An Interesting Conversation at My Door

Saturday morning a Roman Catholic laywoman and a male companion (who stood behind her with his rosary saying prayers) came to my door on behalf of St Mary Church in Escondido. She asked if there were any Catholics in the house. I said, yes and no. Yes, we confess the holy catholic faith of the Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Athanasian Creed but no, we are not Roman Catholics, we reject the papacy. I told her that I seek to persuade folk from following the papacy. She seemed to understand the last point but the rest didn’t fit her paradigm exactly and a discussion ensued.

It was an interesting conversation for a variety of reasons. First, it was interesting to see how a reasonably well-trained Romanist lay person would represent the teaching of her communion. She did a fair job at it but when we got to the Eucharist she didn’t seem to be aware that Rome teaches that holds that the sacrifice is both memorial and propitiatory (turns away God’s wrath). She seemed think of the supper only as a communion with God. This is an aspect of the Roman catechism but so are the others.

I asked her how she planned to present herself to God, how well she was doing in her program of cooperating with grace. She admitted that her cooperation wasn’t perfect. I asked her what she makes of Galatians 3:10, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the book of the law” (emphasis added). She admitted that her obedience isn’t perfect but she hoped that her best would be acceptable to God. The late-medieval Franciscans had an expression for this view of grace and justification: “To those who do what lies within them, God denies not grace.” She is relying on what the medievals called “congruent merit,” literally the merit of agreement or covenantal merit. She’s hoping that God will impute perfection to her best efforts.

In contrast, the Reformed churches confess that Jesus’ perfect righteousness and merits are imputed to those who believe. As we say in Belgic Confession Art 23,

…not claiming a thing for ourselves or our merits

rather we are

leaning and resting on the sole obedience of Christ crucified which is ours when we believe in him.

One of the two most striking points she made had to do with authority. The first is that she is Roman Catholic because that’s where she feels most comfortable, where she finds peace. She testified that when she has strayed from the church she has lost this sense of peace. This appeal to the subjective, of course, is essentially Mormon. It’s the Roman equivalent to the burning in the bosom.

The second appeal to authority was to implicit faith (fides implicta). The Roman Catechism §82 confesses:

Both Scripture and tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.

Faithful Romanists must accept the tradition of the church on implicit faith. They are to trust that what Rome teaches is true even though it cannot be verified from Scripture. Indeed, she was much more certain that Rome must a priori be correct than she was about what Scripture says.

Before she left I asked her what were Jesus’ last words on the cross. After some thinking she said remembered, “it is finished.” I told her that, according to Rome’s view of salvation Jesus should have said, “It is begun” to which she agreed, that’s what the words must mean. She said that Jesus has opened the way for us to do our part toward eventual acceptance with God.

Jesus, however, didn’t say, “It is under way.” He said, “It is finished.” The only way to benefit from Jesus’ work is not by grace and cooperation with grace but by God’s free favor alone, through faith resting in Christ’s finished work alone. She assured me that she would pray for me and I said I would pray for her.

There are probably elements of the conversation that I’m not remembering just now but that’s the gist of it. We’re being told from various quarters that the Reformation is over, that Vatican II changed everything or that the Reformation era condemnations no longer apply because they no longer represent our religious experience. My encounter with the good folk from St Mary’s suggests that the opposite is true. Vive la différence!

Related Posts

Is the Reformation Over?

Is the Reformation Over (conference audio)

Has Rome Changed?

Resources on Roman Catholicism

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  1. It would be most stressful in not knowing if your efforts are pleasing to God.

    Look at the torment that Luther went through.

  2. Sad indeed. It could have been a representative from any Semi-Pelagian or outright pelagian evangelical or mainline church. All very similar, just without the mass and sophisticated methods. Now, things like quiet times and listening to the Lord’s leading are propitiatory, even though they would agree the Romanists are heretics. The denial of imputation of Christ’s active obedience abhors the vacuum, and so it must be filled with something, not matter how religious or spiritual it may sound.

  3. That’s a great story, Dr. Clark! I didn’t know that Roman Christians did the door-to-door thing like the Jehovah’s Witnesses do. I live in Hudsonville, Michigan – about 15 miles west of Grand Rapids and we seem to get more than our share of JWs going through the neighborhood.

    There was a time when I would basically run and hide when I saw these folks approaching, but now, having been exposed to the great teaching of men like you and the guys at the White Horse Inn, I’m quite a bit more confident because I have a better grasp of what I believe and why I believe it. I used to think I needed to have a deep understanding of what Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in order to effectively discuss theology with these people, but the truth of the matter is I simply need to be well grounded in my own beliefs. Now, instead of dodging these visits, they can become evangelistic opportunities delivered right to our doorstep.

    Just last night I listened to the first hour of the audio from Zion URC on whether the Reformation is over. It was very interesting to see your account of the visit you received having just listened to that great conference audio. Thanks for your work and I’m really glad the Heidelblog is back!

  4. Dr. Clark,

    Can you kindly point me to some resources that explain how Rome teaches a propitiary Eucharist. It would help in a discussion I am having with a brother.

    • Hi Matt,

      See the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

      On the one hand Rome says,

      §612 “Christ’s death is the unique and definitive sacrifice”


      §618 The Cross = “ladder by which we may get to heaven”

      §414 “As a sacrifice the Eucharist is also offered in reparation for the sins of the living and the dead to obtain spiritual or temporal benefits from God”

      This formulation is slightly softer than that of Trent, which was more explicit about the propitiatory nature of the eucharist sacrifice.

      Here’s some explanation. Take a listen to the Central Valley conference audio.

  5. There is no better way than to go the Roman Catechism for what they teach. It is outlined very well so that you can get the answers to any questions about the teachings of Rome.

    That is the way that I have always learned about all of the various traditions–by going to the source itself.

  6. Excellent observations. Thank you for taking the time out to talk with the gal.

    Before you even mentioned Mormonism, I was thinking about Spencer Kimball’s book “The Miracle of Forgiveness.” What this gal was saying had a lot of parallels, not only with the subjectivity element, but also the means by which Mormons can have any kind of assurance of forgiveness.

  7. One thing, I don’t know if there is much power in telling a Roman Catholic that what they are doing is Mormonesque. Put yourself in her shoes. She probably has a lifetime of reading of various saints, perhaps mystics like St. Theresa of Avila, the history of the Roman Catholic Church prior to the Reformation as well, and when she says she feels peace in the RCC she may just be drawing on such impressions and memories; and it’s hard to compete with that if all you have is a Mormon reference or a Protestant church that rents out at a local office building or something (not putting down Protestant churches, just sayin’).

    Personally, I think the best way to get at Roman Catholics is to recognize their church and their place in it but to also show them there is true, on-the-mark doctrine, and that doctrine effects us inwardly, and a person can know the truth and be saved despite their church. RCs are Trinitarian, afterall.

    Not that I have the answers for this massive historical problem/situation. Other than the word and the Spirit regenerates, and once regenerated a person will find the truth wherever they are at. It’s good that we’ve gotten RCs to read their Bibles somewhat anyway. That’s a big start.

    • To be clear, I didn’t mention Mormonism to her. I just mentioned it for the benefit of blog readers.

      What do you make of the Belgic Confession’s categorization of Rome as a “false church?”

  8. I’m as fire-breathing Calvinist regarding Romanists as exist. But I run up against the real world regarding it. When I’m reading about the Reformation, Fox’s Book of Martyrs, the large scale acts against various Protestant, or proto-Protestant groups, my blood boils. Which may or may not be a mature reaction. Doctrinally I consider doctrine to be armor of God, so Romanist doctrine to me is fake armor. But then there is the real world thing we all come up against. Real people who belong to the Roman Catholic Church. It’s like asking them to leave their family. That’s why I think a person can be saved despite their church. I like to think there is more than a few Calvinists in RC churches.

    • So what if Romanists claim to be Trinitarian, they have blasphemous teachings which diminish the glory of the Trinity and are willing to leave people in ignorance. My anger is aroused when I see the darkness that Romanism has contributed to Latin America. It is disgusting to see how Rome leaves people under their care in tremendous ignorance. My grandmother was one of those Mexican Romanists that crawled on her knees and prayed to Mary and saints; all of my mother’s side of the family left Rome, and we are all better off because of this. I have seen a large number of Hispanic Romanists (who are generally very devoted to Rome) become ardent Protestants, and they did not leave Romanism by being evangelized by people who viewed their church well or recognized it as a true church. Romanists may have started reading Bibles, but as in the case of the woman who met with Dr. Clark, they twist the clear words of Christ to conform him to their church.

    • David,

      Though it is true that we have always conceded that there are, in the mysterious providence of God, believers within the Roman communion, the Reformed have never taken the approach that it’s the right thing to do to remain within that communion. Calvin described those who did so as “Nicodemites.” I did a series on Calvin’s approach to the Nicodemites in 2009.

      Yes, it is like asking them to leave their family. A couple of passages come to mind:

      For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matt 10:35–39).


      Then Peter said in reply, “See, ywe have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life (Matt 19:27–29).

      My conversation with this woman suggests that Romanist laity aren’t getting the good news despite Rome’s condemnation of the gospel. She isn’t trusting in Christ’s finished work for her. She was plainly trusting in Christ and her cooperation with grace. That’s the Galatian error or very much like it. She’s trusting in her baptism in the very same way the Judaizers were trusting in circumcision. She’s trusting in her cooperation in the same way the Judaizers were trusting in their works. This is why the Protestants said that Rome had turned grace into works and if it is of works then it is no longer of grace, to quote the apostle.

      This conversation suggests that the Roman doctrine of justification through sanctification is being communicated to the laity and that they get it. This shouldn’t surprise us because there are lots of Protestants, who are ostensibly hearing a rather different message, who think the same way.

      Then, of course, there is the Roman doctrine of the eucharistic sacrifice, which we confess to be a “damnable idolatry.” (HC Q. 80), Mary as “mediatrix,” “adjutrix,” and “auxilliarix.” The reasons to leave are not a few.

      Why then would we be content to allow folk to linger or languish in such a communion?

  9. Dr. Clark –

    I have folks close to me that studied church history and in doing so, they became Orthodox. This led me to do an extensive study on it by reading a lot of the works by the Orthodox scholars.

    They have no “Council of Trent” amendment stuff, and they claim that their church has not changed since the Apostles and the early church fathers. It is the fastest growing church body in the United States.

    I have found their stuff of the semi-Pelagian school and a works plus faith salvation. They have a doctrine of “Theosis” which seems to jump right into a type of a sanctification process while bypassing a forensic type of justification which the Bible teaches.

    Their websites are steeped in tradition and a liturgical syle of worship. Keeping in mind, that we feel that the church rises and falls on the doctrine of justification, what is your take on the Orthodox claiming that Rome changes, and they do not? Perhaps, the “Council of Trent” is not much different than the current teachings of the Orthodox.

  10. Thanks for answering with those biblical quotes. That puts it into perspective. I also, I guess, have a fear of upsetting people and the ‘world’. Fear of rousing up their ire. Plus, since it is regeneration that changes people it seems empty to try to argue them out of the darkness, but I know that is just what good evangelists do.

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