This is guest post by Dennis Boyer. Dennis lives in the Upper Valley region of New Hampshire, where he is the Postmaster of a small New England town. He worships at Providence Presbyterian Church (OPC), in Lebanon NH, and is the author of several fiction novels.
I glance out my driver’s side window. The large banner impressively draped across the side of the building catches my attention, as it always does when I pass by this particular church. “Catholics Come Home,” it reads.
The sign is part of a very intentional multi-media marketing campaign launched in the late nineties with the aim of encouraging those who have fallen away from the Roman Catholic Church to return. These “lapsed Catholics”, as they are sometimes termed, may have left for specific reasons (doctrinal differences, abusive relationships experienced within Catholicism, etc.) or, as is actually much more common, they simply drift away. Regardless of why they stop coming to Mass, the number of people who self-identify as former Catholics is staggering and Rome wants them back. Although the television and radio ads may not be as frequently aired as they once were during the height of the campaign, signs hanging from Catholic church buildings can still be seen and the campaign’s website is active and kept current.
The verbiage has made its way into the speech of modern Catholics too. When I tell members of the Church that I meet that I am a former Catholic I am often met with the response, “Well, we’d love to welcome you home,” or some similar sentiment offered with an earnest but somewhat melancholy smile.
I was raised in Catholicism and and self-identified as a Catholic for over thirty years. I attended a parochial school where many of my teachers were nuns. I went to CCD (structured classes on Catholic doctrine) as a kid and later taught such classes myself as a young adult. My family attended Mass regularly and three of my four children were baptized in the Catholic Church.
Most importantly, however, I came to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church. I would be hard-pressed to identify the precise moment of my regeneration, but I suspect that it happened when I was a boy of ten or eleven. I remember experiencing intense doubts about what I had been taught, including the very existence of God. Mercifully, the Lord delivered me from this and I think he used the flames of doubt to temper my faith, giving me the gift of assuredness that his promises are true. I became confident that Jesus Christ was exactly who he said he was and that he had died to reconcile sinners like me to God.
And these were the truths that I was taught in Catholicism. We are sinners who are graciously reconciled to a holy God through the person and work of his Son, Jesus the Christ. If God’s truths were a tapestry this would be the central image and I affirm that this image is visible within Catholicism.
But the edges of the Catholic tapestry are frayed. A mass of loose threads dangle distractingly from these edges, unable to be ignored. They do not blot out the image of the tapestry, but they divert one’s attention away from it as they silently call to be tugged upon.
The veneration of saints. Purgatory. Mary as Co-Redemptrix. The office of the Pope. A convoluted system of redemption in which justification is given and then lost and then hopefully regained through works of penance. The bloodless re-sacrifice of the mass which stands in such stark contrast to the once-for-all work of Christ’s atonement which is so explicitly stated in Scripture.
Each one, along with many others, a loose thread which could not be overlooked. The threads agitated and disturbed me. I couldn’t not pull the threads.
After all, wasn’t it the similar insertion of such man-made notions into the truths of God that earned the Pharisees such strong rebukes from Jesus? Wasn’t it just such a formalized, exterior religiosity that Christ condemned? Were these ritualistic habits bringing me closer to the Lord or had I merely fallen into the trappings of superstition?
When I discovered the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century I came to the realization that I wasn’t alone in this experience. Martin Luther had boldly pulled upon these loose threads nearly 500 years ago. As had Zwingli, Calvin, Oecolampadius, Bucer, and so many other great saints. And when they pulled these threads completely out from the tapestry, removing them altogether, the central image was in no way diminished, but rather it was revealed even more spectacularly.
Being of like mindset, I left the Roman Catholic Church. I too protested. I too reformed. And when I began exploring broader Protestantism I was reinvigorated by the clear truth plainly asserted by evangelical Christianity. There was no equivocation; there was no confusion. We were justified by faith alone. There was no frustratingly complicated system of grace given then taken away, lost and regained in such a way that one’s comfort was never complete or sure. Truth was revealed in Scripture alone; there was no magisterium to pronounce the traditions of men as being necessary or equal in any way to the perfect Word of God himself.
Certainly I discovered there were loose threads in Protestantism as well. Speaking in tongues, strange prohibitions on alcohol or even dancing. And indeed some churches were so infected by and tolerant of relativism and pluralism that I found them to be more disconcerting than the corruptions of Catholicism. Rome may have perverted the truth, but liberalism declared that there was no truth and each man was free to make up his own truth as he saw fit.
And I sometimes experienced an uncharitable disdain towards Catholics. I remember being referred to as a “Recovering Catholic”, a term which made me uncomfortable. I can understand that there may still be latent dregs of hostility among Protestants, even today; men did die defending the truths of the Reformation. But I cannot share in the sentiment of some that Roman Catholicism is a religion outside of Christianity. I see no need for re-baptism and feel that, generally, Catholics should be seen as brothers and sisters in Christ. I see the Church of Rome as being under the umbrella of Christianity, despite its errors which are both heinous and grave. I believe this is consistent with my Protestant views and was shared by the authors of the creed which I adhere to, the Westminster Confession of Faith. I see the Roman Catholic Church like a child who has been playing in the dirt. His face may be covered with mud and grime, but when you wash it off it is not a different face that is revealed, but the true face of the child, clean and pure.
Providentially, the Lord led me to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Here I discovered biblical Christianity without the unnecessary trappings that we are so naturally inclined to add. I began to understand the Regulative Principle of Worship and how Scripture, not our imaginations or inclinations, was to guide and structure our worship. I sat under expository preaching where the Bible was examined book by book, chapter by chapter, and verse by verse. There was no liturgical calendar to follow, and set in their proper contexts the Scriptures became clearer to me and certain doctrines became plainly illuminated. Yes, the doctrine flowed from Scripture, what a blessing indeed to be a part of a Reformed Church! There were no dangling threads to pluck.
As I discovered and learned more of Reformed theology I found myself in agreement with the following words of Charles Spurgeon:
I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation after having once believed in Jesus. Such a gospel I abhor.
My new church didn’t have ornate statues and paintings. It didn’t have elaborate stained-glass windows. A simple wooden table stands where normally I would have seen an altar. And instead of a priest I listen to the words of a preacher who tells me of the Great High Priest who was the ultimate propitiation for my sins.
Here the Word is faithfully preached. The sacraments are faithfully administrated. Discipline is issued as needed. And I am struck that this must have been what the Church was like before the edges got frayed. The focus is indeed on Christ and Christ crucified. It is his atoning work that reconciles the people of God to their sovereign Creator, a people who cannot merit or earn salvation as we have no inherent righteousness to offer, no works that are anything more than filthy rags. How could any righteousness but the imputed righteousness of Christ himself save us? Praise God that he drapes helpless sinners in the cloak of his righteousness.
I drive by the banner which hangs across the church building in my hometown. I think of the people I know who attend Mass there. They are my friends. They are my family. They are my brothers and sisters in Christ and I love them and I pray for them.
And I keep driving. I’ll always keep driving.
Come home? By the grace of God I finally am home.