A Friendly Critique of Roman Catholicism — Three Additional Erroneous Beliefs

Title: A Friendly Critique of Roman Catholicism – Three Additional Erroneous Beliefs

Text: 1 Timothy 2:5, Hebrews 4:14, Mark 14:22-24

Time: July 22nd, 2012

 

This is the final in a series of messages on Roman Catholic doctrine – some of the erroneous teachings within the Catholic church. Of course, there are more points of agreement and harmony between Protestants and Catholics than disagreements; but we won’t talk very much about these because I want to point out the differences. I’m also not going to claim that Protestant theology or doctrine is without error or mistake. Depending on which particular theology we investigate, I’m sure we could uncover something, somewhere that doesn’t perfectly line up with the biblical teaching. One of the great truths that emerged from the Reformation in respect to the church was that no person or group of persons is immune from error. Everyone needs to be held accountable to the Word of God. No church is infallible; no teacher is above error. When we look around the Protestant world today – and there is a vast field of churches and denominations to behold – we can spot error immediately. For example, if we glance a critical eye upon the Episcopal church in the United States we will probably see more heresy and apostasy per square inch than anywhere else. This is the denomination that ordains active homosexual priests; but not only that, appoints active homosexual bishops to oversee the church. But not only that, it allows churches to bless same-sex marriages, unions and partnerships. All of this is in direct contradiction with the New Testament moral teaching on sexual relationships. Shame on the Episcopalians! One thing that can be said for the Roman Catholic church is it doesn’t ordain homosexual leaders or bless same sex unions – and it’s hard to imagine that it ever would do so. In this respect, whether knowingly or unknowingly, the Catholic church is following the Bible more closely than many so-called Protestant churches, like the Episcopalians. The Roman Catholic church is also strongly pro-life or anti-abortion; again, it follows more closely the sacred scriptures than many supposedly Reformation churches. So in pointing out the major errors of the Roman Catholic church, let us not suppose that other churches are error-free; they are not. Today, I’d like to cover the final three erroneous doctrines that I feel are important enough to mention in connection with this message series. That doesn’t mean there aren’t more doctrines and practices found in Roman Catholicism that could be mentioned; there are many more. But these three, along with the six others I’ve already talked about are important enough to underscore. These last three errors of the Catholic church are – prayers to the saints, priestly absolution, and the sacrifice of the Mass. Let’s look at these three errors of the church.

 

First, Roman Catholicism teaches prayers to the saints. 1 Timothy 2:5, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” The New Testament and the early church taught that there is one mediator or “go between” from God to man or man to God – Jesus Christ. Therefore, we don’t need any other mediator between heaven and earth, between the soul of man and the Spirit of God. What that means is we don’t need the intercession of departed souls, be they saints or common folk, be they biblical heroes or nameless, faceless departed believers. We don’t need Mary to make intercession for us from where she is – heaven, we presume. We don’t need anyone’s intercession in the after life other than Jesus. But Roman Catholicism teaches differently. According to church teaching there is a whole universe of personalities upon whom we may call for help, for prayers, for assistance. Now there is a certain warm feeling that comes when we imagine that there are many good and kindly departed souls to whom we may turn for help. Some people especially find comfort in turning to Mary – or as Catholics fondly call her, Mother Mary – for help and strength in time of need. The problem is this kind of activity, that is, calling upon figures other than God in Christ, isn’t taught in the New Testament. Where does Jesus teach prayers to the saints? There were biblical heroes or “saints” in the Old Testament, such as Abraham, Moses and David to whom one might call upon, if that were appropriate. But Jesus never teaches his followers to do so. Neither do the Apostles teach us to call upon departed believers for assistance. In fact, to do so contradicts the teaching of the New Testament in spirit and letter. Like the above passage teaches, “There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” If there is one mediator, then let us go through the one mediator, that is, through Jesus alone. Not through departed saints or even angels. The Catholic church, in addition to encouraging believers to turn to the saints in prayer, also approves calling upon angels for assistance in time of need. Again, this has no biblical authority to back it up. We are taught by word and example to turn to Christ Jesus for help in all of our needs. We are instructed to go to God directly without any extra human or angelic mediation. Now if God sends an angel to us, like he did to Mary and Joseph, for example, there is nothing wrong with speaking to it or interacting with it. But nowhere are we instructed to go directly to angels or saints to petition them for help. We are taught to go directly to God through Jesus Christ for our needs. Prayers to the saints introduce an unnecessary layer of separation between us and God. Not only is it unnecessary, it is harmful. Does God out of kindness and patience answer prayers offered to saints instead of directly to him? No doubt he does; but that doesn’t make it right. We need to follow the teachings of the Bible and not stray into areas where we have no authorization. Praying to saints isn’t something the Bible authorizes us to do, so we should refrain from it. Praying to the Father in the name of Jesus is sufficient.

 

Second, Roman Catholicism teaches priestly absolution and other such things. Hebrews 4:14, “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” Protestantism, following the New Testament, teaches that we already have a priest – Jesus Christ. The Old Testament priestly function of intermediation between God and man is fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. He is our high priest. Consequently, we don’t need what the Roman Catholics have set up – a leadership position in the church that functions “in the person of Christ.” We have Christ himself functioning for himself as our priest. But official Catholic theology makes the pope, the bishops and the priests spiritually special positions by giving them vast spiritual powers, such as the ability to forgive sins and turn the basic elements of bread and wine of the Mass into the actual body and blood of Christ. Now the basic problem with Catholic theology concerning the priesthood at all levels is that it totally ignores the teachings of the New Testament concerning church leadership. Nowhere in the New Testament does it show church leaders changing bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ during the Lord’s Supper. The Bible nowhere teaches that church leaders have the power in themselves to forgive sins, although the New Testament does teach that it is the right and privilege of every believer to hear confession and proclaim forgiveness in Jesus’ name – James 5:16, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. . . .” What had taken place, unfortunately, in the established Christian church fairly early on is the concentration of power into the hands of leaders; and then a whole theological rationale for this took place. Theologians began to teach that the bread and wine of Communion becomes the literal body and blood of Christ. So then there would need be special leaders to organize and administer this special event; priests gradually came to be seen as the only ones empowered and authorized to make the Communion transformation, called “transubstantiation.” There gradually took place a shift from the New Testament idea of all believers hearing confession and offering God’s forgiveness to each other, to the idea that only the priest could or should hear confessions and offer forgiveness. Thus became the common Catholic practice of the priest alone offering absolution of sins, as well as assigning penance to the forgiven sinner. A penance is simply a spiritual assignment given by the priest at the time of confession to the forgiven believer. Unfortunately, the New Testament nowhere directly teaches it, although it is natural that a repentant sinner would want to “make right” in some way, whatever wrong he committed. The idea of penance in and of itself seems healthy, but the temptation for abuse for those in ecclesiastical power is too great. Much mischief has resulted in granting church leaders the power to assign penance to confessing sinners. There is no New Testament authorization to do so.

 

Third, Roman Catholicism teaches the sacrifice of the Mass. Mark 14:22-24, “When they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take it; this is my body.’ Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it. ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,’ he said to them.” The New Testament understanding of the Lord’s Supper or Communion or Mass, is a remembrance of the Lord’s atoning death on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus offered himself up as a living sacrifice for sins. His body was broken, his blood was shed for our sake as a means of forgiveness for our sins. Jesus was the sacrificial lamb that the Old Testament prefigured. Now the main problem with the Roman Catholic idea of the Mass is that the church considers it a repetition of the sacrifice of Christ. It is offered up to God the Father each and every Sunday, or any time it is done. It is a work that we do that pleases God, just as the Old Testament priest offered up blood sacrifices in the Old Testament. But this understanding of the Lord’s Supper is wrong, as Martin Luther and other Reformers pointed out hundreds of years ago in their dispute with the church. They pointed out that the Lord’s Supper is a remembrance of what Christ did for us, has already done for us, in offering himself up as our atoning sacrifice. We don’t need to offer anything up to God in the Communion, because the offering was already made, once, and is complete. We receive the benefits and blessings of that past offering by Christ, but we do not need to, nor should we, see it as a perpetual sacrifice, or something we need to offer up again and again. The Roman Catholic view of the Mass is mistaken. Hebrews 10:11-12 explains the correct view, “Day after day every (Old Testament) priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest (Jesus) had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.” Unfortunately, Roman Catholic theology on this point borrows too heavily from the Old Testament without taking into consideration the New Testament teaching regarding Christ’s atoning sacrifice. The Roman Catholic priest is repeating a ritual that was repeated over and over again in the Old Testament, but was modified in the New Testament in light of Christ’s “once for all” sacrifice. In addition to not following the New Testament teaching closely enough, Catholic theology has also added the highly speculative and philosophical idea of transubstantiation to its official doctrine. And from this come practices such as the “adoration of the host” whereby the thin bread wafer is elevated and worshiped by the faithful as the actual bodily presence of Christ. The simplicity of Communion that Jesus gave his disciples has become a highly complex ritual that robs it of its primary meaning and power. No wonder why the Reformers properly reformed this teaching and practice significantly. It still needs reformation in the Catholic church today.

 

I’ve tried to outline just a few of the most important Catholic teachings and practices that are still in need of reform, even after 500 years since the time of the Reformation. Like I said before, I could list other areas that are erroneous and in need of reform. But I consider the points I’ve listed the major areas that still need correction by the Roman Catholic church. Of course, my short messages can’t give these points nearly enough space and time to develop a more thorough critique. I couldn’t unpack the appropriate New Testament teachings nearly enough, and I couldn’t quote official Catholic sources to explain the precise church teaching enough. But I’ve outlined the basic teachings, shown why they are in error, and given simple New Testament support for my criticisms. Now while the Catholic church is still in need of reform in these and other areas, again, there are positive signs that Catholics are beginning to open up to some of the Reformation criticisms after 500 years. The Vatican II Council of the 60s showed some signs of progress towards reformation in the Catholic church, although it also showed continued signs of unwillingness to reform. So it’s a mixed bag. There have been a few recent efforts by Evangelicals and Catholics to sit down again and work out some form of reconciliation. For example, there was a project called ECT, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, which included Protestant leaders like Chuck Colson and Catholic leaders such as Richard Neuhaus that made some progress in a greater Evangelical-Catholic understanding of one another. For example, on the differences between a Catholic and Evangelical understanding of salvation, and the relationship between faith and works, some progress was made. Unfortunately, attempts to bring about a complete reconciliation were premature, and many Evangelicals, as well as Catholics, felt the results were still lacking. But these efforts raise the important question, “Could there one day be a complete unity of doctrine and practice between Protestants and Catholics on the main issues that divide today?” As I said in the first message in this series, there may out of necessity need to be some kind of unity for Christianity simply to survive in the secular world today. There is a lot in common between faithful Catholics and faithful, Bible-believing Protestants. I take great interest in reading the writings of the present Pope Benedict XVI because I find that he not only believes the Christian faith but can explain it with articulation. I see him as an ally in the battle against secularism. Like I said, there may need be a reconciliation of some kind out of sheer necessity. As we see our culture depart further and further from any connection to God, it just might take a unification between Protestants and Catholics to save Christianity. How that unification would take place is hard to imagine, but miracles can always happen – this is what our faith teaches us. So let’s pray that by some means, somehow, God could once again reunite all Christians to become one unified witness in the world as it once was at the start. Amen.

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