What Can Catholics Learn from Evangelicals?
Part One: On Keeping First Things First — A Personal Story
Once upon a time —a very long time ago I’m afraid — I was a teenager. My father was and is (he’s now in his 80s) a Protestant Minister, but he is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an Evangelical Protestant. Rather, he is what you might call a classical liberal Protestant, and so that’s the Christian tradition in which I was raised.
For our family, and for our church, Jesus was seen primarily as a man devoted to God as the loving Father of all. Jesus was said to be the greatest inspired prophet of the dawning of God’s Kingdom of social justice and peace in the world, and the shining example in human history of the love of God and neighbor. Drawn to be his followers by these ideals that Jesus both preached and lived, we believed that, with the help of God’s Spirit, we too could grow to love God with all our hearts, and our neighbors as ourselves. So these were our central beliefs as “liberal Protestants”: the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the hope for some kind of immortality of the soul at our journey’s end. And Jesus was the preacher and shining example of all these hopes and dreams.
It was all very beautiful — all very idealistic — and, sadly, all only half-true.
It didn’t take much life-experience for me to begin to realize that I had been brought up on idealistic half-truths. There was, first of all, my experience of spending my teenage years growing up in New York City: “sin-city” if there ever was one. The deep corruption of human hearts of every social, ethnic, and educational background began to impress itself on my mind. And then there was the daily experience of the corruption of my own heart: what I saw within my own heart was a constant losing struggle against sins of impatience, ambition, and lust.
In short, (following in the footsteps of St. Paul and St. Augustine, I guess) it gradually became apparent to me that humanity needed more from Jesus than just a shining example of prayer and moral idealism. These things are very important, no doubt, but all by themselves, they cannot cure the human heart. We need more than just a wise teacher and a moral example to follow: we need a Savior.
What I mean is: we need someone to rescue us from the debt and burden of our guilt — the ball and chain of guilt that we carry around from all of our failures in the past to love God and our neighbors — and we need someone radically to transform and heal us, deep within, from our chronic inability to do any better. To put it in Evangelical terminology: we desperately need a Savior from the guilt and power of sin.
Because as a teenager I was the quarterback of our high school football team, I spent many hours each week in the basement of our home, exercising and lifting weights to try to gain strength. We had a small television set in our basement that I would watch just for distraction while I was doing this daily chore. And one evening there came on the screen the broadcast of the first night of a Billy Graham Crusade. I was intrigued—I listened to the music and to the sermon, rapt with attention. By the second or third evening, I was brought to tears, and when Dr. Graham invited his listener’s to give their hearts to Jesus Christ as the Son of God who died for our sins, the One who wants to reign in our hearts as Lord and Savior, I knelt down in that basement, in front of that little t.v. set, and accepted Christ into my heart. And my life has never been the same since. For the first time, I knew Jesus not just as a wise teacher and shining example from the past, but as a living and personal Savior right now, in the present, and no farther than my own heart.
Actually, I did not just open my heart to Jesus once: I did it again on every night of that Crusade (you see, no one had ever told me that you were just supposed to do it once — I figured: why not do it again and again, give more and more of your heart to Jesus every time?)! In fact, I did not do it just during that one Crusade, but I watched a whole bunch of them from my basement over the next year or so, and gave my heart to our Lord every time, when the choir began to sing that wonderful hymn that closed each night of every Billy Graham Crusade:
Just as I am, without one plea
But that Thy blood was shed for me
And that Thou bid’st me to come to Thee
O Lamb of God I come, I come.
I never formally became an Evangelical Christian, however: in part because I never could quite swallow the “once saved always saved” doctrine that so many Evangelical publications seemed to insist on. I knew for sure that I had been saved into a new and life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ, but my doctrinal beliefs were being formed by reading lots and lots of books by CS Lewis, and Lewis convinced me that salvation was not just a moment, but a whole-life process. Adult conversion is an important part of that process, to be sure, but not its completion.
At a YMCA summer camp I used to attend as a camper, and later as a camp counselor, we used to sing a hymn on Sunday nights that became one of my favorites, and that summed up my new faith—and in a way, still does (I think it’s an old Methodist hymn):
My faith looks up to Thee, Thou Lamb of Calvary, Savior Divine;
O hear me as I pray, take all my guilt away, O let me from this day
Be wholly Thine.
May Thy rich grace impart, strength to my fainting heart, my zeal inspire;
As Thou hast died for me, so may my love for Thee, pure warm and changeless be:
A living fire!
So, those were the roots of God’s gift to me of the Christian Faith.
Under the theological guidance of my hero, CS Lewis, I then began to study all the basics of Christian doctrine in greater depth. I just couldn’t get enough of it: for I found that the more you know about Jesus Christ, the more you love him, and the more you love Him, the more you want to know! First to come were all the fundamentals-- the trunk of the tree, so to speak-- all the basics of Mere Christianity: God as Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, the Saving Death, Glorious Bodily Resurrection and promised Second Coming of our Lord.
From the roots and the trunk, with the help of more Anglican writers — and later, Catholic theologians too whom I started to read — branches of the tree began to grow (Now, some, or even all of the beliefs I am about to mention, you may not hold yourself, and you may not agree with me that these branches really spring from those basic Christian roots and trunk — that’s OK; for I am not making arguments for these beliefs now, just sharing with you the story and trajectory of my own mind): for example, the sacraments given to us by Jesus Christ as covenanted means of His grace for our hearts; the nature and mission of the Church as the Body of Christ in the world; the real and unique mode of Christ’s loving presence and self-gift to us in the Holy Eucharist; the communion of saints with us on earth and in heaven; the example of trustful surrender of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and her heavenly, maternal intercession for us, the unifying ministry in the Church of the successors of St. Peter, the bishops of Rome; the purgatorial hope of final purification and healing for those who die in faith, but not yet fully sanctified in hope and love. For me, you see, the roots of the central gospel message — the saving death and resurrection of Christ — gave life to a trunk — the basic doctrines of Mere Christianity — and that trunk unfolded in branches over time (all those Anglican and Catholic doctrines I just mentioned), and those branches gave life to leaves and fruit: a life of discipleship and devotion; in short, a whole, living tree.
As I grew to appreciate these things, so it seemed to me, I also began to understand why the early Christians came to call themselves Catholic Christians: because the word “catholikos” in ancient Greek meant not just universal or worldwide, a faith for everybody — the word also meant “whole or full”. So, when Jesus gave His great commission: “Go therefore unto ALL nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe ALL that I have commanded you, for lo, I am with you ALWAYS, even to the end of time,” He was surely exhorting us to have a “catholikos” kind of faith: in other words, to believe and share the whole truth as it is in Christ Jesus, for all people, for all time.
But a great tree must never cut itself off from, nor ignore its own roots, for as with any tree, the roots are the principal source of life for the whole organism. And that brings me to the main reason why I started this article by sharing with you my own story.
Seen in one way, Catholicism may be like a great, flowering, and (to some extent fruit bearing), tree — but the danger is that those of us who live from that tree and who tend that tree can spend so much time pruning and looking after the lovely leaves and fruits that we forget about the roots from which that tree mainly draws its life. We forget to return to the roots, and water them with prayerful attention — and we forget to be sure that the whole tree always continues to draw its life from those same roots. When that happens, of course, branches of the tree become weak, and their leaves begin to wither. What I mean is, the root of the tree of the Church is supposed to be the life-giving gospel, the gospel that I heard for the first time on my basement t.v. as a teenager: namely, the saving death and life-giving resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But a church body that spends too much of its time and energy defending its own social status, or cultivating its institutional bureaucracies and properties, or debating and defining the nature of the branches and leaves of the tree (replete with continual in-fighting over secondary issues such as contraception, the precise nature of papal infallibility, the best way to celebrate the liturgy, or the precise implications of the gospel for the best way to struggle against poverty) — a distracted Church community like that does not nurture her children in a life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ. Her children cannot grow as they should, so they wander away for lack of mother’s milk. Billy Graham said it best, I think: the name of our faith is supposed to be “Christianity,” with Christ at the center, not “Churchianity.” The Church on earth is meant to be His Body to unite all hearts with Him. It is not meant to be closed in on itself. Rather, the goal of the Church is to unite all hearts with Jesus in and through her life and mission.
As my friend Jim Anderson at St. Therese Institute in Saskatchewan likes to say: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” It’s not that all of the “secondary” things I just mentioned are unimportant — some of those things are very important for how we are to live as Christians — but they are not the main thing. The main thing, as St. Paul wrote, is that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,” (Rom 5:8), and that he rose again to be the Lord and Savior of every human heart, if only we will open the door of our hearts and let Him in.
And that, I think, is the first thing that Catholics can learn from Evangelicals: to keep the main thing the main thing. Again, as St. Paul put it: “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins … that he was raised on the third day” (I Cor 15:3-4). Evangelicals spend much more time and attention than Catholics usually do pondering and preaching and spreading that main thing. (It is the message and reality at the heart of every Catholic Mass, of course, but it is astonishing how few of us Catholics really get the message from the liturgy, and how rarely that message is preached from Catholic parish pulpits). Yet that main thing is the “kerygma”— the heart of the gospel, the primary, life-giving root of the whole tree. Everything else about healthy Christianity flows from those roots, and is anchored in those roots — otherwise, the tree cannot give the fullness of life in Christ to its members.
There are some of you reading these words whose experience of life in the Catholic Church was very much like my experience of youth in a liberal Protestant Church—there were some very good things about it, to be sure, but overall it did not give you nearly enough “life” — I mean, that life-giving, personal, and saving relationship with Jesus Christ that your heart, and mine, was thirsting for. According to St. Paul “faith comes [first of all] from what is heard” (Rom 10:17) — and unless what is clearly taught and heard in the Church is the central gospel message, all of the sacraments and saints and statues and rosaries in the world will not do much to heal our hearts (By the way, I love statues and find them a terrific aid to prayer; I am inspired by the lives and writings of the saints in their following of Christ, and lean on their prayers every day; and I know the sacraments are promised means of grace to sanctify us. What I am saying is: unless I had heard the basics of the central gospel message from someone like Billy Graham first, I am pretty sure that most of the graces and blessings that our Savior wanted to pour into my heart later, through sacraments and saints, rosaries and sacred art, would not have done me nearly as much good.) As Pope Paul VI wrote in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi (1975): “Evangelization will … always contain—as the foundation, center, and at the same time summit of its dynamism—a clear proclamation that in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, who died and rose from the dead, salvation is offered to all men, as a gift of God’s grace and mercy” (no. 27).
So: first the roots, then the trunk, then the branches, then the leaves and fruit. Thanks to our Evangelical brothers and sisters, for continually calling us back to the roots and the trunk, and thereby helping us to keep “first things first.”
Robert Stackpole, STD
© The Fellowship of Catholics and Evangelicals, 2016