Once a correspondent asked C.S. Lewis why he was not a Roman Catholic. Because he did not want to sin against charity, he declined to answer in any detail, but there was an aspect of his response that would be surprising to many of us. “By the time I had really explained my objection to certain doctrines which differentiate you from us (and also in my opinion from the Apostolic and even the Medieval Church), you would like me less” (Letters of C.S. Lewis, p. 406). Lewis was concerned that the Roman communion had departed from the practices and teachings of the early church, and that they had even done this with regard to the life of the medieval church.
Unlike the response of many contemporary Protestants, Lewis answered this question from a broad and deep understanding of the classical and medieval worlds. His answer was historically informed. The modern Roman church was not ancient enough for him, and not medieval enough. But modern evangelicals tend to not “be Roman Catholic” because we were led to Christ through the ministry of a parachurch group in 1988, and then subsequently joined a church founded in 1972. Thinking earlier than this is hard for us, shrouded as the subject is in the mists of antiquity. Then, when the poverty of this position becomes apparent, many American Protestants have been tempted to consider the claims of those churches that are older than 1776. But more is involved than how far back we can go. After all, Cain was the eldest.
In the realm of covenants, antiquity is not the only issue. Age is only a blessing if it is an aged covenant union. But union is not automatic thing.
Twenty centuries ago, the apostle Paul gave a solemn warning to the Gentiles who were streaming into the Christian church at that time. The Jews had been guilty of a covenantal presumption, and so after their high-handed rejection of their Messiah, the Lord from heaven solemnly and with great severity removed these unbelieving Jews from the olive tree of the covenant (Rom. 11:16-25). These unbelieving branches were cut out, and God began the task of grafting the believing Gentiles in. But in the midst of this process of ingrafting, the apostle Paul took care to warn them not to commit the same sin as the Jews had committed. They are mere branches, after all, and not the root. They do not support the root, but rather the root supports them. No branch on the tree can ever consider itself the root. The only root is the root of Jesse, the Lord Jesus Christ. Any branch can be cut from Him, but the Lord Himself cannot be uprooted.
We do not consider carefully enough the fact that these stern warnings were given by an apostle to the church at Rome. Rome was the capital of the Empire when Paul wrote. He knew how temptations come to the sons of men. He knew that the growth of the church in Rome, and the destruction of Jerusalem, the original “mother church,” would create the temptation for the Roman Gentiles to boast against the original branches. And so he says, “Boast not.” Be not high-minded, Paul said, but fear. Again, he told the church at Rome not to be high-minded, but rather to fear. What were they to fear? The answer is plain – the Roman church was commanded to fear the prospect of removal from the olive tree of the covenant.
In the face of this, over the centuries it has become a dogma in the church at Rome that while other churches can fall away, they are a church which cannot. Even if everyone else denies You, Peter says, I will not. In other words, a church that is expressly warned that they can be cut off maintains that they cannot be. Ephesus is a ruin now, but if it were not, our situation is as though a modern church there maintained, as a point of doctrine, that her lampstand was incapable of removal. This is not the part of wisdom.
On the night Jesus was betrayed, Peter stood out among the other disciples. Even if all the others denied the Lord, Peter claimed, he would not. He would stand firm. But Jesus corrected him pointedly. The one who thinks he stands must take heed lest he fall. The one who considers it a point of doctrine to reject the Lord’s solemn warnings as though they were temptations is falling into the great temptation.
The apostle Peter turned back from his sin in repentance. As a result of his disastrous denial of the Lord, Peter went out and wept bitterly. He learned not to boast in his own strength. His tenderness, humility, strength and holiness are plainly seen in the two letters he left for the church of all ages. Those who consider themselves his heirs need to consider this pattern, and the lessons that flow from it as well.
The confidence that flows from a biblical understanding of election is never an a priori confidence. If anyone understood and believed and taught the doctrine of predestination, the apostle Paul did. And yet in humility, he acknowledged that he might become a castaway. The apostle Peter learned not to make claims he could not fulfill.
And every Christian church in the world must acknowledge that they do not support the root, but rather that the root supports them. And in this demeanor of humility, a church can never fall away. But when pride comes in, so does danger. Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord. This is the great and true legacy of Peter.