Ulf Ekman, the influential founder of the 3,300-member Word of Life church in Sweden stunned the evangelical movement earlier this month by announcing he is leaving his charismatic congregation to join the Roman Catholic Church.
“I discovered how little I really knew about [Catholics], their spirituality and their beliefs,” Ekman said in his resignation letter. “Unconsciously I carried many prejudices and bad attitudes and have been quick to judge them without really knowing what they actually believed. It has been good to discover and to repent from nonchalant and shallow opinions, based not on their own sources but on their opponents, and to discover a very rich heritage, a strong theological foundation and a deep love for Jesus Christ among them.”
The high-profile conversion of Ekman is just the latest in a string of evangelicals “crossing the Tiber” and becoming Catholics. In 2007, Francis Beckwith, a Baylor University philosophy professor, resigned as president of the Evangelical Theological Society after rejoining the Roman Catholic Church. Beckwith, who was raised as a Catholic, was “born again” as an evangelical during the height of the countercultural "Jesus movement" in the 1970s.
Other prominent evangelicals who have crossed the Tiber include Sam Brownback, Scott Hahn, and Richard John Neuhaus. Many have fled what they (sometimes rightly) see as the ahistorical, unrooted shallowness of evangelicalism. According to Adam Omelianchuk, a Protestant writing in the Catholic thought journal First Things, “This lack of formal theological identity is perhaps the most influential reason why evangelicals find themselves attracted to the Roman Catholic Church.”
As impressive as these conversion stories are, this evangelical is not crossing the Tiber. It’s nothing personal. I love Catholics’ commitment to community, their rich (though tragically checkered) history, their challenging social teaching, their heroic stands against tyranny, their awe-inspiring architecture, their bracing intellectual tradition, their mind-boggling charitable endeavors, and their sold-out missionaries. One cannot but give praise to God for the countless blessings mediated to the world through the Roman Catholic Church.
My reasons for not joining Catholicism are theological. True, Catholics and Protestants believe that Jesus the sinless Son of God died for our sins, but we differ on how that makes us right with God us and gets us to heaven.
First, Catholics do not believe in justification by grace through faith. Though some Protestants and Catholics have worked to close this theological gap, the fact remains that Catholics assert that works are necessary in order to be saved. Beckwith says, “The Catholic Church frames the Christian life as one in which you must exercise virtue—not because virtue saves you, but because that's the way God's grace gets manifested.”
The New Testament, however, insists that grace comes first, that salvation is purely by God’s grace through faith alone. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,” Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9, “not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
To ensure that this truth is not missed, Paul insists, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Rom 3:21-25a) We contribute nothing to our salvation. Christ did it all.
Roman Catholic theology tragically blurs this vital point. Many Christians have died for this truth, and evangelicals should not abandon it.
Further, if my works are required for my salvation, then Christ’s death was somehow insufficient. This contradicts the repeated witness of the New Testament.
And if my works are required to get saved, then they are required to stay saved. In other words, my salvation can be lost. In Roman Catholicism, there can be no true assurance of salvation. We never know if we have “done enough.” As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Faith is an entirely free gift that God makes to man. We can lose this priceless gift…. To live, grow, and persevere in the faith until the end we must nourish it with the Word of God; we must beg the Lord to increase our faith; it must be ‘working through charity,’ abounding in hope, and rooted in the faith of the Church.”
That’s not what Scripture promises. As Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (John 5:24)
Then there is the question of authority. Protestants broke away from Rome also because of their belief in the doctrine of sola scriptura, which says that our final authority as believers rests not in popes or councils but in God’s Word (cf. Deut. 4:2; Rev. 22:18–19). Catholics add church tradition and certain statements of the pope. As the Catechism insists, the Church “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.”
Critics are right that Protestants and evangelicals are too fragmented, and that this is a poor witness to a watching world (see John 17:20). We can learn much from our Catholic friends in this regard (though their church’s too-often bloody history also needs some acknowledging).
But at least Protestant disunity allows people to search the Bible for themselves (1 Tim. 2:15) and to blessedly expect access to God without mediators, because Jesus is our only Mediator (1 Tim. 2:5). Unfortunately, the Roman Catholic Church is full of mediators—priests, popes, and saints. It generally does not encourage its people to go to God directly but to access Him through these mediators.
Then there are the smaller problems (Purgatory, the perpetual virginity of Mary, the Immaculate Conception, papal authority and succession through Peter, the celibacy of the priesthood, etc.). But most of these smaller problems stem from the larger dispute over the authority of Scripture.
Yes, the Roman Catholic Church has much in common with Protestantism (after all, we came out of it). We both have recited the Apostles’ Creed for centuries. But we must recognize that, despite all these commonalities, the Roman Catholic Church has significant and so far irreconcilable differences with our Protestant faith.
Therefore, no matter how much I admire the Catholic Church, this evangelical happily is going to stay on this side of the Tiber.
Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century, and A Concise Guide to Bible Prophecy: 60 Predictions Everyone Should Know, as well as coauthor of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Stan blogs at http://www.stanguthrie.com/blog.