Almost Persuaded: Almost, but Lost


The hymn Almost Persuaded has a distinguished history in evangelicalism. Its key refrain is derived from the Authorised Version’s (KJV) wording of Acts 26:28:

“Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.”

Before analysing the history of the hymn in more depth, we must recognise that the Authorised Version gives an inaccurate representation of what Agrippa says to St. Paul. Commentaries have long noted that the wording of the Authorised Version is misleading.

Charles J. Ellicott, Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, wrote in his 1878 commentary:

At the cost of giving up a familiar and impressive text, it must be admitted that the Greek words cannot possibly bear the meaning which is thus put upon them. The words run literally, in, or with, a little thou persuadest me; and this may be completed by, “with little speech,” “with little labour,” or “little evidence.” So in Ephesians 3:3 we have precisely the same phrase rendered “in few words.”

Agrippa’s words, accordingly, are the expression, not of a half-belief, but of a cynical sneer. Thou art trying to make a Christian of me with very few words, on very slender grounds, would be the nearest paraphrase of his derisive answer to St. Paul’s appeal. 

The Scottish Baptist preacher and Greek scholar, Alexander Maclaren, wrote in his own commentary:

They are very familiar words, and they have been made the basis of a great many sermons upon being all but persuaded to accept of Christ as Saviour. But, edifying as such a use of them is, it can scarcely be sustained by their actual meaning. Most commentators are agreed that our Authorised Version does not represent either Agrippa’s words or his tone. He was not speaking in earnest. His words are sarcasm, not a half melting into conviction, and the Revised Version gives what may, on the whole, be accepted as being a truer representation of their intention when it reads, ‘With but little persuasion thou wouldst fain make me a Christian.’

Modern translations show the nuances of the statement better:

(NIV) Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”

(NLT) Agrippa interrupted him. “Do you think you can persuade me to become a Christian so quickly?”

(ESV) And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?”

(HCSB) Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Are you going to persuade me to become a Christian so easily?”

Whatever the inaccuracies of the AV’s translation, this hymn has had a powerful effect on many congregations. Sources indicate that when sung after a sermon, it had the capacity to reduce thousands of people to deathly silence, or else tears:

One of the most impressive occasions on which this hymn was sung was in the Agricultural Hall in London, in 1874, when Mr. Gladstone was present. At the close of his sermon Mr. Moody asked the congregation to bow their heads, while I sang “Almost Persuaded”. The stillness of death prevailed throughout the audience of over fifteen thousand, as souls were making their decisions for Christ.

“While engaged in evangelistic work in western Pennsylvania,” writes the Rev. A. J. Furman, “I saw the people deeply moved by singing. I had begun my preparation to preach in the evening, from the text, ‘Almost thou persuaded me to be a Christian,’ when it occurred to me that if Mrs. B-, an estimable Christian and a most excellent singer, would sing, ‘Almost Persuaded’ as a solo, great good might be done.

At once I left the room and called on the lady, who consented to sing as requested. When I had finished my sermon, she sang the song with wonderful pathos and power. It moved many to tears. Among them was the principal of the high school who could not resist the appeal through that song. He and several others found the Pearl of Great Price before the next day. After the close of the sermon, I spoke to Mrs. B about the effect of her singing, and she told me that she had been praying earnestly all that afternoon, that she might so sing as to win sinners for her Saviour that night, and her prayers were surely answered.”

A couple of observations. First, these sources describe a palpable tension among 19th century congregants. The gospel message they were hearing was clearly presented to them as being supremely serious and important. A decision to repent and believe in Christ was demanded and none of them walked away from the service with any illusions that a half-baked confession was going to suffice.

So powerfully was this impressed upon people, that a sad story serves to illustrate just how important the moment of decision was preached.

(Please note: the following story bears the imprint of “cautionary tales of dubious authenticity” that have tended to be common in Christian “preaching lore”. Obviously it is impossible to verify the particulars of this story since no names or specific details are mentioned other than a certain Reverend Young (who could be anybody!). The story, in my opinion, is probably inauthentic since it does not pass the credibility test.

But, the fact that these stories were in circulation at all, and no doubt proclaimed from the pulpit, tell us something about how people saw faith in Christ. It was desperately urgent! Time was of the essence! Delay was foolish and hazardous!)

Said a young man to the Rev. Mr. Young: “I intend to become a Christian some time, but not now. Don’t trouble yourself about me. I’ll tend to it in good time.”

A few weeks after, the man was injured in a saw-mill, and, as he lay dying, Mr. Young was called to him. He found him in despair, saying: “Leave me alone. At your meeting I was almost persuaded, but I would not yield, and now it is too late. Oh, get my wife, my sisters and my brothers to seek God, and do it now, but leave me alone, for I am lost.”

Within an hour he passed away, with these words on his lips, “I am lost, I am lost, just because I would not yield when I was almost persuaded”.

The essence of the story should not fail to make its impression upon us, even if it is not historically true. There is nothing more bitter, nothing more terrible than “to be lost”.

The hymn was written by Philip Paul Bliss. The inspiration was a severe warning he heard at the close of a sermon:

He who is almost persuaded is almost saved, and to be almost saved is to be entirely lost,” were the words with which the Rev. Mr. Brundage ended one of his sermons.

P. P. Bliss, who was in the audience, was much impressed with the thought, and immediately set about the composition of what proved to be one of his most popular songs.

Philip Bliss’s life was cut short five years after this hymn was composed. Both Bliss and his wife were involved in a train wreck. Philip Bliss survived the wreck, but turned back and braved the flames to rescue his wife. Subsequently, both were killed.

Although Philip Bliss died at the age of 38, his life bears the imprint of one who was busy using his talents while he could. He composed 132 hymns, about 38 hymn tunes, and published 6 volumes of hymns, roughly one for each of the years proceeding his death. If only Christians were as active in the world today.

According to one source, he was living the light of eternity, right up to the point of his death:

The night before that terrible railroad accident at Ashtabula… he said to his audience, “I may not pass this way again”. 

Then he sang a solo, I’m Going Home Tomorrow. This indeed proved prophetic of his own home going.

In the past, Christians were much more mindful of the fragility of life in a way that has increasingly become a struggle in our scientifically successful, entertainment saturated, our-best-life-now oriented society.

In the past, people learned to “number their days aright”, make certain their were “fully persuaded”, and took eternity very seriously. They applied their hearts unto wisdom.

Roman Catholics Online

Recently I was watching a Youtube video that showed the closing of an Anglican service. The Anglican Church in question is part of the Anglican Network in Canada (ANiC).

(For those who don’t know, the ANiC is part of the Anglican realignment that is occurring throughout the Western world. As heretical parent churches wither, their dioceses shrink, and their churches close, a fresh, orthodox, vibrant parallel church is supplanting it and will, by the force of brute mathematics, replace it.)

Wherever such videos exist, you will find a Roman Catholic hovering around. Not any kind of Roman Catholic, however, but a specific sort of hyper-sanctimonious troll whose comments show neither Christian charity nor even the most superficial social awareness.

Usually they will begin by firing a grandiose broadside along the lines of, “Invalid mass! False worship from a heretical church founded to feed a king’s libido!” Or, “This is a mass of demons! Turn to the true mass of Roman Catholicism away from the heresies of sex-crazed Luther’s Protestant “Deformation”.” I kid not. This is literally the sort of stuff they pump out.

Quietly responding to this, even in the most cautious, gentlemanly and kindly manner, will result in escalating hysterics. I tend to imagine them hammering feverishly on their keyboards, “like lab rats on methamphetamine” (to quote Frasier).

Then comes the next phase of wearisomely abrasive posts, as long as your arm. These consist of strips of prefabricated assertions, circular reasoning, or begging the question fallacies in which they assume that all other churches are fallen, heretical, and false. It never seems to occur to them to consider that Roman Catholicism might warrant these charges more than the targets of their rage.

In my experience, any “conversation” degenerates immediately as the Roman Catholic zealot fires zingers, abuse, names, and rank profanity. In fact, somewhere in my Youtube account is a conversation that was so peppered with four-letter words that I was forced to block the man (they almost always are men). As his harassment continued, he informed me that he actually was keeping the commandment of Christ to love. His abuse was love.

More profanity has been directed at me by Roman Catholics than by Muslims. In general, Muslims will be polite, even if they feel compelled to tell you that you will boil in hell for eternity. If you try to be diplomatic, they will be diplomatic in return, eager to call infidels to their faith in a demonstration of sincere, though erroneous, zeal.

One cannot help seeing a tragic parallel between Roman Catholic zealots and the New Testament Pharisees, a parallel that I have seldom seen enacted so predictably and with paint-by-numbers rote by Protestants, although I am certain that self-proclaimed Protestant bigots exist everywhere as well.

Online interactions like these prove something about the root stock from which various believers arise. For Roman Catholic defenders, the pride is palpable. In their minds they are not lowly vessels saved by grace alone, but rather they are the best kind of Christian that exists. They are infinitely superior to Protestants, and thus they obtain enjoyment and purpose from condemning Protestants of any stripe, rubbishing their simple faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Their chief glory must not lie in following the Lowly Nazarene, for if it did, surely they would seek to obey his imperative to love. Instead, they seem to derive more gratification from being submitted to the powerful and great Pope who leads a powerful and mighty church. Even in conversation, they seek to convert people to their church, not to the Lord Jesus Christ who is relegated to a comparatively minor role of being the casual agent, or the machinery beneath the hood. And so their behaviour demonstrates how the pope has supplanted the affections and obedience that properly belongs to Christ alone.

To “James”: I am sorry you deleted our conversation. I write with sadness this final comment, which I hope you will see.

Yes, I certainly agree with you about the errors of Islam. Unfortunately, I can be consistent in my position but it is very difficult (indeed, I would say impossible) for you to be theologically consistent in your accusation that Anglicans are guilty of heretical interactions with Muslims. This is because the church you defend has stated in its own Catechism (s. 841) that Roman Catholics and Muslims adore the same god.

This is not a mere statement of shared monotheism, as you suggest. It is much more. It is an affirmation that the respective deities of Islam and Roman Catholicism are the same – part of a common “faith of Abraham”, despite Muhammad proclaiming things that Abraham never believed and which are antithetical to both the Old and New Testaments.

We agree that the Christian God is triune. The Muslim deity is unitarian. Therefore this cannot be the “same god”, as Rome teaches. Moreover, this represents a clear break with Roman Catholicism’s historic position on Islam and other religious faiths. Nonetheless, since Pope John Paul II allowed himself to be photographed kissing a Koran, your church has accelerated its interfaith experimentation to an unprecedented degree.

It is sad that you were unaware of this. I provided you with links to the National Catholic Reporter showing Muslim art and symbols being displayed in a Roman Catholic Church in the United States. You had previously said that this never happens, could never happen, and has never happened anywhere in the Roman Catholic Church. It is with sincere sorrow that I point out to you the fact that your church has been greatly committed to interfaith experimentation. 

The Gates of Hell


Shoot us.
Take away our rights.
Imprison us.
Despoil us of our worldly goods.
Banish us.
Force us into the wilderness.
Humiliate us.
Drag us before tribunals.
Regard us with cold, dead alien eyes.

But you do so because we are more powerful than you.
You fear us, for that is why you hound us.
Minds unshackled, otherworldly power on our shoulders.
The cross of Christ, invincible, goes before us.

We threaten your delusion that there is no God.
We remind you of realities you want to pretend do not exist.
We speak of a moral purpose you hate and detest.

Our battering rams are always at your gates.
“And the gates of hell shall not prevail against us”.

Identity Politics, and the Strongholds of Satan


Even Richard Dawkins recognises the incoherence of identity politics, and rightly labels it as an “evil”. On the other hand, he does not recognise that he has no foundation for describing anything as evil or good without a moral basis in God.

Identity politics represents the death of a cohesive society. When there is a competition for ultimate victim status, there can be no harmony. The community merely becomes a battlefield for moral supremacy, power, and status between competing interests. Brendon O’Neill also makes the point that identity politics is fundamentally intolerant, as if we needed any reminding of that in 2017.

Identity politics represents the death of free speech and therefore free thought. It traps people in sad little bubbles out of which there is no escape.

The madness on university campuses across the world demonstrates the ultimate atomisation, and the incredible stupidity that identity politics inevitably produces. I would go so far as to suggest that it requires a stupid and passive mind to accept it in the first place, and the only outcome, is further stupidity. As our blessed Lord so rightly taught us, “Disregard them! They are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into the pit.” (Matthew 15:14).

Our social structure is now scotch-taped together by institutions that pre-date identity politics, and which ironically could never have emerged from contemporary political philosophy. That itself shows how far the decline has gone.

In a world where:
1. A person who does not want to bake a wedding cake gets their shop shut down [Link]

2. An Australian Human Rights Commission claims that all Roman Catholic bishops have a “case to answer” for their stance against same-sex marriage. [Link]

3. A university professor is charged for harassment for jokingly referring to female professor’s having a night out as a “girls night out” [Link]

4.  Teachers are advised to avoid terms like “girls” and “boys [Link]

5. Australian political parties fight against having a plebiscite vote on same-sex marriage, because allowing the people to vote would encourage debate, and too much debate, like too much democracy, could lead to hate crimes and suicide. [Link]

Could such a political and social philosophy as that which inevitably results in the above abuses of power and common sense have ever produced concepts like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and parliamentary democracy? Most assuredly, not.

The fight against the mental strongholds that hold men captive is far from over. Indeed, it has hardly begun.


The Miserable Lives of Celebrities


Celebrities are dropping like flies in the closing days of 2016. Zsa Zsa Gabor, Liz Smith, George Michael, and now Carrie Fisher.

Biographies and obituaries are the most instructive moral literature our culture now produces. And the biographies of these celebrities do not reveal happy people, but rather deeply unhappy people.

Even when performing in comedic roles, in their private lives they were miserable. They were users of drugs; desperately promiscuous; conflicted; lonely; fretful; fearful; suffered from depressive disorders; rejection; and were ridden with health problems. These were people who had voids in their lives.

Liz Smith, who played comedic elderly characters, said of herself:

It is lack of reassurance that has made me how I am. I’ve had withdrawal symptoms from people all my life – rejection and withdrawal – so it is lovely to have reassurance…  I’m odd and melancholy, that is why I turn to comedy.

Sadness being a common theme among the world’s best known comedians. Kenneth Williams, for example, was a grotesque and monstrous person. Robin Williams built a career of laughter around an inner core of depressive darkness. The list could go on.

The lives of celebrities proves that our deepest convictions about happiness are ultimately an illusion. Unfortunately, the world’s ideas about happiness are drilled so deeply into us, is so much part of the cultural mixture, and is dinned so loudly into our ears, that it requires great personal effort to see through it. We are taught that happiness is predicated on things. Or on fame. Or on friends. Or on romance. Or money. Or parties. Or sexual gratification. Or having big houses and big cars. In fact, some of you reading this article will be literally unable to stop believing that this is where your happiness lies.

But it’s simply not true. And therefore, I think celebrities are greatly to be pitied. For they have ascended to the pinnacle of the culture; a pinnacle to which they can cling only precariously for a brief moment in time. But having drawn back the curtain on the ultimate dream of millions, they discover it is fraud. Yes, they have rivers of money and people who love them wherever they go and yet… “the world is hollow and I have touched the sky“, to quote the brilliant title from the third season Star Trek episode (1968).

Just like all human beings, celebrities desperately try to fill the void. They medicate their pain and misery with pleasure, chemical stimulation, hobbies, or with the pursuit of Some New Thing. Legion are the celebrities who seek for “something” in Buddhism, materialism, Kabbalah, spiritualism and so on. They are the greatest victims of Satan who has plunged them into the deepest misery of all, far from Christ.

Their prosperity and desperate search for meaning always fails to end the existential ache.

This seems to me to be the ultimate tragedy; not only are celebrities unhappy – even more unhappy than ordinary people – but they vigorously repudiate the Christian faith, because the Christian faith forbids the very behaviours they use to medicate their misery!

Most celebrities are forgotten in a few months. Muhammad Ali, who died earlier this year, is never going to be front page news again. Zsa Zsa Gabor’s passing was even less noteworthy, for her star had cooled and faded in the 1980’s. Shrivelled and aged, most young people do not so much as know her name, must less her films and movies. The “glamour” she supposedly radiated is not the idea of glamour that young people have now. From memory she passed, into pitiable, unmemorable old age. And that even before her death.

Carrie Fisher is likely to be the longest remembered of this year’s crop of celebrity deaths. She exercised enormous cultural influence as a consequence of Star Wars. The character she portrayed has entered into a kind of secular mythos, commanding as much power as medieval legends or the hagiographies of the saints once did. Her face will be immortalised (at least for a long time) on countless t-shirts, novel covers, posters, mugs, dress-up costumes etc.

But even here, there is a sour note. She is not really remembered at all. Not the person. Only her face when she was young and pretty, only her body when it was at its shapely fittest is celebrated. Only a youthful Carrie Fisher is worthy of being printed. The actual person who left those impressions on film is a worthless husk. Nobody is interested in her real appearance as she actually was as a 60 year-old woman.

At the termination of her very sad and tumultuous life, “being remembered” seems such poor compensation. This has always been the secular prescription to ease death. Gene Roddenberry and his successors brought this out many times in Star Trek. When a beloved crew member died, it was said that the person lived on in people’s memories and hearts. This was supposed to be a great comfort. This was supposed to be a replacement for the opium of religion. But on reflection, it is a cold and bitter comfort.

Who will remember the real Carrie Fisher? Those who knew her best are also approaching death. So what was her life for? What memories did she produce? Of a princess in a galaxy far, far away? Was making a sci-fi movie series the only thing her life counted for? Are those impressions left on flickering screens the summation of a heart, soul, and mind?

If ever we needed a reminder about the hope of the Christian message, this is it.

Firstly, we are promised that there are real and lasting pleasures forevermore at the right hand of God (Psalm 16:11). These pleasures are pure and clean; loving and gentle. There is pleasure and fulfilment in holy living, in being a people who constitute Christ’s “royal priesthood”. There is hope in a life centred on Christ, a hope that banishes existential gloom, gives meaning and purpose, a daily reason to get up, and “joy unspeakable”.

Secondly, Christianity offers us not only a meaningful life, but the promise of immortality in a world that is so joyous and clean that we shall at once forget this one, swallowed up in the glory of the life of the world to come. And so, at life’s inevitable end, for the Christian there will be a triumphant and true glory when Christ’s people will “shine like the sun” in the kingdom of their Father.

We have no reason to live in the futile shadows of nihilism, fatalism, materialism, or hedonism. These are the hellish forces that have swallowed up man’s mind in the 21st century, but in Jesus Christ, the Christian finds a fortress secure and the fountainhead of crystalline rivers that descend from the very throne of God.

“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me shall never perish, and though he die, yet shall he live, for I shall raise him up again at the last day.”

The Unhappy State of Modern Roman Catholicism


Protestants who are considering a return to the Roman Church need to look a little closer. There are serious crises brewing in Roman Catholicism, from dissident cardinals, to open theological disunity, to clerical scandals, and a pope whose purposes and aims are an impenetrable fog.

Lately it has been astonishing to me how many conservative (basically orthodox) Protestants have been looking toward Roman Catholicism with longing eyes.

Tired of the liberal direction of their own churches, they think they see something unchanging and solid in Roman Catholicism. It looks so ancient; so united; so deep in history; the dust of the saints seems to hang in the sunbeams shining through the high windows of St. Peter’s. They long (as we all ought to) for stability and connection with faithful forebears. So much so that they indicate that they are ready to swallow a little Mary veneration and papal infallibility if only to belong to a church that opposes the progressive trend and gives them back their Christian history.

These Protestants are standing on dangerous territory. They have lost sight of the reasons the Reformation happened in the first place. They have lost confidence in the centrality of the Word of God. In many cases they lack a strong concept of Christian history, or perhaps, have a fantasy version of Christian history that never existed in the first place. They have lost sight of the fact that the practice of pure Christianity can and does change form from age to age.

Long ago it was practised by fishermen in small homes with glassless windows, and in prison cells, and on long and dusty roads. And then it spread throughout Europe, Africa and eastern Asia where it was practised principally in Latin and Greek in small village chapels. It was practised by an antecedent church that would later mutate into the Roman Church.

Five hundred years ago its form changed again. Under the guidance of God, it began to be practised, believed and disseminated by the Reformers, then the Puritans and the great missionaries, who wore their sombre black teaching gowns and took the Good News to the colonies; to the far reaches of the earth.

Today, pure Christianity is increasingly practised by small cells. Sometimes small faithful cells of true believers who remain together in the rotting body of a larger church. Or more frequently, Christians who gather in plain, simple independent local churches and dispense with the robes and the stained glass and get back to basics with the exposition of the pure Word.

Anyone contemplating a return to Rome needs only to look at its present situation to realise that there are no answers there. The Roman Church has entered a state of decline. It is in free-fall without any possibility of arrest.

Its doctrine and teachings are un-reformable (always the hazard of “infallible government”). It is sclerotic, shackled to traditions that have long passed usefulness or even good sense, and has become so indifferent to its own teachings that it is unwilling to enforce them on privileged members like celebrities and politicians.

Its adherents are often poorly catechised – something even acknowledged by the church hierarchy – with suggestions that maybe half of Roman Catholics do not know what their church really teaches about transubstantiation and the Eucharist, even though this is the centrepiece sacrament in Roman theology. (A Protestant might cynically observe that such widespread ignorance is the Roman Church’s strength.)

Many Roman Catholics are anchored more by familiarity to custom and allegiance to the pope than the official truth claims made by their church. Indeed, knowledgeable Roman Catholics worry about papolatry, defined as the elevation of the pope to a quasi-divine figure. Examples of this abound, from a nun who says that Pope Francis loves you even from the other side of the world to Vatican officials asking Filipino Roman Catholics to use images of Christ and not of the pope.

In popular demonstrations of Roman Catholic pride, singers and dancers have displayed a giant head of the pope with a dove hovering above it, as in the case of the 2015 Argentine mardi gras (caution: I have provided only a link to a secondary website with a clean photograph. If you research this further you will come across photographs of the event which featured dancers in very impure costumes. Best avoided.). Their float featured near-naked dancers cavorting before the papal visage, summoning up images of that ghastly pagan dancing in in the movie classic Solomon and Sheba (1959). To the best of my knowledge, this float was never repudiated by the church’s hierarchy.

Upon Jorje Bergoglio’s election, cute Youtube cartoons quickly appeared which presented him very nearly as a perfect saint. When he visited the United States, a Roman Catholic group put up a Twitter theme featuring the word HOPE with the Pope’s head as the letter O. In an effort to reign this in, some Roman Catholic blogs dealt with comments regarding “blasphemy” against the pope. Protestants are forced to wryly observe that blasphemy is always an offence against God. Even when men spoke against St. Paul or St. Peter, they never charged their accusers with blasphemy!

But Rome’s obsession with human mediators and human intercessors does not just end there. During the “Year for Priests” all kinds of Roman Catholic Youtube videos appeared glorifying the priesthood in audio-visual displays akin to worship. The most disturbing of these featured a song by Brian Flynn who sings, “You are a priest forever, in the line of Melchizedek, in persona Christi ad majorem dei gloria“.

For a Protestant, the full lyrics are unendurable. The song appropriates the words written to the Hebrews about the glory of Christ our High Priest who supersedes any earthly priesthood. The song-writer takes that glorious teaching and applies it to feeble, mortal, sinful men who claim they have power to bring Christ down from heaven on their command and render him present on their altars! Who do these priests think they are? And where in sacred scripture is such a power ever bestowed upon men? Most assuredly, it is not ever given to men.

If the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church knew what they knew now, I suspect they would never have elected Jorje Mario Bergoglio as pope.

Pope Francis has been treated very kindly by the media, far more so than his predecessor. Initially this was because he seemed to promise a new direction. The media believed that he might change Roman Catholic practices and introduce a wave of 1960’s style policies, like ordaining women priests, giving communion to divorcees, and softening the line on practising homosexuals.

We were hammered with talk of something called the “Francis Effect”, which turns out to be almost entirely a media construction. It is a textbook example of the sort of “phenomena” the media falsely discovers, spends months chattering about in broad abstract terms, before realising that it never existed in the first place.

Under Francis’ leadership, the Roman Catholic Church has lurched from disaster to disaster, both internal and external. It exposes the ever-broadening contradictions, inconsistencies, and disunity within the Church itself, as it navigates the 21st century with all the acuity of a rudderless vessel.

Numbers of Roman Catholics in the developed world continue to fall. There are massive and widening internal divisions within the Roman Church, between the progressives who wish to pull in a more liberal direction akin to their Lutheran counterparts, and the conservatives who often wish to pull in a more traditionalist direction and return to the Tridentine forms of worship. This chasm will result in schism. It is well and truly on the cards now, and this is being muttered about even by very conservative Roman Catholics whose allegiance to the Vatican is absolute.

The Synod on the Family (2014-2015) exposed both internal machinations and deep theological divisions. And the resulting encyclical Amoris laetitia has clarified nothing and instead prompted months of debate and disputation, some of it very unpleasant. There is now virtual open warfare between the highest ranking members of the hierarchy over the encyclical, with four cardinals going public with their “dubia” or “doubts”. And this hasn’t just been a recent development. Even while the dust was still settling from the Synod, the words began to fly with cardinals openly calling each other out over this.

Meanwhile, the progressive editor of La Civilta Cattolica, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, who gets interviews with Pope Francis and produces the only Roman Catholic magazine to be examined under draft by the Secretariat of State of the Holy See, has been using Twitter in a manner that has prompted journalists to write lengthy and detailed exposes. It has been suggested by these websites that the tweets have been aimed at those very same cardinals who went public with their “dubia”.

Francis’ public comments have certainly been fodder for misinterpretation. From the “who am I to judge” comment in relation to homosexuals to the implication that good atheists might enter heaven. Many defenders were quick to point out that these may have been misunderstood, misinterpreted or misquoted. Maybe they were, but one cannot help noticing that if this is the case, Francis has been the unfortunate victim of this on many, many, many occasions. At some point, blaming the translator starts to seem a little empty.

Satirists, like the famous Lutheran Satire, were not so forgiving. Their humour has a cold zing to it because they sourced their material more-or-less verbatim from Francis himself:

They lampoon some of his comments. For example, the report in which the Pope said that youth unemployment and loneliness among the elderly were the most urgent problems facing his church. Not the salvation of sinners, apparently.

But then we come to the here and now.

The latest remarks from the pope this week were so off-colour I initially thought they were satire or “fake news” when I first read them on an Italian news site. But alas, they appear to have been quite real. In speaking about media coverage of scandals and corruption, the Pope referred to sexual arousal over faeces and eating faeces, explaining that this is what the media do when they chase negative stories. In turn, the Spectator in the United Kingdom published an analysis of this, and asked whether or not it was time for the pope to retire.

Yet, the pope and his church have still other problems. Recently, it lurched from the progressive angle and banned all men with homosexual tendencies from the priesthood. There is multiple news coverage of this and it is not very clear what the Roman Church is saying. Whatever it is saying, however, it seems the church is able to judge something after all regarding homosexuality.

According to news sources, from this point forward, a man with homosexual tendencies, even if he is committed to priestly celibacy and continence, will not be allowed to serve as a priest. Some of the comments from the Daily Mail readers suggested that this would decimate the priesthood if it were enforced on existing clergy. Their glib comments do point to something serious. The fact that this ruling has been made at all suggests that there are many such men entering the priesthood. It also suggests that such men may be a source of trouble for the Roman hierarchy.

In fact, at least three Roman Catholic bishops have been involved in sexual scandals in the past 10 years or so. One was even videoed having sexual relations with another man. This is to say nothing of openly gay priests. We do not know how many such men carefully conceal their sexual activities, but some groups suggest that around 50% of the Roman Catholic clergy may be homosexual. These claims are made by liberal and conservative groups. (See: source 1, source 2, source 3, source 4.)

The pope is meant to bring unity, which is the big drawcard for conservatives in embattled denominations. But conservative Roman Catholics within the Roman Catholic Church are growing increasingly dissatisfied themselves. These conservatives are eyeing traditionalists groups with increasing longing. Since Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum issued in 2007 gave priests far greater freedom to celebrate the old Latin form of the mass, the traditionalists have started to grow in number. Their enclaves have expanded, but for many of them, the Roman Church is still not traditional enough.

Consequently, traditionalist schismatic groups like the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) continues to grow and continues to reject any rapprochement that involves accepting the present doctrinal state of the Roman Catholic Church. (A move that seems rather wise in light of the explosive growth of the SSPX and the equally evident decline of the parent organisation.)

Although they would deny it, the Society of St. Pius X is essentially a breakaway church, developing into a parallel organisation practising a robust Tridentine Catholicism. It has an ever-expanding constellation of seminaries, schools, nursing homes, university institutes, churches, chapter houses and monasteries. But more than this, the SSPX is a vivid demonstration of just how much the “unchanging” Roman Catholic Church really has radically changed in the past 70 years.

The two religious groups bear virtually no relation to each other at all. The form of worship is different; the whole premise of their respective ecclesiology is different. Neither is this just a superficial flourish. Modern Roman Catholicism is simply not the same religion that it was in the 1950’s and earlier. The church defended by G. K. Chesterton  would be unrecognisable to him today.

It reminds us all that the only unchanging authoritative centre of true Christianity is that which God himself has given us. Namely, his word, which cannot change.


The Healing of the Paralytic

“Son, be of good cheer. Your sins are forgiven.” (Mat 9:2)

In the ninth chapter of his gospel, St. Matthew relates a remarkable miracle.

Some men brought to Jesus a man who was a severe paralytic. So immobile, indeed, that he needed to be carried on a mat like a patient on a stretcher. St. Matthew does not tell us precisely how the man was paralysed, but one is left with the impression that this was not a congenital paralysis. Usually the gospel writers are very careful to mention whether an illness or disease was “from birth”.

We do know that severe accidents were relatively common in the ancient world. Our Lord even references a number of people who were tragically killed in the collapse of a tower.

In the ancient world, people unfortunate enough to be badly injured usually died. Medical technology of the era simply could not cope with extreme conditions and so the injured were “left in the hands of God” – as we always are, even if modern medicine sometimes deludes us into thinking we are not.

People who survived accidents with broken and deformed bodies – especially men – lost most of their economic capacity. They essentially became beggars, reliant upon their wife, children, or friends to provide the essentials of life. It was an unenviable and pitiable condition. Particularly if they lived with chronic pain.

St. Matthew tells us that our Lord “saw their faith” – the faith of the paralytic’s friends.

This is a remarkable observation. We know that Christ could see into the hearts of men with perfect perspicuity. But St. Matthew intends us to see that the faith of these men was demonstrated in action: they invested effort to bring their friend to Jesus, and they came with expectancy. This was not a scholarly expectation. It was not theologically complicated.

Their comprehension was simple and straightforward: This is the One who can heal!

When Jesus saw the paralytic he did not immediately tell him he was going to be healed from his paralysis. Instead, the Lord tells him to “Be of good cheer! Your sins are forgiven”. Do we get what St. Matthew is saying here? Forgiveness of sins is the first order of business. Indeed, righteousness with God was always the foremost priority in the economy of our Lord who sees and knows all things.

The forgiveness of sins! If we see things rightly, then we understand that reconciliation with God is greater than even being able to walk again. People who have found salvation come to understand that this is the foremost source of “good cheer”.

Could there be anything greater? To be a criminal engaged in a longstanding civil war against our Creator and King, only for him to set aside his royal robes; step down from his throne; and descend to our level in order to tell us that all who lay down their weapons; all who sign the Armistice; all who surrender and come into his presence – even if only with a trembling, weak, solitary sinew of faith – will be received. Will be forgiven. Will be reconciled. They will be given the right to call their former enemy, “my Father”.

It is only after addressing the paralytic’s soul that our Lord heals his broken body. Yet even this is done with purposeful deliberateness, to confirm the reality of the forgiveness he had bestowed.

No matter what the devil will try to tell us about the importance of earthly gain, or that we should look for happiness in sin and material goods, the reality is that a man can only really be at peace – to “be of good cheer” – when he has encountered Christ in faith and heard his words spoken as unto the very recesses of his soul:

“My son, your sins are forgiven.”

Do you hear that welcoming voice? Has your heart ever yearned for unconditional, compassionate and understanding love – the love of Christ, a wellspring of affection that is reserved just for you from the centre of heaven itself?

Have you grown weary of the dusty wilderness tracks through the desert of unrighteousness? Do you feel any tug on your heart at all?

You do not need it to be complicated. You do not need to have the same experience someone else had. You do not need complex doctrinal understanding. You need only to have an atom of desire toward Christ and enough faith to come – fainting, wounded, paralysed – into his presence. For all who truly come, he will never cast away.

In the words of the old revival hymn:

I hear Thy welcome voice,
That calls me, Lord, to Thee;
For cleansing in Thy precious blood,
That flow’d on Calvary.

I am coming, Lord!
Coming now to Thee!
Wash me, cleanse me, in the blood
That flow’d on Calvary!

Though coming weak and vile,
Thou dost my strength assure;
Thou dost my vileness fully cleanse,
Till spotless all, and pure.

And he the witness gives
To loyal hearts and free,
That every promise is fulfilled,
If faith but brings the plea.