In an effort to recover and republish some of the material from the earlier blog, here is a post I originally wrote on Friday, April 8th 2005.
Thoughts on the Death of Pope John Paul II
"Doctor Martin, if you leave the Christian to live only by faith; if you sweep away all good works, all these glorious things you dismiss as mere 'crutches,' what will you put in their place?"
Johann Staupitz to Martin Luther, in the 1953 film, Martin Luther
There are undoubtedly a plethora of thoughts and emotions swirling through the minds of those who would describe themselves as Protestants or Evangelicals at the news of the Pope’s passing. Everything from, “that’s so sad,” to “John who?” to “die, Papal devil! Ya-hoy!” I found myself experiencing a curious (though not completely unfamiliar) sensation: a wild desire to run straight to the local Catholic Church and bow in submission to Mother Church.
Strange, you say? Horrifying, you think? Perhaps not. Interest in the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church will certainly be at a peak now, until the novelty wears off, anyway. Many Protestants may feel a similar stirring. But I think there was something deeper at work here. In fact, having given it some thought, I am inclined to elevate my experience to a proverb: “he who feels no emotional inclination to join Rome after the death of a good pope has a view of the Church that, were that view a movie-goer, would never be able to see the film over the heads of those in front of him.” Or something like that. It’s too low, in other words (his view of the Church, I mean).
Put another way, we Protestants and Evangelicals ought to lament all that we have lost by our separation from Rome. Not that we don’t also recognize that there was much that needed to be lost: Rome has many errors, but the proper response to those errors ought not be a haughty, “God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are, or even as this Catholic.” Rather, we should mourn and grieve for the falsehoods that keep us at arm’s length from our brothers and sisters in the Roman communion—their errors, and ours as well. And we should readily admit that, as Peter Leithart recently said of John Paul,
"Flawed though his theology was, he remains far and away the greatest Christian leader of the past century. No Protestant comes anywhere close. Billy Graham may have preached more (maybe!), but Graham had nowhere near the political weight or the theological depth of Pope John Paul II. John Paul II's life is not only testimony to the wonders that God can perform through imperfect instruments but an inspiration for all Christians, whether or not we aspire to pope."
If Rome has forgotten the justification of God, Evangelicals have forgotten the beauty of God. If Rome has falsely elevated Tradition, Evangelicals have falsely denigrated it. Where Rome has given overmuch reverence to Saints, Evangelicals still think Saints come from New Orleans. We have much to learn. Some will think such words a compromise with false doctrine (the “Papal Devil” crowd). So be it. If they want to lump Chesterton, Tolkien, and John Paul in with Hitler, Nero, and LaVey, they’re welcome. They would probably do the same to Luther and Calvin, too. But R. C. Sproul, Jr. (no closet Papist, he) recently managed to write both these statements in the same article:
"I believe that Rome is an apostate church which preaches a false gospel."
"God’s grace isn’t constrained to flow only in those places where His gospel is rightly proclaimed."
R. C. is right, on both counts. And we cannot, of course, return to Rome: not yet, anyway. Not until God is pleased to bring both Reformation and Revival to his wayward Church. When Rome and Evangelicalism have duly repented of their sins, the Church may—nay, someday it will—be one again. It was while working through these Romanish thoughts that I dug out my old VHS copy of the 1953 film Martin Luther, in which the line at the top of this post was delivered. So what was Luther’s answer? Just what would he set in the place of the “crutches” of relics and indulgences?
“Christ,” was Luther’s simple answer in the film’s best moment. “Man only needs Jesus Christ.”
This is what our Roman Catholic brothers and sistersneed to realize, even as we mourn with them the passing of a pope who might havesoftened even the heart of a Wittenberg monk. When we cry “sola fide!” (“Faithalone”) it is only ever in the light of “solusChristus!”(“Christ alone). We say Rome has denied, whetherwittingly or no,sola fide,but we are not passing through the fire andtumult of religious controversy to win the right to install correct sentences inpeople’s brains.Sola Fideis vital because to deny it is to denySolus Christus.AndChristusis not a proposition: He is the Sonof Man, the Lord of Glory, Yahweh veiled in human flesh, the very TrinityIncarnate. “Faith alone” must ever be our battle cry, until God grants somefuture pope repentance, and we are again one, because “Faith alone” points everto the Christ of “Christ alone.”