Over more than ten years, this group of Evangelicals and Catholics, speaking as individuals committed to their respective communities but without any official mandate, has explored important areas of agreement and disagreement among us. In our first round of conversations and in the resulting statement of 1994, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium,” we were able to recognize one another as brothers and sisters in Christ and to affirm the positive value of the witness to the gospel rendered by our several communities, notwithstanding differences and disagreements. In 1997, we were able to issue a second statement, “The Gift of Salvation.” In that statement we affirmed that the justification of sinners, which is not earned by any good works or merits of our own, leads us toward the fullness of salvation that is promised in the final kingdom.
In our third statement, “Your Word is Truth” (2002), we found a notable convergence in our views concerning the transmission of God’s saving Word through Holy Scripture and tradition. The following year we took up the interpretation of the phrase “The Communion of Saints” that appears in the Apostles’ Creed, and there we affirmed that, by virtue of our communion with Christ, we are in a certain, albeit imperfect, communion with one another in his body, the Church. That round of discussions called our attention to the holiness that is proper to God alone but in which human beings are called to participate. Such participation means nothing less than to be drawn into the very life and love of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Holiness is also participation in the life of the Church, which is the holy people called into being by God’s saving work in Christ. Following up on this theme, we wish now to consider the ways in which our communities and their individual members can and must foster and embody holiness.
As is clear from our earlier statements, we believe that salvation is realized through union with God, who is all-holy (Leviticus 11:6-8, 21:6-8; 1 Peter 1:15-16). The gift of salvation is effected and bestowed only through the one Mediator, Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2, Acts 4:11-12). While thanking God for this inestimable gift, we acknowledge our failures and seek to find ways in which we, our communities, and our world can more fully respond to the call to holiness.
I. We Are Christians
According to the apostolic witness, the call to holiness begins with divine election: God’s summons to Israel, and later to the Church, to be a holy nation, a people set apart as God’s own treasured possession, called to worship, witness, and good works (see Ephesians 1:4, 1 Peter 2:9). All of us are consecrated to the one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in whose name we are baptized (Ephesians 4:4-6). By his sacrificial death on the Cross, Jesus Christ enables us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to share in the holiness that he embodies and accomplishes for us. Our conformity to Christ involves a radical love that is cruciform, requiring a profound gift of self. “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). By incorporating us into Christ, the Holy Spirit also makes us members of his body, the Church.
The relationship of the Christian to Christ is expressed in a variety of biblical metaphors. We have already spoken of our being members of his body. We may also speak of our being branches grafted on the Vine, who is Christ. The relationship may also be expressed as our inclusion in the Covenant of the New Testament—a covenant in which Jesus is the Lord and we are his servants. However expressed, our union with Christ is profoundly transformative.
This transformation manifests itself differently to different people. For some it is experienced as a powerful and specifiable moment, engaging the deepest affections. For others it is experienced as a deepening of faith in Christ and a peaceful sense of being welcomed into the communion of believers. For all it is the knowledge of being called out of darkness into God’s marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). However differently experienced, the gift of grace is to be preserved and cultivated throughout the life of the Christian.
Our different traditions, notwithstanding their doctrinal differences, agree that faith and baptism, as the sacrament of faith, belong together. Christian faith should always lead to baptism, and baptism, conversely, should always be accompanied by Christian faith. Baptism is mandated, not optional. It is the gateway to the Christian life.
Some of our traditions reckon baptism as a sacrament of constitutive importance for Christian existence. Others see it rather as a sign and expression of a new Christian life already received. But on either view, baptism involves a lifelong engagement to grow in union with Christ and labor in the service of the gospel.
Sadly, the level of commitment is much lower than it ought to be. In all our communities, there are many who are members in name only. Many of us live in a manner that brings disgrace on the name of God. The call to holiness entails a continuing call to repentance and transformation of life. Many, however, have received practically no instruction in Christian doctrine; many fail to measure up to the norms of Christian conduct. Weak and sinful members, we agree, should not be treated with harshness and contempt, but rather with compassion, each of us being painfully aware of our own frailty. We strive to find ways of helping inactive, alienated, and marginal Christians to rise to the dignity that is theirs as children of God.
II. Becoming Who We Are
Christian existence is by its very nature relational. Christians are related to God as their Father, to Christ as their older brother, and to all their fellow Christians as members of the same family. The Holy Spirit maintains and animates all these relationships. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25).
To be a Christian is always both a gift and a task. We are called to be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48). Yet even the most exemplary of Christians must confess with St. Paul, “Not that I have already obtained this or made it my own; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. . . . I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14).
The command, “Be holy, as I am holy,” already given under the Old Law, holds in a special way for Christians (Leviticus 11:44-45; cf. 1 Peter 1:16). Paul exhorts the Philippians to be “children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15). The authenticity of the Christian life is manifested in the fruits of holiness. Jesus taught us that faithful disciples would be known by their fruits (Matthew 7:20).
Holiness entails a transforming encounter with the living Christ. This conversion, which is ongoing in the Christian life, means that one becomes a disciple of Christ, and discipleship necessarily entails discipline. Christians know they are not perfect, but they together constitute a people that is different. In the early Church, Christians were able to point to the probity of their lives. They did not steal and murder; they did not practice divorce, adultery, infanticide, or abortion. In the second-century Letter to Diognetus the author boasted that Christians “dwell on earth, but are citizens of heaven. . . . What the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world” (chap. 5, sec. 1). Somewhat later, Minucius Felix puts on the lips of the hero of a literary dialogue the words: “While the jails are crammed with your kind, they do not hold a single Christian, unless he be accused on account of his religion, or unless he be an apostate” (Octavius, chap. 35). Christians attracted pagans to join them because they excelled in virtue and mutual affection. They were seen to love Christ and his Church even to the point of giving up their lives.
It is a great scandal that so many Christians of our day, while continuing to be identified as members of the Church, fail to respond to the call to holiness. Too many, misunderstanding the nature of faith and presuming upon the grace of God, disregard the commandments of God. Such Christians rely on what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” evading “the cost of discipleship.” They have drifted far from the biblical precept: “Confirm your call and election” (2 Peter 1:10), which is expounded as meaning, “Supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness. . . .” (2 Peter 1:5-6). It is time, therefore, for Catholics and Evangelicals, corporately and individually, to recommit ourselves to the life of discipleship that ought to be the distinctive mark of Christians.
Committed as they are to Christ as the source and model of all that is holy, Christians are in no way exempted from obedience to the moral law permanently inscribed by the Creator in human nature (Romans 2:15). They are bound to the moral precepts of the Decalogue which are confirmed and brought to surpassing fulfillment in Christ. “If you love me,” says the Lord, “you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). To reject his commandments is to reject him and thus to forfeit our ability to abide in him and to bear fruit (see John 15:1-11). While individuals have different vocations, all are called to obey the commandments and especially the commandment of love, the greatest of them all (Matthew 22:37-40).
God has given us ample means to participate in the fullness of His love. We are to hear and study the word of God, especially as it comes to us in the Holy Scriptures. There is a growing practice among serious Christ-ians—Evangelical, Catholic, and others—to join in Bible study and prayer groups. This is attended by a new appreciation of the lectio divina, the devotional and meditative reading of the Bible, notably in the discipline of daily prayer. Encouraged by these developments, we rejoice in a greater measure of common catechesis based on Scripture and the ecumenical creeds that we share.
Corporate worship on the Lord’s Day is central to the Christian life. We are agreed that the Sunday gathering should be marked by the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Catholics are coming to a renewed appreciation of the proclamation of the Word in the eucharistic assembly. Many Evangelicals are recovering historic forms of Christian worship, incorporating the preaching of the Word within the context of communal prayer, worship, and participation in the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 10:16).
As fellow members of the community of faith, we should also confess our sins and failures to God and one another, especially to those whom we have offended, according to the opportunities and requirements of our respective communions (1 John 1:8-9, James 5:16). In all cases, sinners must be reconciled to God and the Church, making a firm resolve to amend their ways. Whether as Catholics or as Evangelicals, we are spiritually responsible for fellow Christians. We should engage in mutual encouragement and correction, performing this duty with love and tact. All of us will be summoned in the end to give an account of our stewardship. Our source of forgiveness is in God’s reconciling work in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:18), and our accountability is, in this and all else, to Christ the Lord “who is to judge the living and the dead” (2 Timothy 4:1).
III. Witness and Mission
The Church cannot rightly be conceived as a self-created or self-enclosed entity. It is a body of believers gathered by God and sent on mission to the world. In going forth into the world, Christians are not venturing into a foreign territory. By his death on the Cross and his glorious exaltation to the Father’s right hand, Christ has been made Lord over the whole world, even though his dominion is not universally acknowledged (Philippians 2:9-11). Those who deny his lordship or serve idols and other deities are not beyond the sovereignty of Christ but are, albeit unknowingly, his subjects. The world, insofar as it is captive to sin, is under the power of the evil one and still awaiting the liberation that Christ has won for it (1 John 5:19).
The entire mission of the Church may be summarized under the rubric of evangelization. Evangelization in the broadest sense is proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ to all people and bringing that gospel to bear, by word and deed, on the totality of things. According to the Scriptures, God’s Word in Jesus Christ should penetrate into the hearts and minds of believers, governing their ideas and activities and, through their ministry, permeating the cultures and social institutions of the world (2 Corinthians 10:5). All of creation, wounded by original sin, is to be healed and redirected in Christ to its true goal, the glory of the Creator (Colossians 1:19-20).
The missionary activity of the Church should not be understood as the task of a few specialists. The Church is missionary in nature. It is the duty and privilege of every Christian to “declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). The precise form of evangelization to which believers are called depends upon their particular vocations. Some are called to travel to other lands and bring the good news to peoples who have not previously heard or accepted it. All, and especially parents, are called to impart Christian truth within their own families. Those in business and politics are called to bear witness in the marketplace and the public square. Whatever one’s work or calling, occasions arise for professing one’s allegiance to Christ and for inviting friends and associates, as well as casual acquaintances, to share one’s faith.
Lay men and women should not think that the secular character of their vocation consigns them to an inferior rank in the Church’s mission. On the contrary, the Church with its ministerial and sacramental structures is entirely ordered toward the redemption of the secular, meaning this world (the saeculum). The Second Vatican Council was not speaking only for Catholics when it declared that the normal vocation of the laity is to “seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and ordering them according to the plan of God” (Lumen Gentium 31). The plan of God, in turn, cannot be fully understood apart from Christ and the gospel, which alone disclose the deeper meaning and orientation of all temporal activities. The Amsterdam Declaration affirms, “The salvation Jesus brings and the community of faith he calls forth are signs of his kingdom’s presence here and now, though we wait for its complete fulfillment when he comes again in glory. In the meantime, wherever Christ’s standards of peace and justice are observed to any degree, to that degree the kingdom is anticipated, and to that extent God’s ideal for human society is displayed.”
In our first statement, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” we pointed out a number of areas in the right ordering of society on which we can and should cooperate. Our response to the call to holiness requires us to exemplify and advance a culture of life. This includes defense of religious freedom and the marriage-based family, resistance to evils such as abortion, euthanasia, eugenics, and coercive population control, and a devotion to justice for all, especially for the poor. We now renew all of these commitments as aspects of our vocation to pursue holiness together. Cooperation among Christians, we believe, vividly expresses the bond that already unites them and sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant (cf. Vatican II, Unitatis redintegratio, 12; Lausanne Covenant, 7).
IV. Suffering and Hope
Christ promised that the pursuit of holiness would be difficult. He said that his disciples would face adversity and persecution (John 16:33). Christians should not be surprised by opposition and setbacks. Paul assures us that God works in all things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). Stirred by the example of the martyrs who died rather than deny their Lord, Christians today should be prepared to make sacrifices for their faith. Such sacrifices can be a radiant proof of their love of God and a source of inspiration to others.
Contemporary culture tends to look upon suffering and death simply as evils. Christians, however, recognize that in the plan of God suffering, patiently endured, can deepen our union with Christ in his suffering and thus become a royal road to holiness (Philippians 3:10). Although Christ’s suffering was sufficient for the redemption of the world, Christians can grow in the life of grace by uniting their own sufferings with his. Paul refers to this great mystery when he speaks of our filling up what was wanting in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the Church (Colossians1:24).
We would find it impossible to endure suffering and failure with patience and joy except that Christ has given us by his words, his glorious resurrection, and the gift of the Holy Spirit a sure hope that he will never abandon his disciples. After they have suffered a little while, he will bring them into the fullness of his kingdom (1Peter 1:6-7). The world today desperately needs a hope that cannot be disappointed—a hope that is anchored at a point beyond this world and its contingencies.
Our churches, separated though they be, witness to this hope. It is our prayer that, recognizing our solidarity in hope, we may now proclaim it more effectively together. As we preach to others, we attend to ourselves, lest in preaching to them we ourselves becomes castaways (1 Corinthians 9:27). The good example of Christians, indeed, is often the most effective form of witness.
The spiritual renewal of our communities, their missionary activity, their service to society, and their quest for visible unity are, we are confident, indivisible aspects of the Holy Spirit’s work in our day. In all these endeavors, holiness and the pursuit of holiness has unquestioned priority. We urge all Christians to devote themselves to these tasks with eyes fixed on Christ, “whom God has made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1Corinthians 1:30).
Dr. Harold O. J. Brown, Reformed Theological Seminary
Dr. James J. Buckley, Loyola College in Maryland