The ECT Accords: A Betrayal of the Gospel in the Name of Unity
Why the Accords are Unacceptable and Are a Fundamental Denial of the Truth of the Gospel
By William Webster
In March of 1994 the ECT Accord, spearheaded by Evangelical, Chuck Colson, and Roman Catholic, Richard John Neuhaus, was released to the public. And in November 1997, this ECT document was reformulated and released under the title, The Gift of Salvation, now popularly known as ECT 2. The efforts of those behind the Roman Catholic and Evangelical accords has generated a great deal of debate within both communions. Some have applauded these documents while others have taken a decidedly negative view towards them. In essence the documents call for the setting aside of doctrinal differences for the sake of unity in fighting against the encroaching darkness of secularism and humanism throughout the world. In light of the onslaught of such horrendous and ungodly behavior and activities as abortion, pornography, crime, drugs, immorality etc., it is suggested that it is high time that those who name the name of Christ should unite to bring Christian values to bear in a culture that is self destructing. While this has a certain appeal, the documents themselves and the concepts they endorse are seriously flawed.
The implicit assumption in the overall thrust of the documents is that the Evangelical and Roman Catholic Churches teach and proclaim the same gospel and that the differences that separate them, while not unimportant, are nonetheless of secondary importance in view of the fundamentals of the gospel that they both supposedly affirm and embrace. This is the overall emphasis of articles recently carried by Christianity Today by J.I. Packer and Charles Colson defending their endorsement of ECT I. But when one looks to Colson and Packer for clarification of of the essentials of what it means to be a Christian, one cannot but be alarmed at their statements, especially of one the stature of Dr. Packer. In effect, they and the remaining signers of the document define a Christian as one who has embraced the fundamental doctrines as formulated by the major creeds and councils in the early church. As ECT 2 puts it:
We give thanks to God that in recent years many Evangelicals and Catholics, ourselves among them, have been able to express a common faith in Christ and so to acknowledge one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. We confess together one God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; we confess Jesus Christ the Incarnate Son of God; we affirm the binding authority of Holy Scripture, God’s inspired Word; and we acknowledge the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds as faithful witnesses to that word.
Incredibly, there was no mention in the ECT 1 document that addressed the most important issue of all which was the focal point of the Reformation and the foundational truth of the gospel itself: justification by faith. This glaring omission was remedied somewhat in the newly released ECT 2 document in that justification by faith is emphasized but the document misrepresents the biblical and Reformation teaching on the subject as well as the true teaching of Rome. For example, the ECT 2 document makes the following statements regarding justification:
Justification is central to the scriptural account of salvation, and its meaning has been much debated between Protestants and Catholics. We agree that justification is not earned by any good works or merits of our own; it is entirely God’s gift, conferred through the Father’s sheer graciousness, out of love that He bears us in His Son, who suffered on our behalf and rose from the dead for our justification. Jesus was ‘put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification’ (Rom 4:25). In justification, God, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone, declares us to be no longer his rebellious enemies but his forgiven friends, and by virtue of his declaration it is so.
This statement is very misleading. It is misleading from an Evangelical and Roman Catholic point of view. From an Evangelical perspective, this statement is an inaccurate description of justification. Justification is not the declaration that we are no longer God’s enemies but his forgiven friends. It is the declaration, based on the imputed righteousness of Christ himself, that we are positively righteous before God and completely set free from the condemnation of the law and from any necessity for works for the attaining of the state of justification. While this declaration certainly leads to reconciliation with God and adoption into God’s family, justification itself does not mean this in a biblical sense. But this statement is also misleading from a Roman Catholic point of view. The Roman Catholic Church has officially condemned this teaching. To suggest that Rome agrees with the above statement that justification is not dependent in any way on human works and merit is a complete misrepresentation of its official position. Rome clearly affirms the necessity for the works of sanctification as the basis for justification which merit eternal life. The following canon on Justification from the Council of Trent verifies this:
Canon XXIV. If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof: let him be anathema (The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1919 ed.), Decree on Justification, Chapter XVI).
Rome has officially condemned the teaching that an individual is justified by the righteousness of Christ himself, alone imputed to the believer. In Canon X in its Decree on Justification the Council of Trent states:
If any one saith, that men are just without the justice of Christ, whereby he merited for us to be justified; or that it is by that justice itself that they are formally just: let him be anathema (The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1919 ed.), Decree on Justification, Chapter XVI)..
In Roman Catholic theology works are indeed necessary and meritorious for justification and salvation. Ludwig Ott states:
As God’s grace is the presupposition and foundation of (supernatural) good works, by which man merits eternal life, so salutary works are, at the same time gifts of God and meritorious acts of man…By his good works the justified man really acquires a claim to supernatural reward from God…A just man merits for himself through each good work an increase in sanctifying grace, eternal life (if he dies in a state of grace) and an increase of heavenly glory (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford: Tan, 1974), Book IV, Section 2, Chapter 3.23.2, 3.25.1, pp. 264, 267).
This is further reaffirmed by the Roman Catholic theologian John Hardon:
Habitual or sanctifying grace is a supernatural quality that dwells in the human soul, by which a person shares in the divine nature, becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit, a friend of God, his adopted child, an heir to the glory of heaven, and able to perform actions meriting eternal life (John Hardon, The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism (Garden City: Image, 1981).
While it is true that the Roman Catholic and Evangelical Churches share a common heritage of doctrine in the creeds and the doctrinal formulations of the early Councils, this does not mean that they share the same gospel. In his book, Evangelical Catholics, Keith Fournier (a Roman Catholic and promoter of ECT) expresses the theme of the book in this subtitle: A Call for Christian Cooperation to Penetrate the Darkness with the Light of the Gospel. This is a call for unity based on the common foundation of the gospel. There is an implicit acknowledgment here that unity must be based on truth. But sadly, it is in the realm of the truth of the gospel that the Roman Catholic Church has erred. The creeds, as true as they are, are not the gospel.
And as one examines the official teachings of the Church of Rome it is clear that it does not teach the biblical gospel and that the Evangelical and Roman Catholic Churches are very divided on this issue. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church has officially repudiated the definition of a Christian as formulated by Keith Fournier and the signers of the ECT documents.
It is not without significance that men like Fournier and the signers of the ECT Accords studiously avoid clearly stating what the official salvation teachings of the Roman Catholic Church truly are. And sadly this is also true of the article by Packer in Christianity Today. But not only is there a purposeful avoidance of an honest and clear statement of Roman Catholic teaching, one finds in the writings of men like Fournier a misrepresentation of the true teachings of the Church of Rome to make the institution appear virtually evangelical. There is a fundamemntal denial in some of his statements of doctrines dogmatically decreed by the Council of Trent, for example. An examination of those teachings, however, reveals that the Church of Rome has departed from the truth of the gospel. Thus, no unity is possible since we do not share the same basis of truth and therefore the same gospel. The Reformation was fought over issues of supreme importance which have direct bearing on the gospel. It will not do to minimize the doctrinal issues of the Reformation and suggest that they are somehow nothing more than a tragic misunderstanding over semantics. Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church itself has never embraced that point of view. It is only by repudiating the basic teachings of the Reformation as well as the authoritative teaching of the Roman Catholic Church itself that one can arrive at the attitude of those who have formulated the ECT documents.
While it is true that Western culture is being inundated by humanism, secularism and sin of terrible dimensions, the call of the Scriptures is not simply to bring Christian values to bear in the culture but to proclaim the gospel. To be opposed to pornography and abortion, while certainly admirable and right, is not the defining standard of what it means to be a Christian or the focal point of the biblical mandate to the Church of Jesus Christ. There are undoubtedly many atheists, Jews, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who are in genuine opposition to these particular behaviors and would stand with true Christians in fighting against them, but this does not mean that we are going to come together in unity downplaying the issues of theology. In the book of Galatians, Paul anathematized a group of people known as the Judaizers who proclaimed a gospel that contradicted that which Paul had preached to the Galatians. It is important to note that these people did not deny the person of Christ. They were orthodox in their understanding of who Christ is and faithful in proclaiming this truth. Paul and these teachers shared a common heritage of truth that was fundamental to Christianity. But their error lay in a denial the truth of justification by faith alone. They taught that in addition to the work of Christ one also had to add the works of the ceremonial and moral law as a grounds for salvation. There would not have been in Paul’s mind any justification for the idea that in light of the terrible moral corruption of the Roman Empire, and given the common theological foundation that he and the Judaizers shared in that they both professed the person of Christ, that they should come together in a show of unity, laying aside their theological differences to fight the moral evils of the day. Paul would have none of this.
The ultimate issue in fighting the moral issues of the day is the proclamation of the gospel because it the gospel that is ‘the power of God to salvation’ (Rom. 1:16). We are not called to save the culture from moral decay, we are called to proclaim the gospel. And if we do not agree on the fundamentals of the gospel we cannot come together in unity. As one analyzes the teachings of Roman Catholicism it becomes clear that in principle the gospel that was proclaimed by the Judaizers which was placed under anathema by Paul is the gospel taught by the Roman Catholic Church, a gospel that denies in a fundamental sense justification by faith alone in Christ alone and which introduces human works and merit as an addition to the work of Christ. In effect, if the evangelical Church unites with the Church of Rome it will come together with an institution that proclaims a gospel that has been placed under an anathema by God Himself. It is out of concern to clarify these issues that I feel it is so important to clearly understand what the Roman Catholic Church officially teaches.
The Roman Teaching on Saving Faith
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that justification is by grace through faith on account of Jesus Christ. This sounds quite orthodox, but on closer examination it becomes clear that the meaning of the terms faith, justification and grace are defined differently by the Roman Catholic Church from that of the Protestant. Though the two churches use the same terms they do not mean the same things by them. This is similar historically to the Pelagian controversy in the early 5th century. Pelagius was a heretic vigorously opposed by Augustine and the Church of his day. But both Pelagius and Augustine would have passed the test for unity as proscribed by the proponents of ECT 1 and 2. Both men affirmed the truth of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds and the fourth century Councils. Was Augustine then wrong in opposing him? No, because his salvation teachings were indeed heretical. And yet Pelagius used orthodox theological terms in his teaching. He stated without qualification that he believed in salvation by grace through faith. But the problem is that the way he defined his terms contradicted their biblical and orthodox meaning. If one did not press Pelagius for definitions and was simply satisfied with general statements of belief, then he would appear to be orthodox. Definition of terms is crucial because these words and what we say they mean must conform to their biblical meaning. It is of the utmost importance that we ask the question: What does the Roman Catholic Church mean by faith? What is the content of that faith and what precisely does it mean by justification? The Roman Church has not left us in doubt as to what it teaches about justification or faith and the doctrinal content of faith that is saving. By its dogmatic decrees as promulgated by Popes and ecumenical councils the Roman Catholic Church has clearly defined the meaning of such faith. We need to keep in mind that, in Roman Catholic theology, papal decrees when they are given ex cathedra are infallible as are the decrees of Ecumenical and Roman Catholic councils.
Thus, the decrees of the Council of Trent and Vatican I and the papal decrees on Mary form part of the doctrinal content of saving faith. These decrees are defined as being necessary to be believed for salvation and the Roman Church anathematizes all who would disagree with or reject these teachings.
We need to say a word here about the meaning of the term anathema. In the formal sense the term means excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church. However, the essential meaning of the word goes far beyond this. Ultimately to be anathematized by the Church of Rome means to be cut off from the Church which is the source of salvation. Consequently, the term indirectly involves a condemnation of the individual anathematized to hell unless there is repentance and a return to the Roman Church and an embracing of its teachings.
Thus, it is important to understand that, according to the Church of Rome, apart from an embracing of its doctrines there is no salvation. This is clearly seen from the teaching of Vatican I on the meaning of saving faith and the role of the Church in defining the doctrinal content of such faith. Therefore, the gospel according to Rome consists of justification that is a process and is dependent upon the works and merits of the individual, the Roman Catholic sacraments as a means of salvation, the full embracing of the Roman Catholic teaching of papal infallibilty and jurisdiction and the Marian doctrines of the immaculate conception and assumption. Unless one believes these things and submits to them there is no justification or salvation. Is this the biblical gospel delineated in the scriptures and proclaimed by the apostles? Most assuredly not! It is a fundamental denial of the biblical teaching of salvation. As such there is no grounds for the appeal for unity of those involved in the ECT accord, for the Evangelical and Roman Catholic Churches are not unified on the meaning of the gospel. Unity that is not grounded in truth is a false political uniformity that must be vigorously yet graciously opposed by all who love the scriptures and who would stand true to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our ultimate loyalty must be to the person of Christ. The culture and the darkness that is enveloping it is not the overriding issue. The ultimate issue is truth and on that basis the evangelical and Roman Catholic Churches are irreparably divided.
Vatican I states that it is necessary for salvation that men and women not only believe all that is revealed in scripture but also everything which is defined and proposed by the Church as having been divinely revealed. To reject anything taught by the Roman Church is to reject saving faith and to forfeit justification and eternal life:
Further, all those things are to be believed with divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the Word of God, written or handed down, and which the Church, either by a solemn judgment, or by her ordinary and universal magisterium, proposes for belief as having been divinely revealed. And since, without faith, it is impossible to please God, and to attain to the fellowship of his children, therefore without faith no one has ever attained justification, nor will any one obtain eternal life unless he shall have persevered in faith unto the end (Dogmatic Decrees of the Vatican Council, On Faith, Chapter III. Found in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (New York:Harper, 1877), Volume II, pp. 244-245).
Ludwig Ott explains the relationship of Dogmas defined by the Church and faith in these words:
By dogma in the strict sense is understood a truth immediately (formally) revealed by God which has been proposed by the Teaching Authority of the Church to be believed as such…All those things are to be believed by divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the Word of God written or handed down and which are proposed for our belief by the Church either in a solemn definition or in its ordinary and universal authoritative teaching. (Vatian I).
Two factors or elements may be distinguished in the concept of dogma:
A) An immediate Divine Revelation of the particular Dogma…i.e., the Dogma must be immediately revealed by God either explicitly (explicite) or inclusively (implicite), and therefore be contained in the sources of Revelation (Holy Writ or Tradition)
B) The Promulgation of the Dogma by the Teaching Authority of the Church (propositio Ecclesiae). This implies, not merely the promulgation of the Truth, but also the obligation on the part of the Faithful of believing the Truth. This promulgation by the Church may be either in an extraordinary manner through a solemn decision of faith made by the Pope or a General Council (Iudicium solemns) or through the ordinary and general teaching power of the Church (Magisterium ordinarium et universale). The latter may be found easily in the catechisms issued by the Bishops.
Dogma in its strict signification is the object of both Divine Faith (Fides Divina) and Catholic Faith (Fides Catholica); it is the object of the Divine Faith…by reason of its Divine Revelation; it is the object of Catholic Faith…on account of its infallible doctrinal definition by the Church. If a baptised person deliberately denies or doubts a dogma properly so-called, he is guilty of the sin of heresy (Codex Iuris Canonici 1325, Par. 2), and automatically becomes subject to the punishment of excommunication (Codex Iuris Canonici 2314, Par. I).
As far as the content of justifying faith is concerned, the so-called fiducial faith does not suffice. What is demanded is theological or dogmatic faith (confessional faith) which consists in the firm acceptance of the Divine truths of Revelation, on the authority of God Revealing…According to the testimony of Holy Writ, faith and indeed dogmatic faith, is the indispensable prerequisite for the achieving of eternal salvation (emphasis added).2
This point is further emphasiszed by the Roman Catholic theologian John Hardon in his authoritative and popular catechism:
44. What must a Catholic believe with divine faith?
A Catholic must believe with divine faith the whole of revelation, which is contained in the written word of God and in Sacred Tradition.
45. Can a person be a Catholic if he believes most, but not all, the teachings of revelation?
A person cannot be a Catholic if he rejects even a single teaching that he knows has been revealed by God.
46. What will happen to those who lack ‘the faith necessary for salvation’?
Those will not be saved who lack the necessary faith because of their own sinful neglect or conduct. As Christ declared, ‘He who does not believe will be condemned’ (Mark 16:16).
47. Why is divine faith called catholic?
Divine faith is called catholic or universal because a believer must accept everything God has revealed. He may not be selective about what he chooses to believe (John Hardon, The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism(Garden City: Image, 1981).
From the above citations it is clear that, according to Rome, it is incumbent upon all who would experience salvation that they embrace by faith the doctrinal content of the faith as it is authoritatively defined by Popes and Roman Catholic councils. Vatican I specifically states that one cannot experience justification and eternal life apart from a complete embracing of Dogmatic Faith which is the Faith as it is authoritatively defined by the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, as one analyzes the decrees, teachings and anathemas of the Popes made ex cathedra and those of the Councils such as Trent, Vatican I and Vatican II one can clearly ascertain the content of saving faith as it is defined by the Roman Catholic Church. In so doing it becomes very apparent that there is an inherent contradiction between the teaching of Vatican II and that of the popes and Councils which have preceeded it. Vatican II states that Protestants and Orthodox believers are ‘separated brethren,’ implying that they are in fact true Christians and can experience salvation outside of the Roman Catholic Church. This is a clear contradiction to the authoritative papal and conciliar teaching of the Roman Catholic Church prior to Vatican II. The popes in defining the Marian Dogmas have anathematized all who would in any way reject or doubt their teachings. And Trent and Vatican I state that they had met specifically to define dogmas of the faith in order to counter heresy, the teachings specifically held by Protestant and Orthodox believers, and both Councils condemn with anathema all who do not submit to their teachings and embrace with a positive faith what they have promulgated. As Trent states:
With this view, in order to destroy the errors and to extirpate the heresies which have appeared in these our days on the subject of the said most holy sacraments, as well as those which have been revived from the heresies of old by our Fathers, as also those newly invented, and which are exceedingly prejudicial to the purity of the Catholic Church and to the salvation of souls, the sacred and holy, ecumenical and general Synod of Trent, lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost, the same legates of the Apostolic See presiding therein, adhering to the doctrine of the holy Scriptures, to the apostolic traditions, and to the consent of other councils and of the Fathers, has thought it fit that these present canons be established and decreed…(The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Baker Book House (1919 ed.), Seventh Session, Decree on the Sacraments, Foreword, pp. 118-119).
And Vatican I states:
And this his salutary providence, which has been constantly displayed by other innumerable benefits, has been most manifestly proved by the abundant good results which Christendom has derived from ecummenical Councils, and particularly from that of Trent, although it was held in evil times. For, as a consequence, the sacred doctrines of the faith have been defined more closely, and set forth more fully, errors have been condemned and restrained…But while we recall with due thankfulness these and other signal benefits which the divine mercy has bestowed on the Church, especially by the last ecumenical Council, we can not restrain our bitter sorrow for the grave evils, which are principally due to the fact that the authority of that sacred Synod has been contemned, or its wise decrees neglected, by many. No one is ignorant of the heresies proscribed by the Fathers of Trent…Considering these things, how can the Church fail to be deeply stirred? For, even as God wills all men to be saved, and to arrive at the knowledge of the truth, even as Christ came to save what has perished, and to gather together the children of God who had been dispersed, so the Church, constituted by God the mother and teacher of nations, knows its own office as debtor to all, and is ever ready and watchful to raise the fallen, to support those who are falling, to embrace those who return, to confirm the good and to carry them on to better things. Hence, it can never forbear from witnessing to and proclaiming the truth of God. We, therefore, following the footsteps of our predecessors, have never ceased, as becomes our supreme Apostolic office, from teaching and defending Catholic truth, and condemning doctrines of error. And now, with the Bishops of the whole world assembled round us, and judging with us, congregated by our authority, and in the Holy Spirit, in this ecumenical Council, we, supported by the Word of God written and handed down as we received it from the Catholic Church, preserved with sacredness and set forth according to truth, have determined to profess and declare the salutary teaching of Christ from this Chair of Peter, and in the sight of all, proscribing and condemning, by the power given to us of God, all errors contrary thereto (Dogmatic Decrees of the Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution of the Catholic Faith. Found in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (New York: Harper, 1877), pp. 234-238).
According to Vatican I, all who reject its teachings are declared to be heretics and schismatics. This obviously applies in a direct sense to the Protestant and Orthodox Churches and its decrees are considered to be infallible by the Roman Catholic Church. Vatican I reaffirmed the Council of Trent and its decrees, and itself defined papal infallibility and primacy as doctrines necessary to be believed for salvation. And Vatican I was later reaffirmed by Vatican II:
In order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided, He placed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and fellowship (Cf. Vatican Council I, Session 4, the dogmatic constitution ‘Pastor aeternus’). And all this teaching about the institution, the perpetuity, the force and reason for the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and of his infallible teaching authority, this sacred Synod again proposes to be firmly believed by all the faithful (The Documents of Vatican II (Chicago: Follett, 1966), Chapter III.18, p. 38).
Thus, if we ask, what is the content of the Faith defined by the Roman Catholic Church, which all men must embrace to experience salvation, what would the overall doctrines consist of? The Church affirms first of all the ‘Rule of Faith’ as defined by the Apostles Creed. This was stated in the opening sessions of the Council of Trent. But in addition to this common body of Doctrine shared by the Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Churches there have been other doctrines introduced by the Roman Catholic Church which it says must be believed for salvation. It is these, in addition to the sacramental teachings and the teachings on justification, that we are mainly concerned with which have been promulgated by several popes and the Councils of Trent and Vatican I.
These dogmas can be summarized in the statements that follow. These are not an exhaustive listing but a fair summarization of the teachings defined by the Roman Church by specific popes and these two councils. To deny any of these teachings and to refuse to embrace them with a positive faith is to come under an anathema and to experience loss of saving faith:
- An individual must believe that the popes are infallible when teaching ex cathedra.
- One must believe that the Bishops of Rome have been given authority by Christ to rule the Church universal.
- One must be submitted to the Bishop of Rome in all areas of faith, morals, discipline and government of the Church.
- The Roman Catholic Church alone has the right to interpret Scripture and its interpretations are infallible.
- One must accept the Apocrypha as Scripture and as part of the Canon.
- There is no salvation outside of the Roman Catholic Church.
- One must believe that the Roman Catholic sacraments are necessary for salvation and that there specific number is seven.
- An individual must repudiate the teaching that the imputed righteousness of Christ is the basis for justification.
- One must embrace the teaching that justification is not by faith alone but by human works cooperating with grace and by participation in the sacraments.
- One must believe that human works cooperating with grace merit eternal life.
- One must accept the teaching that water baptism is necessary for salvation as it is the instrumental means of regeneration even for infants.
- One must believe that the Mass is a propitiatory sacrifice for sin.
- One must believe that in the eucharist the bread and wine is transformed into the literal body and blood of Christ at the words of consecration (Transubstantiation).
- It is necessary to believe that confession of sins to a Roman Catholic priest and receiving his absolution and performing acts of penance is the only way to receive forgiveness of sins after baptism.
- One must embrace the teachings of the immaculate conception and Assumption of Mary.
- One must accept the Roman Catholic teaching on Purgatory.
(A full documentation of these teachings can be found at Saving Faith and Rome)
In light of these facts, it is clear that there is no basis for asserting that the Roman Catholic and Evangelical churches share a common faith. Our differences are enormous and while we share some common theological emphases, most notably the teaching on the Trinity, we do not believe the same gospel or embrace the same concept of salvation. The Roman Catholic system of salvation is a perversion of the biblical gospel. For Evangelicals to come together with Rome in the name of unity would be a betrayal of the gospel and of the God who gave it (Gal. 1:6-8).