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I Wonder: What are We to Think about the Catholic Church?

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One of the toughest questions submitted is this: "I wonder: what are we to believe about Roman Catholicism? What are similarities and differences? How can we have a respectful conversation about this? How can I engage and reach out to my Catholic friend or family member?" This question forces all of us to examine what we really believe from God's Word and why.

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The question we are tackling that was submitted is this: "I wonder: what are we to believe about Roman Catholicism? What are similarities and differences between Catholics and a Protestant Church like ours? How can we have a respectful conversation about this without blowing up? How can I engage and reach out to my Catholic friend or family member? Are Catholics really saved or not? What do they believe about Protestants? And does this really matter?”
The history of this question goes back to the year 1517 when famously Martin Luther, posted his 95 Theses—95 issues that he had with the Catholic Church at the time. His goal was not to break away from the Catholic Church but Reform it. Instead it started what historically is known as the Protestant Reformation (you see that word “Protest” in Protestant).
and since 1517—the Catholic Church has still existed…
and there are several thousands of types of Protestant Churches, including ours, which is part of the Missionary Church that exist.
My goal today in bring this is up is this:
not to bash Catholics. I am an Evangelical Protestant Pastor. We can take cheap shots at each other. but to respectfully and charitably talk about this. b/c this is personal. You may be Catholic, know Catholics, friends, family and co-workers—these are real people. and if you are Catholic—Protestants are real people. I hope we can make judgments without being judgmental (my sermon last week). We can discern between the system of Roman Catholicism and the people made in God’s image.
to force us to examine what we believe and why—this topic really forces you to examine— “what do I REALLY believe?” sometimes we get uncomfortable talking about differences…but this forces us to look at what we believe and why? b/c you behave based on what you believe.
to stir you to take your faith in Christ, your learning, your understanding of God’s Word WAY more seriously. Don’t be shallow; Go deep. Get to know Jesus more.
this is a big deal b/c of the 2.4 billion people who claim to be Christians, about half—1.2 billion would identify as Catholics globally.
I broke down my sermon into 4 categories:
Category #1:
Agree on: Protestants and Catholics...
The Trinity: that we believe that God is one as to essence, and 3 as to persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
We agree on the attributes of who God is. For example—God is unchanging, eternal, omnipresence (everywhere), omnipotent—all powerful, omniscience—all-knowing, full of wisdom, truth, faithfulness, righteousness, grace, mercy, and justice.
We believe we are made in the image of god as human beings.
We believe that all of us are affected now by Adam and Eve’s sin (original sin). Through their sin, all are born with the guilt of sin; we are sinners by nature.
We believe that Jesus Christ, the Son of God was fully God and fully man.
We believe that Jesus Christ worked to accomplish our salvation in his life, and death on the cross.
both believe that salvation is initiated by God. God planned for eternity to save us by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Jesus died paying the penalty as the substitute in our place.
We believe in the personal and bodily return of Jesus Christ.
And there are more similarities doctrinally..
we also agree in our culture:
defending the unborn-the right to life, sanctity of life.
we uphold the Biblical view of marriage—one biological man and one biological woman
and standing up for religious liberty, how important that is
and many other things...
Category #2:
Admire: what can we admire about Catholics as Protestants
In addition, think of some of the things we can admire about Catholics…at least I think we can…and some of the people I have known who practice Catholicism;
and conversely, another way to put this category, is think of some of the critiques of Evangelical Protestantism or churches like ours.
Admire - there is an idea sacred space, of mystery, of transcendence, and awe in the Catholic Church. So the criticism of Evangelical Protestantism…is that we lack that mystery, awe, transcendence. we are too casual and relaxed in our worship services, too entertainment driven in our churches.
admire — another thing to admire is they do have a systematic catechism. we may not like that word catechism, but is simply means instruction. to catechize means to instruct in the doctrines of the faith (often in question and answer style) that kids ages 6 - 16 learn. the criticism of Evangelical Protestantism is that we can lack this. we can be shallow, lacking depth. that our version of faith or our worship services can be mushy, ooey—gooey, softy-wofty, shallow.
admire — and this is not all Catholics, but I know plenty who are extremely committed Catholics. They don’t miss a service, called mass, even on vacation. they send their kids to Catholic education (not cheap). they are committed, considered good Catholics. in their commitment, they often have a higher view of the role and necessity of the church than we do as Protestants. we tend to downplay the role of the church and have it just be about Jesus and me.
admire - very multi-generational in practice. for their mass, for their worship service, everyone is together, including kids, including babies. no nursery, no children’s ministry on a Sunday morning. Some of us may be sweating at that idea; there is nothing wrong with children’s ministry—we need it. but there is something to be said that if a kid grows up used to being a part of the entire church, adults, and old people, that’s a powerful way of passing on our faith to the next generation. (sports example—screaming guts out…)
so far I have talked about agree…and admire.
Category #3:
Disagree on:
there is a lot of things I could talk about here, and I get the most nervous here, b/c I am not speaking as an insider to Catholicism. I did not grow up in the Catholic Church.
I have known several practicing Catholics.
I have done lots of study, even reading parts of the Catholic Catechism. If you want to know what they believe, google the Catholic Catechism. (website Catholic Answers)
We could talk about a lot of differences--
for instance, Catholic teaching teaches the idea of purgatory—that those who die in God’s grace, but imperfectly purified, must first undergo purification in purgatory after death. Their sins are purged. where we as Protestants don’t believe in that. and prayers for the dead are offered to get out of it.
There are differences in what we believe about Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Catholics highlight her and elevate her immensely (believing she was conceived without original sin. (Immaculate Conception) that she was taken up to heaven, body and soul—called the Assumption.
Could talk about Scripture—Catholics have a larger Bible. We have 66, they have 7 more in their OT. called the Apocrypha or Deutero-canonical books.
there view of communion or the Eucharist—where the bread is transformed in substance to Jesus’ body and the wine is transformed (or transubstantiated) to Jesus’ blood)
I want to focus on 2 key Issues (from Dr. Gregg Allison)
Authority
Catholics and Protestants believe differently about authority. What do I mean by this? What is our final authority as Christians?
Let me read Matthew 16:13-20
Matthew 16:13–20 NIV
13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 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. 19 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.” 20 Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
in the Roman Catholic view —Peter is the first pope and begins an apostolic line of succession that continues to the office of the pope today. In this view, Pope Francis today is now the earthly representative of Christ who together with other bishops exercises Christ’s authority in teaching, ruling, and sanctifying the church, and it all started with Jesus—to Peter/apostles—to bishops—to the pope today.
In the Catholic understanding—Authority as one scholar calls it is a 3 legged stool:
Scripture is authoritative (one leg) with the Apocrypha
Tradition — passed down orally from Christ - to apostles—to bishops…that oral tradition… (that’s another leg) — equally important as Scripture. (that’s where they get the Immaculate Conception or Assumption of Mary)
The Magisterium—or the Pope and the bishops—the Pope and Magisterium has the authority to make definitive interpretations about Scripture. they are the teaching authority of the church.
one author says it like this: Likewise, the Magisterium has the authority to make definitive interpretations. “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching, office of the Church alone . . . to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.” The issue of authority continues to be the biggest practical divide between Protestants and Catholics.
my understanding of this is when the pope is making official decrees ex-cathedra, when he makes official doctrinal pronouncements, he is infalliable (perfect). what he says goes—he is the authority—b/c he is in the apostolic line; and if you are a good Catholic, if the pope makes an official pronouncement, you have to follow, obey, submit your will to it (even if you disagree with it).
now there are some pros to that—you have one unified church; not thousands of denominations like we do; you are looking to scholars to help you understand and interpret Scripture...
but there are certainly cons—do you trust the pope or the magisterium to correctly interpret and change interpretations of Scriptures? do you believe he is infalliable in those pronouncements?
so there are 3 legs of Authority:
Scripture
Tradition
Pope/Magisterium--
all are important...
in our understanding…our understanding of authority is difference.
here is how our doctrinal statement says it in the Missionary Church: “We believe the Bible, consisting of the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments, is the written Word of God, verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit and therefore, true, reliable, and without error in all it addresses. We believe the Bible has been safeguarded by the Holy Spirit and transmitted to the present day without any doctrinal corruption. The Bible forever remains the unchanging and final authority for faith and living.” The Bible is infalliable but not a living human being today.
when the reformation happened in 1517, Martin Luther had the term sola Scriptura, meaning Scripture alone is our final authority. b/c he was very concerned with how the authority of Rome and the Pope was being abused. this is the idea that all of us should regularly read it, interpret it by the Spirit’s power...
2 Timothy 3:16–17 NIV
16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
this question of authority is very different between the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church.
Protestants don’t believe that Peter started an apostolic line of succession that continued to the papacy. We believe yes Jesus did build his church on Peter—read the book of Acts and Peter is spreading the Gospel to the Jews—the Samaritans, and the Gentiles. He used the keys of the kingdom to spread the Gospel.
now here is the question—I said my goal is not to bash Catholics even though I disagree with their understanding of the pope, apostlic succession, etc. but let me turn the spotlight on us, on you—what is your final authority in the Christian life?
is it really Scripture—God’s Word—God’s living Word through Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit…or something else?
we, too, as Protestants can be in danger of tradition, of elevating that on par with Scripture or above. Certainly, we need some tradition and history and learning from the wisdom of the past—but do we elevate tradition…more than God’s Word?
or if we say it is God’s Word—what do we do with parts we don’t like? “Yes, I like that part of Scripture on God’s love; I don’t really like that part on sin, or God’s wrath, or what it says about sexuality or money. or hell” “or I don’t like what the church teaches on this-I will find someone who agrees with me.” “or I like this YouTube preacher...” or simply “I will be my own authority!”
what is your authority in your life? Is it God’s Word, under the leading of the Holy Spirit?
Now, we need others to help interpret it. we need pastors, teachers, scholars, the local church and community...
so yes this issue of authority is different between the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church but let’s get personal--”What is your authority!”
the 2nd major divisional point is what they teach about
Salvation
yes both teach God plans it, initiates it, accomplishes it...
both teach God saves us by grace..but there is a difference.
how is one really rescued and saved by God...
and this one was the trickiest thing for me to understand...
in Catholic teaching, the sacraments are vitally important in God dispensing grace to his people. in Catholic teaching there are 7 sacraments. we have 2—baptism and Lord’s Supper; they have 7—baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist (or Lord’ Supper), Penance/Confession, Anointing the sick, Marriage, and Holy Orders. These sacraments in the Catholic system are vitally important for receiving and appropriating God’s grace. this is a pretty foreign concept to us Protestants. These sacraments are tangible signs of invisible and real grace.
so for instance with baptism—the Catholic church teaches that an infant is blessed and anointed by a Catholic priest, and through this the infant is forgiven of sin and born again in the Holy Spirit. this is called initial justification. baptism is not just a sign or seal but actually confers saving grace.
The Unfinished Reformation: What Unites and Divides Catholics and Protestants After 500 Years 6. Key Differences Between Protestants and Catholics, Part 4: Salvation

With the process of justification underway through the sacramental system, this baptized person can begin to merit for herself the graces needed to attain eternal life. As already mentioned, Catholics believe this is accomplished by receiving the Eucharist and by living a virtuous life. When she commits a mortal sin—a serious transgression by which she falls away from God and loses saving grace—she must observe the sacrament of Penance. She participates by expressing contrition (genuine sorrow over her sin) and confession (recounting her mortal sins) to a priest. Upon hearing the confession, the priest forgives (pronounces absolution) in the name of Jesus and determines the manner of satisfaction or penance: reparation for sin through such activities as prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service, or self-denial. Through this process, she who has fallen away from salvation experiences restoration to grace (and thus a fresh justification) and thus to friendship with God.

If this Catholic believer successfully reaches the end of her life in a state of grace (that is, she is not guilty of a mortal sin), she will ultimately be saved. However, it is likely the case that she must first spend a period of time in “purgatory,” an experience of suffering that involves punishment. Purgatory, as the term suggests, is an experience that “purges” or purifies the soul, conforming her to the holiness of God. When she has passed through this experience, she is finally prepared to enter the presence of the One who abides in unapproachable light.1 This concludes the process of salvation, having originated in her baptism, having grown throughout her faithful life, and having been finally perfected in the divine presence

so grace is very important to Catholics (sometimes it is painted that it is not) but it is, and it is primarily through these sacraments—baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, that one receives God’s grace; God’s grace initiates, but we must cooperate with it.... and one must then cooperate with God’s grace to merit eternal life. and if we don’t engage and cooperate with that grace, we wont’ have eternal life.
Protestants believe differently.
Galatians 2:15–16 NIV
15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
Ephesians 2:8–9 NIV
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.
so in our understanding of grace and God’s salvation…it it not given through the sacraments. it is not poured into us or infused through the sacraments that we regularly have to take to receive it, and then cooperate with them out of love to merit eternal life.
instead, it is a legal declaration that God declares on us.
the moment we believe we are sinners, and trust in Jesus Christ’s finished work to save us—God declares us not guilty, forgives us, and puts Christ’s righteousness on us.
we are declared righteous in God’s sight. (without having done anything at all)
we are not justified by works or performing good deeds or by cooperating with the sacraments, but by believing in the finished work of Christ on the cross by faith alone.
the big word that came out of this was imputation—it is that God credits our sin to Jesus and his work on the cross, and God credits Jesus’ righteousness to us.
this was one of the big hallmarks of the reformation—not just Scripture alone—but faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone saves us…all to the glory of God alone.
so this is a difference...
justification — where God declares us righteous as Protestants is a point in time—boom, we are saved, crossed from death to life…it’s as if we have never sinned and as if we have done everything Jesus did...
in the Catholic view—justification is a process—there is always initial grace by God given through the Sacraments—but we then cooperate with it and engage in goods thus progressing in our justification.
The Unfinished Reformation: What Unites and Divides Catholics and Protestants After 500 Years 6. Key Differences Between Protestants and Catholics, Part 4: Salvation

For now, we summarize by asking the question “Why are people accepted by God?” Catholics respond that “grace infused through the sacraments enables them to do good works and become righteous in God’s sight.” Protestants reply that it is “because of the finished work of Christ on the cross, the righteousness of which is imputed to the believer, accessed by faith alone.”

one of the issues that comes out of all of this—is what are we really believing in to save us…:
you see this is the issue-if you read the book of Galatians:
Galatians 1:6–7 NIV
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.
Galatians 1:8–9 NIV
8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!
in the time of the Galatians—they were preaching Jesus but adding to the gospel saying you have to work for it—and Paul has strong words.
I fear that for Catholics (and even Protestants), too) we add to the Gospel. when we add to the Gospel—we subtract it and lose it.
How do we add it?
—tradition - you have to do certain things of the past
—politics — you have to vote a certain way
—good works—I have to do these to be saved...
The Catholic system in my view adds a lot to the Gospel—and that is DANGEROUS!
It is simply by faith alone in Christ alone by grace alone that we are saved according to Scripture alone to the glory of God alone.
The key question for you—is what are you basing your salvation on?
Is it in Jesus alone?
is it in a religious system?
it is in my own good works?
it is b/c I told you.
Let’s try to summarize.
Category #4:
What Now:
Don’t bash Catholics—make judgments without being judgmental.
make a distinction between the system and the individual person. I have tried to show 2 big flaws in the Catholic Church system in my opinion:
their understand of authority—particularly in tradition and the Magisterium or the Pope and Bishops, and their understanding of salvation that is must be conferred through the sacraments and we then respond by cooperating with it to merit eternal life.
but it is possible that there are individuals born again in the Catholic church—those who have admited their sin; trusted in Jesus alone for the forgiveness of sins.
I have shown 2 flaws in the system of the Catholic church—but you still have to talk with the individual person where they are at.
Learn more. Be critical of the church’s teaching—Berean church.
Acts 17:10–12 NIV
10 As soon as it was night, the believers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. 11 Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. 12 As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.
don’t let me have too much authority on a pope like level in your life.
Engage a Catholic neighbor or friend. Start a group reading the book of Mark together—asking simple questions. do so respectfully, charitably.
it all comes down to the Gospel...
Romans 1:16–17 NIV
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
1 Corinthians 15:3–4 NIV
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
in summary...
Kevin DeYoung article: Should Catholics and Protestants treat each other decently and with respect? Of course. Will we labor side by side on important moral and social matters? Quite often. Can we find born-again Christians worshiping in Catholic churches? I’m sure. But are the disagreements between Protestants and Catholics, therefore, negligible? Hardly. The differences still exist, and they still matter.
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