God On The Net

Protestants or Catholics
Who Are Right?

"Who are right, Catholics or Protestants?  Is there any difference between their beliefs besides that Protestants don't consider the Pope the earthly leader of all Christians?"

There are fundamental differences between Roman Catholicism and all Protestant and Messianic Jewish denominations.

Note: This is a very general overview. For details see the Catholic Catechism Compared to the Bible--quote-for-quote.

The Old and New Testaments are the only sources of Christian doctrine.

(Messianic Judaism refers to these by their Hebrew names, Tanakh and B'rit Chadasha ["New Covenant"])

Sources of doctrine include:
  • Certain papal declarations
  • Bishops in conjunction with the pope
  • Old Testament
  • New Testament
  • Apocrypha (some additions to the Bible)
  • Catholic Church Tradition
  • Catholic interpretation of the Bible
We are justified (saved) by faith alone, not by good works.  Good works will result in greater rewards in the afterlife but have no effect on getting saved. This "faith" means relying on Jesus' sacrifice as full atonement for our sins and trusting in God enough to try to live as he said to live. It is not mere intellectual belief in a set of facts. When a person gets baptized his "original sin" is forgiven and God gives him some grace.  This grace enables him to do good works.  God appreciates the good works and rewards them with more grace.  Because the Christian has more grace, he can now do even better works. This pleases God even more, so He gives even more grace, etc.
Purgatory is totally unscriptural.  Christ's sacrifice on the Cross was the only offering necessary and the only offering sufficient to provide salvation. There are two types of punishment after death: temporal (temporary) and eternal.  If a person dies with just one "mortal" sin on his soul he will be condemned to Hell for eternity.  If he dies with only "venial" sins on his soul he will be sent to Purgatory, perhaps for millions of years.

Purgatory is exactly like Hell except that it doesn't last forever.  Eventually, the person will be released and enter heaven.

"Mortal" sin is an extent of sin, a pervasiveness of sin, sinning as a way of life, sinning as a regular practice, not a single sin, regardless of how serious that sin might be, e.g., murder. There are two types of sin: mortal and venial.

A particular sin is either mortal or venial, depending on the severity.  (For instance, stealing one dollar from a rich man would probably be a venial sin.)

See the box above for the consequences of Catholic mortal sin

Only God can forgive sins. Catholic priests have been given the power to forgive sins, acting as representatives of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is Jesus' representative. The pope is Jesus' representative on Earth.
The pope speaks for no one. The pope speaks for all Christians.
It is clear from scripture that there was no "head" apostle in the New Testament churches. Paul expressly and publicly rebuked Peter, the alleged first pope, on one occasion.  There is no biblical or historical evidence that Peter was ever the bishop of Rome. Anyone who denies the authority of the pope despises the one who (allegedly) appointed him (i.e., Christ) and therefore despises the one who sent Christ, (i.e., God the Father).
Mary had children by Joseph.  Jesus' brothers are expressly named: Joseph,. James, Simon, and Jude. Mary remained a virgin her entire life. The Greek word can mean either "brother" or "close relative."  The Bible is talking about Jesus' cousins, not brothers.
This is totally unscriptural. Mary was bodily assumed into heaven, like Elijah and Enoch.
This is totally unscriptural. Mary is the "spiritual mother" of all men.




Although I believe the Catholic Church has many false teachings, as a former Roman Catholic I want to make it clear what goes on when a Catholic "goes to Confession" (now called "Reconciliation"). Although I disagree with the need to confess to clergy (rather than directly to God, as Protestants do) or the need to do "penance" (Jesus' sacrifice paid our entire sin debt), I want to make it clear that devout Catholics do repent  when they "go to Confession" and they repent to God.  The Bible says that if we confess our sins and repent God is faithful to forgive them.

Confession is normally in a small enclosed darkened booth, with a screen between the priest and the person making the confession; they cannot see each others' faces.  Confession can  be done face to face, but that is not common.

The confessor kneels in front of the screen, makes 'the sign of the Cross', reciting "In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ..." and then begins:

"Bless me, Father [referring to the priest, not God the Father], for I have sinned.  It has been <length of time> since my last Confession and these are my sins:"

The person then describes all sins he can remember that he has committed since his last Confession.

After that, the priest asks the person if he is truly sorry for his sins, repents of his sins, and intends to try to lead a new life.

The person replies that he does.

The priest tells him what to do for penance.  Usually, this involves saying the Lord's Prayer (generally called the "Our Father" by Catholics) several times and/or saying Hail Mary's (a prayer to Mary, Jesus' mother) several times.

The priest then 'gives absolution', telling the person "Your sins are forgiven" and something along the lines of "Okay, let's have a good Act of Contrition."

At that point, the priest prays for the confessor and the confessor recites the following prayer:

(Catholic prayer at end of Confession/Reconciliation)

"Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but most of all, because they offend Thee, my God, Who art all good and deserving of all my love.  I firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life.  Amen."

Many Catholics develop an attitude that Confession is sort of like a "gas station".  They can confess, get their sins forgiven, and then go right out and do the same things again -- "No problem, I'll just go to Confession next week." This is not what the Catholic Church teaches! This is one of the many areas where Protestants and Catholics do agree: repent means you are truly sorry and sincerely intend to try not to sin.

Note: Under Catholic church law a Roman Catholic priest can refuse to forgive sins if he thinks the person is not sincere.  In some cases he is required to refuse, e.g., where the person uses birth control and states that s/he intends to continue doing so.

It is important to realize that in Catholic theology penance is a sacrament, not confession. In Catholic theology doing the penance is what 'absolves' a person of sin.


"Does it really make any difference whether the Virgin Mary had other children?"

This seems like an insignificant point, but it isn't.  It directly bears on the authority of the pope.  According to the Catholic Church, one of the offices the pope holds is The Magisterium, i.e., teacher of Christian doctrine.  The Roman Catholic Church claims that when the pope speaks in his official capacity as holder of The Magisterium, he is directly led by the Holy Spirit, and the teaching is infallible and has spiritual authority equal to the Bible.  Therefore, if an "infallible" teaching contradicts the Bible, it proves the Catholic teaching of papal infallibility is false.

It is important to note that the Catholic Church has never claimed that all teachings of the popes are infallible, only those specifically declared infallible by being issued under the authority of The Magisterium.

The Catholic Church has declared "infallibly" that Mary had no other children.  Therefore, if this contradicts the Bible, (e.g., Matthew 13:55) we are left with an "infallible" pope contradicting an "inerrant" Bible.

Exercise of the Magisterium is quite rare; in the entire twentieth century, the only pronouncement any pope made in this capacity was the Roman Catholic doctrine that Mary remained a virgin her entire life.

The following is from the official Catechism of the Catholic Church, endorsed in writing by Pope John Paul II on October 11, 1992. Although the excerpt uses the term "the Church" in actuality it only expresses the official Roman Catholic position on the issue.

Mary -- "ever-virgin"

499 The deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary's real and perpetual [italics added] virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man. In fact, Christ's birth "did not diminish his mother's virginal integrity but sanctified it."  And so the liturgy of the Church celebrates Mary as Aeiparthenos, the "Ever-virgin."  [italics added ]

500 Against this doctrine the objection is sometimes raised that the Bible mentions brothers and sisters of Jesus. The Church has always understood these passages as not referring to other children of the Virgin Mary. In fact James and Joseph, "brothers of Jesus," are the sons of another Mary , a disciple of Christ, whom St. Matthew significantly calls "the other Mary." [italics added]  They are close relations of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression.

501 Jesus is Mary's only son, [italics added] but her spiritual motherhood extends to all men whom he came to save. "The Son whom she brought forth is he whom God placed as the first-born among many brethren, that is the faithful in whose generation and formulation she cooperates with a mother's love."

In section 500, the Catechism is referring to the following:

Matthew 27:56, 61 [56] Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee's sons. [61] Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.

As can be plainly seen from the context, there is nothing "significant" about Matthew's referring to the mother of James and Joses as "the other Mary."  He clearly means to distinguish her from Mary Magdalene, not from Mary, wife of Joseph.

Protestants dispute the Catholic doctrine based on passages such as these:

Matthew 12:46-47 [46] While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. [47] Someone told him, "Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you."

Mark 3:31-32 [31] Then Jesus' mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. [32] A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, "Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you."

Matthew 13:54-56 [54] Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed.  "Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?" they asked. [55] "Isn't this the carpenter's son?  Isn't his mother's name Mary, and aren't his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? [author of the New Testament book of Jude, not Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus] [56] Aren't all his sisters with us?  Where then did this man get all these things?"

The Catholic Church responds that the Greek word used can mean either sibling or close kin, i.e., cousins.  In other words, the Catholic Church claims Mary and Jesus' cousins were looking for Him, and the people in His hometown were naming His cousins.

But consider these passages:

Psalms 69:8 I am a stranger to my brothers, an alien to my own mother's sons

This is a Messianic prophecy, i.e., a prophecy about the coming Messiah.  Evidence of its fulfillment is found here:

Mark 3:20-21 [20] Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. [21] When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, "He is out of his mind."

John 7:1-5 [1] After this, Jesus went around in Galilee, purposely staying away from Judea because the Jews there were waiting to take his life. [2] But when the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles was near, [3] Jesus' brothers said to him, "You ought to leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples may see the miracles you do. [4] No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world." [5] For even his own brothers did not believe in him.

Also see Did Mary Have Other Children?

"Why don't you capitalize the word 'pope' on this web page?"

Here, the word is referring to all popes, not just the current Pope.

"What is The Magisterium?  Is it a group or council?"

No, it is an office the pope holds, one of his titles.  Similarly, the president of the United States is automatically the Commander in Chief of the United States military forces.  Although the pope has councils of advisors, his Magisterium pronouncements are not based on consensus and do not require the approval of any councils.  According to the Catholic Church, if all Christians disagreed with an "infallible" teaching of a pope, all of them would have to change their position to his position.


"Are both Protestants and Catholics Christians, even though they have different beliefs?"

Catholicism gives the appearance of being Christianity covered by a thick outer layer of "traditions of man."

Satan certainly has no qualms about attacking the Church from the inside -- by twisting doctrines, etc. Jesus warned specifically about "traditions of men" and "leaven" or "yeast", i.e., false doctrine.

It takes centuries for false doctrine to permeate a large group of God's people and become a generally-accepted teaching.  Of course, by the time this happens the religious leaders have the appearance of authority -- "We have been the leaders for centuries.  Who are you to tell us we are wrong? You are the one who is wrong.  We need to protect the real believers from your doctrine."  (Note that this happened with both the Jews and the Catholic Church.)

Catholicism teaches salvation by grace and good works, not by faith alone.

This doctrine was established at the Council of Trent.

Protestantism and Messianic Judaism and the Bible teach that when a person accepts Jesus as his Lord and Savior and believes that God (specifically, the Holy Spirit) raised Jesus from the dead, God (the Father) forgives all that person's sins (even future sins) and gives that person everlasting life.  This is referred to as "justification."  God gives the sinner credit for the righteous life Jesus lived. This is called imputed righteousness. "Imputed" means that one person is given credit (or blame) for something someone else did.

Catholicism teaches that a person is justified by being baptized into the Catholic Church and that a person becomes holy by receiving grace.  Catholicism teaches that a believer can earn God's grace, and that if the person has enough grace when he dies he will go to Heaven (usually, after a period in Purgatory).  Every time a person commits a mortal sin he loses all the grace he was saving up.  Of course, without such grace he will go to Hell.  By going to Confession (now called "Reconciliation") and doing penance (works to make up for his sins), he can have his past sins forgiven and start earning grace again.  In effect, this is "yo-yo salvation".  The trick is to die after the last time you had your sins forgiven but before you commit another mortal sin.

For a general discussion of various differences, see Protestantism and Catholicism Compared

For a quote-for-quote comparison see Catechism of the Catholic Church Compared to the Bible (in Spanish, too.)

Also see Making Shipwreck of the Faith -- Evangelicals and Roman Catholics Together by Kevin Reed and the sources in Protestants and Catholics - more information.

I highly recommend the booklet The Facts on Roman Catholicism, available from ATRI. For a variety of materials on the errors of Roman Catholic doctrines, visit their website.

I want to make it clear that a blanket statement such as "Catholics aren't Christians." is definitely wrong.  The Bible does not say "You will only be saved if you understand the theological intricacies."

Many practicing Catholics satisfy the requirements of Romans 10:9 "That if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead you will be saved."

True Catholics believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that He died for the sins of mankind, that Jesus came back from the dead after three days, and that people should follow His commandments on how to live.

Sadly, because the Catholic Church doesn't talk about that scripture, Catholics who satisfy Romans 10:9 don't have the joy of their salvation.  Many such Catholics are going to wake up dead and be very surprised to find themselves in Heaven even though they "died with a mortal sin on their soul".

It is important to understand that this is talking about 'average' Catholics. The 'average' Catholic does not understand the official teachings of Roman Catholicism. A Catholic who understands the official teachings and accepts them as true is rejecting biblical Christianity. He is putting his faith in a religion that directly contradicts the Bible. Official Roman Catholicism teaches salvation by works.

Catholicism is a "legalistic" distortion of biblical Christianity.

"Legalistic" refers to the practice of adding a substantial amount of detailed, technical rules that are applied mechanically and the practice of drawing super-technical and minute distinctions.  Jesus criticized the Pharisees for such practices:

Matthew 23:16-22 [16] "Woe to you, blind guides! You say, `If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.' [17] You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? [18] You also say, `If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.' [19] You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? [20] Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. [21] And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. [22] And he who swears by heaven swears by God's throne and by the one who sits on it.

Often such distinctions are based on uncommon meanings of a word.  For instance, in the "other children" controversy, the Roman Catholic hierarchy insists that the word for "brothers" actually means cousins, although that clearly is not supported by the context.

"What is wrong with being 'legalistic'?"

There are two basic problems with any legalistic approach:

  • If we truly love God, we should not be trying to be "right on the edge." and . . .

Good faith is irrelevant -- legalistic distinctions and traditions of men are still wrong.

It is important to understand some things about both the Pharisees and the Roman Catholic hierarchy:

  • They both act(ed) in good faith.

  • They both honestly believe(d) they are/were doing the right thing.

  • None of them intentionally make rules contrary to the will of God.

However, we must also consider related points:

  • Good faith is irrelevant -- an error is an error.
  • Traditions of men still contradict the word of God, even if done in good faith.
  • Legalism is still legalism, no matter how well-intentioned.

However, among other things, both Catholics and Protestants believe:

There is only one God.
This one God consists of three distinct persons:
  1. The Father
  2. Jesus (the Word)
  3. The Holy Spirit
Each person of the Godhead is fully God, yet there is only one God.
All men have sinned against God, thereby pushing themselves away from God.
Jesus became a man, with a flesh and blood body.
Jesus voluntarily sacrificed Himself, dying on the Cross to pay for the sins of all mankind.

After being dead three days, Jesus was resurrected from the dead in a living, physical body.

As a result of Jesus' sacrifice, salvation is available to all mankind.
There is nothing man can do on his own to obtain salvation -- no amount of good works, kindness, charity, etc., is sufficient.
To obtain salvation, a person must do all of the following:
  1. Admit he is a sinner
  2. Sincerely repent of his sins
  3. Sincerely intend to try to lead a new life without sin
Belief in a Supreme Being is not enough; God will only save those who accept Him.
"Believing in Jesus" means believing that Jesus is God, not just a messenger from God such as a prophet or apostle.
We are in the midst of a spiritual war but the outcome of that war is already determined.  Jesus conquered death and sin for all eternity by His sacrifice on the Cross.  He proved it by coming back from the dead.

For more details, with Scriptural supporting see Major Christian Doctrines.

"Why don't Protestants and Catholics just get together, iron out their differences, and join together?"

Each side disagrees with the other on many fundamental theological doctrines, such as the existence of purgatory and whether the Old and New Testaments are the only divinely-inspired teachings. Neither side is willing to change its position; hence, there can be no genuine reunification of Protestantism and Catholicism.

Also, there is no unity of doctrine among the different Protestant denominations.  For instance, Baptists (and other Calvinists) teach "Once saved, always saved."  Methodists (and other Wesleyans and Arminians) teach that a person can lose his salvation by committing apostasy, i.e., falling so deep back into sin that he becomes convinced the God of the Bible is not real. Although these two teachings are directly contradictory, each group points to certain verses to support its view.

"If Protestants disagree with each other, doesn't that prove Catholics are right?"

No, nobody wins by default!  If Fred believes two plus two is five, Harry thinks two plus two is four, and Jane thinks two plus two is three, is Jane automatically right solely because Fred and Harry disagree with each other?

"But what about all those different Protestant denominations?"

It is important to understand that the various mainstream Protestant denominations only disagree to some extent regarding the interpretation of  some relatively minor passages of the Old and New Testaments. They all agree that only the Testaments are the authoritative word of God and for the most part they agree on the major doctrines.

Many Protestant denominations have no theological differences.

For instance, Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME), African Methodist Episcopal (AME), and African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) are all predominantly black denominations.  They arose in different parts of the United States around 1830-75 because of racial prejudice against blacks in the white churches. Their polity (organizational structure) is not identical. But their ministers often preach at each others' churches, and a person ordained in one denomination can easily switch to another denomination simply by applying, rather than having to go through the entire training and testing process again.

Often, denominational differences involve differences in ritual, music styles, preaching styles (there is a distinctive 'black preaching style'), language (e.g., Spanish in hispanic areas), etc., all of which have nothing to do with theology.

Also see Protestantism and Roman Catholicism Compared


(c) 1998-2001 by Rick Reinckens

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