and that Protestant churches are not. That she is the mother and that all the Protestant sects are simply rebellious children living their lives outside of the family of God. I used the term “biblically oriented,” that is, Christians who decide things on the basis of the Bible’s teaching. Scott Hahn calls such people “Bible Christians.” Such people consider the Bible alone to be a sure guide to religious truth. They do not accept the authority of the church, any church, to produce teaching about God, salvation, and the Christian life, that is not first in the Bible. They do not recognize the Church as a second authority alongside the Bible. They might have a very high view, as we do in this church, of the voice of the church as the voice of spiritual wisdom and maturity, of the church as having real authority to interpret the Bible, but that authority is always subject to the Bible, it does not exist on its own and it is not equal to the authority of the Bible. The church can err, the Bible cannot. I am going to speak next Lord’s Day morning about why we ought to take that point of view, a viewpoint taught in Holy Scripture itself.

But this morning I want to begin by placing this entire question and this issue of the Roman church’s claim to be the only true Christian church in a larger perspective, a most important perspective, because one that is verified and validated by the teaching of the Bible itself.

Let me say, first, however, that much of what Scott Hahn says about the Protestant church is completely true and ought to be regarded by all sincere Christians as a genuine shame and embarrassment. In the same way that, I suppose, a loyal Roman Catholic would be embarrassed by the fact that so many Popes through the ages have been an embarrassment to Christianity or that so many catholics pay so little attention to what the church teaches and feel completely free to follow their own opinions, even when those opinions are the reverse of the authoritative teaching of the church. It is nothing to be proud of that Protestants can’t agree about the Bible or the work of Christ, or the Lord’s Supper, or the spiritual gifts, or the ethics of divorce and remarriage. It is nothing to be proud about that Protestant Christianity has created a cult of private judgment that has individual believers who know virtually nothing making up their own minds about everything in disregard of the collective teaching of the best men of the church through two thousand years. It is demoralizing and humiliating to see church after church split into small pieces rather than to find a way to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace and a mutual loyalty to the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.

I long for a larger visible church, a greater church for all the world to see, a church of unity and harmony and of fidelity to the truth of God’s Word. I hope you long for the same. You want, as I do, the visible church to embody the one, holy, catholic church of Jesus Christ and to be an adornment and demonstration of the kingdom of God in the world.

Why, then, if this is our heartfelt desire, are Bible Christians not more seriously tempted by the lure of Rome’s size and unity, her very impressive presence all around the world? After all, it is not difficult to understand why the Roman Catholic church has come to stand for the Christian church in many different contexts. In the movies, when a minister figure is needed, he is usually a Catholic priest; when a church is needed, it is usually a catholic church, when a church service is needed, it is usually a catholic service. The visibility, the universality of the Roman Catholic church is a large part of the reason for that. And no one can deny that that visibility and universality are to Rome’s credit and contribute to her strength. We wish the same for ourselves!

But, here is the problem. Here is the reason why Bible Christians do not accept Rome’s claim. Indeed, here is the reason why you could agree with the apologists for Rome that she is, as they say, the bearer of the central tradition of the church of God, and still not believe that you should belong to her.

For, as our Savior taught on many occasions, and the prophets before him and the apostles after him, the visible church of God in the world is not often, and certainly not usually, a true adornment of the gospel of God and is not a safe haven for the faithful children of God.

From the moment an institutional church existed in the world, with Israel organized under priests and elders, that institutional church revealed herself as more often an enemy of the gospel than the mother of the faithful. She was a largely unbelieving community in the wilderness; after the death of Joshua, she almost immediately succumbed to the temptations of the surrounding paganism and superstition; she was revived somewhat under Samuel and more so under David, but began her irrevocable slide into unbelief and idolatry in the later years of Solomon’s reign. After that, through the following centuries, the Lord sent prophets to her time and again, but their preaching and their threats of judgment never produced more than short-lived reform. Generally the prophets suffered at the hands of the church for condemning her for her sin and unbelief and for proclaiming in God’s name that those who belonged to Israel were not Israel and that those who were God’s people in an institutional, visible sense were, in fact, not his people in the invisible, spiritual sense. This is not a minor feature of biblical teaching, this is the great center of the ministry of the biblical prophets. The faithful, the true people of God, were through all these centuries only a remnant, a small portion of the total population of Israel. In Elijah’s day, only 7,000 remained among the several millions of Israel.

Finally, sunk into irrevocable apostasy, the church was judged, first the northern tribes sent into an exile from which they would never return, and then the southern kingdom sent to Babylon. Once again, the people of God are hardly settled again in the promised land than the old problems of unbelief and disobedience begin to surface. Not, this time, in the overt pagan idolatry that so captivated Israel before, but in other forms of legalism, worldliness, and self-assertion before God.

And, in the years from Malachi to John the Baptist that process of spiritual, theological, and ritual corruption continued until, by the time of Jesus himself, the verdict of the Gospels is unmistakable that few among the Jews had a living faith in God, the terrible proof of which was finally provided by the fact that it was the church of God that murdered the Son of God. Only a remnant welcomed him, only a remnant mourned his death.

This is the terrible point that the Lord Jesus is making in the text we read. He is not only saying, what he has said so often in the Gospel, that the Jewish religious leadership had hidden the gospel behind a wall of traditions of men and had promoted a false view of justification based on ritual observances and obedience to the law — now mostly conceived of as a host of man-made regulations governing every aspect of life — but he is linking the Jewish leaders and their religious system to that of OT Israel, apostate Israel, the Israel that murdered God’s prophets. They are the spiritual successors of Ahab and Jezebel, of Jeroboam and Manasseh, and of the priests who poured scorn on Jeremiah and his message and sought, on more than one occasion, to have him killed.

Now, we hear the Lord Jesus expose the hypocrisy of these teachers of the law and Pharisees, hear him speak of their “greed and self-indulgence” and the difference between their splendid outside and their rotting inside, and we think very low thoughts of these men. We think of them as nearly beasts. We imagine them as the type who would foreclose on the poor and kick dogs and refuse to help little old ladies across the street.

But, of course, that isn’t what Jesus meant and that was not the case. These men were devout men, serious men, earnest men. They thought what they were doing was not only right, but in the purest tradition of ancient Israel. They thought of themselves as keepers of the flame. They spoke warmly of how old their church was, how far back into ancient days they could trace their religious life and institutions. These were folk who had a deep reverence for the Bible, gave themselves in many cases to a lifetime study of the Scriptures. They believed in God, in the sovereignty of God, in the law of God, in the judgment of God. They believed in the history of salvation as it was revealed in Holy Scripture, the exodus, the wilderness, the conquest of the promised land. They thought, they really thought, they earnestly believed that they were the faithful sons and daughters of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, but, in fact, so blind were they to the creeping errors that had destroyed a true faith in God that they were, in fact, the enemies of all that was true and good, so much so, that when Goodness and Truth itself came among them, they thought they were serving God by killing him!

Like the mainstream of Israel before, the Jews — that is the church (for that is what they were outwardly) — in Jesus’ day expressed their infidelity to God in terms not of overt unbelief — absolutely not! the farthest thing from it! — but in the overlaying of the pure gospel with man-made traditions, practices, and doctrines that obscured the gospel and injected into its pure principle of grace an additional principle of attainment and merit.  It did not deny the grace of God, not at all, or reject the law of God, not at all! But the Jews had devised new forms of piety — which they thought were only consistent applications of the Word of God — that replaced the true burden of God’s holy law — the submission of the heart and life, in love, to God and thus to other men — with an elaborated casuistry, an unending list of regulations that could not help but devalue sin and suggest a principle of self-salvation. And, if anyone feels that this is too harsh a judgment, that, in fact, the elaborate regulations did not obscure the true message of the grace of God, let him explain why it was the church of God that crucified the Savior of the world!

In fact, an effort is being made in biblical scholarship to do just that, to repair and restore the image of first century Judaism. Scholars such as E.P. Sanders have argued in a number of books that Judaism was not legalistic as Christian scholarship has always supposed. In fact, Sanders says of Judaism what defenders of Roman Catholicism say about it. That Roman Catholics believe in salvation by grace through faith. And, no doubt, that is true, so far as it goes. Judaism knew very well of the grace of God and the electing love of God and the necessity of faith in God for salvation. It spoke of merit, sure, but it did not understand that merit apart from the grace of God that made it all possible. You had to have God’s grace to earn merit. The rabbis say that. (It is, by the way, almost uncanny, how much a Scott Hahn or a Thomas Howard speaking about Rome sounds just like an E.P. Sanders speaking about first century Judaism. Merit yes, but only in the context of grace and faith.) And, to be sure, you can find all of that in the rabbis. You can. They talk about the grace of God and about faith in God, as well as about merit and the accumulation of righteousness through good works of various kinds.

But we have the Lord’s own witness and that of his apostles that Judaism was, as a whole, corrupted by the changes that it had introduced to the true biblical faith and that corruption extended so deep that it led the church of God to execute her Head when he came to her.

Now, what has all of that to do with the modern Roman Catholic church. Just this. What was true of Israel’s spiritual history, from the wilderness to the time of Jesus Christ, was true because of the basic bent and tendency of the human heart. As Charles Simeon said of the rebellious human heart, “it is very fond of fetters, and is apt to forge them for itself.” And so what happened over and again through those long years of OT history, happened again once the church was sent out on her conquest of the world. Before long errors began to surface, sometimes they were beaten back, sometimes they left a permanent mark, sometimes whole sections of the church were corrupted by them. And gradually the church succumbed to the same errors that had bedeviled her in the ancient epoch. The pure doctrine of grace and of salvation by grace was corrupted with the reassertion of man’s place in his justification before God — ritualism increased, legalism replaced loving gratitude as the principle of law-keeping in the Christian life, just as it had so often before. The “traditions of men” that Jesus so summarily rejected as false and contrary to the gospel, came back again in virtually identical forms! Prayers for the dead; purgatory; concepts of personal merit leading to righteousness with God; the Jews in Jesus day had all of that. Those were all part of that faith that led the church to murder its Savior! These traditions of men, so much like what Israel of old had embraced in her various flirtations with paganism around her, produced the same effect, a corruption of the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

God sent prophets to his church, in much the same way he had before — though these were not inspired men, their message was the same. They warned the church that it was no longer the church of God; they warned those who belonged to the institution of the church that those who denied the Bible’s teaching of the gospel and did not practice the Bible’s doctrine of the Christian life were not Christians in truth. It was the same message that Isaiah had brought and Jeremiah and Jesus and Paul. They said that all the rituals and all the regulations not only contributed nothing to a sinner’s peace with God, but actually stood in the way of a right understanding of justification. And they warned that the church, in many ways, and that the leadership of the church was in some cases living wickedly and in other cases was unfaithful in its teaching of the Word of God and was, in these ways, bringing down upon the heads of those who thought themselves God’s people the wrath of God. And the same fate befell them as befell the prophets of old. They were killed as was John Huss in 14:15 — burned by the Council for proclaiming what anyone can read in his own Bible — as the Italian priest Savonarola was in 1498 for preaching against the moral corruption of the Roman priesthood and the Pope, a moral corruption that was so vicious and so thoroughgoing, that if you can believe this the Christian Church not only hung that good man Savonarola, but tortured him on the rack first. The same would have happened to Luther, had the Church been able to arrest him. And it is all the more interesting because Luther never intended to begin a general Reformation, never intended to separate himself from the church. He just raised objections to common corruptions in the church — such as selling the forgiveness of sins for money, which is what the people thought indulgences were, and what the church encouraged them to think, even if the theologians never admitted as much. It was the church’s fury at his criticism of her corruptions and the pent up desire to see the church reformed and revived that led to the Reformation. And all through the years since, the Roman church has resisted all efforts to return her to the Scripture, as Judaism resisted those efforts in Jesus’ day and as Israel had resisted them in Jeremiah’s day. Jansen and Pascal in the 17th century made no more progress than Luther and Calvin had in the 16th. It is important to remember, the Protestant church exists not because of some mass exodus from Roman Catholicism, but because Rome cast out her reformers.

Are there and have there been through the centuries Christians in this Roman church? Of course there are and have been. There were also believers among the Pharisees — Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea among them. There were 7,000 believers in the dark days of Ahab and Jezebel. In their case the corruptions had not overturned their grasp of the free grace of God, and that has been true of folk in the Roman church through the ages. But the church as a whole cast away those who refused to accept and embrace the corruptions. The Christians didn’t leave Judaism, they were thrown out!

And so it remains the case that the reason Bible Christians are not enticed by the lure of Rome, even with its antiquity and its size and its universality, is that we have seen this church before. We have seen it in Israel in the ancient epoch and seen it in Judaism in the days of the Lord Jesus and we have seen it ever since. We have, to be sure, seen it just as much in Protestantism. The great Protestant churches that glory in their age and size and impressive appearance, are like Israel in the Lord’s day — for all the individual believers who may be still found within them, the churches themselves are dead within. And they too have cast out their reformers. Machen didn’t leave the Presbyterian Church in 1936, he was thrown out for believing it wrong to spend the money Christian folk had given to foreign missions to send out missionaries who didn’t believe that Jesus was God or that sinners needed to trust in him for their salvation. We would all prefer to be in one single Presbyterian Church. Indeed, we would all prefer still to be in one Christian church — by reason of that church having been reformed and revived in accordance with the truth faith of Jesus Christ. But it has not happened; it was not possible to remain and to remain faithful to the Word of God. There is the rub. It wasn’t possible in the Apostle’s day to remain in the old church and it wasn’t possible in the 16th century.

Scott Hahn speaks very passionately about coming home to the Roman Catholic church, about its universality, and visibility, and antiquity. He speaks with a deep enthusiasm about the single deposit of truth and life that Christ gave to his apostles which has been preserved in the one, holy, catholic, church — the church of Rome and about Rome’s single voice.

But, we Bible Christians must speak with an equal passion. We have seen this church before. Deeply as we grieve over our own sins and our own shameful failures in Protestantism, we cannot align ourselves with the Israel that murdered the prophets or the Judaism that murdered the Lord Christ or the church that murdered Huss, and Savonarola, and Tyndale, and Ridley and Latimer and all the rest.

The serious Catholic will admit the immorality of many Popes and cringe over the atrocities committed in the name of the church against the earnest Christian Waldensians in the Piedmont, but the problem is much greater than that. It is a thousand years of doing what Israel did, of what Judaism did in Jesus’ own day, the overlaying of the faith taught in Holy Scripture with the traditions of men and the persistent refusal to reform itself according to the Word of God. Everywhere in the Bible we are taught to expect this of the church, that she will constantly fall and need to be reformed, that she will fall by adding to the faith as well as by subtracting from it, and that she will slide into the deepest corruptions absolutely certain of the rightness of her views and, indeed, that she alone knows what is right. We have seen it in our own Protestant churches, but we have seen it longer in Rome.

If to be a Roman Catholic means I must repudiate Huss and Savonarola and Tyndale and Luther and Calvin, and the Puritans and the great preachers of the Awakenings, and the missionaries, then it means that I must also repudiate — this is exactly what it means — Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Jesus himself and Paul — who condemned and rejected a church that is in general and specifically virtually indistinguishable from Roman Catholicism. A Roman Catholic thinks that being a part of the oldest and longest lived section of the church is a great proof that Roman Catholics are in the true church. The Bible, however, teaches unmistakably, that, by and large, people who are at home in that church, that church that glories in its institutional antiquity, that has maintained itself through many generations by refusing to be reformed, are away from God himself! When Jesus said that “many are called, but few are chosen,” when he said, “Broad is the gate and broad is the way … and narrow …” he was not speaking to the nations, he was speaking to the church! And that is why Bible Christians are not as a rule much tempted to become Roman Catholics!