I must confess, this chapter, “The Essential Issue: The Gospel of Peace,” leaves me rather baffled. Despite James White’s claim that his many debates with Catholics have given him “insight into the best Rome has to offer to defend her own beliefs and to counter Protestant beliefs” (16), he shows here a thorough and fundamental misunderstanding of Catholic doctrine. To many of his claims of correct, Protestant teaching, I can only agree with him and ask, “So where’s your dispute? We teach the same thing.”
This general agreement makes his next point even more confusing: Offering no real evidence to support the claim — only a couple of misleading passages from doctrinal works taken grossly out of context — he brings out the old, stale, empty charge of “works’ righteousness,” which I have already refuted here several times. This is in line with his thesis for the chapter, that Christ’s Gospel is a “Gospel of peace” — and that the gospel taught by the Catholic Church offers anything but peace. To this, I tender my personal testimony: My entire journey as an evangelical Christian was one of turmoil, pain, and confusion. As a Catholic, I know the peace of God for the first time in my life.
Christians preach peace through Christ, White argues; “Not the mere possibility of peace, but a real, established, God-ordained peace that has already been brought about and completed in the work of Jesus Christ.” With this the Catholic Church wholeheartedly agrees. But White then suggests that the Catholic Church “[invites] people to try to make peace” or to “bring [something] in their hands in an attempt to buy peace.” Buy peace? This does not even resemble Catholic teaching, and I’m not quite sure how to refute it. Presumably, White thinks that because we have to “work” for our salvation, we have to “work” to make peace with God?
Christ, in Himself, in his finished work on the Cross, is our peace, argues White. All is found in Christ, and we add nothing to His perfect work. With this too the Catholic Church wholeheartedly agrees. “His work on the Cross is the means by which we who are sinful can be at peace with our holy God. . . . We are incapable of making peace ourselves — all sides agree to that” (emphasis mine). I thought we were trying to buy our peace? Yes, we do agree that we are incapable of making peace ourselves, of doing anything at all to approach God, our salvation, or His peace on our own. “But beyond this, we are incapable of maintaining [emphasis White’s] peace with God if, in fact, our relationship with Him is based on anything other than the firm foundation of he Just One who died for the injust.” Yes. This is why we base our faith on Christ and His work of salvation — and nothing else.
Arriving at the summit of his argument, White presents:
Justification is by faith because it is in harmony with grace. Grace — the free and unmerited favor of God — cannot be earned, purchased, or merited. By nature it is free. Faith has no merit in and of itself. It performs no meritorious work so as to gain grace or favor.
White clearly misunderstands the plain face of Catholic teaching (I cherry-pick for brevity’s sake, not to make my argument seem stronger than it is; please read the whole chapter if you’d like; you will find it is consistent):
Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life (Cf. Jn 1:12-18; 17:3; Rom 8:14-17; 2 Pet 1:3-4). [CCC 1996].
Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men. Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy. Its purpose is the glory of God and of Christ, and the gift of eternal life (Romans 3:21-26, cf. Council of Trent : DS 1529) [CCC 1992].
White announces, “I have an abiding certainty of acceptance by God. Do you? Not a temporary state where things are all right.” He compares the Catholic view of “peace” to a “cease-fire” in wartime, in which “shooting might break out at any moment.” “If our relationship with God is such that it might break down in the next instant, resulting in enmity between us and God once again,” he asserts, “we do not have biblical peace.”
Again White demonstrates that he fundamentally misunderstands the Catholic faith — if not the Christian faith. When I sin as a Christian, that does not put me at “enmity” with God. Does White conceive of a wrathful, vengeful, monstrous God out to destroy sinners, to turn His sheep out of His fold the moment they wander? Is that the God White thinks Catholics conceive of? No. Our God is loving and merciful. And as long as I am following God, I will always have the peace and assurance that He will be there to forgive me, heal me, restore me; to catch me when I fall. The danger of mortal sin is not that it turns a wrathful God against a sinner, but that it turns a wayward sinner away from God (CCC 1855, 1856). Mortal sin, in the Catholic view, does entail a fall from grace (CCC 1861); but this is not because God has taken away His grace, but because the sinner has chosen to walk away from it. And God will always welcome us back with open and merciful arms. The analogy is not to “shooting” breaking out between opposing forces (God and the sinner), as White suggests, but to the Prodigal Son, having lost his entire inheritance, and starving in the pigpen, returning home to his merciful Father — to an endless and unconditional well of grace, mercy, forgiveness, and healing.
Since justification is a one-time event in the evangelical mind, covering all the sins a sinner has ever committed or will ever commit — since salvation, in White’s view, happens the moment one becomes a Christian and can never be lost — White judges the Catholic concept by the same all-or-nothing mentality; either one is lost or one is saved. But for the Catholic, justification is a lifelong process. We are journeying on a pilgrimage toward salvation, and we will reach it at the end of our lives, if we don’t stray from the road. Falling into sin, losing grace, losing peace is a setback. I fall and I get hurt. But I find so much more peace and security and comfort in knowing that there is a merciful Physician who will always receive me, heal me, and put me back on the road — who will bind up my wounds and restore me to grace — than in pretending, as an evangelical, that I never lost grace at all. Denying one is hurt doesn’t make the hurt go away; it only delays or prevents the healing.