Clarifying Terms in Catholic Evangelism (Part 1)

Adapted from VOICE, July/Aug 2015. Used with permission.

During recent years I have been able to present a seminar in several churches aimed at helping them more effective­ly and lovingly evangelize lost Roman Catholic people. When I receive feedback from the partici­pants, one of the most helpful parts of the seminar seems to be the comparison of terms that are differently understood by most Roman Catholic and evangelicals.

Often evangelicals will conclude that a particular Roman Catholic person is saved because of the use of certain terms. They may say, “Yes I was born again,” or “Yes, I have received Christ,” or “Yes, I believe I am going to heaven based on faith.” However, in many cases their Catholic friend actually means something different than our Bible-based understanding.

The differences in meaning are real and determinative when one attempts to commu­nicate the biblical grace gospel. God gave us the Holy Scriptures as a written revelation of “words,” words with intended meaning, and meaning with intention of being understood.

In this article I will present, in summary form, several examples of terms that need clarifi­cation in the process of sharing the Gospel with our Roman Catholic friends.


This issue often arises in a person’s mind and sometimes is expressed verbally with questions like, “How do I really know what truth is?” or “Who am I to believe when I hear what appear to be contradictory ideas about how to get to heaven?” or “We are just sharing different opin­ions and my opinion is as valid as yours.”

As Biblicists our ultimate authority is the inerrant Holy Scriptures. We attempt to be dili­gent in developing accurate understanding of biblical/theological terms. A logical question might be, “well, doesn’t a Roman Catholic per­son do the same?” A typical Roman Catholic lay person may or may not understand he has a different approach to the authority issue. Three important tenants of hierarchical Roman

Catholicism dominate the approach to the issue of what the truth is supposed to be for them.

First, even in the post-Vatican II environ­ment, the official Roman Catholic position is that Tradition (note capital “T”) is authoritative alongside, if not above, Scripture. Note this state­ment in The Documents of Vatican II :

[B]oth sacred tradition and sacred scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense and devo­tion and reverence … . Sacred tradition and sacred scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, which is committed to the church.1

Second, according to the Roman Catholic approach to hermeneutics (i.e. Bible interpreta­tion) as declared in The Documents of Vatican II (p. 118), “The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed down, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church.” Thus what the Roman Catholic Church declares a passage of Scripture to mean is considered to be the infallible interpretation in the mind of a Roman Catholic person.

Third, the official Roman Catholic dogma emphatically declares that apostolic authority to govern the church belongs to the Pope and the bishops:

[T]he apostles took care to appoint suc­cessors in this hierarchically structured society… Therefore, this sacred synod (Vatican II) teaches that by divine institution bishops have succeeded to the place of the apostles as shepherds of the Church, and that he who hears them, hears Christ. (The Documents of Vatican II, pp. 39-40)

Payment of Sin Penalty

We understand the Bible to teach that the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross was and is the adequate—and the only adequate—payment for the penalty for sin pronounced upon mankind by God. It satisfied the just demands of God. Therefore, He can now justify, forgive and deliver us from condemnation while remaining a just God (Romans 3:26). And Christ’s death was a “once for all event” (Hebrews 9:24-28; 10:10-12). He will not, He cannot, be crucified again as payment for sin.

Roman Catholic dogma declares the necessity of the death of Christ as a payment for sin. However, they teach that Christ’s one death is not considered a sufficient payment. This represents a major deficiency in their thinking. Follow carefully these statements from The Complete and Updated Catechism of the Catholic Church, hereafter referred to as The Catechism.2 This work is wide­ly considered the most accurate and authoritative post Vatican II instruc­tion manual for Roman Catholics (and it bears the imprimatur dated in 1994 of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who later served as Pope Benedict XVI).

The new life received in Christian initiation [baptism] has not abolished… the inclination to sin… which remains in the baptized such that with the help of the grace of Christ they may prove themselves in the struggle of the Christian life. This is the struggle of conversion directed towards holiness and eternal life to which the Lord never ceases to call us. (Paragraph 1426, emphasis mine)

Grave sin [commit­ted after baptism, which placed us in the Church] deprives us of commu­nion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the ‘eternal punish­ment’ of sin. (Paragraph 1472)

In other words, committing a grave sin after one is in the body of Christ by grace changes our standing such that eternal life has been lost. So according to The Catechism,

Christ instituted the sacra­ment of Penance for all sinful members of his Church, above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace… It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justi­fication. (Paragraph 1446)

These and numbers of other state­ments could be included. In summary, the official Roman Catholic view is that the death of Christ was necessary to get one started along the way toward eternal life, toward heaven. But once a person gets sidetracked by sin, he loses this “gift of grace” and must be converted again. And this conversion requires some works on his part, in order to estab­lish once again a life he hopes will lead to eternal life. In other words, the one death of Christ was not sufficient to pay for all future sins.

When one considers the impli­cations, this is a huge difference in understanding.


1 Walter M. Abbott and Joseph Gallagher, The Documents of Vatican II (New York: New York Guild, 1966), p. 117

2 The Complete and Updated Catechism of the Catholic Church, (Double Day, 1995). The numbers indicating location of the informa­tion are paragraph numbers not page numbers. This book was originally published as Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican City, Rome: Urbi et Orbi Communications, 1994).

Larry Miller bio

Larry Miller is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and ministered as a pastor for over 30 years in Louisiana. He is currently Executive Director of Equippers Ministry International, a ministry to assist in lovingly evangelizing Roman Catholics. He is a member of IFCA International.

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Rob Fall's picture

a Roman Catholic may use the same vocabulary, but he is using a different dictionary.

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

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