What is the difference between Catholics and Evangelicals? Certainly there are many answers that can be given to that question, but perhaps none is more important than this — Catholics and Evangelicals have a fundamental different understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Particularly, the difference between Catholics and Evangelicals lies in their understanding of the centrality and sufficiency of faith as it relates to salvation. Sola Fide, as the Reformers cried, is the Evangelical belief that salvation is by faith, and faith alone. It is that last little word, alone, that carries the weight of the difference between the two.
In a newly reprinted book by Baker Books, Getting the Gospel Right: The Tie That Binds Evangelicals Together, R.C. Sproul examines 2 important ecumenical documents penned in the 1990s, particularly looking at their understanding of the Gospel and the role of faith in salvation, and one Evangelical response to those documents. Originally written in 1999, this newly updated and reprinted book is an excellent resource to examine the difference that Catholics and Evangelicals have in their understanding of the Gospel.
The thought that professing Christians would be divided and not brought together in unity is no small matter. It is no trivial thing to say that Catholics and Evangelicals are divided over their understanding of the Gospel and the role of faith, and that one group is right and one is wrong. Sproul realizes the gravity of such an issue, and says in the preface:
“The loss of Christian unity at any point is tragic and destructive. When that loss threatens our unity in the gospel itself, it is catastrophic. To work toward unity in the gospel is not a matter of ecclesiastical politics; it is a matter that touches the soul of the church itself and the souls of all its members” (9).
With that said, Sproul equally believes that Christians must stand firm together on the biblical understanding of the Gospel, and oppose any attempts to create unity where no unity exists. Such is the case between Catholics and Evangelicals concerning the Gospel. Though there are stark differences between the two, many in the ecumenical movement have sought to downplay those differences and instead appeal to the commonality between these two groups.
Two Important Statements
Two such attempts to find unity between Catholics and Evangelicals were two documents penned in the 1990s — Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) and the subsequent document, The Gift of Salvation (GOS). These two documents were signed by many prominent Catholics and Evangelicals in order to show that they were united on key points of the Christian faith, and that their differences were not of the magnitude that would separate true believers from non-believers.
Sproul, however, did not believe that these documents sufficiently explained a biblical understanding of the Gospel and the role of faith in salvation. He says in the preface, “I am numbered among those who believe that both ECT and GOS are seriously flawed” (10).
What follows in this book is a careful treatment of the issue of Christian unity, followed by a detailed analysis of two documents: The Gift of Salvation and The Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In Part 1, “Controversy Concerning the Gospel,” Sproul looks at the topic of Christian unity, and specifically what role key differences in understanding the Gospel play in developing such unity. Sproul does an excellent job in these chapters by showing that, while unity is important and essential for Christians and churches, it cannot be had at the expense of doctrinal fidelity. He shows that when an institution claiming to be a church rejects a core tenet of the Christian faith (such as salvation by faith alone, or the deity of Jesus), it must be regarded as a false church (i.e. Jehovah’s Witness, Mormons, and Catholics).
In Part 2, “The Gift of Salvation: A Critical Analysis,” Sproul looks at the document referred to above, The Gift of Salvation, and analyzes it paragraph by paragraph. While these 3 chapters are detailed, they are important in showing that this document which sought to establish unity between Catholics and Evangelicals was actually insufficient in expounding a robustly biblical presentation of the Gospel, including the doctrine of faith alone. As such, this document is insufficient to establish the desired unity, and there still remains a stark difference between the two in terms of their understanding of the Gospel.
Finally, in Part 3, “The Gospel of Jesus Christ; An Explanation,” Sproul turns his attention to a third document that was penned in 1998, The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration, in which Evangelicals gathered together to restore evangelical unity by drafting “a joint statement regarding the gospel and justification by faith alone that could reaffirm the unity that has existed historically among a wide and diverse body of evangelical Christians” (11). The concern was that there was disunity being bred among Evangelicals between those who did sign ECT or GOS and those who did not. The issue was not whether or not those Evangelicals that did sign these documents had abandoned their commitment to sola fide; rather, the issue was that disunity began between those who thought Roman Catholicism had changed their theology and thus created a common faith between the two, and those who did not. In light of this disunity, this third document, The Gospel of Jesus Christ, was penned. After sections on the Gospel and the unity that the Gospel should bring, followed by a series of 18 affirmations and denials, the document ends with this commitment:
“As evangelicals united in the Gospel, we promise to watch over and care for one another, to pray for and forgive one another, and to reach out in love and truth to God’s people everywhere, for we are one family, one in the Holy Spirit, and one in Christ. Centuries ago it was truly said that in things necessary there must be unity, in things less than necessary there must be liberty, and in all things there must be charity. We see all these Gospel truths as necessary” (115).
Getting the Gospel right is essential for all Christians everywhere, and Christian unity must have at its core and foundation a unity that is based on the full Gospel of Jesus Christ. What this book shows is that, in spite of their efforts through two documents written in the late 1990s, Catholics and Evangelicals do not have unity in the Gospel. As much as Evangelicals may want to find commonality and unity with their Catholic counterparts, until Catholicism reformulates its theology and redefines its terms — specifically in relation to the Gospel — no unity can be had. For now, Catholicism has not gotten the Gospel right.
In accordare with FTC regulations, I would like to thank Baker Books for providing me with a review copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.