The Bible tells us clearly that the last days before the return of Christ will be marked by apostasy and the rise of the world religion of Antichrist (2 Thes:2:3-4; Rev 13-14). Yet for multitudes of Christians, including many who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, the actual fulfillment of that prophecy seems hardly likely. A number of things today seem to run counter to such an anti-Christian endtimes scenario.
Lately, evangelical Christianity is experiencing a rise in acceptance. Less than a decade ago evangelicals were near the top of the those-you-would-least-want-to-live-next-to list. Certainly President George W. Bush's brand of Christianity, along with his ecumenical overtures and "faith-based" initiative, has helped to alter the perception of evangelicals as being "narrowminded and intolerant." Increasing numbers of evangelical churches are reaching mega-proportions, with more than a few the size of (and favorably likened to) shopping malls. Contemporary Christian music has become the rising star in the music industry. Nearly all the large evangelical Christian publishing companies are now profitable subsidiaries of massive secular corporations. For example, media mogul Rupert Murdoch (HarperCollins Publishers, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Fox TV, etc.) would hardly have acquired Zondervan if Christian books were not moneymakers. More than all of this, however, is the public's awareness and approval of the supposed settling of historic differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics. So wouldn't all this growing interest and appreciation for things Christian be counterproductive to an antichrist religion?
It might seem so—if the Antichrist and his religion were only a frontal attack against anything that smacks of Christianity. However, as Dave Hunt pointed out in his 1990 book, Global Peace and the Rise of Antichrist,
While the Greek prefix "anti" generally means "against" or "opposed to," it can also mean "in the place of" or "a substitute for." The Antichrist will embody both meanings....He will cunningly misrepresent Christ while pretending to be Christ. And by that deceit he will undermine and pervert all that Christ truly is.
His "Christianity" then will be a counterfeit, "having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof" (2 Tim:3:5). Furthermore, the Antichrist's religion won't just pop onto the scene the day he does. Rather, he will fit into it, just as one slips into a tailormade suit. This theology was first presented in the Garden of Eden as a perversion of God's Word and has spread like a virus ever since.
In fact, it began as a dialogue.
Satan started the process of conditioning humanity when he entered into conversation with Eve, persuading her to turn from God's truth to her own subjective evaluation of what she felt He had said. But God's command had been explicit and simple. Adam and Eve were not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; to do so would bring certain death (Gen:2:16-17). Notice the absoluteness of God's statement and its consequence; yet notice Eve's addition and rationalizations (Gen:3:3,6). The serpent's cunning questioning of her understanding ("Yea, hath God said...?") induced her to reconsider what God meant. After all, "the tree was good for food... pleasant to the eyes, a tree to be desired to make one wise." Surely God wouldn't want to withhold such "benefits" from His creatures.
Satan's modus operandi has never changed: to get humans to deny the absolute truth of what God says and to look to their own (read relative, subjective, experiential, self-serving, sinful) understanding.
No doubt because it is crucial to our walk of faith, twice in Proverbs we find these words: "There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death"(Prov:14:12, Prov:16:25). The solemn meaning is clear: When man interprets God's Word to suit himself, its lifegiving truth is blatantly rejected (2 Cor:3:6). Consequently, destruction and death (separation from Him) follow. This is a pitfall inherent in ecumenical dialogues which have as their goal the unification of professing Christian groups, and which extend in some cases even to non-Christian religions.
What then of "Catholics and Evangelicals in Conversation," a conference recently presented at Wheaton College and sponsored by its Department of Bible and Theology and InterVarsity Press? (See last month's issue for some background information.) It was a further development, and the first public endeavor, of "Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium" (ECT), which Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship and Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus organized in 1994. Highly influential Catholic clergy and evangelical leaders had participated in ECT in the hope of developing closer ties and greater collaboration in activities of common interest to both traditions, especially working together for the moral good of society and winning souls to Christ. Neuhaus reminded the Wheaton conference attendees that the most significant declaration in the original ECT document had been "the simple statement that we [Catholics and evangelicals] recognize one another as brothers and sisters in Christ."
Indeed, so convinced were all of the conference speakers regarding one another's membership in the Body of Christ that this supposed faith was treated as a foregone conclusion rather than a question for discussion! According to Richard Neuhaus, our being "brothers and sisters in Christ" is the foundational premise "which drives the entirety of the ECT effort."
But what of that premise? Are all Catholics and evangelicals brothers and sisters in Christ? If that is indeed the case, it would be important to know the basis for this relationship. None of the ECT documents tells us explicitly. The Catholic Church teaches that salvation is only through the Sacrament of Baptism. The Bible declares unequivocally that it is only through faith. Some Catholics may come to biblical faith in Christ, but that would be in spite of the soteriological teaching of Rome—not because of it. Moreover, as the new believer recognizes the Bible's clear opposition to the beliefs, rituals, and practices of Catholicism, he must reject them in order to be consistent with God's truth. So, if one is not born again of the Spirit by grace through faith alone as the Word of God teaches, he or she is not a member of the family of God.
Catholic teachings on salvation cannot be reconciled to the Bible. What we have here are two gospels: the biblical gospel, and, in the words of the Apostle Paul, "another gospel" (Gal:1:6-7) which can save no one. Emphasizing that point, Paul twice calls the preachers of such a gospel "accursed" (Gal:1:8-9). How then could any true evangelical advocate the partnership in winning souls to Christ proposed in Evangelicals and Catholics Together? He could not. But that fact has neither deterred the participants of the ECT dialogue nor dampened their enthusiasm.
At the Wheaton conference, J. I. Packer shared the following: "What I dream of and long to see is evangelicals and Roman Catholics standing together on the same platform to tell the world that Jesus Christ is the Savior whom everybody needs." He then amplified his vision:
I dream of those who respond to that good gospel word being taken through what would be a revived catechumenate [a basic instructional program in the faith], a matter, incidentally, on which Roman Catholics, I think, have got further in these last few years than evangelicals have. A revived catechumenate that is a grounding for new converts in which they are told that for the first year or two years they should postpone the question of which church they are going to identify with, and simply concentrate on getting the benefit of ministry of the Word and Christian fellowship in whatever churches in their part of the world provide these. Catholic or Protestant. And it might be either.
He left no doubt as to his commitment to the Evangelicals and Catholics Together dialogues: If through ECT there was for the future less evangelical apartheid in relation to Roman Catholics than there has been in the past, and less Roman Catholic triumphalism...and more of Roman Catholic and evangelical together[ness] in the re-Christianizing of society and the re-evangelizing and discipling of the world community which is so largely drifting away from Christianity, then I should feel that we have not failed. That's what I hope for and pray for, and it's to that effort that I for one hope that God in this whole project will prosper what we're doing, keep us from folly, and enable us to be as influential in these ways as [best] we can be.
Sound doctrine is the bane of ecumenical exchanges, and will inevitably give way to "dreams" supported by experiences and what "seemeth right unto a man." Why? Because the purpose of such conversations is convergence, i.e., togetherness. Biblical doctrine (what God says) is absolute, inflexible. It doesn't dance to the tune of ecumenical dialogues. When concerned appeals were made to the specific teachings of Scripture during Q & A segments of the conference, most in the audience seemed annoyed. Speakers' responses ranged from "Hey, come on...cut us some slack here!" to chiding any who dared to suggest that those representatives of various Christian traditions down through history having an unbiblical understanding of essential doctrines were not fellow believers. Timothy George, one of the evangelical developers of the ECT documents, as well as a Wheaton Trustee, committee member on the World Council of Churches, and (along with J. I. Packer) an executive editor of Christianity Today, was quoted as follows:
To think that [early formulators of Roman Catholic dogma] Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas...are all consigned to perdition because they do not properly define justification in precisely Reformation terminology—is that not to deny the grace of God and God's sovereignty? It is, in short, to turn justification by faith alone to justification by doctrinal erudition alone, which is another form of justification by works.
No. We're not to judge anyone's heart, nor use the Reformation as our standard—simply the Scriptures (Isa:8:20).
In his talk, Neuhaus presented another criteria:
In the pro-life movement and in the Charismatic Renewal, in all these ways evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics were in fact encountering one another in a way that they could not, without sinning against the Holy Spirit, [refrain from] acknowledging what was an encounter with brothers and sisters in Christ. That's the reality. Then it's just up to the theologians and the church bureaucrats and so forth to get accustomed to that reality and try to understand it.
Following Neuhaus's address, in which he presented his own dream of "full communion" of all Christian denominations with Rome, I asked him who would be in charge when this full communion took place. He replied that it was not plausible for everyone to "pack up and return to the [Roman] Catholic Church." He felt such a thing would do "great injustice" to the gifts and works of the Holy Spirit which have manifestly flourished over the last 500 years "outside the boundaries of the Catholic Church." He sees "full communion" as a "new thing" which acknowledges "the Apostolic Deposit," the "Petrine Ministry... Peter among us [i.e., a Vicar of Christ] to keep everybody in communion." He then candidly added,
But what would it look like and who would call the plays? Please God, it would not look like the bureaucracies of Protestant denominationalism. Please God, it would not look like the wrangling, debased forms of democratic governments and argumentative church assemblies where faith and morals are thrown open to vote. Please God, it would not mean domination by a conclave of elderly Italian prelates, as too often has been the case in the Catholic Church....There wouldn't even be something we would call the Catholic Church, that is, certainly not the Roman Catholic Church. There would simply be the Church of Jesus Christ—East and West.
This is what ECT and other ecumenical dialogues are all about. While I grant the sincerity of many who participate in such conversations, I'm astonished that they don't see the glaring eschatological implications. Although repeatedly professing their desire for unity based only upon the truth found in Jesus Christ, ECT's goal of "togetherness" has blinded them to what the Bible clearly says about religious unity in the last days. Where is organizational "full communion" found except in the one-world religion of Antichrist?
Biblical unity in Christ, the true fellowship of brothers and sisters in Christ, can only come about by grace through faith (Eph:2:8). Anything added, Paul tells us, is a rejection of the gospel. Jesus will deny ever knowing those who have come to Him on any other terms but His own, even though they sincerely cry, "Lord, Lord..." (Mat:7:22-23).
Having been a Roman Catholic for 32 years, an evangelical for 25, and one of the founders of Reaching Catholics For Christ (RCFC), I was inclined during the panel discussion to reprove the evangelical speakers for their participation in ECT. Instead, however, I simply identified myself and my association with RCFC * (which was met with indignant groans) and directed my question to the evangelicals (only Timothy George was absent) as follows:
The Philippian jailor of Acts 16 cried out to Paul, '...what must I do to be saved?' The response was both simple and explicit: 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.' What else is necessary?
Only two panel members responded. Both dodged the biblical imperative. Why would these evangelicals, including J. I. Packer, not instantly respond, "Nothing!"? Because if that were taken seriously, it would quickly end the dialogue unto death with Rome—a false church which has continued to add to the gospel for more than 1,500 years.
Let your loving conversations with Roman Catholics be to this end: to help them understand and receive the biblical gospel of salvation. TBC
All quotes are taken from the audiotape series "Catholics and Evangelicals in Conversation," available from Wheaton College.
* T.A.'s identification of himself and RCFC, as well as his question to the evangelical panel members and their responses, was not included on the panel discussion tape, because (he was told) of a failure to record the first 11 minutes of the session.