The Roman Catholic Controversy: The Gospel of Peace

The Roman Catholic Controversy

The third post in my series on James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy.

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 [1547]: 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.

Peace

As Kristen said, I am now in the “Countdown to Catholic.” 21 days to Easter…

Something major that I intended to write about as I set out, but have thus far neglected to, is the “affinities” — those beautiful and glorious aspects of Catholicism that have drawn me. Tonight I thought I would begin with the first one that comes to mind when I explain my reasons for becoming Catholic: peace.

As I’ve alluded to once or twice before, I really struggle in my life with depression and anxiety and fear. The older and the more I’ve grown as a Christian, the more and more central has been my longing and need for inner peace. My favorite Scripture for a long time has been in Philippians 4:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:4-7 ESV

When I began attending Mass a little more than a year ago, one of the first things I was struck with was the pervading sense of peace I found there. There is peace in the inherent order of the Mass — in its symmetry — in everything happening that is supposed to happen; in everything being said that’s supposed to be said; in nothing being wasted. There is peace in the church itself. To Catholics, the nave of the church is always a house of prayer, for reverence and worship and contemplation, not a place to socialize or chatter or roughhouse. I had the sense that I had entered a consecrated space.

And peace is central to the Mass itself — to the very Catholic consciousness. I count at least eight or nine times in the liturgy of the Mass when peace is imparted, all of which speak from Scripture:

Gloria

Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to people of good will.

Lord’s Prayer

Priest: Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days, that, by the help of your mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Sign of Peace

Priest: Lord Jesus Christ, who said to your Apostles, Peace I leave you, my peace I give you, look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church, and graciously grant her peace and unity in accordance with your will. Who live and reign for ever and ever.

All: Amen.

Priest: The Peace of the Lord be with you always.

All: And with your spirit.

Deacon or Priest: Let us offer each other a sign of peace.

This simple act — the act of turning to my fellow parishioners and wishing them peace — “Peace be with you” — is one of the most precious parts of the Mass to me. It is a moment of bonding, of sharing, with people I may not even know, but who are my beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, with whom I share in His love. On some days, that bonding makes the difference between feeling lonely and depressed and feeling Christ’s love. I never even realized, until I started coming to Mass, how much Christ Himself talked about peace. “Peace I leave you; my peace I give you” (John 14:27). I had read and heard these words before, but they failed to make an impact until I felt them in action.

Agnus Dei

All: Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: grant us peace.

Jesus is the Lamb of God, who not only takes away the sins of the world, but grants us peace. These words are power and life to me. And more than in any other church I’ve been a part of, these words and this peace are held forth by the Catholic Church.

Motion and Emotion

My posts here, after starting so strong and frequent last semester, have slowed to a trickle now, it seems. I regret that. The troubles and stresses and demands of school have dogpiled on. And, more significantly, I am grappling with serious depression.

Growing up, I always heard that “Jesus is the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow” — with the understanding that Jesus is the same, living, victorious Savior, no matter what we’re going through; that we should remain hopeful and thankful and trusting. But in the emotion-centric Christianity I grew up in, this usually amounted to, “Be happy anyway! What, you’re not happy? You don’t have the Joy of the Lord?” If I wasn’t visibly happy, rejoicing, dancing — if I didn’t feel the joy, the excitement, the high emotion — then there was something wrong with me; that I wasn’t getting through to God.

It’s true that St. Paul writes, in one of my favorite chapters of the Bible, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4 ESV). But I don’t think Paul is writing about emotion here. The rest of the passage is key: “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” He’s not talking about joy and peace and anxiety as emotions: he’s talking about an attitude of hope and trust in God toward suffering. Even when desperation is facing, we know that our Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Or, as we Catholics would say, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.”

One of the things I love most about the Catholic Church, especially in these times, is something that as a Protestant I never thought I’d say: I love that I can go through the motions. I love that even in the days and weeks when I’m not feeling it, there are motions laid out through which I can approach God anyway, without the engagement of my emotions — prayers and actions laid out by holy men through the ages that are a time-proven formula for worship. Participating in the liturgy is itself an act of worship — even if I’m feeling like crap, my being there and taking part honor God and bring me into his presence, through doing and not feeling. And the liturgy, through leading and guiding me through those actions, keeps me on a proper track through the wilderness; it gives me a framework for raising myself to God, for pulling myself up off the bottom. It makes it easy to worship God, to do the things I’m supposed to do; the things that ultimately bring me back to peace.

In an evangelical church, my worship felt empty if it wasn’t heartfelt; in the Catholic Church, my worship is efficacious because I’m there doing it. I always used to deride “just going through the motions” as “empty religion” — and certainly, if there’s no true conviction behind them, if they become habitual and routine and insincere, that is a problem — but it’s just as equally empty if there’s all emotion and no conviction. And sometimes “going through the motions” is all I can do; and in those times, at last, I am assured that it is enough; that God meets me where I am.

Catholicism is a faith of motion, not emotion; of doing, not feeling. Certainly often I feel, and feel deeply; but even when I don’t, I know that my worship is moving me toward God.

Kyrie, eleison

Kyrie, eleison.
Christe, eleison.
Kyrie, eleison.

The Kyrie is an early Christian prayer, with antecedents even before Christianity, with which we open our daily Mass most days at our parish church (we sing it after the Confiteor, “I confess,” in our Sunday Mass). It’s transliterated from the Greek, Κύριε, ἐλέησον — “Lord, have mercy” — and borrowed directly from the litanies of Eastern Christianity. It’s simultaneously a prayer of petition and thanksgiving, asking God to have mercy on our sins, as part of our penitential rite, and thanking Him for his great mercy and grace in our lives.

Last night I had an argument with a girl on the Internet, and reacted defensively and with anger and pride. I woke up this morning under a burden of guilt, shame, and embarrassment, not just for my ungraciousness in dealing with that situation, but for my whole demeanor yesterday. What kind of arrogant fool goes into a church meeting and signs documents in Latin? And then goes home, full of pride and self-importance, to write about his own personal transformation? As if his life and his experience were worth reading about?

I have always struggled with pride in blogging. How can one have a positive enough attitude about oneself and one’s life that one would write about it publicly, sharing oneself with the world, and yet not become so puffed up about it that one is consumed with pride? How can I blog humbly?

I was beating myself up so badly all this morning that I figured I would come home and delete this blog. But then I went to noon Mass, and with the Kyrie, threw myself upon the mercy of my Father…

At Mass Sunday, Ms. Betty, our organist and pianist, who’s not Catholic but Baptist, and who plays a rich and diverse repertoire of Christian music, stunned me all of a sudden with a song from my early childhood, that went straight to the tenderest part of my heart. I was taught it as a child at a Christian conference in Richmond we used to go to, and though I hadn’t heard it since, its simple words have never left me:

I cast all my cares upon You;
I lay all of my burdens down at Your feet.
And any time I don’t know what to do,
I will cast all my cares upon You.

And that’s who my Father is. His mercies are new every morning (Lam 3:22-23). Today when I laid down my burdens at His feet, I immediately found His peace. And throughout the rest of my day, was filled with love for Him and for others.

(I google and find, to my delight, that the song is “Cares Chorus” by Kelly Willard, first recorded back in 1978. And it’s a wonderful recording. And a new addition to my collection.)