Friday, February 26, 2016

Pope Francis, the Christian Life, and Social Justice

Pope Francis used his Vatican radio address from the Feb. 23 Mass to express his concern about the “fakeness” of so many Christians.  The Pope’s rebuke was harsh and was intended to cause Catholics and evangelicals to seriously reflect on the genuineness of their faith.  At least some listeners ought to be asking themselves, “What makes a ‘good Catholic’?” Or, “What does it mean to be a ‘real Christian’?”  As one of the Pope’s evangelical listeners, I am now reflecting on Pope Francis’ broadcast while also being aware of the “gulf” between the faith of my Catholic friends and that of evangelicals like myself.

Speaking from in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, Pope Francis said,

The Lord teaches us the way of doing: and how many times we find people – ourselves included – so often in the Church, who say, ‘Oh, we are very Catholic.’ ‘But what do you do?’ How many parents say they are Catholics, but never have time to talk to their children, to play with their children, to listen to their children.  Perhaps they have their parents in a nursing home, but always are busy and cannot go and visit them and so leave them there, abandoned. ‘But I am very Catholic: I belong to that association,’ [they say]. This is the religion of saying: I say it is so, but I do according to the ways of the world.

Pope Francis supported his challenge to the Catholic Church by referring to Jesus’ scathing rebuke of the Jewish leaders recorded in Matthew 23: 3-5.  Jesus encouraged his listeners to 

do all that they tell you to do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.  They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.  But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men…

In perhaps his sharpest rebuke, the Pope applies the teaching of Christ when he declares, “Being Christian means doing — doing God’s will.”  On judgment day, he said, “what will the Lord ask us?  Will he say to us: ‘What have you said about me?’ No!  He will ask about the things we have done.”

Although evangelical readers will likely agree that there is a theological “gulf” between evangelicalism and Catholicism, it is hard to ignore Pope Francis’ solid Scripture-based rebuke—one that recognizes the authority of Scripture and that attempts to define the “true Christian.”   The Apostle James gives us his definition of the genuine, saving, Christian faith (emphasis mine):

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?
If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.   – James 2: 14-17

From my perspective, Pope Francis has chosen a humble, uncluttered lifestyle and has a compassionate commitment toward the poor and needy of the world.  Therefore, unlike the Jewish Pharisees, the Pope has a legitimate right to challenge Christians to put their profession of faith into works that benefit others—family, neighbor, and all of those within their ability to assist.

Readers who are familiar with Pope Francis’ past homilies, encyclicals (letters on Catholic doctrine), and actions that promote social justice for the poor and the disenfranchised will notice the connection between the “faith that shows through works” and the Pope’s emphasis on social justice.  It is here that I believe both Catholics and evangelicals should be asking about the role of “good works” and “justice” in God’s plan of salvation.  I say this while emphasizing that whether or not my Catholic friends, or evangelical friends for that matter, have been saved is for God to Judge.  But at the same time, if the Bible is God’s revelation of the way to salvation by faith in Christ, and if Christ has commissioned believers to be His evangelists (evangel = “give the Good News,” the Gospel) (Matthew 28: 19-20), then it is essential that Christians know how to use the Bible to “point the way” to saving faith in Christ.

Thankfully, there are several fundamental core beliefs that evangelicals and Catholics share, including respect for the authority of Scripture and the claim to basic faith and trust in Christ as Savior as expressed in the historic creeds and confessions of the church.  Out of these common beliefs, evangelicals and Catholics now stand side by side to defend biblical marriage and the sanctity of human life.  However, as Albert Mohler writes in “Standing Together, Standing Apart: Cultural Co-belligerence Without Theological Compromise,” (Touchstone Magazine, July-August, 2003), “Evangelicals, Catholics, and the Orthodox do not share a common understanding of how the work of Christ accomplishes our salvation—and this is the heart of the gospel.”

It is beyond my theological knowledge and beyond the scope of this article to go into detail concerning the differences between evangelical and Catholic theology.  I refer the reader to Mohler’s article for an excellent discussion of these differences.  Suffice it to say here that evangelicals have historically recognized Christ alone as the Head of the Church (Colossians 1: 18).  And, salvation is through faith alone by grace alone through Christ alone (Galatians 3: 6-11; Ephesians 2: 8-9).  Although the sacraments of baptism and communion are important in the life of both the evangelical and the Catholic Church, they are not recognized as saving acts by evangelicals no matter in what church they are offered.

Having recognized key theological differences between evangelicalism and Catholicism, we can now revisit Pope Francis’ challenge to Christians to “prove their faith by their good works.”  On the surface, it appears that both the Pope and the Apostle James would agree…faith, if it has no works, is dead (James 2: 17).  But, the Scriptural view of the role of faith in salvation taught in the Book of James and elsewhere reveals that salvation is not merited by any works of the sinner.  Salvation is granted through saving faith alone which merits God’s grace alone through Christ alone

Every unsaved sinner on the way to eternal judgment is regarded as dead spiritually (Ephesians 2:1) and considered darkness (Ephesians 5: 8) and an enemy of God (Romans 5: 10).  This fact is very clear, and can be very unsettling!  Corpses cannot partake in holy sacraments.  Nor can the spiritually dead perform any good works.  Until salvation of the sinner by faith and God’s grace alone, each person is like a spiritual zombie.  But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved) (Ephesians 2: 4-5). While we were still sinners, (and enemies), Christ died for us (Romans 5: 8, 10), and He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures (James 1: 18).
Demonstrating faith in God's love and mercy

Christians are saved by faith alone, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy…(Titus 3: 5).  What then is God’s purpose for good works?  Once again, just as evangelicals differ from Catholics in our understanding of saving faith, so also we differ in understanding of the purpose of good works.  Both James and the Apostle Paul would disagree with Pope Francis regarding both the nature of good works and God’s intention for good works. 

James (James 2: 18-24) and Paul (Romans 4: 1-5) refer to the great patriarch of the faith, Abraham, to teach the intertwining roles of saving faith and good works.  Abraham’s saving faith was pleasing to God because Abraham was obediently willing to complete the good work of sacrificing his beloved son, Isaac (Genesis 22).  And, the “work” that Abraham did as he bound Isaac on the sacrificial altar and prepared to plunge the knife was regarded as a “work of faith” because Abraham believed God would raise Isaac from the dead (Genesis 22: 5).  His faith was focused on God’s mercy, power, and grace alone.

From Abraham, we learn that works acceptable to God must be performed in faith and out of love for God, not primarily out of a perceived human need.  Paul states in 1 Corinthians 13 that any work we do is worthless if it is not performed out of unconditional love for His Son, Jesus Christ.  Oswald Chambers says, “If we are devoted to the cause of humanity, we shall soon be crushed and broken-hearted for we shall often meet with more ingratitude from men than we would from a dog…”  Instead, our works must be motivated from what Christ did for us.  Paul wrote, For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor… (2 Corinthians 8: 9). 

The Scripture reveals an unexpected benefit to us when our works are Christ-love-motivated.  Speaking of the generous giving of the church in Macedonia, Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 8, …their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality (v. 2) and, …they first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God (v. 5).

Pope Francis is right to challenge Christians to do good works, but our works must have a Christ-love motivation and a Christ’s-kingdom trajectory.  Although Jesus sees the needs of the downcast, His aim is not an end in itself to meet physical needs, redistribute wealth, and bring social justice.  Instead, Jesus wants our good works to be the means God uses to bring others into His kingdom, the “city of God,” not an “earthly city.”  Hebrews 11: 10 records that Abraham was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.  In 1 Corinthians 2: 11 we learn that the foundation of this “city” must be Christ, For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

The “kingdom builders” God desires are first of all saved by faith alone, motivated by Christ’s saving grace alone.  Then, as redeemed children of God, they do good works, directed by a focus upon God’s “kingdom ends”i.e. the reconciliation of our neighbor with God which can be facilitated through the means of generous works in the Name of Christ. 

According to Oswald Chambers, “Jesus Christ out-socialists the socialists.” Bernie Sanders not withstanding, no socialist leader has ever been able to control human values, wants, and aspirations to produce a Utopian state. History records failed attempts that have ended in godless misery and the deaths of millions.  Christ demonstrated that the way up is down.  He came to become the Servant of all, stooping to serve even the poorest.  Toward the end of Matthew 23, the passage used by Pope Francis in his radio broadcast, Jesus is quoted as saying, But the greatest among you shall be your servant (v. 11).  Jesus indeed came to bring “social justice” but not for an earthly, economic kingdom.  He calls His followers not merely to eradicate “income inequality” or to join with those who stir up envy and guilt toward the rich.  Instead, Jesus, the Head of the Church, is building His kingdom with a very different approach:  If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me (Luke 9: 23). 

Pope Francis’ challenge to authentic Christianity invites us to take stock of our own faith.  What words will I hear from Jesus Christ when my life is judged?  It will either be, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME’ (Matthew 7: 23); or, 'Well done, good and faithful servant’ (Matthew 25: 21).  Out of compassion for all humans, rich and poor, Jesus calls His redeemed followers who hear Him because they too are poor in our spirit (Matthew 5: 3).  We are to emulate Him in becoming what Oswald Chambers describes as “broken bread and poured out wine in the hands of Jesus for others.”  Chambers adds, “When we realize that Jesus Christ has served us to the end of our meanness, our selfishness, and sin, nothing that we meet with from others can exhaust our determination to serve men for His sake.”

How About You? 
Thank you for reading.  I’d be honored to hear from you, particularly if you have a question or if you disagree with anything I’ve written.

Has God provided you with opportunities to share unconditional love in deeds and in words toward another person who may not be able to give you anything of benefit in return except a “Thank You?”


jsilvius said...

Thanks to Dr. Mark Caleb Smith for the following comment via Facebook:
I looked over your post on the Pope. I can find nothing with which to disagree. I think you correctly point out the large difference between a Roman Catholic and an evangelical necessity for good works. As you said, Christ admonishes us to do works as a means toward the end of redemption. Catholics see the work as an element of the redemption itself, to some degree. This is the gulf between us, even though our agreements are many. I do believe that many of our Catholic brothers and sisters will join us in heaven, but it will be in spite of their church's teaching on salvation and not because of it.

Herb Gillis said...

Hi Dr John and Abby. The term social justice is often misunderstood in my pilgrim's opinion. If the Catholic church uses the term social justice it is referring to loving and obeying God by giving God's Love to the needy and building society. Many writers are into too much literalism and fail to see that salvation is simple and easily obtainable. The Bible is my source on this - Jesus died for us to open Heaven- He is also in us to enable us to avoid sin.. A person is saved in my pilgrim's opinion when when someone loves God above all else and lives as His rep on earth and avoids sin. This is consistent with the Bible where it says "call on the name of Jesus and you are saved". I thank Jesus for keeping salvation simple and easy to obtain. In my opinion you and i have salvation and probably your readers also - if they obey the 10 commandments. A person who truly loves God will surely do good works. Too much quibbling goes on about this. Judging by the strength and love from God one has is a good way to know if a person is saved - YES one can tell they are saved - the Bible speaks of us having an ABBA experience. God's Love is unconditional. We must learn to yield to it like children.
Respectfully, Herb Gillis

John Silvius said...

Dear Herb, with my thanks for your great response. I am glad that I can agree with everything you said. If I understand you correctly, you are saying that salvation is God's gift to anyone who simply believes (expresses faith) in response to God's love as expressed in Scripture (e.g. John 3:16). Salvation is not something we can earn because Jesus paid the "wages of sin...(by His) death" on the cross and resurrection to life again (Romans 6:23). If this is true, and a person is saved by faith, then as you suggest (if I understand your comment), that person will "do good works" out of love for the God Who saved him or her. Not because he or she feels she has to do this to "stay saved." I would consider the sacraments like baptism and holy communion as a "good work" in the sense that we do them because we want to honor God in giving testimony of our "death to the old self and resurrection to new life" (baptism) and sharing in remembrance of the suffering and death of Christ in fellowship of believers (communion). Is this the way you see role of faith and works, Herb? Thanks again for your thoughts. I love that we share in faith in our lovely Savior, Jesus Christ. John

Herb Gillis said...

Hi Dr John. God's Love to you and Abby from Joan and me. I am happy to see we are in agreement. I was concerned that I might have said something in disagreement in a harsh way. But I find by your letter above that I did not. For example in the same way that we say grace only once when we sit down to eat and not every time we take a mouthful - in my 12 steps asking God for guidance appears only once(in the first step).There will be more in a following letter when I have more time. Consultation with you will be very valuable in my work - It takes more than one to handle the scale of my work. I actually believe that work is to WAKE THOUSANDS of people up for work for the Lord. We are both mass communications people. You're doing it with your very good blog. I AM DOING IT by depending on messages from the Bishops to go viral by Internet. With humor I say I am doing my work thinking of myself as a spiritual super hero with the "angels" getting my points across especially when "Pharisees" try to stop me and that does happen. The "angels" come in EVERY conceivable form. I enjoy the drama. Respectfully Herb Gillis

John Silvius said...

Thank you, Herb. May God honor your attempts to serve Him as you rely on His Spirit and His Word for direction and wisdom. I am assured to know that God works in a great variety of ways, but always through those who are humble and willing to keep a short account of our sins of pride and self-ishness. I like St. Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 4: 5-7: For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, "Light shall shine out of darkness," is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen (clay) vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves...
From one "clay vessel to another,"

Herb Gillis said...

Hi Dr John and Abby. Im thanking God for my being in the midst of hundreds of pro-life people at a a big event yesterday. God used me to provide them with a pro-life website for when they go home. Nothing is more clever than that. A website can speak much better than I can and it has the information that I should give but I do not because of my human limitations. I find great joy in partnering with the Lord who has a reputation of being very intelligent (humor). That web site is If you find that web site-giving methodology a good one for you to use please feel free to do so. On a somewhat different subject, there is a matter of extreme urgency that the faithful grassroots MUST DO SOMETHING ABOUT BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE late everywhere in America. That is to block Euthanasia legislation everywhere it is proposed. If you permit I will suggest resources so you can work on that where you are if you choose to. More later. Respectfully, Herb Gillis