A church member once said to me, “Catholics are Christians.” I tried to explain the difference between what the Catholic Church and the Bible teaches about salvation. I explained that while it is possible for a Catholic to be a believer it is not possible for a Catholic to be a believer and adhere to what the Catholic Church teaches about salvation.
Then I read Wayne Grudem in his popular Systematic Theology who quotes a Catholic theologian as representative of “the traditional Roman Catholic understanding of justification.” The Catholic theologian is Ludwig Ott, who wrote in 1960, “According to the teaching of the Council of Trent, justification is ‘sanctifying and renewing of the inner man.’” This quote is from Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma on page 257 and of course confuses justification and sanctification.
Grudem disagrees with the Roman Catholic view quoted from Ott, but then Grudem makes a follow-up comment about which I have questions: “It should be noted that Ott represents more traditional, pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism, and that many contemporary Roman Catholics have sought an understanding of justification that is closer to a Protestant view” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994, p. 727). My question is, on what basis does Grudem say that contemporary Roman Catholics are closer to the Protestant view of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone? Has there been a recent RCC council that has rewritten the RCC doctrine found in the Council of Trent of 1560s? Has there been a Papal decree that documents Catholicism’s move to the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone? (For an excellent defense of the reformation’s sola fide or doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone see R.C. Sproul’s Faith Alone.)
The Council of Trent of the 1560s
The Roman Catholic Church’s doctrinal statement was written clearly at the Council of Trent (1545-63) and has not changed. The following is Canon 24 from the Council of Trent (The RCC’s doctrinal statement):
“If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to the obtaining of the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema” (Canon 9 of the Council of Trent, see also Canon 14).
The Vatican II of the 1960s
The Vatican Council, Second, 1962-65, the 21st ecumenical council which was attended by 2,400 Catholic bishops did not change the Roman Catholic Council of Trent’s view on works for salvation:
For it is the liturgy through which, especially in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, ‘the work of our redemption is accomplished,’ and it is through the liturgy, especially, that the faithful are enabled to express in their lives and manifest to others the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church (Vatican II, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Introduction, para.2).
“Thus by Baptism men are grafted into the paschal mystery of Christ. . . . They receive the adoption as sons” (Vatican II, Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy, Chapter I, para. 6).
At Mark Driscoll’s website Resurgence, pastor Justin Holcomb posts a very dangerous evaluation of the Second Vatican Council.
Here is one of the favorable comments by Holcomb concerning the Second Vatican Council:
The Council also sought to foster dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and other faiths and Christian denominations. In fact, the Council stated in regard to Eastern faiths, “the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions.” Yet, the Council still held to the fact that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).
“Protestants can glean wisdom from some of the formulations of the Second Vatican Council. Perhaps most importantly, we can look to the Council’s urging for us to be the church to the world in a relevant and faithful way. This is an affirmation that emphasizes an understanding of the gospel expressed in evangelism and in loving action to the world. So, while there may be elements of Vatican II with which we disagree, there is also that plenty we would affirm.” Holcomb says “there may be elements of Vatican II with which we disagree.” Does he not disagree with Vatican II’s baptismal regeneration? Paul had a very severe view of works for salvation as expressed in Galatians 1:6-9.
Justin Holcomb also presents a very weak summary of the Council of Trent. He seeks to find common ground with this RCC anathema of justification by faith alone rather than exposing this document as false teaching.
The new Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992
The Roman Catholic Church’s doctrinal position on salvation has not changed since The Vatican Council II in the mid-sixties as the new Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992 declared: “The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us ‘the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ’ and through Baptism” article 1987.
The Evangelical Catholics
Evangelical Catholics, like Keith A. Fournier, claim to be Christians who in their thinking is not in contradiction with Catholic tradition and theology. In his book Evangelical Catholics, Fournier writes, “Many Christians misunderstand the Catholic theology of salvation as one of salvation by good works. . . . this view does not represent Catholic theology.” But, then Fournier writes approvingly of the Vatican II: “In their marvelous document entitled the ‘Decree on Ecumenism,’ the Bishops of the Catholic Church show the respect which must properly be afforded to all Christians: ‘. . . All those justified by faith through baptism are incorporated into Christ’” (Keith A. Fournier, Evangelical Catholics, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1990, pages 16, 96).
This statement from the Catholic Church clearly teaches salvation by good works and Evangelical Catholic Fournier agrees. You can go to www.evangelicalcatholic.com and read how contemporary Evangelical Catholics speak glowingly about the Vatican II and also state that a believer can be “fully Catholic and fully evangelical.” This is impossible when the RCC teaches salvation by works and conservative evangelicalism teaches salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It is true that evangelicalism is very board today and includes works righteousness so I must qualify what I mean by evangelicalism.
The problem is that Evangelical Catholics use the vocabulary of Scripture but a different dictionary. This makes it difficult for undiscerning believers to know the difference and thus allow them to think that “Catholics are Christians.” I have dear friends who are Catholics. You cannot judge a church, denomination, or movement by the personalities in it but by the beliefs adhered to in their doctrinal statements.
How is the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine of Justification by Works gotten closer to the Biblical doctrine of Justification by Grace alone through Faith alone in Christ alone according to Grudem?
I hope this brief survey of Catholic doctrinal statements will help us answer church members who have questions concerning Catholicism and witness to the unsaved who may be confused about the biblical truth of justification by faith alone.