TRUHT FOR TODAY - BIBLICAL ESSAYS BY PASTOR PAUL MIZZI

The Counterfeit Church

Introduction

Left to our own resources we can never come to know God truly. Scripture affirms that "the world by wisdom knew not God" (1 Corinthians 1:21). Man devised many gods and invented a plethora of religions, but has never managed, by himself, to find the one true and living God. It proved to be a day of grief for the apostle Paul when he arrived at Athens, the hubbub of civilization and philosophy. The whole city was given over to the worship of idols. He even found an altar dedicated "to the unknown God" - evidencing their ignorance about the true God.

Revelation

How then can we ever acknowledge and confess the Creator God? We can know him only by means of his self-revelation, that is, God is pleased to manifest himself to man. Throughout history God spoke to man through his prophets, whom he equipped and sent to proclaim his message to others. Moses, Isaiah and the other prophets were not the originators of what they spoke and wrote. They were simply God's chosen instruments so that his Word may come to us. Their proclamation was often preceded by, "Thus saith the Lord," thus reminding their hearers that they were not inventing the message but simply passing it on. Peter writes:

Prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost (2 Peter 1:21).

Tradition

In Scripture we don't find everything that was taught or done by the prophets, by the apostles and the Lord Jesus. This is quite obvious. But, in admitting such a fact, we donít' jump into hasty conclusions. The question is this: can we rightly affirm that Scripture is adequate to lead us to eternal life? Is it necessary to seek elsewhere for the discovery of other important spiritual truth not recorded in Scripture? Sad to say, the Jews committed this mistake. They were not content to limit themselves to the sure confines of Scripture; together with Scripture they looked up to "tradition," the ancient teachings of their forefathers. The result was tragic indeed.

Listen to Jesus' evaluation of tradition:

Well hath Esais prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition...Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered; and many such like things do ye (Mark 7:6-13).

It should go without saying that God will not accept our religion if it is not founded upon his revelation recorded for us in Holy Scripture. Neither will he be pleased with a kind of worship derived from Scripture mixed with human tradition.

The Catholic church receives Scripture as the Word of God. But alongside the written Word she upholds tradition, that supposedly delivers in a living way the teaching of our Lord and his apostles. Vatican Council II confesses:

Thus it comes about that the Church does not draw her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scripture alone. Hence, both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honoured with equal feelings of devotion and reverence. (Vatican Council II, Dei Verbum, 9).

According to the church of Rome, Scripture is not sufficient. The church adds tradition to Scripture, surely a sad case of history repeating itself. The Jews embraced tradition as a source of revelation; the Catholic church does virtually the same. This is a matter of great concern to me, as I bring to mind God's verdict on such a stance: "In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men." Naturally enough, the church insists that her tradition is the Word of God, and in no sense "the commandments of men." It remains to be investigated, though, whether many doctrines embraced by the Catholic church and peculiar to her are really and truly the Word of God.

Scripture and the teachings of the Roman Catholic church conflicts many times over. Such a conflict arises out of tradition being accepted as authoritative alongside Scripture. At this stage I will mention one example, that of religious statues in worship. In the Ten Commandments we have God's explicit will for us; particularly the second commandment reads as follows:

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments (Exodus 20:4-6).

It seems to me that the commandment is as plain as could be. You simply can't miss the point. However the Catholic church allows the veneration and religious use of statues, whether they be representations of God himself, of the virgin Mary or of the saints. Several lines of argument are employed in favour of this practice. But however plausible they may sound, ultimately it remains a fact that God prohibits any statues for religious use. We should neither make them nor worship them. When you bow down before a statue, don't forget God's commandment, and the word of Christ: "Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition."

Teachers are subject to Scripture

The Lord gave teachers to the church so that his Word may be properly preached and explained. Christians are bound to follow them as they follow Christ. However it would spell disaster to our souls if we assume that all those who designate themselves "ministers of Christ" are really so. The Lord cautioned us in this regard: "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves" (Matthew 7:15). Nobody will be cleared on the Day of Judgement for having given his allegiance to false teachers. The condemnation of such is already described for us: "If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch" (Matthew 15:14).

What kind of test should we apply to determine who is a genuine servant of Christ or not? The prophet is known by his teaching, just as a tree is known by its fruit. If one claims to teach the Word of God, but in actual fact his teaching contradicts Scripture or else goes beyond it, that teacher is a liar and a deceiver (See Deuteronomy 13:1-4; Isaiah 8:20; Proverbs 30:5,6). Be doubly sure that you are building your house on the solid rock of God's infallible Word.

Scripture is enough

Have you ever desired to be living during Christ's earthly ministry, able to listen to the words of eternal life from his very lips? Christ is the Truth; we may assuredly depend on him. You may have asked him: "Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" What answer would have been forthcoming? All guessing is superfluous. A certain lawyer once posed this same question to the Lord Jesus, who began answering him by referring him to Scripture: "What is written n the law? how readiest thou?" (cf. Luke 10:25,26). There is no good reason to suppose that his approach to us would be essentially different. In Scripture we have the correct and full answer. We should therefore familiarize ourselves with Scripture. We don't really need worldly philosophy, visions (Colossians 2:8,18) or tradition. The teaching of Scripture is definitely sufficient to lead us to a vital knowledge of salvation.

"The holy scriptures...are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 3:15). Where is truth to be found? Whence may you enjoy wisdom to know the way of life? Don't ever forget the answer: The Holy Scriptures!

Truth and salvation

With intense heartache the apostle Paul makes mention of his own countrymen. He says:

"I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge" (Romans 10:2).

They assumed that they were walking in the right direction. After all they enjoyed a historic tradition, being traced back to the patriarchs, to Moses and the prophets. They were definitely religious, they fasted, prayed, gave alms and were intent on worshipping God. Roman Catholics are prone to reason this way: "I am a member of a church going back to the time of Christ and his apostles; I attend Mass and go to confession regularly; I do every sincere effort to observe the Ten Commandments, and as the occasion arises I do acts of mercy to my neighbour. How can I be in error?"

In spite of their religious tradition, so solidly entrenched among them, those devout Jews were lost. They were on their way to hell; how tragic it appears when Paul tells us of their persuasion otherwise. He testifies: "Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they might be saved.Ē Their dogmatic certainties notwithstanding, in reality they were lost and in need of eternal salvation. Why? Because their zeal was not "according to knowledge." Assuming that they were drinking the pure water of life, actually they were satisfying their thirst on poisoned water.

How lamentable it would be should you discover your error on the Day of Judgement! It would be too late then. Don't confuse religious zeal with the truth. Your soul's salvation is at stake.

You may be asking, "The truth! What is truth?" A point of such importance that I will take it up right away.

Built upon Christ

Upon whom is the church founded? Who is its Head? And who is the Vicar of Christ upon earth?

Scripture exhorts all members of the Church: "As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him: rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught" (Colossians 2:6,7). The Church is built upon Christ, as proclaimed by the prophets and apostles. "And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone" (Ephesians 2:20). The Church's foundation is already laid. Who is this foundation? Is it the Lord Jesus or someone else? The apostle Paul answers: "Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 3:11).

Who is the Head of the Church? "Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body" (Ephesians 5:23). The well-beloved Son of God "is the head of the body, the church...that in all things he might have the pre-eminence" (Colossians 1:18). The primate in the church is Christ!

Does Christ have a representative on earth? On the eve of his passion, the Lord Jesus promised his disciples: "I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; even the Spirit of truth" (John 14:16,17). The Holy Spirit came at Pentecost. He was, still is, and will continue to fulfill his role as Vicar of Christ on earth till the end of the world.

Upon this rock

The Roman Catholic church gives completely different answers. "The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the 'rock' of his Church." "The Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme and universal power over the whole Church" (Catechism, paragraphs 881,882).

To evaluate these statements, we will first read the portion of Scripture claimed to grant authority to the pope.

When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:13-18).

The Church is supposedly built upon Peter, because Peter means rock. Every Roman Catholic assumes this. I was surprised when I discovered later on that Peter (petros) and rock (petra) are two separate words with different meanings. The Catholic interpretation assumes that Peter and rock are synonymous, when in actual fact they aren't.

Christ builds his Church upon the rock. What does this solid rock refer to, upon which is laid the house of God? The subject of Matthew 16 is not Peter, but the true identity of Jesus. I am inclined to conclude, therefore, that the rock is the confession of faith issuing from the apostle Peter, namely, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." To substantiate, both Peter and Paul call Jesus Christ "the rock" (petra). Furthermore we read in Psalms 18:31: "For who is God save the Lord? or who is a rock save our God?"

Do not think that this is some novel interpretation of this crucial text. Though a few of the Church Fathers thought that the rock referred to Peter or the apostles, the great majority of them explain the rock to mean Christ himself or else Peter's confession about him, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God."

It is interesting to note that the Catholic church admits that this is the correct interpretation. In her Catechism, paragraph 424, we read: "Moved by the grace of the Holy Spirit and drawn by the Father, we believe in Jesus and confess: 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.' On the rock of this faith confessed by St Peter, Christ built his Church." True, the rock is the faith confessed by Peter, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." How is it then that the Catholic church insists that "the Lord made Simon alone the 'rock' of his Church"?

The apostle Peter

The apostles, including Peter, never understood that the Lord had appointed Peter as their primate and head. Even on the eve of Christ's passion there arose "a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest" (Luke 22:24). The Lord did not remind them how he had addressed Peter in Ceasarea earlier on. He significantly told them that they should not lord it over each other, as the kings of the Gentiles do. Rather they were to adopt a servant's attitude for the well-being of the Church.

Peter understood the lesson well enough. Though very prominent among his fellows, had opened the door of the kingdom to both Jews and Gentiles, and had emulated to serve Christ in all sincerity, Peter still referred to himself as an apostle and slave of Jesus Christ. In writing to presbyters, he was content to describe himself as a fellow-elder. Never is there any hint of exercising papal authority, or that he was head over the other apostles, or that he was the vicar of Christ, the universal bishop. The Catholic church calls Peter "pastor of the entire Church." Peter declines the title; rather he calls Christ "the chief Shepherd" (Compare Catechism, paragraph 857, with 1 Peter 5:4).

According to the evidence of the New Testament, Peter did not exercise power over the whole Church. Therefore, even if the bishop of Rome were his successor, he would have no right to be called universal bishop. Not only so: the bishop of Rome has no right to the apostolic authority of Peter. We find no clue in Scripture that Peter ever was sole bishop of the empire's capital city. History confirms that in the first few centuries the bishops of Rome never claimed in any way to be Peter's successors.

Peter and John once met a crippled man by the temple gate. He expected alms from them, but Peter unexpectedly addressed him: "Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk" (Acts 3:1-10). The lame man sprung to his feet; his ankle bones received strength, and he started leaping and praising God. The bishop of Rome claims to be Peter's successor, but finds it impossible to say, "Silver and gold have I none." Much less is he able to exercise miraculous power as Peter did. I do not point this out contemptuously, but since the pope pretends such lofty titles, isn't it logical to give factual evidence of his power?

The craze for power

The Lord Jesus did not bestow special authority on the bishop of Rome over the universal Church, or on some other person for that matter. The power wielded by the pope today was obtained gradually over the centuries. According to Scripture, a number of presbyters have the responsibility to oversee the company of believers in one particular locality. The pattern began to fade during the second century when it became customary for one presbyter to be the chief leader. In the fourth century, the emperor Constantine, and others succeeding him, exalted the bishops with countless honours. The highest dignity was reserved for the bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.

A number of bishops in Rome, particularly Leo I and Gregory the Great, endeavoured and made it their ambition to magnify their own prestige and the centrality of the Roman church. The most significant conflict was between the bishops of the two main imperial cities, namely, Rome and New Rome (Constantinople). The lack of mutual sympathy and ever-growing dissentions escalated to such an extent that Christendom suffered a great schism in the eleventh century, the effect of which is still to be seen today: the Roman Catholic communion and the Greek Orthodox communion.

The patriarch of Constantinople, John IV, assumed the title of "Universal Bishop." Pope Gregory I (590-604) rebuked him for his arrogance and pride. Ironically, shortly afterwards, Boniface III was accorded the title "Universal Bishop" by the wicked emperor Phocas. This title is still inherited by the leader of the Roman church.

Who is your Rock?

We would be solemnly obliged to submit ourselves to the pope, had the title "Universal Bishop" been given him by Christ rather than by one of the Roman emperors. Nevertheless, the pope declares that if men are to be saved it is absolutely necessary for them to be subject to him (Pope Boniface VIII, bull Unam Sanctam (1302)). In addition, the pope insists: "For it is through Christ's Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help towards salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained" (See Vatican Council II, Unitatis redintegratio, 3). Such teaching is foreign to Peter. He did not exalt himself or the Roman church for salvation is not the monopoly of some leader or particular church. The apostle Peter preached Christ as the only hope; he said: "Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

Whom will you believe? To whom will your entrust your soul's salvation? The Lord Jesus blessed Simon Peter for confessing him as "the Christ, the Son of the living God." You too, if like Peter you trust in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, you will be blessed and enjoy eternal life through his Name.

Truly my soul waiteth upon God; from him cometh my salvation. He only is my rock and my salvation; he is my defence; I shall not be greatly moved (Psalms 62:1,2).

Ego absolvo te

Every Roman Catholic is instructed to seek forgiveness from his priest, who is supposedly endued with power from on high to forgive sins. The priest not only informs the penitent of God's forgiveness, but he himself forgives him. I well remember the absolution formula on the priest's lips: "And I forgive your sins..." Naturally enough, the church emphasises that such power is granted to her by the Lord. The Council of Trent pronounces its curse upon all who say that "the sacramental absolution of the priest is not a judicial act," that is, an act of a judge. (Council of Trent, session 14, canon 9). According to the Catechism, the priest fulfills the ministry "of the just and impartial judge whose judgement is both just and merciful" (paragraph 1465).

Such teaching openly defies the biblical position:

There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another? (James 4:12).

Should the reader be a Roman Catholic priest, I urge him to answer James' question before God. Besides, Solomon prayed to God, "Then hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place, and forgive, and do and give to every man according to his ways, whose heart thou knowest; for thou, even thou only, knowest the hearts of all the children of men" (1 Kings 8:39). Is the Catholic priest able to examine the human heart? And if not, how can he be competent to judge righteously?

During his ministry on earth, the Lord Jesus was once accused of impiety when he was heard saying to a paralytic, "My son, your sins are forgiven." They complained, "Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies? who can forgive sins but God only?" Their criticism would have been valid if Jesus is a mere man. Only they were unwilling to believe that he is Emmanuel, God with us, and as such his forgiveness was true.

The forgiveness of sins is an act far greater than bodily healing. But before a human audience it is easier to say, "Your sins are forgiven" than to command a paralytic, "Arise and walk." For if the invalid remains stiff in bed it will become very apparent whether yours is mere pretension or true power. Jesus therefore accepted the challenge from his detractors. "But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, he saith to the sick of the palsy, I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house." And that's what the paralytic did! Such a miracle provides ample evidence of Christ's judiciary power, and therefore of his deity as well. But is the Catholic priest, who is supposed to be endowed with similar power, able to perform such miracles? And if he is unable to heal mere physical ailments, how are we to believe that he brings healing from sin?

Whose soever sins ye remit

How can a sinner obtain God's forgiveness? According to his eternal plan, God, in the fulness of time, desired to bring the proclamation of forgiveness to all the nations. It was Resurrection Sunday; the Lord Jesus appeared to his disciples as they were gathered together. He addressed them thus:

"Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. And as he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained" (John 20:21-23).

What exactly was the mission with which the early disciples were entrusted? According to Roman Catholics, with these words Christ instituted the sacrament of penance, giving judiciary power to the priests to forgive sins. Evangelical Christians understand this passage far differently. Christ was sent by God, among other things, in order to preach the good news. Before he ascended into heaven he gave a commission to the disciples (the apostles and all other believers) to proclaim the wonderful news of salvation. Those who believe this good news will be saved; his sins will be forgiven him. All those who remain in unbelief will not be forgiven.

Judges or preachers?

Did Christ constitute his disciples judges or proclaimers of the gospel? The Catechism teaches: "Priests have received from God a power that he has given neither to angels nor to archangels...God above confirms what priests do here below" (paragraph 983). The priest is a judge: if he forgives on earth, God confirms that same forgiveness in heaven. But the Lord Jesus said nothing of the sort. He did not say, "Whose soever sins ye forgive will (then) be forgiven." Christ used the perfect tense: "Whose soever sins ye remit, they are (already) remitted unto them." The disciples' ministry resembles that of a messenger sent to a guilty prisoner. The president has forgiven him and granted him liberty. The messenger enters the cell and proclaims to him: "You are forgiven!" It is not implied thereby that the messenger enjoys judicial authority; he has simply proclaimed forgiveness already granted by someone else. Even so, the Lord's disciples are proclaimers of the free and gracious forgiveness of God. In no sense are they judges.

The correct interpretation of the Lord's commission recorded in John 20 should be consistent with the rest of Scripture, for God does not contradict himself. Naturally, then, we ask: "How did the early apostolic church bring God's forgiveness to the world? Was it through the confessional? Or was it through the preaching of the gospel?

Luke the evangelist, like John, includes the Lord's commission; he specifically informs us how this forgiveness was meant to come to us. He does not leave us at liberty to apply the Lord's instructions in any capricious way. He quotes the Lord Jesus just before his ascension:

Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the death the third day; and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name among all nations (Luke 24:46,47).

The method is plainly outlined. How is forgiveness to be brought to the nations? By the preaching of the gospel. Christ did not inaugurate auricular confession to the priest. At least in the apostolic age the church did not so understand his words. When we investigate the Acts of the Apostles and all their writings, the result will further confirm the evangelical position. We find no single instance of any of the apostles or early Christians granting sacramental absolution. In no case do the apostles hint that Christians or anybody else should confess to a priest.

Historically, private confession was introduced gradually; it was only in 1215 that it was established officially by Pope Innocent III. The Catechism of the Catholic church admits that from the seventh century onwards "the sacrament has been performed in secret between penitent and priest" and calls it a "new practice" (paragraph 1447).

The apostles announced God's forgiveness through their preaching; they urged men to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thus enjoy full forgiveness of sins. Trusting in Jesus, humbled and subsequently exalted, thousands experienced God's gracious forgiveness. To take a sampling of Peter's preaching: "To him (Jesus) all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins" (Acts 10:43). The apostle Paul expounds the gospel thus: "Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man (Jesus) is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins" (Acts 13:38). On his part, the apostle John assures all believers in the Lord Jesus: "Your sins are forgiven you for his name's sake" (1 John 2:12).

I am he that blotteth out thy transgressions

Upon whom have you fixed your gaze? Whom are you trusting for cleansing from sin? Is it a human priest, a sinner just as you are, who claims to be a judge? Or is it the only God, the Judge of all the earth? Remember the warning of Scripture: "There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy." Take heed of the gospel as faithfully preached by the apostles and hear the Lord's calling, whose Law you have set aside:

I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins...

Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else. The idea of obtaining priestly absolution is totally foreign to Scripture. Rather, God invites you to turn to him. He knows your sins; all your secrets are well-known unto him. He will certainly forgive you if you turn to him in sincere repentance and genuine faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Our Father who art in heaven...forgive us our trespasses

God's grace is truly marvellous. Through his only-begotten Son, God bestows upon his elect children all spiritual blessings. Not only does he cleanse them of all their iniquities, but he also adopts them into his family. Formerly they were far away and enemies of God because of their disobedience; now they are his beloved children. All this comes about because of Christ's death and glorious resurrection. Before their conversion they neither feared God nor sought him; but now they sincerely desire to magnify his Name, and walk in new obedience. Before they did not know God; now the Holy Spirit indwells them.

Nevertheless, while on the earth, sin still clings to them. A relentless battles is waged within God's children during their whole lifetime. As much as they yearn and endeavour to lead a holy life, all genuine Christians humbly admit that they still sin daily.

But God the Father does not cast them out of his family. They are forever his children; he remains forever their heavenly Father. So when they sin, they do not approach a stern Judge, but together with their Mediator Jesus they flee unto the bosom of their Father. "If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." They draw near confidently, for God has promised them that "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). They confess directly to God, and to nobody else, for they are mindful of their Master's instructions concerning acceptable prayer: "After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven...forgive us our debts" (read Matthew 6:9-13).

The Law brings us to Christ

Since we cannot earn life by our obedience, then what's the whole point of the Law? Paul explains one of its main purposes as follows:

Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:19-20).

The Law resembles a mirror. Looking steadfastly into it you will come to realize how spiritually unclean you really are. But the Law cannot wash you clean. To employ another simile: the Law acts like an x-ray, penetrating beyond the surface and revealing your heart, sick unto death. But the Law cannot heal you. Only the Lord Jesus Christ is able to wash sinners from their filth and give a new heart.

As a teenager I remember reading the Sermon on the Mount. I was much impressed and resolved to adopt it as my rule of life, my manifesto. I did my very best, but it eventually dawned upon me that the more I endeavoured to keep the standard, the more my frustration increased and my failure became apparent. How could I ever be perfect even as the heavenly Father is perfect?

But the Lord was teaching me a simple yet profound lesson. Simple, I said, but so difficult a lesson for a 'good' teenager to grasp. The 'good' teenager is a sinner! Then I began to appreciate the Lord Jesus Christ; I began to understand what the Bible means when it speaks about the grace of God manifested so beautifully on Calvary. Only then is the soul ready to flee to Christ for refuge.

Initially God deals with man on Mount Sinai, creating a wholesome fear of him and a sure conviction of sin. God again deals with the sinner on the Calvary's hill. There he bestows his forgiveness; there he extends his life and frees the sinner in truth. God's use of his Law would have reached its fundamental purpose:

The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith (Galatians 3:24).

Justified by faith alone

How can man, burdened down with the guilt of his sin, obtain peace with his Creator? According to Scripture, only one way is available: being justified through faith in Christ. "Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:1).

Justification is a crucial Bible term; how may we define it properly? From the very outset it must be borne in mind that the word 'justification' is borrowed from the law-courts; it is a legal term. Those who conduct themselves in conformity to the law are just, or righteous; on the other hand, transgressors of the law are unjust and guilty. The judge is called upon to justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked. Thus justification refers to the judge's favourable pronouncement, declaring the accused to be 'not guilty,' and on the basis of this judicial sentence liberates him from all punishment of the law.

Man's woe springs from such facts of life. It goes without saying that the Lord, the righteous judge of all the earth, abominates him "that justifieth the wicked, and him that condemneth the just." Undoubtedly, all God's dealings are carried out with utmost rectitude. In his very nature God can neither ignore sin nor infringe upon his holiness and righteousness. He will certainly justify us if we were righteous. But the lamentable truth is that we are far from being righteous or even from attaining righteousness. On the contrary, we must all plead guilty. In our sinful state God's righteous sentence must be our condemnation. The patriarch Job gave vent to our dilemma several thousand years ago: "How should man be just with God?" In one sense, our eternal bliss, or else our eternal misery, rests upon the answer given to this monumental question.

God justifies the ungodly

Should the sinner atone for his own failures and lead a life altogether righteous, God would be obliged to justify him (since then man would be truly righteous). Roman Catholics are taught that justification "conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy" (Catechism, paragraph 1992). According to this position, God justifies man when the sinner becomes just in himself.

Admittedly, God operates in the heart and life of his children, transforming them and bringing them into conformity to the character of his Son. Still, as long as they are in "the body of this humiliation," Christians act sinfully. Scripture warns us: "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). How then does the Catholic church pretend that man can ever be justified here below, since sin still indwells every Christian? "God justifies the righteous" is bad news indeed for the sinner! But may God be praised for his unspeakable mercy: within the pages of Scripture a totally different message is penned down!

Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness (Romans 4:4,5).

God declares the believing sinner 'not guilty!' He does not justify the righteous (for there are none such); rather he justifies the wicked. He justifies the wicked not because he does his utmost to convert himself and become a good man. God justifies those who have no good deeds to their credit. This is the true gospel, comforting balm for the poor sinner's soul!

But how can God justify the believing person, seeing that he is still a sinner? First of all, God does not charge his sins against him any longer.

Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin (Romans 4:7,8).

Furthermore, God credits to the believing sinner a perfect righteousness for which he has not striven nor earned by his endeavours.

David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works (Romans 4:6).

In brief, God justifies me (frees me from condemnation) not because I have become sinless, or because I have grown rich in good works. God justifies me solely by his undeserved love and mercy.

God is just and justifies

It must be accentuated that God is perfectly just when he justifies those who believe in him through his Son Jesus Christ. It would be inadequate to affirm that God does as he pleases. God is not capricious; he cannot brush aside the exercise of his righteousness and holiness so that he may welcome the sinner and be compassionate to him. In a very sublime way, God's justice and grace are equally manifested on Calvary (Romans 3:21-26). Christ, the Lamb of God, accepted full responsibility for the sins of his people, and paid the penalty due to them by shedding his own blood. This mighty transaction was foretold by the prophet: "The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:6).

The apostle Paul expounds this truth as follows:

Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood (Romans 3:24,25).

Believers are counted right with God on the basis on Christ's redemption, that is, the liberation from the condemnation and curse of the law which Christ accomplished on the cross. God reckons believers righteous because Christ took upon himself the full penalty which they deserved. Christ is therefore the propitiation. The blood which Christ shed on the cross as an atonement for the sins of his people averted God's righteous wrath and displeasure from them. So then, God is "just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus" (Romans 3:26).

Be merciful to me, a sinner

Scripture unmistakably points the way forward. God wants us to trust him, to yield ourselves to his mercies. We are to depend completely upon him, not on ourselves or our feigned righteousness.

The Lord Jesus once narrated a parable in the hearing of some "who trusted in themselves that they were righteous."

Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other (Luke 18:9-14).

Ponder a little while upon these two men. The first one presented his own righteousness and good works to God. The second approached God empty-handed. The Pharisee considered himself righteous and came confidently forward. The publican realized how poor he was in spirit; he was ashamed of himself. Both went up to the temple to pray; the self-righteous man asked for nothing while the publican, indebted to God, pleaded for nothing but pure mercy. Both returned home. One was trusting in himself to be spiritually acceptable, but in God's sight he was very far from reaching the mark. The other one depended solely upon God's mercy, nothing but his mercy. And it was this believing sinner that went home justified, that is, declared righteous by the Judge of heaven and earth.

Which one of them is your model? In whom are your trusting for your acquittal, in your own attainments or in the mercy of God as revealed upon Calvary's cross? Are you seeking to be accepted of God because of your deeds, or are you leaning upon the all-merciful God in Christ, by faith?

Everyone makes his choice between these two alternatives: there is no middle-ground. Either you are trusting in God's plenteous mercy alone, or else you are cherishing your co-operation and best efforts. On one hand, the Roman Catholic church pronounces her curse on all those who say that "justifying faith is nothing more than confidence in the divine mercy, which forgives sins because of Christ" (Council of Trent, session VI, canon 10).

On the other hand, we enjoy the infallible teaching of Christ. The publican had nothing but "confidence in the divine mercy," and according to the Lord Jesus, he became right with God.

Sola fide

Together with the apostle Paul, evangelical Christians "conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law" (Romans 3:28). Historically this biblical position has been known as sola fide, by faith alone; in his justification, the personal obedience of the believer does not come into consideration.

The Catholic church only admits that "faith is the beginning of human salvation, the fountain and root of all justification" (Council of Trent, session VI, VIII). According to Rome faith is necessary but it's not enough. To obtain justification Rome prescribes faith plus works. "He who says that the received righteousness is not preserved and even increased before God by good works...let him be accursed" (Council of Trent, Session VI, canon 24).

The Catholic message is: faith and works lead to justification. The gospel embedded in Scripture is of a radically different sort. "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth...For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith" (Romans 1:16,17).

"From faith to faith," for Christians do not seek their salvation in Christ together with their personal achievements. "From faith to faith," denoting that true believers depend completely on Christ both in time and eternity.

A cesspool of error

Besides the grievous heresies discussed above, I will simply mention others in passing. The third council of Ephesus (431) accepted Augustine's teaching that infant baptism is necessary for salvation.

In the fifth century Christian clergy functioned as a priesthood.

The Lord's supper became a theoretical sacrifice.

High value was attached to the intercession of martyrs.

Priests became mediators between God and man.

At the fifth ecumenical council held at Constantinople under Justinian in 553, the council accepted Augustine's De Civitate Dei as theory for earth rule. Under it the secular state would gradually be replaced by the visible church empire ruled by the Bishop of Rome.

Gregory the Great (590-604) outlined the new Middle Ages theology. It included salvation by works, a purgatory and masses or offerings of Christ in sacrifice.

Formerly the Abbot of a cloister, Gregory organized and financed the first Church Army.

Though previously stated by Siricius, Bishop of Rome (384-398) and claimed by Leo II (440-461), the title "universal Bishop" became official only in 707.

The false donations of Constantine appeared in 751. The documents claimed Constantine the Great had given to the pope, absolute supremacy over all churches and secular power over the earth.

Supposed pieces of the cross, pictures, statues and articles from early centuries became accepted as spiritual treasures during the eighth century.

The seventh ecumenical council, convened by Empress Irene and held at Nicea in 787, officially approved prayers to dead saints and martyrs.

The canonization of dead saints began in 995 by John XV.

Pope Gregory VII introduced celibacy of the clergy in 1074. He also said: "The Roman church was founded by God alone; the Roman pope alone can with right be called universal; he alone may be judged by no one; the Roman Church has never erred, nor will it err in all eternity."

The celibacy of the clergy was imposed by Pope Calixtus II in 1123.

The Second Lateran Council was called in 1139 by Pope Innocent II to plan for the destruction of all non-conformists.

The sale of indulgences began in 1190 with Pope Clement II.

Auricular confession was instituted at the fourth Lateran Council in 1215.

Transubstantiation was also declared a dogma at that time.

In 1229, at the Council of Toulouse, Pope Gregory IX placed the Bible on the Index of Forbidden Books.

The dogma of purgatory was pronounced by Eugenious IV at the Council of Florence in 1439.

The number of the sacraments was officially limited to seven in 1439 at the Council of Florence, though earlier some had claimed the number to be about thirty.

The immaculate conception was declared a dogma by Pope Pius IX; it stated the Mary was exempt from original and actual sin.

Is Romanism Christian?

The apostle Paul was evidently in great distress and anguish when he penned his letter to the Galatians. The glory of God and the salvation of men were at stake. False teachers had dogged his steps and distorted the gospel he had preached. They did not deny faith in Christ, or the grace of God. They simply added the rite of circumcision and obedience to the Mosaic Law as conditions for justification. He considered their teaching as "another gospel" (Galatians 1:6-8). If he considered that the addition of God's Law and circumcision to faith invalidated the gospel, what is the biblical judgement on the gospel of Rome? The "gospel" of Rome is faith plus works, grace plus merit, Christ plus the church, baptismal regeneration, penance, masses, the rosary, indulgences, Mary, the pains of purgatory, and so on. The apostle warns those who, in addition to faith in the Lord, seek to be justified by ritual or works of the Law, that they are alienated from Christ, and that he could be of no avail to them (Galatians 5:2-4).

Since the gospel of the Scriptures is Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, Rome's message (faith plus, grace plus, Christ plus), is a false gospel. The church that propagates a false gospel cannot justly be called a church of Jesus Christ. And those who follow its teaching are deceived and in peril of eternal perdition.