The Pope has come to America and a timely question is, “Are Roman Catholics our brothers and sisters in Christ?”
You may have noticed that in recent weeks, I’ve made comments about Roman Catholicism or discussed topics that are central to the differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. I briefly want to address the difference in the two.
The Church has a History?
For the longest time, I knew very little or next to nothing about church history and yet, this is such an important thing to know about. I continually learn more and am so thankful that I do. I wish I knew more than I do currently. Something that is essential to understand about church history is why there are Catholics and why there are Protestants.
Now, Protestant comes from the word “protest”. These were a group of people protesting something, namely, multiple things about how the Roman Catholic church institutionalized certain practices like the selling of indulgences: You could buy something to remove someone from purgatory or lessen their stay in purgatory.
Purgatory itself is a non-Biblical concept and so charging people to get out of something that doesn’t exist is a issue in and of itself that we’re not going to go into right now. Nonetheless, in the year 1517, Martin Luther started the Reformation. Now that sounds like a really big thing, but he didn’t intend for it to be a big deal.
He wrote a letter, he posted a public copy of his letter and he was calling for reform in the church. He wanted to reform the church, hence the term “Reformation”. Well, this kind of turned into people protesting Roman Catholicism. (This is a extremely high level summary of church history.)
All of that to say, that even back in the 1500s, there was understood to be a divide, a very important divide, between Roman Catholicism and the group of people who now call themselves Protestants. We as evangelicals are a part of that – Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians – these people are Protestants.
We are not Roman Catholic. We are not under that church and its authority structure. Now there’s way too much about the differences between these two groups to get into on a podcast, even though this is probably going to be a longer episode than usual.
The Gospel is the Divide
I want to focus on the one key and most important difference between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism: The gospel. The very heart of what it means to be a Christian. Now in order to talk about this, we need to talk a little about how Roman Catholicism is structured.
Roman Catholicism doesn’t just have the Bible as its authority. A parallel authority, or actually a greater authority, is the church. The magisterium, as they call it, of the church. The teaching magisterium.
On the Catholic view, Scripture is not authoritative in and of itself. It is authoritative as the church teaches it. That is a huge divide between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Since the church has as much or more authority than God breathed Scripture (which is a huge problem), they put out certain “rules” throughout history.
They did these at certain councils where a group of bishops and different Catholic authority figures would get together and decide things, or affirm things is probably the better way to say it, and make official decrees for the church. We’re going to read some of these decrees from the Council of Trent and a few other councils.
Pay attention to these words and see if you can spot the problem before we dig into it a little together. Now this might seem boring. We’re going to read something written hundreds of years ago and then dissect it, but I assure you this is probably the most important podcast I’ve done yet.
It deals with the heart of the gospel and an area where people don’t understand the large divide. There is a huge divide between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. It doesn’t have to do with one having a Pope and one not having a Pope. The divide goes to the very heart of the gospel. I hope you’ll stay with me for this whole episode as we examine these things together.
The Official Positions of the Church
Here is an official ruling of the Catholic church, which says:
“If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.”
That was a really complicated sentence. It took me a few times reading it. Let’s break this apart to the one main point I want to look at. “If anyone says that by faith alone the impious is justified, let him be anathema.” What does that word “anathema” mean? Well, there are a few usages of it. Paul uses it in Galatians 1, in a passage we’ll look at in a little bit.
It could mean “to be cut off” or “to be accursed”. The Catholic church’s official position is this means to be “cut off” from the church. If you hold that you are justified by faith alone and not works, then you are cut off from the church. You are effectively excommunicated. Now, that might not seem like a big deal. You can go to another church down the road, right? No.
The problem is that the Roman Catholic church thinks they are the only one true church where by the grace of Christ is administered to people. They are cutting you off from God if you believe that your justification is by faith alone. Now, what does Scripture say? Let’s look at Romans 3:20. “By the deeds of the law, there shall be no flesh be justified in His sight. For by the law is knowledge of sin.”
Romans 3:24. “Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Romans 3:28. “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” Romans 4:3. “For what saith the Scripture? Abraham believed God and it was counted unto him as righteousness.” Romans 5:1. “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God.”
Ephesians 2:8. “For by grace are ye saved through faith and that not of yourselves.” There are a litany of more verses we could look at, but Scripture is extremely clear. Our justification comes by faith alone. It is by God’s grace through our faith alone. None of these passages talk about works. In fact, some of them say “Apart from works of the law, you are justified.”
Abraham was justified by his faith, not by his works and yet, what is the Catholic official position say? That we are anathema for holding that view as Protestants. We are cut off or maybe more accurately the curse of God should be upon us. That’s one such rule of the Catholic church, their official position, which carries with it the same authority of Scripture on their view.
Let’s look at another one:
“If any one shall say that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in the divine mercy pardoning sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is that confidence alone by which we are justified . . . let him be accursed.”
What is condemned is the Protestant view. That is the teaching of Scripture when you look at those passages we just looked at. Here are a couple others. John 1:12. “But as many as received Him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name.” It is believing. It is by faith that we become sons of God, that we are justified.
Now, what is justification? I’ve used that term and I haven’t defined it. Well, one thing I want to commend to you would be to go back, search on my website and find my Galatians series. It is incomplete. It only covers the first four chapters of the six chapters in Galatians, however, it is by far enough for you to understand this issue more fully.
Here’s what the Protestant view of justification is. That at salvation, you receive Christ’s righteousness in that when God looks on you, He sees Christ’s sacrifice. The proper term would be that it is “imputed” to you. It is credited to your account. It’s kind of like a legal transaction. At that same time, Christ took on your guilt on the cross. He gets the curses, you get the blessings.
The Catholic view is that you actually become righteous. You are “infused” with righteousness. You are a righteous person, but how does that explain the fact that I would keep on sinning? A righteous person that can sin? That doesn’t make sense, which is a point in favor of the Protestant view.
Nonetheless, the Scriptures are clear in teaching that justification is by faith. Now, the Catholic might point to James 2. “You say you’re justified by your faith? Well, show me your works. Faith without works is dead.” We covered that passage last week. James is not talking about the same type of justification that Paul is in the majority of the rest of the New Testament.
Once again, we see just two of a large number of rulings, official statements from the Catholic church, that basically bring the curse of God, or at least the separation from God’s church, upon people that are Protestants that hold Protestant views – that we are saved by grace through faith alone and not through works.
One last canon, or rule, from the Catholic church I want to read you: “If any one says that man is truly absolved from his sins and justified by his faith alone, let him be accursed.”
That’s Canon 14 from the Council of Trent. It could not be more clear: If you believe you are justified by faith alone, Let him be anathema. Let him be cut off. Let him be accursed.
Just a couple passages once more to show the distinction between that official teaching of the Catholic church and Scripture. Romans 4:3. “For what says the Scripture? Abraham believed God and it was counted unto him as righteousness.” Romans 5:1. “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Faith, faith, faith.
Abraham was justified before the law and Paul makes clear in Galatians that the people who have faith, saving faith in God, are the true sons of Abraham. We came to Christ by faith and His grace was effective for bringing our justification.
Why Pick on Denominations?
Now, you might be thinking, “Why are you picking at differences in denominations? We shouldn’t worry about that.”
I agree. I haven’t talked about Methodists or Presbyterians very much, but the problem is: Roman Catholicism is not a different denomination. Denominations agree on the essentials. Roman Catholicism and Protestantism (Baptists, Presbyterians …) We do not agree on the essentials.
There is a large divide between Protestants and Catholics on the most essential thing of all: the gospel. The Good News. The way man is set right with the sovereign God. If we can’t agree on that, we aren’t denominations. We’re different religions. Now, you might be saying, “Brian, that’s harsh. Why are you saying that?” Well, I haven’t used nearly the language the Catholic church has.
The Catholic church says of people like me, (Maybe people like you, if you’re a Protestant) let you be anathema. “Let the curse of God be upon you. Let you be cut off from Christ’s church.” That’s much harsher than I’ve said. That’s the Catholic official position, which on their view, has the same authority as the Bible.
Now, the reason I bring this up, and I want to return to the central question, “Is the Roman Catholic our brother or our sister?” is because there is a large field for evangelism out there that people look over. They think, “Oh, my neighbor’s Catholic. They’re good.” Well, maybe not.
If the Catholic church has condemned the views at the very heart of what it means to come and be a Christian, that is by faith, then maybe your Catholic neighbor is not a Christian. Let’s get to one other Catholic practice that will make this more clear. The Mass. The Mass isn’t just a church service. It’s not just what they call “church”.
It is a sacrament, or a sacrifice, in their view. It is a way of receiving grace from God. Part of this is the Eucharist, or Communion. Once the bread and wine are blessed by the priest, who is called an alter Christus (literally “Another Christ” … That’s just a topic for another day. The fact that a man would take on the title “Another Christ”…. wow.)
Once the bread and the wine are blessed by the priest, on the Catholic view, they literally become the very body and blood of Jesus. Now, they don’t look like it, but nonetheless, that is the view. It is literally the sacrificed body and blood of Christ. They call it the “unbloody sacrifice” because it’s not bloody, but it is the same sacrifice Jesus did on the cross.
This sacrifice needs to be re-presented, reoffered to God the Father for the forgiveness of sins that have been committed since the last time you were at Mass. Let me ask you: When you read the New Testament, do you get a sense of finality from what Jesus did? Did Jesus on the cross say “It is finished”?
Did the author in Hebrews say we are done with sacrifices? That has come and gone. Christ was the one sacrificed for all? Yes. You should have a sense of finality. The sacrificial system of the Old Testament was incomplete. It never attempted to perfect the people for whom the sacrifices were offered. That’s why you had to keep offering sacrifices.
On the other hand, Christ’s sacrifice was the perfect sacrifice that perfects people perfectly. It does not need to be reoffered. It accomplished everything it needed to do once and for all on the cross, but the Roman Catholic says that Jesus didn’t accomplish it on the cross. Not enough. We need to constantly be re-presenting the sacrifice. We need to be reoffering it up.
Protestants who understand this issue would say that, “No. Christ was a perfect Savior who saved perfectly. Who covered all sin on the cross. It is not my works that save me.” This gets to the distinction and that large divide between Catholicism and Protestantism. The Catholic would say it is grace plus works. They’re not going to say that grace isn’t necessary.
The Necessity of Sufficiency of Grace?
Grace is very much necessary on the Roman Catholic view. Grace is necessary on the Protestant view. The issue was never whether grace was necessary. The issue is whether God’s grace is sufficient. It is the sufficiency of grace that is at the very heart of the gospel issue between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.
Now, what does that mean? Well, this means as a Catholic, you’re not just trusting in grace. You’re also trusting in your works to save you. If you are consistent, if you believe everything the Catholic church teaches and you practice it as they teach, you will be trusting in either the church and or your works in addition to the grace of God to save you.
But what does Paul say about this type of thing in Galatians? He says starting in verse 6 in chapter 1, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are following a different gospel. Not that there really is another gospel, but there are some who are disturbing you and wanting to distort the gospel of Christ.”
“But even if we, or an angel from heaven (he says, kind of sarcastically) should preach a gospel contrary to the one we preach to you, Let him be condemned to hell.” Behind the scenes there is that same Greek word “anathema”. Be accursed, be cut off, be condemned to hell. He continues. “As we have said before and now I say again, if anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let him be condemned to hell!”
“Am I now trying to gain the approval of people or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a slave of Christ.” Now, some of his thoughts sum up my thoughts. I understand that touching this topic is extremely unpopular. There are many apologists for Christianity who will not touch it.
Some apologists view their job as defending the Christian worldview (the intellectual commitments a Christian should have) I’ve said that type of thing in the past. However, that is not the job of the Christian. That is not the job of the apologist, the preacher or the theologian. The job of all of us as Christians is to defend the gospel!
That’s the call we get in 1 Peter 3:15. “Always be prepared to give an answer for the hope you have in Christ Jesus.” Not the hope you have in your worldview, your hope in Christ which is the very gospel that we received by grace through faith.
Paul here is calling down the anathema of God on people who would add one thing to the gospel. They were saying you need grace. Just like the Catholic church, grace is necessary, but you also need the works of the Old Testament law. Well, Catholicism is saying also that grace is not sufficient. You need the Catholic church. You need the sacrifice of the Mass.
You need many other things. Baptism, for one, also, in order to be a recipient of justification and to be justified in God’s eyes. That view does not square with Scripture. When I say the following statement, I hopefully will have somewhat convinced you by now that it is true. Here is what my main point is for today:
Rome Does Not Have the Gospel
Roman Catholicism does not have or teach the gospel of Jesus Christ. If you follow Catholic teaching, you believe what they teach and you practice it as such, I would be very surprised if when you get to heaven one day and to the pearly gates, that God says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
He will most likely say to you,” I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!” (Matthew 7:23) “I never knew you because you trusted in something besides Me for your salvation.” That’s just how important this issue is.
It’s not popular to talk about, but we need to talk about the things people believe in that will ultimately not perfect them. That will ultimately not bring them grace or peace or life everlasting. That’s why this is such an important topic. Is your Roman Catholic neighbor a Christian? A brother and sister in Christ? Well, I don’t know. Only God alone knows that.
That’s not a cop out. You could go to a Catholic church and be a Christian and trust in Christ alone for your salvation, but you would be a bad Catholic based on the definitions we’ve looked at today. If you claim to be justified by faith alone, then the Catholic church says, “You’re a bad Catholic.” That you should be cut off.
That’s exactly what it means to be a good Christian. To, by faith alone, trust in the sacrifice of Christ alone for your justification and for your salvation. That is the very view that the Roman Catholic church anathematizes, calls down the curse of God upon. Says you should be separated from the church for.
You could be a Roman Catholic and you could be a Christian if you hold to the Bible’s teaching on what’s required there. All too often, the issue is that Roman Catholics believe the church has as much or more authority than Scripture. So, the correct, biblical teaching can be a hard sell there.
You need to understand that your Catholic neighbor very well could need the gospel. That doesn’t mean you go around saying Catholics aren’t saved because I don’t know who is saved and who is not. There are plenty of people in the Baptist church that are not saved. I would apply this same standard to anyone. What are you trusting in for your justification?
If it’s not Christ, you’re not a Christian. That is a very weighty topic that’s difficult for me to talk about. I’m passionate about it and it’s not because I’m some type of Catholic basher. Far from it. The reason I bring this up is because there are a group of people out there that we should be caring more about, we should be more intentional with.
All too often, we don’t think about them because we think they’re good. The Jews, the Sadducees at the very least, and the Pharisees in Jesus’ day … They thought they were good. They were missing the boat and ultimately were going to be told “Depart from Me. I never knew you.” That is what we should not want for our Catholic neighbors, friends and family members.
I hope you’re a little more equipped now. I also hope your interest and curiosity is piqued because we’ve barely scratched the surface of the differences in Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. There are so many things we could talk about. For instance, the perpetual virginity of Mary or praying to saints or purgatory or the ability to give money to forgive sins. These type of things.
They are all secondary to what is at the heart of the gospel, which is justification. What are you trusting in and how do you get set right with God? I hope, Christian, that you will be a little more equipped to talk with a Catholic. Maybe ask some questions here and hopefully read some more on your own.
The Pope being in America is a great opportunity to bring up conversations about Catholicism and Protestantism and the differences. Let’s not be deceived to say, “Well, we agree on the Trinity. We agree on Jesus. That means we’re all good.” It doesn’t mean that. It doesn’t mean that at all.
This week, take some time to reflect on just what Christ did for you on the cross and your inability to accomplish that. That you could add nothing to the perfect sacrifice he offered. Our works will never factor into the equation because they could never be good enough. Praise God that when my works were not good enough, His one work covered all of my sin.
That is at the heart of the gospel. I pray this has been helpful and I look forward to spending this time with you next week on Unapologetic.
If you have questions or feedback, I’d love to hear from you!