"Why would you want to do that?" inquired the sweet-spirited lady sitting next to me on a flight to New Orleans. Holding a Reaching Catholics For Christ card which I had given her, she was surprised that anyone would consider Roman Catholics a mission field. "In my younger days," she confided, "I had a few problems with Catholicism," but she felt that the Catholic Church had changed "quite a bit" since then. Admitting that her knowledge of Catholicism was limited, she nevertheless spoke optimistically about her Catholic neighbors, her sister's Catholic husband, and her grandchild's Catholic wife. Based upon her conversations with them, she was confident that they all knew the Lord "well enough to be saved."
"Do you think all of the one billion Catholic souls around the world truly know and have accepted the gospel of salvation?" I asked sincerely. "Of course not. I rather doubt that everyone in my Baptist church is saved, either. But it's different with those I just mentioned," was her tentative response. By God's grace, what followed was an engrossing hour or so of questions and answers regarding Roman Catholic salvation in light of the Scriptures. But I was encouraged; before too long this dear lady admitted that her hopefulness for those whom she cared about had overshadowed her ignorance of what they truly believed. Sadly, her dilemma is rather commonplace among evangelical Christians today.
Actually, it's worse than that.
Too often these days, trying to convince evangelicals that nearly all Catholics are lost seems more difficult than convincing Catholics themselves that they need to put their trust in Christ alone for their salvation. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that most high-profile evangelicals (Billy Graham, Bill Bright, Chuck Colson, Robert Schuller, Hank Hanegraaff, Paul Crouch, Jack Van Impe, Pat Robertson, Bill McCartney, and many more) promote the idea that Roman Catholicism is definitely within the boundaries of biblical salvation. More than once have I been accused by evangelicals of being part of a "thankfully shrinking minority" and "out of step with highly respected Christians." In other words, "If they don't have a problem with it, what's your problem?" The problems in fact are far beyond the scope of this brief article, but please, if you are truly concerned about the salvation of Catholics, give the following your prayerful consideration.
The most grievous aspect of the growing acceptance of Romanism is the effect it has on outreaches to Catholics. Missionaries returning from largely Catholic countries are sometimes cautioned by their support-church pastor to "go lightly" on negative experiences with the Catholic Church, as though it were appreciably different here, which is certainly not the theological case. While it's a blessing to note that each springtime hundreds of evangelical churches send thousands of our youth across the border for missions-to-Mexico ministry, few, if any, of these young, one-week-only "missionaries" have been given any instruction about the religion of the people they are hoping to help win to Christ. Even more inexplicably, many of these churches supporting missionaries in Catholic countries are reluctant to help their own congregations understand what Roman Catholicism teaches so that they might become more effective witnesses in their own community. Is sharing the gospel with our Catholic neighbors, friends, relatives and co-workers a less important outreach?
Then again, is it really necessary? Aren't the teachings and practices of Roman Catholicism close enough to essential Bible doctrines to render any attempt to evangelize faithful Catholics both unwarranted and offensive to "our brothers and sisters in Christ?" Growing numbers of evangelicals feel that way.
Youth Specialties (YS), perhaps the most influential organization among American evangelical youth leaders and pastors, has scheduled a Catholic priest (whose own specialty is "break[ing] down the walls of denominationalism by building unity") as their 2001 Conference general session speaker. Thousands of evangelical and Catholic teens will also be instructed by YS co-owner Mike Yaconelli in how to "use meditations, prayer, and [Ignatius Loyola's spiritual] exercises from the Christian tradition [read 'Catholic'] to nurture your soul." Based upon our mail, by the way, we've seen a great increase in the numbers of letters from grieved evangelical parents regarding the marriages of their children to practicing Catholics. But wouldn't that be a good thing, if indeed, they are our brothers and sisters in Christ?
On the other hand, the Bible teaches that a person is saved by faith alone in Christ alone.1 This is so because only Christ could pay the penalty for our sin, which He did in full. There is then nothing we can do for our salvation except put our trust in Him. Any attempt to add anything to our Lord's finished work on the cross 1) is a denial of His complete atonement, 2) is a rejection of His "free gift" of eternal life, and 3) presumes that we can pay something for our salvation, which is impossible. Why impossible? Because the penalty for sin is death, spiritual separation from God forever (Gen:2:17). That infinite penalty cannot be paid in part. Death, physical or spiritual, doesn't function on a partial basis—you're either dead or you're not. Only Christ can save us from so great a penalty.
Catholicism, however, teaches that there is much a person can and must do to help pay the penalty and gain entrance to heaven. He must be baptized. He must receive the sacraments. He must expiate his own sins by suffering here on earth and/or in purgatory. Prior to his death he must be absolved (by a priest) of every previously unconfessed mortal sin. When a Catholic claims that he too believes in salvation by grace alone, he is saying that through the Roman Catholic Church, through its saints and its sacraments, God provides the grace necessary for him to do the works required to merit eternal life. Yet the Bible teaches that salvation is "through faith...not of works...it is the gift of God" (Eph:2:8-9). If you pay for a gift, it's no longer a gift; man's works can have no part in his redemption. Yet if a Catholic were to believe this biblical truth, his Church would condemn him. The "sacred, infallible, and irrevocable" decrees of the Council of Trent declare (and every Catholic therefore must obey or be condemned to hell) that "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 [i.e., condemned]."2
Catholics are taught that the cleansing fires of purgatory exist for the punishment of their sins "so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven."3 Again, this is a teaching which every Catholic must believe (even though it rejects Christ's sacrifice in full payment for sin): "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."4
The Catholic Church imposes damnations (more than 100 specific anathemas are listed) upon Catholics who decide not to accept some of its teachings and practices. While liberal, lax, and even biblically leaning Catholics attempt to justify their contrary-to-official-belief views, they are mutinying against their Church which (according to Roman Catholic dogma) is their only means to heaven. The laws of the Roman Catholic Church, however, explicitly condemn those who hold "mutinous" beliefs. In other words, if a Catholic hopes to gain eternal life as a Catholic, he must abide strictly by his Church's proclaimed infallible rules. This manmade religious system does not tolerate a pick-and-choose approach to its faith.
Most evangelicals (other than former Catholics) are not aware of how Catholic beliefs and practices critically differ from the Bible's teachings. For example, the Holy Eucharist, which Baptist Bill Clinton and Methodist Hillary received at a Catholic Church in Africa not too long ago, is the antithesis of the biblical remembrance of Christ's death and resurrection instituted by our Lord. This Catholic ritual, referred to as "the Sacrament of sacraments," is a total rejection of who Christ is and what He accomplished on Calvary's hill. In the Mass the priest (and only a priest) is said to transform a wafer of bread into "the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained."5 "For in the sacrifice of the Mass Our Lord is immolated [killed as in a sacrifice] when 'he begins to be present sacramentally as the spiritual food of the faithful under the appearances of bread and wine.'"6 The Catholic Church teaches that Christ is fully present in each of the wafers—millions offered simultaneously around the world each day—for as long as they exist (even though the leftover consecrated bread/body often putrefies—in direct contradiction to the biblical prophecies that His body would never experience corruption).7
If you have ever wondered why some of the great teachers/preachers of biblical faith have referred to the Catholic Mass and Eucharist as an "abomination before God," and why many saints of old chose to be burned at the stake rather than give credence to such a terrible perversion, I hope it's becoming tragically clear. What every Catholic is participating in is an occult ritual in which a man calls down the resurrected and glorified Christ from heaven, changes His body into a pre-crucified, pre-resurrected body, then turns bread into His body and blood, and kills this Christ on an altar. It is beyond ironic that daily Catholic priests do what their Church historically has blamed and persecuted the Jews for having done once.
Since this Eucharistic ritual claims to "re-present" all that Christ suffered for our sins, Jesus must undergo the same experience millions of times every day. Worse yet than the unending brutality and mockery He must suffer is the continual experience of the agony of separation from His Father, which caused Jesus to "sweat...as it were great drops of blood..." and to appeal to His Father to "remove this cup from me" if it were possible (Lk 22:44,42). Hebrews is unequivocal in rejecting this ritualistic Catholic travesty: "[Christ] needeth not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice...for this he did once, when he offered up himself"; "So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many"; "By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (Heb:7:27; 9:28; 10:10). And Peter, regarded by Catholics as their first pope, writes, "For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit" (1 Pt 3:18).
All Catholic communicants must believe they are eating the "real" flesh and blood of Jesus, otherwise they commit a mortal sin: "If anyone denies that in the sacrament of the most Holy Eucharist are contained truly, really and substantially the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ, but says that He is in it only as a sign, or figure or force, let him be anathema."8 One of the many reasons we cannot take John:6:53 literally ("Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you") is that doing so would constitute cannibalism and the drinking of blood, which both the Old and New Testament specifically forbid. Even Augustine, the father of modern Catholicism, rejected the literal interpretation for this reason.9
Finally, Catholics must worship the "consecrated host" (wafer) as God: "If anyone says that in the holy sacrament of the Eucharist, Christ, the only begotten Son of God, is not to be adored with the worship of latria [worship given only to God]...or is not to be set publicly before the people to be adored and that the adorers thereof are idolators, let him be anathema."10 The Catholic weekly Our Sunday Visitor reported that one of Promise Keepers' top evangelical executives was so overwhelmed by the "Real Presence of Jesus" at a Franciscan University Eucharistic Holy Hour adoration that he was compelled to prostrate himself before the sacred host.11
Considering only the few Catholic teachings which have been presented in this article, if every Bible-believing, born-again Christian reading this doesn't find them troubling enough to care about the eternal destiny of every Roman Catholic, they should sincerely examine their own understanding of the gospel of salvation. I'm hopeful that there are many who do see the serious problems and are willing to encourage their pastors and elders to teach their congregations to actively evangelize Roman Catholics. For those in the Northeast, Word of Life at Schroon Lake, NY, will be hosting a Reaching Catholics For Christ Conference this September. RCFC (www.reachingcatholics.org) has been formed for the specific purpose of helping equip evangelicals to witness to Catholics. Please pray that in these last days before the Lord returns, He will give His church a loving burden for the salvation of one billion Roman Catholics. TBC