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Roman Catholicism - The One True Church?

Fritz Ridenour

So What's The Difference?

To compare specific or particular differences between the Catholic Church and the many Protestant churches that came out of the Reformation would be a hopeless task.' For our purposes, we will compare the plumb line of biblical Christianity to the Roman Catholic Church regarding authority (Rome's claim to be the only "true church," with the exclusive right and ability to interpret the Word of God for believers) and salvation (how a person finds justification from his sins).


One of the major battle cries of the Protestant Reformation was sola scriptura "Scripture alone." The reformers rejected many Roman Catholic traditions and practices and argued for a Church that would base its doctrines and practice strictly on what the Bible teaches. But at the Council of Trent (1545 - 1563), the Roman Catholic Church rebuffed this teaching and retained the right and power to interpret the Holy Scriptures according to what it believed the Bible says.

During Vatican Council II (1962‑1965), the claims of Trent were simply upheld in a little different form. Among the Vatican Council II documents is the "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation" (Dei Verbum). A careful reading of the Del Verbum shows that the Roman Catholic Church believes that the apostles passed on their authority to succeeding bishops in the churches of the first century and the centuries that followed. As the years went by, the Church added certain teachings based on what it calls Sacred Tradition. Because the bishops supposedly possessed the same apostolic insight and wisdom as the apostles, the traditions they began to pass on were given equal weight with Scripture. Instead of sola scriptura (the Bible alone), the Catholic Church assumed and claimed the correct approach to be Scripture plus tradition.


The evangelical Protestant, a direct spiritual descendant of the Reformers of the sixteenth century, should understand that sola scrptura is not just an unfamiliar Latin phrase. Sola scriptura is a direct contradiction of the Roman Catholic claim that Scripture and Sacred Tradition are equal sources of spiritual authority. Following are basic reasons why Protestants stand on sola scriptura as their only basis for authority.

Sola scriptura means the Bible alone is all we need for our spiritual authority. All the things we need to know, believe and practice are clearly stated in the Scriptures, which are given by inspiration of God.

Anyone with common sense can understand what the Bible says in order to believe in Christ and be saved. At the same time, the Bible is not a catalogue containing all knowl­edge of everything - including religion. Some Roman Catholic apolo­gists claim that because the Bible does not include the many other things that Jesus did (see John 21:25), it is incomplete as the rule of faith. Protestants reply that the Bible is complete enough (sufficient) to teach the truth about redemption from sin. Scripture plainly says that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead you shall be saved (see Rom. 10:9). It does not mention the need to know all the other things that Jesus did.

Nor does sola scriptura mean that anyone can believe whatever he likes and interpret the Bible as he sees it. [.] The Church must remain subservient to the truth. The Protestant believer can trust his church only to the extent that it stays true to Scripture.

Also, to believe in sola scriptura does not deny that the Word of God was communicated for a time by word of mouth. Obviously, the gospel was passed on orally with amazing accuracy during the first 20 or 30 years of the Church's existence, before any of Paul's letters were written or any of the Gospels penned. But the point is, what was put down on paper as Scripture was essentially the spoken gospel message.

Roman Catholics maintain that the Bible is a "church‑based book" because the Church wrote or at least determined what comprised the New Testament. Evangelical Protestants say the Church discovered the New Testament as the Holy Spirit made clear which writings were authoritative and inspired. And never was the Church without the Scriptures. It had the Old Testament, which clearly pointed to the New, and it might be noted as well that New Testament writers often quot­ed from the Old Testament as they wrote under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit (see 2 Pet. 1:20,21).


Contrary to what some Protestants have thought over the years, Catholics are encouraged to read the Bible; however, they are not encouraged to interpret it for themselves. The Dei Verbum document confirms this idea when it says, "All that has been said about the man­ner of interpreting Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgment of the Church which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the Word of God." Evangelical Protestants, however, believe that the Holy Spirit guides individuals in learning what God has to tell them; believers are to search the Scriptures themselves (see John 16:13; Acts 17:11).

A key example of Roman Catholicism's insistence that it is the only accurate and authoritative source of interpretation of Scripture is Matthew 16:13‑20. In this passage, Jesus paused to ask His disciples, "Who do you say I am?" Peter tells Him that He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus tells Peter that only His Father in heaven could have revealed this truth to him and then adds the famous lines, And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven (vv. 18,19).

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Jesus named Peter the "rock" of his Church, gave him the keys and made him shepherd of the whole flock. "This pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles belongs to the Church's very foundation and is continued by the bish­ops under the primacy of the Pope who as Vicar of Christ and as pas­tor of the entire Church has full, supreme and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.

Evangelicals do not agree with Rome's interpretation. First, Jesus does not say directly that He will build his Church upon Peter himself, but upon "this rock." The Greek text clearly refers to Peter as Petros (meaning a small stone) and to "this rock" as petra (meaning a very large Gibraltar‑size rock).

At Vatican Council I (adjourned in 1870), in addition to the doctrine of papal infallibility, Catholic bishops proclaimed that the "Peter is the Rock" interpretation of Matthew 16 was the "clear doctrine of Holy Scripture as it has been ever understood by the Roman Catholic Church." On the contrary, many of the Church fathers believed that the rock mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 16 was the confession of faith made by Peter and not Peter himself.

The point is, down through the centuries, there has been no unanimous interpretation that Christ planned to make Peter the foundational rock on which the Church would be built. When the New Testament speaks of the Church's foundation, it always clearly identifies Christ as that foundation, and no one else (see 1 Cor. 3:11; Eph. 2:20; 1 Pet. 2:4‑8). In his own letters to the Church, Peter never assumed the title or authority of anything like a pope. He was an elder who urged his fellow elders to "be shepherds of God's flock" (1 Pet. 5:2).

As evangelical Protestants comb the pages of the New Testament, they do not find convincing proof for the claims of Rome regarding Peter. Conclusive evidence simply is not there, but Rome explains this by saying that tradition is to account for its interpretation of passages referring to Peter.

Building on its claim to be the only infallible authority as to what Scripture really means, the Catholic Church has understandably been rather subjective in interpreting various passages of Scripture to make the Bible fit or support its traditions. It is incorrect to say Roman Catholics have no scriptural base for their teachings. They find scriptural base either by directly interpreting certain passages to mean what they believe the passages mean or by finding their doctrines to be implicitly taught in Scripture. In other words, dogmas such as the immaculate conception, the bodily assumption of Mary, and papal infallibility are implied in Scripture and, when viewed according to the teachings of the papacy, they make perfectly good sense to Roman Catholics.

Another important doctrine held by Roman Catholics (and the Eastern Orthodox Church) is apostolic succession. This view grew out of the Church's move toward an episcopal type of government in the first and second centuries due to its fear of heresy and other concerns. Bishops became the most important officials in the Church and by the late second century were considered the supposed successors to the apostles, complete with their powers, authority and wisdom.

Evangelical Protestant scholars refuse to accept the principle of apostolic succession, a term that is not found in the New Testament. They find no "clear unbroken line of succession" reaching all the way back to the apostle Peter. (For more on apostolic succession, see chapter 3.)


Just as Protestants rely on sola scriptura (the Bible alone) for a source of final authority and truth, they rely on sola fide (faith alone) for their source of salvation. The Catholic, however, believes that the Christian must rely on faith plus "good works" and God's grace mediated through the Seven Sacraments. These are:

  • Baptism (see Matt. 28:19), for infants or adults, imparts sanctifying grace and erases original sin. The Catholic believer keeps sanctifying grace only through "spiritual battle" (following the program of good works).
  • Confirmation (see John 14:26) is the completion of baptism, the giving of the Holy Spirit in a fuller outpouring. Children who have been baptized are confirmed at age 12.
  • The Holy Eucharist (see Matt. 26:26‑28; John 6:35‑58) is also called Holy Communion and is the most important sacrament of the Catholic Church. During Mass, through the miracle of transubstantiation, Christ is re‑presented as an unbloody sacrifice for sins.
  • Penance (confession or reconciliation) (see John 20:19‑23) is how a Roman Catholic is forgiven by God - through the ministry of a priest - for the sins he commits after baptism.
  • Anointing of the Sick (see Jas. 5:14,15) was formerly called Extreme Unction. In performing this sacrament, the priest lays hands on the sick or dying believer, prays over him or her in the faith of the Church, and anoints the believer with oil blessed, if possible, by the bishop.
  • Holy Orders (see I Tim. 3: 1; 2 Tim. 1:6; Titus 2: 15) is the sacrament through which Catholic ministers are ordained at three levels: bishops, presbyters (priests) and deacons. Only bishops can confer the Sacrament of Holy Orders."
  • Matrimony (see Gen. 2:18, 21‑25; Eph. 5:22,33) is the sacrament in which Christ joins a Christian man and woman in a grace - giving, lifelong union. Divorce and remarriage cut the Catholic off from eucharistic communion but not from the Church.

Of the Seven Sacraments, the two most significant concerning doctrinal differences with Protestants are the Holy Eucharist and Penance. Roman Catholics believe that when the priest consecrates the bread and wine during the Mass, these elements are transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ. Catholics call this transubstantiation.

Mass is offered daily in every Catholic parish, and many Catholics take part daily or several times a week. The Catechism states that the Eucharist is a memorial of Christ's passover but also a sacrifice. Christ gives participants in Eucharist the very body that He gave up for mankind on the cross and the very blood that He poured out for the forgiveness of sins. [.]

When the Catechism speaks of Christ being "offered in an unbloody manner," it means that during the Mass, Christ is not suffering and dying again. [.] Instead, His great moment of sacrifice is re‑presented so that Catholic believers can be part of it.

Evangelical Protestants reason that there is no need for repeatedly re‑presenting Christ's sacrifice. There is no need for believers to become part of that sacrifice. Christ's death has made us righteous. We have no need for more forgiveness because Christ's one and only offering of Himself gained us all the forgiveness we could ever possibly need (see Heb. 9:27‑10:14). To continue to offer the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice is unnecessary and a contradiction of the true gospel.

Penance (confession) is another key sacrament because it involves "acts" or "penances" which the Roman Catholic must do to be forgiven for his or her sins. Catholics differentiate between "mortal" and "venial" sin. Mortal sins are grave offenses committed "with full knowledge and deliberate consent" and result in loss of sanctifying grace. If mortal sin is not confessed and forgiven, "it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell."

According to one Catholic writer, examples of mortal sin would include adultery, fornication, stealing, lying or drunkenness. Mortal sins also include blasphemy, refusing to help someone in serious need, religious discrimination or segregation that does serious harm, dwelling on lustful or hateful thoughts, seriously neglecting duty to family, job, country and the underprivileged.

Venial ("easily forgiven") sins are less serious offenses that can weaken the believer's faith and moral fiber but which do not result in the loss of sanctifying grace. Venial sins can include white lies, overeating or immoderate drinking, going a few miles over the speed limit, etc. While venial sins are less serious, they can weaken one's love for God and neighbor. [.]

Before asking forgiveness for mortal or venial sin, it is important to have sorrow or contrition brought on by examining the conscience. When confession is made to the priest, the Catholic believer's sins are absolved, but absolution does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. To recover full spiritual health, the sinner must do something more to make amends or make satisfaction for his sins (do "penance" ) .

The confessor (priest) assigns a penance that fits the gravity of the sin committed. Doing penance might involve repeating a certain number of prayers; acts of self‑discipline, such as fasting; doing prescribed "works of love", which could be anything from a kind word to patiently listening to someone.

Protestants would agree that all of these acts are good, but they should not be thought of or done as a means of earning or securing salvation. Protestants would also agree that confessing sins to one another is a beneficial practice (see Jas. 5: 16) that is too often ignored, and that a wise Christian can give a person a framework for accountability and spiritual growth. However, Protestants would insist that one believer cannot absolve another believer's sins. The believer's connection to God need not be mediated by a priest or anyone else, since Christ is the "one mediator" between God and man (1.Tim. 2:5).


While Roman Catholics place high value on their liturgy and sacramental system, it is incorrect to say that they believe they are "saved by

works." Roman Catholicism teaches that Christ's blood "has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men. At the same time, they insist that faith in what Christ did on the cross in and of itself is not enough.

Today the Catholic Church teaches what was reemphasized at the Council of Trent: For Catholic theologians, to "justify" means to make righteous and holy, therefore, justification and sanctification are considered to be the same process. For the Catholic, faith in Christ is the beginning of salvation and lays the foundation for justification. Then the Catholic builds on that with good works, because "man has to merit God's grace of justification and eternal salvation." Catholics believe that as they do good works, righteousness is infused into them, sin is eradicated and the soul merits heaven.

Protestants do not see justification in this way. Being justified doesn't mean that you have to be made righteous and holy but, instead, you already are declared righteous and holy even though you still have a sinful nature. Evangelical Protestants teach that people are declared righteous in God's sight for only one reason - their faith in what Christ did for them on the cross (see Rom. 3:21 - 5:21; 10:4; 1 Cor. 1:30, Phil. 3:9). Evangelical scholars believe that God's righteousness is imputed to Christians. [.]


After being justified by faith, evangelical Protestants believe they enter the process of sanctification, the progressive work of growing in Christ and becoming a mature Christian (see John 17:15‑19; 1 Cor. 1:1,2). Sanctification begins the moment we are saved (washed by regeneration and renewed in the Holy Spirit‑see Titus 3:5). The New Testament is full of admonitions, commands and instructions on how Christians are to live and grow in Christ. Most branches of evangelical Protestants believe that sanctification is "a process that continues throughout our Christian lives" as we work out our salvation while God works within (see Phil. 2:2‑13).

Works then, are very important to the evangelical Protestant and to the Roman Catholic, but each views works differently. Evangelical Protestants believe they are fully justified through faith in Christ and that this naturally leads to the fruit of good works, as they grow in the Christian life as God has planned for them to do (see Eph. 2:8‑10). Catholics, however, do not believe that faith alone provides justification but that they must work for justification all their lives. Catholics, in effect, blend justification and sanctification together as one process.


But even when Catholic believers do all the works required of them throughout their lives, to the best of their ability, they still are not assured of immediate entrance into heaven and into the presence of Christ at death. Except for certain exceptions, such as sainthood or martyrdom, Roman Catholics believe they do not pay sufficiently the temporal punishment for their sins through their acts of penance. They still expect to face punishment for sins in purgatory, a special place of cleansing where payment for sins is completed and believers are made fit for heaven.

Part of the Catholic reasoning for purgatory is that, because sinners have failed to make themselves perfect, they could not be happy with an all - perfect God (see Rev. 21:27), which describes heaven by saying: "Nothing impure will ever enter it". Purgatory, however, is not to be confused with being in hell for a short rime. Nor is it a torture chamber where God gets revenge on those who didn't work hard enough on Earth to prepare their souls for heaven. Purgatory is, instead, a paradox - a state of joy and yet of suffering. As the soul submits to the burning, purifying love of God, it sheds itself of immature self - love, and the "real self then emerges, perfected, totally absorbed in God".


Catholics believe that those in purgatory cannot help themselves, but Catholics left back on Earth can enable them to obtain heaven more quickly by praying for them, offering Mass for them and doing forms of good works, which includes gaining indulgences. According to the Catechism, those seeking indulgences want to shorten their own or someone else's time in purgatory.

Prayers and good deeds are two acts that can be endowed with the privilege of indulgences. According to the Catechism, the Church uses the power originally given to Peter to bind and loose sins (see Matt. 16:19) and can intervene in favor of individual Christians by opening for them a "treasury" of the merits of Christ and the saints (the spiritual treasury of the Church). So, in effect, when we speak of indulgences we are speaking of God "indulging" (being kind to) a believer by giving to the believer from an inexhaustible supply of spiritual merits that have accumulated in the Church's treasury through the work of Christ and the prayers and good works of the Virgin Mary and the saints. These merits are then used to cover the temporal punishment for venial or mortal sins that the believer did not finish paying for before death.

An indulgence is a kind of "pardon for sin" that can be partial or plenary (complete). A plenary indulgence can be granted only by the pope for the remission of a believer's entire temporal punishment. Much more common are partial indulgences, which can be granted by bishops, archbishops and cardinals. These partial indulgences are usually expressed in units of time - so many days or even years.

An indulgence of, say, 100 days, applied to a soul in purgatory means that the temporal punishment of that soul is reduced from what it would have been by 100 days, through penitence performed according to the Church's penitential system.


Scripture calls the virgin Mary highly favored and blessed among women, but to Roman Catholics Mary is much more. Special honor and veneration for the Virgin began in the early centuries of the Church and turned into what many evangelical Protestants believe is the pure and simple worship of Mary, which has finally reached the point of saying her role in Redemption is of equal importance with Christ's.

Catholics, however, have an answer for the "you worship Mary" charge by pointing out the different levels of worship used in the Catholic church: latria, adoration for the triune God alone; dulia, veneration due the angels and canonized saints; and hyperdulia, a category reserved for Mary alone in which she is given 'superveneration'.

Protestants note that the superveneration has grown through the centuries, beginning with tradition taught as early as the fourth century that Mary's virginity continued after the birth of Jesus and that she never had any more children. Other doctrines that grew out of tradition include the Immaculate Conception (she was conceived without sin and lived a sinless life), proclaimed dogma in 1854 by Pope Pius IX, and the doctrine of the Assumption (that she was taken up body and soul directly to heaven), proclaimed dogma in 1950 by Pope Pius XIL

Beginning in the late nineteenth and continuing into the twentieth century, several papal encyclicals referred to Mary in different ways as "Mediatrix" - co-mediator with Christ between God and man - and "Redemptrix," Christ's "associate in the redemption." Most explicit, perhaps, were the words of Pope Leo XIII in 1891: "As no man goeth to the Father but by the Son, so no man goeth to Christ but by His mother."

Vatican II documents claim that special titles for Mary neither take away nor add anything "to the dignity and efficacy of Christ the One Mediator." But for Protestants, Pope Leo's statement definitely obscures Christ's function as unique mediator and encourages Catholics to put Mary on too high a pedestal.


As the third millennium dawned, efforts continued to be made to bridge the gap between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Getting much attention during the final decade of the twentieth century was the work of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), which issued a statement in March 1994 entitled, "Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Commission in the Third Millennium." ECT does not officially represent denominations or churches. It is made up of pastors, priests, theologians and other leaders from Protestant and Roman Catholic ranks who have come together with "no official church sanctioning" but still seeking to find common ground for discussions that could produce unity at some level.

The ECT statement drew fire from some evangelicals who believed it had "sold out the Reformation" by asserting, "Evangelicals and Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ". It is not enough, said ECT's critics, to claim that Catholics and evangelicals can both subscribe to the same Nicene or Apostles' Creed. The major issues authority and salvation, or how one truly is saved - are still there. The ECT critics believe that to speak of Catholics and evangelicals as "brothers and sisters in Christ" was to confuse their entirely different ways of looking at just what it means to be saved and justified before God.

In late 1997, participators in ECT from both sides came together to draft what appeared to be a groundbreaking statement called "The Gift of Salvation." In this statement, signed by leading evangelicals and Catholics alike, are the following quotations:

1.  We agree that justification is not earned by any good works or merits of our own; it is entirely God's gift, conferred through the Father's sheer graciousness, out of the love that He bears us in his Son, Who suffered on our behalf and rose from the dead for our justification.

2.  In justification, God, on the basis of Christ's righteousness alone, declares us to be no longer His rebellious enemies but His forgiven friends.

3.  We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide).

While the above statements seem to say that at least some Roman Catholics now agree with Reformation thinking about justification by faith, it must be pointed out that the statement was drafted by men who "speak from and to, but not for, their different church communities." This is not an official statement from Rome nor is it endorsed by official Protestant denominations. The Gift of Salvation statement goes on to point out that, while those who drafted it rejoice in their unity, they also recognize that many questions remain for urgent exploration, including:

  • The meaning of baptismal generation, the Eucharist and sacramental grace.
  • Historic uses of the language of justification as it relates to imputed and transformative righteousness.
  • The assertion that while justification is by faith alone, the faith that receives salvation is never alone.
  • Diverse understandings of merit, reward, purgatory and indulgences.
  • Marian devotion and the assistance of the saints in the life of salvation.

Whether or not the work of ECT will finally reach the official halls of the Roman papacy or the council tables of leading Protestant denominations and churches is hard to predict. Some evangelical critics of ECT and The Gift of Salvation statement point out that, because the issues listed above remain to be discussed, there is not any real agreement between Catholics and evangelicals on justification by faith. [.]


Regarding authority:

  • Catholics claim that Scripture and "Sacred Tradition" are equal in authority." Protestants say the Bible is the sole guide for faith and practice (see 2 Tim. 3:16,17; 1 John 5:13).
  • Rome says the magisterium (teaching authority of the Roman Church) has been entrusted to interpret the Bible for Catholics, who are not to interpret it for themselves. Protestants say that individual Christians can trust the Holy Spirit for guidance as they read and interpret the Bible for themselves (see John 5:39; 14:26).
  • Catholicism teaches that Peter was the first pope, and that through apostolic succession other popes have succeeded him, each serving as "vicar of Christ";
  • Protestants insist the apostles had equal authority and there was no "pope," a word not found in the New Testament (see Matt. 18:18; John 20:23).
  • Catholics teach that the pope is infallible when he speaks "ex cathedra" (lit. "from the chair" or with authority) on matters of faith and morals; Protestants reply that no human being is infallible, and only Christ is head of the Church (see Eph. 1:22; Col. 1:18).

Regarding salvation:

  • Catholics claim that salvation is secured by faith in Christ plus good works and grace conferred through the seven sacraments of the Church; Protestants reply that salvation is secured through sola fide (faith alone) in Jesus Christ's atoning sacrifice on the cross (see Rom. 3:24; Eph. 2:8,9).
  • Catholics blend justification and sanctification into one process as the believer must work to merit eternal life; Protestants believe God justifies the believer by declaring him or her righteous, and that sanctification is a lifelong process of becoming holy as God works within (see John 17:15‑19; Phil. 2:12,13).
  • Catholics believe they cannot pay for all their sins in this life, and at death they go to purgatory for an undetermined time to be made totally fit for heaven; Protestants, believing they are justified by faith in Christ and nothing else, trust that they will go straight to heaven where sanctification is completed in Christ's presence (see 2 Cor. 5:6‑10; 1 John 2:28‑3:2).

© 2001, Gospel Light/Regal Books, Ventura, CA 93003, Used by Permission

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