Protestant or Catholic?

Wednesday, May 21, 2003



I started writing, and I'm not real sure where I want to go here. Maybe this post will morph and change over time. I am a Roman Catholic who has often debated with Protestant friends and co-workers about the very nature of salvation.

Almost every lay Roman Catholic has had an encounter with a conservative Evangelical Protestant where the Roman Catholic Church has been accused of departing from Scripture. Some Protestants will go so far as to assert that the Catholic Church is the whore of Babylon and the Pope is the antichrist.

Even in mainline liberal Protestantism, where ecumenical dialogue has a long history with Roman Catholicism, we still find some sense among some Protestant laity that Catholics are participating in an inferior religion that may not be fully Christian.

Since the Second Vatican Council, many Roman Catholics, especially those who consider themselves progressive or liberal, have bent over back-wards to try to demonstrate that Catholicism and Protestantism are just saying the same thing in different ways.

I do not hold to this position exactly.

Our differences are often too great to gloss over this easily. Catholics believe Christ is really and substantially present in the Eucharist. Catholics ask saints to pray for them and have a devotion to Jesus' mother that many Protestants believe either is idolatry, or borders on idolatry. Catholics believe in a state of the afterlife called purgatory. Catholics believe in Tradition along with Scripture, and accept the authority of the Pope in a way that Protestants see as conflicting with the authority of Scripture.

However, at the core of our differences is the issue that lead to the Reformation in the first place, and almost all our other differences can be explained in light of understanding this one issue. The issue is how the person whom God saves is justified.

I once heard Dr. Norman Giesler on a radio broadcast called The Bible Answer Man hosted by Hank Hanegraaff, who is a popular Evangelical Protestant with a daily radio show.

Dr. Geisler, a prominent conservative Evangelical Protestant stated that Roman Catholicism is not a false religion with significant truths. Rather, it is a true expression of Christianity with some significant errors.

I see this as a leap forward in Catholic and Protestant relationships. I have even gone out and purchased Dr. Geisler's book on the subject simply because of the way he articulated this.

Geisler pointed out that Catholics and Protestants agree on major issues, such the doctrines summarized in the first five Ecumenical Councils of the Church. Indeed, if two Christians in the first five or six centuries of the church were to argue about some of the points Roman Catholics and Evangelicals debate, both may have been considered within the pale of orthodoxy within a particular local church.

Dr. Geisler is the co-author with Ralph MacKenzie of a book entitled Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences, which I would recommend to Protestants as helpful to at least come to Dr. Geisler's position.

In other words, I think we have made a step forward if Roman Catholics can consider Protestantism as a true expression of Christianity with some significant errors, and vice-a-versa. At least we are not saying that each other are on the sure path to hell.

Dr. Geisler is correct that Catholics and Protestants share very much in common. We all agree on the divine inspiration of the Bible. We all believe that Jesus is true God and true man. We all agree on the doctrine of original sin and the need for grace for salvation. We all agree that Christ's death on the cross is the formal cause of our salvation. We all agree on such core doctrines as the Virgin birth, the resurrection and the Trinity.

Our differences come at fundamental turns in theological development that occurred after the first five Ecumenical Councils. Perhaps we should bear this in mind as we explore each other's differences and debate one another. Remember, if this were the sixth century, both views would likely be held to be within the pale of orthodoxy.

My own position is probably bit more subtle than Geisler's, without sliding into the wishy-washy and indemonstrable position that we are just saying the exact same thing with different language.

We have all seen those optical illusions where a single picture can look like a young woman to one person, and an old woman to another. For those who cannot picture what I am saying, check out the following site: Young Woman or Old?

I believe that the differences between Protestants and Catholics are in the same order. We share common beliefs in Sacred Scripture, and we each even follow "traditions". Within each tradition, the picture looks very obviously one way. Both religious expressions are true, but the human person is capable of living only one tradition at a time. It is not really possible to look at the picture and see both images simultaneously. Yet, both points of view are true within their own framework.

Let's explore the two points of view at a high level looking at concepts, rather than trying to prove one right and one wrong.

The Protestant articulation of soteriology (theology of justification) is as follows:
We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, apart from good works.
The aforementioned Hank Hanegraaff presents the Catholic position this way:
We are saved by grace alone through faith infused works.
The difference here is very subtle. Protestants see justification as a single act in time, whereby the sinner accepts what has already been done in Jesus Christ and claims it for him or herself. There is an exact moment of decision to place your faith in Christ. At that moment, you are "born again" and made right with God as an absolutely free gift. Faith is knowing that you are saved by what Christ has done for you.

The Protestant who understands his tradition well sees all other religious systems as presenting a means of working out salvation through a program of legalistic adherence to a particular set of works.

For the Protestant, what separates Christianity from all other religions is that in Jesus Christ, the work has been done for us so that there is nothing left to do but accept the free gift in trusting faith. Accepting the gift implies first knowing that you are a sinner in need of a savior. Second, you accept that your own sins have been atoned for by Jesus' sacrifice, and in doing so, you are saved. Your own sins are covered by his blood. Your own sins are hidden by his righteousness. Faith is defined as the belief that your sins are hidden by Christ's gift, even as you continue to be a sinner.

This faith may produce good works and a turning away from sin. Indeed, most Protestants say we are saved by a faith that produces works, but the works themselves do not save us and are not necessary. Works are done in gratitude as the soul is freed from the bondage of guilt. Protestants may see these works as an outward sign that salvation has already taken place. However, such works have no merit to the person. We are all equals before God, and no one person has more merit than another, and no one person has greater guilt than another. While there may be degrees of reward in heaven and degrees of pain in hell, the fundamental option toward heaven or hell is not based in any way on the merit of works or the demerit of sin.

The person being saved is a sinner, like all other people. The difference between the Christian and the non-Christian for a Protestant is that the Christian is one who knows he is incapable of salvation through his own works, so he places his trust in what God has already done in Jesus Christ.

Indeed, for the Protestant, the emphasis on personal trust in the atoning act of the cross is so deep, that he or she prefers not to call his "tradition" a religion. Salvation is not membership in a religious body or denomination. Rather, it is a trusting relationship in the one who died for your sins.

Let's look again at how Hank Hanegraaff presents the Catholic position:
We are saved by grace alone through faith infused works.
I actually like Mr. Hanegraaff's simple explanation, though I think his articulation of the Catholic position probably needs just a bit of clarification.

The first clarification is that we do not believe works are literally infused into a person. Rather, we mean that the works done by a person are inspired by faith and the works are infused with faith.

With the Protestants, Catholics believe that salvation is by grace alone, such that all people who will be saved are saved by Christ, and we can rightly say that God is the initiator of salvation and the one who brings the work to completion. Salvation is a free gift and we do not earn it through our works.

Likewise, with the Protestants, Catholics see faith as a necessary component of salvation. We must trust the one who started the work in us to bring it to completion.

However, Catholics speak of salvation in terms more akin to a process. There is not a single moment which one can point to where one is considered right with God. Indeed, to the Roman Catholic, as long as you are alive on earth, God is still working out your own salvation with you. There is God's initiation and then there is the response of the human person. This is not a one time deal, but an ongoing relationship made possible by what Jesus did on the cross.

With the Protestant, the Catholic wants to emphasize that we need to trust God in this process, which is what faith is. However, the Catholic does not see faith as a single act on a particular date where you know that you have already been saved.

Instead, the Catholic speaks of the "born again" experience as a beginning that started with baptism, but continues throughout life until death. Only at the moment of death will the final result be known with absolute certitude.

Catholics go on to say that grace is defined as God's life entering into the soul. With this act of God, faith, hope and love are infused in the soul so that good works are inspired by God. These grace inspired works have merit because it is God inspiring, and even to some extent, doing the works in a believer.

Yet, because the subject being saved is cooperating with this grace in the performance of the works, the merit is rightly applied to that individual as an application of the completed work of the cross to the individual. The Catholic also maintains that a person who is not doing good works may not have grace operating in her or him.

Thus, good works are necessary to salvation.

Catholics in the theological academy go so far as to speak of a principle of "double justification".

What is meant by this is that there is an initial starting point in the born again experience we associate with baptism. This initial justification is very much like Protestants describe. It comes as a completely unmerited gift that we do nothing to earn or prepare for (which is partially why Catholics baptize babies). In this initial justification, all past sin is immediately covered and it is at this point that Catholics believe God's life and the virtues of faith, hope, and love are infused in the soul.

After initial justification, there is a second justification or sanctification that occurs. Protestants also speak of sanctification, but for Catholics, this second justification or sanctification is necessary, where to Protestants, it is an unnecessary result of the initial justification (and the only justification to the Protestants).

Before going into further depth, let's summarize at a high level some of the differences that will guide our discussion:

Protestant Justification:

A Foreign Righteousness
A Covering
Justification is a Legal Declaration
Grace is God's favor or benevolence

Catholic Justification:

Justification is a process of becoming a person who acts justly
Grace is God's very life within the believer (the indwelling of the Holy Spirit)

The indwelling of the Spirit:

Protestants do believe with Roman Catholics that there is a proper way of speaking of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. However, to the Catholic, this indwelling is part of the entire process of being saved.

This makes absolutely no sense to a Protestant, because to a Protestant, the person must be saved and made righteous before God before the Holy Spirit can dwell in the person being saved. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is not part of being saved. Rather, it is a fruit of having been saved.

The classical Protestant position, still articulated in some form by Evangelicals can be summarized by an acronym: TULIP

Tulip stands for the following:
Total Depravity
Unconditional Election
Limited Atonement
Irresistible Grace
Perseverance of the Saints

Let's look at these fundamental principles doing a compare and contrast for clarification.

Total Depravity

PROTESTANT VIEW: Rom 5:12 says that all people are sinners. Protestants believe that the works of humanity are totally depraved, and even good works are performed with impure motives. We are sinners to the core, incapable of salvation on our own. We each deserve eternal damnation under the law of justice. So deep is our sin that Luther described the human condition after salvation as dung covered in snow. In our fall into sin, Protestants see the image of God as a shattered mirror. Protestants believe that the world is deeply effected by sin, and salvation occurs solus Chistri, or in Christ alone. Protestants are Christo-monic.

CATHOLIC VIEW: Catholics believe in original sin as well as Protestants. However, Catholics focus much more on the Biblical language of humanity as the image of God (Gen 1:26). Even after the fall, Catholics believe that some inherent goodness adheres to the human soul. Rather than dung covered in snow, Catholics see the human person as a weakened rose bud under a pile of dung. Rather than a shattered mirror, Catholics see the human person as a warped mirror. Original sin effects everyone, but not quite to the depth of depravity described by Protestants. This is why Catholicism is so much more "worldly" and almost "pagan" (smells and bells) compared to the starkness of the Protestant experience. Catholics believe the world is effected by sin, but basically good. Rather than being Christo-monic, Catholics are Christo-centric.

Unconditional Election

PROTESTANT VIEW: Rom 9:15-18. God condescended to take on human flesh and live the perfect life on our behalf. He bore the penalty that we all deserve on the cross, effecting the complete remission of sins for all who believe. The grace of God is completely unmerited, and the act of atonement is offered to us as an absolutely free gift. So why do some people reject this free gift?

CATHOLIC VIEW: James 2:17 says faith without works is dead. Catholics believe that initial justification is unconditional, and ultimately God's love is unconditional. However, Catholics also emphasize that with the call comes the responsibility to respond. Even if this response is made easier by grace, it is the human person cooperating with God, though God initiates and completes the work. Indeed, Catholics also point out that in the experience of many people, though we know in faith that God is the one doing the work, it feels like we do almost everything. Rather than beating people up for feeling this way, Catholics simply acknowledge that the human person does play a role in working out their own salvation.

Limited Atonement

PROTESTANT VIEW: Protestants believe that election is God's calling to salvation, and while it is a free gift to those who receive it, it may not even be offered to those who would reject it. The gift is not offered to everyone, but only to those who confess the lordship of Christ. John 10:12 calls those trying to get into the kingdom without going through the gate "wolves".

CATHOLIC VIEW: Catholics focus on several passages of the Bible such as 1 Tim 2:4 that state that God desires the salvation of all people. Catholics see the unconditional election or intial call of God to salvation as something offered to every living person. Even those who may never hear the name of Christ are offered enough grace in an ineffable way that salvation becomes a possibility.

Irresistible Grace

PROTESTANT VIEW: 1 John 4:18 states that perfect love drives out all fear. Protestants see it as a denial of faith to believe that one can lose the gift of salvation. Protestants are fond of a saying that God's trees are evergreen. By this is meant that once a person is saved, they cannot lose their salvation. For the believer, the attraction of grace is irresistible. Faith is trusting that the one who died for you will bring his work to completion. Faith is the act of believing that you are saved based on the promises of Christ despite all other evidence to the contrary.

CATHOLIC VIEW: Catholics believe that grace is God's life in the heart of the believer. Yet, if a person commits sin, we know that God cannot co-exist with sin. According to 1 John 5:16 some sins are called deadly sins (mortal sin). Catholics believe that a person can sin after initial justification in such a way that God's life is driven out of the soul. Even in this situation, Catholics believe that the gift of faith continues to linger in the soul making the re-entry of grace possible through the sacramental system. However, as long as one is alive, it is possible to choose against God and stop the salvation process.

Perseverance of the Saints

PROTESTANT VIEW: The notion of the perseverence of the saints flows from the notion of irresistible grace. You must know that you are saved with absolute assurance, even when you fall into sin or encounter any outward hardship. The believer will repent of sin and do good works as a result of God's irresistible grace and in thanksgiving for what Christ has already done. However, the works of repentance are not what saves one. Rather, they are the result of having already been saved. John 10:28 says that none of Christ's own will be snatched from his hand.

Justification is forensic, rather than intrinsic. A foreign righteousness is credited to our account. This is an imputed righteousness, whereby our sins are covered in Christ's blood. When God the Father looks on the sinner who is saved by Christ, he sees the perfection of Christ.

Grace is God's favor on the believer, but has no ontological or intrinsic effect in the sinner, who remains a sinner before, during and after salvation. The gift of salvation is granted as a free gift by God's own volition, and there is a sense in which all believers were predestined to salvation, though Protestants will argue amongst one another about just how much free will plays in the process.

CATHOLIC VIEW: From the divine perspective, God knows exactly who will be saved. However, in the temporal sphere, we work out our salvation, sometimes in fear and trembling, as a process (Philippians 2:12). Catholics do not believe that it is a sign of a lack of faith to question your own salvation. Indeed, since self-righteousness and presumption are so often condemned in Scripture, Catholics see it as a sign of humility and spiritual maturity to leave even your own personal salvation in the hands of God without knowing that you are saved. To a Catholic, perseverance expresses itself through doing the works of grace even when you do not necessarily feel it and are not particularly sure of yourself.


There are scriptures that support either side of the debated points between Protestant and Catholics. Much to the irritation of the Evangelical Protestant who believes Catholics are not saved, a good Catholic apologist can show that every Catholic doctrine is consistent with Scripture, and even implied if not explicit.

Likewise, as pointed out already, if we turn to history or tradition, the Protestant view on several issues CAN be supported by many theological opinions written prior to the Reformation. The Catholic view may have been more prevelant and developed, especially in Aquinas, but the Protestant views are not absent. A good Protestant apologist can find support for Protestant doctrines in some of the writings of the early fathers or in practices of the early church.

Indeed, on the issue of the authority of the Bible and who is right, there are commentators on both sides who can explain every single passage of Scripture within the framework of each point of view. This is why I hold the opinion that we cannot resolve the issue by saying one is right and the other is wrong. Yet, we also cannot say that both are saying the exact same thing in different ways, because that is not true either.

Rather, we must see that the Biblical texts support two mutually exclusive paradigms. From within either paradigm, every verse of Scripture can potentially be explained, but these explanations cannot be synthesized. Like the old and young woman in the optical illusion link, we cannot see both simultaneously.

The differences on the issue of justification were the central issue of the Reformation. However, most later differences can be traced to the issue of soteriology. Catholics ask saints in heaven to pray for them because they believe that Christ dwells in the believer in a real and infused way that makes us all like him (see Rev 5:8 for potential of saintly intercession). Protestants do not pray to saints because the saints are sinners merely covered in Christ's blood (see 1 Tim 2:5 stating Christ is the sole mediator). Catholics believe in purgatory because they see salvation as a process of sanctification (see 1 Cor 3:15 for potential purgation after death). Protestants reject purgatory because salvation is achieved in a single moment in time (see Lk 23:43 where Christ promises a dying theif he will see him that very day in paradise). The list could go on.

There are two views I would deem acceptable, and one view I reject in discussing our similarities and differences.

It is unacceptable to say that one is right and the other is wrong.

However, it is acceptable to say that one is more right than the other, or that both are simultaneously and equally true.

Given the two acceptable views, I also think it important to point out that we can learn from one another, work together on common cause projects, and even pray with and for one another. We can debate our differences but should not doubt the possibility of salvation for the other. It is wrong, however, to try to convert one another as though the other is a pagan.

Peace and Blessings!
J. Cecil

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posted by Jcecil3 11:35 AM

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