There are several very important differences between Catholics and Protestants. While there have been some attempts over the last several years to find common ground between the two groups, the fact is that the differences remain, and they are just as important today as they were at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Following is brief summary of some of the more important differences.
One of the first major differences between Catholicism and Protestantism is the issue of the sufficiency and authority of Scripture. Protestants believe that the Bible alone is the sole source of God’s special revelation to mankind, and as such it teaches us all that is necessary for our salvation from sin. Protestants view the Bible as the standard by which all Christian behavior must be measured. This belief is commonly referred to as “Sola Scriptura” and is one of the “Five Solas” (sola being Latin for “alone”) that came out of the Protestant Reformation as summaries of some of the important differences between Catholics and Protestants.
While there are many verses in the Bible that establish its authority and its sufficiency for all matters of faith and practice, one of the clearest is 2 Timothy 3:16 where we see that “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” Catholics on the other hand reject the doctrine of “Sola Scriptura” and do not believe that the Bible alone is sufficient. They believe that both the Bible and sacred Roman Catholic tradition are equally binding upon the Christian. Many Roman Catholics doctrines, such as purgatory, praying to the saints, worship or veneration of Mary, etc. have little or no basis at all in Scripture, but are based solely on Roman Catholic traditions. Essentially the Roman Catholic Church’s denial of “Sola Scriptura” and their insistence that both the Bible and their “Sacred Tradition” are equal in authority undermines the sufficiency, authority and completeness of the Bible. The view of Scripture is at the root of many of, if not all, the differences between Catholics and Protestants.
Another major but closely related difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is over the office and authority of the Pope. According to Catholicism the Pope is the “Vicar of Christ” (a vicar is a substitute), and takes the place of Jesus as the visible head of the Church. As such he has the ability to speak “ex cathedra” (with authority on matters of faith and practice), and when he does so his teachings are considered infallible and binding upon all Christians. On the other hand, Protestants believe that no human being is infallible, and that Christ alone is the head of the church. Catholics rely on apostolic succession as a way of trying to establishing the Pope’s authority. But Protestants believe that the church’s authority does not come from apostolic succession, but instead is derived from the Word of God. Spiritual power and authority does not rest in the hands of a mere man, but in the very Word of God recorded in Scripture. While Catholicism teaches that only the Catholic Church can properly and correctly interpret the Bible, Protestants believe that the Bible teaches that God sent the Holy Spirit to indwell all born again believers, enabling all believers to understand the message of the Bible.
This is clearly seen in passages such as John 14:16-17: “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you.” (See also John 14:26 and 1 John 227). While Catholicism teaches that only the Roman Catholic Church has the authority and power to interpret the Bible, Protestantism acknowledges the biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, and that individual Christians can trust the Holy Spirit for guidance in reading and interpreting the Bible for themselves.
A third major difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is how one is saved. Another of the “Five Solas” of the reformation was “Sola Fide” (faith alone), which affirms the biblical doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8-10). However, according to Roman Catholicism, man cannot be saved by faith alone in Christ alone. They teach that the Christian must rely on faith plus “meritorious works” in order to be saved. Essential to the Roman Catholic doctrine of salvation are the Seven Sacraments, which are: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, anointing of the sick, Holy Orders, and matrimony. Protestants believe that on the basis of faith in Christ alone, believers are justified by God as all their sins are paid for by Christ on the cross and His righteousness is imputed to them. Catholics on the other hand believe that Christ’s righteousness is imparted to the believer by “grace through faith,” but in itself is not sufficient to justify the believer. The believer must “supplement” the righteousness of Christ imparted to him with meritorious works.
Catholics and Protestants also disagree on what it means to be justified before God. To the Catholic, justification involves being made righteous and holy. They believe that faith in Christ is only the beginning of salvation, and that the individual must build upon that with good works because “man has to merit God’s grace of justification and eternal salvation.” Of course this view of justification contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture in passages such as Romans 4:1-12; Titus 3:3-7, as well as many others. On the other hand, Protestants distinguish between the one time act of justification (when we are declared righteous and holy by God based on our faith in Christ’s atonement on the cross), and sanctification (the ongoing process of being made righteous that continues throughout our lives on earth.) While Protestants recognize that works are important, they believe they are the result or fruit of salvation, but never the means to it. Catholics blend justification and sanctification together into one ongoing process, which leads to confusion about how one is saved.
A fourth major difference between Catholics and Protestants has to do with what happens after men die. While both believe that unbelievers will spend eternity in hell, there is significant and important differences as to what happens to believers. From their church traditions and their reliance of non-canonical books, the Catholics have developed the doctrine of purgatory. Purgatory, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, is a “place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God’s grace are, not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.” On the other hand, Protestants believe that because we are justified by faith in Christ alone, and that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us – when we die we will go straight to heaven to be in the presence of the Lord (Corinthians 5:6-10 and Philippians 1:23).
Yet even more disturbing about the Catholic doctrine of purgatory is the fact that they believe that man must or even can pay or make satisfaction for his own sins. This along with their misunderstanding of what the Bible teaches about how man is justified before God, results in a low view of the sufficiency and efficiency of Christ’s atonement on the cross. Simply put, the Roman Catholic viewpoint on salvation implies that Christ’s atonement on the cross was not sufficient payment for the sins of those who believe in Him, and that even a believer must atone or pay for his own sins, either through acts of penance, or time in purgatory. Yet the Bible teaches over and over again that it is Christ’s death alone that can satisfy or propitiate God’s wrath against sinners (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10). Our works of righteousness cannot add to what Christ has already accomplished.
While there are numerous other differences between what Catholics and Protestants believe, these four should be adequate to establish that there are serious differences between the two. In much the same way as the Judiziers (Jews who said that Gentile Christians had to obey the Old Testament law to be saved) that Paul wrote about in Galatians, Catholics, by making works necessary for one to be justified by God, end up with a completely different gospel. The differences between Catholicism and evangelical Protestants are important and significant.
It is our prayer that God will open up the eyes of anyone reading this article who is putting their faith or trust in the teachings of the Catholic Church. It is our hope that everyone will understand and believe that their “works of righteousness’ cannot justify them, or sanctify them (Isaiah 64:6). It is our prayer that all will instead put their faith solely in the fact that we are “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God displayed as a propitiation in His blood through faith.” (Romans 3:24-25). God saves us, “not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5-7).