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For Goodness' Sake

"Glen Roberts"

Dear James,

I'm sorry you missed the ordination of Charles Greene last month. I know he was your favorite Sunday school teacher, and session always admired the way he encouraged junior high students to memorize the Shorter Catechism. Ben sometimes complains, but when he stands back and realizes how far he has come, even he is surprised by Mr. Greene's persuasiveness.

At the reception, I spoke to your mother, again enjoying her abilities in the kitchen. (I can certainly appreciate your complaints about dorm food.) She mentioned your socializing with your hall mates and that you have been attracted to one of their Roman Catholic friends. I think her name is Jill. I am certainly not going to advise you about romance. Your parents are more than competent in such matters. I'm sure you know that marrying outside the faith is wrong. I'll leave it at that.

I'm also not about to tell you how to pick your friends. As much as I hope you avoid harmful influences and temptations, I don't think having Roman Catholic friends calls for alarm. During grad school, I spent a lot of time with several Roman Catholic colleagues in the English department. They were about the only other students in the program who admired dead, white, European men.

What I have finally put together is that your concerns about Roman Catholicism extend beyond the college's recent hiring of a Roman Catholic. Your affection for Jill may also account for your questions about Rome.

So what's wrong with Roman Catholicism? The answer is much less obvious than it used to be. Unfortunately, the older Protestant bias against Rome, as I mentioned in my last letter, was not always smart. Your parents and I used to regard Roman Catholics as not fully American because they needed to obey the pope. We may have known something about differences over the gospel, but the important question was whether they were good Americans.

Times have changed. Roman Catholics are now important allies, if not friends, in defending the family and moral decency. In fact, Rome has taught American Protestants valuable lessons on the sanctity of human life. Still, let's not get carried away. Mormons also make for great neighbors, and their parties never involve Irish drinking songs. But a good neighbor does not a good Christian make.

Goodness is actually the best place to try to persuade you of Rome's inadequacy and why you need to be careful with Jill. As Presbyterians, we believe that every person who descended from Adam (except for our Lord, who was born of a virgin) carries the guilt of Adam's first sin. Our sinful nature prevents us from doing anything that is good in the sense of pleasing God. So pervasive is our sinfulness that even a Christian's good works are defiled according to God's perfect standard.

The way to be good in the sight of God, then, cannot come from us. We must find perfect righteousness somewhere else. Thanks be to God, we have such goodness in Christ, who bore the penalty of our sins on the cross and lived a perfect life. On the cross our sins were transferred to him, and through our justification his goodness is transferred to us. The way we receive Christ's goodness is not by our effort. We only receive his righteousness through faith, which is receiving and resting upon him alone for salvation.

This doctrine of justification should greatly alter the way we view people whom we think are good neighbors, whether Roman Catholic or Mormon. They may be outwardly good. But unless they are free from sin and do their good deeds for the right reasons—because of what God has revealed, and to his honor and glory—then their deeds are inwardly or spiritually wicked.

Now, of course, that's not much of an ice breaker at a party after a football game. And you probably want to pick your moments to bring that up with Jill. But the gospel does affect the way we think about good citizens or the public good. Lots of Christians will talk about the need for religion in public life, that faith is our only permanent basis for morality. To be sure, this sentiment has an element of truth. God's law is the only standard for goodness. But missing in this idea of public goodness is the biblical truth that men and women are incapable of meeting God's standard of goodness; to be good, our fellow citizens need the Savior. In fact, the advocates of religion in the public square actually contradict the gospel if they lead people to think that they can be good simply by being moral.

That's a lot to digest in one letter. The point not to be missed is that whatever you think of your friends' goodness, you should not let their admirable qualities alter your awareness of their need for the Savior or cloud your understanding of the differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Most Roman Catholics are fine people. But Roman Catholicism is not. If they believe what Rome teaches on salvation, it is not good.


Uncle Glen

"Glen Roberts" is a pseudonym shared by two prominent ruling elders in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Reprinted from New Horizons, July-August 2008.

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