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.

10 thoughts on “The Roman Catholic Controversy: The Gospel of Peace

  1. I LOVE this! When you are an evangelical and you sin, you’re kinda left in “limbo” (in the non-Catholic sense :p). I’ve repented but do I know I’m forgiven? What does repentence look like? What does forgiveness feel like? Am I belittling God’s grace by confessing too much – or not enough? But the Catholic understanding of grace, confession and forgiveness fits so much better with the Bible – and with our lives. Thank you. 🙂

    • You’re welcome. 🙂 I feel exactly the same way. The evangelical view toward sin and repentance just doesn’t offer any avenue for confession and repentance and healing. When we sin, what are we supposed to do? Ask God for forgiveness? Or are we “already forgiven,” as some say? And what about the sin? How do we stop? How can we be restored? Confession and Penance, for Catholics, is not “punishment”; it’s medicine — it’s what we do to be healed and restored.

      In the evangelical view, there is not even any real incentive to stop sinning. It’s all already forgiven, isn’t it? Nothing I can do will make God stop loving me and forgiving me — so he understands I’m just a sinner, right? He understands I’m “totally depraved” and can’t stop doing this, right? So I think I’m just going to keep doing it, okay? The pain of being caught in that cycle — of being trapped in sin, and suffering its spiritual consequences in myself again and again — and not having anyone or anything to help me out — was excruciating, and made me miserable and depressed for most of my life. And now, peace. The Catechism says, “The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes” (CCC 2015). And it’s so true. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving have made all the difference in my life. God, if only I had known.

  2. White is right about one thing. We are different. The early Church, and the Orthodox, and the Catholics teach that salvation is a process: we are saved by His Grace; we are being saved by His Grace; and we shall be saved at the last by His Grace and Mercy. The early Church did not teach that we could not reject that Grace and turn from it back to our sins as a dog to its vomit. Once saved always saved is not Gospel teaching, it is a man made doctrine.

    • I agree, but I still believe that despite our differences, we serve the same Christ and trust in the same grace. I’m going to write a post sometime soon about the different conceptions of salvation and their implications for the Christian life.

      • That would be interesting to read. I think there are a lot of us who do believe that we serve the same Christ and trust in the same Grace – but there seems to be a lot of resistance to that idea.

        • I believe getting people to recognize that we’re brothers and sisters in the Lord is the first step toward reconciliation. The world is supposed to know we’re Christians by our love for each other — but right now some of our sects can’t even love each other as we love our enemies, let alone as we love our brothers and sisters.

          • What a profound truth is in that my friend. I am trying in my posts yesterday and today to say something about that, but you say it better 🙂

  3. (Just catching up on this series since I was away for a day and a half)

    I can see why you are so baffled by this chapter. I’m not sure I understand White’s point either. It seems as if he is trying to make an emotional point or something. “I’m at peace, but I don’t think Catholics are.” Although his brand of “once saved, always saved” evangelicalism is different from the more Arminian-flavoured evangelicalism I had a brush with. Still, even with the Arminian “you’re saved, but can fall away” I always experienced a lack of peace as well. Ok, I’ve sinned and repented. Is everything cool God? Are we good? But with the sacrament of penance, the priest mystically “takes on” God to grant us forgiveness. (Although I’m sure there’s a better and more eloquent way of describing penance!)

    • I can see what White is thinking. In the evangelical mind, true peace comes from being unconditionally washed in the Blood, free from condemnation, etc. “Works’ salvation,” having to *do something* to be okay with God, means justification is conditional, we have to prove ourselves before God, and if we screw up, we’ve lost our salvation and God kicks us to the curb (so he thinks we think). It proceeds from some fundamental misunderstandings, as I said. “Works’ salvation” is a truly heinous charge not only because it’s not true, but because no Catholic thinks about it in those terms at all. Cooperating with Christ’s grace is not “work” at all — for it’s freely offered and just as unconditional as White believes; one only has to accept it.

      I think of Penance as going to the doctor. I’ve tripped and fallen and wounded myself, and the priest is there to help me get better. He absolves me of the guilt of sin and clears me to be right before God; and on God’s end, He gives me a fresh dose of His grace to wash the guilt away. And then Penance — it’s not a legalistic punishment as some people think, put a prescription for healing, for returning me to strength, for restoring me to the Church, and for conquering the sin in the future.

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