The Mother of All Oxymorons: Born-Again Catholics

Or maybe not…

Portions of Los Angeles were ablaze. Victim of a brutal beating, Rodney King cried out with a quivering voice, “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?”

Three years later In July 1995, he was arrested by Alhambra, California, police for hitting his wife with his car and knocking her to the ground.

So, Rodney, why can’t you get along with your wife?

Why is our world ravaged by war? Why do church people take each other to court? Drag their children through a hateful divorce?

Why will some of you, after you read this article, decide never again to read anything Gary Kinnaman writes?

It’s ridiculously simple: everyone is profoundly self-centered, and even the most insecure human being, deep down inside, believes they are right and others are wrong. And sometimes you are so right and the other person is so wrong, you just have t’ kill ‘em.

Like Jesus.

They’re nailing him to the cross. A crude hammer is striking rusty spikes. Above the banging and the clamor of the crowd, we hear another quivering voice, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34 NASB).

Whoever does that? Forgives the people who are crucifying them?! Man, it’s gotta be a God-thing!

Yet look directly into the eyes of the crucified Christ and listen to him say softly to you, “I forgive you. So ‘when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins’ (Mark 11:25 NIV).”

Enemies of the cross

Jesus came to make peace with God. For us. It cost him his life, and his death on the cross is the centerpiece of the Christian faith. The cross isn’t just an emblem of the Savior’s sacrifice. It’s also a symbol of our own journey as we follow the Christ of the cross. Jesus said famously, “”Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23 NIV, italics mine).

Daily. That word in the verse above just pierced my soul, because daily I’m livin’ for me.

The apostle Paul embraced this when he wrote, “My brothers in Christ Jesus our Lord, my life is one long death.”1

And this: “For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you” (2 Corinthians 4:11-12 NASB).

Yet as my friend Al Ells likes to say, “The church is filled with people who are enemies of the cross.” What does that mean? Simply that people follow their own pursuits and don’t pursue Christ and the cross. Again, Saint Paul writes, “For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:18-19 NIV, italics mine).

It’s the “earthly things” that always get between me and Jesus. Hebrews calls them “everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.”2 That would include all the differences between and among us, differences that lead to strife and division, the dividing walls of hostility.4

Can I make this ridiculously simple one more time? Jesus died to reconcile me to God, and Jesus died to reconcile me to others. He died to destroy every dividing wall of hostility. Jesus forgives our sins and ends our divisions. Certainly this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote to the fiercely divided church in Corinth,

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought…. Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:10,13 NIV)

And what’s Paul’s ridiculously simple solution to the problem? Jesus plus nothing.

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2 NIV, italics mine).

Nothing except Jesus.

Jesus plus nothing.

Diametrically opposed to this affirmation is legalism: Jesus plus something, like circumcision, for example, in Galatians. Jewish Christians insisted that new Gentile Christians (just the men, of course) must be circumcised. Paul stands up to these “Judaizers,” because his hope was built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Jesus plus nothing.

Jesus-plus-something is the tap root of legalism, as Paul writes, “You have become estranged from Christ [Jesus plus circumcision], you who attempt to be justified by law… For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love… This persuasion [Jesus plus circumcision. Jesus plus anything] does not come from Him who calls you. A little leaven [Jesus plus anything] leavens the whole lump” (Galatians 5:4-9 NKJV).

So are Catholics really Christians?

Catholics pray to Mary and believe in Purgatory. Well, you know, the only way you can be saved is Jesus plus not praying to Mary. That’s Jesus plus something. Jesus plus not praying to Mary. And which means that people who believe in salvation by grace alone don’t really believe that, because they believe that praying to Mary trumps grace. If you want to be saved, you have to believe in Jesus, but you can’t pray to Mary. So I guess we are not really saved by grace alone. There are conditions! Yes, you have to believe that Jesus died for your sins, but you can’t pray to Mary. In other words, it is Jesus plus something, Jesus plus not praying to Mary or any other saints!

No, I’m not a Catholic, and I don’t pray to Mary. I believe in salvation by grace alone, which means that if I do something wrong, or I do something that someone thinks is not biblical, God’s grace trumps that. In me. In you. In Catholics. In people who are not Catholic.

I presume most of my readers are not Catholic. So tell me, are you a better person than a Catholic who believes Jesus died on the cross for their sins?

“Oh, wait,” you say, “just believing isn’t enough. You have to believe the right things.

How many right things? All the right things? Most of the right things, like 87%? Or maybe you can believe a few wrong things, but not really wrong things? And not too many wrong things?

Is it really possible for anyone to believe everything exactly and correctly? The Apostle Paul writes about this: “I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law.”4 In other words, it’s either Jesus plus nothing or doing everything right without Jesus. Or believe everything exactly correctly.

Hundreds of years before Paul, the ancient writer of Ecclesiastes wrote, “God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV)

And this: “When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe the labor that is done on earth—people getting no sleep day or night— 17 then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it” (Ecclesiastes 8:16-17 NIV).

Here’s something else that’s ridiculously simple: Either God does it all, or you have to do it all. Grace and human effort are mutually exclusive. Like oil and water. You can’t mix ‘em.

Listen to this,

The doctrinal assertion that justification is by faith and not by works means that justification happens through sharing in the death of Christ… Conversely, to seek justification by works means trying to save yourself through one’s own efforts… Justification by works means that man wants to construct a little immortality of his own. He wants to make of his life a self-sufficient totality. Such an enterprise is always sheer illusion.

This is exactly Paul’s argument in Galatians: “How foolish can you be? After starting your new lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort?” (Galatians 3:3, NLT)

So do you agree with the statement above that “justification by works” means trying to save yourself through your own efforts? Can you guess who wrote this? Martin Luther? Phillip Yancy? Billy Graham?

No, Joseph Ratzinger. That would be Pope Benedict XVI.5

So even the Catholics believe in justification by faith!

Yeah, but

But what? You think Catholics believe all kinds of other goofy things?

Like you don’t? And like God can’t handle their goofy things but he overlooks yours?

In my view, this is all so wacky. I’m glad it’s the view of God’s Word too: “If I … can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge … but do not have love, I am nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2 NASB). This is to say that, if I believe everything there is to believe and I believe it all accurately, without love, I’m just a lot of loud noise.

At the core of the Christian life is the unconditional love of God, agape, for me to be saved and through me to offer a pathway for others to be saved: “A new command I give you: Love (agapao) one another. As I have loved you…. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35 NIV. Italics mine).

So you think you know something? That your understanding of the Bible is more accurate than the understanding of your brothers? Paul would like you to know that “those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know” (1 Corinthians 8:2 NIV).

So why can’t we all just get along? Because some of us are just more right than others, and sometime others are so wrong, we have to beat ‘em, like Rodney King. Or kill ‘em, like Catholics and Protestants have done to each other for centuries.

At the very least, if we don’t kill ‘em, we sure can’t eat with ‘em. According to Galatians, St. Peter couldn’t eat with the uncircumcised Christians even though he knew he—and they—were saved by grace alone.

Think about it: Peter knew he had denied Jesus three times in one night, and Jesus still loved him. Forgave him. Restored him.

Of course, denying Jesus three times is not nearly as bad as being uncircumcised! Do you think Peter thought to himself, “At least I repented”?

As for you, is there anything you think about the Bible or God that isn’t exactly correct? Do you even know what part of your thinking isn’t exactly correct?

I like the way the ancient prophet was thinking about himself, about all of us: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceedingly perverse and corrupt and severely, mortally sick! Who can know it [perceive, understand, be acquainted with his own heart and mind]? (Jeremiah 17:9, Amplified Bible). In simple terms, everything I think is distorted in some way by my sin, and even when I do have it right in my head, my behavior is sinful. Like when I’m so right it makes me mad.

So being right becomes more important that being kind.

Can anyone ever get everything right about God? Or maybe, just maybe, is there something about God that transcends human understanding?

Our western culture has placed a premium on being right. Being doctrinely right is more important than serving others, especially people we think are not right. Or the ones we think are really wrong. Like Democrats. Or Republicans. Or Calvinists. Or gay people.

The ultimate question for every person is this: How big is Jesus in your life? Is he Lord of everything? Do you take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ?6

Jesus plus something makes Jesus less than everything. And when your life is about Jesus plus something, the something always becomes bigger than Jesus. It’s what I’ve written about in my newest book Honey, I Just Shrunk Jesus.

Jesus plus something and your marriage

My grandfather did our wedding. Not fully understanding the implications of the passage, Marilyn and I put Colossians 1:15-18 into our marriage vows:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.7

That last line, Jesus supreme in all things, is the master key to everything. For him to be preeminent in my life, in my wife’s life, in our marriage, means that nothing else can push him aside. No difference. No issue. Jesus is the glue that holds us together, and the bridge over every raging river in our relationship.

Anything that takes us down is something that, for one or both of us, has become bigger and stronger that Jesus. Oh yes, we believe in Jesus, but this issue … blah, blah, blah. Yep, it’s the issue that’s ruling your life, not Jesus. And honey, you just shrunk Jesus.

So if there are divisions in the church? I am determined to know nothing else but Jesus Christ and him crucified.8

And if there are problems in your home? “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.9

And you’re having issues with your neighbor? Or the guy in the big black pickup on the freeway? Let your kindness be evident to all, for the Lord is near.10

Don’t you just love this tune by Darlene Zschech?

Jesus at the center of it all
Jesus at the center of it all
From beginning to the end
It will always be, it’s always been You
Jesus, Jesus

Nothing else matters,
Nothing in this world will do
‘Cause Jesus You’re the center,
Everything revolves around You
Jesus You,
At the center of it all,
At the center of it all

Jesus be the center of my life
Jesus be the center of my life
From beginning to the end
It will always be, it’s always been You
Jesus, Jesus

Jesus be the center of Your church
Jesus be the center of Your church
And every knee will bow
And every tongue shall confess You
Jesus, Jesus
Jesus, Jesus,
Jesus, Jesus,
Jesus, Jesus

1 1 Corinthians 15:31, Bible in Basic English
2 Hebrews 12:1 NIV
3 Ephesians 2:14 NIV
4 Galatians 5:3
5 Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life (CUA Press, 1988, p. 99)
6 2 Corinthians 10:5
7 Italics mine
8 1 Corinthians 2:2
9 Ephesians 5:21 NIV
10 Philippians 4:5
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