What’s the Difference Between Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity?

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).

red-church-doorSola 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. 

8 thoughts on “What’s the Difference Between Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity?

    • Hi Attin, thanks for the comment. For sake of brevity, I had to do my best to distill the main emphases under each Sola and where the primary area of disagreement lies. I tried my best to represent the Roman Catholic position in a way that is faithful with the Church’s teaching, but there simply wasn’t space to get into the nuances of each position. That said, I hope this was still helpful.

  1. Hi Mike,
    Thanks so much for the article. I believe that, overall, you wrote a piece that highlights some of the important differences between Protestantism and Catholicism. However, I have a few points of disagreement.

    First of all, I acknowledge that there is a difference between how we order Justification and Sanctification, but I think your view on how Catholics view the process of works is not wholly accurate. I would like to call to your attention the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” a document signed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church. In this document, the two bodies declare their agreed view on the role of works and salvation–so not all Protestants and Catholics disagree. I would like to bring to your attentions specifically paragraphs 37-40 which explain the role of works. Here’s a link to the document. http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/documents/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_31101999_cath-luth-joint-declaration_en.html

    Flowing from this first point is a critique of your comments regarding to Sola Christus. We Catholics believe that the prayers of the saints in heaven do not save us–only Jesus can offer salvation and he did it by his death on the cross. Rather, we ask the saints to pray for us on our journey in the Christian life, just as I would (and have in the past) ask you to pray for me. This misconception comes from differing meanings on the word “pray.” In most contexts, most Protestants I believe do not make a clear enough distinction between prayer and worship. Prayer is asking for someone’s intercession whereas worship is due only to God alone. When I pray to a saint, I am asking that saint to unite their prayers with mine to Jesus Christ, who is our one mediator, as you rightly pointed out. Bryan Cross’ article you linked to makes more sense, at least I believe, after viewing the Lutheran -Catholic document. I can’t find any documents from the Church saying that we do not believe that the saints have the same mediating power as Jesus because, well, it never has been an issue for us. The Church sees no need to state what we do not believe.

    This last one is a bit semantic, but still important. Not all Catholics are “Roman Catholic.” The Catholic Church is a union of 23 sui iuris Churches universally known as The Catholic Church. Roman Catholic is a term that does not give the full scope of the Church.

    I obviously do not want this to spin into a “Catholics are right, Protestants are wrong” conversation, but I just wanted to clear up what I believe are two inaccuracies in your document.

    God bless! (see there, I asked God to bless you 😉 )

    • Hey friend. I was hoping you’d reply and set me straight where I was lacking. Your comments here are very welcome.

      First off, thanks for the link to that joint document between the LWF and Catholic Church, I wasn’t aware of that! It’s really interesting, because there are multiple places where the Catholics sound like they agree with Sola Fide and Sola Gratia. Can you help me understand, is this reflected in the Catechism of the Catholic Church somewhere, or is it only stated here? Because most of the Catholics I know don’t talk like they believe in faith alone and grace alone… it’s just not what I hear or see. If it is official Catholic teaching then it’s not trickling down.

      Also, regarding the prayers to the saints – yes, I’m aware of that distinction your mentioning. That was a place where I simply needed to figure out how to write the main points of contention as briefly as possible, otherwise this post could be nuanced to death and would become a book. Again, this is a place where I see a discrepancy between the Church’s official teaching and common practice.

      One of the things I’ve told you many times is how much I appreciate your heart to understand doctrine and to practice it accordingly, rather than simply going through the routines and not asking why. I hope this article didn’t come off as picking a fight. My goal was simply to clarify the differences that remain, because I’ve been asked and most people seem to assume the Pope is the main point of contention.

  2. Pastor Mike, it is super tough to give a complete AND concise description with these differences. Nice job making it work the way you did, especially with the format you’re using. Sorry to take so long to post up, it’s not like December is a quiet month for people.

    I’m in agreement with Stephans points. The Joint Declaration document is a big deal, heavenly intercession does not negate Christ as mediator nor cancel His sufficiency (more of a Fide thing anyway), and from what I’ve found the term ‘Roman Catholic’ is found more in anti-Catholic literature than Catholic literature. Here are some of my comments to help simplify some differences between Catholic theology and the ‘5 Sola’s’ while keeping it ‘comment only’…

    Sola Scriptura versus Scripture and Tradition is an either/or versus both/and argument. The Catholic position simply is you cannot have an authoritative book without an authoritative interpreter. Neither is below or above the other, they are complementary to each other via common, Spirit-led authorship. (CCC 80-82). In addition, I highly doubt that this is the reason why Protestant sermons are longer. My experience is that more Scripture is read at a Catholic Mass than any of the Protestant churches I’ve attended in my life. Longer sermons, yes; more Scripture, not necessarily.

    I definitely agree that the differences presented really do stem out of Christus, Fide, and Gratia all lumped together. So, my quickie comment will lump them together too. When the Reformers effectively eliminated purgatory from their theology entirely, they did so by separating justification and sanctification. At that point, the still lengthy discussion started on what role works/merit/charity played and it became paramount to understand the order of these items. The position of substitutionary atonement creates a “Faith, Blessing, Obedience” model, where merit was not needed because the blessing occurred up front. To match the analogy, the Church holds to a contrasting “Faith, Obedience, Blessing” model that has an intrinsic link between sanctification and justification. Understanding the differences between entering life and entering heaven, as well as, original sin and committed sin become important to grasping the intrinsic link, the role of baptism, existence of Purgatory, what a ‘state of grace’ is, and all of that (plus some I’ve missed) will then launch you into the teaching of the Church on the topic.

    Lastly, Soli Deo Gloria, the ‘difference’ mentioned is one created by the perspective it’s written from. There is no Catholic/Protestant difference here, this is a systemic issue that spreads across humanity. It could just as easily be said that people of your perspective overly rely on the OSAS mentality, while forgetting that works are necessary. Faith is a verb. Either way you look at it, when one approaches perseverance in the ‘obedience of faith’ throughout one’s life, they cannot fool God. If the originating desire is from selfish pride, to self-justify or to self-assure, without a love for God and obediently glorifying Him, then the point is missed. It is true regardless of what side of the pendulum swing one is coming from. I just read Ephesians today, Chapter 6:5-8 seems applicable.

    Thanks for writing this post Pastor Mike! I do enjoy reading your work, please, keep it coming. It would be interesting to balance this post with one in the opposite stance and come up with similarities between the two faiths, you know, in the spirit of ecumenism. I’d love to see what comes out! Take care and God bless!

    • Hi Chris, thanks for the comments. There’s a lot in there, and I lack the time to really sink my teeth into them like I wish. but here are a few thoughts in response…

      – Authoritative Interpreter is a real problem. For example: My dad grew up Catholic and is the first person in our Irish family to become a Protestant. What did it? Meat on Fridays… it was sinful and wrong while he was growing up. Then Vatican II was passed, and it’s suddenly not sinful anymore. How was the Catholic Church’s “Authoritative Interpreter” wrong for so long about what was sinful and unacceptable? Obviously, this is one example… but an authoritative interpreter is hardly authoritative. They can also be very wrong about incredibly important things (like “Do penance” instead of “Repent” because of Latin/Greek translation issues in the Vulgate… huge pastoral and salvation implications).

      – Growing up in an Irish family in New England, I’ve attended quite a few Masses. It’s been a long time, so maybe it’s different, but I’ve never heard a sermon over ten minutes in a Catholic Church because the emphasis is on the sacrament, not the preached Word. That difference is a direct outflow of Sola Scriptura.

      – I’ve read Luther and Calvin and other Reformers and have never understood them to be separating Justification and Sanctification. They are distinct, and interrelated, but not separated in the sense you seem to imply. Justification begets Sanctification like fire begets light and heat. If there is no sanctification or holiness, then there was no true conversion or justification either. Luther said, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.”

      – Purgatory was rejected because it simply has no basis in the Protestant canon. If the Catholic Church agreed with the Reformers and eliminated Purgatory, they would effectively denounce any value of an “authoritative interpreter” since they’d be admitting that interpretation has been wrong for centuries.

      – I totally agree that the difference regarding Soli Deo Gloria is a matter of perspective, but from the Reformers/Protestant perspective, the biblical teaching is that prayer is to God and God alone. Asking someone who’s dead to pray for me isn’t the same as asking my friend Chris to pray for me. I fail to see how that difference is hard to comprehend.

      – The goal of this post was this: To point out the differences between the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church are deeper than “One has a Pope and the other doesn’t” (which is what many people assume). I think this dialogue is further proof there are differences, even among those who can still call each other brothers and sisters…

  3. If not for the Magesterium of the Catholic Church and Sacred Tradition, there would not be a Bible. The Bible is a compliation of Tradition. It is equal to Tradition. Without these 3 components, authority falls.

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