The beliefs of different Christian denominations throughout history have caused everything from minor skirmishes involving distinctives of the faith (how often to partake in communion, etc.) to major battles over non-negotiable doctrines (the Bible is God’s Word, infallible and inspired by Him. Salvation is in Jesus alone, etc.). Though Catholics and Protestants share some parallel beliefs, there are some non-negotiables as outlined below. The relationship has softened, but life-changing differences remain.
The Apostles’ Creed denotes the whole Christian church as the holy catholic church. In this sense, the word, catholic, refers to the universal, true Christian Church of all times and all places. For the purpose of clarification, we will use the phrase, Roman Catholic(s) to refer to those who adhere to present-day Catholic doctrine.
Major Beliefs of Roman Catholics
Baptism is required for salvation. The Bible clearly says we are saved by grace alone, not works (Ephesians 2:4-9). To claim baptism is necessary or a prerequisite for salvation is a false teaching. Roman Catholics believe God imparts His saving grace through physical means (such as baptismal water and communion). The clergy are believed to have the God-given authority to facilitate such rituals Their ceremony (in the dominion of grace) purifies an infant from original sin, restores, and integrates the child into Christ and His Church.
The reverence of Mary: Roman Catholics give Mary, (the mother of Jesus) an exalted position as mediator between man and God, and they pray to her. Scripture says, “For there is one God, and there is one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus,” (1 Timothy 2:5).
Mary is also said to have been conceived in her mother’s womb in the normal way but born without original sin. Catholic tradition adds she also lived a sin-free life. Romans 3:23 refutes this, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:22). Mary is not to be given special sinless status, for only Jesus lived a sinless life (Hebrews 4:15).
Purgatory: According to the Oxford Language Dictionary, purgatory is defined as, (in Roman Catholic doctrine), a place or state of suffering inhabited by the souls of sinners who are atoning for their sins before going to heaven.” How are their sins removed? By praying for the dead. Protestants believe as long as a person has breath, there is a chance to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. Once dead, all chances are lost, for a saved person goes to paradise (Luke 23:43) and an unsaved person goes to hell (Matthew 25:31-46; Hebrews 9:27). The gospel is Christ’s completed work plus nothing, including purgatory (Galatians 2:16; 3:5-6).
Indulgences are a payment to the church (the pope) for the forgiveness of sins via certain pilgrimages, building construction, or payments. This is a major sticking point for Protestants, for Jesus is the only One who can forgive sins by His grace. The work of salvation is done by Him. Our choice is to accept His work (Romans 6:23) and daily deny ourselves (Matthew 16:24).
In the book of Acts, a sorcerer named Simon sought to buy the power of the Holy Spirit when he witnessed Peter and John laying hands on people to receive Him (the Holy Spirit). Peter and John soundly rebuked him, “Your money perish with you, because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money! You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity” (Acts 8:20-23). This passage deals with the gifting of the Holy Spirit, but forgiveness of sins is bound up within Him.
Priests/Confession: Roman Catholics believe sinners must go before a priest for absolution of sins. It is true that we are to confess to one another (Mark 11:26; James 5:16), but the priest is inadequate to forgive a person’s sins against God because he, like the Levitical priest, has sins of his own to confess to God.
The account in Luke 5:21-26 is pointed; God alone can forgive man’s sins against Him. And 1 John 1:9 refutes the belief that a priest’s intervention is necessary. The verse reads, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The pronoun, “He” refers to God. Psalm 32 is another sterling example of how we can come before the Lord with our petitions for forgiveness.
Only Jesus’ perfect atoning work brings forgiveness to we who believe in Him and ask for His forgiveness. The Bible takes an emphatic stance that Jesus is our high priest (Hebrews 4:14-16, 7:27), and no mere man can grant the forgiveness of sins that cleanses the sinner.
Eucharist/Transubstantiation: Roman Catholics believe, during the communion service, the elements they partake, (the wine and the bread) become the actual blood and body of Jesus. Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-23, and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 are the texts which command our regular observance of the Lord’s Table to remember what He did for us. When Jesus said, “this is My body” and, “this is My blood,” He spoke metaphorically. He died once for all sins. To say His literal blood and body are still essential today for salvific work is to say His work on the cross was incomplete at best and ineffective at worse.
Peter and the Pope: The Roman Catholic faith named the Apostle Peter as the first pope, using Matthew 16:18 as the proof text, where Jesus said to Peter, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” Jesus is speaking of the truth Peter spoke in the preceding passage, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16)]. Jesus builds His church.
An honest look at the text seems to indicate Jesus was in fact speaking to Peter as the rock, but of course not in the way Roman Catholics understand. Peter was the chosen tool used to build the church. Acts 2 gives the account of Peter as he obeyed the Great Commission. Also, if Peter was who Roman Catholics say, it makes no sense that Paul opposed him authoritatively at Antioch (Galatians 2:11-14).
Since its inception, the Roman Catholic faith has elevated the pope and church councils (concerning teaching authority) to the same level as Scripture, and their authority supplants that of Scripture. Yes, Roman Catholics believe in Jesus as the Son of God and the Bible as the inspired, error-free Word of God, but they also believe church tradition has a place of authority. Ultimately, the Roman Catholic leaders hold themselves as the final authority on Scripture’s meaning and application, not Scripture itself.
What Brought about the Catholic Vs. Protestant Christian Debate?
Church History in Plain Language by Bruce L. Shelley has an excellent section dealing with the life of and actions taken by Martin Luther. He was a “troubled monk” who, when assigned to the head of biblical studies at Wittenberg University, became captivated with the words of Christ as He hung on the cross. He wondered how the sinless Savior could cry such words to the Father (My God! My God! Why have You forsaken Me?) (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34).
Luther’s studies led him to Paul’s epistle to the Romans and in particular, verse 1:17, in which is stated, “The just shall live by faith.” He said, “Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith.” Undaunted, Luther stood on his convictions and confronted the Roman church. The practice of indulgences enraged him, and he preached against it in his sermons, especially after a Dominican priest traveled throughout Germany seeking funds for a new basilica and boasted that with donations, a person would not only be forgiven but extended it past the grave to free souls from purgatory.
On October 31, 1517—a crucial date in Christendom—Luther sparked the firestorm of Catholic vs.Protestant. On that pivotal day—the day which serves as the start of the Reformation—Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on the door of the castle-like church in Wittenberg, Germany. A papal bull was issued, and it referred to Luther as “A Wild Boar in the Vineyard,” and “forty-one of his beliefs were condemned as heretical, or false, or offensive to pious ears, or seductive to simple minds, or repugnant to Catholic truth.” (Quote from Church History in Plain Language) The bull commanded Luther to renounce his statements or face dire consequences. The result? The Protestant Reformation, which instigated the battle cry of Catholic vs. Protestant Christian
To this day, the Roman Catholic hierarchy has not relinquished the decision made at the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which stated, “If anyone says that by faith alone the impious are justified, let him be anathema” (Canon IX on justification).
Do Catholic Beliefs Differ from Mainline Christianity?
Roman Catholicism differs from Protestant Christianity for many reasons. The Christian religion and its theology include three major divisions: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism (Eastern Orthodoxy follows church inspiration alongside Scripture). Mainline Christianity is encompassed (for the most part) in what we call Protestantism. Protestants are participants of a Christian body that originated from the Reformation of the sixteenth century which opposed papal authority.
Roman Catholics believe they are the original and first Christian church. Protestants follow the teachings of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Old and New Testaments and believe the Roman Catholic church stemmed from the original Christian church but became corrupt from within. The fundamentals of the Protestant theology are from the Reformation doctrines: the five solas (Latin term meaning alone): Scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, and God’s glory alone. Roman Catholic doctrine adds to Scripture by tradition and its governing body’s decrees. It also elevates its teachings as on par or above Scripture.
What Should Christians Know about How to Approach This Subject?
Scripture is replete with commands about how we are to live as Christ-followers (Matthew 7:12; Ephesians 5:1-7, 15-21; Philippians 1:10, 27-28; 2:15; Colossians 1:10). While we are to discern our environment as led by the Spirit, we are to walk carefully (Ephesians 5:11). Be prayerful, sober, and vigilant (1 Peter 5:8) as the Lord reveals opportunities to speak the truth to others.
When speaking with anyone of a different faith, it’s paramount we approach our conversations with love, compassion, and with a sincere desire to glorify the Lord through it. Listening well is another caveat; people can tell when we aren’t, and listening displays our compassion. As we walk in victory with Christ, pray to be the fragrance of life (2 Corinthians 2:14-17).
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Lisa Loraine Baker is a rock & roll girl who loves Jesus. She and her husband, Stephen, inhabit their home as the “Newlyweds of Minerva” with crazy cat, Lewis. Lisa is co-author of the non-fiction narrative, “Someplace to be Somebody” (End Game Press, spring 2022). She has also written for Lighthouse Bible Studies and CBN.com.