Many people are unclear about the significant theological differences between Roman Catholicism and historic Protestant Christianity. Essentially these are two separate religions.
Note: In an effort not to distort the teaching of the Roman Catholic church, we have cited references from an authoritative source, the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, imprimatur from eminent Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and the “Holy See,” copyright 1994. Ratzinger is Prefect of the “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”
Subjects: Salvation through Faith by Grace Alone | Salvation in Christ Alone | Mary | Pope and Infallibility | The Mass | Purgatory | The Priestly System | Other Differences | Conclusion
Salvation through Faith by Grace Alone
Rediscovery of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone, more than any other truth, ignited the Protestant Reformation. On what grounds is a sinner accepted in the presence of a holy God? Acceptance is based on the “righteousness of God in Jesus Christ” (see Romans 3:19-24 below). It is a righteousness wholly outside the sinner, accomplished by Christ, and imputed to him through the one God-given means—faith in the Savior, acceptance of His gift of eternal life.
God's Word says:
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
-Romans 3:19-24 (NIV, emphasis added)
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.
-Ephesians 2:8-9 (NIV, emphasis added)
(also see Romans 5:1, 11:6; Galatians 3:6; Ephesians 2:5, 3:7; Philippians 3:9; Titus 2:11, 3:7; I Timothy 1:14)
Man is justified by baptism plus faith, plus additional works (see Catholic Catechism Ref. Nos. 1265-1271, 1987-1995). The Holy Spirit's transforming work in the sinner becomes the grounds, along with faith, for justification. Most good Catholics are therefore very concerned with “being good enough,” “meriting,” and “earning” their salvation.
The Catholic Catechism says of baptism, for example: "Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte 'a new creature,' an adopted son of God, who has become a ‘partaker of the divine nature,’ member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit" (Catechism 1265, emphasis added). "… Justified by faith in Baptism, [they] are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians" (Catechism 1271).
Protestant Christians believe that "WE ARE JUSTIFIED BY GRACE ALONE, THROUGH FAITH ALONE, BECAUSE OF CHRIST ALONE." The Catholic faith does not accept this statement. Catholicism adds human righteousness to the requirements, including that we must:
But when it comes to salvation, the apostle Paul said of his own righteous works:
I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.
-Philippians 3:8-9 (NIV)
Where justification by faith alone is not clearly understood and taught, “another gospel” is being proclaimed. Galatians includes a stern warning about those who proclaim “another gospel.”:
I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.
-Galatians 1:6-9 (NKJV)
The Bible says that Christ is the only way of salvation. Biblical Protestant convictions have always been that no sinner can be saved apart from the saving work of Christ granted to him through faith. Christ's word, "No one comes to the Father except through Me," means that those only who are united to Christ will be saved; all others will die in their sins and suffer the wrath of God in hell forever.
The Catholic church teaches that only through faith in Christ plus Catholic baptism is salvation granted. There are exceptions; e.g., in the cases of martyrs for the faith (Catechism 1258), and infants dying without baptism (Catechism 1261).
The Second Vatican Councils Decree on Ecumenism states: "For it is through Christs Catholic Church ALONE, which is the universal help toward salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained" (emphasis added).
Furthermore, Catholicism teaches that all mankind, whether they come to faith in Christ or not, if they have a desire to please God and to be right with Him, though ignorant of Jesus Christ, can be saved! Hosts of Protestants and many adherents of all other religions, may be saved because they receive the benefits of Catholic baptism through their ignorance and desire!
Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.
This doctrine called “Rapprochement.” makes Catholicism a kind of universal religion, placing all religions to some degree under its umbrella. All people are thus capable of being saved, even in their unbelief (see Catechism 1257-1261).
The Bible says:
Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.
-John 14:6 (KJV)
Protestants have historically held Mary in high regard as a godly and highly favored woman of God, a sinner saved by the grace of her divine Son.
Catholic dogma, on the other hand, has exalted her in an irresponsible and idolatrous way. She is declared to have been free from all original sin (the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, first declared in 1854; Catechism 491-492), free from any actual sin during her life (Catechism 411), and perpetually a virgin even after the birth of Jesus (Catechism 499-500).
Mary… was redeemed from the moment of her conception… preserved immune from all stain of original sin.
Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long.
Allegedly, Mary was taken, body and soul, into heaven (Catechism 974). This is the dogma of the “Assumption of Mary,” declared in the year 1950! In heaven, Mary supposedly intercedes for the church as "advocate, helper, benefactress, and mediatrix" (Catechism 969). She is made virtually a co-savior with her Son (Catechism 968). Recently, an increasing number of prominent Catholics have petitioned the church to officially declare that Mary can provide forgiveness of sins!
These doctrines are so far afield from the Scriptures that biblical Protestants are amazed and saddened.
The Bible says:
For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.
-1 Timothy 2:5 (KJV)
Jesus Christ of Nazareth… Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.
-Acts 4:10-12 (KJV)
Catholicism teaches the dogma of the infallibility of the Roman pontiff. This was not declared by the church until the year 1870. Yet through the church's motto of Semper idem (“Always the same”), it is claimed that the church has always held this, going back to the first Pope, the Apostle Peter! (Catechism 80-82, 85).
The pope, as the vicar (deputy, substitute for, representative) of Christ, is considered infallible only when he speaks “ex cathedra” (“from the chair”). But, as the reference below makes very clear, this tradition, along with other traditions of the church, is considered to be as authoritative as the Scriptures.
As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honoured with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.
—Catechism 82 (emphasis added)
Thus, for the Roman Catholic, submission to the formal teaching of the church's tradition is as important as submission to the Scriptures.
The Protestant Reformation restored to the body of Christ the doctrine of sola scriptura (“Scripture alone”). The Roman Catholic faith has shown a willingness to raise the pope above Jesus Christ and the Bible by giving him the right to nullify Scripture through papal decrees. The conscience of the biblical Protestant (like that of Martin Luther) is bound by the Bible alone. "The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God, the only infallible rule for faith and life." It cannot be both ways. The traditions of the churches are often of value. But these traditions must always be subordinate to, and constantly corrected by, the Scriptures, which alone are the Word of God.
A Catholic mass is by definition the sacrifice of Christ (Catechism 1322, 1338). The Baltimore Catechism (Confraternity Edition of 1949) says, "Christ gives us His own body and blood in the holy Eucharist first, to be offered as a sacrifice commemorating and renewing for all time the sacrifice of the cross" (Catechism 356). While the Catholic catechisms quote the passages that speak of Christ dying once, they also teach that the priest miraculously transforms the bread and wine into Christ's real body, and that Jesus is then sacrificed anew.
Although there is some variation among Protestants on the meaning of the Lord's supper, without exception biblical Protestants teach that the sacrament is not a renewal or a revisitation of the bodily sacrifice of Christ. Rather it is a remembrance and a memorial use of symbols blessed by God to the benefit of the humbled believer.
This contrast is far more than a controversy of words. It goes to the very heart of the difference between Catholicism and Protestant Christianity. Protestant faith denies that the church has the power to perform the mass's “miracle of transubstantiation,” and it further denies that the Lord's Supper's purpose is to see accomplished the death of Christ all over again.
Nor did He [Jesus Christ] enter heaven to offer himself again and again…
-Hebrews 9:25 (NIV) (see Hebrews 9:25-10:18)
The Roman Catholic Church does not teach its people to have confidence in the full forgiveness of their sins through the death of Christ alone. Nor are they taught that the righteousness of God accomplished by Jesus Christ is their permanent possession. The result is that the faithful Catholic is taught never to come to full assurance of salvation during their Earthly life, for they are still capable of committing “mortal sin.” A Catholic's redemption is always dependent on their maintaining a faithfulness to the Church's doctrine and practice.
Thus Catholics are taught that when they die, if they have not committed mortal sins (and with the exception of the special class of believers they call “saints”), all go to the place the church calls purgatory. The Catechism states, "All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven…"
"The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent" (Catechism 1030-1031). This concept of purgatory led to the unbiblical Catholic doctrine of prayers for the dead (Catechism 1032). Catholic believers are taught that "it is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins" (Catechism 958).
Does God's Word teach about purgatory? There is no mention of purgatory in the 66 books of the Bible, and since the orthodox biblical view of forgiveness assures redeemed sinners that their sins have all been paid in Christ, the doctrine of purgatory is rejected by Protestants as an erroneous addition to the Bible. Furthermore, we believe that it has been created by the church out of virtual necessity, as its view of the inadequacy of Christ's death demands such a doctrine.
This doctrine simply fits with Catholicism's whole system of justification by faith plus works—a keystone of Catholic theology. There is no possible way to reconcile Catholic teaching with Protestant teaching or the Bible on this point. Purgatory is part of a false gospel.
The Old Testament clearly established a priesthood (the Levites) to serve Israel. This Earthly priesthood was a symbol of the Messiah's eternal priesthood. The book of Hebrews explains its purpose and fulfillment. Historic Protestantism, because of its study of the Scriptures, proclaimed the “universal priesthood of all believers.” The special office of priest was fulfilled in our Savior, and thus came to an end in Him.
Although Catholicism acknowledges this universal priesthood, it sustains a “weak and beggarly element” of the old covenant and assigns to its priests remarkable power as pastors of the church. This system is essential to the power of the Catholic Church and cannot be justified by the Bible.
One of the finest scholars of Roman Catholic Scripture, Raymond E. Brown, shocked Catholics when he discovered that:
When we move from the Old Testament to the New Testament, it is striking that while there are pagan priests and Jewish priests on the scene, no individual Christian is ever specifically identified as a priest. The Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of the high priesthood of Jesus by comparing his death and entry into heaven with the actions of the Jewish high priest who went into the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle once a year with a offering for himself and for the sins of his people (Hebrews 9:6-7).
But it is noteworthy that the author of Hebrews does not associate the priesthood of Jesus with the Eucharist or the Last Supper; neither does he suggest that other Christians are priests in the likeness of Jesus. In fact, the once-for-all atmosphere that surrounds the priesthood of Jesus in Hebrews 10:12-14, has been offered as an explanation of why there are no Christian priests in the New Testament period.
Biblical Protestantism repudiates the Catholic priesthood system, and would consider its proposed imposition a radical violation of its conscience before God.
Veneration of statues and images (see Exodus 20:4-5 - "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the Earth beneath… You shall not bow down to them or worship them…")
…and more (this list is by no means complete)
There are undoubtedly true believers in Christ in the Roman Catholic Church. But the Catholic theological and ecclesiastical system, in spite of holding to some essential Christian truths, is a false system. It leads people to trust in the church, or in themselves, for salvation. It places the church's dogmas on par with the Bible. It proclaims false views of God, of man, of sin, and of salvation.
Protestant Christians should love Catholic people, pray for them, and seek to lead them to the Christ of the Bible for salvation, and then urge them to leave the Roman Catholic church to join a congregation that is true to God's Word where they can learn and grow in fellowship with other believers.
1. Raymond E. Brown, Priest and Bishop: Biblical Reflections (New York: Paulist Press, 1970).
This answer adapted from "Is ‘Back to Rome’ the Way to Go", Covenanter Witness, October 1996. Originally written by J. Paul McCracken, pastor of Springs Reformed Church in Colorado Springs, CO. Adapted for use in the Christian Answers Network by George Martin of Summit Ministries. Used by permission. Edited and expanded by Paul S. Taylor, Films for Christ, Executive Director, Christian Answers Network.
If you are not sure whether you will spend eternity in Heaven, read this.
Also see: Can a saved person ever be lost?
Read the enlightening Why are Catholic priests giving up their “religion” to follow Christ? personal testimony of a former devout Irish Catholic priest who left the Roman Catholic Church. See why when he discovered the truth of the true gospel he had to give up his “religion” to follow Christ. This former priest has now written a book compiling the testimonies of 50 converted Catholic Priests.
For a deeper discussion of the differences between Protestant Christianity and Roman Catholicism, see:
Evangelicals and Catholics Together, John F. MacArthur, Jr.
Irreconcilable Differences: Catholics, Evangelicals, and the New Quest for Unity, R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, D. James Kennedy, and John Ankerberg