Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Correcting John MacArthur on Catholicism and works

This past Wed. Jan. 25, one of John MacArthur's sermons titled "The Gospel Satisfies the Sinner’s Need" aired on the radio in two parts. Here is the first excerpt that caught my Catholic ear:
All religion, with the exception of the truth, follows one line. It is all a religious effort on the part of man to achieve a rightness with God. I call it the "Religion of Human Achievement." All of it. Doesn't matter what it is. Doesn't matter if it's the worship of Molak, which I was describing, the worship of Ba'al, the worship of Allah, it doesn't matter what it is. It doesn't matter if you're a Mormon, Jehovah's Witness, a Roman Catholic. If you are a Shintoist, a Buddhist, a Hindu, doesn't matter what it is, or some minor religion unknown to most people, they are all the same. They are all purveyors of the big lie that you can make yourself right with whatever god you think exists by your own efforts. There's only one kind of false religion, and that's it, it just comes under many, many labels. The suggestions are endless, but they all involve human effort and human achievement––following certain behaviors morally, and certain behaviors ceremonially, and certain behaviors religiously––you can make yourself right with God. (quote aired 1/25/12)
First, although this is not an apologetic for Eastern philosophies, it seems MacArthur speaks erroneously about their beliefs as well. For instance, regarding Buddhism, though there are different philosophies in Buddhism, Buddhanet states: "Do Buddhist believe in god? No, we do not." The Wikipedia entry on "God in Buddhism" begins with: "The non adherence to the notion of a omnipotent creator deity or a prime mover is seen by many as a key distinction between Buddhism and other religions." So without even delving into Catholicism, MacArthur's blanket, repeated mantra that "all religions," "doesn't matter what it is," advance a big lie about humans going through some motions to get "right with God" is a reckless, incorrect statement.

On his website, MacArthur gives evidence as to why he claims Catholics believe in a "make yourself right" method of justification. His article, The Doctrine of Saving Faith, part 2, reads:
The Council of Trent repeatedly repudiated the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In fact, the Council said, "Unless hope and love are added to faith, it never unites a man perfectly with Christ, nor makes him a living member of His body," session 6 chapter 7. You cannot be made right with God by faith alone. And the Catholic scheme, justification means God's grace is poured forth into the sinner's heart through the Sacraments, through various Masses and experiences like that, religious ceremonies, the person then receiving this grace mixes this grace with his own effort and his own works and becomes progressively more righteous. It is then the sinner's responsibility to preserve and increase that grace by various good works. You mix the works with the grace so that justification is not sola fide, by faith alone.
This is his explanation of Catholic teaching. He is wrong. Nowhere does the Council of Trent say anything about "mixing" one's "own" works with "grace." MacArthur injected these ideas into the text. (MacArthur in that article goes on to further criticize sacraments. See my prior treatment of MacArthur's misunderstanding of sacraments in the article: Sacrawhat? Misconceptions about Sacraments.)

The quote from Trent he is criticizing here is right out of 1 Corinthians 13, which states part: "[I]f I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing." (v. 2) Shall MacArthur initiate a diatribe against St. Paul for daring to say love must be added to faith, just as the Council of Trent reiterated? Paul's chapter ends with: "So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love." (v. 13)

But let's go back to MacArthur's notion that if works of love justify along with faith, those works must be something a person does apart from grace. He assumes that is what Catholics think, even though Trent says no such thing. On this point, MacArthur exhibits a double standard. Here's why.

The second broadcast of MacArthur's sermon aired the following day, Jan. 26. In it, he stated:
Salvation comes by faith. Back again to Romans 4:5, He justifies the ungodly because his faith is credited as righteousness. That is an amazing and magnanimous gift, isn't it? For by grace are you saved through faith, Ephesians 2:8-9, that not of yourselves, even that is a gift of God. Simply by believing, by believing. Over in verse 20 of chapter 4, again, we're still talking about Abraham, verse 20 says with respect to the promise of God he didn't waver in unbelief, grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, being fully assured that what God had promised He was able to perform, therefore it was also credited to him as righteousness. Do you understand this exchange? You give to God faith, He gives you His righteousness. That's why we say salvation is by faith alone. Sola fide. Faith alone. By believing. And even that believing is a gift of God.
First off, let me say, there's nothing I really disagree with in this excerpt, other than the notion of "credited" righteousness. But regarding faith, it is indeed a gift. For instance, CCC#162 reads: "Faith is an entirely free gift that God makes to man." No problem there.

In recognizing the gift of faith, MacArthur correctly does not confuse man's faith as man's effort. Even though a person exercises faith, and by it is justified, it is not man making a "human effort" of his "own" of faith, justifying "himself."

However, MacArthur does not afford the Catholic the same courtesy when it comes to man's works. He can see that faith is a gift of grace, but he fails to see that Catholics believe works are a gift of grace as well.

Above, we saw MacArthur quote from Trent 6.7 in his effort to claim Catholics believe they justify themselves with their "own" works "mixed" with "grace." But if he had only given pause a few paragraphs further, he could have avoided the error.
Jesus Christ Himself continually infuses his virtue into the said justified,-as the head into the members, and the vine into the branches,-and this virtue always precedes and accompanies and follows their good works, which without it could not in any wise be pleasing and meritorious before God . . . God forbid that a Christian should either trust or glory in himself, and not in the Lord, whose bounty towards all men is so great, that He will have the things which are His own gifts be their merits. (Trent 6.16)
This unravels MacArthur's claim that Catholics teach works are something alien to grace, something he describes as the "Doctrine of Human Achievement." Just as MacArthur correctly believes of faith, Catholics believe true good works1 are also Christ's "gifts." Trent actually gasps at the idea "that a Christian should either trust of glory in himself" even though MacArthur claims the Church teaches the opposite!

And so the teaching that Catholics believe in the power of their "human effort" to justify themselves is a fictional product of MacArthur's own design, not one of the Catholic Church.

Remember the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-28). (I'll focus on the Matthean account for the purpose of this post.) In the parable, the master gives varying measures of gifts to each of his three servants. In the parable, the gifts are talents, or degrees of money. The first two servants later return their talents to the master with a profit. The third servant, however, hid the master's talent in the ground, essentially squandering the master's gift.

Placing this parable in view of judgment, the first two servants are told, "enter into the joy of your master." (Matt. 14:21,23) The third servant is said to have been sent off where "men will weep and gnash their teeth," (Matt. 14:30) which, to Matthew, is a figure of hell. (Matt. 14:40-42)

In examining this parable, a figure of reality, what gift does man receive from God which he returns to God that affects his salvation? The clearest answer, I think, is grace (not to exclude other valid understandings of the talents in this text). Paul echoes the financial figure of grace when he says God gives "according to the riches of his grace." (Eph. 1:7) Paul also teaches that the measures of grace are not identical when he says we have "gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them." (Rom. 12:6) Grace fits with the figure of talents.

Cornelius Lapide, the 16th/17th century Catholic exegete wrote of the Parable of the Talents:
By talents understand all the gifts of God, without which we can do nothing. These gifts are, I say—1st Of grace, both making grateful, such as faith, hope, charity, virginity, and all the other virtues, as well as those of grace given gratis—such as the power of working miracles, the Apostolate, the Priesthood, the gift of tongues, prophecy, etc. (Lapide, Comment on Matthew 25)
And he goes on to acknowledge that the talents can also be seen as other gifts as well. (Notice also that Lapide, contradicting MacArthur's description of Catholicism, says "we can do nothing" without God's gifts.)

In recognizing these aspects of the parable, we see the Council of Trent's description of works. Trent says, "He will have the things which are His own gifts be their merits." That is exactly what happened in the parable. The talents were the master's investment in his own servants, who could not have utilized the talents without first receiving them. The third servant received the same gift, but failed to utilize it.

Another way to look at it is this. If we are members of Christ's body, it is not against Christ for his own bodily members to work. MacArthur doesn't understand man's work in this way. He only understands man's work as something disconnected with Christ, something man "mixes" with grace rather than the extension of grace, just as he believes correctly of man's faith. In criticizing the value of works done in Christ, MacArthur unwittingly denies the efficacy of grace!

1True good works of love and adherence to the New Covenant are not to be confused with the "works of the law" from the Old Covenant condemned by Paul: "For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law." (Rom. 3:28)

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