The Ultimate Letter to Rome

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Dear Joel,

Once we get past our agreement that perseverance in the faith should be considered a good thing, the doctrine of perseverance creates a large number of questions. Some of the disagreements that arise out of this are extremely subtle, so it is important to define our terms very carefully at the outset.

According to the historic Reformed faith, the elect of God cannot fall away. This is not because they are made out of stainless steel. They are as frail as the non-elect and can in fact be broken, but the Word of God cannot be broken. If God has a spoken a persevering word concerning them (in His secret counsels), then that word cannot be broken. Believers are bone of Christ’s bones, and flesh of His flesh. The Word tells us that Christ’s physical bones could not be broken (John 19:36), but this did not mean that his bones were made out of a material different from ours. Rather, it meant that God would providentially preserve His bones from being broken. Christ’s bones were frangible, just like ours, but God’s Word is not frangible. In a similar way, we are His bones and so the elect will persevere. In themselves, the elect are capable of falling away, but in the decrees of God they are completely secure. The elect will in fact persevere. In an ultimate sense, this is tautological because in the Reformed faith those who are elect are defined as those who do in fact persevere.

But it is not the case that all covenant members persevere. The New Testament is filled with warnings about falling away, and their contexts reveal that these warnings are not hypothetical. Branches in Christ are cut off and taken away for their fruitlessness (John 15:1-6). The Jewish branches of the olive tree were removed (Rom. 11:20). There is such a thing as union with Christ from which apostasy is possible. The difference between those who are kept by God’s persevering grace and those who are not is a very real difference, but it is a difference known only to God (Dt. 29:29). Nevertheless, it is a central theme in classical Protestant thinking that the elect will of necessity persevere.

In contrast to this, Rome teaches that mortal sin can be committed by anyone, from the highest to the lowest, and if they die without receiving forgiveness for such mortal sin, then they are condemned regardless of who they are. This is why Dante, a devout Catholic, had no trouble populating his inferno with various ecclesiastical dignitaries. This is sometimes surprising to modern Protestants, who see this as a protest of some sort against the medieval Church. It is protest, certainly, but a protest against moral corruption and disorder, not a protest against Catholic teaching per se. It is completely faithful to that teaching. We have trouble with this because of our modernist sectarian mindset. If an alumnus of Liberty University wrote a novel in which Jerry Falwell was relegated to the fifth circle, we would all take this as a protest against the entire “sect.” But the Roman Catholic position is that their whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. Ten popes in a row, and twenty platoons of cardinals, could all die and go to Hell, but nevertheless the Church would not (could not) fail. And further, this would not refute the Church; it is the doctrine of the Church.

And this is why Rome has a doctrine of perseverance. This guaranteed perseverance is assured to the Church at Rome, but not necessarily to any individuals within it. The historic Reformed faith reverses this—any particular Church can have its lamp stand removed, but the elect cannot fall away. Rome and Geneva agree that the “catholic church” cannot fall away, but differ on what constitutes that “catholic church.”

In other words, it is a matter of faith for Roman Catholics that the Church at Rome (as an institution) cannot be guilty of apostasy. The lamp stand at Ephesus could be removed (Rev. 2:5), and as historical events have shown, was removed. There is nothing at Ephesus now but rubble and tourists with cameras. But to take this imagery from Asia Minor westward, according to the magisterium of Rome the lamp stand of Rome cannot be removed. The constancy of Rome is a given. With regard to apostasy, Rome is indefectible. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “The Church . . . is held, as a matter of faith, to be unfailingly holy.” (823). This is not a claim of perfection (825), but it is a claim that apostasy cannot happen to the Roman Church.

In the debates between Reformed Catholics and Roman Catholics, this issue is one of foundational importance. It operates as an axiomatic presupposition, and is often the reason why other lesser debates get nowhere. If there is a foundational assumption that Rome cannot fall away into damnable error, it is useless to try to show how Rome has taught some damnable error or another—say, on Mary, or indulgences, or whatnot. For the Protesting Catholic, since he has the assumption that the particular church at Rome could fall away into such error, it is a simple matter of examining this issue or that one to see if it is an example of that kind of error. The question can be answered.

This is a root issue, therefore, and debating it is important. At the same time, it is a debate at the presuppositional level, and cannot be treated as though it were a detail. This indefectibility of Rome is the sine qua non of the Roman Catholic system. If it is not true, then everything else falls with it. If it is true, then the system as a whole stands. If the axe is to be laid at the root of the tree, this would be the trunk.

It is not observed frequently enough that the reason for this is partly the fault of our modern individualism, which treats the Bible as the Book that Fell from the Sky, for the sole purpose of providing all of us with raw material for our Quiet Times. In this, we have rushed ahead to application, and have neglected one of the first rules of clear-headed Bible reading. The Bible is a collection of documents for the Church; it is the library of the Church — the first and foundational church library. We can say that it is, in a certain limited sense, for every individual Christian, but we cannot say that it was written to every individual Christian. And in order for us to find out what it means for us, we have to first determine what it meant for the people who received it at the first. The order is this: the Word of God comes, first, to those to whom it is addressed, second, it is for the entire Church of God, and third, in descending order of importance, we may say that it is for the individual Christian.

When Jeremiah was told he would not marry, or have sons or daughters in that place (Jer. 16:1), this was written to Jeremiah. But if I assume it was written to me, I might make some bad decisions with long term consequences. It is for me, but not to me. The Scriptures are for the entire Church, but the entire Church has to take into account the name that was on the first envelope.

This has a striking application when we consider the letter to the Church at Rome. We who are Reformed Catholics are in a contest with the Church at Rome. But unlike our contests with various heresies, sects and cults—the kind plentiful in our day, the kind that started in Kansas City fifty years ago—we are in a contest with a church actually mentioned in the Bible. The book of Romans is a letter in the Bible addressed to that church. One of St. Paul’s friends, a man named Clement, became the functional bishop of that Church. Now, if one of the New Testament epistles had been written to Tenth Pres in Philadelphia, it would be illegitimate for that particular church to let that letter become part of a generic Bible, blending into the background. They would be required to remember what had been said to them. So in a very real way, the book of Romans is a covenant possession of the Church of Rome. It belongs in the Vatican library. Also, in a real way, that letter stands as a Song of Moses to them; it is a testimony against them. In multiple ways, the Church of Rome formally denies various doctrines which their letter requires them to affirm.

Paul says this: “To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 1:7). A few verses down, he says, “So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also” (Rom. 1:15). And in writing to the Romans, St. Paul addresses one issue that involves more than the immediate present. He contrasts the exclusion of the Jews to the inclusion of the Gentiles, and tells the Gentiles not to become haughty about this. They are warned against the sin committed by the Jews, who had become guilty of a covenantal presumption. “We are the sons of Abraham.” This temptation had the force it did precisely because of the long and ancient tradition the Jews had inherited from the time of Abraham. The biblical answer to this sin was that God could make sons of Abraham out of rocks.

Now Abraham had received the promises almost two thousand years before his descendants were removed from the covenant. Such a long period presents quite a bit of time in which covenantal arrogance can build up. Now Paul warns the Romans against falling into this same sin. The warning was necessary at the time—in other words, Paul saw reasons in the first century to give the warning. Rome was the capital city of a great empire, and one of the most natural temptations would be to think that the church in such a city had preeminence over the community church in East Toad Flats, Arkansas. Furthermore, given the nature of the sin, the warning becomes increasingly pertinent over time. However, regardless of the reasons for issuing the warning, Paul is explicit in the nature of his warning. It is worth quoting at length, and the emphases are obviously mine.

For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office: If by any means I may provoke to emulation them which are my flesh, and might save some of them. For if the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead? For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches. And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert graffed in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree; Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be graffed in. Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off (Rom. 11: 13-22).

The apostle to the Gentiles wrote a letter to the preeminent church of the Gentile world. In this letter, he tells them not to boast over against the Jews who were removed. He reminds the Church at Rome that they are not the root, and that they do not bear the root. Rather the root bears them, and the root is distinct from them. He tells them that the Jews were cut off because of unbelief, and the only reason that the Church of Rome was in the olive tree at all was because of faith—they stood by faith. He tells them to avoid highmindedness, and instead of this highmindedness, they were to fear. If God was willing to cut out the Jews, why would He refuse to cut out Johnny-come-lately Roman Gentiles? Why would he refuse to cut out the particular Church of the Gentiles that he was addressing when Paul wrote this? That church was commanded to “take heed” concerning this issue. The Church of Rome was commanded to continue in God’s goodness to them, and they were told that if they did not, they would also be cut off, just like the Jews had been.

The warnings were heeded—for a time. Centuries later, Gregory the Great rejected the title of universal bishop in his famous controversy with the patriarch of Constantinople precisely because of the sin against humility it represented.To assume such a title, Gregory thought, was to be antichrist. It is important to note that Gregory was not fighting for the right to use the title himself. When the bishop of Alexandria referred to Gregory as “Universal Pope,” Gregory refused the title. He claimed that it would puff up vanity and damage Christian charity, which, when his example was later neglected, it most certainly did. Obedience to Paul’s charge is part of the background here.

Clement of Rome, a friend of Paul’s, and a man who served as the functional bishop of Rome from 92 to 101, provides an earlier example of one who heard and heeded Paul’s warning against this kind of hubris. He was certainly no egalitarian—his letter to the Corinthians rebuked them for the rebellion against their elders. That was the point of his letter. He said, “The great cannot exist without the small; neither can the small exist without the great: there is a certain mutuality in the whole, and this is beneficial to it” (37:4). Like Paul, he had no problem with authority, whether scriptural or ecclesiastical. Jesus teaches us that men should want to be great in the kingdom of heaven, and such greatness would certainly involve spiritual authority. But Jesus also tells us how this is to be done—and not done.

But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many (Matt. 20:25-28).

And this is why Clement had a problem with ecclesiastical arrogance. “For it is to the humble that Christ belongs, not to those who exalt themselves over his flock. The scepter of the majesty of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, did not come with the pomp of pride or arrogance, though he could have, but in humility” (16:1-2). Clement of Rome served the Church at Rome from 92 to 101. He was an admirable bishop in every respect, and the miter he wore was one of humility.

Cordially in Christ,

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