The latest Christian documentary on Netflix has arrived to dismantle the blight of Prosperity Theology that has taken Evangelical culture by storm. American Gospel is a much-needed message to shake up American Christians from their indifference towards a movement that manipulates vulnerable people into tithing with the false expectation of inheriting immense worldly wealth. Unfortunately, the strength of the message it attempts to convey is undermined by its gross misrepresentation of the Catholic faith at the beginning of the film.
While I think the film does an excellent job at breaking down and exposing Prosperity Theology down to its bare foundations, its commentary on Catholic teaching and beliefs were so poorly researched and represented that its anti-Catholic agenda is manifested clear as daylight. I think their explanation of the Five Solas are intended to help their viewers who happen to be involved in the Word of Faith movement to grasp a more historically-biblical understanding of who Christ is and what the Gospel means. But one doesn’t have to be a Five-Sola Protestant in order to see Prosperity Theology for what is truly is — a false gospel.
As a Catholic, I’ve written my own critique of Prosperity Theology in a separate article, which can be viewed here. My own conclusions and those of the filmmakers of American Gospel are very much the same, but our understandings of what true biblical Christianity differ in how we view the role of Scripture, grace, faith and works.
In this documentary, we have the appearances of prominent figures in mainline Evangelicalism such as Dr. Steven J. Lawson (founder of One Passion Ministries in Dallas, TX), Nate Pickowicz (pastor at Harvest Bible Church in Gilmanton, NH), Mike Gendron (from Proclaiming The Gospel Ministries in Dallas, TX), R. Scott Clark (professor of church history, Westminster Seminary California), and Paul Washer (associate with Heartcry Missionary Society in Radford, VA). You can view the first hour of American Gospel on Youtube.
My replies will be addressing the words of these gentlemen from the documentary, which will be highlighted in red, while my responses will be in plain black text.
DR. STEVEN J. LAWSON: “In many ways, the defining doctrine of true biblical Christianity is justification by faith alone in Christ alone.”
I would argue that the definition of true biblical Christianity is summarized in the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed. When an Evangelical Protestant says ‘biblical,’ usually they refer to their own biblical canon which was only solidified within the last 500 years. Many Protestant Christians would be surprised to learn that there are branches of Christianity throughout the world that predate the Reformation by hundreds of years – complete with their own larger Bible canon.
Justification by faith alone is a novel ideology of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, which was a movement that originated in Europe and is unique to Western Christianity. However, faith in Christ alone should be something Protestants, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians should unanimously agree on — with the proper understanding of what the word ‘alone‘ implies.
NATE PICKOWICZ: “Justification is God declaring us righteous even though we are guilty of sin.”
That is exactly what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, as said here:
“Justification is at the same time the acceptance of God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ. Righteousness (or “justice”) here means the rectitude of divine love. With justification, faith, hope, and charity are poured into our hearts, and obedience to the divine will is granted us.” — CCC 1991
MIKE GENDRON: “We see in Ephesians 2:8-9, ‘For by grace you have been saved by faith and that not of yourselves, it is the gift from God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.’ And so this is the great dividing line between biblical Christianity during the Reformation and the Roman Catholic religion. The official position of the Roman Catholic Church on justification is that they believe that you are justified by faith plus works. In fact at the Council of Trent, which people refer to as the Counter-Reformation, they actually issued an anathema. If anyone believed that they are justified by faith alone, they are condemned under the anathema of the Council of Trent (CITING CANON IX OF TRENT).”
There is biblical reason to oppose justification by faith alone, which I will touch on later in the article. The official position of the Catholic Church also anathematizes justification by works apart from faith, as the Council of Trent states,
CANON I.-If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema.
CANON II.-If any one saith, that the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, is given only for this, that man may be able more easily to live justly, and to merit eternal life, as if, by free will without grace, he were able to do both, though hardly indeed and with difficulty; let him be anathema.
CANON III.-If any one saith, that without the prevenient inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and without his help, man can believe, hope, love, or be penitent as he ought, so as that the grace of Justification may be bestowed upon him; let him be anathema.
NATE PICKOWICZ: “And so the Roman Catholic Church actively was opposing and cursing those who were holding a biblical gospel.”
What the pastors and theologians refer to as a ‘biblical gospel’ is an appeal to the authority of the Early Reformers whose theological worldviews they allegedly subscribe to.
MIKE GENDRON, “It is often called the ‘plus religion,’ because Catholicism teaches that you are saved by faith plus works, by grace plus merit, by Christ plus other mediators, according to Scripture plus tradition, and for the glory of God as well as the glory of Mary and other saints. When you look at the Roman Catholic plan of salvation, it is a salvation of works and sacraments.”
This is a dishonest statement since the use of the term ‘plus religion’ is a typical Protestant talking point that implies the Catholic Church added to the Gospel, which is an appeal to the biblical verse:
“I warn every one who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if any one adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book.” — Revelation 22:18 RSV
The Catholic faith does not falsely divorce good works from faith in Christ as a Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian would do. In fact, the Catholic Church has strongly condemned Pelagianism throughout history. We as Catholics call ourselves a ‘both/and’ people, not ‘either/or.’
Regarding grace plus merit, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life. — CCC 1996
With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator. — CCC 2007
The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace. — CCC 2011
No one can merit the initial grace which is at the origin of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods. — CCC 2027
As far as being saved by other mediators, these are the same-old talking points that anti-Catholic polemicists use to gaslight people into believing Catholics treat the saints like ancient recycled pagan gods and goddesses. As I had mentioned in my article Is Prayer Equal To Worship? as well as In Defense of Mary: Mediatrix & Queen of Heaven?, when Protestant Christians pray for one another, they are essentially mediating to Christ to one another. This is what Catholics call intercessory prayer.
Regarding Scripture plus tradition, this does not mean the Catholic Church places Scripture and tradition on an equal level. Any Evangelical pastor or theologian worth their salt understands that extra-biblical historical texts provide additional context to Scripture. The Bible itself even states:
“So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” — 2 Thessalonians 2:15 RSV
In lieu of this, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states regarding Scripture in relation to tradition:
In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. “For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression.” — CCC 110
But since Sacred Scripture is inspired, there is another and no less important principle of correct interpretation, without which Scripture would remain a dead letter. “Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written.” — CCC 111
See my article Tradition Is Not A Dirty Word.
NATE PICKOWICZ: “In the Roman Catholic plan of salvation, baptism cleanses an infant from Original Sin.”
MIKE GENDRON: “And that is the sacrament of regeneration as well as justification.”
The effects of baptism is a hefty topic, but I will mention that Paul states in his epistles,
“In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,”
— Colossians 2:11-13 RSV
“Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” — 1 Peter 3:21 RSV
I expand into more detail in my article In Defense of Infant Baptism.
(Appearance of baby on salvific journey chart between ‘righteous’ at the top and ‘un-righteous’ at the bottom.)
NATE PICKOWICZ: “That it starts them off on this plan, on this track. Along the way, however, they can commit these small sins, venial sins, which plunges them back down. And heaven forbid they commit a mortal sin, which knocks them completely off the plan of salvation (baby becomes a grownup and takes a tumble down the bottom of the chart).
This statement alone along with the makeshift chart shows these folks do not understand what the difference is between venial and mortal sins. To start, the Catholic Church draws from 1 John to define venial sins,
“If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal.” — 1 John 5:16-17 RSV
What Evangelicals define as sinning even after being saved is essentially what Catholics define as venial sins. Mortal sins are accurately described in a nutshell in Hebrews 10:27,
“For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries.”
— Hebrews 10:26-27 RSV
Mortal sins are defined as a willful rejection of God combined with full knowledge of whether the action is a grave matter. While many Protestant Christians may believe that nothing a person could do could cause them to lose their salvation (even if it means being a mass-murderer or serial rapist), Catholics believe a person can sever themselves off from God by an act of the will.
See my article Are All Sins Equal?