Tag Archives: Roman Catholic Church

Letter to a Friend

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Some time ago, a friend asked me for some help in figuring out the differences between Roman Catholicism and the biblical faith confessed by Reformed churches.  This was my reply:

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I think you hit it dead on when you mentioned the “solas” of the Reformation.  The “solas” strike at the heart of the differences between Rome and Reformed churches.

Grace Alone

Rome states that salvation is by grace — as your correspondents above have argued.  However, it is grace plus man’s effort.  The traditional Roman Catholic formulation is, “God will not deny his grace to those who do what is in their power.”  In more modern terms, “God helps those who help themselves.”  The technical term for this is semi-Pelagianism.  Man is not spiritually dead, but only sick and needs a little help from grace.

By contrast, the Reformed churches state that salvation is by grace alone — grace being defined as unmerited or even forfeited divine favour, receiving the opposite of what one deserves.  Man is dead in sins and trespasses (Ephesians 2:1), his heart is deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9) and he can do nothing to help himself.  This is the traditional Augustinian position — it was emphatically not a Reformation innovation.  It is only and entirely by God’s grace that man is saved.

Faith Alone

Rome states that people are justified by faith.  However, Rome has explicitly denied that justification is by faith alone and in fact condemns Reformed believers who hold to this position:

If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning thereby that no other cooperation is required for him to obtain the grace of justification, and that in no sense is it necessary for him to make preparation and be disposed by a movement of his own will:  let him be anathema [accursed] (Council of Trent, session 6, canon 9).

Moreover, according to Rome, justification is a life-long process by which we are made righteous, rather than a one-time event where we are declared righteous.  We must, they say, increase and preserve our justification.  Finally, faith is also redefined by Rome to include good works and these good works become part of the meritorious basis of justification.

By contrast, the Reformed churches state that justification is by faith alone (Romans 3-4).  God declares us righteous (a one-time event) not on the basis of our faith, but through the instrument of our faith.  We’ll come to the basis in a moment.

Christ Alone

Rome states that Christ is needed for salvation and our well-being for now and eternity.  However, one may and should also make use of the merits of the saints, especially Mary.  It is not Christ alone, but Christ plus.  The worship (devotion) given to Mary is the most glaring example of this.  The Catholic Catechism goes so far as to say that she is our Advocate and Mediatrix, and that “the Church’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin is intrinsic to Christian worship.”  Also, as noted above, it is not Christ alone when it comes to justification.  Instead, it is Christ plus…  Here’s Trent again:

…they through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith cooperating with good works, increase in that justice received through the grace of Christ and are further justified (Trent, session 6, canon 10).

And here Reformed believers are again condemned by Rome:

If anyone says that justice once received is neither preserved nor increased in the sight of God by good works, but that the works themselves are no more than the effects and signs of justification obtained, and not also a cause of its increase, let him be anathema (Trent, session 6, canon 24).

The Reformed churches argued that only Jesus Christ is needed for our salvation and for our well-being for now and eternity.  They could find no evidence in the Bible of a distinction between devotion and adoration, much less of the idea that we should be offering any kind of worship to a mere human being.  Second Timothy 2:5 is clear that there is one Mediator between God and men, allowing no room for a Mediatrix or co-Advocate.  Furthermore, Christ alone is the basis for our justification — he lived a perfect life of obedience for us and in our place.  He died once for all on the cross for us and in our place.  God imputes all his merits to us, and all our sin has been imputed to him and thus we are accounted righteous before God.

Scripture Alone

Rome states that the Bible has authority.  But it is not the Bible alone which has the ultimate authority.  Rather, for Rome, it is Scripture plus tradition.  So, for instance, even though the Assumption of Mary (the doctrine that Mary did not die but was taken up directly into heaven) is nowhere found in Scripture, the tradition makes it a dogma and it becomes one.

The Reformed churches retorted that only the Bible can be our ultimate authority and we may not add or take away as we please, even if we were angels from heaven (2 Tim. 3:16-17, Deut. 12:32, Rev. 22:18-19, Gal. 1:8).  Yes, we ought to give heed to the early church fathers, councils, synods, etc.  In fact, the writings of the Reformers are filled with references to these.  But because these are all made up of men, they can and have erred.  Thus, everything is to be scrutinized with the infallible and inerrant Scripture, which is the norming norm.

The Glory of God Alone

Finally, Rome states that God is to be worshipped and glorified.  Yet, Rome also promotes the worship of Mary and the saints, giving glory to human beings.  The “Hail, Mary” and “Hail, Holy Queen” prayers on the rosary would be enough to prove this, and much more could be added.

The Reformed have always said, “Soli Deo Gloria,” “To God Alone the Glory.”  God alone is to be worshipped and glorified, God alone receives all credit for our salvation and all thanks for all good things (Romans 11:36, Ephesians 1 — see how many times it mentions “to the praise of his glory”).

I think it bears noting that the first generations of Reformers, including the authors of the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism, were raised in the Roman Catholic Church.  They were very familiar with what the Roman Catholic Church taught, probably a lot more than many modern day Protestants and Roman Catholics.  The Reformation happened for a reason — Rome did not make its case on the basis of the Bible, nor did it evidence a love for a Christ-obsessed and Christ-saturated gospel.  Rome forsook the narrow path and opted for an eclectic mix of teachings which diluted the monergistic and God-glorifying doctrines of the apostles and prophets.  If a person truly believes (rests and trusts) in Jesus Christ alone for his or her salvation and well-being for now and eternity, that person does not belong in the Roman Catholic Church where such a belief is condemned.  The Catholic Church is not found at the Vatican.


A Reformation Conversation

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Today is the day when Protestants all over the world commemorate the Reformation.  For my contribution, I’d like to share a brief part of a conversation between Guido (Guy) de Bres and Richardot, bishop of Arras.  The dispute was held on May 22, 1567 at the prison in Valenciennes where de Bres was being held prior to his martyrdom on May 31.  De Bres tells us what happened:

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About eight o’clock in the morning of May 22, the bishop of Arras came to me for the second time, accompanied by a great number of priests, churchmen, and others.  After every one greeted one another, the Bishop approached me at the table and I was seated face to face with him and all the others were seated around the room.  They had much to say on the topic of the Mass and the Supper.  Their strategy was to put all this before my eyes so that I would approve their doctrine and then after their triumph they would use that to destabilize the weak in the faith, to have them abandon the true and ancient doctrine which I preached to them.  At least that’s what they hoped to do.

The Bishop:  Well, Guy, since we last talked together, how have you been?  Are you in the same situation and holding the same opinion?  Have you thought about our last talk together?

Guy:  Sir, I praise my God and Father that it pleases him to bestow his fatherly mercy on me, consoling me and fortifying me in a marvelous way in my bonds and afflictions.  I see and feel the strength and faithfulness of his promises for which I thank him with all my heart, praying to him to continue until the end of my life.  As for the rest, I still feel the same and my situation is the same.

The Bishop:  What?  I hoped to find you completely changed, according to the hope which I expressed last time.  Don’t you want to draw near and embrace an encounter with the truth?  O Guy, my brother and friend, I beg you not to be stubborn in your sentiments and not to prefer your judgment to the judgment of the whole church and of many learned persons who were before us.

Last time we dealt with the sacrifice of the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Mass, which the fathers have said was in use in the time of the Apostles, saying often, “We offer,” speaking of the Eucharist.  It is a wonder how you like better to believe a doctrine which began about forty years ago, produced and set forth by Oecolampadius and Karlstadt, who were its first authors.  It seems better to me to believe the fathers who say the Eucharist is a sacrifice, than these others who say something to the contrary.  I know well how you will respond to me.  You’ll say that St. Paul said to the Hebrews that Christ offered himself only once.  But my response is that in the Mass we do not make another sacrifice than the one he has already made.  We do not make one today and tomorrow another.  It is always the same one which we offer, not as he offered himself on the cross, for there he offered himself by presentation of merit, but we offer as ministers and executors of his Will by application of that merit.  I am surprised how you find that so strange.  We say that we offer Jesus Christ to God the Father for our sins.  In your Supper, do you not present Jesus Christ to God for your sins?  Do you pray that he will apply to you the merits of the death and suffering of his Son?  Guy, my brother and friend, I beg you not to embrace your opinion.  I am looking out for your salvation and your well-being.  I desire everything good for you.  I’m certainly not blood-thirsty, but one who wants to deal with you in all gentleness and moderation.

Guy:  Sir, I do not know what hope you conceived for me last time.  If you have hoped to win me over to your religion, I cannot help that.  At any rate, I do not think that you have been given occasion for that hope.  It’s not like you think.  As I’ve said before and say it again, I have never been stubborn and close-minded against clear thinking and reason.  But if anyone can show me from the Word of God that I have been in error, I am completely ready to give up.  Up to the present there has been nothing of all that I have heard that would make me leave the certain for the uncertain.  I still hold the same position that I did at the time when by quick testimony from the Word of God, you made me appear to be contrary.  As I have said, I am not stubborn, and do not prefer my judgment to the judgment of the Church.  But I do certainly prefer with clear thinking and just cause the ancient and early Church in which the Apostles set up all things according to the ordinance of Christ.  I prefer that to the church of our time which is loaded with a vast number of human traditions, and which has degenerated itself in a remarkable way from the early Church.  With good reason, I say, I hold to that which the Apostles first received.  For Jesus Christ, in Revelation 2, says to those in Thyatira that they should beware of the profound trickeries of Satan, to beware of false doctrine.  He says, “I will put on you no other burden, only that which you have already, hold fast to this until I come.”  He would not have spoken thus if it would have been necessary to receive all the novelties which the Roman church has fabricated and daily put forth as a divine commission.  Indeed, I honor greatly the learned and holy persons who have preceded us, but especially the Apostles and Prophets, and their testimony is certain and indubitable.

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The conversation goes on for many more pages, mostly dealing with the mass.  But here in this excerpt you can see de Bres taking his own stand on the Word of God, just as Martin Luther did many years earlier.  Also noteworthy is de Bres’ appeal to the early church — it was always his contention that the Reformed were the ones who were truly in the line of the early church.  He makes this case more fully in his book dealing with Romanism, Le baston de la foy Chrestienne.  Today we may give thanks for what God did through de Bres and the other Reformers.