This summer as part of our vacation, we went to Rome. In the heart of Rome, in the center of it, is the Vatican. It is a country surrounded, landlocked, by another country. The Vatican is actually it’s own country in the middle of the country of Italy. It’s kind of interesting. It’s also the only country with a religious leader, who is also the head of state. The Pope is technically the ruler of the country of the Vatican, but he is also the head of the Catholic Church.
Well, we went to tour the Vatican, and this was not my first time there. I went in around 9th grade, when my mother took me on a trip to Europe. I will tell you that what I remember from back then and what I remember from today, while being quite similar, is also remarkably different. I’d like to talk about a few things that are actually of significance to us as Christians, living in America today. As Christians living at this time in history.
You know, it’s interesting, the Vatican is magnificently beautiful. Some people might actually say too ornate. Setting that aside, you walk in and it’s magnificent. The architecture, just how things are carved and painted and sculpted. It’s remarkable. It’s incredible. Then, there’s that moment when I had to bring myself back and think, “You know what, I have to remember what happens here.”
You look up front to the magnificently beautiful altar, and you think, “Well, what happens there? Oh, that’s where the Mass takes place.” The mass is one of those things that isn’t just a service, like Christians or Protestants or whomever would go to church on Sunday. The mass is a special type of thing, which contains the Eucharist, which is where they believe the real body and real blood of Christ are transformed on the altar when the priest, who is called an “alter Christus” (“another Christ”, someone who stands in the place of Christ, which should be very troubling to us) blesses those elements and they are said to turn into the real body and blood of Christ, even though they still look like real bread and real wine.
Then, that Mass, that sacrifice of the Mass as it’s called, is taken for the forgiveness of sins. By taking that, your sins are forgiven. What is said, is that Christ’s work on the Cross is not finished in Roman Catholicism. You must continually reapply it. It does not perfect. It does not accomplish once and for all what Jesus offered it to accomplish. We constantly have to be reapplying this sacrifice of Jesus Christ, because we were not justified once and for all as we talked about last week (that legal declaration of non-guilt). That didn’t happen once and for all on a Roman Catholic view.
This is why they continually have to offer sacrifices for the forgiveness of their sins. That sounds a whole lot like the Old Testament law, doesn’t it? Continual sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins that don’t perfect the people they’re offered for. Whereas, Christianity … And I understand I’m making a distinction between Roman Catholicism and Christianity. (Here’s a podcast where I go into this in more detail) On Christianity, there was a once and for all sacrifice for sin. It was Jesus on the Cross. It doesn’t need to be continually reapplied. It doesn’t wear off. It doesn’t have an expiration date, but this is not what Roman Catholicism teaches.
I’m standing there—to come back to my story—and I’m transfixed by just how magnificent this building is, but I have to remember what happens here. What happens here is the finality and efficacy of Jesus’ atoning work on the Cross is actually blasphemed on Sundays, and every other day there’s a mass there. You need to come back to mass to get your sins forgiven, because only the church can forgive your sins this way. This sacrifice of the Mass is offered continually. That’s not what Christianity teaches.
It’s interesting that sometimes the things that look really good to us, actually, when we think about what they mean and their significance, are actually not good at all.
Another thing that was interesting and perhaps most noteworthy about my trip to the Vatican was, as we were walking up with our tour guide, who was a local specialist who knows all about the Vatican. She says, “There’s this door here, and you’ll see it’s really busy. A lot of people are walking through it. This is the door that you all can walk through if you want. If you walk through it, your sins will be forgiven.” You might think, “No, she was kidding.” No, she was serious. This is a real thing.
The Pope has declared, as part of his Papal authority in the Roman Catholic Church, a Year of Jubilee. Now that phrase, jubilee, may sound familiar from the Old Testament. It was a year when debts were forgiven among other things. Well, the Pope has declared a Year of Jubilee. What this means is there’s this special door, an entrance, into the Vatican that is un-bricked and opened only for this time. Whoever walks through it will have their sins forgiven.
Now, everyone in my group goes to enter the Vatican, and my wife and I do not go through that door. We’re the only ones in our group who did not walk through the door that forgives sins. Or, I should say, leads to sins being forgiven. The Catholic Church would probably not say it’s the door that’s forgiving sins. They would say it’s the application of what Jesus did on the Cross that is applied to you as a result of walking through the door. You’ll be extremely hard pressed to find anything close to that in the Bible.
The only way that happens is when you have an authority, a man-made authority called the Pope, who can declare things and is believed to speak for God in that way, over and above what is in Scripture. Now, there are many other things we could talk about here, but I want to talk about why I didn’t walk through the door and the problems I think exist with the door.
The first thing is I don’t think it would be necessarily wrong to walk through the door, because I don’t think my sins are going to be forgiven, or not forgiven, or anything like that because of the door. I wanted to make a statement to the people we were touring with that I wasn’t going through the door. I wanted that to be visible. Now, when I did walk through the other door, I did say, “Thank you, Jesus, you had me at the Cross.” That’s not why I didn’t walk through the door, primarily, though.. I wanted them to realize that I didn’t need to walk through the door, or at least I wasn’t participating in this, with the hopes—and this is key—that we’d have a conversation about it.
There actually was one such conversation. It wasn’t the great conversation I’d hoped for, but at the very least I could tell people, if the issue arose, why I didn’t walk through the door. There was a finished work that Christ performed on the Cross that doesn’t need to be reapplied, that doesn’t need me to come to the Vatican to walk through a door. No! I have this personal relationship that is not mediated by the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is not the mediator; that’s not found in Scripture. That’s not how it works. That’s why I didn’t walk through the door.
Now, you may have made a different decision, but at the very least I was hoping that my action would signify something that could lead to a fruitful conversation. I do want to talk about this idea of the door a little more.
Like I said, you will find nowhere in Scripture where as a part of the New Covenant, which Christians participate in, that there are these rituals they have to do in order to have sins forgiven. Nowhere does it say that your sins will be forgiven if you participate in the Mass of the Catholic Church. Nowhere does it say that baptism forgives sins, which is the teaching of the Catholic Church. Nowhere does it say that giving indulgences or paying money can lead to the forgiveness of sins, like the Catholic Church says it can. And on and on and on.
But you know what, there is a door through which one can go that will lead to their sins being forgiven. In John 10:9, Jesus says, “I am the door. If anyone enters through me, he will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” There is a door, but it’s not a physical door. It’s not in a specific location. It’s not only mediated by the Catholic Church. It is the person and work of Jesus Christ. If we enter through him, the narrow door Scripture says, he is the only way, the only truth, the only life. The only person who can come to the Father is the one who goes through him, because he is that door.
That should be a breath of fresh air to us. When we realize that his saving work is not applied to us because of a ritual. It’s not applied to us because of a participation in a specific church that has a specific authority as its head. It’s applied to us because of the saving grace of God, that anyone who comes and submits themselves to Christ can receive. Jesus is the door; there’s not a physical door. It’s not in a ritual. It’s not in a law. It’s not in the Old Covenant. It’s in the New grace-filled Covenant. Grace through faith alone.
Jesus is the door, and Jesus also is the vine, he says, and we are the branches. “If you remain in me, and I in you, you will bear much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing.” Now, what the Catholic Church says is apart from us, you are not in the true church. Now, they would not say, necessarily, that you can’t be a Christian. In the same way that I would say, “Just because you’re a Roman Catholic doesn’t mean you’re not a Christian.” But these two things are opposed to each other.
Jesus is the one we must abide in to be righteous. Jesus is the one we come through to be justified. Not the Catholic Church. In spite of its long history, which we’ll talk about at another time. In spite of its claims and years of Jubilee. In spite of all of that, Jesus is the one, the only one, who can forgive sins. That relationship is not mediated through a church. In fact, 1 Timothy 2:5 says, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men. The man Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”
When we need to pray, when we need our sins forgiven, who do we go to? Well, we go to Jesus, because he’s the only mediator between God and man. Not a priest, not a church, not a Pope, not a bishop. Jesus. Jesus is the one we go through, because of what he did on the Cross, because he’s our mediator. We have direct access to him. We do not go through a sacrificial system anymore. Praise God for that. The law was a weight, and it was a teacher; but it was also a curse, Paul says. Jesus fulfilled that, and as a result, we can go directly to and through him to get to God, the Father. That should be, like I said, a breath of fresh air.
What I hope you see, is that it’s very contrary to what the Catholic Church says, where you need to come and confess your sins to a priest and maybe be given some type of penance to be done to atone for your sins. As if you could ever atone for your sins. That’s another issue.
Why talk about this? Why am I talking about the Catholic faith? Some people say that I’m picking on them; they are Christians. Some of them are. But if you follow everything the Catholic Church teaches, you are actually very opposed to the teaching of the Bible and the New Testament. Very opposed. We’ve hit on several of these issues today. And here are some others.
They make the case that if you believe what most evangelicals today do, if you believe that salvation is by grace through faith alone, they condemn you for that view. It’s not like one side is very accepting, because it isn’t. Both sides draw lines. They help us to understand the truth of things, and they allow us to distinguish between different points of view.
I hope you can see that there can never be a door, through which you can go, that forgives sins. Unless that door is the person and work of Jesus Christ. Anyone who says otherwise is perverting the Gospel of Jesus.
I look forward to talking with you next time on “Unapologetic”.