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Divergent views of salvation fuel Catholical-evangelical division

DALLAS (BP)–If they had left out theology, maybe they could have gotten somewhere.
Five years ago, when a group of evangelicals and Catholics, including Southern Baptist church member Charles Colson and evangelical theologian J.I. Packer, issued “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: the Christian Mission in the Third Millennium” (ECT), opposition ensued from other evangelicals, such as Presbyterian thinkers R.C. Sproul and James Montgomery Boice, who winced at the document’s various theological assertions.
One manifestation of the opposition came in the formation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (ACE), who issued a 1996 “Cambridge Declaration” response to ECT.
When the ECT movement issued a second document in 1997, “The Gift of Salvation,” ACE countered with “An Appeal to Fellow Evangelicals: An Alliance Response to the new ECT Document, ‘The Gift of Salvation.'”
Foundational to the ECT-ACE debate is the 500-year-old Reformation doctrine of justification.
Reading the ECT documents and the ACE responses side by side, it is apparent that if theology had been left out of the original document — if it had been merely a political alliance or a cultural agreement — there may not have been a controversy at all. ACE, in its second document, for example, approvingly describes the first ECT document as “a call to the Christian world to form a united front against the destructive influences of secular culture … .”
What ACE protests is the affirmation of a theological unity, assessing both ECT documents as “seriously flawed” in theology.
While there are disagreements between Catholics and evangelicals in such matters as theology proper (God the Father), christology (God the Son) or bibliology (inspiration of Scripture), a major ongoing point of disagreement between ACE and ECT involves the area of soteriology (salvation).
For ACE, the problem with ECT is “the problem of ambiguity,” which involves definition-of-terms issues. Although it may be oversimplifying the case, it seems the Roman Catholic Church historically has fused the concepts of justification and sanctification, using the two terms as synonyms, while Protestants have continued to insist that the doctrines are distinct yet inseparable and sequential components of salvation.
For Protestants, justification is the beginning of sanctification. For Catholics, it is the opposite; justification is the end of sanctification. The Protestant formula has been described as “faith = justification + works (sanctification)” while the Catholic view puts works on the wrong side of the equation: “faith + works (sanctification) = justification.”
According to the second ACE document, these are “two opposite and irreconcilable methods of justification: one by an inherent [infused righteousness], the other by an imputed righteousness; one by the personal obedience of the believer, the other by the vicarious obedience of Christ; one by the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in us, the other by Christ’s finished work for us.”
When a Catholic uses the term “justification,” he has in mind a subjective, internal process (human works cooperating with divine grace); what a Protestant means by the same word is an objective and external event or act (divine grace operating through human though non-meritorious faith alone).
What the Catholics never have seemed to fully taken into account is the fact that two different words are used in Scripture for “justify” and “sanctify,” the Greek verbs “dikaioo” and “hagiadzo,” respectively. So they simply cannot be interchanged indiscriminately; each refers to a distinct component of salvation as a whole.
As Millard Erickson points out in his systematic theology, “Christian Theology,” the verbal endings themselves provide linguistic evidence that justification is “forensic,” or legal, which is the Protestant view. The ending on the Greek verb “sanctify” (-adzo) signifies “to make something a particular way,” as in “to make holy.” But the ending on the Greek “justify” (-oo) carries the meaning “to declare something to be a particular way,” in which case “dikaioo” means “to declare to be just.”
ACE’s main point of contention with ECT, then, seems to be that only by the severe stretching of terms by questionable interpretation can the Catholic embrace reformational principles such as justification by faith. Therefore, there is a false sense of soteriological agreement in the ECT documents, the ACE contends, which simply allows each side to remain in its historic position, unmoved despite the appearance of a convergence.
What’s conclusive is that all evangelicals seem to agree that cultural unity among different groups pursuing the same goals is desirable and effectual, whether in ending abortion, for example, or keeping euthanasia from being legalized. What’s inconclusive is how much if any theological consensus is necessary as a prerequisite to achieving conservative moral reform.

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  • Dave Couric