My wife is a teacher and has been asked many many times how she’s married to a priest. We live in New England, I am Irish, and I work in a church… therefore it’s natural for people to assume we are Catholic.
Gone are the days where Catholics and Protestants banish one another as inherently nonChristian, but we’ve also begun to overlook the legitimate differences in ways that are a bit worrisome. I know some Roman Catholics whom I consider true believers; and I’ve know some Protestants whose faith I question. Contrary to popular opinion, the Pope is not the main difference between the two. Ironically, there are normal Catholics whom I believe are “saved” even while the Pope is not.
The Five Sola’s of the Reformation serve as a good reminder about the foundational differences between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Churches; especially since the issues the Reformers protested have not changed. These are not presented with anything other than a desire to clarify the difference between Roman Catholic Christianity and Protestant Christianity – there is no desire to spread judgment or animosity.
The Christian’s Foundation: Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)
Scripture alone is the inspired Word of God it is our authority. Both Protestants and Catholics affirm this statement. A recurring theme in these statements is the disagreement over the word “Alone.”
In Roman Catholic teaching, the Church Tradition is how we interpret Scripture. The Church’s councils and proclamations carry authority to officially interpret and apply Scripture. If all God’s Word must be interpreted according to what Tradition has always said about it, then is Scripture authoritative over Tradition, or vice-versa?
Protestants do not deny the value of Church history or tradition; and Sola Scriptura does not mean everyone’s interpretation is equally valid. Instead, it is a firm commitment that any interpretation is only as authoritative as it is biblical. When Christians disagree about the interpretation or application of Scripture, this is where we turn back to the Bible and dig deeper. This is why learning the biblical languages (Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic) is so important. This is also why sermons tend to be longer in a Protestant church, because the preacher is only speaking a word from God if he is firmly anchored in what the Bible is really saying.
The Christian’s Mediator: Sola Christus (Christ Alone)
You will never hear a Protestant praying to Mary or to another saint. Prayer is directed to God, and to him alone. Christ is the only mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5).
The work of Christ was sufficient and powerful for salvation. The Reformers denied the Roman Catholic teaching that extra merit was necessary to avoid purgatory. According to Roman Catholic teaching, those who have been canonized as official saints were people whose righteousness earned extra “merit” (good works) which would go into a “Treasury of Merit,” from which the Pope could distribute through indulgences. By purchasing an indulgence, a person would receive the benefit from the saint’s merit.
The Reformers argued the work of Christ was sufficient. His substitutionary and atoning death was enough for the salvation of all who would believe (2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 3:21-22; 4:6, 11; 5:18-19). By faith, the righteousness of Christ is applied to the Christian and he is in no need of any merit or indulgences, for the work of Christ is enough to present him blameless before God (Col 1:21-23).
Sola Christus, Sola Gratia, and Sola Fide all flow from an understanding (or misunderstanding) of the Gospel. This is why these Sola’s are so central and divisive. The Reformers argued that to deny these three Sola’s is to deny the sufficiency of the Gospel for salvation.
The Christian’s Method: Sola Gratia (Grace Alone)
Grace Alone emphasizes the centrality of the gospel. The gospel is “good news” because it is a declaration of grace for the sinner, not a ‘new law’ to refine the requirements for salvation. In reflecting on the gift of salvation, there is no grounds for pride or self-exaltation because the Christian is only saved by the grace of God, not because he or she is more saintly than anyone else.
Fundamentally, the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant theology disagree over the order of Justification and Sanctification. Is the believer Justified (declared righteous) before he is Sanctified (actually made righteous), or is it the other way around? The Reformers were convinced that Justification preceded Sanctification (hence, justified by grace, not by works), whereas the Roman Catholic Church teaches that you must be Sanctified before you will be Justified (only declared righteous after you actually are righteous; this Justification doesn’t take place for the normal Christian they have been fully sanctified in purgatory).
The message of the gospel throughout Scripture remains one of grace for the sinner, whereby he or she receives something completely undeserved. The gospel proclaims an invitation to receive a new heart and then to be changed (Eph 2:8-9, Rom 4:16, 5:8).
The Christian’s Means: Sola Fide (Faith Alone)
The Christian needs both faith and works, but the Protestants and Roman Catholic Church disagree on what role faith and works play in the Christian life.
Contrary to popular accusation, the Roman Catholic Church does not explicitly teach that anyone is saved by works, but they do teach that Christians are saved by faith and works together. The distinction is important. Canon 32 of the Council of Trent says this,
Canon 32. If anyone says that the good works of the one justified are in such manner the gifts of God that they are not also the good merits of him justified; or that the one justified by the good works that he performs by the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ (of whom one is a living member), the justified does not truly merit an increase of grace, and eternal life, provided that one dies in the state of grace, the attainment of this eternal life, as well as an increase in glory, let him be anathema.
In simpler words, this is affirming the role of works in meriting (or earning) the Christian’s salvation. Not only that, “let him be anathema” is a condemnation and curse upon those who proclaim that salvation is by grace alone and by faith alone.
The Protestants continue to hold firm to Sola Fide: we are saved by faith alone (John 3:16, Rom 1:16, 3:23-24, 10:9). As mentioned above, works are necessary, but they are proof that we have been saved, they do not earn or merit the grace of God. Martin Luther probably said it best,
“We are saved by faith alone. But the faith that saves is never alone.”
As an example of how Luther applied this, he taught,
“If you do not find yourself among the needy and the poor, where the Gospel shows us Christ, then you may know that your faith is not right, and that you have not yet tasted of Christ’s benevolence and work for you.”
In the same way that fire gives off heat and light. You can have heat and light without fire, but you cannot have fire without light or heat. If works are absent, it is because faith is absent. But where there is saving faith, there will be works. As James 2:17 clearly says, “Faith without works is dead.”
The Christian’s Ambition: Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone)
The motivating goal of the Christian life is the glory of God. All Christians agree on this. Again, the disagreement comes with the word “alone.”
If I am living in such a way to earn merit and favor before God (as the Roman Catholic Church teaches), then my motivations are mixed. My service to others is both for God and for myself. Works are not done for the glory of God alone.
The Reformers emphasized the Christian life is to be one of faithful service to his neighbor for the glory of God, because you are no longer under the weight of needing to do anything for yourself. Therefore, you may live for the glory of God and for the good of your neighbor, without worrying about yourself.
Obviously I am writing this from a Protestant (Reformed Baptist) perspective. I have done my best to convey the Roman Catholic position in a way that is faithful to official Roman Catholic teaching. My sincere apologies if I have not reflected the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church accurately, please link to the Church’s official teaching in the comments below if you wish to correct or clarify something I may have misrepresented.