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Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Autumn 1995 -- Volume 8:15


A Surrejoinder to William D. Watkins’s Rejoinder to
My Critique of A House United?

ROBERT N. Wilkin
Executive Director
Grace Evangelical Society
Irving, TX

 

I. Introduction

In this surrejoinder* I receive an unusual opportunity. As I indicated in my critique of A House United? (hereafter AHU), I believe that it is a dangerous book. I felt a responsibility to point out its flaws and its dangers. Now I have an opportunity to critique what I perceive to be an equally problematic project, the rejoinder by William D. Watkins.

I very much appreciate Bill taking the time to respond to my critique of the book which he helped to write. I feel that this sort of interaction is both interesting (it has been for me!) and profitable.

Of course, some of our readers may question the wisdom of printing a rejoinder by someone who clearly disagrees with the Free Grace viewpoint. But all the editors felt that our readers would understand that this sort of exchange is a valuable medium for confronting the objections of our critics.

I have had several public debates on Lordship Salvation, one with a Bible college professor, one with a seminary professor, and one with a pastor. The rejoinder and surrejoinder in this issue of the Journal are merely a written form of debate.

The Journal’s policy in this type of exchange is that rejoinders will be printed only if the rejoinder is timely, well written, and reasonably irenic in tone.

In the present case, it would be tedious if I attempted to answer each and every point raised in the rejoinder. Therefore, I will be responding to those points which I consider to be the most crucial.

 

II. Kudos Appreciated

It was gratifying to read that Watkins felt that I displayed "a desire to critique AHU rationally, biblically, and theologically" and that I sought "to avoid emotionalism and personal attacks." Bill told me in a phone conversation that Keith Fournier, the author of AHU, shared these same feelings.

This is encouraging because GES seeks not only to teach about grace, but also to foster graciousness. While we wish to boldly confront distortions of the Gospel, this should be done in such a way as to leave the door open for those who disagree to reconsider their position without being hindered by undue harshness (2 Tim 2:24-25).

 

III. Responses to Criticisms

A. Co-author or Writer?

I stand corrected. I didn’t recognize that writer, rather than co-author, was the proper term to use in a case where the word with is used between the names of two people on the cover.

This remark by Bill deserves comment: "My participation as writer does not mean that I agree with every position or argument presented in the book (though I do, in fact, agree with much of it)." Bill went on to list authors from 23 different denominations and groups with whom he has worked. Yet, he says, "in all cases the authors were Christians."

This says a lot about Watkins’s view of the Gospel. In his view the Gospel must be extremely flexible if he feels that groups as diametrically opposed as Reformed and United Church of Christ, or fundamentalist and Episcopalian, are seen as sharing a common view of the Gospel.

I was uncomfortable with Watkins repeated reference in this section to various traditions within Christianity. While this is a common practice among many Evangelicals today, I dislike it because many of these "traditions" distort the Gospel of Christ. The differences involved are not merely cosmetic, as Watkins implies. In the history of the Church many have died over the differences between these "traditions."

 

B. Confused Protestant?

In my critique I quoted from what I thought was an open letter by Bill Watkins. I was led to this conclusion by the fact that it began impersonally with "Dear Friend," and that nothing in the letter said anything personal about the recipient. However, I am sorry, and have told Bill so personally, that I did not check with Bill before referring to the letter. Mea culpa.

In this section Bill sounded a bit testy. He accused me of applying an "impoverished hermeneutic" in which I "suppressed evidence" in order to validate my point.

While the entire text of Bill’s letter was not printed, I feel that he wasn’t misrepresented. I expressed my opinion that he was in danger of becoming a Roman Catholic. It seems likely that the vast majority of people reading his open letter would conclude the same.

Possibly the problem is with the hermeneutic employed by Watkins. To say that one is in danger of doing something is not to assign a degree of probability to it. My purpose was simply to illustrate a fact he readily admits is true, that some saved individuals have become practicing Roman Catholics. As he no doubt knows, many Reformed theologians don’t believe that is possible. They would most likely conclude that anyone who converts to Catholicism was never saved in the first place.

Watkins takes great pains to mention his extensive training and personal study. He seems to feel that his training was called into question. How he drew that conclusion is hard to say. Bill is very intelligent and extremely well educated. Actually, the fact that he is bright and that he has 20 years of formal education and 14 years of additional study underlines my point. A person can be intelligent and well trained and yet come to the opinion expressed by Watkins in his rejoinder: "I have concluded from my studies that Roman Catholicism does not teach a ‘false gospel.’" That is a shocking statement for a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary to make.

 

C. Lack of Scriptural Support?

I objected to the fact that most references to Scripture in AHU are made in endnotes, which studies show that most people don’t read. Watkins sees no problem with this practice. He asks, "If citing references to Scripture does not count as supporting one’s points with the Word of God, then what does?"

Watkins missed my point. I didn’t say that prooftexting "does not count." It is, as Watkins admits, not nearly as helpful as detailed explanation of the text. However, my point was that Fournier rarely even used prooftexts in the portion of the book most people read. Watkins didn’t comment on that point.

Watkins also tries to turn my argument against me: "Wilkin also cites Scripture in footnotes without providing explicit exegetical support for his conclusions."

In the first place, Watkins seems to equate my use of footnotes with Fournier’s use of endnotes. He says, "Wilkin also cites Scripture in footnotes." However, Fournier did not cite Scripture in footnotes. He did so in endnotes which I personally found to be difficult to access since the numbering of endnotes begins again in each new chapter. Thus you must not merely turn to the back of the book to look up endnote number 1, for example. There are actually 20 different endnotes #1. You must look to see which chapter number you are in and then turn to the back of the book and still hope to remember the correct endnote number. Footnotes are much easier to consult, since they appear on the bottom of the page being read.

In the second place, a critique is not an exegetical article. However, a book arguing that Catholics are part of the family of God must be exegetical in order to convince discerning readers.

In the third place, Watkins gives a total of three examples in which I cite verses in footnotes. Interestingly, those are the only three occurrences of that in the article. None of the three do what Fournier repeatedly did: give the bare reference to verses without either commenting on it or printing the verse. Watkins fails to notice, or notices but fails to mention, that whenever I merely cite a verse reference, I do so in the text. This puts the reference in a place every reader will notice it. Watkins also fails to notice or point out that in an article of only 19 pages I cite 44 passages of Scripture. My average number of verses referred to per page is 7 times that of Fournier.

Watkins also has a clever objection to my argument that Fournier "never once explains what a given passage means." First, he admits to the basic truth of that statement: "Fournier does not usually engage in a detailed exegesis of biblical texts." That seems to imply that he occasionally does engage in detailed exegesis. Yet Watkins does not cite even one example. I was unable to find a single example of detailed exegesis by Fournier.

Second, he then asserts that "he certainly tells his readers what he understands the Bible to teach and in this context he quotes from or cites references to the pertinent Scripture passages." In a footnote (n 15) he cites ten specific examples. Upon looking up the best ten examples that Watkins could find, I found that they are really nothing more than prooftexts.

Third, attempting a coup de gr�ce, Watkins asserts that the authors of Scripture did this also. I did not suggest it is unbiblical to quote texts without explanation. What I was suggesting is that explanations of Bible texts are necessary in order to prove one’s case, and Fournier does not do this.

At one point Watkins attempts to shift the burden of proof to me. In a debate, the offense has the burden of proof. If the offense proves nothing, the defense wins. I pointed out that Fournier failed to explain 12 key NT texts dealing with the Gospel. Watkins turns that around and says that "if Wilkin believes this, he needs to demonstrate that these texts support his contention." I have done what he requests in our bimonthly newsletter and in the Journal. However, that is not the point. The burden of proof is on Fournier. He is the one suggesting that the Reformation (and evidently the Counter Reformation) was much ado about nothing.

The defense in the O. J. Simpson trial is quick to point out that the prosecution has brought forward no eyewitnesses to the murders and that they don’t have the murder weapon. If the prosecution shot back that it is the defense’s job to find the killer(s) and the eyewitnesses and the murder weapon(s), they would be making a claim akin to Watkins’s here. Rest assured, if I were writing a book on the question of whether the gospel of Rome is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I would go on the offensive and clearly show how verses such as the 12 passages I cited prove that it is not.

 

D. Reliance on Experience?

In my critique I pointed out that Fournier builds his case upon experience. Watkins has three basic responses here: 1) The use of experience is indeed a valid basis for establishing whether a theological claim is true or not. 2) All people use experience to establish truth. 3) The Bible itself uses experience to establish truth. Let’s consider each of those points.

The first point is a concession to what I was saying, that Fournier uses experience to build his case.

The second point is valid as far as it goes. Science is built upon experimentation and observation. We know the boiling point of water at a given temperature and pressure because of observation, not because it is recorded in Scripture. Admittedly, I am aware of facts about myself due to my experiences, and these experiences and facts are not recorded in Scripture.

However, that is beside the point. Watkins ignores the context of my remark. I wrote: "Experience is excellent for illustrations of truth which has been established from Scripture. However, experience is absolutely worthless for establishing truth—especially experience contrary to Scripture." I was not saying that experience is absolutely worthless in establishing truth of any kind. I was speaking in context of "truth which has been established from Scripture."

For example, the Bible clearly and unequivocally states that God exists. Thus if I know that the Bible is the Word of God, it’s impossible to prove from experience, or from anything else, that God does not exist.

If the Bible is the Word of God as Fournier, Watkins, and I all agree, then if it speaks on a subject, it is the final authority. We must establish truth from the Bible and nowhere else. There’s the rub. That is not the case in Roman Catholic thought. For a Catholic, the Bible, experience, reason, and church tradition are all vitally, if not equally, important ways to establish spiritual truths. Watkins himself notes toward the end of his rejoinder, "Fournier’s case does not fold like a house of cards but stands on the bedrock of the combined building blocks of Scripture, Christian theology, church history, human experience, reason, and in-the-trenches proven praxis" (italics added). More often than not, the sad result of this practice is that the clear meaning of Scripture is subverted.

 

E. A Distorted Gospel?

We now get to the heart of the issue. To Watkins’s credit, he does not back down here. He devotes more space to this question than to anything else in his rejoinder. Here we gain some fascinating insights into the crux of this debate.

Watkins defends the position that the Roman Catholic view of the Gospel is biblical. He does this with these arguments: 1) Even among Protestants there are significant differences in many respects on the Gospel. 2) I establish the correctness of my view of the Gospel by "pronouncement," not by demonstrating that my view is the biblical one. 3) Fournier and Roman Catholicism do not teach salvation by grace through faith plus works.

Differences even among Protestants. The first argument is interesting. Watkins seems to be suggesting that since even Protestants disagree among themselves on the Gospel, then this proves that the differences he admits exist between Catholics and Protestants on the Gospel are not significant enough to make one or the other unbiblical. This is curious reasoning.

As JOTGES readers know, we are convinced that many Protestants believe and teach a view of the Gospel that is unbiblical. How that shows that Roman Catholics believe and teach a biblical view of the Gospel escapes me.

Watkins does not explain how "conflicting" gospels can all be the true biblical Gospel. For example, he indicates that some believe in Lordship Salvation and some do not. He fails to point out that people on both sides of this issue agree that only one of the positions is true and saving (see, for example, Charles Ryrie, Balancing the Christian Life, p. 170; John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus, Revised Edition, pp. xx-xxiii).

Does Watkins believe that there is more than one way to heaven? Would he hold that water baptism, partaking of the Lord’s Supper, submission to the Lordship of Christ, and trusting in Christ alone, are four different ways of being regenerated?

The source of the Free Grace Gospel. Watkins’s second argument is that my view of the Gospel is established for our readers by pronouncement rather than by biblical proof. That is a rehashing of a complaint Watkins raised earlier. He stated: "He cites a handful of Bible references to support his assertions, but then does not exegete any of the cited texts." As mentioned previously, a critique is not an exegetical article. Bill is a bit unrealistic if he expects for me in 19 pages to critique a 365-page book and to exegete a number of Gospel texts as well.

 

Does Catholicism teach salvation by faith plus works? Watkins’s third argument, that Fournier and Roman Catholicism do not teach salvation by grace through faith plus works, is the center of the debate. Watkins cites three lines of proof for this point.

His first line of proof is a quotation in which Fournier directly and unequivocally denies that he or Catholicism teaches salvation by faith plus works. If Watkins had stopped here, his case would have been more convincing. After all, Fournier denies that he teaches salvation by works.

Despite Fournier’s denial, his own words show that he does teach salvation by works. (For example, see the statements which follow under Watkins’s second line of proof below.) Yet I am not accusing Fournier or Watkins of being intentionally disingenuous here. Fournier’s definition of faith includes works. Hence he can, in some sense, speak of justification by faith alone. However, to avoid confusing his readers, he should have indicated that he clearly does not believe that one is justified simply by trusting in Christ and Him alone for eternal life. Maybe this is part of the difference to which Watkins refers when he says, "It [the Catholic understanding of salvation] is in many respects different from that taught by many evangelical Protestants."

Perhaps the readers will permit me to provide some additional details regarding the Roman Catholic view of saving faith. The importance of this question warrants additional comment.

In the November 7th, 1986 issue of Christianity Today, Jesuit theologian Avery Dulles responded to a number of questions about how Catholic doctrine compares with Protestant doctrine. Concerning faith he said,

One can also understand faith in a more global or inclusive way: faith as a loving, trusting commitment of one’s whole self to God. That is the sense of the term as it was used in Vatican II. If you understand faith in that broad sense, then you can use an expression like "justification by faith" (p. 27, italics added).

Evangelical theologian Paul Holloway has pointed out that this understanding of saving faith has long been the position of Catholicism. Augustine taught that faith must produce works of love (fides operatur or "productive faith") in order to be saving. Later Catholic theologians said that faith must include works of love to be saving (fides formata or "formed faith"). Holloway notes, "In simpler terms, for the scholastics, works stopped being the product of faith and became an integral part of it" ("Lordship Salvation’s Doctrine of Faith," JOTGES, Autumn 1991, p. 17).

The Council of Trent stated 33 canons concerning justification. A number of them well illustrate the Catholic view of faith. Each of these canons is an anathema against those who teach what was considered by the Council of Trent to be false doctrine on justification. Interestingly the Free Grace view of justification repeatedly is anathematized!

Canon 12 says, "If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is this confidence alone that justifies us, let him be accursed" (Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, English Translation by H. J. Schroeder [Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1978]).

Canon 20 says, "If anyone says that a man who is justified and however perfect is not bound to observe the commandments of God and the Church, but only to believe, as if the Gospel were a bare and absolute promise of eternal life without the condition of observing the commandments, let him be anathema."

Likewise, Canon 21 reads, "If anyone says that Christ Jesus was given by God to men as a redeemer in whom to trust, and not also as a legislator whom to obey, let him be anathema."

Watkins’s second line of proof is Fournier’s own explanations of the gospel. Note what Watkins cites as Fournier’s view of the relationship between faith and works: "There is an integral place for the deeds of faith (not deeds done apart from or in addition to faith) in the salvation process." I don’t see how this proves Watkins’s assertion that the Catholic view of the gospel is not a different gospel. In my estimation, he is essentially conceding the point. Fournier speaks of deeds which are not in addition to faith nor which are done apart from faith. He is merely restating the Catholic position of "formed faith," that saving faith includes loving obedience.

In the quotation cited by Watkins, Fournier speaks of "the salvation process." Concerning the so-called "process of salvation" of which Fournier speaks, Dulles says,

We thank God for having put us on the path that leads to final salvation, but we do not boast that we’ve already been saved in the sense that we can’t be lost. That would lead to a wrong attitude toward God. We are always conscious of our sinfulness, which makes it possible for us to fall away (p. 27).

The Bible does not teach that salvation is a process or that salvation can be lost. However, if it did, then when I wrote in my critique that salvation occurs at the moment of faith and that it is irreversible, I would be teaching a false gospel. How Watkins can reconcile two such divergent views as being the same gospel remains a mystery to me.

Watkins moves into another dangerous minefield when he cites Fournier’s view of justification: "Justification not only declares me righteous but makes me righteous… God makes me just, He doesn’t just declare me so" (italics added). Watkins appears to be unaware that this is a major issue in the Protestant-Catholic Gospel debate.

Commenting on the distinction between a Reformed and Roman Catholic view of justification, Dulles says:

There may be something of a difference, then, between evangelicals and Catholics. We maintain that justification is not simply extrinsic. It originates outside but is received in us, so we are not only reputed just but are made really just or righteous. There is an inner transformation in justification itself. That inner change could also be called sanctification. Thus justification and sanctification, for Catholics, are really inseparable" (p. 27).

Many would agree with me that Dulles was understating the case considerably when he said, "There may be something of a difference, then, between evangelicals and Catholics [on justification]." The difference between those two views is the difference between the Gospel and a counterfeit version of it—a big difference according to the apostle Paul (cf. Gal 1:6-9).

Canon 11 of the Council of Trent also rejects the idea that justification is merely the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, without the infusion of charity (= acts of love).

If anyone says that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and remains in them, or also that the grace by which we are justified is only the good will of God, let him be anathema.

The idea that one must actually live righteously to be justified is completely contrary to the Reformation cry, sola fide, by faith alone. Dulles as much as admits that when he says: "Vatican II speaks of faith as a loving obedience, and in that sense you could say faith alone is sufficient to justify" (p. 27).

Believers are called to holiness (1 Pet 1:16). One of the reasons God has saved us is so that we will glorify Him by producing good works (Eph 2:8-10). However, to assert that faith is "loving obedience" is to proclaim a false gospel. Faith is simply a conviction that something is true. In terms of the Gospel, it is the conviction that the crucified and risen Lord gives me eternal life simply because I am trusting Him and Him alone for it. To believe that I am saved, at least in part, because I am lovingly obedient, is to fail to trust in Christ alone for eternal life. Catholics, like anyone else, can be saved only if they come to trust in Christ and Him alone for eternal life.

Before leaving the issue of the position of Fournier and Catholicism on the Gospel, I feel I should comment on a question Watkins raises. He wonders whether I think Fournier is saved or not. He comes to the conclusion that I must believe Fournier is not saved since I am convinced he doesn’t believe the biblical Gospel.

Watkins evidently failed to read my critique carefully enough on this point. I clearly stated that "Christians can become confused and can join groups, such as the Roman Catholic Church, that believe and teach a false gospel." I also made it clear elsewhere in the article that salvation can’t be lost. Thus I was affirming that a person who today believes a false gospel might nonetheless be saved. The question is whether he or she ever trusted in Christ and Him alone or not.

Frankly, I don’t have enough information to know if Fournier is saved or not. He may have trusted in Christ and Him alone at some point in the past. If so, he is a confused believer. If not, he is an unbeliever.

I am at a bit of a loss as to why Watkins is concerned as to whether I think Fournier is saved or not. What difference does that make in terms of this debate? I certainly hope that Fournier is saved. Or, if not, that he will be saved by faith alone apart from works.

The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: The Encyclopedia Press, Inc.: 1910, 1913) sums up well the difference between Catholics and Protestants concerning justification (p. 578). It says:

The Protestants claim the following three qualities for justification: certainty, equality, [and] the impossibility of ever losing it. Diametrically opposed to these qualities are those defended by the Council of Trent (sess. VI, cap. 9-11): uncertainty (incertitudo), inequality (in‘ qualitas), [and] amissibility (amissibilitas).

Note that the encyclopedia says that Catholicism is diametrically opposed to Protestantism concerning those three points regarding justification. "Diametrically opposed" does not suggest much common ground!

Fournier clearly maintains the Catholic view of justification. Watkins does not deny this. Yet Fournier and Watkins insist that these differences between Catholics and Evangelicals are, in fact, not diametrically opposed. I strongly agree with The Catholic Encyclopedia on this point.

 

F. Cooperation Between Evangelicals and Catholics?

I suggested that Fournier’s main point in the book is "that Evangelicals should cooperate with Roman Catholics in evangelism and in social outreach." In response Watkins cites this sentence from Fournier in the book, "I have not focused my attention in this book on cooperative evangelistic efforts."

Bill neglected to continue the quotation. Fournier goes on, "I hope one day we will preach the basic gospel message together to a dying world. And I think that will happen if we commit ourselves to listen more closely to each other… I also believe that as we work together on social issues, we will discover how much we really do have in common" (p. 267).

Watkins himself states in his rejoinder, "He is certainly not opposed to that (cooperation in evangelism), and he occasionally gives examples of individuals and organizations that do this."

 

IV. Conclusion

I would like to end my surrejoinder with a few statements from Fournier about eternal salvation, followed by a few brief comments. Alongside each statement by Fournier, I will give a quotation from Scripture which contradicts his point.

"Conversion is a process" (p. 29). "You have been saved" (Eph 2:8).
"There is an integral place for the deeds of faith (not deeds done apart from or in addition to faith) in the salvation process" (p. 208). "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5).
"One who does not however persevere in charity is not saved" (p. 33, citing the Second Vatican Council approvingly). "If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself" (2 Tim 2:13).
"All who have been justified by faith in baptism are incorporated into Christ" (p. 29, italics added, citing approvingly the "Decree on Ecumenism" by the bishops of the Catholic Church). "For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect" (1 Cor 1:17).
"The Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper … [is] a source of life to all who will believe" (p. 30, italics added). "Do this in remembrance of Me" (1 Cor 11:24, the apostle Paul’s instructions regarding the Lord’s Supper).
"Justification not only declares me righteous but [also] makes me righteous" (p. 212). "But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works…" (Rom 4:4-6).

 

The gospel of Roman Catholicism is not the Gospel of the apostles. Despite Watkins’s assertions to the contrary, the gospel of Rome is salvation by faith plus works.

It puzzles me why Watkins doesn’t see that the gospel of Rome and the Free Grace Gospel cannot both be right. They are clearly conflicting messages. If the gospel of Rome is correct, then all who hold to the Free Grace Gospel are unsaved since we don’t confess our sins to priests, don’t hear mass, haven’t been baptized in order to be saved, don’t believe the true Gospel, etc. Perhaps Watkins’s ecumenical outlook requires him to play down the evidence for deep doctrinal divisions within Christendom. But ignoring these divisions in the face of hard evidence is not a realistic, or helpful, approach.

May we stand firm on the one and only Gospel message. May we avoid compromise on the fundamental issue of the Gospel. And, as we have opportunity, let us share the Good News with our Catholic friends, neighbors, and relatives. For only when Catholics (and nonCatholics) come to faith in Christ and Him alone for eternal life can we truly be spiritually united with them as brothers and sisters in Christ.

ENDNOTES

*Editor’s note: A literary rejoinder is a response to an article or critique. A surrejoinder is a response to a rejoinder.

 

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