The Gospel of John. Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture. By Francis Martin and William M. Wright IV. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015. 366 pp. Paper, $24.99.
The average Free Grace believer may see no reason for acquiring this book. However, knowing how Catholic priests are likely to explain John’s Gospel can be quite helpful. To those lacking a Catholic background, statements by priests or other in-the-know Catholics about John’s Gospel are often surprising. Martin and Wright’s commentary contains many such affirmations. A pattern emerges: Statement 1 affirms a Biblical truth (that seems non-Catholic). Soon afterward, Statement 2 avows a point of Catholic dogma which contradicts the first. Highlighting these statements would be helpful (one color for a Biblical affirmation, another for the contradictory assertion from dogma). Sometimes the authors add words to make Statement 1 seem to affirm dogma (these could be highlighted with the color used for dogma).
Examples of truth interspersed with error follow.
In commenting upon John 3:16-17, Statement 1 is fine: “We accept this gift [salvation/eternal life] through faith in Jesus.” Statement 2 is false Church dogma: “Faith is yielding to the Spirit, who first moves a person to assent to what God has revealed and to commit one’s whole life to God [a footnote refers the readers to Catechism 150, 153].” (p. 74, emphasis added).
Comments upon John 5:24 indicate a recognition that believers receive eternal life on earth prior to physical death. Other than the gratuitous characterization of faith as “yielding faith,” the statement is good:
This hearing, believing, and having eternal life all take place now, in the present moment, as does the passing from death to life, and it has future effects. One’s present response in yielding faith to Jesus leads to a future freedom from condemnation. We must still pass through bodily death, but we will do so as those already possessing eternal life (p. 105).
Despite this statement, the authors do not recognize that the moment that one believes in Jesus Christ for everlasting life, he/she has life everlasting. Thus, their comment on John 2:11b is:
They [His disciples] are able to see the Cana miracle as a sign, and now, moving beyond a series of affirmations, they begin to believe in Jesus personally. Faith goes beyond assent to doctrinal claims, moving to a personal commitment of trust in God himself. As we shall see, the disciples’ faith remains imperfect throughout the Gospel (see John 13–16). It reaches maturity only after Jesus’ resurrection, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit (p. 60).
In other words, every believer (in theory) receives everlasting life during this lifetime, but (in practice) the faith of none of those that John’s Gospel says believed in Him actually “reached maturity” before Jesus’ resurrection. If no one could have a matured faith and everlasting life until after Jesus’ resurrection, would not John 5:24 be bait-and-switch? Jesus did not say that eternal life would come to the believer when his/her faith reached maturity.
Similarly, in commenting on Martha’s confession (John 11:27), they say, “Martha has a great deal of faith in Jesus, but like the other disciples thus far, hers is not yet fully mature (see 11:39-40)” (p. 205). Their comment upon her faith as immature is: “She may believe that Jesus has the divine power to resurrect the dead on the last day, but she does not realize he can revive the dead now” (p. 210). Apparently, Martin and Wright think that Martha lacked eternal life because she did not yet believe that He would raise Lazarus. A few moments after this conversation with Jesus, He raised Lazarus (11:44). Would the authors then grant that Martha had a mature faith and everlasting life? Probably not. Jesus had not yet been resurrected, so they would still claim that her faith was immature.
Reading Martin and Wright’s commentary is an “up and down” experience. They reject much liberal thought. They often affirm Biblical truth, even if fleetingly. However, they are so steeped in Catholic Church dogma that they engage regularly in Orwellian double-speak. Readers who are not well grounded in grace may not detect the bipolar self-contradictions inherent in any attempt to expound John’s message of life, while accepting the nihil obstat. This phrase signifies that nothing contained within would hinder one from Catholic doctrine and practice. As a result, the nihil obstat means that much contained within does hinder one from Biblical doctrine and practice. Despite the nihil obstat, though, one will find in this commentary something that rarely appears in other Catholic books: a number of direct admissions that John’s Gospel proclaims faith alone in Jesus Christ alone for eternal life (see the discussion of Statement-1 [what God says] versus Statement-2 [what human dogma says] pronouncements earlier in this review). This may help our Catholic friends to see that Jesus says what He means about the gift of everlasting life.
How we mourn for those entangled in a system that hinders seeing faith alone in Jesus Christ alone for everlasting life. One passes from death to life by believing Jesus Christ for His promise of life everlasting. Contra Martin and Wright, God wants people to know that they have passed from death to life.
Message of Life Ministries