- (Photo: Dan Delzell)
It has been nearly 20 years since leading Evangelical and Roman Catholic scholars in the United States signed an ecumenical document to deliver a common witness to the modern world. While everyone understands that there are still theological differences, "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" was an amazing effort in 1994 to reach out to one another in Christian love. One affirmation in that document stated: "All who accept Christ as Lord and Savior are brothers and sisters in Christ." This is most certainly true.
If we will keep working out that affirmation in our relationships together, much progress will continue to be made today between believers of different Christian church bodies. The true unity of the Christian faith is experienced by all "brothers and sisters" in God's family. Obviously, there are many children of God among the ranks of Catholics and evangelicals. That is not to say that every evangelical and every Catholic has faith in Christ....but for those who do, there is unity in the Spirit in this world and the next.
Among the points of difference in doctrine that were addressed in the document, the issue of baptism is a significant one. The debate tends to revolve around whether baptism is a "sacrament of regeneration" as Catholics teach, or a "testimony to regeneration" as evangelicals teach. This difference would, at first blush, seem to make it impossible for there to be agreement with one another upon the Gospel. But that is only the case if we place the doctrine of baptism above the previous affirmation that "all who accept Christ as Lord and Savior are brothers and sisters in Christ."
If Catholics and evangelicals truly believe and teach that accepting Christ is necessary for a person to be in God's family, then different teachings about baptism do not have to override the primary doctrine of justification. One of the first affirmations of the document states: "We affirm together that we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ." What a beautiful affirmation for Catholics and evangelicals to make together!
Granted, we evangelicals often use the term "born again" to describe those who have been justified through faith....whereas that term is not typically used by Catholics. But so what? Semantics aside, if two Christians can agree that "we are justified by grace through faith"....and that "living faith is active in love" as agreed upon in the document....then, praise the Lord for this beautiful agreement between Christians.
Catholics certainly don't deny that in the third chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus taught the necessity of being born again. They just don't tend to use that terminology. The key for evangelical ministers and Catholic priests is one in the same: proclaim the truth that "all who accept Christ as Lord and Savior" are forgiven of their sins. These born again disciples are then called by God to "live in obedience to the divinely inspired Scriptures, which are the infallible Word of God" as stated in the document.
Catholics teach that a person is not forgiven of his sins if he rejects Christ as Savior. Evangelicals teach the same thing. Both groups teach that a baptized person who goes on to reject Christ after baptism is not a brother or sister in Christ. I will say it again. Baptism, without faith, does not save the soul of the person who rejects the Lord. Catholics and evangelicals are in agreement on that important point, even though there is not agreement on exactly what happens in baptism.
The document states: "We hope that all people will come to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior." Catholics and evangelicals agree that God's love is for the entire world. That is the clear teaching of Scripture. "God wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." (1 Timothy 2:4) In other words, God wants everyone in the world to be born again. Jesus died for all people of all time and of every nation.
Chuck Colson's first book was fittingly titled, "Born Again." Chuck was a co-founder of "Evangelicals and Catholics Together," along with Richard John Neuhaus. Chuck and Richard have now both gone on to glory. Both men were born again through faith in Christ. Evangelicals and Catholics would be wise to follow their lead in loving one another and taking this Gospel message to everyone in the world.
Chuck Colson and Richard John Neuhaus are living epistles which testify to God's grace in Christ. I use the word "living" because both men are still alive....in heaven. While neither man brought the label of "evangelical" or "Catholic" with him into heaven (since those labels are not needed or promoted there), these two men must surely be having a blast together right now in the presence of our Lord. Chuck and Richard are together forever....and they will be joined by every evangelical and Catholic who accepts Christ as Savior.
As Chuck, Richard, and the other participants affirmed in the document: "All authentic witness must be aimed at conversion to God in Christ by the power of the Spirit." Jesus referred to this conversion as being born again. (John 3:1-6) It is not the only phrase in the Bible, however, which describes conversion. In his first sermon, Jesus declared, "Repent and believe the good news." (Mark 1:15) Catholics and evangelicals wholeheartedly endorse that message from Christ which leads a person to salvation.
There are various words in the New Testament to describe those who have entered into a relationship with Jesus Christ. The phrase "justified by grace through faith" is the wording in the document. That is also the clear teaching of Scripture. Words matter....but there is more than one word or phrase in the Bible to describe what it means to know Christ.
Evangelicals and Catholics continue to get born again all over the world through faith in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. There is much we can learn from one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. We would be wise to follow the example of Chuck Colson and Richard John Neuhaus in this regard. God gave these two men to the world and to His church for such a time as this....to lift up the name of the one man whose church all Christians call "home."