Last week I began a new series titled “Why I Am Not…” and in this series I am exploring some of the things I do not believe as a means to explaining what I do believe. In the last article I explained why I am not atheist and now want to explain why I am not Roman Catholic. The timing of this article is unplanned but rather appropriate. I publish today from Orlando, Florida where I am enjoying some time at Ligonier Ministries, the ministry founded many years ago by Dr. R.C. Sproul. In very important ways the answer to the question “Why am I not Roman Catholic?” is “R.C. Sproul.” But I am getting ahead of myself.
Though my parents were saved into Pentecostalism, they quickly found a home in the Presbyterian tradition and developed deep interests in both church history and Reformed theology. Each of them read extensively in these fields and eagerly taught me what they had learned. In church history they found the long saga of Rome’s battle against Protestants and pre-Protestants while in theology they found her distortion of the gospel. From my early days I was taught that Catholicism is a dangerous perversion of biblical truth and learned the traditional Protestant understanding that its pontiff is the antichrist, the great opponent of God’s people.
As I entered adulthood I felt a growing desire to examine the beliefs I had always assumed to see if I actually held to them independently from my parents. I looked for resources that could guide me and soon came across the works of R.C. Sproul which had largely been written in response to Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Sproul had determined that he would allow the Church to speak for herself through her catechism and official statements and that he would evaluate these through Scripture. He showed a deep, respectful understanding of Catholicism and built a compelling case in which he exposed her most serious problems. Books by James White complemented Sproul’s and under their guidance I came to see that Catholic doctrine really is opposed to Scripture and to the gospel. My convictions about the errors and dangers of Catholicism changed a little bit—I became far less convinced about the connection between pope and antichrist, for example—but overall were sharpened and deepened. I concluded that for a number of reasons I could never be Roman Catholic. Most prominent among them are these three:
I am not Roman Catholic because Rome denies the gospel. Rome has a gospel but not the gospel and, in reality, their gospel damns not saves because it explicitly denies that justification comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Rome accurately understands the Protestant position and unapologetically anathematizes it. To the work of Christ it adds the work of Mary. To the intercession of the Savior it adds the intercession of the saints. To the authority of the Bible it adds the authority of tradition. To the free gift of salvation it adds the necessity of human effort. In place of the finished work of Christ on the cross it demands the ongoing sacrifice of the mass. In place of the permanent imputation of Christ’s righteousness it substitutes the temporary infusion of works righteousness. In so many different ways it explicitly and unapologetically denies truth and promotes error. The Roman Catholic gospel is a false gospel.
I am not Roman Catholic because Rome is not the church. Rome claims to trace her lineage in an unbroken line that extends all the way back to the apostle Peter to whom Christ said, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” In this way she says that she is the church with the power and authority to demand the allegiance and bind the conscience of every Christian. I do not recognize such lineage and, therefore, do not recognize such authority. Her claims are unprovable and represent a distortion of the Bible’s claims about Christ’s church. To be Catholic I would first have to bend the knee to the pope as the successor to Peter and acknowledge the Church as the continuation of what Christ began through his disciples. I cannot, because the Roman Catholic Church is a false church.
I am not Roman Catholic because Catholic worship is idolatrous. Protestants commonly charge Catholicism with promoting worship of Mary or the saints. Under the tutelage of R.C. Sproul I came to understand that this charge requires nuance and is, to some degree, a matter of defining words such as “venerate.” And yet there is undeniably a seed of what I must acknowledge as idolatry. This was affirmed during a recent trip to Europe where in Germany and Austria I visited Catholic cathedrals and saw the veneration of bones, relics, and icons, and where I saw the Church advocating and promoting prayers to Mary and the saints. Here was Catholicism in its full bloom and it was as alarming as it was tragic. I saw people who have not known the joyous freedom of the gospel desperately extending worship to or through Mary and the saints. They did it all under the guidance of their Church. In many of its forms Roman Catholic worship is idolatrous.
I joyfully affirm, of course, that there are true believers within Catholicism and that what is true of Rome’s official doctrine is not necessarily true of all of her adherents. Yet the salvation of these brothers and sisters has come despite the teachings of the church, not through them. I appreciate the point Leonardo De Chirico highlights here:
What refers to the Catholic Church in its doctrinal and institutional configuration cannot necessarily be extended to all Catholics as individuals. The grace of God is at work in men and women who, though considering themselves Catholics, entrust themselves exclusively to the Lord, cultivate a personal relationship with Him, read the Bible and live as Christians. These people, however, must be encouraged to reflect on whether their faith is compatible or not with belonging to the Catholic Church. Moreover, they must be helped to critically think over what remains of their Catholic background in the light of Biblical teaching.
I am not Roman Catholic. I am not Roman Catholic because I was raised to understand that Catholic doctrine is opposed to Scripture. But even more, I am not Roman Catholic because through my own examinations I came to see that she denies the gospel of free grace, that she claims authority that is not her own, and that she promotes worship that detracts from the worship we all owe exclusively to our God.