The Rub with Protestant Theology: Why I teach what I teach

El Greco, Christ (1585)

El Greco, Christ (1585)

I’ve been mulling for the past hour or two, thinking of my new Christian friend and how she might take that last post, and I feel I should make a quick follow-up.

Why do I gripe so much about Protestant theology? Is it because I think it’s all wrong and that believing it means one is automatically damned? Not at all. Is it because I have some innate drive to prove myself “right” and prove everyone else “wrong”? I do fear there’s sometimes a trace of that, and it’s pride: Lord, have mercy. But no, there are two main reasons.

First, I see these doctrines — especially sola fide (justification by faith alone) and sola scriptura (by Scripture alone) — as the main obstacles standing between the reunion of all Christians; the main matters dividing us. I guess there’s not really any hope of my making an irrefutable case that will convince everybody and singlehandedly bring about reconciliation, but I hope that maybe I can convince one or two, who might go and spread the message.

Saints Peter and Paul, by El Greco

Saints Peter and Paul (between 1605 and 1608), by El Greco.

Second, and even more important: Though I don’t believe that all Protestant theology is irredeemably wrong — I affirm, with the Catholic Church, that many Protestant communities retain elements of Christ’s truth and sanctification — I do believe that some Protestant doctrines are very wrong, and even dangerous.

If you believe in Jesus Christ and all that Christians have traditionally believed, and strive to live your life for Him, then I don’t think there’s any major problem. I think, through the grace of God, He works salvation in the lives of Protestants, as long as they do the things Christians are supposed to do, as the Bible teaches: repent of their sins and turn to God, confess Christ is Lord, and live their lives according to the Gospel.


But there are some teachings that have the potential to lead people into serious error. What is meant to convey love and hope can be turned to weapons of the enemy. They can give false assurance that one is “saved” and has eternal security of that salvation, no matter how they live their lives or what sins they commit — when the Bible teaches repeatedly that those who continue in sinful lifestyles are not children of God (1 John 3:6, Galatians 5:21, Romans 2:8, etc.). God is just and faithful to always forgive our sins if we repent of them and ask forgiveness (1 John 1:9) — but if we keep on living that way, we are throwing away the grace that God has freely given (1 John 3:8–9).

Likewise, the teaching that man is “totally depraved” and “hopelessly sinful” — the false idea that no one can pursue righteousness — can easily lead to apathy and complacency in sin, or despair that one can’t ever be better. “God knows I’m a sinner, and he forgives me; there’s no way I can be righteous, so I guess this is okay” — that’s the trap I fell into for so long. We are called to pursue lives of holiness (1 Peter 1:14–16, Hebrews 12:14, Ephesians 4:17-24).

And that’s why I teach what I teach: to guide others to the truth, and to spare them from the many mistakes I’ve made, and that I see so many others making, that have the potential to lead them to destruction. And I want to always teach in love. I know I’m not always good at getting that across.

Luther’s Innovations

de la Tour, St. Paul (1620)

St. Paul (1620), by Georges de la Tour. (

Here’s an attempt at a brief little post:

I do intend to pick up my series on the Sacraments, soon — but to do them in the right order (that is, starting with the Sacraments of Initiation and proceeding to the end of life), I need to cover the Eucharist next — and how can one write a brief post on the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith? Where do I even begin? I guess my general theme has been the Catholic view of the Sacraments, and how Protestants have or have not received them. That will be a starting point. But the hurdle is writing a post on “the Catholic view of the Eucharist”!

I have acquired some Catholic commentaries on Scripture recently, and have been immersing myself in them and in the Word: especially a close study of St. Paul, in particular his Epistles to the Galatians and Romans, which Protestants have appropriated and used to justify their doctrine of sola fide. As a nascent Catholic, I was rather wary of these letters, fearing the all-too-familiar Protestant interpretations would lull me back; but now that I’ve matured a little bit, I’m finding just how little support there is for those understandings.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1533), by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

I’m coming to the realization that Martin Luther did not so much “rediscover” “the doctrines of grace” or justification by faith, as is often credited to him — the Catholic Church has always affirmed those, and continues to. What Luther did that was new was read innovations into those doctrines: in particular the idea that justification is by faith alone — which the text never says or even implies (in fact it says the opposite); and that the “works” of which St. Paul is writing are more than just the works of the Mosaic Law — which is the clear context — but any “works” at all; anything that man does in an effort to please God.

John Calvin

John Calvin (1509-1564)

Later Protestants, particularly Calvinists, erred in applying this interpretation of “works” to the Sacraments, which are the “works” of Christ, not man, and in which man only participates by the grace of God, through faith (cf. CCC 1999–2001). Luther himself taught that the Sacraments were the means of grace. Calvinists’ unscriptural aversion to “works” can be taken to extremes, such that sinners should logically make an effort not to do anything, lest they appear to be relying on their own “works” for salvation.

Protestants have grown so accustomed to these interpretations that when they read St. Paul, their minds fill in the gaps with Luther’s false assumptions, such that they are completely unable to read the text on its face. They read “by faith alone,” whether the text says it or not. They understand “works” in the broadest definition possible, no matter how narrowly Paul applies the term. It’s the blind spot in one’s vision that one has lived with for so long that one forgets what it’s like to really see; the cherished rug that has covered one’s floor for so many ages that one forgets what the floor looks like, or that there’s even anything underneath.

Okay. Well, that wasn’t what I intended to write when I sat down to write; but there you have it — a (relatively) brief little post.

See my follow-up to this post, “The Rub with Protestant Theology: Why I teach what I teach.

Justification by faith alone, or what? What do Protestants think Catholics believe?

Le Sueur, The Preaching of St. Paul at Ephesus

The Preaching of St. Paul at Ephesus (1649), by Eustache Le Sueur. (

For Protestants, one of the cries of the Reformation, one of the staples of Protestant faith, is sola fide, justification by faith alone. Many Protestants, especially the Reformed, hold this point to be so crucial and integral to the message of the Gospel that they label any other view (that is, the Catholic or Orthodox views) to be “heresy” or even “apostasy.”

As you know, this troubles me deeply. The Catholic Church teaches salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), the gracious and unmerited favor of God on the sinner, just as uncompromisingly as any Protestant community. So Catholics and Protestants agree on the source and the cause of grace; what we disagree on with regard to sole fide amounts to merely the mechanics by which that grace is received. To my view, our theologies even on this disputed point are much closer to each other than either side generally admits, resulting in what appears to me to be a difference of mere wording and nuance.

Velazquez, St. Paul

St. Paul (c. 1619), by Diego Velazquez. (

So the charge that the Catholic Church teaches a “different gospel” than Protestants (and a false one) is entirely incomprehensible to me. And so, the question occurs to me — and I sincerely hope for some dialogue with Protestants here: What is it that Protestants, particularly Reformed Protestants, think that the Catholic Church teaches, that is so antithetical to the Gospel? that would warrant denying fellowship with their Christian brothers and sisters, and even accusing them of “apostasy”? I am not at this time attempting any positive argument for Catholic position; I am merely trying to understand the Protestant charge.

The unspoken assumption of sola fide — by faith alone — is the rejection of the idea that “works” play any role in salvation. As St. Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9). These verses comprise one of several linchpin passages in sola fide theology — but what exactly does Paul mean here by “works”? I have often heard the accusation that Catholics (or Arminians, or anyone not Calvinist) teach “works’ righteousness” — the doctrine that by our “works” we are saved: that somehow, anything we can do can win God’s favor, merit our salvation, or in our own deeds make us righteous. As I’ve demonstrated, this isn’t what Catholics believe at all. I have heard the charge that Catholics are “Pelagian” or “semi-Pelagian”: Pelagius taught that Adam’s original sin did not taint human nature and that man was capable, in himself, of choosing good over evil without the grace of God. The Catholic Church denies this, and always has.

Ribera, Saint Paul (1637)

Saint Paul (1637), by Jusepe de Ribera. (

This line of sola fide reasoning apparently interprets that the “works” of Paul’s argument means any act of doing somethingany work accomplished, ἔργα or facta. The belief, then, that doing something, anything, any action at all other than having faith, is necessary for salvation, is therefore construed as a contradiction: Certainly the practice of the Sacraments or the belief that Baptism is necessary for salvation fall into this category, but taken to the extreme, this opposition to “works” (that is, having to do anything to be saved) includes even the simple act of praying a prescribed prayer.

So is that it? Is it this teaching that one has to do something in order to be saved that is so gravely contradictory to the Gospel, and that makes Catholics “apostate” (that is, having willfully turned one’s back on and denied Christ)? Or is there something else I’m overlooking? Because the something that Catholics believe one must do to be saved, at a most basic understanding, is merely to accept God’s freely offered grace. All other actions — Baptism, the Sacraments, good works of charity proceeding — are merely the result of God’s grace working in our lives, both giving us the will and empowering us to work (Ephesians 2:10, Philippians 2:12–13).

Where in this is the denial of Christ? If I believed that in any sense I was abandoning Christ’s Gospel, I would not have made this journey. I would like to understand the positions of Protestants who would label this “apostasy.”

Sacraments and “Works”: Where Protestants get it wrong

Theophany Icon

An icon of the Theophany, the Orthodox celebration of the Baptism of Christ, when the Holy Spirit descended upon Him like a dove.

It occurred to me today, I think, the real reason why Reformed and evangelical Protestants reject the Sacraments and any belief in the idea of sacramentality.

St. Paul writes (Ephesians 2:8-10):

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Baptism, Catacomb of St. Callixtus

A third-century representation of Baptism from the Catacomb of St. Callixtus, Rome.

In the Protestant mind, Baptism and the other Sacraments are “works.” The idea of sacramentality is incompatible with the doctrine of sola fide because, by the Protestant interpretation of Paul, one’s salvation is accomplished by faith alone. To grant that the act of Baptism itself, a “work,” has any sacramental power at all, that it washes away one’s sins and gives one a new birth in Christ, is to admit that some other action beyond faith alone is necessary for salvation.

Therefore, in order to make sola fide work, they dismiss Paul’s clear testimony elsewhere in Scripture regarding the efficacy, sacramentality, and necessity of Baptism (Titus 3:4-7):

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

How can this be? How can Paul say that God saved us not because of works, and at the same time that He saved us by the washing of regeneration (διὰ λουτροῦ παλιγγενεσίας)? Clearly, Paul speaks of “works” here in a different way than Protestants suppose.

We are saved not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy. Certainly, we are saved only by God’s mercy and grace — no works we do can ever earn our salvation. But that doesn’t mean — and Paul never says — that we are saved by faith alone — that we don’t have to do anything. Baptism, and the other Sacraments, are not “works” by which we try to earn God’s favor or earn our salvation, but the God-given and Christ-instituted means by which we receive His grace.

Faith and Love

Giotto, Christ Washing the Disciples' Feet

Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet, by Giotto (c. 1305), Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

For the past little while, since I’ve been engaging with hostile Protestants, I’ve been increasingly troubled. Because to my Protestant-steeped brain, their reading of the Apostle Paul sounds correct—the way I’ve been raised up to read him. I’ve struggled to read the Catholic idea of “justification through faith plus works” in his thought (even though I know this is a Protestant misrepresentation), and aside from the few verses I’ve explicated, it has been disturbingly difficult. What if we Catholics have Paul wrong? What if Luther was right? What if he really does mean sola fide, justification by faith alone?

At the same time, I’ve been more comfortable with our reading of Saint James and of Jesus Himself; and I’ve recalled the charge I’ve heard all my academic life, that Paul preached a different Gospel than Christ. I’ve never believed that. Both Catholics and Protestants find ways to read Scripture to make it appear internally consistent to themselves; it certainly is possible. But it is very clear that Paul was thinking along different lines than either Jesus or James; he was confronting different problems. Jesus never propounded anything resembling justification by faith alone. It is very clear that Protestants, particularly the Reformed variety, emphasize Paul and sola fide to the exclusion of all other interpretations; they force Jesus and James into their own framework of sola fide. They likewise accuse us of the same thing, of forcing Paul into our framework of “works’ righteousness.”

I’ve been writing recently and vehemently that the Catholic Church does not teach “works’ righteousness”—that it is through our works, done by the grace of God, that we are saved, not by our works, done in our own power (see Philippians 2:12-13). God working in us, through our works, justifies us and sanctifies us; but I haven’t really thought about what it is that is actually occurring in us as this happens. Last night I read a piece by Bryan Cross of Called to Communion that has profoundly affected me; provided me with this missing puzzle piece I didn’t even know I was lacking; shone light on the key to the Catholic understanding of salvation; given the glue that binds together what Jesus said and what James said and what John said and what Peter said and what Paul said, what God has said throughout the entire Bible:

… It’s love. Love is the key. Not faith alone. Not faith and works. Because even if I understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, but have not love, I have nothing; I am just a clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1-2). Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love (1 John 4:8). Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (James 2:14-26)—but what works? Works of love. Jesus said that the greatest commandments are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our mind, all soul, and all our strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:27). And how do we love God? We keep his commandments (John 14:15). Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:10).

This has been staring me in the face all along, and it hasn’t clicked. I’ve worn out the section on grace and justification in my copy of the Catechism (or at least I would have, if I were still carrying my paper copy)—and yet I haven’t seen it. The word “love” is used eleven times in that section alone; “charity” is used another eleven. Love—agape (ἀγάπη)—charity (caritas)—all three words refer to the same idea—is at the core of Catholic teaching; as it well should be, since it is at the core of Scripture.

Bryan brilliantly illustrated this to me clearly for the first time in his explication of the thought of St. Irenaeus (c. 125–c. 202) toward justification, and in his piece, which I hadn’t read before but read immediately following, on the soteriology of Pope St. Clement of Rome. Though our doctrine today is more fully developed, both early Fathers reflect these ideas. And if we read Paul with this understanding, then everything makes sense.

If we have faith, but have not love, then our faith is in vain. It is only having faith in love that accomplishes anything toward our justification. If we do good works, but don’t do them in love, then they are empty and meaningless. If we love God, we will obey His commandments. If we continue to disobey God, how can that be love? “If anyone says he loves God, but hates his brother, he is a liar. . . . God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:20, 16). “No one who abides in Him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen Him or known Him” (1 John 3:6).

The Reformers would have us believe that we are totally depraved; that even our good works are filthy rags before God; that the entire purpose of the Law was to prove that we couldn’t keep it, that we were morally bankrupt without salvation, and even with it, we are just and sinners at the same time (simul justus et peccator). And yet all throughout Scripture—in the Old Testament, and in the teachings of Jesus, Peter, Paul, James, and John, we are called to obedience and holiness (1 Peter 1:13-35). We are told again and again that we will be judged according to our deeds (Matthew 16.27, 1 Peter 1:17, Romans 2:6, Revelation 20:13)—and yet Protestants tell us that we are incapable of living by God’s Law; that our works do not matter as long as they are covered by Christ’s imputed righteousness. I have said before that I never felt much inclination as a Protestant to pursue holiness, feeling that my sin was “covered.” Now I see how starkly the Protestant view misses the main idea of Scripture: We are to obey God’s commandments, because we love Him, through the grace which He gives us by the Blood of Christ. It is through living in His grace, growing in His love, conforming ourselves to His image, that we are saved. Faith and works are both just active parts of that.

The necessity of faith and works

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1533), by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

A little flash that just occurred to me:

Protestants argue sola fide, that we are justified by faith alone. The Catholic position is often presented as fide et operis, by faith and works. But Catholics and Protestants agree that it is not our action or operation, either in having faith or doing works, that saves us, but entirely the grace of God (sola gratia).

The Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-10:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Protestants get very hung up on the Catholic insistence on works, that works are necessary for salvation. But most Protestants admit this, if the question is posed the right way. As Saint James writes (James 2:14-17):

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

As this makes evident, works are necessary. Faith without works is dead. Protestants argue from this that works follow faith — that true faith necessarily produces the fruit of good works; that if a brother does not produce good works, then he never had true faith to begin with. But the result is exactly the same: Good works are a necessary consequence of faith.

This is exactly what Catholics argue — only in affirming free will, Catholics present that it is incumbent upon the believer to choose to do good works, given the gift of God’s grace which enables the believer both to will and to work (Philippians 2:12-13).

Catholics affirm that our initial justification is by faith alone, as a gift of God’s grace, not because of any work or merit on our own. Protestants affirm that works are necessary for salvation — a necessary consequence of true faith. That puts the two parties on the same page regarding the necessity of both faith and works for salvation — and much closer to agreement than either would like to admit.

Work out your own salvation: The Apostle Paul, William Tyndale, and the leaven of a phrase

El Greco, Apostle St. Paul

Apostle St. Paul (c. 1612), by El Greco.

One of the most iconic phrases of the English New Testament, one of the Apostle Paul’s great quotes that has always echoed in my ears growing up, is to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). But what does that even mean?

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Codex Sinaiticus

A leaf from Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest known Greek uncial manuscript of the entire Bible (c. A.D. 330–360).

As a Protestant, I admit I never thought much about it. I guess I had a vague sense of “working something out” with God, the way one negotiates an agreement or a solution — through a process of trial and error, learning and growing as a Christian, to reach a situation that “worked.” If the verse meant anything to me, it was as an encouraging exhortation: Keep on obeying God, and you and God will “work it out.”

As I’ve been growing as a Catholic, this verse has been an indication that there might be some “work” involved in salvation in Paul’s view, as opposed to the sola fide (by faith alone) interpretation that the Protestant Reformers so ardently expressed. It’s been a handy crutch in presenting the Catholic position. “But, Paul said ‘work out your own salvation’!”

But what did Paul really mean? Recently I decided to delve into the Greek in order to explore this. What I found was a little startling.

Here is the Greek (only the bolded portion from above; Greek text from NA27):

. . . μετὰ φόβου καὶ τρόμου τὴν ἑαυτῶν σωτηρίαν κατεργάζεσθε· θεὸς γάρ ἐστιν ὁ ἐνεργῶν ἐν ὑμῖν καὶ τὸ θέλειν καὶ τὸ ἐνεργεῖν ὑπὲρ τῆς εὐδοκίας.

Transliterated into Roman characters, for your benefit:

. . . meta phobou kai tromou tēn heautōn sōtērian katergazesthe, theos gar estin ho energōn en humin kai to thelein kai to energein huper tēs eudokias.

And now broken down:

. . . μετὰ [preposition, with, in the midst of] φόβου [fear] καὶ [and] τρόμου [trembling] τὴν [definite article, accusative singular: goes with σωτηρίαν] ἑαυτῶν [3rd person reflexive pronoun, genitive plural: your own] σωτηρίαν [accusative singular (the direct object, being acted upon): salvation] κατεργάζεσθε [present middle deponent, 2nd person plural imperative: (you) “work out”] · θεὸς [God] γάρ [postpositive particle, for] ἐστιν [3rd person active indicative, impersonal, (it) is] ὁ ἐνεργῶν [present active participle, nominative singular: acting, operating, working, being efficacious] ἐν [preposition, in] ὑμῖν [second person plural personal pronoun, you] καὶ [and (together with other καὶ, both . . . and)] τὸ θέλειν [present active infinitive: to be willing, wish] καὶ [and] τὸ ἐνεργεῖν [present active infinitive, same verb as above: to act, operate, work, be efficacious, effect, execute] ὑπὲρ [preposition, for] τῆς εὐδοκίας [genitive singular, (his) good will].

What startled me is that to “work out” is all contained in the verb κατεργάζομαι. “Work out” is a single action, and “salvation” is the direct object — the object on which the action is performed. But salvation isn’t supposed to be something we act on at all, is it?

The BDAG, the most authoritative lexicon of New Testament Greek, gives four definitions for κατεργάζομαι:

  1. to bring about a result by doing something, achieve, accomplish, do.
    • Romans 7:15-20: For what I do, I do not understand; for I do not practice what I prefer, but I do that thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not prefer, I agree with the Law, that it is good.
    • 1 Corinthians 5:3: . . .  I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing.
  2. to cause a state or condition, bring about, produce, create.
    • Romans 4:15: For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.
    • Romans 5:3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance  . . .
  3. to cause to be well prepared, prepare someone.
  4. to be successful in the face of obstacles, overpower, subdue, conquer.
    • Ephesians 6:13: Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done [proving victorious over] all, to stand firm.

Of these definitions, the BDAG suggests that the second one, to bring about, produce, create, is the appropriate one for our verse, Philippians 2:12.

The Friberg Analytical Lexicon agrees with the definitions of the BDAG. Similarly, the Louw-Nida Lexicon Based on Semantic Domains suggests that the use of κατεργάζομαι in Philippians 2:12 implies a change of state: “to cause to be, to make to be, to make, to result in, to bring upon, to bring about.” Joseph Henry Thayer's Lexicon (1886; revised 1889), which I still rather like, obsolete though it may be, suggests the Latin efficere for the usage of the word in this verse: “to work out, i.e. to do that from which something results.” St. Jerome's Vulgate translates the word operor, which Lewis and Short defines “To work, produce by working, cause.”

So what does all this mean? It means that “work out” in Philippians 2:12 has a much more active meaning than I formerly supposed. There is agreement between all the lexica I consulted: κατεργάζομαι implies a very strong sense of bringing about, producing a state or condition. The result is that the correct understanding of this verse is that with fear and trembling, we are to bring about, produce, effect our own salvation. This seems startlingly un-Pauline, at least according to the Protestant understanding of Paul’s theology.

William Tyndale

William Tyndale, first translator of the Bible from its original languages into English.

But I should remind my Protestant readers that despite how Luther wanted to read Paul, Paul never once says by faith alone. Paul stresses justification by faith in opposition to the Judaizers, who stressed their works and denied that faith had any role, insisting that salvation in Christ came only by the works of the Jewish Law — that being circumcized would in itself bring salvation. Paul denies that works bring salvation; it is faith, the gift of God, that saves us, not the result of our own works. But Paul never denies that works are also important. He in fact writes of the importance of good works: we are “created for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10). God “will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Romans 2:7). The people of God are to devote themselves to good works (Titus 3:8,14).

And now, by obeying Christ, we are to bring about our own salvation — a command, a strong imperative statement in the Greek. And through our working, it is not our own doing or merits that brings this about, but God who works in us by His grace, both to will (wish, want, prefer) to do good, and to work (to be active, effectual, able to bring about). Though at first it appears unlike Paul for him to say that we produce our own salvation, he is here consistent in reminding us that it is not our works that bring about our salvation, but God working in us. This interpretation is consistent in every way with Roman Catholic doctrine.

But in the English — to work out our own salvation — where does this come from? Given this clear, active meaning of κατεργάζομαι, with so strong a sense of working, producing, effecting, why has nearly every major English Bible translation since the sixteenth century — including Catholic ones — translated this phrase “work out your own salvation”?

Tyndale New Testament title page

The title page to Tyndale’s 1534 edition of the New Testament.

I suspected immediately that this was a Tyndalism — a translation first promulgated by William Tyndale in his 1534 English New Testament, that has such a sonorous ring to it, and that, by way of being assumed into the 1611 King James Version (of which Tyndale’s work makes up about 80%), has become so ubiquitous in the English language that no translator dare change it. Examples of the many other Tyndalisms include “Let there be light,” “gave up the ghost,” “my brother’s keeper,” “it came to pass,” and the nearly universal translation of the Our Father or Lord’s Prayer, which even Roman Catholics pronounce according to the King James translation (“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”). Tyndale also coined many words that have enriched the English language, including “scapegoat,” “Passover,” and “Jehovah.”

A little bit of research confirmed that I was correct. Stepping through the history of English Bible translation:

Wycliffe Bible (1380s): worche ye with drede and trembling youre heelthe
Tyndale Bible (1534): worke out youre awne saluacion with feare and tremblynge
Coverdale Bible (1535): worke out youre awne saluacion with feare and tremblynge
Matthew Bible (1537): worke out youre awne saluacion with feare and trembling
Great Bible (1539): worke out youre awne saluacion with feare and tremblyng
Geneva Bible (1560): make an end of youre owne saluation with feare and trembling
Bishop’s Bible (1568): worke out your owne saluation with feare and tremblyng
King James Version (1611): worke out your owne saluation with feare and trembling
KJV Cambridge Edition (1769): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
Young’s Literal Trans. (1862): with fear and trembling your own salvation work out
Revised Version (1885): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
American Std. Version (1901): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
Revised Standard Version (1946): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
New American Standard (1963): work out your salvation with fear and trembling
New Intl. Version (1978): continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling
New Revised Standard (1989): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
Holman Christian Std. (1999): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
English Standard Version (2001): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling

Now that’s staying power. With only one slight exception — the overly Calvinistic Geneva Bible, which changed “work out” to “make an end of” — every English Bible translation since Tyndale’s own has left Tyndale’s wording and phrasing of this verse intact.

I have intentionally not included Roman Catholic translations in the list above, to demonstrate Tyndale’s overpowering influence:

Rheims New Testament (1582): with feare and trembling worke your saluation
Challoner Revision (1752): with fear and trembling work out your salvation
New Jerusalem Bible (1985): work out your salvation in fear and trembling
New American Bible (1970–2011): work out your salvation with fear and trembling

Even into the Catholic mind, Tyndale’s leaven worked through the whole batch. Despite the Rheims translators’ initial attempt to escape Tyndale’s shadow — self-consciously avoiding translations that would appear to support Reformation theology, and replacing work out with work, though retaining Tyndale’s feare and trembling — Bishop Challoner reverted the whole thing to Tyndale’s wording. It has stuck ever since.

So why “work out” — a phrase with such an ambiguous meaning? Was Tyndale trying to obscure a phrase that seemed to cast doubt on Protestant theological suppositions? No, apparently not. Rather, “work out” has an archaic usage that is no longer current in today’s English. According to the Oxford English Dictionary:

work out. II. 6. To bring about, effect, produce, or procure (a result) by labour or effort; to carry out, accomplish (a plan or purpose).

In fact, this is the very meaning of the Greek word. And according to the OED citations, Tyndale’s is the first use of the phrase in this sense on record:

1534 Bible (Tyndale rev. Joye) Phil. ii. 12 Worke out youre awne saluacion with feare and tremblynge.
1600 Shakespeare Henry IV, Pt. 2 i. i. 181 We..Knew that we ventured on such dangerous seas, That if we wrought out life, twas ten to one.
1805 Wordsworth Waggoner iv. 118 When the malicious Fates are bent On working out an ill intent.
1847 Tennyson Princess ii. 75 O lift your natures out your freedom.

The last noted use of the phrase by this usage is 1874.

Why did Tyndale choose “work out”? There’s no clear answer. Since κατεργάζομαι is a compound of the prefix κατά and the verb ἐργάζομαι (to work, labor), Tyndale may have added the “out” to reflect the prefix; though he did not translate κατεργάζομαι that way anywhere else. He may have been thinking in Latin: recognizing the meaning of the Greek to approximate the action “to effect,” he may have rendered it first efficere (ex + ficere, to work out) and followed accordingly with the English. Or, he may have just liked the way it sounded. He seems to have had a knack for that.

The Tyndalian wording of this verse, as beautiful and iconic as it is, is now archaic, and tends to obscure the meaning of Paul’s words. Paul clearly was saying that through working — though the praise for our works belongs to God alone, by His grace — we effect our salvation.

I have always admired William Tyndale, first when I was a Protestant and still now that I am a Catholic. Not only was he bold and fearless in his determination to bring the Scriptures into the English language — he ultimately gave his life for that cause — but he was brilliant both as a translator and as a wordsmith. As the first translator of the Bible into English from its original languages, Tyndale has no doubt had more impact on the English Bible than any other single person, and has had an impact on the English language itself to rival that of Shakespeare.

The Roman Catholic Controversy: The Gospel of Peace

The Roman Catholic Controversy

The third post in my series on James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy.

I must confess, this chapter, “The Essential Issue: The Gospel of Peace,” leaves me rather baffled. Despite James White’s claim that his many debates with Catholics have given him “insight into the best Rome has to offer to defend her own beliefs and to counter Protestant beliefs” (16), he shows here a thorough and fundamental misunderstanding of Catholic doctrine. To many of his claims of correct, Protestant teaching, I can only agree with him and ask, “So where’s your dispute? We teach the same thing.”

This general agreement makes his next point even more confusing: Offering no real evidence to support the claim — only a couple of misleading passages from doctrinal works taken grossly out of context — he brings out the old, stale, empty charge of “works’ righteousness,” which I have already refuted here several times. This is in line with his thesis for the chapter, that Christ’s Gospel is a “Gospel of peace” — and that the gospel taught by the Catholic Church offers anything but peace. To this, I tender my personal testimony: My entire journey as an evangelical Christian was one of turmoil, pain, and confusion. As a Catholic, I know the peace of God for the first time in my life.

Christians preach peace through Christ, White argues; “Not the mere possibility of peace, but a real, established, God-ordained peace that has already been brought about and completed in the work of Jesus Christ.” With this the Catholic Church wholeheartedly agrees. But White then suggests that the Catholic Church “[invites] people to try to make peace” or to “bring [something] in their hands in an attempt to buy peace.” Buy peace? This does not even resemble Catholic teaching, and I’m not quite sure how to refute it. Presumably, White thinks that because we have to “work” for our salvation, we have to “work” to make peace with God?

Christ, in Himself, in his finished work on the Cross, is our peace, argues White. All is found in Christ, and we add nothing to His perfect work. With this too the Catholic Church wholeheartedly agrees. “His work on the Cross is the means by which we who are sinful can be at peace with our holy God. . . . We are incapable of making peace ourselves — all sides agree to that” (emphasis mine). I thought we were trying to buy our peace? Yes, we do agree that we are incapable of making peace ourselves, of doing anything at all to approach God, our salvation, or His peace on our own. “But beyond this, we are incapable of maintaining [emphasis White’s] peace with God if, in fact, our relationship with Him is based on anything other than the firm foundation of he Just One who died for the injust.” Yes. This is why we base our faith on Christ and His work of salvation — and nothing else.

Arriving at the summit of his argument, White presents:

Justification is by faith because it is in harmony with grace. Grace — the free and unmerited favor of God — cannot be earned, purchased, or merited. By nature it is free. Faith has no merit in and of itself. It performs no meritorious work so as to gain grace or favor.

White clearly misunderstands the plain face of Catholic teaching (I cherry-pick for brevity’s sake, not to make my argument seem stronger than it is; please read the whole chapter if you’d like; you will find it is consistent):

Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life (Cf. Jn 1:12-18; 17:3; Rom 8:14-17; 2 Pet 1:3-4). [CCC 1996].

Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men. Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy. Its purpose is the glory of God and of Christ, and the gift of eternal life (Romans 3:21-26, cf. Council of Trent [1547]: DS 1529) [CCC 1992].

White announces, “I have an abiding certainty of acceptance by God. Do you? Not a temporary state where things are all right.” He compares the Catholic view of “peace” to a “cease-fire” in wartime, in which “shooting might break out at any moment.” “If our relationship with God is such that it might break down in the next instant, resulting in enmity between us and God once again,” he asserts, “we do not have biblical peace.”

Again White demonstrates that he fundamentally misunderstands the Catholic faith — if not the Christian faith. When I sin as a Christian, that does not put me at “enmity” with God. Does White conceive of a wrathful, vengeful, monstrous God out to destroy sinners, to turn His sheep out of His fold the moment they wander? Is that the God White thinks Catholics conceive of? No. Our God is loving and merciful. And as long as I am following God, I will always have the peace and assurance that He will be there to forgive me, heal me, restore me; to catch me when I fall. The danger of mortal sin is not that it turns a wrathful God against a sinner, but that it turns a wayward sinner away from God (CCC 1855, 1856). Mortal sin, in the Catholic view, does entail a fall from grace (CCC 1861); but this is not because God has taken away His grace, but because the sinner has chosen to walk away from it. And God will always welcome us back with open and merciful arms. The analogy is not to “shooting” breaking out between opposing forces (God and the sinner), as White suggests, but to the Prodigal Son, having lost his entire inheritance, and starving in the pigpen, returning home to his merciful Father — to an endless and unconditional well of grace, mercy, forgiveness, and healing.

Since justification is a one-time event in the evangelical mind, covering all the sins a sinner has ever committed or will ever commit — since salvation, in White’s view, happens the moment one becomes a Christian and can never be lost — White judges the Catholic concept by the same all-or-nothing mentality; either one is lost or one is saved. But for the Catholic, justification is a lifelong process. We are journeying on a pilgrimage toward salvation, and we will reach it at the end of our lives, if we don’t stray from the road. Falling into sin, losing grace, losing peace is a setback. I fall and I get hurt. But I find so much more peace and security and comfort in knowing that there is a merciful Physician who will always receive me, heal me, and put me back on the road — who will bind up my wounds and restore me to grace — than in pretending, as an evangelical, that I never lost grace at all. Denying one is hurt doesn’t make the hurt go away; it only delays or prevents the healing.

The Roman Catholic Controversy: What is the Gospel?

The Roman Catholic Controversy

The first post in my series on James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy.

Catholics and Protestants — do the differences still matter? That is the question The Roman Catholic Controversy presents us with from the start. From the very first pages, the book makes clear that the question is merely rhetorical: In the foreword, John H. Armstrong announces unequivocally that “Catholic doctrinal formulations . . . significantly conflict with the plain teaching of God’s Word” and that Catholic doctrines “actually undermine the grace of God in the Gospel.” Accidentally, Armstrong places the book in its context: The Catholic Controversy was published in 1996, amid the first in the new explosion of converts from evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism, and the rising wave of conversion literature, especially from Scott Hahn (Rome Sweet Rome, 1993), Patrick Madrid (Surprised by Truth, 1994), David Currie (Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic, 1996), and Stephen Ray (Crossing the Tiber, 1997) — and the ensuing counter-wave of panicked evangelical apologetics. I sincerely hope The Catholic Controversy is not another attack book, a blunt weapon designed to stanch the flow of defections by any means necessary.

Thankfully, James White steps forward with an ingenuousness and honesty that seems to reflect a genuine evangelical concern for truth and for salvation. In a world of postmodern relativism*, as “many . . . are, perhaps unwittingly, sacrificing absolute truth on the altar of compromise and expediency,” White fears the true message of the Gospel — the truthfulness — is being lost. This truth is central and crucial — and on this truth, White argues, Protestants and Catholics have a “disagreement of a fundamental nature” regarding the most fundamental of questions: What is the Gospel?

* For what it’s worth, on my first day of grad school, one of my professors announced that “postmodernism is dead.” I am pleased to confirm that at least in the historical discipline, it has shown no signs of stirring.

In a disarming feint, White does a curious thing: He presents a hypothetical dialogue between a recent, enthusiastic Catholic convert and a shocked evangelical friend. I must admit, I nearly laughed out loud as he introduced this. “At the mall, Bill has just run into Scott, an old friend from his teenage years. He and Scott both sang in youth choir; they even passed out tracts together near the downtown mission. Bill is in for a surprise.” It smells in every way like a bad after-school special. And remember, kids, don’t accept food or drink from Catholics: it just might be the Body and Blood of Christ.

Scott, the convert, echoes so many of the arguments and claims I myself have made for the truth of Rome: that Catholic doctrine does have a firm foundation in Scripture; that Catholics don’t worship Mary; that sola scriptura has no basis in Scripture; and that coming to Rome is not to lose the Gospel, but to gain the fullness of Apostolic Truth. White acknowledges that most Protestants are not prepared to answer the claims of Rome, and he implies that this is why Scott converted: because he lacked the knowledge to defend against them. I can only presume that White will return to each of these claims, and provide a counterargument.

White then approaches the main argument of his book: not only to reject the claims of Rome, but to reject all efforts at ecumenism. Merely sharing the “bare confession” that “Jesus is Lord” is not a valid basis for Christian unity, he rightly argues. More than simply calling on the name of Jesus, “who Jesus is, what He did, and how we come to know Him” are crucial questions to the Christian identity. (All emphases are White’s.) “If unity in doctrine on the person of Christ is necessary for meaningful unity,” White asks, “is unity on the doctrine of the Gospel itself also just as necessary?” It is a telling question that I believe underpins White’s argument.

White concludes his first chapter in very certain, concrete terms: that the Roman Catholic Church is “preaching a gospel that is contradictory to that taught by the Apostles of the Lord,” a teaching that is “a dangerous error that is to be avoided at peril of spiritual loss.” Catholics very clearly teach “a different gospel” than Protestants (and with that, he sets up a thesis directly contrary to mine); he knows many Catholics who would acknowledge as much, he adds. “The Gospel message itself is an issue upon which compromise is impossible. No unity can exist where the Gospel is no longer central to the teaching of the Church,” White argues. “The Roman Catholic position on the topic of the Gospel . . . falls outside the realm of biblical truth, not just in minor, secondary issues but with reference to the very heart of the Gospel itself.”

And what, to White, is the heart of the Gospel? He does not leave us in suspense: “The fact that God justifies us freely by his grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone must, I believe, be included in the most basic, fundamental definition of the Christian faith.” It is the standard Reformed refrain that has echoed since the Reformation itself: without the five solas — sola scriptura (by Scripture alone), sola gratia (by grace alone), sola fide (by faith alone), solo Christo (by Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone) — there is no Gospel.

But this returns me to the essential question which White posed: What is the Gospel? Is the Gospel Reformed doctrine? Did Jesus lay out the five solas in His Sermon on the Mount? If this in itself is White’s gospel, then I have no doubt that Catholics denied sharing it. No, doctrine — both Reformed doctrine and Catholic doctrine — is teaching about the Gospel. And even though both Catholics and Protestants claim that their teachings were guided by the Holy Spirit (the Catholic Church does claim infallibly), teaching is something men do; saving is what Jesus does.

Despite White’s insistence that the Catholic Church teaches a “different gospel” than Protestants, we both agree that Jesus saves. We both agree that we are sinners in need of a Savior, hopeless in our sin without Him. We both agree that salvation is by grace alone, by Christ alone — that no one can approach God, by his own grace and merits, apart from the grace of God. We both agree that God is love — that because He loved us, Christ died for the sins of us all so that we might be saved; that we are justified by His merits alone. And yes, there are doctrinal differences between us. But is the Gospel that Jesus justifies us by faith alone (with works necessarily proceeding), upon which we disagree — or is the Gospel that Jesus justifies us by His grace alone, and nothing we have ever done or could ever do, by our own merits or efforts, could pay the price He paid — upon which we agree? Does White really mean to subjugate the love and the grace and the salvation of God to doctrine?

As often as Protestants accuse Catholics of worshipping Mary, I often wonder if Reformed Christians don’t worship their solas. Doctrine is important; I do not argue otherwise. Doctrinal relativism — the trap I myself fell into for so long — is a lie. But do our different doctrines not describe the same Truth? Is that Truth not the Christ who saves us by His grace, rather than our doctrine?

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.