Areas of disagreement between Roman Catholics and evangelicals
(4) A different view of justification
The most tragic difference between traditional Catholics and biblical evangelicals is that they disagree on how a person is justified before God. There is nothing more important than how an individual is declared not guilty before God so that he possesses forgiveness and acceptance by God. This issue was at the heart of the Reformation and drove Luther and Calvin perhaps more than all other issues. On the evangelical side is an array of passages, especially in John’s Gospel (3:15-18; 5:24, etc.), Acts (16:30-31), Romans (1:17; 3:20-24; 4:1-5; 5:1, etc.), Galatians (2:15-21), and Ephesians (2:5-10). These texts demonstrate that justification and salvation come to an individual by faith and faith alone apart from any good deeds or works of the law—what is called Sola Fide. These are not isolated and obscure teachings. These are major themes in the Bible. Many more passages could be added to the list. The clarity of the truth of justification by faith alone in Christ alone is one of the central doctrines in evangelicalism and certainly the most important experientially since souls are at stake.
However, the Roman Catholic position opts for a different approach. To be sure it says much about grace and gives the teaching that salvation is only by the merits of Christ. In a manner of speaking the Catholic participant of the sacramental system dips into these merits and receives the grace of God. It is in this sense Catholics can say they are trusting in Christ and his merits and grace for salvation:
We say that the sacraments are seven signs instituted by Christ to confer the grace they signify. And more broadly we hold that the Catholic Church is the great sacrament of the New Law that Christ founded to be the unique channel of grace to all mankind, with special title to those who are baptized and active members of the Mystical Body of Christ. But no matter how conceived, the sacraments are so far significant and membership in the Church so much more appreciated if we see the great mysteries of Christ in their true perspective as visible and human agencies for the transmission of invisible divine blessings to the human race.1
Notice the mention specifically of the seven sacraments.2 In general the participation of the individual in the Church brings grace to that person. The alert evangelical will understand that saving grace is what is meant. The sacraments cannot be subsumed under a category of “only” sanctifying grace as commonly understood in evangelicalism.3
Evangelicals protest the assertion by Catholics that they are not “meriting” grace through their good deeds expressed in the sacramental system. Biblical evangelicals view this system as a works-salvation approach to receiving eternal life. Catholic denials will not assuage this concern. The Apostle Paul notes, in a context about the remnant of Israel, that good deeds and grace were mutually exclusive: “And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace” (Rom 11:6). The evangelical stands in harmony with this apostolic teaching. Catholics speak of grace but do not practice it for salvation. If its transmission is by the actions of men in sacramental ways, then Paul’s teaching is violated.
Beyond the general contradiction between the Bible and Catholic teaching on justification are the specifics along the way. In Catholicism, water baptism (usually of infants) takes away original sin on the soul.4 Yet the Bible is clear that the gospel which saves the soul (1 Cor 15:1-4) does not include water baptism (1 Cor 1:17). Thus, to participate in the practice in the Roman Church is to depart from biblical teaching. In Catholicism, penance is practiced as a precondition to communion. Simply understood, penance is doing something good to make up for something bad, usually in the form of repetitious prayers using a rosary. Certainly, restitution is a good thing. If a man steals from his neighbor, he needs to make things right by his neighbor. The idea of penance in the Catholic Church, however, is not the same and is sometimes substituted for the concept of repentance.5
Perhaps the most egregious problem in Catholicism is the understanding of communion. The Roman teaching of real presence and transubstantiation—through the mediation of the priest the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ—undermines the biblical teaching of the memorial nature of the ceremony (1 Cor 11). Roman Catholicism heavily leans on a woodenly literalistic understanding of John 6. Of particular importance are the words “I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (v. 51) and “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life; and I will raise him up on the last day…. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (vv. 53-56). On the surface, the realists certainly have a case. They would strengthen their understanding of the passage by an appeal to context, namely, the fact that the previous verses speak of the literal feeding of the five thousand. There are several reasons, however, why their view cannot be held:
A previous chapter in John’s Gospel (chapter 4) shows Jesus telling the woman at the well that he is the living water. A superficial reading of that passage might be used to reinforce the realist view of John 6. However, notice that the disciples’ misunderstanding of what is going on, namely their view that he is talking about literal food, is corrected by Jesus this way: “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me” (John 4:34). In other words, he is using metaphorical or analogical language here. The question for the realist is why we must insist on literalistic language in John 6 when Jesus clearly uses analogical language in John 4 when invoking the same images.
John chapter 6 contextually shows that the issue under consideration is believing in Jesus, not concretely eating his flesh and drinking his blood in a ceremonial way. Notice verses 29, 30, 35-40, 47, 64, 68-69. It is impossible to read the entire chapter in context and not see that belief is the main idea and that Jesus is speaking using figurative language when he appeals to eating his flesh. This is especially clear when both ideas are brought together in verse 35.
The next chapter (John 7) shows Jesus using similar language to suggest that a man who is thirsty must drink of him (7:37). Yet in that context the explanation is given that spiritual things involving the Holy Spirit are meant, not a living drinking of Jesus in some fashion. Why is it not possible to see the same thing in John 6?
We must also notice that the Lord’s Supper has not been established yet in the gospels. The realist position is a reading back into the text. That is, it violates the progress of revelation in its handling of the text. There are no hints contextually in John 6 of the idea of a ceremony. It is better to stick to the major theme of the entire book, namely believing in him (see John 3 and John 20:31).
However, there is something more troublesome to biblical evangelicals about the Roman Catholic practice of communion than these interpretive debates about John 6. The Lord’s Supper in Catholicism appears to be the “one mystery of faith around which revolves the whole Catholic liturgy.”6 It is the high point in many ways for all of Catholic experience. Thus, it is significant that the Catholic version of communion is turned into a righteous act on the part of the participant in which he maintains or continues his saving relationship with God. The real presence doctrine then becomes the vehicle for the perpetual sacrifice of Christ. The Roman Church sees this event, every time and place it is performed, as the continuing sacrifice of Christ over and over to assist the participant in the continued removal of personal sin.7
Such an approach has nothing of biblical value and flatly contradicts the biblical teaching. Hebrews 7:27 is quite clear: “Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself” (italics provided for emphasis). One can also include Hebrews 9:24-28 in the discussion:
For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (emphasis added)
The text of Scripture could not be clearer. Christ has performed a once-for-all sacrifice for sin that is sufficient and complete. To practice otherwise through the perpetual sacrifice doctrine as the Catholics do is a denial of the sufficiency of the sacrifice of Calvary. This means that to participate in Catholic communion is a denial of the gospel itself and the sufficiency of the cross-work that it entails. That is why many evangelicals would encourage any so-called evangelical Catholic to leave the Roman Catholic Church and find a Bible-believing assembly where the practice would not lead to this denial.
Responding to a new reality: Loving across the bundaries
In conclusion, the words that have just been stated come across in the current postmodern context as somewhat harsh. It is inappropriate, the spirit of the world tells us, to preach a certain conviction about such things as the meanings of biblical texts and then apply them with confidence to our lives, including church practice. We are not allowed to say that one is absolutely wrong and the other is absolutely right. The biblical evangelical must strive not to breathe the air of this subjective mysticism and stand upon the faith once delivered to the saints. There are boundaries that need to be built and maintained. It is not an act of hate toward anyone for such boundaries to exist. It would be the absence of love not to have such borders between groups if the eternal destiny of souls hangs in the balance. Thus, it is quite appropriate to suggest that the Roman Catholic Church teaches a false gospel. In the Catholic versus evangelical debate, the biblicist should “love across the boundaries” rather than tear godly borders down. Today more than ever we need to hear the echoes of Luther’s words about the Bible: “Here I take my stand; I can do no other.”8
1 Hardon, Catholic Catechism, 172.
2 The seven sacraments are baptism, penance, confirmation, communion, marriage, orders, and extreme unction.
3 Roman Catholics often speak of “initial justification” at baptism and ongoing justification or final justification produced by participation in the sacramental system. While most evangelicals see a tie between justification and sanctification, they usually voice a greater difference between the two than does Roman Catholicism.
4 Hardon, Catholic Catechism, 506.
5 The New American Bible, a Catholic translation with extensive study notes, translates John the Baptist’s words to the Pharisees and Saducees as “Give some evidence that you mean to reform” when the usual wording is to show the works of repentance (Matt 3:8).
6 Hardon, Catholic Catechism, 457.
7 Ibid., 457-81.
8 This [four-part] article is envisioned as the first in a series of articles about this issue. Altogether, the author has identified nineteen differences between Roman Catholicism and evangelicalism involving the following issues: church history, ultimate authority, Bible and canon, apostolic succession, salvation and justification, water baptism, communion, penance, marriage, ordination, the Virgin Mary, saints, extreme unction, Second Coming and God’s kingdom, worship, priesthood, assurance of salvation, purgatory, and material symbols (rosary, candles, statues, icons, etc.). Only a few of these have been dealt with in this first article.
Dr. Michael Stallard is Dean at Baptist Bible Seminary. He also teaches dispensational premillennialism, ecclesiology, Baptist distinctives, and theological method. He has authored several articles for publications such as The Journal of Ministry and Theology, The Baptist Bulletin, The Conservative Theological Journal, Bibliotheca Sacra, and The Dictionary of Premillennial Theology. He has also written a commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians published by AMG Publishers. Dr. Stallard is a frequent speaker at the Conservative Theological Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, and Pre-Trib study group. He has several years of experience as a senior pastor, including involvement in inner-city church planting. He is the founder and director of Mission Scranton and the founding pastor at New Life Baptist Church in Scranton, PA.