Thursday, July 30, 2009

Response 2 to REW on the Sign of the Cross

Thanks once again to REW for another set of thoughtful remarks. Once again, I'll respond in line with REW's text.

I'd like to clarify a couple things in my comments that appear to have been misconstrued. Most importantly, I did not intend to say, imply, or convey in any way that the sign of the Cross is, necessarily, an empty ritual. This is why I placed quotes around it.

Thank you for this clarification. Looking back, my response to the comment about "empty" ritual seems misplaced, and for this I offer my apologies. I did not mean to assume that you aligned your beliefs with those of Luther. Thus, I should have asked if Martin Luther would have been so bold as to accuse the apostles of promoting "empty" rituals (though it doesn't seem he would have, at least as far as the sign of the Cross is concerned).

As someone who has done quite a lot of reading in anti-Catholic materials (and by this, I don't mean to imply that your response is anti-Catholic), I can attest to the number of anti-Catholic apologists who believe that Catholic practices like the sign of the Cross are truly empty rituals. Given this sentiment, I always appreciate when non-Catholics distinguish between 1) what the ritual itself truly is and 2) the degree to which those who practice the ritual are aware of its profound significance and history.

I am acquainted with many Catholics for whom the act of crossing themselves carries great meaning and, I'm sure, is therefore valued by God. However, I've known many more Catholics who, themselves, do not know why they make the sign of the cross. In such cases, I would submit, it is an empty ritual.

With all due respect, I have to disagree with you here. I would suggest that the act of making the sign of the Cross has an intrinsic, objective meaning apart from the intentions of the one making it. Ideally, the person making it continually grows more aware of its meaning. After all, the sign of the Cross is God's invention, not man's; it was taught authoritatively through the first bishops of the Catholic Church from the first centuries of Christianity onward. It is our job to learn from these men why they insisted that their followers adopt this sign. (Recall here the Chesterton analogy.) For instance, is there something we can learn from their instruction about how we can use our bodies to worship God? Is there something we can learn about why God gave us bodies, and the role created matter can play in our spiritual lives? (Interestingly, many converts to the Catholic faith, especially former Protestant pastors, say that their former Protestant perspective didn't comprehend the full meaning of the incarnation in regard to the role of the body and of matter in God's economy of salvation.)

The modern, non-Christian take on sexuality might serve as another example to highlight the Christian understanding of sacramental signs. Modern non-Christians often treat the sex act merely as a means of achieving a certain pleasure; it is something, therefore, that can be enjoyed with however many partners one likes, with whatever gender one likes, etc. They take the position that sex is relative to whatever a particular subject makes of it. The Christian position is that God created sex and imbues it with a meaning that is essential to sexuality itself. The meaning of sexuality, therefore, is not the result of a subjective construction but is something objective that is discovered. In the former case, subjects puts themselves in God's position, making sex in their image. In the latter case, Christians (and others) put themselves in the humbler position of learning to understand the gift, even if the gift doesn't make that much sense at the outset.

In the case of human sexuality, we know as Christians that sexuality is made by God, and the problem is that people don't acknowledge its inherent meaning when they abuse it in various ways. In the same way, the sign of the Cross is never, in and of itself, an empty ritual, though there are some people who make the sign unaware or unconscious of its awesome power and significance. (The lack of faithfulness in making the sign limits the grace they receive from it...though who's to say if it is completely empty of grace? Who can judge the heart of the person making the sign, even if this person fumbles at an explanation of it?) Yet, the problem is not that the sign is suddenly empty, or even that God no longer values the sign. The problem is that some people don't acknowledge the power of the sign when they make it. Even more problematic are people who (often through no fault of their own) don't acknowledge the power, meaning, and origin of the sign and don't make. This is the group of people to whom my posts are directed, such that they will hear even more of the good news and through God's grace conform their lives to it.

I also believe that, generally speaking, the difference between what we perceive to be a poorly-made sign and a well-made sign is far smaller than the distance between a well-made sign and the ideal God holds for us. In other words, I don't put too much stock in how other people seem to respect or even understand the gifts of Christianity. The gifts are what they are, and no one will fully appreciate their depth until they enter heaven. The saints tell us all the time that if we truly new how much God loved us, we would die of joy. St. Pio once wrote of the Mass that "If we only knew how God regards this Sacrifice, we would risk our lives to be present at a single Mass." Similarly, I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that if we only knew how truly powerful the sign of the cross is, and how much God loves his children to "cross themselves," we would never stop making it. (Thus, I place myself under examination by my own blog post!) We would, as the earliest fathers of the church instruct us, make the sign before everything we do; we'd place the sign of the triune God on ourselves before we pray, eat, sleep, work, play, and do everything that we do each day. (See the links on the first posts to quotes from the early church fathers.)

Let me conclude by agreeing with you 100% that it is not good for people to go through rituals (whether they be the Mass, the Rosary, the sign of the Cross, etc.) without understanding their significance, for such people gain little grace from them. Who knows how much divine grace is lost when people daydream through these moments of prayer?

Further along this line, I obviously did not mean to say that what one does bears no relationship with who one is. Of course, being Christian should result in certain actions, and abstaining from certain actions.

Yes, I agree. But who decides which actions are appropriate, which actions deserve abstention, and which actions don't matter at all? Who holds the final authority?

I appreciate your desire for unity among all Christian bretheren.

I like to place the focus on Jesus's prayer in John 17, where he offers his sacrifice so that Christians may be one as He and the Father are one. (That oneness is the most central mystery of Christianity, the Most Holy Trinity, yet we are called to have and enter into that same oneness! The divisions we see between Christians today are absolutely contrary to Jesus's will.) I would next place the focus on St. Paul's command to be "perfectly united" (see 1 Cor. 1:10 and elsewhere). The only way I know of for this unity to be perfectly accomplished (or even close to it, which may be all we can get this side of heaven) is for Christ to create a living authority that would be passed down throughout the generations, which he did in Matt. 16, drawing on the very structure of the Davidic kingdom that this Son of David fulfills (see Isaiah 22).

Jesus desired unity more than all Christians could ever desire it combined, and we rely on His grace for the fulfillment of his high-priestly prayer the eve before his crucifixion. My desires are fickle and worthless things to the extent that they become disconnected from these biblical truths. May Jesus's will be perfectly accomplished in all things, on earth as it is in heaven.

But when making the sign of the Cross hinders me from communing with God in prayer and worship, I will not do it.

At one level, the idea that someone might have you do something that gets in the way of your communing with God in prayer and worship is repulsive to the sensitivities of modern culture (in general) and Christians (in particular). After all, isn't the benefit of having so many flavors of Christianity that each of us can find the one that works best for us and that enables us most readily to commune with God? Isn't that what St. Paul meant when he compared the Church to a body with many parts? (To be clear, I don't answer either question in the affirmative.)

And at another level, I'd reiterate that God commands us to follow our consciences. Please don't take my posts to be a kind of intellectual arm-wrestling with the intent of strong-arming you or anyone else into doing something that you don't think God is leading you to at this time. Though I can't (and don't) say it enough, I would encourage you to constantly be asking the Lord what he would have you do, and I trust that if your mind and heart are open to His voice, that you will follow him when he calls. That need not be today, though if today you hear his voice...

Yet, the call to share the gospel stands. The call to unity stands. Thus, the call to have open, honest, charitable dialogue stands, and honestly, I take such great pleasure in the give and take of such discussions.

That being said, let me speak to a third level at which your previous sentence becomes a bit of a slippery slope. I've had friends say that Sunday church services themselves get in the way of communing with God. I've heard pastors say that the ritual of the Lord's supper gets in the way of the ministry of the word and hence disrupts their congregations communing with God. I've heard people say that repeated prayers get in the way of their communing with God. I've heard people say that religion gets in the way of their communing with God.

Once again, the issue of authority plays a role in every decision we make about how we live our Christian life. While having an authoritative church doesn't mean that there can not be a rich variety of religious expressions (just look at the hundreds of religious orders within Catholicism: you have the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Jesuits, and many, many more), it does mean that we as Christians need to listen and honor the instructions of the authority that Jesus established. That authority is a living institution that has existed since the beginning. The Catholic Church is the only Christian organization that can (and does) make that claim, and its doctrinal and moral teachings have never changed (though they have obviously developed).

When some Christians five centuries ago decided to no longer follow that authority, they not only began teaching different doctrines new to the history of Christianity, but perhaps more destructively, they turned Christianity into something that is ultimately up to the individual to determine for him or herself. In this respect, the deepest issue dividing Protestants and Catholics is the issue of authority. But related to this issue are the issues of truth and certainty. If no final authority exists outside the individual believer, then the questions are raised: is it possible to know Christ-the-Truth in His fullness, and can I ever be certain (even if I happen to believe correctly) that I know the truth?

In sum, I would reiterate the following two points: First, it needs to be determined if things like going to church on Sunday, participating weekly in the Lord's supper, and making the sign of the Cross are up to the individual Christian (or pastor, or congregation), or if these practices are taught authoritatively and must be respected by all Christians with the obedience of faith. Second, if the sign of the cross is imbued by God with an intrinsic value and power, then there is nothing in the sign itself that would hinder one from with communing with God, since the act itself is constitutes the very act of communing with God. (One could ask if there are better ways of worshiping God with our bodies--day in and day out--that are as powerful and meaningful as this sign that has been passed down from antiquity.)

Sadly, I also agree with whw in that your apparent desire for unity and understanding amongst the denominations is very rare, in my experience.

I think that this fact (that desire for unity is rare among denominations) is somewhat ironic, since all of these denominations, all of which claim to go by the Bible alone, seem to avoid addressing or taking seriously Christ's prayer in John 17. In all of my conversations with pastors, and in all of the Protestant sermons I have studied, I've not once heard anyone seriously grapple with the implications of Jesus's prayer in John 17. (I'd be delighted if you could point me to some sources, as I don't want to think that my still-quite-limited experience is generally true of most Protestants.) The only time I have heard Protestants grapple with John 17 is when I read their conversion stories to the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church, the Church founded by Jesus two thousand years ago, is at the forefront today of the ecumenical movement, and thanks be to God, significant headway is being made.

I've been to Mass several times and in several parishes. At each one, there was a note in the bulletin, "Members of the Roman Catholic Church are welcome to participate in the Sacriment [Eucharist]"

The note actually reads (if you may offer me the flexibility of a paraphrase): "Members of the Roman Catholic Church who are in good standing [i.e., in a state of grace, or, not in a state of sin such as fornication, adultery, artificially contracepting, murdering, stealing, etc.] are welcome to participate in the Sacrament [Eucharist]."

This note is present because of 1) the objective truth of what the Sacrament is and means and 2) the warning that St. Paul gives in 1 Cor. 11:27-30 to those who eat and drink of the Sacrament unworthily.

Now, it is true in one sense that no one is, by their own power, worthy of receiving the Sacrament of Christ's Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. That is why we pray in the Mass before communion, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed."

Yet, by God's grace, He does heal us, making us worthy to commune with Him in this most precious sacrifice.

Still, Catholics who have not previously reconciled themselves with God and remain in a state of sin and separation from the Body ought not to receive the Eucharist, and our own missals (the book that contains the note) say so! Unfortunately, most priests can not read souls (some, such as St. Pio, have occasionally received the gift), and unless they have some knowledge of a public sin that remains unconfessed (such as what often happens with politicians who promote abortion), they will distribute Communion to every person who comes forward. What our Lord suffers so that people in a state of grace and full communion with the Church can receive Him!

Since non-Catholics choose publicly to remain separate from the Church, and in doing so, adopt doctrines that are not part of the original deposit of faith (for instance, thinking of the Eucharist as a symbol only), they automatically disqualify themselves from being eligible to receive communion, simply because receiving communion is to state (among many other things) "I obediently submit my life, mind, and will to Christ and His Church." To receive communion in a Catholic Church and not believe this way would be a grave insult both to Christ and to Catholics.

Just like sexuality is a gift reserved for marriage (and it wouldn't make sense to suggest that the Church is anti-love because they don't allow premarital sex between two people who "really love each other"), Holy Communion is a gift that is reserved for those who are truly in committed Communion with the entire Body of Christ. The Eucharist is the Sacrament of Unity. It is the Sacrament for those who are already unified, even if imperfectly while still on this earth. The Catholic Church is not "anti-unity" because she doesn't allow people who are not fully in union with Her to receive the Eucharist. Rather, the Church upholds the very meaning of what it means to be unified and calls all Christians, Catholics and Protestants alike, to conform their minds, wills, and hearts to this standard of "perfect unity." It is no easier for a Catholic to conform themselves to this standard than it is a non-Catholic. In fact, it is equally impossible for a Catholic as it is for a Protestant, which is why we all must rely on God's grace to shape our minds and wills to conform to the truth. But we know that not everyone is at the same stage of their walk, and thus, not everyone is in a state to receive the Sacrament. Let us pray that the entire world be converted and become unified around the throne of the Eucharistic Lamb.

To learn more about the Eucharist from the Catholic Catechism, click the tab on the right sidebar of this blog. See especially paragraphs 1398-1400, found here.

I've been told by numerous people that one is only permitted to cross ones-self if they are Catholic, and if a non-Catholic does so, it is hypocritical.

Anyone who has told you this is simply wrong, and I do apologize on behalf of all those Catholics out there who misrepresent their faith. But do be careful: in my own experience, I have heard your statement suggested not by Catholics but by anti-Catholics who are attempting to incite hatred of the Catholic Church. In all honesty, I do not recall ever once having heard, in my entire cradle-Catholic life, a single Catholic suggest the sign of the Cross was for Catholics only. Are they out there? Probably, but they are wrong. Case and point: certain Protestant denominations (not to mention the Orthodox) even use the sign of the Cross--facts that point to the history of this ancient practice and its interdenominational use. The suggestion that the sign of the Cross is only for Catholics is perhaps so rare that it doesn't even enter a recent Christianity Today (perhaps the most prominent evangelical publication in print today) article, in which the author actually encourages evangelicals to consider learning better the origin and meaning of the sign! (Here is a link to the article.)

I've been told because I am not Catholic, I am not a sister-in-Christ, and am condemned to hell.

Whoever told you this is also wrong. I would invite you to form your impression of the Catholic Church not on her weakest representatives but on her teachings and on the lives of those who embody the Church's teachings to the fullest, the saints.

Ironically, the Catholic Church is often accused by Protestant apologists in one breath of letting too many people into heaven, so to speak (such as non-Christians), and in another, of letting too few people in (such as only Catholics). Before worrying about whether you are condemned to hell by the Catholic Church, I invite you to learn what the Church actually teaches, and then to join me in correcting all of the false caricatures that get slung around by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. In regard to the possibility of salvation for non-Catholics, you can turn to this section in the Catechism (see especially paragraphs 830-856, although I highly recommend the entire section).

I am deeply saddened by your experience of a false condemnation at the hands of Catholics who were wrong either in their faith or their representation of it. Only God knows how deep the wounds go when such false condemnations are made, and I am convinced that only by a profound movement of His grace will hearts be moved to forgive such condemnations and judgementalism and reunite around the Love and Truth of Jesus.

If making the sign of the cross is a way of worship for you, helps you to do God's will, and brings you closer to God; I encourage you to continue, by all means. However, making the sign of the cross does the opposite for me. (See Ro. 14:13-22)

Here again, the issues of authority, judgment, truth, obstacles, and encouragement come up in a short skein that seems to encapsulate your position.

On the surface, these sentences suggest that the sign of the cross is an obstacle for you, and that ultimately, we should encourage each other to practice in whatever manner helps us to worship God better, to do God's will, and to bring us closer to God.

I think this position is problematic, however, because it skirts the underlying issue of what the sign of the Cross essentially is. What is this thing that the apostles passed on and instructed Christians to do? Is it intrinsically an act of worship given to the church as a whole, or is it only an act of worship if individuals choose to make it one? Is it God's will for Christians to make the sign of the cross, or is it a non-issue as far as God is concerned, one that may be left up to the individual believer? After all, the sign of the Cross may not only help people follow God's will (for instance, by serving as a powerful shield against the forces of Satan), but it might BE God's will, judging from the consistency with which it was passed down from the very beginning of Christianity. This is really the argument that I am making, and in this argument, the role of authority becomes explicit. Who has the authority to instruct Christians as to what God's will is for the life of the Church and for Her worship?

Romans 14 deals explicitly with the issues of encouragement and judgment, but this chapter can too easily be taken out of context and overextended to suggest things that it doesn't say.

First, let's note the two places that the chapter references judgment:

Verse 1 says "Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters."

The first part of this sentence can be read as an admonishen not to judge persons. The second part of the sentence specifically forbids passing judgment on disputable matters. "On disputable matters" is the key phrase in verse 1, for it frames the entire issue being discussed in this chapter, which involves the complex situation of negotiating between generations of obedience to Jewish dietary laws, the dietary oddities of other non-Jewish traditions, and the removal of dietary restrictions under the new law of Christ. What Paul is saying is that what people eat is a disputable matter. Even though some people whose faith is weak might not yet fully realize their new dietary freedom, their choice to consume whatever they wish doesn't in and of itself break any commandment of the new law of Christ.

One thing that is very important about this chapter is what is assumed. First, the entire premise of Paul's argument is that dietary issues are no longer "essential" or "settled" issues where one is either right or wrong; they are now (after Christ) "disputable issues," where either side is acceptable (even if the motives for choosing one side or the other might reflect a weaker or stronger faith).

I completely agree with Paul that Christians (today or back then) should not turn into obstacles issues that are disputable, in which either position is okay.

But notice the second thing Paul assumes in Romans 14: he assumes that he has the authority to tell the Romans that dietary laws are a disputable issue.

Thus, the question for us is: is the sign of the cross a disputable issue, and who has the authority to make that determination? My original blog post treated the sign of the Cross as a gift from God. These blog posts have focused a bit more on the role of authority. I have tried not to make too much an issue of the sign of the Cross itself, except to use the discussion as an occasion to exam how the issue of authority underlies much disagreement between Christians.

The second verse in Romans 14 to mention judgment is verse 13: "Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another." Here, Paul forbids Christians judging other Christians. I agree with St. Paul that we should not judge one another, as I believe that only God can judge the human heart, and only God knows the grace he has given to enable a person to follow Him. I have no way of knowing where any of my readers are on their spiritual journey, and it is not my job to be the judge of this. (Who of us, including myself, is where God wants us to be anyway? I am far from sainthood and am in need of your prayers!) I write simply to fulfill Jesus's commission to preach the gospel, which includes explaining parts of the Catholic faith that not all Christians accept.

Notice that no where in Romans 14 does Paul forbid judging ideas. In writing Roman's 14, Paul himself is judging ideas--he is judging that dietary sensitivities are a disputable issue that ought not give rise to stumbling blocks and scandal. He likely was forced to write this very passage because some well-meaning Christians were wrong about their own judgment of others' dietary sensitivities, and St. Paul judged these ideas as wrong. Having judged the truth of the matter, St. Paul is then able to encourage the Romans according to the truth. Once Paul speaks authoritatively on the subject, would we still have encouraged Paul's audience to believe whatever seemed right to them about the issue, or would we have encouraged them to conform their thinking to that of the authority?

After forbidding the passing of judgment on one another in verse 13, Paul continues to note that "Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way. As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean." The context here is clearly about an issue that is 1) disputable (according to the authority of St. Paul and ultimately Christ) and 2) that ought not become a stumbling block.

To highlight the slippery slope that occurs in overextending Roman's 14, we can imagine that any issue could potentially be considered by some Christian somewhere to be a disputable issue rather than a settled one:
  • Is Sunday worship disputable? Is Saturday worship disputable? (Seventh-day adventists reject Sunday worship and consign Sunday-sabbath worshippers to hell.)
  • Is the nature of baptism disputable?
  • Is infant baptism disputable?
  • Is abortion disputable?
  • Is circumcision disputable?
  • Is attending church on Sunday disputable?
  • Is artificial contraception disputable?
  • Is taking communion while not discerning the body disputable?
  • Is the number of books in the Bible disputable?
  • Is the sign of the cross disputable?
To these questions, some Christians (at one time or another) say yes and others say no. Yet, all of these questions require an answer before a determination can be made about being encouraging. After all, if a Christian claimed that murder (such as abortion) was permissible, St. Paul would never have encouraged such a Christian to continue holding this position simply to "avoid creating an obstacle." The New Testament is filled with authoritative determinations of what is beyond dispute and must be believed by every Christian. Other issues, such as what books should be in the Bible, can not even be decided on the basis of the Bible alone but require some outside authority.

If a pastor preaches that divorced persons can not remarry, would it be correct to say that he is creating a stumbling block between him, his congregation, and any remarried Christians? The answer depends on whether this pastor preaches disputable truth, settled truth, or error.

When we enter the realm of settled truth, it is important to note that stumbling blocks are not created when people follow authority; they are created when the proper authority is not followed. Thus, it would be the murderer or adulterer who has created a stumbling block, not the Christian who refuses to deny that murder is wrong or that divorce and remarriage is unacceptable.

Unfortunately, in today's culture, people tend to think that the people who point out the stumbling blocks are the ones who create the stumbling blocks. Sadly, we live in a state today where most Christians are kept disunified by stumbling blocks put in place generations ago. The blocks have become so old and misunderstood that simple conversations could likely clear them away. Yet, some "Christians" today have built entire structures on some of these blocks, and perhaps it is these structures that keep some of them firmly in place.

The road to Christian unity is littered with many stumbling blocks that have for too long been hidden simply by simply turning off the lights, brushing them under the rug, and making them invisible. Yet, they blocks remain and cannot be removed until someone shines a light on them and begins asking who has the authority to decide the matter. If Christians are left with the Bible alone, history has already proven that the unity for which Christ prayed for will not occur. I, for one, assume good faith for all my non-Catholic Christian brethren that they are doing their very best to follow how they believe the Holy Spirit is guiding them. But, logic tells us that the Holy Spirit can't at the same moment inspire contradictory truths. How does anyone these days know for sure if they are believing the truth?

The sign of the cross, turns out, is a tiny issue compared to these larger problems, but it is connected to them in the same way a sliver of ice above the water is connected to the iceberg below. I believe that discussing topics like the sign of the cross is useful in that it opens up for reflection areas in which Christians disagree so that we may together begin, by God's grace, finding our way home, back to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. The path will not be easy, but we have the grace of God, the protection of the angels, and the prayers of the saints to assist us.

Let us continue on, then, in great hope and joy! And to this end, I include the link to one more edifying article:

Grace and peace to you, my sister!

ps. If you or any of my readers would ever like to respond with something that exceeds the word limit of the combox, please feel free to send your response directly to, and I'll post it in its entirety directly to the blog.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Response to REW on the Sign of the Cross

Wow! I'm so delighted that the Sign of the Cross of has elicited such thoughtful discussion. I am extremely thankful for REW's comments, and I'll respond to them inline with REW's text, which I have reproduced in full (and in blue) below:

I hope it is ok for me to weigh in here...As a Christian (and Protestant), I hold the symbol of the Cross very dear.

Thank you for weighing in! Let us rejoice in the our shared reverence of the Cross, by which all have been redeemed.

However, there are a number of reasons why I do not often make the sign of the Cross.

If I may assume that you do not deny the apostolic origin of the sign of the cross, let's pretend as a thought experiment that the reasons you give be addressed not to me but rather to one of the apostles themselves. After all, if the apostles taught all their followers to make the sign of the cross, I would think that the appropriate response would be to learn why.

G.K. Chesterton illustrates this reasoning by pointing out that if a person was traveling through the woods and suddenly came upon a mysterious structure whose reason-for-being was not immediately apparent, it would be illogical simply to tear it down without first discovering its origin or cause.

This small act of worship casts a long shadow over 2,000 years of Christian history. When I weigh your reasons, I do so as if I had an apostle standing next to me who had just encouraged me to make the sign. Are your reasons written with this same historical consciousness?

First, because to me it seems to place the focus on myself (some say one "crosses ones-self"), rather than on Him. This seems wrong to me, especially when praying.

Here, we get a smidgen of the either/or mentality that reinforces much (uniquely) Protestant theology. The focus is (either) on myself (or) on God. Why can't it be a both/and? Why can't I make a sign that acknowledges that I am a member, along with all the Christians around me, of the family of God--that I have been made a partaker of the divine nature? As Christians, we become intimately unified with Jesus, just like a bride is with the groom. Entering into the paschal mystery of Christ by becoming a member of His body means taking the sign of the cross upon ourselves, and we remind ourselves and renew that committment of self by making the sign. In doing so, we enter ever more deeply into the paschal mystery of Christ. Jesus tells us that we must take up our cross and follow him. The sign of the cross is an act of worship whereby we connect every moment of our day-to-day lives with Jesus's passion and death so that we might rise with Him in the resurrection. Ironically, the sign of the cross is an act of prayer. We are praying with our bodies! Why did God give us bodies, after all, if not to worship him? (See: there is yet another either/or lurking here. Either intellectual prayer or "empty" external ritual. I'll take a both/and anyday!)

Also significant is the emphasis of subjective evaluation in this first reason. The word "seems" (somewhat ironically) puts the focus on a perceiving subject to whom things can appear in different ways. Just like each individual is unique, such that things will appear differently "to you," our subjective dislike of a particular teaching is no reason to dismiss that teaching. The objectivity of the Truth (who is Christ) and of Christ's teachings (didn't he tell the apostles "he who hears you, hears me. He who rejects you...") demands that we conform ourselves to Him, not make Him in our own image. When humans make Christianity in their own image, we end up with 50,000 different Christianities.

This is why I brought up the apostles to begin with--the underlying issue to our discussion of the sign of the cross is actually far more central than the sign itself. The underlying issue is that of authority. Are each of us given the personal perogative to make Christianity what we want it to be, or are there some areas in which we are required to give the ascent of our wills and the obedience of faith?

Second, it seems to encourage the belief that one *is* Christian (or Catholic) based solely on what one *does.* As in, "See? I made the sign of the Cross. That's how you know I'm Catholic."

For this reason, would you have warned the apostles about encouraging their flock to make the sign?

There are actually two ironies embedded in your second reason. The first is that the very churches that teach their members to make the sign of the cross are very explicit what the sign of the cross means, what it means to *be* a Christian, and how these two things relate. As a Catholic, I find the idea that making the sign of the cross could somehow confuse my understanding of the difference between being and doing difficult to believe. (Could you unpack your argument that "doing" something (necessarily?) encourages a belief that "being" is (reductively?) based on "doing"? Isn't it possible that "being" issues forth in "doing"?) In the second sentence, you seem to treat the sign of the cross as a mere outward sign, but aren't you begging the question here? Isn't the whole point of my earlier post that the sign of the cross is a powerful, grace-filled act of Christian worship?

The second irony is that it was really the early Protestants who rejected making the sign of the cross that made the sign (turned into a non-sign) into an identity marker. "See? We DON'T make the sign of the Cross. That's how you know we're NOT Catholic."

The sign of the cross is a wonderous gift that belongs to both Protestants and Catholics alike. I am simply sharing the good news regarding the sign and inviting Protestants and Catholics alike to rediscover the gift and to come together in unity through it. Enough of the divisions! Let's turn the sign back into the sign of unity that it is. Let us be unified!

I believe that loving the Lord, your God with all your heart, mind, and strength is what makes one Christian.

Yes, but doesn't loving God with all your heart, mind, and strength mean taking seriously with the obedience of faith the very teachings God gives us? Again, this reason simply begs the question.

Also, the argument reflects more of the either/or mentality: EITHER loving the Lord OR following His teachings.

If you don't think the sign of the cross is of Godly, apostolic origin, then that is one thing. But I happen to believe that the "good news" left once and for all with the saints (Jude 3) includes a number of profoundly awesome gifts, one of which is the sign of the cross. I don't think Jesus thinks of these gifts with the same kind of either/or mentality (you can EITHER have me OR you can make the sign of the cross, EITHER Me OR the Sacraments, EITHER Me OR the Church) that underlies the common Protestant mentality.

The third reason is probably why you can't seem to get a response that makes sense to you. Quite simply, it would not occur to most non-Catholics to make the sign.

Philsophers speak of different types of causes, and I'm aware that, in the current historical moment, the material cause of many Christians not making the sign is because it doesn't occur to them. The rhetoric of asking the question "why don't Protestants make the sign of the cross" was to draw Protestants toward examining the other causes of why this ancient tradition was let go. In a sense, asking the question contains the implied statement: I don't think the current material (and yes, the simple, obvious) cause is a good one.

It's not part of Protestant services because Martin Luther's goal was to rid the church of "empty" ritual. Since it's not something Protestants do regularly, it just wouldn't be something that most non-Catholics would think at all about.

First, the sign of the cross is not an empty ritual. Would you have been so bold to accuse the apostle standing next to you of promoting empty rituals?

Do miracles, exorcisms, healings, and salvation itself all occur through empty ritual? Do you really know the incredible, miraculous history of this "empty" sign?

Again, this reason begs the question: is the sign just an empty sign? If you were offered a million dollars, would you take it? Doesn't the answer most readily depend on whether the stack of bills are real or counterfeit?

You might be surprised to know that Martin Luther promoted quite actively the making of the sign of the cross. A little poking around online quickly reveals resources such as the following: I am no expert on the life and thought of Martin Luther, but the research I have done reveals a much more complex person (with complex motives) than what your above reason reflects. Too often, Martin Luther is used as a kind of mythic figure to promote many positions that Luther himself would have vehemently rejected. One thing fascinating about Protestantism is how practically every denomination considers itself a descendent of the first "reformers," even though there are few denomations that exist today that believe even a fraction of all the "reformers" themselves believed. The legacy of the "reformers" is one of continuing division.

The single question that keeps coming up is whether or not the sign of the cross is an empty sign or a full sign. Is it merely an identity marker or does it flow from the deepest part of what it means to be a Christian? Does it distract from prayer or is it a prayer in and of itself?

Your reasons, it turns out, are not reasons, but a simple denial of what the sign of the cross actually is, at least according to the centuries upon centuries and billions upon billions of Christians over two thousand years who have made the sign. Those of us who make the sign trace this gift back to the apostles themselves. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we faithfully pass on the gift from generation to generation.

God gives you the free will to accept or deny the gift. I pray that you will look more closely at the wonderous gift of the sign of the cross (see my first post for a few links to get you started), and I pray that God will give you the grace to accept all the gifts he desires to bestow on your life. And I ask that you will pray for me the exact same prayer! I need it as much as anyone.

Now, let us take up our crosses...

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Response to Fairwinds Baptist Church July 26, 2009

[Welcome new readers.  Before you go, please don't forget to check out the links to thirteen other Fairwinds responses listed on the right side of this page.  May the Holy Spirit be with you all!]

This sermon was part of the "Getting to Know God Better" series; it was the second sermon focusing on the "peace of God."

Because of time, I will not be able to dictate every word of the sermon for comment, but I'll try to provide as much context as possible and include a verbatim quote of the texts under discussion. My apologies if my own post seems a bit scattered; this post reflects a kind of stream-of-consciousness Catholic response to a very good (though in some places, quite problematic) Baptist sermon.

Right at the beginning of the sermon, after brief introduction, Pastor Carlo makes the statement:

"The best way of knowing God better is to be in God's word."

As a Catholic, I would agree with Pastor Carlo that God's word allows us to know God better. St. Jerome once said, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church repeats (in CCC133), that "ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." The Catholic Church venerates the Sacred Scriptures as the very word of God and encourages all her members to become intimately familiar with this love letter from God to His people.

But I fear that Pastor Carlo limits "God's word" to the Bible. Thus, Pastor seems to mean by his statement (which, in context, is said to direct his congregation's attention to the words of Scripture) that "the BEST way of knowing God better is to be IN THE BIBLE."

This is an unfortunate position because 1) some of God's word has not been transmitted to Christians today through the Bible (Sacred Scripture) but through Sacred Tradition, and 2) because the Bible itself commands us to hold fast to both the written and oral traditions (see, for ex., 2 Thess. 2:15), and 3) because the Bible itself gives us evidence that "the best way of knowing God" might not, in fact, be through experiencing him through the Scriptures, as awesome a way that this is.

Notice, for instance, that on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:13-35, Jesus (whose identity remained hidden) taught his disciples about himself from the scriptures (the Old Testament at that point), and their hearts reportedly "burned within them" (v. 32). No matter how good the preaching might be on Sunday morning, it will never be as good as hearing our Lord preach about Himself from the Bible. It is true that good preaching might cause our hearts to burn with love for our Lord, just as the disciples experienced that day on the Emmaus road. Yet, the disciples still did not recognize Jesus at that point. It was not until the breaking of the bread that Jesus's identity was revealed to them. What was our Lord teaching us here?

We should not be surprised when we see the liturgy of the earliest Christians focusing not exclusively around the breaking of the "word" but rather around the "breaking of the bread," which from the earliest times was a code for the Eucharist. In the first chapters of the book of Acts, we see how the early Christians met on the Lord's Day (Sunday) for the breaking of the bread. Some of them even met every day in their homes for the Eucharist. It is through the Eucharist that Jesus is revealed in his fullness, since, through the incarnation, the eternal word has become flesh. While many of today's Christians have successfully modeled the earliest Christians in the book of Acts insofar as they devote themselves to (at least some of) the apostles teaching and to the prayers (though not necessarily the liturgical prayers passed down through the ages), not so many practice the weekly and even daily practice of the Lord's supper. Only the two churches that have direct historical ties to the apostles maintain the daily offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice.

Thus, we need to be careful to both appreciate the sentiment of what Pastor Carlo says but also realize that Jesus has more to give us than the Bible, as important as it is. Jesus is not satisfied until he has given us HIMSELF. And this he does through through the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist. That is why, in the Mass, the breaking of the word flows directly into and prepares us for the breaking of the bread. The worship of Christians need not be an either/or: either a focus on the Bible or a focus on the Eucharist. Rather, let our liturgy be a both/and! Lord give us everything your Sacred Heart desires! Give us your Word and your Body. Let our liturgy be modeled on the liturgy of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Let us join the angels and saints in singing "Holy, Holy, Holy!" Let us break the seals of the word and let our worship culminate in the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Lamb of God, you come to take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us!


The verses read by Pastor Carlo were from Phillipians 4:4-7:

4Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

When Pastor Carlo makes it to the end of verse 5, he comments on "the Lord is near" saying:

"The Lord is at hand. Boy, I believe that it isn't going to be long; he's going to come and take us home, Amen? Now, there's two ways of looking at that. The Lord is at hand as far as His coming is concerned, and the Lord is at hand meaning he never leaves us and forsakes us. He's always here with us. He is always there. All we have to do is go boldy into the throne of Grace."

Here, we get a slight touch of "rapture" mentality, as if Christ's second coming is right around the corner. As (former fundamentalist) David Currie has pointed out, however, preachers have been predicting that Christ's return is "right around the corner" ever since the second century. (I'd recommend Currie's book Rapture: The End-Times Error That Leaves the Bible Behind.)

We do well to remember that Paul was telling Christians almost 2,000 years ago that the Lord is near. If this verse's primary meaning was applicable only to today's Christians, then we have a verse of Scripture that would be utterly confusing to the listeners to whom it was actually written. To disconnect the text of Scripture from its historical audience--and to then read it with the assumptions of an audience 2,000 years later--is ultimately to skew the original intention of the author (St. Paul) himself. Most importantly, it is to risk missing potentially deeper or more relevant aspects of what the verse means. For instance, it may be more important to prepare our hearts for the truly inevitable death that we each will soon experience rather than fixate on the however remote possibility that a rapture will occur in our lifetimes.

That being said, there is a very real sense in which Christ is forever present to His bride, the church. Whether that exhausts the fullness of what Paul was communicating, I'm not sure. A very real threat at the time was Rome's persecution of Christians, and the Romans' later turn against the Jews that led to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple has been read by many as the fulfillment of the early prophecies of Jesus's pending arrival. However, the arrival is not as a second coming (which will happen at the end of time) but as the coming of a king in judgment. The end of the micro-cosmic world of the temple indeed happened in 70 A.D., and the events that led up to this surely could have inspired Paul to warn his readers that Jesus's return was at hand. I doubt he was saying that the "second coming is near," because it simply wasn't (or, Paul was simply mistaken...but I found this position so unbelievable!)


Pastor Carlo is right on in his emphasis of the peace of God that passes all understanding, a peace that should allow us to rejoice always! He is right that our lives tend to revolve around a variety of concerns, when they ought to revolve around Christ alone. The first sentence of Pope John Paul II's very first encyclical letter "The Redeemer of Man" reflects the same idea, though on an even larger scale:

"The redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the center of the universe and of history."

Jesus Christ is at the center, and when he is there, he brings peace to all who find their center in Him.


Pastor Carlo then reviewed what his previous sermons in the series had covered (the Grace and Peace of God), which allows him to cover (yet again) his conception of Justification. Pay attention to the clarity of thought in the following presentation, and notice that he falls back on the same verses he pointed to last week and in practically every sermon on this topic. Then ask yourself, is he really unpacking what the verses he is citing say, or is he treating them more like proof-texts for his own understanding of justification?

"We talked about the judicial gift of peace, last week; it was the first point we covered. And we see that in Romans 5:1 'Therefore, having been justified by faith, we havea]">[a] peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.' You have been justified this morning, as I said last week, not because of anything you have done, because it says, if you go back to Ephesians 2, he says 'for by grace you have been saved, through faith, not of yourself.' Justification is not through you; justification is something that God has provided through Jesus Christ, not of ourselves. It is a gift of God, lest any many should boast. So you have to understand that the mercy of God and the grace of God is a gift of God that was bestowed upon us through Jesus Christ even though while we were yet sinners, the word of God says, Christ died for the ungodly, he died for us on the cross--us who deserved death and hell--he justified us as a result of us coming to know Christ as savior. We are justified, the payment has been paid, the penalty has been taken care of, the debt has been paid. Jesus Christ has hung on the cross for you and for me. He shed blood...justified...he was our justification. If He had not died on the cross, we would have all gone to hell. There is no way we can get into heaven on our own, because we are sinners. We are sinners in need of a savior. We are sinners who can only be saved by the grace of God."

And then Pastor Carlo returns to his excellent discussion of the peace of God.

Looking at the above passage, the vast majority of it is thoroughly Catholic, and I thank God for that! Praise His name for all of the ways in which we Christians are truly unified!

Catholics could not agree more that we are saved 100% by God's grace alone. We are sinners who are completely lost without God's grace and mercy. For God so loved the world...

Unfortunately, I think that Pastor's discussion of justification contains at least one internal contradiction. Further, his piecemeal quote of Ephesians 2:8 leaves out one of the most important parts of the verse that provides an important textual clue about what Paul means.

First, the internal contradiction becomes apparent once we acknowledge that "coming to know Christ as savior" IS SOMETHING WE DO. Thus, we are justified when we come to know Christ as savior (something we do), yet in the same paragraph, we are told that we are justified NOT BECAUSE OF ANYTHING WE HAVE DONE but because of what Ephesians 2:8 says (that we are saved by grace through faith, not by works, lest any man should boast). See how important that piecemeal quote of Ephesians 2:8 is in all of this?

I think these fine details are worth discussing because although Pastor Carlo is actually quite Catholic in the way he thinks about all of this, Pastor Carlo seems to think there is a great distance between his view of justification and a Catholic's view. Indeed, there may be areas of difference that might appear large at first, but in my experience, if we can iron out the areas of agreement, it may be that the areas of difference begin to shrink as well.

Let's look at the points of agreement:
1. We are not justified by any "human" work (be it physical or intellectual)--in other words, nothing done apart from God's grace can merit salvation. The wages of sin is death, after all.
2. Having faith, then, can not be viewed as a work done apart from God's grace. Actually, the faith itself is a gift of God's grace, so, as Ephesians says, no man can boast...of our works OR our faith. Both faith and works are God's grace working through us. (A careful reading of Ephesians 2:8 reveals that Paul is distinguishing between being SAVED BY GRACE versus being SAVED BY WORKS. Both Protestants and Catholics agree that we are not saved by works. We are not even saved by faith. We are saved 100% by grace...THROUGH faith and works. No where does the Bible say we are justified by faith alone, and James explicitely tells us that we are justified by works--once again, works accomplished through us and motivated 100% by God's grace, lest no man should boast.)
3. When Paul refers to "works" in Ephesians, Romans, Galations, and elsewhere, practically all scholars agree on textual evidence that he is referring to the "works of the Law," or as Jimmy Akin put it in his book The Salvation Controversy, "works of the Torah." (I'll adopt Akin's term.) I'm sure that Pastor Carlo would agree that we are saved by grace alone. We are NOT saved by faith, and we are NOT saved by works. We are saved through faith, exactly as Paul says. The Catholic church says the exact same thing! Notice, however, that Paul not once adds the word "alone" after the word faith. It is very difficult for Protestants to read Eph. 2:8 without mentally adding the word alone, as if we are saved by grace "through faith alone." Actually, God's grace works in us to produce the fruits of both faith and works, and it is through faith and works that we are justified, which in Catholic parlance means "growing as a child of God."

This is where Pastor's false wedge between faith and works (which becomes a stumbling block for him between Protestant and Catholic theology) starts to become evident. For instance, notice in the above quote that he actually leaves out the part about "works" from his paraphrase of Ephesians 2:8. I think this is significant, since the "works of the Torah" (which some Jews were using to try to obligate God to save them) are the things that Paul is putting on trial, not anything and everything related to a human's response to God's grace. And it is this very response to God's grace which results in justification--in our becoming and growing as adopted sons and daughters of the most high God.

Do you see how Pastor's message is confusing then? He seems to say in one breath that we are justified by something we do (accept Christ as savior) and then that we can not be justified by anything we do. I think Catholic theology explains justification in much more elegant terms, and it is able to do this because it doesn't read more into verses like Ephesians 2:8 than are really there.

Finally, notice that once again, Pastor Carlo says that Jesus "justified us a result of us coming to know Christ as savior." See, once again, how justification here "resulted" from something we seemed to do (though really our coming to know Christ as Savior is an action wrought by grace)? Catholics would say that our faithful act of accepting Christ is itself the work of God's saving and justifying grace in our souls. The two things (justification and salvation) occur simultaneously in the soul. Although the mechanics of this may be harder to describe, it becomes easier to understand how our initial act of faith (for adult converts) is a result of grace, and not that grace is somehow a result of that act of faith.

Further, let it be noted that if you keep reading Romans 5 and see how it flows into Romans 6, you'll see that this moment of justification and salvation is associated by Paul NOT with accepting Christ as Savior but with BAPTISM! See Romans 6:3 and following.

Unfortunately, as I've discussed on another post, Pastor Carlo doesn't speak about baptism the way the Bible speaks about it. Or, one could say, Paul doesn't speak about the first moment of our salvation as Pastor Carlo does. I'm afraid that if Paul and Carlo suddenly found themselves in a room together, a fairly heated debate would ensue over the meaning of baptism.

If you don't think this is so, imagine if a Catholic walked up to Pastor Carlo and said, "as many of us who are baptized have been baptized into Christ's death and resurrection. Baptism now saves us." I imagine that Pastor Carlo would object (based on the position he has taken in his sermons), yet the Catholic is using entirely Biblical language applied to the very notions of salvation and justification being discussed!


Next, Pastor Carlo goes on to describe all the things we ignored before we were saved, such as the Bible, being saved, bringing people to Christ as savior, and the ministry of the church.

Like it says in 2 Cor. 5:18, it says the ministry of reconciliation came into play. That is bringing two together that have once been separated. So the Bible says that if any man be in Christ, he is what? A new creation, a new creature. Old things…He lived in the world with the old things, prior to knowing Christ as savior. You were doing the bidding of the devil many times… (and so on)

1. This is a good example of throwing a verse into the mix way too fast for anyone to look it up and actually see what it is talking about. Notice that throwing in the verse gives the sermon the feeling of being grounded in the Bible, but at a closer look, it becomes apparent that Pastor Carlo is drawing almost nothing from this verse.

2. Notice that this verse becomes the head of a paragraph in which Pastor Carlo continues repeating the same things he has been saying. I state this not because I do not think that Pastor Carlo or any other Christian should never repeat key elements of the Gospel message, but rather to highlight that 45-minute-long Protestant sermons don’t necessarily contain more Biblical exposition than a 15-minute Catholic homily. In the Mass, we actually hear far more of the Bible itself, and the homilies are usually kept shorter and to the point so that they do not begin putting more emphasis on the Pastor giving the sermon (and his particular dramatic flare) than the sacred truths contained therein.

3. Finally, it is important to note what is lost when verses are skimmed over in the way that often occurs at Fairwinds Baptist: even though many verses are touched upon, there become many parts of the Bible that do not get the sustained critical attention from year to year that is necessary to come to a "well-rounded" knowledge of Christ. Although many congregants at Fairwinds Baptist may come away from their sermons feeling like they have heard a Bible-based message, in reality, they have been thrown too many verses to digest without getting a clear handle on the significance of each verse.

As a Catholic, I feel like I am not being fed by Pastor Carlo’s sermon, or at least fed a well-balanced diet. (In all fairness, I have been to many Masses where the priest did an extremely poor job in opening up the profound mysteries contained within the Bible. I would go even further to state that many Protestants' committment to the Bible would be a good influence on Catholics if these same Protestants were to join the Catholic Church. Yet, I would emphasize that no preacher, no matter how good, can put God into words in the way God deserves. Thank God that our reception of Him doesn't depend on how good the message is on Sunday morning. Rather, we receive Him in fullness when we receive his Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity through the Most Holy Eucharist.)

Let me pick up where I left off: As a Catholic, I feel like I am not being fed by Pastor Carlo’s sermon, or at least fed a well-balanced diet. Sure, I’m hearing the same message about “being saved” and “faith verses works” that I hear week after week, but I am not getting the richness of the Bible verses that are getting the short shrift. For example, Pastor Carlo quotes Eph. 2:8 in practically every sermon I have ever heard, yet I have not once hear him preach the Gospel using the language Jesus employs in John 6. Another example occurs just now. The early church read 2 Cor. 5:18 as a very meaningful passage referring to the ministerial New Covenant priesthood. The first Christians understood “ministry of reconciliation” in terms of the power to forgive and retain sins that Jesus gave to the apostles in John 20:21-23 just as the true apostolic church does today. While we all should do our part to help reconcile the world to Christ, only the Bishops and priests can share in Christ’s particular ministry of forgiving and retaining sins.


Pastor references the inevitable suffering that saved people experience, noting that suffering draws us to God. He is indeed right that suffering, in drawing us to God, takes on a salvific dimension, though I wish he would enunciate that dimension more than he does. Unfortunately, the way that Pastor Carlo seems to understand suffering is that it is something that we have to “get through” or “bear” with God’s help, not that it is something that could actually be spiritually beneficial in and of itself in our lives.

St. Paul says in Colossians 1:24, “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church.” This verse is striking in that it states there is something lacking in the affliction of Christ. What could that be? According to Paul, it is the suffering that the members of Christ’s body, the Church, must experience in order to follow Him. As Catholics, we join our suffering to that of Christ on the cross; we enter into His Good Friday so that we may be raised up with Him on Easter Sunday. In this sense, suffering has a deeply significant role in the life of the believer, far more than a mere troubling time to be endured.


Next, Pastor Carlo again highlights the “judicial act of faith” that supposedly marks the first moment of justification. Note well: “judicial” carries with it the trappings of a courtroom, where God judges us righteous by a sort of legal decree. He signs away our debts, though we ourselves remain exactly the same (according to Martin Luther, we remain piles of dung covered with snow).

For Catholics, our justification occurs not so much in a courtroom as in a family room, where God is a father who adopts us as sons and daughters, imparting to us and infusing in us His divine nature, thereby making us holy, making us piles of pure white snow. God grants us a new family name—the name of the most Holy Trinity itself. We are baptized (the sacrament of faith) in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Justification, although it involves the justice (and mercy) of God, is no mere legal decree. It is no mere “imputation” of Christ’s righteousness whereby, upon our death, God only sees Christ and not us.

No! God loves US! He loves YOU and ME! He makes us holy and, if we confess our sins, he continues to wash us with his saving Blood, purifying us as we grow as his children. Indeed, we grow as His beloved children by a lifetime of “faith working in love,” as St. Paul puts it to the Galations (5:6). We are indeed justified by faith (Romans 3:8), but not by a one-time experience of faith. (Note that the New Testament writers reference at least three different points in Abraham’s life where the latter’s faith was “reckoned unto him as righteousness.”) God continues to justify us as our faith grows throughout our lives. He justifies us by the works wrought by His grace and love--His works--that flow through our lives (James 2:24).

Unfortunately, Protestant theology tries to turn justification—the process of becoming a child of God—into a legal decree that has no effect on the person’s soul. As a legal decree, justification is then viewed as being a one-time event (which would make sense if it was a legal decree). Since, according to this view, God now only sees the blood of Christ, it would make sense that once a person is justified and saved, there is nothing that person could do to lose their salvation. Why? Because God would not be able to see that person's soul no matter what that person did anyway!

The question for every Protestant is: does the Bible fit the entire theological vision that has developed around the notion of justification as a “judicial act of faith?” For example: does the Bible speak of justification as a one-time event? Does the Bible say that one can never lose their salvation? Does the Bible portray salvation in contractual terms (implying the giving of goods) or rather is its language that of covenants (the self-giving of persons)?


Wrapping up the first section of his sermon, Pastor Carlo reiterates the “assurance” his followers have that they will all be in heaven one day, and that they will there be able to leave all the troubles of the world behind. One wonders if any of Pastor Carlo's congregants who believe this are actually living in a state of mortal sin (addicted to pornography, divorced and remarried, etc.) and lack the motivation to leave their sin behind since they believe their future in heaven is sealed.


Pastor Carlo then turns to consider what he calls the “experiential peace with/of God.” The idea is that peace with God is a fact of our justification. Peace of God is an experience that happens over and over after becoming saved.

He reads out of a book about peace. Then, he tells a story about a King and two natural scenes that paint pictures of peace, though in different ways. The second painting reflects an oasis of peace (as a bird nest behind a raging waterfall) amidst the ruggedness of mountains, waterfalls, etc.

He then references 2 Cor. 4:8 (very good verse!)

He has much good stuff to say about relying on Jesus (and the church family) during suffering. It fills me with joy to hear of this glorious union with Catholic teaching!

Next comes a quote from John Philips about peace being something on the inside, despite troubles around us on the outside.

And then another anonymous quote…

Next, Pastor Carlo quotes John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” Another powerful verse! Amen!

As a Catholic, I LOVE how this verse is prayed in EVERY SINGLE MASS. This verse is spoken right as part of the Eucharistic prayer right before the Agnus Dei and the reception of Jesus in the Eucharist, through which he makes his dwelling in us (John 14:15-24, esp. v. 23). How awesome is this parousia of Christ in the Eucharist, and how our Lord continues to bring us through the gift of his Real Presence a peace which truly surpasses all understanding. How beautiful is the Mass which allows the Scriptures to come alive through liturgical expression!


Finally, Pastor Carlo begins the closing part of the sermon, which consists of minor variations on a common theme:

I see many Christians our there this morning, but some of you are not and need to trust Christ as savior. Here is what he says exactly, with a few in-line comments of my own:

“Yes, we’re saved. Many of us here this morning as I look around know Christ as Savior. [I'm always confused how one can look around and "see" the state of another's soul.] That’s a good thing. If you have never trusted Him as savior, you need to be saved. You need to be born again this morning. [This much is true. But how do these people become born again?] You need to trust Him as your Lord and Savior. [According to the Bible, we are born again in baptism.] That’s the only means of getting into heaven, because there is no other way. But you may be sitting here this morning and you’re not saved. [something about being concerned and Pastor being concerned for them…]…because that means you are not on your way to heaven. The Bible only talks about two places: heaven or hell. [The Catholic Church agrees. However, the Bible does talk about a painful state the soul may experience before entering heaven in which its soul is made perfect. Just see 1 Cor. 3:10-15.] You are not on your way to heaven if you don’t know Jesus. Do you have that assurance of peace and rejoicing in your heart. [With hand raised…] Yes I’m saved! Yes I’m born again! Yes, I have trials and troubles. But yes I know that if I died right now, at five minutes to twelve, that I would go right to heaven with the Lord for all eternity. [He seems more sure of his own salvation than St. Paul did of his own!] Do you have that kind of peace this morning? Do you? DO YOU? You’d be amazed at the number of people who come in here every Sunday morning and do not. And they sit. And they’re in turmoil. Sometimes doubting their salvation, wondering if they are saved. They don’t have that perfect peace of salvation in their heart. Yes we’re sinners. Yes we’re going to have problems. Yes there is always going to be something, but yes, I know that I am going to heaven. Saved? Yes. But if you are looking for perfection, you are in the wrong place. You aren’t going to find it anywhere on this earth anyway. The only perfect person who ever walked the face of the earth was Jesus Christ, and we crucified Him, and He was perfect. [Makes the argument that if they crucified perfect Jesus, what do we think that we are going to go through. This argument is entirely good and correct. I just wish Pastor Carlo would share more about the MEANING of the suffering that we do experience.]

He then talks a bit about that our call to be faithful in life, and that we never know just when our life will come to an end.

He reminisces about his age, and then comments that it is all part of life, since things are always changing.

But, then, he quotes one of my favorite Old Testament books, Malachi.

Malachi 3:6: “I am the Lord; I change not.”

This verse offers a powerful argument for the catholicity of the true faith. The Lord does not change, and thus, the doctrines that the Lord has taught from the beginning can not change. The truth, who is the Lord himself, can not change! Where can we find this unchanging truth today? In the thousands of different and changing interpretations of the Bible blowing around within non-Catholic denominations?

Praise be to Jesus for founding his church on a Rock! (Matthew 16:18; see also Isaiah 22:20-23.) That rock remains to this day just as sure a foundation as it was when Jesus prayed for Peter back in Luke 22:31-32. (Also important for meditation here would be John 21:11.)

Keeping this unchanging church in mind, isn't it interesting what is left out of the list Pastor Carlo then gives:

"Presidents change, situations change, congressman change, money situations change, problems change, cars, change; we change homes, we change clothing, and all kinds of things. Hebrews 13 says that "He is the same yesterday, today and foever." He never changes.

I find this list extremely interesting because I wonder if Pastor would think that the church can change. Can a Christian church ever change its doctrine or moral teachings? The only church I know of on earth that has never once changed its doctrinal or moral teachings is the Catholic Church (with the Orthodox being a tight second, praise be to God!). To the sure Rock of Peter and his successors may we turn! Thank God for a church that doesn't change (at least in its doctrinal and moral teaching)!

Pastor finishes his sermon with a brief recapitulation with the main points of his sermon.

Then comes the alter call…

Here, he hammers in the supposedly black and white distinction between people who “know they are saved, know they are going to heaven, know their names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” and those that are not saved or perhaps not sure that they are going to heaven.

I invite my readers to read my tract about eternal security to consider whether the assurance Pastor offers is truly Bible-based.

While I join Pastor Carlo in praising Jesus for those people who made a decision that morning to convert (or perhaps convert again) to Christ, I pray that both Pastor Carlo and his congregants will come to see the contradiction between the idea of “once saved, always saved” and the clear, Biblical teaching that it is possible for a “saved person” to lose their salvation through committing serious sin and turning their back on God. I pray that these converts quickly receive the "washing of regeneration" in the waters of baptism and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Pastor Carlo cites 1 John 5:12 as “support” for his position, which reads, “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

Pastor Carlo comments on this verse by saying, “that’s pretty easy to understand. He who has the Son has heaven, and he who has not the Son is not going to heaven. That’s basically what he is saying, because you have life in Christ, you go to heaven. If you don’t have life in Christ, you don’t have heaven.”

Pastor’s brief comments contain a number of problems.

First off, he says this verse is easy to understand, as if everyone who reads this verse can only come to a single interpretation. He says it is easy to understand as if nothing (including an understanding of the specificity of the original verb tenses used) could have any baring on the interpretation Pastor Carlo draws.

Turns out, if Pastor would have done a Google search for “1 John 5:12 verb tense” (I would recommend running the same search for every verse used to support the doctrine of eternal security), he would have found at the top of the list a website ( that explains that the verb used here is in the present active (also known as “present linear”) tense, which means that the verb tense assumes or implies a continuing action. Thus, 1 John 5:12 should be taken to read (as it has been historically read in an UNCHANGING manner by Christians for 2,000 years): “He who continues to have the son continues to have life; he who does not continue to have the Son of God does not continue to have life.”

The problem this creates for Pastor Carlo is his equivocation of “life” with “heaven.” While someone who at this moment continues to have the Son will continue to have life, this does not necessarily mean that this person will, in the future, have heaven. After all, such a person might DISCONTINUE having the Son, and, according to this same verse, would then DISCONTINUE to have life, and might NOT go to heaven.

I would urge Pastor Carlo’s listeners to pay careful attention to all the times he says things like: “this verse is very easy to understand,” or “that’s basically what this verse is saying,” or “any one who would deny this has never read the Bible.” In my experience with Pastor Carlo’s thinking, these are the very moments where Pastor’s argument is the most vulnerable to cross-examination and most at odds with what the Bible actually says! The effect of these verbalizations is to draw the listener’s attention away from doing the very thing Protestants usually to promote: that Berean act of “searching the Scriptures.”

Sadly, these moments tend to occur in his discussion of the most important topics known to mankind—the salvation of our souls. As St. Paul says, “test everything; hold on to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). While I am thankful for the good that Pastor Carlo's sermon contains, there are elements that need to be done away with--elements that do not reflect the authoritative interpretation of God's Word faithfully passed down unchanged for 2,000 years (many centuries before the Baptist faith even came into existence!)

May the Lord Jesus draw all Christians to a true knowledge of His saving plan! To Him be the glory, now and forever.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Today's Finds

I happened upon a number of interesting sites today, including a few interesting YouTube videos, that I'd like to post.

1. The first is a video quoting from the Early Church Fathers. These fathers were quite clear about the nature and hierarchical structure of the true church. Although the sad divisions between Christians today can no longer be considered the fault of nearly anyone involved, all Christians, Protestants and Catholics alike, do well to take to heart the vision of the church the apostles passed on to their students, St. Ignatius, St. Iranaeus, and the like.

2. I discovered this video through one of my favorite RSS feeds, New Advent, which brought my attention to Francis Beckwith's new blog. His blog led me to his website, which I highly recommend exploring. Beckwith is one of the most recent notable converts to the Catholic church, notable because he was the 2006-2007 president of the Evangelical Theological Society. On Beckwith's site, a number of links are worth reading, including the endorsements, which feature comments from an honor roll of prominent Catholic and Protestant intellectuals. Other links, including an extended excerpt from his book, are also worth checking out. One thing is clear from Beckwith's account of his own conversion: he sees joining the Catholic Church as the culmination of everything good in his evanelical heritage.

3. Beckwith's site linked me to another interesting site, Be Doers of the Word, which describes "Evangelical Catholicism" in terms of a short summary and eight principles. These principles read a bit like the summaries of faith found on the websites of many Protestant denominations, and it is my hope that this bullet-point presentation of the ancient, historic faith resonates with the desire for a "simple faith" common to many evangelical Christians.

4. All of the above reminded me of what I believe to be the hands-down single best talk on Christian ecumenism that I have ever heard. The talk is by Peter Kreeft, philosopher at Boston College and convert to the Catholic faith, and can be found at his website. The talk itself can be downloaded from his website by clicking here. Since I plan to spend an entire later post commenting on the main points from his talk, I'll leave it to my readers to listen to the talk if they wish.

5. Returning to YouTube, I discovered two other interesting videos:

6. And finally, returning to New Advent, I found another link that contains stories related to St. Don Bosco and the gray dog that often came to protect him throughout his life and ministry. A little fun reading to finish off a day's poking around on the internet!

Praise be to God, now and forever!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Response to WHW on the Sign of the Cross

Thanks to WHW for another thoughtful and honest response.

First to my Catholic readers: WHW's response is a perfect example of how important it is for Catholics to open every channel of unity possible with our non-Catholic brothers and sisters. The Catholic faith, ultimately, is not ours. It is God's gift through His Son, Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to ALL of humanity. The Catholic Church belongs equally to non-Catholics and Catholics alike. Though some non-Catholics may not accept part or all of the gift, the gift will always be rightfully theirs as much as it is ours. May Catholics never engage in the kind of denominationalist mindset that sustains so many of the divides within Christianity, but rather may we always speak the truth in love and model Christ's love for all of his children.

Second, to WHW: I offer my deepest apology on behalf of Catholics (including myself) who do not always live up to the faith we hold so dear. For any Catholic to suggest that an ancient practice such as the sign of the cross somehow belongs only to Catholics--and for such a Catholic to take offense when a brother or sister in Christ makes the sign--is not only unreasonable but is contrary to the very ecuminical effort of the Catholic Church as a whole. So for what it is worth, I ask for forgiveness on behalf of my Catholic brothers and sisters who have wronged you, and I invite you to join me in sharing the Catholic vision with these same brothers and sisters. From your comments, I imagine that you would agree that it is no more a misrepresentation when you proclaim a belief in the Trinity or practice Sunday worship or uphold the sacredness of marriage than it would be for you to make the sign of the cross. Rather, the Trinity, Sunday worship, marriage, and the sign of the cross would all be real areas of unity--the very type of unity that Christ prayed for! In this sense, you wouldn't be pretending to be Catholic at all--you would BE Catholic--and that is a prospect that any Catholic should rejoice over, not take offense at. Certainly, these same Catholics would be wrong to take offense if you made the sign with the same faith and religious intention that they do. Do they take offense when hang a cross on your wall or adorn your Bible cover with one? I doubt it; their position is simply inconsistent.

There is one final perspective from which one could offer a corrective to such contrarians: the historical one. As John Henry Cardinal Newman once said, "to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant." (I believe this quote is from his _Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine_.) Historically speaking, every Protestants' spiritual forebears once made the sign of the cross. Thus, for a Protestant to make the sign of the cross today is much more akin to "returning to one's historical roots" than it is to "add something new."

Yet this does raise one interesting question that goes unaddressed by WHW: why did Protestant groups ORIGINALLY stop making the sign of the cross? Are the reasons themselves still valid today? Do these reasons (whatever they are) still influence some Christians' decision to abstain from this gesture today?

While I can not guarantee that no Catholics will ever take offense to what you say or do, even if these actions are in accord with God's will (and even the teachings of the Catholic Church!), I for one would be overjoyed if a worldwide phenomenon swept through all non-Catholic Christian services in which everyone began making the sign of the cross.

I would encourage all Protestants to begin a dialogue with their pastors about how to recover this ancient Christian practice in their services. The sign of the cross does not belong within the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church--it belongs to the entire universe! (One may indeed find, however, that the Catholic Church is indeed as big as the entire universe--no, bigger.)

Two closing thoughts:

Is there anything in the Catholic Church that non-Catholics are NOT invited to?

The surprising answer is a resounding NO! Non-Catholics are invited to the Eucharist, to Reconciliation, to Confirmation, etc. However, they are invited with the same preconditions with which Catholics are invited. For instance, the sacrament of perfect unity--the Eucharist--would logically entail that those who partake of it have faithfully accepted the unity of faith in its wholeness. The Eucharist is the very cause of the mystical oneness of Christ's body, the Church, and it would be contrary to the whole meaning of the Eucharist if one were to receive it without previously committed one's entire self to the fullness of the faith as it has been maintained by Christ's church.

Still, Catholics hope and pray that the desire shared by Catholics and Protestants to share one common meal may motivate the ecuminical dialogues taking place ever more frequently around the world.

Secondily, I would recommend Thomas Howard's fantastic book _Evangelical is Not Enough_, written when Howard was thinking about converting to the Catholic Church, which discusses things like the sign of the cross, the liturgy, etc. in the life of the church. If I were to come up with a list of ten books I wish every non-Catholic Christian would read, this book would without question be on it, as would Howard's follow-up book _On Being Catholic_ (written after conversion).