Just for Catholics - Testimonies

Jesus No Longer Obscured

By DuWayne Lee

The January 26, 1991 issue of America, published by the Jesuits, featured the article "Coming to Grips With Losses." It was written by Mark Christensen who eight years earlier left the Roman Catholic Church for Protestant Evangelicalism. Near the end of his article Mr. Christensen wrote "I was drawn by the unobscured centrality of Christ constantly kept in the fore through the preaching of the gospel." Speaking of himself and others, he stated, "We left because we met Jesus Christ, and He changed our lives in a way we had never known in the Catholic Church."

By what I consider to have been the providential grace of God I count myself among those who were also drawn by "the unobscured centrality of Christ" that I found proclaimed in the gospel in many evangelical churches. I am aware, of course, that many devout Roman Catholics are offended at the suggestion that the centrality of Jesus Christ is obscured in their church. But that was my experience. I speak for no one else.

I was born and raised in a devout Roman Catholic home. I participated in the sacramental life of the church through baptism, confirmation, regular confession and attendance at Mass. Relative to my baptism I can identify with the experience of the Trappist Monk Thomas Merton who, in his book The Seven Story Mountain says this about his baptism in the Anglican Church, "I don't think there was much power in the waters of baptism I got in Prades to untwist the warping of my essential freedom or loose me from the devils that hung like vampires on my soul."(pg.6) Years later he was baptized again in the Catholic Church by a Father Moore. He described that baptism as an "immense grace" after which he said he "simply slipped into the ranks of the millions of tepid and dull and sluggish and indifferent Christians who live a life that is still half animal who barely put up a struggle to keep the breath of grace alive in their souls." (pg. 251)

Several years after leaving the Catholic Church I graduated from a fine Christian College (now the University of Northwestern) and four years later from Bethel Theological Seminary which was followed by thirty-eight years of pastoral ministry in fellowship with the Baptist General Conference. During that time I had the joy of completing a Doctor of Ministry program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

As I reflect upon what it was in the Roman Catholic Church that in great measure obscured for me the centrality of Jesus Christ three things come to mind .

Roman Catholic Sacerdotalism

The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines sacerdotalism as, "Religious belief emphasizing the powers of priests as essential mediators between God and mankind."

In his encyclical Mediator Dei Pope Pius XII wrote that Roman Catholic priests are "the instruments God uses to communicate supernatural life...Let then all who would live in Christ flock to their priests. By them they will be supplied with the comforts and food of the spiritual life. From them they will procure the medicine of salvation assuring their cure and happy recovery from the fatal sickness of their sin." (Paragraph 43)1

The Protestant theologian B.B. Warfield described sacerdotalism as "God in working salvation does not operate upon the human soul directly, but indirectly. A human factor is thus intruded between the saving grace of God and its effective operation in the souls of men, and this human factor is made the determining factor in salvation."2

By way of critiquing that understanding of the New Testament minister it would be difficult to improve upon the following. "The Kingdom of Christ has no sacerdotal system. It interposes no sacrificial tribe or class between God and men, by whose intervention alone God is reconciled and man is forgiven. Each individual member holds personal communion with the Divine Head. To Him immediately he is responsible, and from Him directly he obtains pardon and draws strength." (J.B. Lightfoot) 3

"What we deny when we deny sacerdotalism is that the Christian minister is the counterpart of the Aaronic priest, that his work, or part of his work, is to offer any sacrifice other than which all saints offer, the sacrifice of praise, the sacrifice of self. He has no commission, not the slightest to come between the individual and God in Christ. The individual soul is always divinely free to come directly to God in Christ, to have eternal life." (H.C.G. Moule) 4

The Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung, by no means a favorite author among conservative Catholics, writes in his book Why Priests? "Unlike the pagan or Jewish cult, the Christian needs no priest as a mediator at the innermost part of the temple with God himself. Rather, he is granted an ultimate, immediacy to God which no ecclesiastical authority can destroy or ever take from him."(pg.50).

It is not surprising then that nowhere in the New Testament is a minister, i.e. an elder (presbyteros) or an overseer (episcopos) ever called or assigned the function of a priest. According to J.B. Lightfoot it is the third century church father Cyprian who bears the major responsibility for seeing the Christian minister as a counterpart to the priests in the Old Testament. He writes: "He (Cyprian) treats all the Old Testament passages which refer to the privileges, the sanctions, the duties and the responsibilities of the Aaronic
priesthood as applying to the offices of the Christian church." 5

It is also not surprising that in my youth the Roman Catholic Church was more an object of my faith than was the person of Jesus Christ. Instead of my relationship to the church being dependent upon my relationship to Christ (as it is now), my relationship to Christ was seen to be dependent upon my relationship to the church. Nowhere in Holy Scripture is the church, to say nothing about a particular denominational expression of the church, an object of faith. That alone is reserved for the person and redeeming work of Jesus Christ.

In his book, The Protest Of A Troubled Protestant, evangelical theologian Harold O.J. Brown warned against what he called, "the danger of a false trust." He wrote, "Where the system of doctrine is such that it draws our attention elsewhere, whether to other intercessors, to a sacramental system, to an authoritative hierarchy, to any other substitute object of trust, there is a real danger that the essential element of a personal trust in Christ will be downgraded and even destroyed" (pg. 152).

Nothing in my experience as an Evangelical illustrates how my thinking and feeling have changed as much as the kind of hymns and choruses that I now sing to and about Jesus Christ which I would never have imagined singing as a Roman Catholic even if I had know them. The only hymn that I recall learning as a child was directed to Mary, "Mother Dear, 0 pray for Me."

Roman Catholic Marian Devotion

A second factor that for me at least helped to obscure the centrality of Christ as it is set forth in the gospel, the place of Mary in the theology and devotion of Roman Catholicism.

I understand, of course, that no informed Roman Catholic ever gives to Mary the devotion due to God alone. Here I can do no better than share the comments of a former Roman Catholic after he observed the Procession of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Melrose Park near Chicago.

"I must admit, I have zero tolerance for the veneration of Mary common to these events. I understand the proper Catholic distinction between veneration of Mary (hyperdulia)and worship of God (latria) but this distinction gets lost on most laypeople. Such devotion strikes me as idolatrous, and, equally problematic, it eclipses the role of Christ as the one mediator between God and man" (I Timothy 2:5) 6

But not only among Roman Catholic laymen is devotion to Mary excessive. I was taken aback when I learned of the apostolic motto chosen by the late Pope John Paul II was totus tuus, totally yours. That was directed not to Jesus Christ, but to Mary. I find it difficult to see how any Christians can address words like that to anyone other than God our Father or his Son, Jesus Christ.

It was perhaps those kind of expressions of devotion that prompted the harsh judgment of the internationally known theologian Karl Barth. He wrote, "In the doctrine and worship of Mary there is disclosed the one heresy of the Roman Catholic Church which explains all the rest." 7

Why would someone of Karl Barth's reputation say something so critical? Perhaps it is because "whatever is added to the work of Christ actually takes away from it" (J. l. Packer) or in words already cited "it eclipses the role of Christ as the one mediator between God and man."

On the failure of Vatican II to curb Marian devotion in the Catholic Church, Philip Edgumbe Hughes charged, "At no point in Romanism (I would not use that term) is the conflict between tradition and Scripture more evident than in the cult of Mary (by cult is meant a system of religious worship or ritual). One can confidently predict that the more scripture is studied, the more the foundations of the Marian cult will be shaken. So far, however, official pronouncements have shown no indication of any desire to curb this cult. On the contrary modern Popes have been the foremost in promoting it." 8

Justification and Merit

A third factor in Roman Catholic theology that obscures the centrality of Jesus Christ in the gospel is its emphasis on merit in the matter of obtaining eternal life. In the Catholic Church's response to the "Joint Declaration of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation on the Doctrine of Justification, paragraph three reads in part, "We can therefore say that eternal life is, at one and the same time, grace and the reward given by God for good works and merits".9 That statement reflects the words of Canon 24 of the Council of Trent which states that "If anyone says that justice received is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works, but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification let him be anathema." 10

In contrast to that understanding of the way to eternal life, Evangelicalism echoes a central affirmation of the Protestant Reformation that "salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone because of Christ alone."

I offer the following example of what certainly would have been my mindset as a Roman Catholic if I had been asked about the matter of eternal life. Peter Kreeft is a philosophy professor at Boston College and in one of his books he writes this about his students, "There are still many who do not know the data, the gospel. Most of my Catholic students at Boston College have never heard it. They do not even know how to get to heaven. When I ask them what they would say to God if they died tonight and God asked them why he should take them into heaven, nine out of ten do not even mention Jesus Christ. Most of them say they have been good or kind or sincere or did their best. So I seriously doubt God will undo the Reformation until he sees to it that Luther's reminder of Paul's gospel has been heard throughout the church."11 Fortunately some (I hope many) Roman Catholics know better than Dr. Kreeft's students.

Richard Mouw is the president of Fuller Theological Seminary. He tells about a conversation he had with a Roman Catholic priest-theologian friend who for several years headed up a Vatican office in Rome. Dr. Mouw told him about a cousin of his who served as dean of the Greater Europe Mission Italian Bible Institute. "What kind of school is that?" the priest asked. "They train people to evangelize Italian Catholics," Mouw answered. The priest replied "Thank God, somebody is doing that. We certainly have not had any success.

That school will be in my prayers."12 I suggest that Peter Kreeft would have agreed with that priest-theologian.

In a book that he co-edited with Chuck Colson, the late Roman Catholic priest-scholar Richard John Neuhaus wrote, "When I come before the judgment throne, I will plead the promise of God in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. I will not plead any work that I have done, though I will thank God that he has enabled me to do some good...But in seeking entry into that heavenly kingdom, I will plead Christ and Christ alone." And then he quotes the lines of a well-known evangelical invitation hymn:

Just as I am without one plea
But that Thy blood was shed for me
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee
0 Lamb of God, I come. 13

No evangelical could improve on those fine words of Father Neuhaus.

The church of Jesus Christ has played a very important part in my life. I have taught in it for the last 50 years. I am challenged by Mary's obedient response to the call of God, "Be it done unto me according to thy word", even though I could never attribute to her the lofty title "Queen of Heaven" to say nothing about seeing her being our co-redeemer. And though I teach the importance of good works in the life of the

Christian, I make it clear that Christians perform them not in order that they might be declared right with God (justified) but because by grace through faith they already have been. The Apostle Paul could not have made it more clear. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Happily, what once was obscured for me, the centrality of Jesus Christ as it is set forth in the gospel, is no longer obscured. Solo Deo Gloria!

1. Accessible online

2. The Plan of Salvation pg. 52

3. St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians, pg. 181

4. The Atonement: A Witness against Sacredotalism

5. St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians, pg. 58

6. Lifting Jesus High, Chris Castaloado, The Gospel Coalition Blog, August 16, 2012

7. Quoted in Revolution in Rome, David F. Wells, pg. 136

8. Christianity Today, December 8, 1967

9. Accessible online

10. Accessible online

11. Ecumenical Jihad, pg. 36

12. Books and Culture, November/December, 2011, p. 34

13. Evangelicals and Catholics Together, pg. 212