The Simple Gospel

I once read the online comments of a gentleman who was convinced that the Catechism of the Catholic Church was PROOF that the Catholic Church cannot be the church that Jesus established. His reasoning went like this:

–    The paperback version of the English-language Catechism is nearly 850 pages long.

–    The Gospel of Jesus Christ is 25 words long.

–    Obviously, the Catholic Church has ADDED to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This reasoning was predicated on the assumption that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the text of John 3:16:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Many Evangelicals are convinced that John 3:16 is indeed all you need to know to be saved. My favorite example of this is the email sent by a coworker last Christmas with a story about a little orphan boy who found safe haven in a place where the words “John 3:16” opened every door for him. My coworker ended her email by assuring us that if you understand John 3:16, you know everything you need to know.

Kinda makes you wonder why God bothered to write the whole rest of the Bible….

I used to live and work in Taiwan, where they have great night markets. One evening I was walking through a night market with a Chinese Christian friend when we came across a stall selling pictures of various Chinese gods. Tucked among those paintings was an illustration of Jesus. My friend attempted to witness to the owner of the stall, telling him about Christ. The man replied that he did indeed worship Jesus, along with all the other gods. Hauling out John 3:16 in a case like that, with the claim that it is all that that man needs to know, would be of very little help.

John 3:16 is indeed a beautiful synthesis of the doctrines of the love of God and the necessity for believing on the Lord Jesus Christ. But as a comprehensive doctrinal statement of belief, it leaves a GREAT deal to be desired. It leaves far more questions unanswered than it actually addresses:

For God (What is God? Who is God? Are we just assuming that there is a God? How many gods are there? Is this one God among many? How do we know that Christians are right about worshipping this so-called “God”?)

so loved the world (the world – mankind? animals? the planets and stars? only the visible world?)

that He gave His only begotten Son (Is this to be taken literally or figuratively? Is God a “He,” a male? Does He have a physical body with male attributes? Does His Son have a physical body? Is His Son God as well? Are there two Gods?)

that whosoever believeth on Him (Is believing in this only begotten Son all that one ever has to do for salvation? Who is this “Son”? Is He Jesus, son of Mary, as Christians claim? Is He Shoko Asahara? Marshall Applewhite? Alan John Miller? How can we know?)

should not perish (Do those who believe in the Son never experience physical death?)

but have everlasting life (What happens to those who do not believe – do they die and then cease to exist? Is there such a thing as a soul? Does hell exist?).

The questions can go on and on….

The first Christians faced opposition from all sides. The Jews ridiculed the idea that the Messiah could be God Incarnate. The Docetists held that Jesus’ physical body was a mere illusion, and therefore He never actually died on the cross. The Arians denied Jesus’ divinity. The Sabellians claimed that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were merely different aspects of the same Divine Person. There is no historical evidence that anyone ever resorted to John 3:16 to set these people straight. How can “the simple Gospel” of John 3:16 settle these questions and tell us which “Jesus” is the real one?

The Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) demonstrates for us how the early Church answered such questions. Through the authority (Mt 18:18) vested in them by the Lord Jesus Christ (Lk 10:16), the apostles made authoritative decisions (Acts 15:28) that were binding on all Christians. Catholic bishops, the successors to the Apostles, have continued to sort out complex theological issues in ecumenical councils, from the First Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) to the Second Vatican Council convened in 1962. Over the centuries the Catholic Church has issued a large number of definitive answers to many questions, and the answers have been available in various Catechisms, such as the Lay Folks Catechism of 1357, the Catechism of the Council of Trent, the Short Catechism of St. Robert Bellarmine, the Baltimore Catechism, the Catechism of St. Pius X, and our present-day Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism isn’t some nefarious attempt to “add” to the truths of Scripture – the Catechism is the Church’s effort to elucidate the truths of Scripture in a clear, unambiguous fashion. Inquiring minds don’t merely want to know – they have a tendency to stray off the orthodox path when they are left to their own devices. Fortunately, the Catechism has the answers.

People who want John 3:16 to be the sum total of all one needs to know to be saved are overlooking the parable of the mustard seed. Their “seed” was planted one evening when a Pharisee came to secretly consult with Jesus, and Jesus in His love for this man confided in him that God so loved the world…. To the “John 3:16 proponents,” that seed remains a seed, with no change, no development, no growth over the ensuing two millennia, just waiting to be planted in the next person, so he can plant it in the next person. The Catechism, on the other hand, is tangible evidence of the truth of the parable of the mustard seed. The Church has not added to the teachings of Christ. The Church has taken to heart, cherished, pondered, preserved, studied, wrestled with, expounded upon, argued over, defended, proclaimed and been changed by those teachings, and in the process has herself developed and grown. A seed is never planted in the hopes that it will remain a seed. Growth and development are the goal and proper end of all sowing. We should rightfully expect that a Church that has treasured the teachings of her Lord for 2000 years should not look like the seed that was planted, but rather like the seed that grows and becomes “greater than all the herbs, and shoots out great branches.” The Catechism is a visible manifestation of the healthy growth and development of the seed planted by Christ.

On the memorial of St. Lorenzo Ruiz and companions

Deo omnis gloria!

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