Last week I began a new series titled “Why I Am Not…” and in this series, I am exploring some of the things I do not believe as a means to explaining what I do believe. In the last article I explained why I am not atheist and now want to explain why I am not Roman Catholic. The timing of this article is unplanned but rather appropriate. I publish today from Orlando, Florida where I am enjoying some time at Ligonier Ministries, the ministry founded many years ago by Dr. R.C. Sproul. In very important ways the answer to the question “Why am I not Roman Catholic?” is “R.C. Sproul.” But I am getting ahead of myself.

Though my parents were saved into Pentecostalism, they quickly found a home in the Presbyterian tradition and developed deep interests in both church history and Reformed theology. Each of them read extensively in these fields and eagerly taught me what they had learned. In church history, they found the long saga of Rome’s battle against Protestants and pre-Protestants while in theology they found her distortion of the gospel. From my early days, I was taught that Catholicism is a dangerous perversion of biblical truth and learned the traditional Protestant understanding that its pontiff is the antichrist, the great opponent of God’s people.

As I entered adulthood I felt a growing desire to examine the beliefs I had always assumed to see if I actually held to them independently from my parents. I looked for resources that could guide me and soon came across the works of R.C. Sproul which had largely been written in response to Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Sproul had determined that he would allow the Church to speak for herself through her catechism and official statements and that he would evaluate these through Scripture. He showed a deep, respectful understanding of Catholicism and built a compelling case in which he exposed her most serious problems. Books by James White complemented Sproul’s and under their guidance, I came to see that Catholic doctrine really is opposed to Scripture and to the gospel. My convictions about the errors and dangers of Catholicism changed a little bit—I became far less convinced about the connection between pope and antichrist, for example—but overall were sharpened and deepened. I concluded that for a number of reasons I could never be Roman Catholic. Most prominent among them are these three:

I am not Roman Catholic because Rome denies the gospel. Rome has a gospel but not the gospel and, in reality, their gospel damns not saves because it explicitly denies that justification comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Rome accurately understands the Protestant position and unapologetically anathematizes it. To the work of Christ, it adds the work of Mary. To the intercession of the Savior, it adds the intercession of the saints. To the authority of the Bible, it adds the authority of tradition. To the free gift of salvation, it adds the necessity of human effort. In place of the finished work of Christ on the cross, it demands the ongoing sacrifice of the mass. In place of the permanent imputation of Christ’s righteousness, it substitutes the temporary infusion of works righteousness. In so many different ways it explicitly and unapologetically denies truth and promotes error. The Roman Catholic gospel is a false gospel.

I am not Roman Catholic because Rome is not the church. Rome claims to trace her lineage in an unbroken line that extends all the way back to the apostle Peter to whom Christ said, “Upon this rock, I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). In this way, she says that she is the church with the power and authority to demand the allegiance and bind the conscience of every Christian. I do not recognize such lineage and, therefore, do not recognize such authority. Her claims are unprovable and represent a distortion of the Bible’s claims about Christ’s church. To be Catholic I would first have to bend the knee to the pope as the successor to Peter and acknowledge the Church as the continuation of what Christ began through his disciples. I cannot, because the Roman Catholic Church is a false church.

I am not Roman Catholic because Catholic worship is idolatrous. Protestants commonly charge Catholicism with promoting worship of Mary or the saints. Under the tutelage of R.C. Sproul I came to understand that this charge requires nuance and is, to some degree, a matter of defining words such as “venerate.” And yet there is undeniably a seed of what I must acknowledge as idolatry. This was affirmed during a recent trip to Europe where in Germany and Austria I visited Catholic cathedrals and saw the veneration of bones, relics, and icons, and where I saw the Church advocating and promoting prayers to Mary and the saints. Here was Catholicism in its full bloom and it was as alarming as it was tragic. I saw people who have not known the joyous freedom of the gospel desperately extending worship to or through Mary and the saints. They did it all under the guidance of their Church. In many of its forms, Roman Catholic worship is idolatrous.

I joyfully affirm, of course, that there are true believers within Catholicism and that what is true of Rome’s official doctrine is not necessarily true of all of her adherents. Yet the salvation of these brothers and sisters has come despite the teachings of the church, not through them. I appreciate the point Leonardo De Chirico highlights here:

What refers to the Catholic Church in its doctrinal and institutional configuration cannot necessarily be extended to all Catholics as individuals. The grace of God is at work in men and women who, though considering themselves Catholics, entrust themselves exclusively to the Lord, cultivate a personal relationship with Him, read the Bible and live as Christians. These people, however, must be encouraged to reflect on whether their faith is compatible or not with belonging to the Catholic Church. Moreover, they must be helped to critically think over what remains of their Catholic background in the light of Biblical teaching.

I am not Roman Catholic. I am not Roman Catholic because I was raised to understand that Catholic doctrine is opposed to Scripture. But even more, I am not Roman Catholic because through my own examinations I came to see that she denies the gospel of free grace, that she claims authority that is not her own, and that she promotes worship that detracts from the worship we all owe exclusively to our God.

Today I embark on the first part of my promised series “Why I Am Not.” This series was provoked by the question of how I came by my religious beliefs. Why do I believe so strongly in the existence of a God instead of doubting or denying it? Why am I Protestant instead of Roman Catholic? I began to think about these questions and many more and, naturally, my thoughts worked themselves out in writing. Today I want to begin with the broadest question of all and tell why I am not an atheist. My goal is not first to persuade but simply to explain.

My beliefs about the existence and identity of God originated in my childhood. I was born to Christian parents and raised in a Christian home where I was taught the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Nothing is more foundational to Christianity than the existence of a God. As a child I memorized answer four of the Westminster Shorter Catechism which provides a stirring introduction to this God: “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” There was never a time in my life when I did not acknowledge the existence of a God, and even a God much like this one. What was assumed in my childish heart and mind later took deeper root in my adult heart and mind.

There was never a time I denied the existence of God. Not only that, but there was never a time I even doubted it. Never once have I had disquieting thoughts while lying awake at night; never once have I had intellectual wrestlings with the idea that perhaps God does not exist. That’s not to say I have never interacted with atheists or encountered their claims. I have read the works of many of today’s most prominent atheists: Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. I’ve watched The God Who Wasn’t There. I know what these people say and why they say it. But not one of their claims has resonated with me. In fact, their claims have only served to deepen my faith. I’ve never doubted God’s existence any more than I’ve doubted my own. That’s simply the truth.

So why am I not atheist? I want to give two answers.

First, according to the Bible, I am not an atheist because God determined I would not be. See, it’s not that I have any spiritual, intellectual, or philosophical inclinations within me that nudge me toward God. Rather, I have all the makings of a very convinced atheist—an inclination away from authority and toward independence, a questioning mind, and a restless spirit. But God chose to reveal himself to me and to draw me to himself. In his own way and for his own purposes he revealed himself, his existence, his goodness, his power, and I responded with faith, with belief. Ultimately, then, I am not an atheist because God showed me himself.

That is the first answer and the second cannot be separated from it: I am not an atheist because of things I believe and decisions I have made. God works through, not apart from, human agency and ability. And in that way, I am not an atheist on the basis of evidence I have observed and conclusions I have made.

I see evidence of God in existence. The fundamental question every human needs to answer is this: How is there something instead of nothing? We all need to grapple with the question of existence, with the reality that there is a world, that there is a universe, that there is something. Existence is impossible, or at least so very improbable, that every person must at least consider that perhaps existence owes to one who pre-exists it, one who transcends the trappings of space and time. Try as I might, I simply cannot account for existence in any other way than through the prior existence of a God.

I see evidence of God in design. I see evidence of God in existence, and further evidence in the orderliness of what exists. This universe follows laws and patterns, it behaves in consistent ways. I see no reason to allow or even imagine that something as orderly as this universe came to be without some kind of agency, without an orderly being extending his order into it. When I look at stars and creatures and chromosomes I can’t help but see the fingerprints of God. When I look at the sheer wonder of a blazing sun, of a flower in full bloom, of a human eye, I do not see chance or randomness but design, order, and purpose. Where there is art there is an artist, where there is something there is a someone, and where there is design there is a designer.

I see evidence of God in humanity. When I look at all that exists and all that reflects design, it is clear that one thing, one creature, stands above it all. Human beings transcend everything else in sheer wonder and ability. Only humans ask the great questions about meaning and purpose and what lies beyond. Only humans gasp in awe and wonder. Only humans long for transcendence and acknowledge a transcendent soul, a part of them that cannot be seen or touched or quantified but that is still so real. It seems clear to me that human beings were made to reflect someone or something else, to exist for a higher and bigger purpose. It seems clear to me that humans were made by and for God.

I see evidence of God in the Bible. And then I see evidence of God in a book, in the Bible. I see it in its words, in its wisdom, in its form, in its coherence, in its frankness, in its truthfulness. I have read holy texts from other religions—the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Koran, the Book of Mormon. They are so unsurprising, so unfulfilling, so very human. I have read the Holy Bible and found a book that is so unexpected, so deeply challenging, so entirely other. The Bible is so different from everything else, every other book, every form of human wisdom, that I have to conclude that it came from beyond humans. The Bible displays the mind and heart of God and in that way provides wisdom for this world from beyond this world.

I am not an atheist because I cannot be. Both the evidence and God himself have drawn me away from it. Both the evidence and God himself have led me to declare that God exists and that his Son, Jesus Christ, is the Savior of this world.

I hope you will join me next time as I discuss why I am not Roman Catholic.

I am a person who has deep religious beliefs—beliefs that give shape to my convictions which in turn give shape to my life. My faith takes the place of utter centrality so that I am who I am and I live how I live because of it. You cannot understand me, I cannot understand myself, apart from my faith.

If faith so shapes me that it works itself out in my every thought and every action, if it so shapes me that I cannot understand myself apart from it, I am responsible to carefully examine the nature of that faith. In an age when so many consider religious beliefs as subjective and irrational, I am convinced that any conviction worth holding must stand up to serious scrutiny. So how did I come by my faith? Why do I believe so strongly in the existence of a God instead of doubting or denying it? Why am I Protestant instead of Roman Catholic? I might even ask why I am Baptist instead of Presbyterian or why I believe the miraculous gifts of the Spirit have ceased instead of continued.

This article serves as the introduction to a series through which I will examine a number of my beliefs—the beliefs that give shape to my life. I will do this by beginning with my most foundational and unshakeable beliefs and then progressing to those that, though still important, are less central. My goal is not so much to persuade you to believe what I believe but to remind myself of my beliefs and how I came to them.

Perhaps I can illustrate by having you picture a series of concentric circles. At the very center is a small circle that represents the most fundamental belief of all: Christianity in contrast to atheism. The next circle will be slightly wider and represent Protestantism in contrast to Roman Catholicism. Beyond that will be a circle that represents Reformed theology in contrast to Arminian theology. And it will go on like that until we reach categories where I have still had to make a decision even though the distinctions are far more nuanced and both are well within the bounds of orthodox Christianity. If the first couple of options distinguish between accepting and denying the gospel of Jesus Christ, the other options simply distinguish between different ways of understanding the gospel and its implications.

The categories I use will reflect those times in my faith journey in which I have had to choose between two opposing options. I could not be a Christian atheist so had to choose to be a Christian or an atheist; I could not be a Protestant Catholic so, again, had to choose to be a Protestant or a Roman Catholic. Because the categories I use will reflect my own faith journey, I will not look at categories that never seriously confronted me, such as Christianity in contrast to Islam or Protestant Christianity in contrast to Mormonism. In each case I will frame my examination by telling why I am not this but that. And in each case I want to be honest, admitting where my beliefs are strongly shaped by evidence and contemplation and where they are shaped by inertia, assumption, or lethargy.

Here is how I expect the series to shape up (though I may add or take away as it progresses):

  • Why I am not atheist
  • Why I am not Roman Catholic
  • Why I am not liberal
  • Why I am not Arminian
  • Why I am not Presbyterian
  • Why I am not dispensational
  • Why I am not egalitarian
  • Why I am not continuationist

I will kick things off next week by explaining why I am not atheist. I hope you’ll consider reading along and I hope you’ll find it profitable.

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