The Pope, The Church, and The Debate Over Salvation

Paul Dean


Casablanca is considered by critics to be one of the greatest movies of all time. The characters are often quoted and misquoted. Bogart is too often misquoted as having said, "play it again, Sam." The reference is to the song "As Time Goes By." Sam was told to "play it," or "play it Sam," or "play 'As Time Goes By,'" but he was never told to "play it again, Sam." However, the spirit of the request is upheld in that quote as Bogart and Bergman had to hear their song again on more than one occasion. It's a good song and Casablanca fans love to hear it over and over again. It's too bad that some songs should never be played again.


Since the Reformation, and more to the point, since the publication of "Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT)," the song concerning the doctrine of justification has been played with uncertainty and compromise all too often. Among others on the Catholic side of the fence, Father Richard John Neuhaus asserted that Catholics and Protestants are not really that far apart doctrinally speaking. On the Protestant side of the fence it was Chuck Colson blowing the ecumenical horn. Shockingly (after all, Colson is not really a theologian), none other than J.I. Packer himself jumped on the ECT bandwagon (what was he thinking). The upshot of it all was the Catholics and Protestants are in essential agreement over justification and no need exists to even evangelize Catholics because they are already saved. All that "Diet of Worms" stuff and "Here I stand" stuff and the slaughter of many an Anabaptist was all a big misunderstanding.


Of course, some of the original signers of ECT tried to clarify and make amends. R. Scott Clark, in an important article "Evangelicals and Catholics Together: A Postmortem," stated that this issue "sustained a second attack in 1998 with publication of ECT II or The Gift of Salvation." That document failed in regard to the biblical doctrine of justification and was "followed by an attempted remedy, the June, 1999 publication, in Christianity Today, of 'The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration.' Not to be upstaged, the mainline Lutherans also signed a pact with Roman Catholics in 2000 known as the ‘

'Joint Declaration.'" The Christianity Today article got it partly right at least.


These issues are swirling around today, that is, the song is being sung again today, in light of Pope John Paul II's passing. An alarming number of evangelicals seem to dance around the issue of the Pope's eternal destiny. No doubt exists that we cannot judge his heart nor do we know what happened in the waning moments of his life. But these issues give us no reason to equivocate on what we know to be true barring some deathbed miracle. It should not be our purpose to bash or to criticize the Pope or anyone else for that matter. It is our purpose however, to be a voice in the midst of confusion, compromise, and error.


Before we strike the chord of doctrinal truth, we may indeed affirm this Pope's stand against Communism, relativism, abortion, euthanasia, and postmodern unrestraint. Many have done so and in a way that does not compromise gospel truth.


But what of gospel truth? The Pope affirmed and propagated a system of works as opposed to grace alone. In so doing, by virtue of his position, he perpetrated more evil upon his followers than anyone else in the last twenty-seven years. In Luke 17:1-2, we read,  the words of Jesus: "Then He said to the disciples, 'It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.'"


In his book, The Doctrines That Divide, Erwin Lutzer summarizes a number of historical developments and theological maxims in the Roman Church. When Constantine came to power, he used sacramentalism as a means of gaining political power and control over the masses. Great power was vested in the church itself as it held the power to give or withhold life in the Roman Catholic view. Salvation does not exist apart from the church as a web of sacraments developed which supposedly contained a reservoir of grace from which to draw and/or use to exert control over the people. The number of sacraments in the Catholic system was fixed at seven just prior to 1500.


Assurance of salvation is impossible in the Catholic system as no one sacrament contains enough grace to save. Adherents must hope they participate in enough sacraments to have enough grace to be saved. The sacrament of penance is that act by which sins after baptism are forgiven by absolution through a priest. The priest is the one who prescribes what the penance should be depending upon his mood. One can still receive remission of temporal punishment in whole or in part (plenary or partial indulgence) of sin already forgiven through the receipt of indulgences. 


Today, when the Pope gives blessings at the Christmas or Easter Mass at St. Peter's Square, those in attendance, those watching by television, and those listening by radio receive plenary indulgences for past sins. In this system, one's relationship with and to God is not as important as one's relationship with and to the church. In fact, the efficacy of the sacrament is in the sacrament itself and has nothing to do with the faith of the individual. The Roman Catholic system asks sinners to look to the church for forgiveness and not to God.


In the Roman system, grace is infused into the soul of an infant through the sacrament of baptism. That infant is now regenerate and must maintain his position in a state of grace through the sacramental system. Once again, Constantine had a role to play in the proliferation of the practice. While it rose out of sacramentalism, Constantine had an empire to advance and a world to conquer. He needed a way to keep the conquered in check and declared Christianity as the state religion. Infant baptism became the link by which the church and the state were united. It is a hallmark of Catholic theology that the church has the right to use the state to enforce Christianity upon all citizens. Historically, heretics are killed and dissenters are massacred.


In the Mass, what we would call the Lord's Supper, the doctrine of transubstantiation is held to firmly. Upon consecration of the elements by the priest, the bread and the wine literally transform into the body and blood of Christ. According To Paschasius Radbertis (818 at Corbie), the outward appearance of the elements is a veil that deceives our senses. Bishop Humbert in 1089 said "the very body of Christ is held in the priests hand, broken and chewed by the teeth of the faithful." Christ Himself is resacrificed in the Mass. The same sacrifice is repeated each time in which the Mass is engaged. The sacrifice of Christ in the Mass is a true propitiatory sacrifice identical with the cross event. Priests are seen as those with extraordinary powers to change the elements in this way and in many cases, they are seen as having the power to grant or withhold eternal life.


We’re playing the song again and we will do so tomorrow in Part Two. The problem is, unlike the timeless beauty of "As Time Goes By," this song gets worse.


[Part Two Tomorrow]