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A correspondent once asked C.S. Lewis why he was not a Roman Catholic. He did not answer in any detail, but there was an aspect of his response that would be surprising to many of us. “By the time I had really explained my objection to certain doctrines which differentiate you from us (and also in my opinion from the apostolic and even the medieval church), you would like me less” (Letters of C.S. Lewis, p. 406). Lewis was concerned that the Roman communion had departed from the practices and teachings of the early church, and even from those of the medieval church.
Lewis answered this question from a broad and deep understanding of the classical and medieval worlds. His answer was historically informed. The modern Roman church was not ancient enough for him, and not medieval enough. But modern evangelicals tend to “not be Roman Catholic” because we were led to Christ through the ministry of a parachurch group in 1988, and then subsequently joined a church founded in 1972. Thinking earlier than this is hard for us, shrouded as the subject is in the mists of antiquity. Then, when the poverty of this position becomes apparent, many American Protestants are tempted to consider the claims of those churches that are older than 1776. But more is involved than how far back we can go. After all, Cain was the oldest.
In the realm of covenants, antiquity is not the only issue. Age is only a blessing if it is an aged covenant union. But union is not an automatic thing.
Twenty centuries ago, the apostle Paul gave a solemn warning to the Gentiles who were streaming into the church. The Jews had been guilty of a covenantal presumption, and so, after their high-handed rejection of their Messiah, the Lord from heaven solemnly and with great severity removed them from the olive tree of the covenant (Rom. 11:16–25). God then began grafting the believing Gentiles in. But in the midst of this process of ingrafting, Paul took care to warn them not to commit the same sin as the Jews. They were mere branches, after all, and not the root. They did not support the root, but rather the root supported them. No branch on the tree can ever consider itself the root. The only root is the root of Jesse, the Lord Jesus Christ. Any branch can be cut from Him, but the Lord Himself cannot be uprooted.
We do not consider carefully enough that these stern warnings were given by an apostle to the church at Rome. Rome was the capital of the empire when Paul wrote. He knew how temptations come to the sons of men. He knew that the growth of the church in Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem, site of the original “mother church,” would create the temptation for the Roman Gentiles to boast against the original branches. And so he said, “Boast not.” Be not high-minded, Paul said, but fear. Again, he told the church at Rome not to be high-minded but rather to fear. What were they to fear? The answer is plain—the Roman church was commanded to fear the prospect of removal from the olive tree of the covenant.
In the face of this, over the centuries, it has become a dogma in the church at Rome that while other churches can fall away, it cannot. Even if everyone else denies You, Peter said, I will not. In other words, a church that is expressly warned that it can be cut off maintains that it cannot be. It is as if a modern church, standing amid the ruins of ancient Ephesus, were to maintain as a point of doctrine that its lampstand was incapable of removal (Rev. 2:5).
On the night Jesus was betrayed, Peter stood out among the other disciples. Even if all the others denied the Lord, Peter claimed, he would not. He would stand firm. But Jesus corrected him personally. The one who thinks he stands must take heed lest he fall. The one who considers it a point of doctrine to reject the Lord’s solemn warnings as though they were temptations is falling into the great temptation.
Peter turned back from his sin in repentance. As a result of his disastrous denial of the Lord, Peter went out and wept bitterly. He learned not to boast in his own strength. His tenderness, humility, strength, and holiness are plainly seen in the two letters he left for the church of all ages. Those who consider themselves his heirs need to consider this pattern.
The confidence that flows from a Biblical understanding of election is never an a priori confidence. If anyone understood and taught the doctrine of predestination, Paul did. And yet, in humility, he acknowledged that he might become a castaway. Likewise, Peter learned not to make claims he could not fulfill.
Every Christian church in the world must acknowledge that it does not support the root, but that the root supports it. In this demeanor of humility, a church can never fall away. But when pride comes in, so does danger. Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord. This is the great and true legacy of Peter.