This year, believers around the world will be celebrating a very special anniversary. On October 31st in the year 1517, a pugnacious German monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of a cathedral in Wittenberg, sparking an ecclesiastical, social, and political revolution that changed the world. We call that revolution the Protestant Reformation. What was the Reformation all about, anyway? Are the differences between Protestants and Catholics really so significant? Against what, exactly, are we protesting? In the spirit of the Reformation, I’d like to answer these questions and others by way of a story. This story will take some time to tell and will be the focus of my pastoral letters for the next few months. Here we go…
The two men enjoyed a close friendship since their youth. They had grown up in the same small neighborhood and attended the same small high school in the same small town. They shared the same friends and the same taste in sports, music, and movies. Both men attended small liberal arts colleges in Florida, and after graduating in the summer of 2008, both men began preparing for a life of vocational ministry. Both men were ordained in the summer of 2015, one as a Presbyterian minister and one as a Catholic priest. Suddenly, the two friends who thought they held so much in common found themselves standing atop opposite peaks of a great and ancient precipice through which the eternal questions resound: “What is man and how can he stand before a holy God?”
One day while checking his mail, the Presbyterian was surprised to find an invitation to attend his friend’s ordination: “With praise and thanksgiving to Almighty God and in veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mr. and Mrs. X invite you to attend the Ordination of their son X to the Sacred Priesthood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” How could the Presbyterian effectively explain to his friend that the theological gulf between them was simply too vast to permit any ecclesiastical unity? How could he express that the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, was the single greatest and most glorious thing that he had ever heard and was his only hope in this life and the next, and that that same doctrine of justification had been abominated and anathematized by the Roman Catholic Church? How could he boldly and yet winsomely demonstrate to his Catholic friend the gravity of their differences, all the while urging him to repent and embrace Jesus Christ as He is so freely and lovingly offered in the gospel? What follows is his humble attempt to minister to his Catholic friend and articulate why his conscience prohibited him from attending his ordination service to the Catholic priesthood.
I am deeply honored that you would include me in the single most important day of your life thus far. You have labored toward this goal for many years and now approach the finish line. I know that you have sacrificed much, my friend: a fulfilling and lucrative medical career and the lifetime-love of a good woman. You have been tested by your superiors and deemed worthy. Undoubtedly, your academic prowess and intellectual dexterity are only surpassed by the same blameless character that characterized you as a young man and the same moral fortitude that far surpassed my own. I looked up to you and strove to emulate you in many ways. The Lord was gracious to ground you in my life as a paragon of virtue. I am grateful to God for you, X. Truly, I am.
In many respects, I would love to be there on the day of your ordination. It is by the sweat of your brow and the grit of your own determination that you have reached this point in your vocation, and it seems only natural to celebrate such herculean effort. There is a part of me that would love to shake your hand and pat you on the back for a job well done. But, my dear friend, it pains me to tell you that despite my undying love and respect for you, my conscience and my allegiance to Jesus Christ prohibit me from attending and supporting your ordination. It is my prayer that you will carefully and prayerfully consider my words that follow. I do not desire to inaugurate a theological feud, but rather to spark a meaningful dialogue between two men that desire to be biblical and godly Christians.
Your religion and mine are not one and the same but two utterly conflicting systems. Though we may share ancient ancestries and creeds, we hold irreconcilable convictions regarding the most important answers to the most paramount questions: “What is man and how can he stand before a just and holy God?” If your answers are correct then my faith is futile, truly anathema and errant, and I am destined for eternity in hell because I am still dead in my sins and preached a lie. If I am right, however, it follows that you have rejected the true faith once delivered to the saints, and by neglecting such a great salvation you have spurned the living and true God and His Christ. Such rejection warrants God’s awful and unmitigated fury. So, let there be no confusion concerning the gravity of those differences between us.
My intention is to faithfully and biblically demonstrate the inadequacies of your Roman Catholic doctrines of man and justification in hopes that the Spirit of God will use this testimony to convince you of your sin and misery, enlighten your mind after the knowledge of Christ, persuade and enable you to embrace Jesus Christ as He is freely offered to you in the gospel that you might be saved from the wrath of Almighty God. Then and only then, my friend, will we be brothers adopted into the same heavenly family, redeemed by the same blood, slaves to the same master, the Lord Jesus Christ.
-To Be Continued-