What’s The Difference Between Catholics and Protestants? (Part 1)

Dan Miller   -  

There are several key differences between the Roman Catholic and Protestant faiths. The most significant difference is that Protestants believe in salvation by grace alone through faith alone, while Catholics believe in salvation by grace through faith in cooperation with their effort or “good works.” This blog will focus on how salvation (a.k.a. forgiveness from sin) is understood within the Roman Catholic Church. In part 2, I will examine the Protestant view of salvation.

Process Justification

Catholics believe that salvation combines faith working alongside human effort. A faithful Roman Catholic contributes to their justification by obeying the sacramental framework established by the Roman Catholic Church.

The framework leads to what has been called “process justification” in that being made right with God is an ongoing, developmental process. It is never fully complete while a person lives. The hope of a faithful Catholic is rooted in obeying the seven sacraments. Only through faithfulness in obeying can a person realize or obtain their justification or standing before a Holy God. The sacraments facilitate the grace available that comes from the merits of Christ (along with Mary and additional saints who also bestow merit to a worthy person in need) to the obedient believer. Since a Catholic can never be assured of possessing complete righteousness of their own, they are always in a state of trying to achieve through the following framework established by the Roman Catholic Church.

Sacramental Framework

  1. Baptism – removes original sin and, thereby, removes the condemnation of Adam’s rebellion (a.k.a. “original sin”).
  2. Confirmation – bestows the Holy Spirit and seals the ‘believer’ in the Church.
  3. Confession & Penance – removes the penalty of sins committed after baptism and confirmation).
  4. Holy Eucharist – the benefits of Calvary continually applied to the participant (a.k.a. “The Mass”).
  5. Marriage – a grace to marry within the Roman Catholic Church.
  6. Holy Orders – a special grace and spiritual powers on Bishops, priests, and deacons for leadership.
  7. “Last Rights” or “Extreme Unction” – the forgiveness of sins and bestows a special grace that can sometimes heal.

The Roman Catholic Church believes and teaches that by performing these Sacraments, God applies the merits of Christ to the faithful, thus providing forgiveness of sins, albeit temporary. Forgiveness is temporary and requires continual maintenance for the Catholic to achieve salvation. The work of justifying people through the sacramental system is an ongoing mediation; it is not a one-time act. Committing a venial sin hinders the flow of God’s grace, and only through achieving penance can the obstruction be removed. Mortal sin actually kills (hence “mortal”) or stops the grace of God from flowing to the person who has committed the sin (e.g. suicide). Given the process stretches to the very moment of death, no Roman Catholic can be assured of immediate entrance into heaven when they die. It is important to remember that forgiveness is offered *only to those within the Roman Catholic Church.

Where should I go from here?

Ultimately, it is up to each individual to decide which faith tradition better represents what Jesus, the early Church, and the Bible teach. However, it is crucial to seek out the truth and not follow a particular faith blindly because that is what your family, friends, or even what you want to believe. Doing your research and prayerfully examining what the truth of the Bible is the best way to move forward. To help in this regard, the following is a video in which the distinctions between Protestantism and the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church are distilled within the greater context of the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (’94) dialogue that was occurring between some well-meaning, yet misguided leaders within both faith traditions.

In part 2, we will consider what Protestants believe regarding the subject of salvation from sin.

*There have been some who have taught that Vatican II (1962-1965) altered the exclusivity that salvation is only offered to those within the Roman Catholic Church. While it is true that there were significant questions asked about “estranged brethren” from other faith traditions, a change in Canon Law never occurred. At best, guidelines were given related to ecumenical cooperation with Christian or protestant churches.