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Is This Good News?

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In his Wednesday Mass homily this week, Pope Francis attracted considerable media attention.  According to reports, the message drew on Mark 9:40, where Jesus says, “He who is not against us is for us.”  Like the disciples, we can be intolerant of the good that others can do—even atheists.  Because we’re all created in God’s image, there is still a possibility of doing good.  So far, nothing particularly controversial in terms of classical Christian teaching.  The most ardent evangelical would affirm that although our works are so corrupted by sin that they cannot justify us before God, they can help our neighbors.

However, the pontiff added, “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics.  Everyone!  ‘Father, the atheists?’  Even the atheists.  Everyone!...We must meet one another doing good.  ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’  But do good: we will meet one another there.”

Reports from major outlets, including the Huffington Post, express astonishment at the pope’s comments.  What is this strange new teaching? Of course, it’s not new at all.  It has been an emphasis ever since the Second Vatican Council, where the previously shunned speculations of Karl Rahner, S. J., became official teaching.  There is no way to reconcile the previous councils and papal pronouncements depriving non-Roman Catholics of salvation with the idea of the “anonymous Christian.”  Nevertheless, there it is.  Not the development of dogma, as Cardinal Newman formulated, but the flat contradiction of dogma.

Before Vatican II, the standard teaching was that ordinarily no one can be saved who does not submit to the magisterium and papal authority in particular.  Especially in trouble were those who had been reared Roman Catholic and yet explicitly rejected the pope’s headship.  Although they were consigned to everlasting punishment by papal decrees, the Protestant Reformers never applied the same rule to their Roman Catholic opponents.  Calvin even said that although Rome has excommunicated itself according to the criterion of Galatians 1:8-9, “There is a true church among her.”

What has changed?  We keep hearing from Protestants that, given the Vatican II reforms, if Luther and Calvin were alive today they’d renew their Roman Catholic membership cards. I doubt it. Not even the craziness of contemporary Protestantism could push them to make that move against a Scripture-bound conscience.

What has changed is that Rome has carried its incipient Semi-Pelagianism to its logical conclusion.  I know, Karl Rahner and Vatican II repeatedly condemn Pelagianism and extol grace as the fundamental basis for salvation.  Yet that has always been Rome’s teaching.  It is by grace alone that we are empowered to cooperate in meriting further grace and, one hopes, final justification.

The Reformers never accused the medieval church of embracing outright Pelagianism, but of that subtler form of works-righteousness that invokes grace as no more than assistance for our attainment of God’s favor.  Maybe Protestants don’t get that because this is essentially the same tendency at work in many mainline and evangelical churches.

There is a certain truth, then, to the idea of development, at least from the sixteenth-century Council of Trent and the twentieth-century Second Vatican Council.  Various seeds have come to full flower:

  • Collapsing special revelation into general revelation, and therefore the gospel into the law, Rome maintains that Scripture provides a higher revelation—greater illumination.  The gospel is simply “the new law”—easier than the old covenant—with Christ as a “new Moses.”

  • Collapsing our works into Christ’s, the familiar slogan of the medieval church was “God will not deny his grace to those who do what lies within them.”  It is this slogan that is official dogma, according to Vatican II and the current Catechism of the Catholic Church.

  • The Council of Trent anathematized the view that we are so thoroughly bound by sin that we cannot cooperate with God’s grace by our own free will.  The new dogma simply extends this logic to conclude that everyone is “in Christ,” infused with saving grace, and capable of attaining final justification by grace-empowered works.

  • The medieval dogma of implicit faith was a way of demanding absolute obedience to everything taught by the pope and magisterium, which Calvin described as “ignorance disguised as humility.”  Now, implicit faith is invoked to support the idea that even atheists evidence an openness to divinity by their good works.  They may not have explicit faith in Christ—or even in any transcendent Creator, but it lies buried in their sub-consciousness nevertheless.


What’s different is this: where the older view denied that faith was sufficient for justification, the new view denies that faith—at least the explicit faith in Christ everywhere assumed in Scripture—is even necessary.  In other words, good works not only now supplement faith in justifying sinners but replace faith entirely.

It’s no wonder that the media is welcoming this Wednesday homily with such glee.  Aside from some major social problems, the world, after all, is not as in need of being rescued as we thought.  We just need a little direction to get back on the road, some encouragement to be more tolerant and attentive to the plight of others.  Somehow Jesus Christ has made it possible for all of us to wind up in heaven (purgatory, etc., left to the fine print).

But is this a gospel—good news?  Perhaps it is to good people who could be a little better, but not to the ungodly who need to be justified before a holy God.  What’s so amazing is that the pope’s message is treated as kinder and freer, even though it replaces faith in Christ with our own acts of charity.  For anyone who knows what God counts as true love—and therefore good works, this can only provoke deeper guilt and fear.

Although the surprise expressed by the Huffington Post report cited above reveals unfamiliarity with official teaching, it does get one important thing right in its conclusion:  “Of course, not all Christians believe that those who don’t believe will be redeemed, and the Pope's words may spark memories of the deep divisions from the Protestant reformation over the belief in redemption through grace versus redemption through works.”  Anyone who thinks that the Reformation is over doesn’t realize just how much further from the gospel Rome has moved in recent decades.
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  • Guest - Bill

    And the reason the Pope Francis tells atheists that they should do good instead of repent and believe the gospel is because the Pope is a pelagian. he doesn't believe in original sin, the Pope just like Pelagius believes atheists are capable of doing good.

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  • Guest - Alberto

    Just assuming Bryan is right about Michael Horton misrepresenting the teaching of Francis, the Pope's words are still a great source of confusion. Ultimately, Dr. Horton's views are not the issue; I am in no way criticizing Dr. Horton. When you have media outlets, atheists, and other Roman Catholics hearing this and basically interpreting it the same way, to what unity are we being called? The man was speaking to a general audience, not to some group of theologians or philosophers. Is it actually unreasonable to expect people to interpret the Pope's words in a different way than it has been on the Huffington Post? I suggest people view the video in the article linked as well to see how the Roman Catholic female views what the Pope said.

    Rome does not present itself as being consistent, rather it shows itself, with no need of help from us, to be full of confusion and contradiction.

    That long history to which Romanists turn is not so much help, and it contains a lot of baggage.

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  • Its possible that the Pope isn't talking about good works leading to salvation but if not, he's being very unclear about it in this quote. And the Roman Catholic church has been moving down this path for a while now.

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  • [...] Is This Good News? Reports from major outlets, including the Huffington Post, express astonishment at the pope’s comments.  What is this strange new teaching? Of course, it’s not new at all.  It has been an emphasis ever since the Second Vatican Council.  What has changed?  We keep hearing from Protestants that, given the Vatican II reforms, if Luther and Calvin were alive today they’d renew their Roman Catholic membership cards. I doubt it. Not even the craziness of contemporary Protestantism could push them to make that move against a Scripture-bound conscience.  What has changed is that Rome has carried its incipient Semi-Pelagianism to its logical conclusion.  I know, Karl Rahner and Vatican II repeatedly condemn Pelagianism and extol grace as the fundamental basis for salvation.  Yet that has always been Rome’s teaching. [...]

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  • Guest - DIdymus Martin

    Dear Bryan Cross

    I cite

    http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-voices/20th-century-ignatian-voices/karl-rahner-sj/

    which is the Loyola Press and the voice of the Pontiff’s former brotherhood, the Jesuits, I quote….
    ”Rahner worked with Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) to prepare an alternate text on the issue of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition that was accepted by the German bishops. (Later Rahner and Ratzinger would disagree on the direction of some of Rahner’s writings.) Other topics discussed during Vatican II that showed Rahner’s influence included the divine inspiration of the Bible, the relationship of the Church to the modern world, and the possibility of salvation outside the Church even for nonbelievers.”

    It appears that Ratzinger now embraces Rahners’ thinking

    Shalom in Jeshua

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  • Mr. Horton writes: "What’s different is this: where the older view denied that faith was sufficient for justification, the new view denies that faith—at least the explicit faith in Christ everywhere assumed in Scripture—is even necessary. In other words, good works not only now supplement faith in justifying sinners but replace faith entirely."

    However, he doesn't quite get things right: http://www.faithfulanswers.com/is-justification-by-faith-alone/

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  • Guest - Bill

    Catholic Dad, I appreciate your post. And I know in the link you provide there is plenty of scripture quoted to back up the Roman Catholic tradition.

    Unfortunately the works of grace of a christian can never justify before God, never. So justification is by faith alone. The best works of the Saints are like filthy rags in the eyes of God, God can not accept a single human whether christian or non-christian on the basis of his works.

    Isaiah 64:6
    We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

    A christian, should never think, and I say never, that because he has God's grace he's capable of producing works that are better than the works of the unbeliever. Scripture the the words of Jesus Christ himself condemns this resoundingly, and affirms justification by faith alone. Good works are worthless in the matter of justification whether they are works of grace or works of debt as your link talks about.

    Luke 18:9-14
    9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed[a] thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

    As Martin Luther correctly taught in the Heidelberg Disputations http://bookofconcord.org/heidelberg.php , the only reason God accepts the works of a christian is on account of Christ and because the christian performs all of his works knowing they are sinful and are mortal sins if it weren't for the shed blood of Christ that covers the pollution of the works of grace that the christian performs.

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  • Guest - Bill

    simul justus et peccator was the doctrine of the lutheran reformation. Let us never forget, all christians are simultaneously sinners and saints. They are sinners just like the unbeliever because they still have the old Adam, the body of corruption that we were born with that Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15 that needs to die, and we will be raised in incorruption. The christian is also a Saint but solely because his sin has been pardoned and God does not impute it. Romans 4:8 and Psalm 32:2

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