St. Paul gave thanks for the Christians in Thessalonica, that “in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.” (I Thesalonians 2:13) This concisely describes how we are united to God and become saints. To appreciate the depth of his insight, we must understand what he means by the “word of God.” That will in turn help us recognize and reject today’s false apostles who seek to change the Gospel.
Scripture calls Jesus the Son of God and the Word of God. The reason for these two titles is that the Second Person of the Trinity is the perfect image and expression of the Father. As the perfect image of the Father, he’s like a son. As the perfect expression of the Father, he’s like a word. Because Jesus is God the Son born of Mary, the Word made flesh, whoever encounters him encounters the Father. So, by being united to Christ we’re united to God. At heart, that’s the means and meaning of our salvation.
Having established the Eternal Covenant, Jesus sent the Apostles to unite the human race to himself so we could share God’s life now and forever. He told them, “Who hears you hears me.” (Luke 10:16) Thus, when St. Paul proclaimed the Gospel, it was Jesus, the Word of God, speaking through him.
That’s why St. Paul could say he spoke the Word of God rather than the words of men. This Word isn’t merely a sound in the air or ink on a page. It’s the life-giving Word of the Father addressed to every person.
Although the Gospel is proclaimed by human beings, the eternal Word of God is the one who comes by divine power to stand at the door of the hearer’s heart. There Jesus knocks, and in so doing enables us to open and receive him despite our selfishness and sin.
Upon entering, Christ unites us to himself and, therefore, to God, providing all we need to share his life. That’s what St. Paul means when he says, “the Word of God is at work in you.” As we live each day with and in Jesus, united to the Trinity, God perfects us in his love so we can become saints. The Christian life is that simple, though it’s not easy because selfishness and sin (our own and others’) oppose his work within us.
No human word has this power to save us, to give us a share in God’s life and love. If we change the Gospel, the resulting teachings are merely human words that no longer bring us the Eternal Word, Jesus. That’s why St. Paul warned the early Christians never to accept anyone (not even himself) who proclaimed a “gospel” other than the one Christ entrusted to the Apostles. He went so far as to declare such pseudo-evangelists “accursed.” (anathema; Galatians 1:8)
St. Paul may seem harsh. But he’s in harmony with our Lord’s warning that it’s better to be drowned with a millstone around the neck than to mislead even one of his followers. Counterfeiting the Gospel ruins innocent lives and can encourage people to continue in their sins. That’s catastrophic.
In our times, many Catholics, like other Christians, want to change the Gospel. Faithful Catholics have been shocked by an increasing number of bishops and Cardinals who have called for altering sexual morality, approved the blessing of homosexual couples, or suggested that euthanasia be permitted.
Such changes are said to be “realistic,” “inclusive,” and “compassionate.” In fact, they’re cruel illusions that lead people in harmful directions and fail to offer the healing and redeeming Word of God. They have no power to bestow divine life or merciful aid because they’re the misguided, foolish words of men.
Jesus reminded his fellow Jews that the “scribes and Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.” (Matthew 23:2-3) He meant they had the authority granted Moses to guide God’s people according to the laws of the Covenant.
Therefore, when he went on to say, “observe all things they tell you,” he meant “all things in keeping with the Law and the Covenant,” not literally, “anything they say,” like, “It’s okay to kill the sick, commit sexual sins, or ignore the poor.” Outside of God’s Word, their words have no authority.
The bishops are the successors of the Apostles, and the pope is the successor of St. Peter. A bishop’s or pope’s chair (cathedra) is a sign of his pastoral office. We’re to observe all they tell us, provided it’s in keeping with the Gospel. That’s clear from the Incarnate Word’s mandate which is the sole source and measure of their authority: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations. . .teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
Should they teach otherwise, they’re abusing their apostolic “teaching office” (magisterium) and we must refuse to follow them. We’re also right to contest the manipulative use of the term “magisterium” to describe their wayward teachings. They have no more magisterial authority to change the Gospel than we do.
False witness by individual bishops or popes has never been considered part of the universal and infallible Magisterium of the Church. Such “teachings” are mere human words, and “we must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)
It’s heartbreaking and wearying to watch as bishops distort the Gospel with few efforts to correct them. We’re witnessing an epochal pastoral failure in their regard and even more so regarding those they mislead.
And yet, the Gospel lived and taught by Jesus continues within the Church to be “at work in [those] who believe.” That’s our certain hope.
May the Word of God pierce us and the bishops so that, abandoning sin and error, we might bear a powerful, life-giving witness to his Gospel before a confused and suffering world.