Monday, January 27, 2014

Book Review: Stepping Out in Faith

Stepping Out in Faith:  Former Catholics Tell Their Stories is a compilation of 11 stories edited by Mark Gilbert.  This book is written to people who are questioning the Catholic Church, and the contributors "want to help you think through these questions."  The introduction written by Mr. Gilbert lists the practices of the Catholic Church that may be questioned by some, but he gives no biblical support to show why the practices should be rejected as heterodox.  It should be noted that the goal of this book is extremely vague as seen in the concluding sentence to the introduction:  "Whether you are considering a path that may take you away from the Catholic Church or not, I hope these stories will be an encouragement for you to take the path that will lead you to peace with God."  The Bible clearly states that without the remission of sins through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, no one can find peace with God.  We are saved by grace through faith; it is a free gift of God and not of works.

The ecumenism prevalent in today's evangelical world undermines the sacrificial work done by the reformers who broke from Roman Catholicism during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.  Even though this book is about those who have "come out" of the Catholic Church, there is not clear reasoning as to why the "change in churches" is needed to begin with.  By implication, the individuals move from one form of Christianity to another.  The Introduction does not give a clear presentation of the Gospel, which is critical in a book of compilations, and does not give clear guidance or biblical wisdom to anyone who is thinking of leaving the Catholic Church.

It is difficult to review this compilation as one book without seeming to single out the individual writers.  Therefore, I may not mention each story specifically, but I will highlight the problems as I encounter them and will not list every instance even though the problems may be apparent in subsequent stories.

In the first story, Ms. Morbelli relates her personal experience with no biblical references.  Her view of conversion (from the Catholic Church to the Anglican Church) is synergistic when she writes:  "I learned from God's word that the first thing I needed to do was recognize that I am essentially sinful...All God asks is that we recognize that we have rejected him, and the we trust that Jesus has done this for us."  Her vague writing also indicates a somewhat universalistic view of salvation:  "His plan for humanity began to make sense...He knows us well and knows that we cannot do this by our own merit.  This is why Jesus died on the cross.  It was for each one of us personally."  Finally, she relates that "One of the first things that struck me in this new church was the lack of religious icons and rituals, and so this was one of the first issues I had to confront.  I had to let 'religion' go."  Turning from icons, rituals, and relics is not "letting religion go", but it's following the biblical command found in Exodus 20:3-4 not to have other gods before God and not to make any graven image.

In the second story, Mr. O'Brien describes his move from the Catholic Church to the Anglican Church in ecumenical terms:  "I remember not so much becoming a Christian as realizing that I was a Christian."  To further illustrate this point, he writes, "I never viewed my conversion as an explicit rejection of Catholicism, but rather as an embracing of Jesus as my Lord and saviour [sic]."

The most helpful part of the compilation is the third story by Mr. Schmucker.  He clearly outlines his move from the works-based salvation of the Catholic Church to the grace-based salvation of Christianity.  He presents the Gospel and provides biblical references throughout his narrative.  Similar Bible references would be helpful in the Introduction.  In summary, he writes:  "Salvation does not come from works.  It is not by my good deeds that I gain heaven.  It is not by my baptism, my first holy communion, or my confirmation.  Those are all 'works'.  Instead, salvation comes by faith.  By believing that Jesus is Christ who died in my place, for my sins, and has risen from the dead to bring new life--this is how salvation comes."

Like Mr. Schmucker, the 5th story written by Mr. Coffey does a better job of presenting the Gospel; however, since Mr. Coffey is now a Christian pastor, I expected more biblical support to his story.  Throughout the stories in this book, the acceptance of the Gospel has been man-centered rather than the work of the Holy Spirit, and Mr. Coffey's story is no different.  He writes: "I couldn't understand why people were not hungering for this message of grace and hope...Salvation by grace and not by works of merit has been the doctrine that has appealed most to those I've led to Christ," (emphasis mine).  But the Bible states that salvation is a work of the Holy Spirit and does not appeal to anyone because all are dead in trespasses and sins, (Eph. 2:1).  Further in his testimony he contradicts himself:  "Think about this.  If we could, by our good works, contribute to our own salvation, then the death of the Lord Jesus Christ would not have been necessary.  It is because none of us can make any contributions towards our salvation that God had to become man, dwell among us and give his life as an atoning sacrifice for our sins."  He is trying to align his view of salvation to the Bible, but his Arminian belief that man has the power to accept or reject Christ is not biblical, so at times, his comments are inconsistent.

I understand the vulnerability that each writer has risked by writing his or her story.  It takes courage to open up your life for all to see.  If the purpose of this book is to convince people to leave the Catholic Church, then I don't believe it accomplishes this goal.  The stories in the compilation are not always clear on the differences between the Catholic Church and Christianity and why leaving is necessary for a true believer.  If the intent of this book is just to encourage those leaving or thinking of leaving the Catholic Church, then I don't believe it met this goal either. Generally, the stories have a pragmatic tone based mostly on personal experience, which limits the application of the content.  Instead of being helpful, I believe that, at best, this book will confuse the reader and, at worst, it will keep him in bondage to a works-based salvation.  Therefore, I cannot recommend this book.

Full Disclosure:  I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

NB:  The formatting for the Kindle version does not include an interactive table of contents which makes is very difficult to navigate through the book.