Friday, April 29, 2011


I’m a guy who, seeing an empty pickle jar in the kitchen sink to be washed, thinks, “nice, we’ve got a new drinking glass.” And my second thought, inevitably is, “we’ve got to eat more pickles now so we can have a matching set.”

I don’t plan to talk much at all about myself. But since I’m new here, I just want to say a few introductory things.

Many readers here will know me from Beggars All, and maybe if you’ve been around for a while, you might know me from the old NTRMin discussion board. I’ve described my conversion story briefly, here.

Finding my way around
As a young man, in the early 1980’s, I traveled extensively, working for a disabled Christian singer named Jeff Steinberg. My life consisted mainly of (a) helping Jeff with his personal needs, (b) driving long distances to a place I’d never been to before, setting up a fairly extensive sound system, running sound for a concert, then packing it all up and frequently driving a couple more hours to get to our next location. I did that for about five years, from 1981-1986.

Often we’d make arrangements for local hosts to do a number of concerts in an area, and that would require that I quickly get to know my way around a new city or town. Over time, I developed a method for understanding my new short-term environment. That involved finding one main highway that I could understand and recognize, then branching off into other areas before finding my way back to that one main highway.

There’s precedent in our day for this method of learning theology and church history, too. Robert Jewett, in the introduction of his commentary on Romans, notes the requirement of “a firm chronological structure” – that one main highway, because “chronology is the skeleton of history.” (Romans, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, pg 18). You expand your learning by finding that one main highway that you trust – in my case, theologically, it has been the Scriptures, and then branching off into other, lesser known areas.

As a person who has wrestled with Roman Catholicism all my life, on both sides of the Protestant/Catholic divide, the one question that kept coming back to me was, “why is the Roman Catholic religion so different from ‘the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3) that’s so plainly evident in the New Testament?”

Not long ago, I was talking with my Pastor about all of this. (I am a member of a PCA church that’s located near the University of Pittsburgh campus.) And from a pastoral point of view, he said that many converts from Roman Catholicism don’t seem to struggle with those kinds of issues. His own mother-in-law and father-in-law are a case in point. Once their daughter married a Presbyterian minister, they stopped attending their Roman Catholic church and started attending our PCA because they just felt more of a love of the Lord in the Presbyterian church.

And I’ve talked to his father-in-law. There was no angst. It was, as Carl Trueman has noted, a case in which Roman Catholics are “generally cultural rather than committed,” and the love for the Lord was far more evident in their new church than their old one.

I did not have it so easy. When I decided to leave Roman Catholicism for the first time, my father and I had terrible wars over it. I was in college at the time, certainly dependent on him financially, and he, having grown up in a poor rural area during the depression, had developed a hatred for “Proudestants” some time during his youth, that I was not aware of. He was determined that his son was not going to be a “Proudestant”.

Most teens in those days, the late 1970’s, were rebelling with “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” I was rebelling by reading the Bible and going to prayer meetings. And it was almost immediately following my graduation from Pitt that the Lord put Jeff Steinberg in my path.

During my years with Jeff, he was active in the pro-life movement, and we interacted with a number of devout Roman Catholics. Of course, the question asked of me was, “why don’t you come back home,” and eventually I did. And as I’ve mentioned in my brief conversion account, I considered and dismissed the idea of becoming a priest, married, had six kids, and spent probably the next 15 years as a devout Roman Catholic.

It was the publication of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” in 1994 that started me thinking about all of my old questions again. At first, I was overjoyed that Evangelicals and Catholics were getting together, but as I read the statement, and read the reviews from both sides, it was apparent that there were some folks on both sides who were not happy about such a development. The 1997 statement, The Gift of Salvation, was one of the last straws for me, particularly this paragraph:
The New Testament makes it clear that the gift of justification is received through faith. "By grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8). By faith, which is also the gift of God, we repent of our sins and freely adhere to the Gospel, the good news of God’s saving work for us in Christ. By our response of faith to Christ, we enter into the blessings promised by the Gospel. Faith is not merely intellectual assent but an act of the whole person, involving the mind, the will, and the affections, issuing in a changed life. We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide).
While it’s true that Roman Catholics view all of “salvation” as a “gift,” – it’s also true, as the priest was telling me as I walked out of confession for the last time, “We’ve gotta do our part too.”

Spending Your Life on the Sacramental Treadmill
But for Roman Catholics, “our part” means spending a lifetime on the sacramental treadmill. Most Roman Catholics are baptized as babies, and so they are never urged to repent, they are never called to conversion to Christ.

On the other hand, when Roman Catholics say that “works” are required, they don’t mean “feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners in jail.” Those things are helpful, but the works that are genuinely required by Church law are known as “the precepts of the church”. My older version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (ccc) says they are “the indispensable minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor.” (ccc 2041). It’s the least that you are required to do in order to assure yourself that “you have been good enough to get to heaven when you die.” (To miss Mass on a Sunday, without getting to confession, involves Mortal sin.) In newer printings, this has been edited to read “The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor.” These are:
The first precept ("You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor") requires the faithful to sanctify the day commemorating the Resurrection of the Lord as well as the principal liturgical feasts honoring the mysteries of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the saints; in the first place, by participating in the Eucharistic celebration, in which the Christian community is gathered, and by resting from those works and activities which could impede such a sanctification of these days.

The second precept ("You shall confess your sins at least once a year") ensures preparation for the Eucharist by the reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, which continues Baptism's work of conversion and forgiveness.

The third precept ("You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season") guarantees as a minimum the reception of the Lord's Body and Blood in connection with the Paschal feasts, the origin and center of the Christian liturgy.

The fourth precept ("You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church") ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts and help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.

The fifth precept ("You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church") means that the faithful are obliged to assist with the material needs of the Church, each according to his own ability.
So there you have the “Sacramental Treadmill”. Catholics will affirm that God gives the grace to accomplish all of that through a lifetime. That’s why they say it’s a “gift.” But as the priest said, you surely gotta do your part.

What it takes to interact effectively with Roman Catholics
In recent weeks, Steve provided an overview of what’s needed in order to interact with Roman Catholicism in our day. I have always taken this advice to heart.

I think a lot of people would like to forget Roman Catholicism, but if you want to go back in time about 900 years, imagine that your government is your religion, and that government rules the world. (At least, the only world you know. But all of it.) There is nothing else: you’re born, you’re baptized by the government; the government gives you sacraments that promise “eternal life”; you get married by the government; your kids have to be baptized by the government. It’s true, there were civil authorities in those days, “lesser authorities” but it was the Roman Church that was asserting authority over all of it. You knew who was in charge. Especially given that there was a lot more death around to help focus the mind.

The Reformation and the American Revolution were fought to break out of that cycle, which is, unfortunately, still evident in many ways in our day. (The “sacraments” no longer apply to your eternal life, but to your natural one. Health care is the big one now, but I’m sure you can think of others.)

I’ve told Steve Hays in the past that I’m a “one-trick pony” – the trick that I seek to understand is Roman Catholicism. And to be sure, Roman Catholicism is a big trick. It’s a bait-and-switch of of the first magnitude. For a long time, it was a huge, unexplored world. But now, within that world, I’ve found that one main highway that I understand and trust. I’ve read a lot. I’ve branched off into those areas that I hadn’t been previously familiar with. And in the process, I’ve gotten to understand this multi-dimensional world of church history, theology, and the breadth of the Protestant/Catholic divide. My hope is to be a trustworthy guide for those who want, for some reason, to explore that world.


  1. Nice piece. From my experience, most cultural Catholics don't think of themselves as living on a sacramental treadmill. Rather, they believe God somehow balances their good and bad deeds -- and those with a positive result go to heaven.

  2. Hi Randall, thanks. You're right, most don't see it as a "treadmill," and you can even have big gaps, as long as you "get back to confession." That's the key to being "good enough," and not dying in mortal sin.

    For penance? Don't bother feeding the hungry or clothing the naked. Say those three "Hail Mary's" and you're good.

  3. "From my experience, most cultural Catholics don't think of themselves as living on a sacramental treadmill."

    Indeed, that is only for those RCs who happen to take their religion SERIOUSLY.

    Protestant writers long ago observed that Rome makes its religion frustrating and joyless for its pious followers and frivolously all-too-easy for its worldly followers. "Just take care of having a confession before you croak, and pay the rest in the Purgatory!"

  4. Anglican bishop George Bull (whom Calvinists btw also opposed for pushing good-works Arminianism) wrote bitingly:

    "Suppose a man to have lived in a course of wickedness for fifty or sixty years, and being now upon his deathbed, to be attrite for his sins, that is, heartily to grieve for them only out of the fear of hell, (and he is a bold man indeed that will not in earnest fear hell when it gapes upon him, and is ready to devour him,) and in that fear to purpose amendment of life, if God restore him, and to have a hope of pardon; (and in so comfortable a Church as the Roman, who hath any reason to despair?) this man, according to the doctrine of the Council of Trent, though he cannot be saved without the sacrament of Penance, yet with it he may.

    If he hath but breath enough to tell the Priest the sad story of his vicious life, and beg absolution, he can do wonders for him more than God Himself ever promised: he can, by pronouncing only a few words over him, presently translate him from death to life; and make him, that was all his life before a child of the devil, in one moment the son of God, and an heir of salvation.

    Let not, therefore, the Church of Rome boast any more of the strictness and severity of her doctrine; and that she especially presseth good works, and the necessity of a holy life; when it is apparent, that by such loose propositions as these, she utterly destroys that necessity. Indeed it may be truly affirmed, that there is no society of Christians in the world, where Antinomianism and libertinism more reign, than among the Papists, into whose very fidth they are interwoven, and men are taught them by the definitions of their Church. It is no wonder so many vicious persons, especially when they come to die, turn Papists, and no visitants are so welcome to them as the Roman Confessors."

  5. Hey John...wondering what happened. Too busy to comment lately but still reading on occasion. Hope you're having a blessed Easter.

  6. Hi Den. Steve Hays made me an offer I couldn't refuse. I'm doing well, how have you been?

  7. I find myself wondering if Viisaus is suggesting that a Protestant pastor visiting the same dying reprobate would - or SHOULD - offer something less than the open arms of Christ to the dying reprobate? Both the Arminian and Reformed revivalist traditions abound with stories of deathbed conversions, making this criticism of the Roman perspective a bit shallow. And our Lord seemed to have little problem with it either, if the parable of the laborers has anything to do with this (Mat. 20:1-16).

    Well said, as always, John! I look forward to following you here!

  8. Hey Jeff, welcome!

    Viisaus seems to be very familiar with 19th century polemical material. I think the point is that, while deathbed conversions certainly about in Christianity, within Roman Catholicism, there has historically been this unspoken understanding that, if you are Catholic, you can get away with [whatever you're getting away with], and so long as you get to confession, you'll be all right.

    Evangelical Christianity would never encourage a person to do that. For us, "now is the hour of salvation". Tomorrow is not promised to the sinner.

  9. "Viisaus seems to be very familiar with 19th century polemical material."

    Actually George Bull was rather a man of the "Glorious Revolution" era...

    "within Roman Catholicism, there has historically been this unspoken understanding"

    Bull provides proof that this has not been merely an UNSPOKEN understanding, but one that could rely on the Tridentine Catechism:

    "But in the Roman Catechism, (which was allowed and published by the order of the Trent Fathers and Pope Pius the Fifth, and is therefore as much their doctrine as any thing decreed by them in their sessions), it is so manifestly delivered, that there is no room for contradiction, in the fifth chapter of the second part of the Sacrament of Penance.1 The sum of their doctrine there, is plainly this:

    "That true contrition, joined with the love of God above all things, is indeed a thing very desirable, and most acceptable to God, even without the sacrament of Penance; but because very few have this true contrition, that therefore God, out of His infinite mercy and indulgence, hath provided for the common salvation of men in a more easy way.""

    "Evangelical Christianity would never encourage a person to do that."

    R.L. Dabney wrote about this subject thus:

    "Now, Rome comes to him and tells him that this Protestant doctrine is unnecessarily harsh; that a sinner may continue in the indulgence of his sins until this life ends, and yet not seal himself up thereby to a hopeless hell; that if he is in communion with the Holy Mother Church through her sacraments, he may indulge himself in this darling procrastination without ruining himself forever. Thus the hateful necessity of present repentance is postponed awhile; sweet, precious privilege to the sinner!"

  10. Viisaus, you always amaze me!

  11. Never heard the term "Proudestant" before.

    Dat's a funny one!

    P.S. Glad you're on the Main Highway (I-5 Solas), John!

  12. "The Catechism of Pius V" that Bull referred to is available online. One can see that it literally teaches that a single confession can change the hell-bound person to heaven-bound one (even if through the Purgatory).

    What sort of conclusions is a simple unregenerate lay-Romanist supposed to make from teachings like this?

    "123 Q: What fruits does a good confession produce in us?

    A: A good confession: (1) Remits the sins we have committed and gives us the grace of God; (2) Restores us peace and quiet of conscience; (3) Reopens the gates of Heaven and changes the eternal punishment of hell into a temporal punishment; (4) Preserves us from falling again, and renders us capable of partaking of the treasury of Indulgences."

  13. Whoops, it looks like that that catechism I just linked to was NOT the post-Tridentine "Catechism of Pius V" (late 16th century) but rather the "Catechism of Pius X", early 20th century!

    Well, it is authoritative RC teaching in any case.

  14. Now here is that Catechism of Trent that Bull cited:

    "Necessity Of Confession

    Contrition, it is true, blots out sin; but who does not know that to effect this it must be so intense, so ardent, so vehement, as to bear a proportion to the magnitude of the crimes which it effaces? This is a degree of contrition which few reach; and hence, in this way, very few indeed could hope to obtain the pardon of their sins. It, therefore, became necessary that the most merciful Lord should provide by some easier means for the common salvation of men; and this He has done in His admirable wisdom, by giving to His Church the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

    According to the doctrine of the Catholic Church, a doctrine firmly to be believed and constantly professed by all, if the sinner have a sincere sorrow for his sins and a firm resolution of avoiding them in future, although he bring not with him that contrition which may be sufficient of itself to obtain pardon, all his sins are forgiven and remitted through the power of the keys, when he confesses them properly to the priest. Justly, then, do those most holy men, our Fathers, proclaim that by the keys of the Church the gate of heaven is thrown open, a truth which no one can doubt since the Council of Florence has decreed that the effect of Penance is absolution from sin."

  15. John,

    I am doing well. Been extremely busy with work lately and haven't been too involved with the blogosphere. Just reading for the enjoyment factor.

    Glad to hear you're doing well and try to take it easy on us Catholics. Ha!

    I'm sure I'll comment on your posts on occasion if the Lord so moves me.

    Talk to you soon.

  16. I can see from this "Catechism of Pius X" that Rome was peddling Tetzelian ideas still in the early 20th century:

    "129 Q: What is a plenary Indulgence?

    A: A plenary Indulgence is that by which the whole temporal punishment due to our sins is remitted. Hence, if one were to die after having gained such an Indulgence, he would go straight to Heaven, being, as he is, perfectly exempt from the pains of Purgatory."

    And again, just how was a simple RC layman supposed to understand teachings like this?

    "123 Q: What fruits does a good confession produce in us?

    A: A good confession: (1) Remits the sins we have committed and gives us the grace of God; (2) Restores us peace and quiet of conscience; (3) Reopens the gates of Heaven and changes the eternal punishment of hell into a temporal punishment; (4) Preserves us from falling again, and renders us capable of partaking of the treasury of Indulgences."

  17. what does this sentence mean?

    "to guarantee to the faithful the very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor"

    It is very badly constructed.

    Also how do you know that the priest was just incorrect? That actually salvation is a gift according to Rome?

  18. Hi Space Bishop -- As far as this sentence is concerned:

    "to guarantee to the faithful the very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor"

    I copied it directly from the CCC website. First, this was probably written in Latin and translated into English. Second, the language about "guaranteeing" "the minimum", these are rules that the RCC has put into place to assure that the folks, who have "got to do their part," do these things, at least, so as to get across the finish line properly.

    Also how do you know that the priest was just incorrect? That actually salvation is a gift according to Rome?

    Not sure what you're asking here. The priest that I referenced was telling me, "we've gotta do our part." I knew that this was the case according to Roman teaching.

    However, even though "we do our part," it is God who, through the Church, "gives the grace," in such a way that the works that need to be done, are (according to Roman doctrine) done in such a way that they are said to be "meritorious" according to Roman doctrine.

    Does that answer your question?