With the advent of the Paradosis Center on the JBU campus, there is now interest and opportunity to compare notes between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics.
As a 35 year veteran of the Bible faculty, I have had a long-time interest in this project. I taught the history of Christian doctrine repeatedly and once hosted a seminar on Roman Catholic doctrine in which we read the 1200+ page tome Catholicism, by the then head of the theology department at Notre Dame, Richard McBrien.
Let’s look at the differences on the doctrine of salvation: How do we get into God’s heaven?
Evangelicals insist with John, Paul, Peter and the writer to the Hebrews that salvation is by grace, through faith in Jesus’ finished work on the cross where he died “once-for-all” faith being a personal receiving of Jesus Christ as Savior. Heaven, to be where Jesus is, is a gift, and “absence from the body is presence with the Lord.”
The key ideas of the reformers are often summed up as, from the Latin, Sola Scriptura (Scripture only, versus tradition), Sola Fide, (Faith only, versus works), and the Priesthood of Every Believer (versus clergy over laity). For these convictions, many reformers died.
What these men were protesting was a vast sacerdotal system of priestcraft, beginning with the “grace-imparting” sacrament of baptism which was supposed to wash away “original sin.” It had replaced “original righteousness” given at mankind’s creation. This “baptismal regeneration” left the passive recipient in a state of salvation, but only until he or she committed a personal sin, one of the damning kind denoted as a “mortal sin.” These included pride, lust, gluttony and laziness!
The system picks up there with the sacrament of penance, a so-called “second plank.” It is the sacrament that daily marks the lives of practicing Roman Catholics. It has been called the “working doctrine of the Church.”
What then is the Catholic to do, since the grace of “salvation” has been destroyed? The best remedy is to achieve “perfect contrition.” But this requires such complete sorrow for sin that it is seldom if ever achieved. So nearly everyone must begin the sacrament of Penance.
First, the penitent one confesses the sin to a priest, who then grants absolution. Absolution releases the “eternal penalty” of the sin, but the “temporal penalty” is not lifted. To alleviate this the priest then prescribes “works of penance” such as prayers, fasting, and giving of alms.
If all these prescribed works are not fully and completely finished (and who can be sure?), when the penitent dies he or she will not go to heaven but to Purgatory to there finish all the temporal penalties for all their lifetime of unfinished penance. Remedies to shorten their time in purgatory can be accomplished by their loved ones still in this world, called Indulgences. These include burning candles, having masses said, bible reading and prayers. The Pope is said to have authority to transfer “surplus merit” from saints to needy souls.
After purgatory, heaven may at last be reached, we are assured.
So, do both Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics believe in the same Gospel? Ask Martin Luther. Ask the Tridentine Fathers. The Council of Trent declared that Luther’s protest against indulgences amounted to an attack on the entire sacramental system!
It was truly against this system of salvation that the reformers marshalled truth like Ephesians 2:8, 9– “For by grace are you saved, through faith … not of works, lest any man should boast.” And Romans 5:1– “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God.”