Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism: Do Both Roads Lead to Heaven?

Statisticians have grouped them into one category. Movie makers have portrayed them as one and the same faith. It’s easy to see why people think Christians (a.k.a. Evangelicals and Protestants) and Roman Catholics are alike. The impression is that the differences between the two faiths are simply a matter of worship style, music, dress, and church decor.

It is often said that the two worship the same God and believe in the same manner of salvation.

BY STEVE CHA

However, any person with a fairly good knowledge of the Bible and of church history should know that this is not the case. The spirit of ecumenism, though a seemingly noble idea, is ultimately unprofitable when it comes to uniting two religions of different understandings of salvation. The rift between Christians and Catholics during the 16th century, that birthed the Protestant Reformation, is demonstrable proof of serious issues of dissension and concern when it comes to core understandings of gospel truth and Christian living.

Toegether LA - Steve Cha - catholicismThese are not minor disagreements. The issue is salvation. This is why Roman Catholicism is a different religion than Christianity, and not simply another denomination. This is important to establish because it teaches us about the error of non-gospel centered faiths and the need to lovingly bring the saving message to Catholics, and any other “Christian” organizations that do not hold to the fundamentals of the faith.

Eternal salvation, as taught by Christ and the apostles, is received by repenting and placing your faith in Jesus Christ, which leads to your justification (John 3:16; Romans 10:9; Romans 5:1; Ephesians 2:8-9). God the Holy Spirit then begins a process of sanctification in a Christian’s life, causing that person to live righteously and to bear fruit as a testimony of their justification and the holy nature they will possess in eternity (2 Corinthians 5:17; Romans 6:14; Colossians 3:10). This must be the common confession of all those who profess to be Christian, according to Scripture. Those who teach another gospel are accursed (Galatians 1:6-8).

The historic Roman Catholic view of salvation is that salvation is not by faith alone. Although some progressive Catholics deny this view (claiming a salvation method similar to evangelicals), the historic Roman Catholic view of salvation is a combination of (intellectual) faith and good works. Roman Catholicism teaches that salvation begins at the stage of infant baptismal regeneration, in which a baby is cleansed of original sin through infant baptism. This supposedly imparts sanctifying grace, unites his soul to Christ, and grants him the power of free will to come to faith in Christ . This salvation must be maintained through a lifelong commitment to other deeds of the church, which includes membership to the Catholic Church, participating in the sacraments (such as Mass), living a moral lifestyle (through following the Ten Commandments), confession (to a priest), and other deeds that supplement this grace. The Catholic church teaches that salvation is not guaranteed, and must be maintained by one’s willingness to work out their salvation through a lifetime of obedience.

However, the Bible teaches something different about the way to God.

Ephesians 2:8-9 and Titus 3:5 state that works do not add to or take away from Christ’s work on the cross. It does not add to your salvation. Salvation is monergistic, meaning that it is purely a work of God from beginning to end. Everything from his election of an individual to justification to final glorification (Romans 8:29-30).

Scripture does not even teach that a believer is able to lose his salvation if he does not uphold it with enough good works and obedience to religious rituals. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Justification by faith is a truth taught not only in the New Testament, but in the Old Testament as well (Genesis 15:6; Hebrews 11).

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Therefore, no works can cleanse a sinner from sin and earn him salvation. Regeneration comes from God, and He uses the preached gospel message to bring spiritual life to spiritually dead sinners, so that they can be receptive to the things of God. This enables the sinner to come to believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior, which a sinner cannot do if he remains in his unregenerate state. It is this faith that justifies a believer and makes him righteous in God’s sight.

This justification is a one-time event and not a lifelong process. It happens immediately after someone believes in Christ (Romans 5:1; 1 Corinthians 6:11). After that, the believer – under the Holy Spirit’s work – undergoes a lifelong process of sanctification (growth in the godliness) until he reaches glorification at Christ’s return for the church (2 Corinthians 5:6-8). This contradicts Catholic soteriology, which teaches that regeneration happens by the work of water baptism, and that justification does not happen at one’s conversion, but rather at the end of one’s life when his deeds are ultimately assessed by God on Judgment Day.

A few key areas demonstrate differences in Christian and Catholic salvation. The first area is the relationship between God’s part and man’s part in the salvation process. Catholicism is essentially synergistic, meaning that salvation is a two-way road with man cooperating with God in accomplishing the final redemption of his soul. Man is spiritually sick, but not totally dead and incapable of seeking after Yahweh. People still have a measure of goodness, free will, and capacity to reach out to God for help and to live for him. Catholic soteriology is semi-pelagian in that it views men as having a measure of goodness within them that can merit God’s favor.

In contrast, Christian soteriology is monergistic, which means that God alone accomplishes salvation for us, independent of our contribution. This must not be misunderstood to mean that people do not have the responsibility to respond by believing in the gospel.

The Bible does not teach people to sit back passively and let God save them regardless of their actions. They must respond by repenting and believing in Jesus. The essence of monergism is that all credit is given to God for salvation because He is the one who foreknew, elects, regenerates, calls, sanctifies, and glorifies believers (Romans 8:29). He completes the work of salvation with His sinless life, His perfect sacrifice on the cross, and His resurrection.

Another difference between Christian and Catholic soteriology is in the issue of justification. Catholicism views justification as not happening at the beginning of one’s faith, but at the end of one’s life. It is not an event, but a process. Justification begins with baptism and is upheld throughout a person’s life as he obeys the tenets of the Catholic church. Justification removes past sins and remits grace to the soul, but does not totally make one right with the Lord. Justification can be reversed if a believer commits what is called mortal sins. Concerning the biblical nature of justification, 2 Corinthians 5:21 teaches that people who believe in the gospel (and are thus justified) are also reckoned as completely righteous because God imputes a completely righteous standing to the believer.

This imputed righteousness presents the believer as 100% righteous because Christ earned that righteousness for him with His perfect life and credits that to those who believer. That is a key aspect of justification by faith. However, Catholics reject this doctrine and view it as dangerous since it supposedly causes a believer to be apathetic about living a godly life. Finally, Catholicism believes that an assurance of justification is not possible in this life. A Catholic finds out the results when he or she dies and stands before God to be evaluated.

Catholicism views justification and sanctification as a near identical process, whereas Christians view justification and sanctification as two different stages. For Christians, justification is an instantaneous event that happens immediately after one is regenerated and justified via faith. It comes before the lifelong stage of sanctification.

The sanctification process does not add to one’s salvation, but is the result of one’s salvation in Christ, in which Christ progressively empowers the believer to like Christ. The sanctification process does not make a believer sinless in this life, but shapes a believer to look more and more like Christ everyday in practical conduct. Sanctification is completed upon glorification, when the believer becomes completely sanctified in holiness, forever set apart from the presence of sin because of his new heavenly body.

A last analysis I want to make is the role of sacraments in the life of a believer. The Catholic church teaches that the sacraments are a means of conferring grace and maintaining a believer’s salvation. These sacraments, such as the Eucharist, physically confers the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice onto the believer when he partakes of them. In other words, sacraments add a measure of righteousness onto believers, implying that Christ’s work at Calvary is not final, sufficient, and efficacious.

This is not what the word of God describes as the role of sacraments (or what evangelicals call ordinances) in the believer’s life. Sacraments do not play a part in a believer’s salvation, since salvation is by faith alone in Christ as Lord and Savior (1 Corinthians 1:17; Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5).

Sacraments like water baptism and communion, are more appropriately categorized as belonging in the sanctification process. They do not merit or uphold a believer’s salvation, but are a testimony of one’s salvation and adoption into God’s family. These sacraments are done to honor Christ as a testimony of one’s justification. They do not confer grace or impart any of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner. In fact, one cannot participate in sacraments unless he has already experienced God’s saving grace through the gospel. To do so would be sacrilegious (1 Corinthians 11:27-32).

Christians and Catholics do share many things in common, such as a common understanding of God’s triune nature, the deity of Christ, and the inspiration of Scripture. Yet, the differences, as outlined above, are too vast to categorize the two in the same faith. In this case, both roads do not lead to heaven, which is why it is critical to have an accurate understanding of the gospel and application of it.

The gospel message is something that Satan has been seeking to twist and to destroy since its inception, and he does so best within the church, which is why the body of Christ is called to split and dissociate themselves with those who claim to bring a saving message that is not what the New Testament teaches (2 John 1:10; Jude 3). Souls are at stake in this issue.

In conclusion, there are two takeaways lessons we should take to heart from this:
1. We should all examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith. Do we have a real understanding of the cross? Have we appropriately applied it by faith? If not, then we should do so today.

2. We should help others to discover the truth of the gospel. Whether they be Catholics or atheists, there is a God in heaven who wants all people to repent and come to a saving knowledge of the truth. He has made this message simple, which we are not to alter, but to present it as such to unbelievers so that they can be saved.

That is why Christ taught, “Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:15).

Steve Cha is the teaching pastor of Grace City LA.

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