Special Guest Post from Missionary Tom Dyson

Are Protestants and Catholics of the Same Basic Faith?

Why would a young missionary risk their life, leave friends and family and the benefits of living in the U.S., and go evangelize Latin America? It seems to be the land of crosses and crucifixes already. There is generally at least a small Catholic cathedral in every village, and more statues of Jesus than you can practically count.

The Catholic Church proclaims God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It also proclaims that Jesus died for us and that it is “by God’s grace that we are saved through faith”. There are many other commonalities. The virgin birth of Christ for example, along with many other aspects of faith.

In fact, there should be no confusion as to why a Christian might question the need to evangelize people who have placed their trust in the Catholic Church for their eternity.

A Christian naturally is drawn to ask, “Are we not of the same basic faith as Catholics already?” The Catholic Church itself apparently has asked this question and has recorded its position.

Grace, Works, and Justification

“If any one saith, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise, that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened (to him); let him be anathema.”

The Council of Trent, Canon 30

According to Canon 30, the Catholic Church states that you are to be formally cursed/rejected (anathema) if you believe that Christ finished the work of your salvation on the Cross. I hope that you quickly recognize that belief in the bold phrase above is an indispensable and Biblical element of our faith.

The Council of Trent further defines the relation of justification (salvation) to good works.

“If any one saith, that the justice (Justification) received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.”

The Council of Trent, Canon 24

In other words, the Catholic Church officially teaches that to claim that good works do not add to our justification (salvation) is also anathema. They explain that these “good works” are driven and empowered by actual grace being dispensed through sacraments, and therefore can be referred to as grace themselves. This makes it possible to say that their salvation is “by grace through faith”, and “not of works”, in seeming agreement with the writings of the Apostle Paul to the church in Ephesus.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

New King James Version Eph. 2.8-9

Catholic Beliefs About Grace

To understand the reasoning in these teachings of the Catholic church, it is necessary to have some insight into the significance and meaning of grace in their beliefs. The Catholic Church’s teaching on grace and salvation is generally described below.

Grace needed by man toward, and for salvation is dispensed through, and only through, the Catholic Church (exclusive of others).

Initially, “sanctifying grace” is dispensed by the church at the point of baptism. This applies to both the non-consenting infants and to older, consenting converts to Catholicism. This grace from God covers original sin and makes one suitable for eternal life.

Unfortunately, through any one of the mortal sins, this state of grace/salvation is lost. If a person dies while they are in fact apart from sanctifying grace due to unconfessed mortal sin, they are lost and without hope.

Mortal sins are considered grave, intentional sins, and can range from intentional murder to immodesty such as women wearing leggings, along with others.

After baptism, additional grace can be dispensed through the sacraments of the Catholic church. This allows for the increase of sanctifying grace unto eternal life, and additionally, the restoration of sanctifying grace once lost. This is done through the dispensing of grace called “actual grace”. This actual grace is more of a prodding to and capacitating for good works and obedience. In this way, one that has lost sanctifying grace unto eternal life (salvation) through a mortal sin can have it restored through good works made possible only by actual grace. This restoration is good until another mortal sin is committed, though lesser sins weaken the person spiritually.

Purgatory: The Unfinished Work

If the Catholic dies in a state of grace, in which they have no unconfessed mortal sins and possess sanctifying grace unto salvation, then they will still face a time in purgatory. Here they will suffer for venial, or lesser sins not confessed, or that they were unaware of so that they can ultimately be cleansed and suitable for entrance into heaven.

These sins are left to the deceased to resolve, as opposed to Christ.

Because of this system of repeated falling and restoration to grace, the Catholic is left without any assurance of ultimate salvation in life, as they could possibly die with unconfessed mortal sin.

These teachings leave the faithful Catholic, who trusts the church, in a state in which he does not accept that his sins were paid for entirely and on the cross by Christ. He is taught that he himself must participate in his own justification unto eternal life, by:

  • partaking in the grace dispensing sacraments of the church,
  • performing good works (enabled and inspired by grace),
  • performing prescribed penance (voluntary self-punishment inflicted as an outward expression of repentance while on earth),
  • and eventual temporary (though perhaps lengthy) punishment in purgatory.

Are Catholic Believers Truly Saved?

There now exists a range of acceptance of Catholic official teaching among the people, and among church officials. There is room for some to not accept these Catholic teachings, be truly saved Christians, and still identify with their Catholic background.

However, when faced with the above central teachings (not currently concerning ourselves with interpreting the handling of Mary and saints, the eucharist, various church traditions held as equal to Scripture in authority, as well as the complexities of purgatory and more), we can see that Catholic church teachings hold truth, but with a dangerous mixture of errors in key areas of importance. It is these errors that rob the faithful Catholic (one that strictly follows the teachings of the Catholic church) of new life, restoration, and the peace of dependency only on Christ for the gift and maintenance of salvation to eternal life.

Many Catholics sincerely believe what they have been taught. They have been taught officially that Jesus did NOT truly complete the work of their salvation on the cross, and that their eternity hangs in the balance of their performance of good works in response to grace dispensed to them by the church.

So the young missionary, called at great risk and cost to evangelize a Catholic people, must ask sincerely; “Are we not of the same basic faith with Catholics already?”.

If the missionary believes salvation to eternal life depends fully on Christ’s act of atonement on the cross, with no mixture of merit through human good works, then the response must be to take up his cross and carry the Gospel to the nations.