Years ago, I preached in the open-air, and a man my age listened attentively. He was deeply affected by the message, which led him to take his faith more seriously. Later he embraced reformed theology, and we became close friends, even attending the same local church. Sadly, he later abandoned the core principles of sola fide and sola scriptura for Roman Catholicism. This is one of the reasons I have spent time studying and researching to address the question: How to shepherd those under the temptation of Roman Catholicism? I will try to answer this question concisely but substantially, explaining the common struggle and offering four ways to shepherd and prevent this temptation in your local church. While God ultimately protects His people from apostasy, pastors have a role to play (Acts 20:28-29).
Rome’s apologists commonly attack the epistemological foundations of the evangelicals: “How can you be sure that your beliefs are truly biblical and apostolic?” The doubt they want you to have is this: “I’ve been wrong many times. Can I anymore base my beliefs on my understanding of the scriptures?” To this troubled mind, Rome promises to give the perfect solution: the infallible authority of the Roman Church that Christ promised would not fail. You no longer need to wonder what baptism accomplishes or what happens in the Lord’s supper. You can simply receive the apostolic doctrine and focus on growing in them. Charles Hodge acknowledges the power of this temptation:
There is something simple and grand in this theory. It is wonderfully adapted to the tastes and wants of men. It relieves them of personal responsibility. Everything is decided for them. Their salvation is secured by merely submitting to be saved by an infallible, sin-pardoning, grace-imparting Church. (Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, ch. 5.7.a)
Additionally, they might question the fruit of Protestantism, marked by numerous conflicts, divisions, and denominations. If the Reformation was the work of the Holy Spirit, how can this be the case?
These are serious temptations that many people struggle with. What can we as shepherds do to turn back those who are in danger of wandering from the truth (Jam. 5:19-20)?
How to Shepherd?
With love and concern, do not allow the person to bypass the main question. The material difference between the institutions that claim to be Christ’s church is the gospel. The one tempted by Rome might have lost all balance. They are locked into philosophical difficulties or seeking certainty on secondary issues. Make it plain that they are not considering questions like postmillennialism versus amillennialism. Try to demonstrate that the gospel preached by Rome is radically different. Our conviction regarding the nature of the gospel should be the first settled issue, not a later result of other considerations. On the last day, God will not accept these considerations as excuses for embracing a false gospel. It is not sinful to have uncertainties about certain aspects of theology, but it is always sinful to be uncertain about what constitutes the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. The apostles did not give people years to figure out “other matters” before placing their complete trust in Christ’s sufficient righteousness alone (2 Cor. 5:20-6:2). The true gospel will also lead to accurate conclusions about authority. Where there is no true gospel, there is no Christ. Where there is no Christ, there is no church. Where there is no church, there is no religious authority. Only the eternal life beheld and possessed in Christ, witnessed by the Spirit, can satisfy our hearts in knowing that we belong to God and His true church (Joh. 5:39).
Expose the lie of the temptation. The promise of certainty made by Rome can be objectively challenged. To begin with, one can point out that the choice to join the Roman Catholic Church is based on the fallible judgment of the individual. If someone decides that Rome is the true Church, but an equally knowledgeable person leaves Protestantism to become Eastern Orthodox, a valid question arises: How can a person ever be certain that they have investigated or read enough to make an informed decision? For everyone, the feeling of certainty can be based on a highly fallible decision. It’s worth noting that often the motivation to make an ecclesiological change might not be primarily driven by scriptural exegesis. This can be gently drawn out by inquiring the person which specific texts are persuading them of Rome’s claim.
Answer the doubts. Demonstrate to the person that Protestants are much more united than Rome claims. The fact that there are different denominations does not mean that all of them are at odds with each other. At the same time, you can own the fact that sola scriptura leads to different conclusions. Not all interpretations of Scripture are equally valid or likely. You can ask if the individual believes that God’s word is so unclear and chaotic that only a divinely protected infallible magisterium can provide the correct interpretation. Surely, no one would want to disrespect the Bible in such a way.
We should also consider the influence of the current era we live in. Without realizing it, we might inadvertently be endorsing the idea that truth is relative and uncertain, which aligns with postmodern and agnostic theories suggesting that nobody can have absolute certainty about anything. This perspective is not in accordance with Christianity.
Once you have established the clarity of the Scriptures, you can help him to see how having Baptists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans in the same city is not destructive of Christ’s promises or desire for unity. All true evangelicals are united in the most important things. Despite our many sins and lack of love, those most important things make the meanest evangelical church more healthy and biblical than any Roman parish.
Truthfully demonstrate that Rome is not as united as it claims. Rome is extremely divided. Only a short visit to the Catholic web, forums, and scholarship will demonstrate this. The debates over how to properly interpret the documents of Vatican II are everywhere. If you have time to read these documents you will understand why. The teachings of Rome today are not reconcilable with their teachings in the past. One primary example is the redefinition of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, outside the Church [there is] no salvation.
Protestants may endlessly debate the interpretation of specific Scriptures, but this pursuit is worthwhile because we acknowledge the Bible’s infallibility and divine origin. Why would anyone want to burden themselves with debating the meanings of human-made documents as if our eternal salvation depended on them?
Building on a Solid Foundation
It might be that some enter into this temptation because of our naivety as pastors. Have we taken for granted that all our people understand what is meant by sola scriptura and sola fide? Do we assume that everyone is deeply rooted in the glories of imputed righteousness or the difference between objective and subjective peace with God? Here are some ideas to help prevent someone from having an ecclesiological crisis.
Show that you care about Christ’s work in the ages past. Our people should know that we are part of the people of God that have worshipped Him in every age. Enrich the sermons with illustrations and quotations from the times of the early church. This is what the reformers and the Puritans did as well. Inculcating the biblical confessions (Nicea, Chalcedon etc.) into public worship can be of great help as well.
Instruct. Deliver a series of sermons or teachings on sola scriptura and sola fide, emphasizing both what these doctrines do not imply and what they do imply. It’s important to clarify misconceptions, as many sincere evangelicals hold caricatures of these beliefs. When engaging in personal discipleship, don’t overlook the fundamentals. Begin by recommending quality books that focus on the gospel and the five solas.
Proclaim. Announce all the promises that God has offered to sinners who turn and place their trust in Him. While doing this, engage in reasoning with those who may struggle to grasp grace due to their self-righteous perspectives.
Predict and invite. Explain what Rome’s temptation can be like and invite them to seek help if they struggle with these questions. When the sheep know that you opened the door for them, they are less likely to keep their struggles to themselves.