Some light on the Perpetual Virginity of Mary

Rembrandt, Adoration of the Shepherds (1646)

Adoration of the Shepherds (1646), by Rembrandt. (

It being Christmas, the celebration of Nativity of the Lord, it seems appropriate that I make this post that has been on my mind for a week or two, regarding the Perpetual Virginity of Mary.

The Perpetual Virginity of Mary is one of those Marian dogmata that over much of my conversion, I affirmed more out of loyalty to the Church than out of credulity. I accepted that the Catholic Church was the true Church of Christ and the bearer of Apostolic Tradition, and therefore I would abide by her teachings. But being a lifelong Protestant, I didn’t believe that really, did I? It was one of the two doctrines I struggled with most (the other being Mary as Παναγία [Panhagia] or All-Holy), because there simply was no biblical support for it at all. In fact, Scripture says the opposite: Jesus had brothers and sisters (Mark 6:3, Matthew 13:55–56). This doctrine seemed to me to be a demonization of human sexuality, equating sex with sin and undermining the Church’s teaching on the family: the Holy Family was not a functioning, conjugal, procreative family at all, but one consisting of Mary Ever-Virgin, All-Holy; Joseph, her “most chaste spouse”; and the Christ Child, who was God Himself. The perpetual virginity smacked of the kind of argument one would expect from an admiring child: “My Mother never did that!

Fr. Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church

It was reading Fr. Luigi Gambero’s Mary and the Fathers of the Church that opened my eyes: Belief in the perpetual virginity has been a part of the Christian faith since the very beginning. It does not undermine teachings on the family, but affirms the Full Humanity and Full Divinity of Christ. It does not equate sex with sin, but holds forth Mary’s womb as the sacred sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the New Covenant, that it must have been to contain God Himself. The Protoevangelium of James, an early apocryphal gospel, can be dated to around A.D. 120, and though certainly not historical, it testifies clearly to a firm belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity at that early date; in fact, supporting it seems the text’s principal aim. Though pseudepigraphical, claiming as its author James the Just, the “brother of the Lord,” the text was written within living memory of Mary. Origen, writing early in the third century, rejected the text, but nonetheless concurred with its author in affirming Mary’s perpetual virginity (Origen, Comm. Matt. 10.17). And indeed Mary’s perpetual virginity was affirmed by Fathers of the Church from then on; questioned and at times challenged, but always defended and maintained.*

* I don’t have the Gambero book with me at the moment, or I would give you some quotations; it’s still in a box somewhere lost among a mountain of other boxes. But it is chocked full of patristic quotations on every aspect of Marian doctrine, if anyone should be interested.

Over the year or two I’ve been becoming Catholic, though, I have realized that there is scriptural support for Mary’s perpetual virginity. I found another strong indication just last week, and wanted to rush here immediately to share it.

El Greco, Virgin Mary

Virgin Mary (c. 1600), by El Greco. (

Behold, Your Mother

First of all, and most prominently: Jesus on the Cross, in the Gospel of John, gives his mother into the care of John (John 19:26–27):

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.

It would make little sense for Jesus to place his mother in John’s care if she had other children living — and, according to the Protestant argument, she certainly did: at the very least James, “brother of the Lord,” and Jude, who both wrote New Testament epistles. Therefore it seems that James and Jude and the other “brethren” of the Lord were not “brothers” in the full and literal sense, but rather in the sense of “kinsmen.” This is not a new argument; the Fathers discovered it ages ago, as Gambero illustrates.

Maria, by Cano

Maria (c. 1648), by Alonzo Cano. (

Apostles and Brothers of the Lord

More and more lately, as I dig deeper into the New Testament, I’ve been becoming aware of another argument that undoubtedly supports the argument the “brethren” of the Lord were not full and literal “brothers.” I explored it to some degree in my post on the Apostles named James. At the time, I considered the conclusion somewhat fanciful and poorly supported — but you know, one instance of this in Scripture might have been a case of poor wording; but two or three, and the idea gains some weight.

St. Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, examines the “rights” of the Apostles (1 Corinthians 9:5):

Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?

Duccio, Appearance of Christ to the Apostles (1311)

Appearance of Christ to the Apostles (fragment) (1311), by Duccio. (

In increasing order of importance, Paul lists: (1) the other Apostles, (2) the brothers of the Lord, and (3) Cephas, or Peter, the chief Apostle. Together, this statement seems to refer to the Twelve, and includes “the brothers of the Lord” among them — brothers plural, implying at least two “brothers of the Lord” were among the number of the Apostles.

Protestants, of course, argue that Paul is using the word “apostle” in a broader sense than in reference to the Twelve — after all, Paul himself was an “apostle” and not one of the Twelve. An “apostle” (ἀπόστολος) is literally anyone who has been sent. But in an analysis of the Greek New Testament, it seems that it is rarely used in this broad sense*, but that the term is a specific and technical term referring to an office of the Church, and applied almost exclusively to the Twelve and to Paul.

* See analysis below.

Which brings me to my discovery last week: In Galatians, perhaps the earliest of Paul’s letters, we have one of the most unambiguous examples of the word apostle. Following Paul’s conversion, he did not immediately go to Jerusalem to consult with “those who were Apostles before me” (Galatians 1:17). But then (Galatians 1:18–19):

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.

Immediately I was struck. I was impressed by the example above in 1 Corinthians, though it was rather unspecific; but here we have it clear and unambiguous: James, the “brother” of the Lord, was an Apostle — and not just an “apostle,” meaning a messenger or someone who was sent, but one who was an Apostle before Paul — one of the Twelve.

Duccio, The Apostle James Alphaeus (1311)

The Apostle James Alphaeus (1311), by Duccio. (

But how is this possible? We know the names of the Twelve Apostles, and none of them are identified as brothers of the Lord (Matthew 10:1–3, Mark 3:13–18, Luke 6:12–16, Acts 1:12–14). But there are two Apostles named James — James, called the Greater, the son of Zebedee; and James, called the Less, the son of Alphaeus. James the Greater was certainly dead by the time Paul met with the other Apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 12:1–3). So if the James whom Paul met was one of the Twelve, then it follows that James, the “brother” of the Lord, is in fact James the Less, the son of Alphaeus.

But how, then, can he be a “brother” of the Lord? Well, as I demonstrate in the other post focusing more intently on this problem, neither the Hebrew language nor the Aramaic language which Jesus spoke had a word for “cousin” — which it seems this James may have been (see the post). The word ἀδελφός in Greek, too, could carry the connotation of “kinsman” or any relative. Though the Scripture says “not even his brothers believed in Him” (John 7:5), it does not say that none of His brothers (i.e. kinsmen) believed in Him. James the Less may have been one of the less ardent and conspicuous Apostles during Jesus’s earthly life and ministry, but as a cousin Jesus would have called him “brother,” in an even closer sense than he called all the Apostles “brothers” (e.g. John 20:17) — an epithet he carried with him for the rest of his life. Following his witness of Jesus’s Resurrection, it seems that James the Less — James the Just — stepped up to his calling and served the Lord with his life.

A merry and blessed Christmas to all of you, dear brothers and sisters.

* Appendix: An Analysis of the Word “Apostle” (ἀπόστολος) in the Greek New Testament

Matthew: 1 use, Matthew 10:2, in enumerating the Twelve Apostles
Mark: 2 uses, Mark 3:14, 6:30, in enumerating and referring to the Twelve
Luke: 5 uses, five times referring explicitly to the Twelve, Luke 6:13, 9:10, 17:5, 22:14, 24:10, one time in Jesus saying that God would send “prophets and apostles” (Luke 11:49) — connecting the ministry of the Apostles to the ministry of prophets
Acts: 28 uses, the first 18 cases referring unambiguously to the Twelve (Acts 1:2, 1:26, 2:37, 2:42, 2:43, 4:33, 4:35, 4:36, 4:37, 5:2, 5:12, 5:18, 5:29, 5:40, 6:6, 8:1, 8:14, 8:18 ); 8 times referring to the “apostles and elders” at Jerusalem or in Judea, most likely referring to the Twelve (Acts 9:27, 11:1, 15:2, 15:4, 15:6, 15:22, 15:23, 16:4); twice referring to Paul and Barnabas (14:4, 14:14)
Romans: 3 uses, twice of Paul referring to himself as an Apostle (Romans 1:13, 11:13); once referring to “the apostles,” most likely the Twelve (16:7)
1 Corinthians: 9 uses, three times Paul referring to himself (1 Corinthians 1:1, 9:1, 9:2), the latter two cases in the context of the other apostles, and admitting some would not consider him an apostle (9:2); once, the verse above, referring to the apostles as an undefined body, but including himself and apparently Barnabas among their number (9:5, cf. 9:6); three times referring to apostles as a body or apostleship as a ministry of the Church (4:9, 12:28, 12:29); twice in unambiguous reference to the Twelve (15:7, 15:9)
2 Corinthians: 6 uses, once Paul referring to himself (2 Corinthians 1:1); once referring to ἀδελφοὶ ἡμῶν, ἀπόστολοι ἐκκλησιῶν (“our brothers, apostles of the churches”), who are “the glory of Christ,” most likely referring to the Twelve, but commonly translated in Protestant Bibles as “messengers,” in the tradition of the King James Version (8:23); three times referring to “super-apostles” or “false apostles” (11:13, 12:11, 12:12)
Galatians: 3 uses, once Paul referring to himself (Galatians 1:1); twice referring unambiguously to the Twelve (1:17, 1:19)
Ephesians: 4 uses, once Paul referring to himself (Ephesians 1:1); three times referring to “apostles” as a body and ministry among other ministries of the Church (prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers) (2:20, 3:5, 4:11)
Philippians: 1 use, Philippians 2:25, referring to Epaphroditus as “messenger” to the faithful at Philippi
Colossians: 1 use, Paul referring to himself (Colossians 1:1)
1 Thessalonians: 1 use, Paul referring to “we” who had ministered at Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 2:6)
1 Timothy: 2 uses, both times Paul referring to himself (1 Timothy 1:1, 2:7)
2 Timothy: 2 uses, both times Paul referring to himself (2 Timothy 1:1, 11:1
Titus: 1 use, Paul referring to himself (Titus 1:1)
1 Peter: 1 use, Peter referring to himself (1 Peter 1:1)
2 Peter: 2 uses, once Peter referring to himself (2 Peter 1:1); once referring to an unspecified body of “your apostles,” possibly referring to the Twelve (3:2)
Jude: 1 use, referring to “the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ,” probably referring to the Twelve (Jude 17
Revelation: 3 uses, once referring to false apostles (Revelation 2:2); once referring to “saints and apostles and prophets” (18:20); once unambiguously referring to “the Twelve Apostles of the Lamb” (21:14)

In conclusion, though the word ἀπόστολος can have a general usage as “messenger” in Greek, in the New Testament it is rarely used in that sense (once or at the most twice out of 81 uses). Rather “apostle” is a specific and technical term referring to an elite office and ministry of the Church, holding more authority than elders (πρεσβύτεροι or presbyteroi) — who in time became priests as we know them. When any “apostles” are identified, it seems that the term is applied exclusively to the Twelve, to Paul, and twice to Barnabas.

One in Christ, but not a Visible Unity: A Thought on Christian Love and Reunification

Hans Memling, Christ Giving His Blessing (1481)

Christ Giving His Blessing (1481), by Hans Memling. (

In talking to a dear friend the other night, who is a new Christian, I realized that sometimes my complaints about Protestants and Protestant theology can be taken in the wrong spirit. (Sometimes I fear they’re made in the wrong spirit.)

My friend was confused and worried that in my lashing out against “Protestants,” I was speaking to her. Let me first say this: I believe that all people who call on the name of Jesus, who believe He is the Son of God, who believe He died for our sins are was raised from the dead that we might be, too — all people who affirm the core and fundamental truths of the Christian faith, as stated in the three ecumenical creeds of the Church (the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed) — can rightfully call themselves Christians and can be saved. All we Christians of particular doctrines have many disagreements about finer points of theology, even about who is saved and how one is saved, but we agree on this: Christ is our Savior, and we are saved solely by God’s grace. We have all been baptized into the one Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12‒13) — in a real sense, we are all One in Him.

El Greco, St. Paul and St. Peter

St. Paul and St. Peter (c. 1595), by El Greco. (

That said, I have come to the conviction that the Roman Catholic Church is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church that Christ founded (Matthew 16:18) — a visible Church, that the world can see and identify. I do believe that those many Christians — in particular meaning Protestants — who are outside that visible Church are at a disadvantage, lacking some essential doctrines and especially the integrity guaranteed by apostolic succession and the means of grace in the Sacraments — but I affirm, with the Church, that Protestant churches carry elements of Christ’s Truth and His sanctification and can bear souls to Him for salvation (Second Vatican Council, 1964, Unitatis redintegratio 3.2).

I believe it’s gravely wrong that we have created such division in Christ’s Church, His Spotless Bride. I pray every day that God will reunite the Church; that He will help us find reconciliation with each other and heal our ancient wounds and gashes. I pray that through my blog I might lead others toward that reconciliation, or toward the convictions I myself have reached about the Catholic Church.

But even more important than that — infinitely more important than that — I pray and long that people may find Christ and know Him, by whatever avenue they find Him. If you find truth in my blog, I hope and pray above all that it’s the truth and the love of Christ. Finding His love and His grace is more precious than any fine point of doctrine: for as the Pharisees, I can be knowledgeable and orthodox and right about doctrine and practice, and yet entirely miss the point: it’s love. I could memorize the Catechism backward and forward; attend Mass every day of the year; fast and do penance to the point of utter mortification — and yet if I didn’t have love, I would have nothing and be nothing (1 Corinthians 13).

The Vatican over the Tiber

So if you find a place where you can meet Jesus, where His love lives and is lived, where you are loved and nurtured and find faith and grace and healing — stay there: especially if you are a baby Christian. If you find I am speaking the truth about history and doctrine and practice — if you come to believe with me that the Catholic Church is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic one — don’t feel, unless the Holy Spirit compels you, that you’re expected to immediately jump the ship you’re on and swim the Tiber. I’d much rather you stay in the loving and nurturing and edifying place God has brought you than make this arduous quest before you’re ready. I would much rather plant confederates all throughout the Body of Christ, who are convinced of the truth of the Church and the necessity of reconciliation and reunification, who might influence others from the inside to lay aside old prejudices, who might urge the Church, from where they are, toward reunion, than have anybody break ties with their Christian brothers and sisters and strike out alone.

I pray that we might all one day break bread together again. But until then, love God, love your neighbor, and strive to be transformed by that love.

Christ the King, and honor in worship

Christ the King (try as I might, I couldn’t identify the artist).

This Sunday is the Solemnity of Christ the King — properly “Our Lord Jesus Christ, Lord of the Universe” — the last Sunday of the liturgical year, before Advent begins it anew, when we celebrate Jesus’s Divine Kingship over all Creation.

I had a brief thought this morning at Mass, in response to the criticisms of some Protestant friends, that Catholic worship is “empty ritual” or “rote.” When the king of a great earthly kingdom visits — when the President of the United States, or the Queen of England, or a senator or a governor or even a powerful CEO, makes an appearance — there is an expected protocol, an established ceremony, in welcoming that person and celebrating his or her presence. The act of that ceremony — and the people’s participation in it — shows that person the honor, respect, and reverence befitting his or her position.

How much the more should we do the same for the Almighty King of the Universe, the Lord of All Creation! Our liturgy — all the texts, and psalms, and chants; all the vestments and vessels and incense; all the buildings, all the art, all the music — they are to honor our King, to celebrate His Presence, His coming to us in the Sacraments; to lift high His Name, in heavenly praise with the angels — but also to magnify Him before all the world. Almighty God, the King of the Universe, took on flesh and walked among us, and still He is in our midst, in His Holy Spirit — and in His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. How can we not do these things?

The Year of Faith

Today begins the Catholic Church’s Year of Faith, proclaimed by Pope Benedict as “a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the one Savior of the world.” It’s a time for the study and teaching of the Christian faith and for dedication to the New Evangelization. I invite all believers to join me in these aims, and non-believers to seek and ask questions (even critically). I know I have a lot to learn, too; and I am looking forward to a year committed to delving deeper and deeper into the faith.

Pope Benedict’s apostolic letter proclaiming the Year of Faith, Porta fidei, is a wonderfully edifying and uplifting read. This section in particular stood out to me:

During this time we will need to keep our gaze fixed upon Jesus Christ, the ‘pioneer and perfecter of our faith’ (Hebrews 12:2): in him, all the anguish and all the longing of the human heart finds fulfilment. The joy of love, the answer to the drama of suffering and pain, the power of forgiveness in the face of an offence received and the victory of life over the emptiness of death: all this finds fulfilment in the mystery of his Incarnation, in his becoming man, in his sharing our human weakness so as to transform it by the power of his resurrection. In him who died and rose again for our salvation, the examples of faith that have marked these two thousand years of our salvation history are brought into the fullness of light.

Baptism: Symbol or Sacrament?

Murillo, Baptism of Christ (c. 1665)

Baptism of Christ (c. 1665), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

Why do Protestants, especially evangelicals, reject the Sacraments, and the concept of sacramentality in general? Even Baptists, who per the name, are very particular about Baptism, consider Baptism merely “a symbolic act of obedience” (“Basic Beliefs,” Southern Baptist Convention). The Early Church, from the Apostles at the Day of Pentecost, down through all the ages, clearly and explicitly believed that Baptism was much more than a symbol — that it, done in repentance, was εἰς ἄφεσιν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ὑμῶν (“for the remission of your sins”) (Acts 2:38). The Apostles and the Early Church emphasized Baptism to such an extent that it was literally the first thing one did, the first thing one even thought about, after coming to faith in Christ. Baptism, for the Early Church, was the act of becoming a Christian — the new birth into Christ that He commanded.

So how did Baptism become merely a symbol? How did Protestants, who place such absolute authority in Scripture, come to reject the clear scriptural testimony of its efficacy and sacramentality — and its absolute necessity? There is not a single instance* in the narrative of the New Testament when one’s coming to faith in Christ was not followed immediately, as if part of the same thought, by Baptism. Per the very Word of Christ, only those who “believe and are baptized” will be saved (Mark 16:15-16).

* Edit: Okay, there’s only one (see below).

Indeed, Baptism for many Protestant communities has become not merely symbolic, but optional. In my church growing up, Baptism was performed maybe one Sunday out of a month, if that often. This past Easter, thanks be to God, they had a mass baptismal service in which the hundreds who had come to Christ over the years but had never been baptized were dunked in the manner of an assembly line. I have often complained about the selectiveness of sola scriptura Protestants in what Scripture they choose to read and what they ignore — and there’s not a clearer case in point than this.

Giotto, The Baptism of Christ (c. 1305)

The Baptism of Christ (c. 1305), by Giotto. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

Is it, as my Lutheran friend Ken suggests, that the idea of efficacious sacraments is “too Roman Catholic”? In breaking away from the Catholic Church, were the Sacraments thrown out with the rest of the dirty bathwater? The Lutherans and Anglicans, generally, still affirm sacramentality in some forms; so it’s apparently more a Calvinist and evangelical thing (Calvinists were, after all, far more iconoclastic). Or is it, as I’ve often suspected, a tendency to reject the supernatural — which is a little ridiculous, since evangelicals otherwise affirm that the Son of God was born to earth of a Virgin, traveled Palestine healing the sick, died for the sins of humanity, rose again from the dead, and ascended to Heaven. My bunch, too, is quite ardent in their belief in miraculous gifts of healing and prophecy even in our day. There’s very little about Christianity that’s not supernatural — that’s the very idea. But does the idea of sacramentality — the idea that washing in water in Jesus’s name could literally wash away one’s sins — smell too much of “magical” thinking or “superstition” (which, I guess, smells to them a lot like Roman Catholicism)?

I will dig a little deeper at Baptists — they brought it on themselves by calling themselves “Baptists.” Thanks to this helpful site for a detailed and explicit summary of Baptist beliefs (emphases mine):

Baptists believe that the Bible teaches that baptism is important but not necessary for salvation. For example, the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43), Saul on the Damascus road (Acts 9:1-18) and the people gathered in Cornelius’ house (Acts 10:24-48) all experienced salvation without the necessity of baptism. In his sermon at Pentecost, Peter urged those who had repented and believed in Christ to be baptized, not that baptism was necessary for salvation but as a testimony that they had been saved (Acts 2:1-41).

Tintoretto, The Baptism of Christ (1581)

The Baptism of Christ (1581), by Tintoretto.

As I pointed out above, that’s not quite what Peter said: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins.” This article seems to reject the idea of Baptism as a legalistic requirement — which, to my thinking as a Protestant, was how Roman Catholics viewed it. But we don’t; not at all. Baptism is necessary not because it’s a legalistic requirement, but because it’s how one is born again in Christ — how Jesus taught us that our sins are forgiven. There’s no legalistic requirement, of course, that one take occasional baths — but it’s what one has to do if one wants to be clean.

As the article points out, yes, there are examples, such as the repentant thief on the cross, of a sinner being saved without having been baptized. But the thief is certainly an exception, saved by the very divine fiat of Christ: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” The other two examples it cites are explicit in declaring the necessity of baptism. The very first thing Saul did after having his sight restored to him was “he rose and was baptized” (Acts 9:18). And the very first thing Peter commanded Cornelius and his friends to do was “to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:48). The Baptist text, as evangelicals so often do, interprets “being saved” in a very narrow way, as the moment when one comes to faith in Christ. Yes, these believers, such as Saul and Cornelius — such as every believer ever — came to faith in Christ first, and then were baptized. One generally has to take off one’s clothes (i.e. repent of one’s sins, humble oneself before Christ, and believe in faith) before one takes a bath.

Thus, baptism is symbolic and not sacramental. Baptists believe that the Bible teaches that baptism symbolizes that a person has been saved and is not a means of salvation. Baptism is not a means of channeling saving grace but rather is a way of testifying that saving grace has been experienced. It does not wash away sin but symbolizes the forgiveness of sin through faith in Christ.

This couldn’t really have been phrased any more explicitly to reject any idea of sacramentality in Baptism. I would be interested to hear a Baptist exposit to me just how he believes the Bible teaches this. Every reference to Baptism that I can find indicates just the opposite. Neither Jesus, nor Peter, nor Paul, nor any of the other Apostles ever once said “be baptized as a testimony to your faith.” They were instead very insistent and urgent — “repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins.”

Baptists are very particular, as this article states, about when and how one should be baptized: only for adult believers and only by immersion. But if Baptism is ultimately nothing more than a symbol, why should the manner of it matter? It is, I suppose, only worth anything as a symbol of believing faith if it’s done deliberately by someone with a genuine and abiding faith in Christ. But why should it matter whether one is dunked in a baptistery, or in a river, or in a bathtub, or sprinkled from a baptismal font, or from a watering can, or from a Dixie cup, if the act has no efficacy?**

** For what it’s worth, the Roman Catholic Church would accept Baptism by any of those methods as valid.

While baptism is not essential for salvation, it is a very important requirement for obedience to the Lord. Christ commanded his disciples to baptize (Matthew 28:19) and therefore baptism is a form of obedience to Jesus as Lord. Baptism is one way that a person declares, “Jesus is Lord.”

Yes, we should be baptized in obedience to the Lord, because that’s what He explicitly taught. But why would Jesus and the Apostles be so insistent about it if it were just a symbol; if it had no real purpose or power? Why would Jesus command us that we have to do something unless there were a reason for it? Elijah commanded Naaman to be washed in the Jordan (2 Kings 5) not as a public symbol that he believed he was going to be healed, but because being washed in the Jordan was going to cleanse his leprosy. The act of doing it in faith, even though he was skeptical, even though he was angry, is what brought about his healing. Likewise Jesus commands us to be baptized for the forgiveness of our sins — not because we believe in Jesus and want to show our friends at church — but because being baptized is how He washes away our sins and gives us a new birth in Him.

And yes, that message of love and hope I promised is still coming. Even this criticism is given in hope and love.

Baptism: The Sacrament as Clear as Water

Tintoretto, The Baptism of Christ (1581)

The Baptism of Christ (1581), by Tintoretto. (

In my RCIA class, Father Joe posed the question of which of the Sacraments is the most universal Christian sacrament. I guessed the Eucharist; just about everybody practices the Lord’s Supper, I figured. But no, the answer is Baptism, he said. My church growing up didn’t place much emphasis on Baptism, so I often tended to overlook it or underestimate its importance. But for the Catholic — for the historic Christian — Baptism is fundamental.

In Catholic theology, Baptism, Confirmation, and finally the Eucharist are called the Sacraments of Initiation. Through Baptism, the old life of the sinner is laid down and he is born anew in Christ. His sins are washed away; the very stain of original sin is erased. Baptism is the first and most important mark of initiation into the Christian community: The Christian initiate, or catechumen, is regenerated — becomes a new creation, washed clean and set apart — and he or she is prepared to share in the Body and Blood of Christ though the Eucharist. Since the earliest days of Christianity this has been the rite of passage into the Christian life. Even in Scripture, the absolute first thing that anyone did after coming to faith in Christ was to be baptized:

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. . . . So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:38-41)

And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. (Acts 8:34-38)

So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized. (Acts 9:17-18)

Murillo, Baptism of Christ (c. 1665)

Baptism of Christ (c. 1665), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. (

Even for St. Paul himself, the first thing to do upon believing in Christ was to be baptized. Baptism was clearly very important to the Apostles and to the earliest Christians, such that becoming a Christian and being baptized were intimately and inseparably joined. Being baptized into Christ is the act of becoming a Christian. For as Paul wrote, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27).

So why was Baptism so crucial to the Apostles, from the very beginning, that they knew innately that it was the mark of becoming a Christian? Certainly, of all the Sacraments, it is the one most clearly taught by Christ:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

“Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3-5)

The Baptism of Clovis

The Baptism of Clovis (ca. 1500), by the Master of Saint Gilles.

Perhaps it is because it Jesus taught it so explicitly in Scripture that Baptism is so universally recognized by most Christians. But the Apostles evidently had a fuller understanding of what Baptism entailed — “the forgiveness of sins” — from the very first day of the Church. They understood its necessity and importance. This is one of the more obvious examples of Jesus clearly having taught the Apostles in greater detail during his earthly ministry than any of them ever wrote in Scripture. They passed this knowledge down to their own disciples — the beginning of Sacred Tradition.

Evangelicals have recently appropriated the term “born again,” but the Church from its very earliest days understood this new birth by water of which Jesus was speaking to be Baptism, and the Early Church practiced sacramental Baptism, the rite of initiation into Christ and into the Church, as St. Justin vividly attests:

I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ . . . They [catechumens] are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Unless you be born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (John 3:5).

—St. Justin Martyr
First Apology 61 (ca. A.D. 150)

In this sense, every Catholic is a “born again” Christian.

I am sure I am preaching to the choir about the importance and sacramentality of Baptism. But I know in many Protestant communities, such as the one I grew up in, Baptism was relegated to a side show, a mere “public profession of faith” that was performed maybe one Sunday night out of the month, if that often. For so many Protestants, the efficacious Sacraments taught by Christ and the Apostles have become mere symbolic gestures, devoid of any real power and therefore of any real necessity. And some of them dare accuse Catholics of practicing “empty ritual”! This is running a bit long — but now that I’ve provided a scriptural foundation for the Sacrament of Baptism, I can move on next time to what I really wanted to talk about: Why have Protestants downplayed or even rejected the Sacraments? How can Protestant Christians be saved in these communities? No, I am not going to go off on a polemic again. I may be critical, but I intend to share a message a hope and mercy and love.

Why Catholics go to church

(This is a little bit I wrote as a comment to a post of my dear blogfriend JessicaHof, “Why go to Church?” The discussion there is worth reading, but I also thought my response here might make a rare, short, succinct post for The Lonely Pilgrim.)

Catholic Mass

The deeper Catholic reason why Catholics must go to Mass, and why it’s a mortal sin to miss it, is because we are members of the Body of Christ; we are the Church. The Eucharist is the source and summit not only of our faith, but of our lives. To abandon the Body is to abandon ourselves, and to neglect the Body and Blood is to neglect our own spiritual and even physical well-being.

Many Protestants, especially evangelical, “Bible” Protestants, have it in their heads that they can be Christians just by being alone with God and with their Bibles. Such a thought is incomprehensible to a Catholic; because we are members of a Body. How we worship God, how we receive His graces, is what we do together, in communion with each other and with Christ. We go to church because it is only in our corporate worship that we come face to face, flesh to flesh with Jesus.

Before I became Catholic, I wrote a lot to myself and made a lot of lists trying to establish the reason for going to church, and therefore what I was really looking for in a church. I decided that the primary purpose of the church was to “support and nourish the body of believers” — I used that very word, nourish. What I had in mind was fellowship and a system of support, to hold up believers and see to their well-being; to see they are being fed (I used those words, too) with the Word of God. When I first came to the Catholic Church, I didn’t immediately find that fellowship I was looking for — but I found what I really needed, what my soul cried out for: communion with Christ and with His Body on earth, being nourished and fed by His very Body and Blood.

He welcomes me home by name

There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1665), by Rembrandt. (Wikipedia)

One of the most poignant images to me of God’s forgiveness, in my struggles as a Christian, has been Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). In his father’s house, the wayward son had everything, and yet he abandoned it. Even as he went, he took the bountiful gifts of his inheritance; and yet he squandered them.

And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

In that distant land, the son lost everything that he had. Sin is like that. It will take you further away from home than you ever intended to go, and take more out of you than you ever intended to give. It will take away your gifts and leave you in abject poverty. It never yields the harvests that it promises.

But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’

There is a lot of power in a name. Though we do not know the name of the lost son or his father, it is clear that theirs was a family of some wealth and prestige. Even above all the material wealth he had been granted, the son’s name — the name of his father and family — was certainly of more lasting worth. The Book of Proverbs tells us that “a good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold” (Proverbs 22:1). And yet the son had squandered and shamed that, too. He considered himself unworthy for his father to call him ‘son’; undeserving to bear his father’s name.

And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.

But the mercy and compassion of his father was overflowing. As the son returned, not only did the father accept his son back, but he saw him still a long way off, and ran to embrace him.

But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

Not only did the father welcome him home — but he gave him his name back. The signet ring — the seal of the family — was the mark of his identity. He was his father’s son again. And the father rejoiced. He spared nothing — he clothed him in the most sumptuous robe; he killed the best fattened calf; brought out the best wine. For this was his son who was lost to him, and was found; who was dead in his sin, and was alive again. The language of resurrection here could not be more vivid.

Return of the Prodigal Son, by Batoni

Return of the Prodigal Son (1773), by Pompeo Batoni. (Wikipedia)

I don’t think it is any mere coincidence that we come to our priests in the Sacrament of Reconciliation with the cry of “father”: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” Just as the prodigal son returned to his father confessing his sins, we return to our fathers, and to our Holy Mother Church, and to our Heavenly Father, confessing ours. And though our earthly priests don’t always run to embrace us — often their words are stern and bear godly discipline — our Heavenly Father pours out His endless grace upon us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, our sins are absolved. And at the table of the Eucharist, we are again and again offered the choicest of all meats, the Body and Blood of the Lamb of God.

Today I returned to my Holy Mother Church heavy with guilt and shame, not deserving of the name that has been given to me. I laid down my sins, and by that boundless grace bought by Blood, they were absolved. But when I went forward to receive the Eucharist, a funny thing happened, that I don’t think has ever happened before. Deacon Ted, always quite reserved, communicated the Host to me, and greeted me by name: “The Body of Christ, Joseph.” And my friend Jan, bearing the Cup, did too: “The Blood of Christ, Joseph.”

There is a lot of power in a name. And hearing my own name, being recognized and welcomed at the Table, as I was again given Communion in Christ’s Body and Blood, it was as if Christ Himself welcomed me home by name. I am a child of this Church. I was sealed with the Holy Spirit, and received the mark of Christ as a member of His flock, as a child of God: the name of “Christian.” Though in my wandering I make myself undeserving of it, He always welcomes me home by name, and restores to me my identity, my sonship.

Why Christ Was Born of a Virgin

St. Leo the Great, by Herrera

Pope St. Leo the Great, by Francisco de Herrera the Younger (1622-1685).

Maria, by Cano

Maria (c. 1648), by Alonzo Cano.

Continuing my Saturdays with Mary, here is a quote from Pope St. Leo the Great (c. 391–461):

He was engendered by a new kind of birth, conceived by a Virgin, born of a Virgin, without a father’s carnal concupiscence, without injuring his Mother’s integrity. Indeed, such a birth was appropriate for the future Savior of men, Who, while sharing the nature of human substance, did not know the contamination of human flesh. The Author of God taking flesh is God himself, as the archangel witnesses to the Blessed Virgin Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; hence, the holy offspring born of you will be called Son of God” (Luke 1:35). In His origin unlike us; in His [human] nature like us — our common human customs are of no help here. It was decided by God’s almighty power that Mary should conceive as a virgin, give birth as a virgin, and remain a virgin. Do not think about the condition of his Mother, but consider the decision of the Son, who wanted in this way to be born a man and so brought it about. If you seek the truth about His nature, then recognize the matter as human; if you want to find the secret of His origin, then acknowledge the divine power. For our Lord Jesus Christ came to take away our infection, not to be infected by it; He did not come to succumb to our vices but to heal them. He came to heal the malady of our corruption and all the wounds of our scarred souls. For this reason He had to be born in a new manner, since He was bringing the new grace of spotless integrity to our human bodies. He had to keep His Mother’s original virginity intact, and it was necessary that the power of the Holy Spirit should safeguard the defense of her modesty, which He was pleased to call the dwelling place of holiness.

For He had decided to raise up what was fallen and restore what was broken apart and to strengthen purity for overcoming the seductions of the flesh, so that virginity, which in others cannot be preserved after childbirth, might be imitated by others, in rebirth.

—Pope St. Leo the Great
Sermo 22, 2 (Migne, Patrologia Latina 54, 195-196)
in Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church
(San Francisco: Ignatius, 1991), 309

The Same Gospel: A Plea to Bible Christians

I’ve decided, sadly, that I’m going to have to back off posting so much. I have a lot of other things I need to be working on for school, and this is taking a lot of time and attention. It’s my passion right now; but I have way too many competing passions. This post is burning a hole in my heart, though, so I wanted to share it first.

Compassion by Bouguereau

“Compassion” (1897), by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

As I’ve been venturing out into the blogosphere, I’ve been encountering an alarming and disheartening degree and presence of anti-Catholic sentiment among Protestant (“Bible”) Christians. Now, it’s one thing to disagree with Catholic doctrine and practice; it’s another entirely to reject Catholics as “unbelievers,” “heretics,” “apostates,” “pagans,” “demonic,” or otherwise as un-Christian or even anti-Christian. I’ve been called all of these in just the past week.

Let me declare to anyone who will listen: Catholics believe the same Gospel as Protestants. We worship the same God, the same Christ, the same Holy Spirit; we believe in the same grace and the same faith and the same salvation; we read and affirm the same Scriptures. If you have been told otherwise, you have been told lies. This post is aimed at those Protestants to whom this may come as a surprise. Briefly, I will present a case for the Christianity of the Catholic faith: not necessarily to convince you of its truth, but to convince you that despite doctrinal disagreements, Catholics are indeed your brothers and sisters in Christ.

Ending the Forever War

I am blessed to have been raised in a loving home and a loving church that never taught hate or rejection for any other members of the Body of Christ. As I grew older and first encountered opposition to Catholicism, I was always quick to stand by my Catholic brothers’ and sisters’ side in defense. If anything, anti-Catholic persecution drove me toward the Catholic Church rather than away from it: for I’m inclined to run away from anyone who attacks the Body of Christ.

I am frankly quite flabbergasted as to why this is happening. How can anyone who examines what the Catholic Church teaches proclaim it as “un-Christian”? The answer is, of course, that these people never examine what the Catholic Church teaches. They are taught prejudice, hostility, and hate from their childhood; they remain in the closed communions and enclaves of their own churches; they never encounter Catholics or Catholic churches enough to challenge or question what they have been taught; and they teach the same prejudices to their children. This vicious cycle has no doubt been going on for generations, for 500 years, since the Protestant Reformation itself. The degree of rancor and resentment I have felt among these groups — and it seems to be most pronounced in sects of the Calvinist and Reformed traditions — is heartbreaking.

Yes, I know that Catholics persecuted Protestants in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; Protestants persecuted Catholics, too. Many Protestants and many Catholics died for their faith. It was unjust and it was wrong, on both sides. But it has been 500 years. It has been seventy years since the end of World War II; 150 years since the end of the American Civil War; yet all of the combatants in those conflicts have moved on. It is time that we all took a good look at our differences, buried this decrepit 500-year-old hatchet, ended this forever war, and worked together to heal the wounds we’ve inflicted, and continue to inflict, on the Body of Christ.

A Common History

Protestants seem to forget, I think — or ignore, or gloss over, or not think about — that for the first 1,500 years of Christianity, Catholics and Protestants shared a common history. I admit I have a difficult time, as an historian, understanding this reasoning: even as a Protestant, I understood and appreciated this. But I think there are several prevalent Protestant myths:

  • That at some point in those 1,500 years of history, through a “Great Apostasy,” the Roman Catholic Church fell away from “True Christianity,” commingled its doctrines with pagan religions and philosophies, or became bound up with cold legalism and dead tradition and lost sight of the Gospel of Christ. If you believe this or anything similar, I challenge you to study the history of the Church, and declare a point at which the Catholic Church “fell away” from the Truth and beyond which it became “apostate.”

  • That at some point in history, the Roman Catholic Church began to interpret Scripture mistakenly, or even stopped reading Scripture; or that it allowed its emphasis on Tradition to supersede or override the truth of Scripture. If you believe this, I challenge you again to declare a point at which this happened, and declare specific traditions that you believe to be unscriptural (this doesn’t mean “not in Scripture”; this means “against Scripture” or “contrary to Scripture”; see the section on Catholic Tradition below).

  • That Protestant thought and beliefs have always existed, during those 1,500 years of history, among sects persecuted and suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church; that your brand of Christianity was never part of the Roman Catholic Church and that your Christian ancestors never believed what Catholics believed. This is mythology. Believing this requires identifying your beliefs with some truly heinous heretical sects. If you believe this, I challenge you to examine the history of Christianity, and examine the historical origins of your own denomination, and explain to me where you think you came from.

  • St. Francis

    St. Francis of Assisi (1642) by Jusepe de Ribera.

  • Believing any of these myths also requires believing that the Holy Spirit, which Jesus promised would guide the Church in all truth (John 16:13), has failed to do so; and that the Gates of Hell did in fact overcome the Church (Matthew 16:16-19). For “Bible Christians” to believe this is to undermine their own belief. No matter what you may believe about the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, the fact is indisputable that for 1,500 years, those churches preserved, protected, and nourished the Christian faith and the Christian Bible, in order to deliver it into the hands of the Protestant Reformers in the sixteenth century. This also requires rejecting most of the great Christian saints of history as apostates or heretics.

We Believe…

By the very nature of that common history, Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians share in common, at the very least, the three historic ecumenical creeds of the Christian faith: the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox all still affirm these things together (I am paraphrasing a bit):

  • We believe in One God, the Father Almighty, who created the Heaven and the Earth.
  • We believe in Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, existing from the beginning of time as God’s Son, of the same substance as the Father, fully God and fully Man.
  • Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified and died for the sins of humanity, and was resurrected on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. He ascended into Heaven, sits at the right hand of God the Father, and will judge the living and the dead at the end of the age.
  • We believe in the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Holy Trinity with the Father and the Son, who spoke through the Prophets, inspired the Holy Scriptures, and guides Christ’s Church today.
  • We believe in One, holy, catholic (universal) and apostolic Church; the forgiveness of sins; the communion of saints; the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

Historically, these creeds and these tenets of faith define Christian orthodoxy: those who adhere to these beliefs were and are called Christians.

Protestant Misconceptions

There are a number of flagrant misconceptions that Protestants have about the Catholic Church. These are lies. I will here aim to address every one that I can think of; but I will no doubt be adding to this list later.

  • “Works’ righteousness”: That Catholics believe they can “save themselves,” through their “good works” or living a “good life” apart from the grace of God. Catholics believe nothing of the sort. See the section below, “Salvation by Grace, through Faith,” for a more detailed explanation.

  • Virgin and Child with Rosary, 1655 (Murillo)

    Virgin and Child with Rosary (1655), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

  • “Mary worship”: Catholics do not “worship” Mary. Catholics honor and venerate Mary as a profound example of faith, grace, and obedience. Catholics do believe a number of traditions about Mary that are not found in Scripture, but these (1) do not conflict with Scripture, (2) are supported by Scripture, and (3) are well attested in tradition by the writings of the Church Fathers in the first Christian centuries. See my introductory post on this subject, “The Veneration of Mary: An Introduction for Protestants,” and the section below on Catholic Tradition.

  • Saints: Likewise, Catholics do not “worship” saints. As with Mary, we honor and venerate saints as heroes and examples of faith, charity, and virtue. Saints are Christians who have died in Christ, whom the Church believes are now in Heaven, and whom the Church believes are still a part of our communion in the Body of Christ. Praying to saints and to Mary is nothing more than asking our family and loved ones to pray for or intercede for us to God.

  • Catholic Tradition: Many Catholic doctrines are based on tradition, beliefs that were handed down orally and through writing from the Apostles and the Early Church. Catholics do not adhere to sola scriptura (which, we hold, is unhistorical and unscriptural); we believe Scripture and Tradition are two distinct sources by which we’ve received God’s Truth. Catholics nonetheless believe Scripture is inspired and inerrant. No part of Catholic Tradition contradicts Scripture.

  • The Pope: Catholics believe the bishop of Rome (the pope) is the successor of St. Peter, and therefore the foremost among bishops and the head of the Catholic Church. But he does not replace Christ as the Head of the Church. The pope is a man elected to an office by men (the college of cardinals), under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He is not divine or godlike in any way. He is called the “Vicar of Christ,” which means only that he is Christ’s representative on earth to His Church: a pastor with a really big flock.

  • Purgatory: Catholics believe in Purgatory, a state of purification after death for Christians who have not been fully conformed to Christ during their lifetimes. Purgatory is not a place of punishment for the guilt of sins. It in no way diminishes Christ’s sacrifice or declares that it is “not enough” to save or forgive sins. All Christians who live and walk in the life of God’s grace will have their sins forgiven and are guaranteed salvation; but Purgatory is a place of purification or preparation for the dead in Christ to stand before God in Heaven. It is easier thought of as a state or a journey than a place as Dante imagined; it is the path a soul takes on the way to Heaven. Every soul in Purgatory will reach Heaven in the course of time. The belief in Purgatory, a purging fire, is based in Scripture (2 Maccabees 12:46, 1 Corinthians 3:15, 1 Peter 1:7) and Tradition, and was a belief of the entire Christian Church until the time of Luther.

Salvation by Grace, through Faith

But the most pernicious of lies against the Catholic faith is that the Catholic Church teaches a “false Gospel,” that of “works’ righteousness” or “salvation by works”: that Catholics believe they can “save themselves” by their “good works” or by living a “good life” without the help of God’s grace. Catholics believe no such thing. The Catholic Church teaches, the same as Protestants, that we are saved by God’s grace alone, through faith, as we are taught by Scripture. Where Catholics and Protestants differ is that Protestants believe in salvation by faith alone (sola fide), while Catholics do not (you will not find anywhere in the Bible that says “by faith alone”). This is not as big a difference as it seems.

This is not the place to argue for or against the merits of sola fide. But I want to draw your attention to these points:

  • Both Protestants and Catholics teach that salvation is a free gift, an undeserved gift of God’s grace given to sinners by no merit of their own. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
  • Both Protestants and Catholics teach that initial justification is entirely the work of God, through faith; that without the work of God’s grace, sinful humans can do nothing to approach God on their own. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
  • Both Protestants and Catholics teach that good works, following that initial justification, are necessary. (Ephesians 2:10, James 2:17, Philippians 2:12)
  • Both Protestants and Catholics teach that good works are the fruit of faith in God, and are only possible by His grace; that it is God’s grace who works through us. (Philippians 2:12-13)

So what is the difference? Only this: Protestants teach that if a Christian does not produce the fruit of good works, then they never had true faith to begin with, and will not be saved. Catholics teach that only if a Christian bears the fruit of good works, then they will be saved. The end result is the same in both teachings: no works, no salvation (James 2:17). We have to do something with our faith to be saved; both Protestants and Catholics affirm this. Both Protestants and Catholics affirm that faith, by grace, comes first. Protestants teach that with faith, a true believer will bear the fruits of good works. Catholics teach that with faith and by grace, a true believer both wills and works (Philippians 2:12-13). Catholics do not teach that “our works save us”; we teach that it is by our allowing God to produce the fruits of righteousness in our lives, by His grace and by our cooperation with it, that we are saved.

This does not amount to “works’ righteousness” in any way. It is not by any effort of our own, or by any works of our own, that we are saved. As Ephesians 2:10 teaches, we are “created for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” It is by walking in these good works, by God’s grace, that we “work out our own salvation” (Philippians 2:12-13) and are saved.

(There is more on this subject, with quotes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, at “Salvation by Grace Alone.”)

The Same Gospel


Both Protestants and Catholics teach the Gospel of grace, of God’s divine, overflowing, and unmerited favor and forgiveness upon humanity, apart from anything we have ever done or could ever do. The major differences between Protestant and Catholic teachings are in how that grace is received and how one walks in it. These differences are not fundamental; for the foundation of both teachings is the grace poured out by Christ crucified. Both teachings end in the salvation by grace alone of undeserving sinners. The Gospel is love, and faith, and grace, and forgiveness — and both Catholics and Protestants affirm this and walk in this.

The Apostle Paul urges that there be no divisions among us (1 Corinthians 1:10-17). We have pretty well screwed that one up. I truly believe that both faithful Protestants and faithful Catholics are part of the same body of Christ — for Christ is undivided (1 Corinthians 1:13). I have high hope that if we push past our hostility and our prejudices, if we listen to each other and talk to each other, if we work by the grace of the Holy Spirit, then someday we will see a reunion of all Christians. I believe this is necessary, as we approach the end of the age: we must stand together as Christians against the challenges of secularism, atheism, and modernism. Christ wants to return for a one, whole, spotless Bride; and we owe it to our Lord and to His Church to strive for that.

But for the time being, why don’t we at least stop attacking our fellow members of the Body of Christ? Why don’t we embrace each other as the brothers and sisters we are? Jesus gave us a new commandment: that we love one another, just as He loved us. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” He said (John 13:34-35). And yet I’ve seen more hostility, hatred, and mistrust between Protestants and Catholics, fellow Christians, than I’ve ever seen love. What kind of witness does this show to the world, that the people who call on the name of Jesus cannot even love each other? This goes both ways: Catholics should love and embrace their Protestant brethren, too. It is only through love, forgiveness, and grace that we will ever be reconciled and healed.