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Reformers’ view of salvation embraced by Catholic theologians

NEW YORK (BP)–A decidedly Protestant view of salvation was affirmed in “The Gift of Salvation,” a statement released Nov. 12 by a loose-knit group of Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians who have been meeting for prayer, study and discussion over the past three years.
The meaning of salvation has been a matter of fundamental disagreement between Roman Catholics and Protestants since the Reformation more than 450 years ago.
In the six-page statement, agreement that justification by faith in Jesus Christ alone constitutes the scriptural understanding of salvation, a central tenet of Protestant faiths, appeared to be endorsed by the Roman Catholic and Protestant signatories, which included several Southern Baptists.
“We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide),” the document reads. Elsewhere saying, “We agree that justification is not earned by any good works or merits of our own; it is entirely God’s gift.”
“This is the first time that evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics have publicly agreed to a common understanding of salvation,” said Richard John Neuhaus of the Religion and Public Life Institute, a Roman Catholic signee and editor of the journal First Things.
The statement grew out of an initiative known as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” begun in 1994. The group’s initial report that year noted a growing “convergence and cooperation” between evangelicals and Catholics in many public tasks, according to Neuhaus.
The original ECT document sparked considerable debate among Southern Baptists, however. While intended by the signers to create greater cooperation on moral and social concerns between evangelicals and Catholics, the storm of protest over the document prompted Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and Larry Lewis, president of the then-Home Mission Board, to remove their signatures from the document in April 1995.
The statement on salvation released Nov. 12 bears the signatures of Southern Baptists Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship and Timothy George, dean of the Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, Birmingham, Ala., and a former faculty member at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky.
Land, who reversed course Nov. 13 and removed his signature from the current document after agreeing to sign it earlier in the week, said nonetheless The Gift of Salvation is “a conscious clarification of the points that some considered ambiguous” in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document of 1994. “Having listened to the concerns, the effort here was to clarify,” he suggested.
In an introduction to the forthcoming release of the text of The Gift of Salvation in the December issue Christianity Today, Timothy George, a senior editor of the magazine, wrote: “‘The Gift of Salvation’ directly addresses two important topics of perceived ambiguity in ECT: the doctrine of justification by faith alone and the biblical mandate for world missions and world evangelization. Evangelicals believe that justification by faith alone is at the heart of the Gospel.
“This document explicitly states salvation by faith alone; it explicitly affirms the evangelistic impulse to witness to each other as well as others,” Land stated. “It is news that needs to shared that these Catholic signees are affirming that salvation is by faith alone and is to be understood in the Protestant Reformation’s understanding of sola fide. That is indeed news; that is indeed good news.”
Yet in a letter to Colson, Neuhaus and George, Land said after additional “reflective and objective” study of the statement, he concluded that readers will “misunderstand the document and possibly even feel the document is contradictory,” so he was removing his name from the document.
Although each of the signers of The Gift of Salvation noted they were “speaking not for, but from and to, our several communities,” Land said it was “abundantly clear” that he would be unable to convince Southern Baptists and others that he was signing as a private individual and not as a part of his “ministry role with the ERLC.”
Signers of the statement included: Bill Bright (Campus Crusade for Christ); Harold O.J. Brown (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School); Os Guinness (The Trinity Forum); Max Lucado (Oak Hills Church of Christ, San Antonio); Mark Noll (Wheaton College); J.I. Packer (Regent College, British Columbia); James Buckley (Loyola College in Maryland); Avery Dulles (Fordham University); Peter Kreeft (Boston College); Michael Novak (American Enterprise Institute); Thomas Rausch (Loyola Marymount University); George Weigel (Ethics and Public Policy Center).
Land said there is no need for conversation on such matters of Catholic doctrine as “the possibility for salvation for those who have not been evangelized, Marian devotion, purgatory and indulgences.” He said the only evangelical response to such issues can be “the rejection of the present Catholic understanding of these doctrines.”
Acknowledging that “persistent and serious differences” remain, George said he is confident the statement is in line with Baptist belief. “I don’t believe this document compromises one iota of historic Baptist theology or historic evangelical theology, in any way,” he insisted. “If I felt that, I wouldn’t have signed it and participated in it.”
George said Roman Catholics’ embrace of justification by faith through Christ alone should then bring them to reflect on numerous other matters of the Catholic faith: “If you really believe this as I think you sincerely do, then what does this say about your view of Mary, your view of purgatory, your view of indulgences, relics, of all these things that Roman Catholics still believe in?”
Evangelicals have historically used justification by faith alone as a criterion to judge “our practice, our worship and our theology,” George said, explaining the Reformers opposed the Catholic Church’s use of indulgences and some of the excesses of Marion piety and other matters that still exist.
“We still have to call our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters to a further reformation of the church based on the Word of God. That task is not finished,” George said.
Disagreeing with those who warn that mere theological discussions between individuals of different faiths as within the ECT initiative threaten to weaken denominational lines, Land said, “This was certainly not any attempt to blur distinctions, but instead is basically an attempt to do true ecumenism — a unity which is to be found in doctrine, not in any organizational or organic unity.
“The only true and worthy ecumenism is that unity which Jesus prayed for in John 17 and is based upon the Word of God,” Land said.
“This is a statement about clarification for one thing,” George said, “and it is also a statement that is made with a recognition that we seeking to speak with both clarity and charity to one another in a spirit of love but also a spirit seeking truth.
“We are not interested in Christian unity at the expense of Christian truth,” George continued. “We believe the only kind of unity that is worth having is a unity based on the truth of God’s Word in Scripture. That has been the guiding principle of our discussions. This is where we are; there are a lot of areas where we differ, and we talk about those in the document.
“The only institutional expression of that unity acceptable to me,” Land said, “is for all Christians to all ultimately come to an understanding that they are saved by their personal faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross and they are obedient to him by being immersed according to the ordinance of baptism — an act of obedience and testimony to the fact that they have accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior and thus become members of a New Testament church. In other words, the successful conclusion of true ecumenism would be all that all Christians would become Baptists.”
In the December Christianity Today article, George rejected “the kind of ecumenical euphoria which assumes the way to peace in the church is to downplay doctrine and theology,” saying he is committed to “an ecumenism of conviction” and not “an ecumenism of accommodation.”
In response to the 1994 ECT statement, Southern Baptists meeting in Orlando, Fla., in 1994 adopted a resolution on Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics that affirmed “the benefit of conversation with any religious group, which is willing objectively and openly to discuss their faith, and to examine it on the basis of Holy Scripture.” The resolution called on the SBC to continue evangelism and missionary witness among groups “not characterized by genuine faith in Christ alone.”
The Gift of Salvation document states, “In obedience to the Great Commission of our Lord, we commit ourselves to evangelizing everyone. We must share the fullness of God’s saving truth with all, including members of our several communities. Evangelicals must speak the gospel to Catholics and Catholics to Evangelicals, always speaking the truth in love … .”

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  • Dwayne Hastings