Do Catholics and Protestants Share the Same Gospel?

I came across this letter online the other day, called Talking to Catholics about Jesus. It’s from my old church and is about why Catholics and Protestants don’t share the same gospel. Now, I know and love so many of the guys at my old church and I hope some of listening (or reading?) in, but I thought I’d raise a few problems I have with the article.

The key part of the letter is the beginning:

With the upcoming election of a new pope and the Australian Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse, 2013 promises to be a year in which the Roman Catholic Church will receive a lot of attention. As we live in a society that is increasingly hostile to the gospel, it might be tempting to gloss over our differences and present a united front with Roman Catholics, seeking to share the gospel we hold in common. There’s only one problem: we don’t hold a gospel in common.

The differences in our gospels are the same as they were at the Reformation (when one side claims infallibility, it is difficult to reach agreement unless the other side is compromised). Roman Catholicism teaches the necessity of grace; the Reformed faith teaches the sufficiency of grace. Under the Roman Catholic sacramental system, the sinner must work in cooperation with God’s grace to reach salvation. The Reformed faith maintains that salvation is completely God’s work from beginning to end. If we lose the sufficiency of grace, man gains the ability to contribute to salvation and the free gospel of Christ is lost. Grace is no longer grace. That is why the Reformation slogan was never simply ‘grace’ but ‘grace alone’.

So here are my thoughts.

The Catholic Church does indeed teach that we must cooperate with the grace of God, to persevere in that grace and so produce good fruit or works, in order to be saved. Perhaps some of the confusion lies in the fact that while Protestants generally speaking of salvation as a one-off event in the past (“Have you been saved?”); for Catholics it is always a process and we can say, as the Bible does, that we have been saved (Eph 2:5), we are being saved (1 Co 1:18), and we will be saved (Mt 10:22).

The Church doesn’t teach that we can do anything independently to earn our salvation. The Council of Trent, convened in response to the Protestant Reformation, declared that we are justified gratuitously “because that none of those things which precede justification – whether [our] faith or [our] works – merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle [Paul] says, grace is no more grace.” Yes, Catholics quote Rom 11:6 just like Protestants do.

Andrea Mantegna, Ecce Homo, 1502

Andrea Mantegna, Ecce Homo, 1502 (BECAUSE JESUS DESERVES TO BE FRONT AND CENTRE.)

The difference is that Catholics believe we must actively work in cooperation with that grace we have freely received. In this way, Catholics are synergists. We believe two very unequal, yet necessary forces must be at work in salvation: the almighty grace of God, saving us and enabling us, and our own faltering steps as we walk in His grace and by His power. We can see this dynamic when St Paul says in Philippians, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Php 2:12b-13)

Does this mean that Catholics contribute to their salvation? Yes, in a sense. But it doesn’t mean that it isn’t “completely God’s work from beginning to end.” No one really knows exactly how this can be the case, but neither do we really know how Christ can be both fully human and fully God, how one man can die for the sins for the world, let alone how in God’s Name the Trinity works. God is confusing like that.

But Catholics definitely do believe in free, gratuitous, amazing grace! We exult in it and know that we can do nothing apart from the grace of God! Again, the Council of Trent declared that “God forbid that a Christian should either trust or glory in himself, and not in the Lord, whose bounty towards all men is so great, that He will have the things which are His own gifts be their merits.” But I prefer St Therese of Lisieux’s way of putting it: “Tout est grace.” She is regarded as one of the greatest Catholic saints and theologians and she summed her theology as all is grace.

This brings me to my second concern: Catholics aren’t the only synergists. Eastern and Oriental Orthodox are synergists and in Protestantism, synergism is more commonly known as Arminianism. Methodists, Pentecostals and others like The Salvation Army are Arminians, and they can also be found among many Anglicans, Baptists, Mennonites, Charismatics, and a host of other Christian communities. It’s opposite position, monergism is more commonly known as Calvinism and is held by Reformed, Presbyterian, Congregationalists and again, many Anglicans, Baptists and others. In fact, most major Protestant denominations happily (or not so) include both. (Oh, and Lutherans are an odd bunch and occupy a half-way house between the two positions.)

Claude Monet, Vase of Tulips, 1885 (YES TULIPS!)

Claude Monet, Vase of Tulips, 1885 (YES TULIPS!)

The point is that there is a great deal of variety among orthodox Christians as to how the work of man cooperates with the grace of God. This article concerns me so much because it implies that those who do not have the “Reformed faith” must have a false gospel. The author writes that, “if we lose the sufficiency of grace, man gains the ability to contribute to salvation and the free gospel of Christ is lost.” He says that if man can contribute to salvation, presumably even contributing by grace (because that’s what the Catholic position is, like all synergistic positions are), then the gospel of Christ is lost.

Honestly, I’m not sure if he simply misunderstands Catholicism and the logic of synergism more generally, or if he really believes that gospel is identical with the Five Points of Calvinism. Either possibility worries me.

Hopefully, I’ve gotten this letter “Speaking to Catholics about Jesus” spectacularly wrong and my old church hasn’t been preaching that Catholicism is “a false gospel.” Because ultimately, the gospel isn’t about the mechanics of how you get saved (although that is an important theological question).

It’s the good news that Jesus saves. That’s something both Catholics and Protestants can do lots of talking, and agreeing, about.

If you’re interested in more on this topic, you can try my answer to the question What About Ephesians 2:8-9? and What About the Thief on the Cross?

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5 responses to “Do Catholics and Protestants Share the Same Gospel?

  1. Superbly done. I was raised in the Evangelical and Reformed (the old Prussian state church) and it’s doctrine is pretty much predestination. Of course, I’m now Lutheran and we’ve been sitting on that particular fence since Luther himself, who went somewhat both ways (as, of course did Augustine himself). No wonder we can’t make up our minds.

    Officially we believe that works don’t count without Grace, so you have to have grace before you can do works. OK, I’m confused enough now. Like you, I’ll settle for the Gospel and the Christ, crucified, and do my best. We certainly have more in common than separates us.

  2. I am just finishing my degree in Theology here in New Zealand and I had an exam in Theology today on ‘Grace’ – I wished I had read your ‘Do Catholics and Protestants Share the Same Gospel?’ before my exam, because you put a very difficult issue beautifully – and it was in the exam. You are gifted, blessed and obviously full of the Spirit – please keep up your writing!

    • Wow, thank you for such lovely feedback. Congrats on finishing your degree! That’s a massive achievement!! 🙂 Do you have any tips for a newbie theology student?

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