A Roman Catholic at Death (with Luther near by)
January 21, 2015
My wife's step-father has attended a Roman Catholic church his whole life. But he has just been moved to palliative care, and likely has days or weeks to live.
He has a book beside his bed where he lies dying: not the Catechism of the (Roman) Catholic Church, but a book by Martin Luther on justification through faith alone.
I left that book at his house years ago, and now it's at his death-bed. That's the book he chose to take with him as he left his house for the last time. As heretical as this might sound, and open to obvious misunderstanding, I am happier he has Luther beside his bed than a Bible in this instance. (Without the church's confession, which, of course, is grounded in Scripture, the Scriptures are ineffectual - Bavinck).
For about 10 years I've spent many hours with him in private, explaining the gospel and the need to renounce his "good works" and lay hold of Christ's righteousness that comes through faith. What sounds so easy is actually so hard for man to receive, especially someone who has grown up trying to justify himself - and, believe me, he did! Often, thoroughgoing Romanists are harder to talk to about free justification than atheists.
But having a far greater advantage than his priest, who does not do pastoral visits, I was able to speak many times with my wife's step-father in simple terms about the gospel and his sin. He needed to be reminded about his "foot-wedge" on the golf course that he regularly used (thus breaking the 8th, 9th, and 10th commandments). But, more importantly, he needed to be reminded that the seed of every known sin lies in his heart and he is guilty before a holy God.
To be made aware of the vileness of our sin - i.e., that we are internally what Naaman was externally - puts us in a position to understand the beauty of the gospel and justification by faith alone: "for," as John Owen said, "although this faith is in itself the radical principle of all obedience,... yet, as we are justified by it, its act and duty is such, or of that nature, as that no other grace, duty, or work, can be associated with it, or be of any consideration."
This is good news. We can be justified in this life (Rom. 8:1). And because of that we can be assured of our salvation (1 Jn. 3:2). As Cardinal Bellarmine said, assurance is the greatest Protestant heresy. And I'm exceedingly grateful to embrace this "heresy."
The battle with Rome is not unimportant. We are dealing, quite literally, with matters of life and death. Rome gives no true comfort; Rome gives no true hope; and Rome cannot give true assurance. But the doctrine of justification that Luther recovered gives penitent sinners hope in a gracious God who welcomes sinners (immediately!) into paradise for the sake of his Son.
Rome does its worst; but Christ does his best. And in this case, Luther, not Benedict, sits beside the bed of a man who, I pray, knows (as Newton did) that he is a great sinner, but Christ is a greater Savior.
If we want to pontificate about these matters, it seems to me to be a good idea to spend time with people, especially dying people. And then - and perhaps only then - will we realize the importance of good theology, and why people have died at the stake in defence of these truths. Those who condone popery pour gasoline on the flames that engulfed Cranmer, Latimer, Ridley, and others who died for the sake of truth.
Pastor Mark Jones hopes that if a priest visits his step-father, the priest will see Luther's book beside the bed and take up and read!