Some time back I wrote a little piece called “Discovering Wales” in which I noted that, because Evangelicals are serious about discipleship and oriented toward truth, they tend to keep stumbling upon Catholic doctrines, since those doctrines are, in fact, a map of reality. Sez I:
I have thought more than once that it might be handy to compile a Catholic/Evangelical phrasebook that would allow both parties to speak to each other. Evangelicals have a profoundly pragmatic approach to the faith which tends to overwhelm their own professed doctrines by sheer confrontation with reality. So try as they might, they tend to adopt Catholic ideas under other names, because Catholic theology describes reality.
For instance, Evangelical jargon has long employed notions like “once saved, always saved” and espoused a vague notion that if you have once asked Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior, then you “can’t lose your salvation.” A Catholic can argue the flaws of this theology, of course (and there are plenty of flaws to point out). But the interesting thing to note is that Evangelicals are, themselves, bumping up against hard reality and recognizing the futility of calling Jesus “Lord” but not obeying Him. And so, as the impulse toward what Catholics call “formation” and Evangelicals call “discipleship” grows (under the inspiration of the Spirit) Evangelicals discover by experience a truth taught by the Catholic Church since the beginning: “justification” means we are to be changed into the image and likeness of Christ and not merely “declared righteous” while remaining the sinners we were. This does not mean Evangelicals necessarily realize they are discovering a Catholic truth, any more than my friend’s charismatic companion realized she was stumbling on the Cult of the Saints. But it is true, nonetheless. An Evangelical who sports a bumper sticker reading “Please be patient, God is not finished with me yet” has adopted, whether he realizes it or not, a soteriology that is much closer to the teaching of the Catholic Church than to any of the “faith alone” or “once saved, always saved” jargon of Protestantism.
In similar ways, Evangelicals can often adopt an essentially Catholic view of sin while not realizing it. For example, while residual anti-Roman rhetoric may linger on in the Evangelical mouth, so that Evangelicals can still be found denouncing the Romish doctrine of mortal and venial sin, what you will often find is that once the need for polemics goes away, Evangelicals on their own turf essentially embrace the idea of degrees of sin. How? Usually by adopting a different terminology whereby venial sin is referred to as “stumbling” and grave or mortal sin is called “backsliding”.
I hasten to emphasize that it is a mistake for Catholics to regard this as dishonest or a conscious subterfuge. It is, rather, a product of a culture that really did believe Catholics cooked up the distinction between mortal sins and venial sins in order to “get away” with something (an understandable misperception, given some of the more tiresome moral ingenuities we sometimes encounter from skilled Catholic sophists). But once polemics is gone and Evangelicals set about the hard work of living out the pastoral realities of everyday life, they are forced by the School of Hard Knocks to relearn what Catholic theology describes. And so, when Billy goes off to school and loses his temper at a fellow student, Evangelicals assure Billy that he “stumbled” but that, though a righteous man falleth seven times, he riseth up (Proverbs 24:16). On the other hand, if Billy goes to off to college, abandons his faith, starts sleeping around, dealing drugs, and winds up in jail for murder, he hasn’t “stumbled”: he’s “backslidden”. There is a clear understanding that the gravity of these two manifestations of sin is not the same and that the grace necessary to cure them, while all from Christ, is not the same sort of grace. Once again, the Evangelical drive toward reality overwhelms the vestigial anti-Roman rhetoric and the Evangelical winds up embracing essentially Catholic ideas, albeit using different jargon.A final example of this curious phenomenon can be found in the Catholic concept of “temporal punishment for forgiven sin” which plays such an important role the Catholic understanding of salvation. Here again, Evangelicals tend to hear something the Church is not saying: namely, that after Jesus has borne our sin on the cross and paid 50% of the Atonement Fee, it is necessary for Catholics to pay the other 50% and help make up for Jesus’ inadequate attempt at redemption.
Not surprisingly, Evangelicals reject this theology (as, of course, do Catholics). But then they head out into the real world in the attempt to live biblically. And what they find is that, like it or not, suffering comes to forgiven disciples of Jesus, often as the result of sins of the past. Christian converts on death row get executed for crimes they committed before they became believers. Christian drug addicts have to struggle with addiction. Converts who once beat their wife or child are faced with divorce or jail despite the fact that they have repented and their sins are forgiven by God. Forgiveness does not cancel back taxes. And so, as a pastoral reality, the Evangelical has only two choices, regard this suffering as meaningless junk that just happens for no reason or regard it, in the words of Hebrews 12:5 as the “discipline of the Lord” which now turns the pain of our sins into a vehicle of grace to transform us into the image of Christ. If he opts for the latter, the Evangelical has once again embraced the basics of Catholic teaching about “temporal punishment for sin”. He just doesn’t realize it.
I think about that phenomenon as I notice that, once again, Evangelicals are stumbling over the reality mapped by Catholic teaching. Here, for instance, is Evangelical Greg Laurie arguing that the dead are aware of us and know what’s happening on earth (pretty much all you need in order to likewise argue that the dead pray for those on earth–and then you are off and running with that whole “communion of saints” thing that Catholics are on about).
Likewise, Christianity Today has recently begun to question whether artificial contraception is really all that great and to revisit possibility that cooperating with, rather than thwarting, the intention of God in making nature is biblical or even smart.
Catholics should rejoice whenever non-Catholics discover some truth described by Catholic teaching and help them integrate their discoveries into the whole weave of Catholic faith, teaching and practice. It’s what Priscilla and Aquila did with Apollos and it still sound today.