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McMahon, T.A.

Thirty-five years ago I was delivered from the bondage of Roman Catholicism. That may sound somewhat unkind to many evangelicals today, but it is nevertheless true, as all former Catholics who have been saved by faith alone in Christ alone will attest. Why would we claim that we were set free from bondage? Isn’t that an insult directed at a long-established professing Christian Church that has more than a billion followers? Or is it a reality for all of them? Those who grew up Catholic, as I did for thirty-some years, know what it’s like to have experienced spiritual bondage. But the fact of that bondage is demonstrated simply by contrasting the gospel of Roman Catholicism and its salvation process with the biblical gospel.

Rome’s gospel is a process of attaining salvation by works. It begins with the Sacrament of Baptism, which starts a person (the overwhelming majority are infants) on a course to heaven. Throughout the process, the individual must stay the Church’s course by remaining in the state of sanctifying grace. Catholicism offers a multitude of Sacraments, sacramentals, and works that it claims will enable a person to do just that. At death, a Catholic must be in the state of sanctifying grace in order to enter Purgatory, an alleged place of purifying fires where the last vestiges of sin are said to be removed before one can enter heaven.

Here is my personal story—echoing that of a billion souls, many of whom are your neighbors, work associates, school friends, and acquaintances (every one in four people in the U.S. is Roman Catholic). As an infant, I was brought to the priest, and in the presence of godparents received the Sacrament of Baptism, which brought me into the Church and started me on my way to heaven. Baptism cleansed me of original sin and infused me with sanctifying grace. Although we didn’t use the phrase “born again” when I was growing up, more and more Catholics today refer to their baptism that way. (Clearly, that is not what the Scriptures teach about being “born again.”)

Hypothetically, if my godparent had slipped on the holy water, dropping me right after my baptism and causing my death, I would have gone straight to heaven. No Purgatory—just right straight into the presence of God. This is explained by the Church’s teaching that only the sinless can enter heaven. An infant is stained only by original sin, which is removed at baptism. Thus Purgatory is not necessary for a baptized baby who dies in infancy.

There does come a time, however, when a child adds his own sins to his soul. When I reached that point and committed what the Church considered a mortal sin, the process of working my way to heaven stopped. A mortal sin short-circuits the process by condemning me to hell. When a child reaches the age at which the Catholic Church considers him or her capable of committing mortal sins, two Sacraments are made available: Penance and the Eucharist. 

The Sacrament of Penance enabled me to confess my sins to a priest, who alone can absolve Catholics of their mortal sins. I made my First Confession at age 7, which was followed by my First Holy Communion. When partaking of communion, also known as the Eucharist, I was told that I was eating the “body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, under the appearance of bread and wine.” That ritual infused sanctifying grace into me and restored the process of my working my way to heaven.

It’s at this point in a Catholic child’s life that Purgatory comes into the picture. Although the priest absolved my sins (both the deadly sins, known as mortal, and the lesser sins, which are known as venial) at confession, they still needed to be expiated, or atoned for. That is accomplished by doing “acts of penance.” The Catholic teaching is that all sins must be paid for through purifying punishments. Vatican II explains:

Sins must be expiated. This may be done on this earth through the sorrows, miseries and trials of this life and, above all, through death. Otherwise the expiation must be made in the next life through fire and torments or purifying punishments....[In] purgatory the souls of those...“who had not made satisfaction with adequate penance for their sins and omissions” are cleansed after death with punishments designed to purge away their debt. (V2IDchp1:2, 3)

Where does Jesus fit in regarding the expiation of sins? The Roman Catholic Church views Christ’s atonement as helpful but not completely sufficient in and of itself. Other “help” is needed:

[W]e are able through Jesus Christ to make satisfaction to God the Father not only by punishments voluntarily undertaken by ourselves to atone for sins or by those imposed by the judgment of the priest according to the measure of our offense, but the temporal afflictions imposed by God [on the sinner].... (CoT14Schp9)

Canonized Catholic saints also contribute to expiating sins of others:

They [i.e., the saints] have carried their crosses to make expiation for their own sins and the sins of others. They were convinced that they could help their brothers to obtain salvation from God who is the Father of mercies….Indeed, the prayers and good works of holy people were regarded as of such great value that it could be asserted that the penitent was washed, cleansed and redeemed with the help of the entire Christian people.... (V2IDchp2:5, 3:6)

Here is a historical overview of all of this, again from Vatican II:

From the most ancient times in the Church good works were also offered to God for the salvation of sinners, particularly the works [i.e., sufferings and miseries] which human weakness finds hard. (V2IDchp3:6)

I would go to confession on Saturday so that I could receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist at Mass on Sunday. My life as a Catholic was a continuous cycle of ascending toward heaven and plummeting toward hell. To sustain the upward process, I would add whatever good works and sacramentals I could in order to stay in the state of sanctifying grace: rosaries, novenas, stations of the cross, Eucharistic holy hours, blessed medals, scapulars, indulgences, personal sufferings, appeals to Mary, prayers to the saints for help, etc., etc. The best I could hope for was that I would die while in the state of grace, while on the ascent, working my way up the ladder. I knew I’d have to face a time of suffering in Purgatory, but eventually I’d get into heaven, or so I hoped.

How it would turn out for me I couldn’t know; nor could anyone assure me. To tell me that I could know for certain that I was going to get to heaven was itself a ticket to hell. That’s a mortal sin, sometimes referred to as the sin of presumption. Not even the pope knows—and he is called the Vicar of Christ, literally one who stands in the place of Christ on this earth! Nor can he know. The best a Catholic can do is to increase his odds by doing all that the Church tells him to do.

One thing that needs to be understood is that obedience to the Church is critical for a Catholic to get to heaven. Now, some readers may be thinking about Catholics they know who don’t agree with everything the Church teaches. Such people are sometimes referred to as “cafeteria Catholics”—picking and choosing what they want to obey. They may say they don’t believe in certain dogmas of the Church, but that doesn’t change the Church teaching—or their obligation or the consequences of disobedience—that is, if the Church teaching is true.

Most Catholics say they don’t believe in obtaining indulgences (the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin)—they believe that their use was done away with 500 years ago. Not so. The latest Catholic Catechism supports Vatican II’s declaration that the Church “teaches and commands that the usage of indulgences—a usage most beneficial to Christians and approved by the authority of the Sacred Councils—should be kept in the Church; and it condemns with anathema those who say that indulgences are useless or that the church does not have the power to grant them.” (V2IDchp4:8)

Anathema, by the way, means excommunication. In other words, those who do not believe what the Church teaches on this are condemned to hell.

What most Catholics don’t realize is that they must believe all that the pope and the Magisterium—that is, the infallible teaching office of the Church—declare as teachers of the faith.

The Christian [read Roman Catholic] faithful...are bound by Christian obedience to follow what the sacred pastors...declare as teachers of the faith or determine as leaders of the Church. (Code of Canon Law - Canon 212-1)

This loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and that one sincerely adhere to decisions made by him.... (Vatican II Lumen Gentium 25)

[The Bishops when] assembled in an ecumenical council, they are, for the universal Church, teachers of and judges in matters of faith and morals, whose decisions must be adhered to with the loyal and obedient assent of faith....[When] the Roman Pontiff, or the body of bishops together with him, define a doctrine, they make the definition in conformity with revelation itself, to which all are bound to adhere and to which they are obliged to submit.... (Vatican II Lumen Gentium 25C2)

Refusal to submit is a mortal sin.

Hopefully, you have been comparing the Catholic teachings I’ve been presenting here with what you believe as a biblical Christian. If you have been, you’re probably aware that much of this relates to salvation. Now let’s look at very specific official teachings of the Church of Rome as they relate to salvation in contrast to the biblical gospel.

The gospel according to God’s Word is that we are saved by grace through faith, that salvation is not of works but it’s a gift of God, as Ephesians:2:8-9 tells us. We are justified, that is, reconciled to God, by faith alone. Jesus said, “...he that believeth on me hath (present tense) everlasting life (John:6:47). Jesus alone is our Savior. There is no other Savior (Isaiah:45:21). Nor is there any one who can contribute to his or her own salvation. “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved” (Acts:4:12). This is the testimony of the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation.

If you interact with believers who are former Catholics, you will very likely hear, “I never heard the gospel as a Catholic.” As a matter of fact, there was a time after getting saved that I thought, Catholics never hear the gospel because the Church doesn’t really understand the biblical gospel. It’s lost in all the added rituals and liturgy. But what I found surprised me. The Roman Catholic Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church, clearly understands and articulates the gospel better than many evangelicals today—although it condemns it.

According to the infallible Council of Trent—6th Session, Canon 9:

If anyone says that...the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification..., let him be anathema.

6th Session, Canon 12:

If anyone shall say that... justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is this confidence alone by which we are justified: let him be anathema.

6th Session, Canon 30:

If anyone says that...after the reception of the grace of justification the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out to every repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be discharged either in this world or in purgatory before the gates of heaven can be opened, let him be anathema.

Here is one more from the Council of Trent....7th Session, Canon 4:

If anyone says that the sacraments of the New Law [canons and decrees of the Church] are not necessary for salvation but...without obtain from God through faith alone the grace of justification...let him be anathema.

That is exactly the message the Catholic Church has been promoting since the mid-1500s. The Council of Trent was a direct response to the Reformation. There has been no substantial change in Catholic dogma since that time, nor could there be, given the Church’s belief in its own infallibility. To change an infallible teaching decreed by an infallible council or pope means to reject the doctrine of infallibility, which in turn would undermine the entire Roman Catholic hierarchy system.

From the time I was born again (thirty-five years ago) until today, I have observed a grievous change in attitude among evangelicals regarding Roman Catholics. Conditioned throughout those years by such things as the Billy Graham Crusades, Promise Keepers, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in The Third Millennium,” contemplative spirituality, The Catholic Charismatic Renewal, The Passion of the Christ, and the Emerging Church Movement, among many other influences (see TBC archives), few believers recognize the eternal consequences of the false gospel that Catholics believe. Thankfully, that wasn’t the thinking of those who witnessed to me three decades ago; they were keenly aware that I faced separation from God forever.

Tragically, fewer and fewer American believers understand that they are in the middle of a mission field right where they live. Much of that ignorance can be attributed to the popular and therefore highly influential evangelical leaders of our day (try to name more than a couple of well-known leaders who speak out against the false gospel of Rome). But here we have exposed something that raises a question that may be at the heart of the problem: “Why are so many of those who claim to be biblical Christians following leaders who are not following the Word of God?” An individual’s ignorance of the Scriptures is basic to the problem, as is an unwillingness to obey what God’s Word says.

“But Catholics love Jesus just as we do” is the refrain that is common today among most evangelicals. It should be absolutely clear from the official documents quoted above that the Roman Catholic Church has a gospel that rejects Christ’s full payment for the sins of mankind and replaces it with a process of “works salvation.” Tragically, a belief in the Jesus of Roman Catholicism will save no one. This fact needs to weigh upon the heart of every believer who interacts with Catholic friends, neighbors, co-workers, and relatives.   TBC

Read the Spanish version of this article here.