Matthew (Part 12) - Separation
Having had time to reflect a little more since the last summary, I have tweaked the definition of the gospel just a bit. The NT presents the gospel as the good news that the God-man Jesus Christ, through his sinless life, sacrificial death, and resurrection to life, accomplished our redemption from sin and death so that through faith in who he is and what he did, we may also, by his application of atonement, realize the hope of everlasting resurrected life. This definition, although appearing slightly unwieldy at points, provides those concepts/doctrines in which belief is essential for redemption to occur. We must believe that Jesus is both fully God and fully man. We must believe that he was sinless, allowing his death to be a sacrifice for our sin. We must believe in his resurrection both completing the payment for sin and providing victory over death in every sense. We must believe that it is through faith in these doctrines that atonement is applied. We must believe that it is Christ who applies this atonement. And we must believe that by application of atonement we will realize everlasting resurrected life. All these elements are necessary. What is more, any additional elements weaken the purity of these doctrines and therefore must be rejected. For example, the phrase “through faith in who he is and what he did, we may also…realize the hope…” becomes something different—something other—if we may add another condition besides faith. In that sense, the effect of faith is weakened, thus making any statement of “faith plus…” a different gospel.
Our last discussion’s summary ended with the question, “how do we respond to other Christians who differ from our viewpoint concerning whether to sign [the Manhattan Declaration]? The first consideration, then, must be to determine whether the one to whom we respond is, in fact, a Christian. As discussed last time, the word “Christian” could be understood in its historical sense as the label of any religion following (or presuming to follow) the teachings of Christ. But those of us who truly believe the gospel usually understand the word to label only those who have truly been redeemed. And while we cannot know absolutely the faith of another person, we may yet know in a significant sense by the confession of that person. And that confession, therefore, must be an expression of faith concerning the doctrines of our gospel definition.
The Manhattan Declaration was signed by Roman Catholics. Is Roman Catholicism (RC) a Christian religion (i.e., Christian by our gospel definition)? Certainly the religion recognizes Christ in both his deity and humanity. Also recognized are his sinless life, sacrificial death, and resurrection to life. RC understands Christ to have accomplished redemption from sin and death. And, significantly, RC purports that atonement is applied by Christ through faith. Seemingly no aspect of our gospel definition is discounted.
Furthermore, a recent joint declaration made by the RC Church (RCC) and Lutherans concerning justification includes statements that add more assurance to this idea. Consider the following two statements:
3.15 “Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.”
4.2.22 “We confess together that God forgives sin by grace and at the same time frees human beings from sin's enslaving power and imparts the gift of new life in Christ. When persons come by faith to share in Christ, God no longer imputes to them their sin and through the Holy Spirit effects in them an active love. These two aspects of God's gracious action are not to be separated, for persons are by faith united with Christ, who in his person is our righteousness (1 Cor 1:30): both the forgiveness of sin and the saving presence of God himself.”
But this confession is not the sum total of the RCC understanding of the gospel. Within a year following the issuance of the joint declaration in 1999, the Vatican issued a clarification in which it stated, “Together we confess that the sinner is justified through faith in the salvific action of God in Christ. This salvation is given to him by the Holy Spirit in baptism which is the foundation of his whole Christian life.” And in that clarification we understand that although the RCC views faith as an important element, it is not faith alone by which a person is saved. Baptism is a required element (albeit with certain exceptions enumerated based on opportunity). For those redeemed, salvation is not necessarily assured and sin is not necessarily absolved only by the blood of Christ. That is the purpose for the RCC doctrine of penance.
This should not be a shock to anyone who is more intimately acquainted with RC doctrine. The RCC Catechism provides the following statements:
1228 “Hence Baptism is a bath of water in which the “imperishable seed” of the Word of God produces its life-giving effect.”
1239 “[Baptism] signifies and actually brings about death to sin and entry into the life of the Most Holy Trinity…”
1257 “The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation.”
1263 “By Baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin.”
1265 “Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte “a new creature,” an adopted son of God…”
1325 “The Eucharist is the efficacious sign and sublime cause of that communion in the divine life…”
1427 “It is by faith in the Gospel and by Baptism that one renounces evil and gains salvation…”
The canons of the Council of Trent that met from 1545 to 1563 provide some particularly clear explanation of RCC understanding on justification.
"If anyone shall say that by faith alone the sinner is justified, so as to understand that nothing else is required to cooperate in the attainment of the grace of justification, and that it is in no way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will: let him be anathema"
“If anyone shall say that man is absolved from his sins and justified because he believes for certain that he is absolved and justified...and that by this faith alone absolution and justification are perfected: let him be anathema." (Canon 14)
If anyone says that he who has fallen after baptism cannot by the grace of God rise again, or that he can indeed recover again the lost justice but by faith alone without the sacrament of penance, contrary to what the holy Roman and Universal Church, instructed by Christ the Lord and His Apostles, has hitherto professed, observed and taught, let him be anathema.
If anyone says that after the reception of the grace of justification the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out to every repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be discharged either in this world or in purgatory before the gates of heaven can be opened, let him be anathema.
If anyone says that the good works of the one justified are in such manner the gifts of God that they are not also the good merits of him justified; or that the one justified by the good works that he performs by the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit an increase of grace, eternal life, and in case he dies in grace, the attainment of eternal life itself and also an increase of glory, let him be anathema.
By these statements we must recognize that RC in its official expressed belief does not hold to the gospel. It introduces an element of necessary works. Although they will argue that necessary works are not necessarily meritorious works, they fail to convince. By definition, if a requirement is demanded and that requirement is satisfied, it is meritorious. Adding baptism and other active elements to faith in order to gain redemption is a false gospel.
Care must be taken, however, in our witness. We should not approach a Roman Catholic with the objective of attacking the religion. In our gospel witness, we must simply lead to Christ. Show the gospel that redeemed us. If obstacles (e.g., RCC doctrine) are raised that require removal, then, in loving persuasion, address those obstacles. But remember that the goal is not to destroy RC. The goal is to show a lost person the love, grace, mercy, and victory of our Lord.
Second Corinthians 6:14 informs our relationship with those who proclaim a false gospel. We are not to be unequally yoked. But what does that mean exactly? Are we to cross to the other side of the street if an unsaved person approaches? Surely that goes against the rest of NT teaching. Did not Christ dine with tax gatherers and sinners?
I think that 2 John 10-11 helps us understand what Paul has in mind with the illustration of the yoke. John says, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.” This person coming to the house (early Church met in homes) is one who is teaching or proclaiming a false gospel. It is these people with whom we cannot be yoked. We cannot join in proclamation of the gospel with one who brings a false gospel. It won’t work. At best, confusion results. At worst, people can believe a lie, and John tells us that we then partake in those wicked works.
There are two types of separation which the Bible teaches. One is called primary separation. That is the separation we just discussed—separating from those who proclaim a false gospel. The other separation is called secondary separation. That is separation from fellow Christians who rebelliously continue in clear sin. These two designations are not to be confused with first degree separation and second degree separation, although they are similar. First degree separation is the same as primary separation. Second degree separation is separating from a fellow Christian who does not practice first degree separation. The logic of those who practice second degree separation is simple. If a fellow Christian does not practice first degree separation, that fellow Christian is in sin. Since he remains in sin, we must then practice secondary separation and separate from that Christian (thus effecting second degree separation). Hope you got that straight. The similar terms are confusing.
Sadly, this second degree separation seems to be showered on fellow Christians for almost any perceived connection whatsoever that that Christian may have with either an unsaved person or another Christian who has various relationships with the unsaved. We must be very, very careful when imposing secondary separation. The conservative emphasis of the NT is for unity among Christians. Separation is the exception to that mandate for unity. Therefore, we must be careful about throwing up walls of division where Scripture calls for none.
Of the separation passages in the New Testament, Matthew 18 and I Corinthians 5:9-13 relate to the Christian who is rebellious to the Bible’s clear command. This person is to be treated as an outsider—as a person not saved. Second Thessalonians 3:6-15 discusses for the most part a person who is lazy and presumes on the charity of other Christians rather than employ himself to earn his keep. (Although this is often used as a proof verse for second degree separation, it actually has little to do with that discussion.) The final two passages are Romans 16:17-18 and Titus 3:10-11. Both these passages speak of identifying and separating from those who would teach false doctrine, who are uninterested in the unity of the body, and who, as a result, create divisions within the body. These are the people who will say that they want nothing to do with you if you do not believe like they do (concerning non-fundamental, non-gospel doctrines). This is not speaking of those differences which cause some to meet as Presbyterians for worship here while others meet as Baptists for worship there. Denominational differences may exist so long as they do not divide us from joining together around the gospel. (A good example is the Together for the Gospel meetings started by four friends—Ligon Duncan, a Presbyterian; C.J. Mahaney, a Sovereign Grace Presbyterian; Al Mohler, a Baptist; and Mark Dever, another Baptist. They have denominational differences, but they are united as Christians in pursuit of Christ and in proclamation of the gospel.)
Notice, however, in these passages, we are never told to decide how well another Christian is pursuing God, and, if not up to our predetermined standards, mark, separate from, or shun that person. Sure we should separate (after counsel and warning) from Christians who are rebellious to God’s Word, seeking their own satisfaction. But a person pursuing God who differs from us in how to go about that pursuit is not the same as a person who, in defiance to God, will murder, steal, pursue drunkenness, or commit adultery. Clear sin with a heart in defiance to God is different from determining a different course of action in pursuit of God that is based on our interpretation. Only when that different interpretation drives a person to be unclear about the truth of the gospel should fellow Christians consider separation (again after counsel and warning).