IS THE REFORMATION REALLY OVER?
The Gospel of Roman Catholicism
In their 2005 book of the same title, Christian historians Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom posed the question “Is the Reformation over?” While acknowledging that doctrinal and practical differences between Catholics and evangelicals remain, they concluded that when it comes to the matter of justification by faith “…many Catholics and evangelicals now believe approximately the same thing.”1
Eleven years earlier, it was essentially this same conclusion that served as the fundamental premise of the 1994 ecumenical document “Evangelical and Catholics Together”:2
We affirm together that we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ…All who accept Christ as Lord and Savior are brothers and sisters in Christ. Evangelicals and Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ.3
Justification, Episcopal Infallibility and the Council of Trent
Unfortunately, both Is the Reformation Over and “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” make the fatal error of failing to recognize that the differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism with regard to the doctrine of salvation are irreconcilable by virtue of the Catholic doctrine of episcopal infallibility. This doctrine is defined as:
Preservation from error of the bishops of the Catholic Church. They are infallible when all the bishops of the Church are assembled in a general council or, scattered over the earth, they propose a teaching of faith or morals as one to be held by all the faithful. They are assured freedom from error provided they are in union with the Bishop of Rome and their teaching is subject to his authority.4
The significance of episcopal infallibility as it relates to justification cannot be overstated—particularly when one considers the pronouncements of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) which was convened in response to the Protestant Reformation. The Council of Trent set forth a number of decrees that explicitly contradict what evangelicals have always understood to be the biblical gospel. The following canons from the sixth session of the Council of Trent, are representative of official Catholic doctrine concerning justification:
CANON IX: If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification,…let him be anathema.
CANON XX: If any one saith, that the man who is justified and how perfect soever, is not bound to observe the commandments of God and of the Church, but only to believe;…let him be anathema.
CANON XXIV: If any one saith, that the justice 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,…let him be anathema.
CANON XXX: 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.5
To summarize, according to the Council of Trent, if anyone says that salvation is by grace alone, through faith in Jesus Christ alone and that works contribute nothing to our salvation, then that person is accursed of God. Furthermore, (according to Trent) if anyone says that the work of Christ on the cross is payment in full for the sins of all and that this payment is accounted fully to those who trust in Him and that there is no remaining debt to be paid by the sinner, then that person is accursed of God.
Since these decrees were set forth by the bishops of the Catholic Church during an ecumenical council they are considered infallible and therefore can never be altered or revoked. In other words, even though some evangelicals and Catholics argue that the two groups are moving closer together concerning justification, in reality, any movement can only come from the evangelical side.
What then, according to Catholic theology, must someone do to be saved? Unfortunately, the answer is not nearly so straight-forward as the question. Not only is the process of salvation complex and multilayered, even if one were to do everything necessary as prescribed by the Catholic Church, there is still no assurance that someone would ultimately be saved.
Sin: Original, Mortal and Venial
In order to fully understand the Catholic doctrine of justification, one must first understand the doctrine of sin—which can be generally categorized as original sin, mortal sin and venial sin.
Original sin in Roman Catholic theology does not equate to the biblical doctrine of the sin nature as many Protestant think. Original sin is not the propensity to sin due to a fallen nature, but rather it is defined as the condition of lacking sanctifying grace at birth—grace that is necessary for entrance into heaven. Therefore the first step in salvation is to replenish sanctifying grace through the sacrament of baptism—usually as soon as possible after a child is born.
Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: “Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water and in the word.6
In contrast to original sin, mortal and venial sins are actual sins which are committed by someone who has reached the age of reason.
Mortal sin is an actual sin that destroys sanctifying grace in the soul. It is called mortal since it causes the supernatural death of the soul.7
The effects of mortal sin are the loss of divine friendship, past supernatural merits, and the right to enter heaven unless the sinner repents.8
Venial sin is an offense against God that does not deprive the sinner of sanctifying grace.9
Venial sin darkens the mind in its perception of virtue, weakens the will in its pursuit of holiness, lowers one’s resistance to temptation, and causes a person to deviate from the path that leads to heavenly glory.10
Sins are therefore categorized as mortal or venial depending upon whether or not a given sin destroys sanctifying grace in the soul—and this is dependent upon a number of factors.
There are three conditions for a mortal sin. First, the matter or what is done must be seriously wrong, either in itself or because of the circumstances, as telling a lie under oath; or because of the purpose, as telling others something bad about someone in order to ruin that person’s character. Second, there must be clear awareness of the serious nature of the act at the time it is performed. And third, there is full consent of the will, so that a person deliberately wants to do what he knows is gravely sinful.11
In other words, the only answer that can be given to the question “Did I commit a mortal or venial sin?” is, “It all depends.” No priest, not even the Pope can tell someone for sure whether or not a given sin was mortal or venial because there is no list—and only God knows whether or not sanctifying grace was destroyed in the soul.
While the Bible teaches that we are cleansed and forgiven of every sin the moment we trust in Christ for salvation, Catholic theology teaches that Christ’s death simply made salvation possible—and it is up to each individual to earn the right to enter heaven. Those who die with only venial sin on their soul must spend time in the fires of purgatory, literally paying the penalty for their own sins, after which they will eventually make it to heaven. However, if someone dies with a mortal sin on their soul, meaning they have lost all sanctifying grace, they will spend eternity in hell.
Sanctifying Grace and the Sacraments
A fundamental flaw in Catholic theology is that it defines grace as something that can be gained and lost—something that is transferred from God to man in a very literal way through very literal means, i.e., through the sacraments. However, biblical grace is not a “thing,” per se. Grace is a concept that describes the way one person behaves toward another.
Grace is like love in this regard. Love is the concept that describes the attitude and behavior that always has the best interests of others in mind. Likewise, grace is a concept that describes someone doing good to another when they deserve justice.
Romans 5:15: But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace,which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many.
However, Roman Catholic theology teaches that grace must be transferred from God into the human soul and that this transfer takes place through the sacraments. The sacraments give and sustain spiritual life much as food carries the vitamins and minerals needed to sustain physical life.
“Seated at the right hand of the Father” and pouring out the Holy Spirit on his Body which is the Church, Christ now acts through the sacraments he instituted to communicate his grace. The sacraments are perceptible signs (words and actions) accessible to our human nature. By the action of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit they make present efficaciously the grace that they signify.12
There are seven sacraments according to Catholic theology, but it is primarily through five of them that the average Catholic receives the sanctifying grace necessary for salvation. These are baptism (whereby one becomes a Christian), confirmation (whereby one receives the Holy Spirit at the age of reason), penance (whereby one confesses and is absolved of sin by a priest and given tasks to pay for their sins), communion (whereby one partakes of the literal body and blood of Christ) and anointing of the sick (whereby one is anointed to spiritually strengthen one in their illness and especially when they are near death).
According to Catholic theology, salvation is anything but a free gift and consequently there can be no assurance of salvation. Catholics believe they are cleansed of original sin and become Christians at baptism—but then must faithfully accept and observe all of the teachings of the church, live a good life and regularly participate in the sacraments, particularly penance and communion, in order to maintain the sanctifying grace necessary for them to reach heaven when they die. There is no way for any Catholic, not even the Pope, to be certain of their eternal destiny before they die—and the best they can hope for is a relatively short time in the fires of purgatory. When all is said and done, their ultimate goal is to avoid dying with a mortal sin on their soul.
The crucial question and what separates the gospel of Roman Catholicism and the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ is, “Who pays for my sins?” According to Roman Catholic theology, Christ made salvation possible, but everyone must pay for their own sins, whereas the good news of the biblical gospel is that Christ paid the penalty for the sins of all and as a result forgiven sin and eternal life are offered as a free gift to be received by faith alone in Christ alone.
The Reformation is not over—nor can it ever be.
- Noll, Mark A.; Nystrom, Carolyn. Is the Reformation Over?: An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Kindle Location 5400). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
- Endorsers and signatories of the ECT document included Chuck Colson, Bill Bright, Os Guinness, Mark Noll, Richard Land and J.I. Packer representing the evangelical side and Richard John Neuhaus, Ralph Martin, Peter Kreeft, and Keith Fournier representing the Catholic side.
- “Evangelicals & Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.” <https://www.firstthings.com/article/1994/05/evangelicals–catholics-together-the-christian-mission-in-the-third-millennium-2) accessed Nov. 22, 2016.
- “Dictionary : INFALLIBILITY, EPISCOPAL.” <https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/ dictionary/index.cfm?id=34186> accessed Nov. 22, 2016.
- “The Council of Trent – Session 6.” <http://www.thecounciloftrent.com/ch6.htm> accessed Nov. 22, 2016.
- Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 312.
- Hardon, John. The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism (p. 186). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
- Ibid.; 187.
- Ibid.; 186.
- Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 282.