Roman Catholicism – Same Words, Different Worlds?

Same Words, Different Worlds: Do Roman Catholics and Evangelicals Believe the Same Gospel?, a book by Leonardo De Chirico is an excellent read for those who would like to understand what Roman Catholicism really teaches. The Amazon offering ( I bought the Kindle version) has this to say about the book:

Same Words, Different Worlds explores whether Evangelicals and Catholics have the same gospel if they have core commitments that contradict. It lays out how the words used to understand the gospel are the same but differ drastically in their underlying theology.

With keen insight, Leonardo de Chirico looks at various aspects of Roman Catholic theology – including Mary, the intercession of the saints, purgatory and papal infallibility – from an Evangelical perspective to argue that theological framework of Roman Catholicism is not faithful to the biblical gospel. Only by understanding the real differences can genuine dialogue flourish.

Same Words, Different Worlds will deepen your understanding of the differences between Evangelical and Catholic theology, and how the Reformation is not over in the church today.

In his forward, Dr.Michael Reeves, president and professor of theology at Union School of Theology in the United Kingdom has this to say:

With the courteous graciousness and keen insight he is known for, Leonardo De Chirico shows us here just how much we are missing. Laying out the underlying theological framework of Roman Catholicism, he shows how Rome can use words familiar to evangelicals (‘grace’, ‘faith’, ‘justification’ etc.), but intend quite different things by them. What becomes very clear is that Rome does not just add a few of its own sprinkles (Mary, purgatory and the pope) to an otherwise broadly agreed gospel. From bottom to top, it is a cake with a different (if similar-sounding) recipe and different (if similar-sounding) ingredients. With this book, then, Dr. De Chirico switches on the lights to help us think rightly about Roman Catholicism and engage Roman Catholic friends with biblical grace and biblical clarity.

This book not only  confirmed my own research concerning what Roman Catholicism teaches, it also intelligently and graciously clarified certain areas needing clarification in my old soldiers ‘brain housing group’. one such area was some of the Vatican’s current  teaching concerning the current universalism of the Roman Catholic church. To quote from the book:

According to the book, one Catholic author (Jack Mulder) summarizes the universalism of the Roman Catholic church, quoting Paul VI and John Paul II and evoking standard Vatican II teaching:

‘There are four concentric circles of people: first, all humanity; second, the worshipers of the one God; third, all Christians; and fourth, Catholics themselves. Salvation is seen as a gift that people receive in different degrees depending on the circle they choose to identify with or find themselves in.

  • Roman Catholics receive God’s grace in the fullest measure through the sacraments administered by the (Roman) church under the pope and the bishops who are the successors of the apostles.
  • Other Christians receive God’s grace to a lesser extent because they retain true elements of the faith but lack the fullness of it in not being in full fellowship with the Church of Rome.
  • Religious people receive it because they have a sense of the divine, although they miss important aspects of the faith.
  • Finally, the whole of humanity receives it because everyone is human and therefore existentially open to God’s grace which works in mysterious ways.
  • Ultimately, ‘the only real way to get outside of God’s grace is to expel oneself from it’. The conditions for such self-expulsion are so remote and limited that practically there is hope that all will be saved.

This is quite different from clear biblical teaching, which turns the picture upside down. According to Scripture we are all by nature ‘children of wrath’ (Eph. 2:3), all sinners (Rom. 3:23), all under God’s judgment (John 3:18). It is not we who exclude ourselves from God’s grace. Because of sin we are all born into this condition. Roman Catholicism turns the argument around and believes the contrary, namely that we are all born into God’s grace, albeit at various levels of depth and at different degrees

Such an attitude of universalism seems to soften considerably many of the pronouncements of the 1563 Council of Trent.  that pronounced “anathemas” (curses) against all non-Catholics.

Having said all of that, I highly recommend adding  Roman Catholicism – Same Words, Different Worlds to your reading list.  The in-depth understanding of Roman Catholic theology the book provides can assist us greatly as we engage our Roman friends and acquaintances and present to them the Five Solas of the Reformation.

  1. Sola Fide (“faith alone”): We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ.
  2. Sola Gratia (“grace alone”): We are saved by the grace of God alone.
  3. Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Savior, and King.
  4. Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”): We live for the glory of God alone.

Be Blessed!

The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification: A Curtain on the Reformation?

An interview with Prof. Michael Reeves, President and Professor of Theology at Union School of Theology, UK. Author of books such as The Unquenchable Flame. Discovering the Heart of the Reformation (2010) and (with Tim Chester), Why The Reformation Still Matters (2016).

On October 31, 1999, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed ‘The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification’ (JDDJ), claiming that they were ‘now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.’[1] This has led many since to think that the fundamental theological differences of the Reformation have now been resolved, and that there remains little or nothing of real theological substance to prevent evangelical-Catholic unity. Professor Mark Noll, for instance, boldly declared,

If it is true, as once was repeated frequently by Protestants conscious of their anchorage in Martin Luther or John Calvin that iustificatio articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae (justification is the article on which the church stands or falls), then the Reformation is over.[2]

Let’s start here: what should we make of the JDDJ?

The JDDJ itself was rather less sanguine about what had been achieved, and stated explicitly that it ‘does not cover all that either church teaches about justification.’[3] Nevertheless, it did claim to be a ‘decisive step forward on the way to overcoming the division of the church’ in that it managed to express ‘a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification and shows that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations.’[4] This itself, though, was a considerable claim. Those ‘doctrinal condemnations’ it professed to avoid include the binding anathemas of the Council of Trent (1545-63), such as:

CANON IX.-If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.

CANON XI.-If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema.

CANON XII.-If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema.

CANON XXIV.-If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.[5]

Is this a failure of the JDDJ?

Since the JDDJ expressly sought to avoid those condemnations, its understanding of justification cannot be that sinners are saved by faith alone without works by the sole remission of sins and the sole imputation of the righteousness of Christ.[6] It cannot then amount to the evangelical understanding of justification that the Council of Trent sought so carefully to define and oppose. And since it does not encompass the evangelical understanding of justification, it cannot be a decisive step forward to overcoming the theological differences between evangelicals and the Roman Catholic Church.

How does the JDDJ define justification then?

When it first sets out to define the biblical message of justification, various aspects of salvation are listed alongside each other.

In the New Testament diverse treatments of “righteousness” and “justification” are found in the writings of Matthew (5:10; 6:33; 21:32), John (16:8-11), Hebrews (5:3; 10:37f), and James (2:14-26).[10] In Paul’s letters also, the gift of salvation is described in various ways, among others: “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1-13; cf. Rom 6:7), “reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:18-21; cf. Rom 5:11), “peace with God” (Rom 5:1), “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17), “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:11,23), or “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (cf. 1 Cor 1:2; 1:30; 2 Cor 1:1). Chief among these is the “justification” of sinful human beings by God’s grace through faith (Rom 3:23-25), which came into particular prominence in the Reformation period.[7]

In evangelical theology, all these diverse aspects of salvation are important. But they are not to be confused. Particularly, the believer’s progressive transformation into the likeness of Christ is not to be confused with – or taken to be the cause of – his or her justification. Yet in that paragraph, it is not at all clear whether different aspects of salvation are being listed alongside and including justification (the traditional evangelical view), or whether they are being seen as facets of justification (the traditional Roman Catholic view). And the possibility of two substantially – even radically – different interpretations of that paragraph is never mentioned.

A couple of paragraphs later it becomes clear that the traditional Roman Catholic interpretation has, in fact, been assumed. Justification is defined as follows:

Justification is the forgiveness of sins (cf. Rom 3:23-25; Acts 13:39; Lk 18:14), liberation from the dominating power of sin and death (Rom 5:12-21) and from the curse of the law (Gal 3:10-14). … It occurs in the reception of the Holy Spirit in baptism and incorporation into the one body (Rom 8:1f, 9f; I Cor 12:12f).[8]

So what is at stake here?

Quite clearly, justification is here said to include the process of inner transformation, and not include the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. But that is an understanding of justification quite different to that we have seen so ably opposed by the Council of Trent. Any theology that makes the believer’s inner transformation a constituent part (instead of a consequence) of justification is at odds with the material principle of the Reformation (justification by faith alone).

Yet the wording of the JDDJ is so careful that for large chunks of text it can be hard to imagine it being open to two possible but incompatible theological interpretations.

Yes, take paragraph 12: ‘The justified live by faith that comes from the Word of Christ (Rom 10:17) and is active through love.’ What Christian could object? But does that love contribute to the believer’s righteousness before God (the traditional Roman Catholic view), or does it follow from it (the traditional evangelical view)? We are not told.

Or take paragraph 15, which appears to affirm a Reformation distinctive (grace alone):

Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.

Yet what could be taken for an affirmation of justification by grace alone is in fact only a statement that by his grace alone God renews our hearts, transforming us to do good works. It does not answer the question of whether those good works and that renewal play a part in the justification of the believer. Only a couple of paragraphs later does it become more obvious that the JDDJ assumes that they do. Our new life is due, it explains, ‘to the forgiving and renewing mercy that God imparts as a gift.’[9] Instead of describing the gratuitous imputation of Christ’s righteousness, the language used is of the impartation of a renewing mercy. But that is not the evangelical view of justification first articulated by Martin Luther and so clearly recognized and denounced by Trent.

Particularly attractive to evangelicals is the statement in paragraph 25 that ‘whatever in the justified precedes or follows the free gift of faith is neither the basis of justification nor merits it.’ What does this statement mean?

Two paragraphs later this striking announcement is explained as meaning nothing more than that ‘this renewal in faith, hope, and love is always dependent on God’s unfathomable grace and contributes nothing to justification about which one could boast before God.’[10] That is, God’s grace is the foundation of our internal renewal, meaning that we could not boast before God because of it. But again, that is not at all the same thing as God, out of his grace alone, imputing the righteousness of Christ to the believer.

Why does the JDDJ fail to deliver what it promises?

The essential problem with the Declaration is a consequence of its positive intent. The aim of the JDDJ is to find commonalities, not differences. But with that comes a lopsided methodology that obscures those differences. It means, for example, that while it will emphasise the agreed truth that faith and love are not to be separated in salvation, it fails to give any equal weight to explaining how differently evangelicals and the Roman Catholic Church would distinguish the roles of faith and love in salvation. So paragraph 22 argues that faith and love ‘are not to be separated.’ Absolutely, but that leaves a pastorally vital question unresolved: do my works of love contribute to my righteousness before God, or is my righteousness an ‘alien,’ ‘passive’ righteousness – the righteousness of Christ imputed to me?

Similarly, we read in the JDDJ how Lutherans ‘emphasize that righteousness as acceptance by God and sharing in the righteousness of Christ is always complete. At the same time, they state that there can be growth in its effects in Christian living.[11]

Of course that is entirely true, but in the context it is misleading. For while Lutherans and other evangelicals do believe that there can be growth in the effects of grace and justification on a believer’s life, they do not believe that those effects can justify. We are clearly meant to see a commonality, but there is no evidence here that the two radically different theologies of justification have actually come closer together.

Why does it matter?

Parsing the details of how evangelicals and the Roman Catholic Church understand justification could give the impression that the differences are too refined to be significant. It certainly feels more positive and less mentally taxing simply to say they look pretty similar. But when each theology is practically applied to real lives it becomes clear how deep the differences go.

Let’s make an example…

Take the question of assurance of salvation, which drove Luther on his quest and which the JDDJ addresses in section 4.6. According to paragraph 36,

No one may doubt God’s mercy and Christ’s merit. Every person, however, may be concerned about his salvation when he looks upon his own weaknesses and shortcomings. Recognizing his own failures, however, the believer may yet be certain that God intends his salvation.

At first sight this is rather confusing: can a believer have assurance or not? The second sentence sounds thoroughly Roman, making us concerned when we see our failings. The third appears more evangelical, offering certainty of salvation for the believer. The Declaration’s own explanatory sources explain: ‘a person can certainly lose or renounce faith, and self-commitment to God and his word of promise. But if he believes in this sense, he cannot at the same time believe that God is unreliable in his word of promise.’[12] In other words, God is faithful to save, but only to save those who maintain their ‘self-commitment to God and his word of promise.’

So, it seems that the assurance of believers thus rests on their own self-commitment.

That fits nicely with the theology of the Roman Catholic Church, but not with how Luther himself expressed it. The believer, he wrote, can have absolute assurance that

Her sins cannot now destroy her, since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by him. And she has that righteousness in Christ, her husband, of which she may boast as of her own and which she can confidently display alongside her sins in the face of death and hell and say, “If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and all mine is his,” as the bride in the Song of Solomon [2:16] says, “My beloved is mine and I am his.”[13]

Looking with ultimate concern on personal shortcomings, or confidently saying ‘all his is mine and all mine is his:’ those are the two applications that reveal two quite different theologies.

Wrapping up this interview, what can we say in conclusion?

The JDDJ claimed to have formulated a new consensus position that managed to avoid both the condemnations of the Council of Trent on evangelical theology, and those of the Lutheran Confessions on Roman Catholic theology. Yet when the Roman Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity made an official response to the Declaration on behalf of the Church, they felt the need to make some important clarifications. ‘The Catholic Church,’ stated the Response, ‘cannot yet speak of a consensus such as would eliminate every difference between Catholics and Lutherans in the understanding of justification.’[14] Indeed, some of ‘these differences concern aspects of substance’ so significant they must ‘be overcome before we can affirm, as is done generically in n.41, that these points no longer incur the condemnations of the Council of Trent.’[15]

What does it refer to in particular?

In particular, the Response made it clear that evangelical language describing believers being at the same time righteous and sinner is unacceptable to the Roman Catholic Church. It

remains difficult to see how, in the current state of the presentation, given in the Joint Declaration, we can say that this doctrine on “simul iustus et peccator” is not touched by the anathemas of the Tridentine decree on original sin and justification.[16]

It also recognized some of the lopsidedness and ambiguity of the JDDJ in how it constantly sought to find and affirm commonalities. This meant, for example, that where the Declaration had affirmed that the good works of the justified are always the fruit of grace, it had failed to clarify how the Roman Catholic Church maintains that they are also the fruit of man. ‘We can therefore say that eternal life is, at one and the same time, grace and the reward given by God for good works and merits.’[17]

That is, the Roman Catholic Church still repudiates the material principle of the Reformation (justification by faith alone)…

It must do, for its very understanding of justification remains materially different. Where evangelicalism views justification as a divine declarative act whereby God pronounces the sinner righteous in Christ, Rome still sees justification as an ongoing, transformative and cooperative process. For that reason, the Response also stated that further discussions with Lutherans and evangelicals would need to consider the sacrament of penance, by which – according to the Council of Trent – the sinner can be ‘justified anew (rursus iustificari).’[18] With such reference to ‘re-justification,’ the Response could not be clearer that, for all attempts to find wording that fits both Roman Catholic and evangelical views of justification, there remains a material and momentous difference between them.

All that being the case, it is wishful thinking to imagine that the JDDJ has proven anything like an end to the important theological differences between evangelicals and the Roman Catholic Church…

The matter of the Reformation was not accurately addressed there, and still stands: are believers justified through faith in Christ alone, or is eternal life ‘at one and the same time, grace and the reward given by God for good works and merits’?

[1] JDDJ (, para. 5.

[2] Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism, Grand Rapids, Il.: Baker, 2005, 232.

[3] JDDJ, para. 5.

[4] Ibid., paras. 44, 5.

[5] The Canons and Decrees of the Sacred and Oecumenical Council of Trent, trans. J. Waterworth (London: Dolman, 1848), 45-47.

[6] The JDDJ expressly affirms, ‘The teaching of the Lutheran churches presented in this Declaration does not fall under the condemnations from the Council of Trent’ (para. 41).

[7] Ibid., para. 9.

[8] Ibid., para. 11.

[9] Ibid., para. 17, my emphasis.

[10] Ibid., para. 27, my emphasis.

[11] Ibid., para. 39, my emphasis.

[12] JDDJ Appendix Resources for 4.6, from The Condemnations of the Reformation Era: Do They Still Divide? Ed., Karl Lehmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 56, original emphasis.

[13] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 31: Career of the Reformer I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 31 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 352.

[14] ‘Response of the Catholic Church to the Joint Declaration of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation on the Doctrine of Justification,’ Declaration,

[15] Response, Clarification 5.

[16] Ibid., Clarification 1.

[17] Ibid., Clarification 3.

[18] Ibid., Clarification 4.

Has Rome Really Changed Its Tune?

The Catholic Church — 500 Years Later

Article by Gregg Allison

October 31, 2017, will mark the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. Martin Luther’s nailing of his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church on that day in 1517 has proven to be one of the most important events in the history of the world. Indeed, many evangelicals trace their beginnings to this moment that launched the Protestant movement, of which we consider ourselves heirs.

But the Reformation was five hundred years ago! Like most everything else a half-millennium removed from its start, things have changed. Or have they? What issues sparked the Reformation? What were the key protests against the Catholic Church at that time? Do those same conditions exist now, such that the Reformation remains unfinished?

Half a Millennium Ago

Luther’s Ninety-five Theses constituted a call to debate some of the flagrant errors of the Catholic Church in his time. His subsequent writings exposed many other problems:

  • a denial of justification by God’s grace received through faith alone in Christ alone
  • an unbiblical view of salvation as joining together God and sinners such that divine grace, communicated through the Church’s sacraments, initiates the lifelong process, and human effort responds by engaging in good works in order to merit eternal life
  • a faulty authority structure illegitimately combining Scripture with tradition and the papacy
  • a disgraceful Catholic Mass that minimized God’s word, ignored the importance of faith, and focused on the Eucharist as little more than mere ritual
  • an incorrect belief that, during the Mass, Jesus Christ is made physically present through transubstantiation
  • an inappropriate elevation of the role of Mary as a mediator between her son, Jesus Christ, and sinful people, and as an intercessor who prays for and helps them
  • a defective perspective on the seven sacraments as communicating God’s grace ex opere operato
  • an unbiblical hope in purgatory — time in which can be shortened by the purchase of indulgences

These were the key issues that Luther exposed and critiqued with regard to the Catholic Church of his day.

500 Years Later

It is popularly noted that the only constant in our world is change — and such is true of the Catholic-Protestant dynamic after five hundred years. One happy example is that the two groups are no longer at war with each other. Rather, Protestants and Catholics work closely together in politics, education, health care, ethics, and more. They engage in co-belligerence, fighting together against disturbing sins like abortion, euthanasia, eugenics, population control, violence, promiscuity, and antireligious bigotry. The once-frigid atmosphere has thawed.

Additionally, the two traditions are apt to underscore the commonalities that unite them. From a Protestant perspective, those similarities (at least in part) include the Trinity, the nature of God, divine revelation, the person of Christ and his crucifixion and resurrection, the Holy Spirit, the image of God, the depravity of sin, divine initiative in salvation, and future hope. From a Catholic perspective (fueled largely by the changes initiated at the Second Vatican Council, 1962–1965), Protestants are no longer bound for hell but, as separated brothers and sisters, experience salvation (though not its fullness, which is only for the Catholic faithful).

Still, major differences continue to divide the two traditions. For instances, take the points above one by one.


The “material principle (the key content) of Protestantism” continues to be a hotly debated point. On the one hand, the Lutheran World Federation has come to an official agreement with the Catholic Church on this doctrine in their Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999). On the other hand, most Protestants continue to consider this doctrine a key point of difference.

This is certainly the case when we consider the definitions of justification as embraced by the two traditions. Justification, according to Protestantism, is a legal act of God by which he declares sinful people “not guilty,” but instead “righteous,” as he imputes or credits the perfect righteousness of Christ to them. For Catholicism, “justification is not only the remission of sins, but also sanctification and the renewal of the interior man” (Council of Trent, Decree on Justification, 7). The Catholic doctrine combines regeneration (the new birth, which comes about, according to Catholicism, by the sacrament of Baptism), sanctification (lifelong transformation, fueled by the sacraments), and forgiveness. Such a fusion of justification with regeneration and sanctification contradicts the Pauline concept of justification (for example, in Romans 3–4), around which the debate centers.

Justification, at the heart of salvation, continues to be a major point of division.


Flowing from the difference regarding justification, the way God saves sinful people continues to divide the two traditions. According to Protestant theology, salvation is monergistic (mono = sole; ergon = work): God is the sole definitive agent who works salvation through justification, regeneration, adoption, and more. He supplies grace (through his Word, Spirit, preaching, and ordinances, though not tied exclusively to baptism and the Lord’s Supper) that effects salvation through Spirit-empowered faith (Acts 18:27; 1 Peter 4:11).

According to Catholic theology, salvation is synergistic (syn = together; ergon = work): God and people work together to operate the salvation of sinners. The grace of God initiates the process, and the Catholic faithful cooperate with that grace. Importantly, grace is infused through the sacraments, thereby transforming the faithful so they can engage in good works in order to merit eternal life. Because salvation is a lifelong process, and because divine grace can be forfeited, Catholics believe in the loss of salvation. Consequently, they cannot enjoy the assurance of salvation, a doctrine embraced by many Protestants.

Salvation — how God works to rescue sinful people — continues to be a major doctrinal divide.


Who or what constitutes the authority in the relationship between God and people? The “formal principle (the authoritative framework) of Protestantism” continues to be a point of division between the two traditions.

The Protestant sola Scriptura — Scripture alone — means that in all matters of faith and practice, the word of God is the ultimate authority. Every doctrine, every moral action, and the like must be grounded in Scripture. This position does not deny the value of the early church’s creeds, the Protestant confessions of faith, and the distinctives of evangelicalism. But it assigns this wisdom from the past a ministerial authority — it plays a helpful role — not magisterial, or ultimate, authority. And to each Protestant church, God has given pastors who have the authority to teach, lead, exercise discipline, engage in mission, and more.

The Catholic structure of authority is like a three-legged stool. One leg is Scripture, which is the written word of God. Catholics and Protestants continue to disagree over the canon — the official list of books — of the Old Testament. The Catholic Bible contains the Apocrypha, seven additional books — Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees — and additional sections of Esther and Daniel. Because these writings were never part of the Hebrew Bible of Jesus and the apostles, and because they were not accepted as part of the Old Testament of the early church until the end of the fourth century, Protestants reject the Apocrypha.

A second leg is Tradition, the teaching that Jesus orally communicated to his apostles, who in turn communicated it to their successors, the bishops, and which is maintained by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Two examples of Tradition are the immaculate conception of Mary and her bodily assumption.

The third leg is the Magisterium, or teaching office of the Church. Composed of the pope and the bishops, the Magisterium continues to provide the official interpretation of Scripture and to proclaim Tradition, with infallibility.

Thus, Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium together constitute the authority structure in the Catholic Church. The issue of authority continues to be a major point of division.

The Mass

Since Vatican II, the Church has instituted many changes to its Mass. The most obvious change is its celebration in the language of the people, not in Latin. Whereas formerly Scripture was given slight attention, it now receives a prominent place, especially in the first part of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word. There are readings from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and one of the Gospels. Moreover, the priest’s homily (or sermonette) ideally reflects those three texts and exposits their common meaning. The participants are urged to attend the Mass with the proper disposition (faith, humility, receptivity) and not as mere ritual.

Though Protestants still disagree with much that takes place, the Mass has undergone many significant changes from Luther’s day.


The most noticeable Protestant disagreement with the Catholic Mass concerns the presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist. It is the most evident disagreement because Protestants are forbidden to take this sacrament.

The Catholic Church believes that, during the Mass, the power of God and the priest’s words and actions bring about a change in the nature of the bread so it becomes the body of Christ, and a change in the nature of the wine so it becomes the blood of Christ. Jesus’s crucifixion two thousand years ago is not an event that remains locked in space and time. Rather, his death becomes re-presented during the Mass. Thus, the Eucharist, “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 1324), makes present Christ’s unique sacrifice again and again.

This has been the Church’s view since the thirteenth century, and remains its belief today. The Reformers strongly disagreed with transubstantiation, and no Protestant since them has embraced it. Transubstantiation continues to be a major point of division.


Challenged by the vast divide between Catholics and Protestants over Mary, the two traditions at least hold common ground on three points: Mary is the mother of God; that is, the one to whom she gave birth is the Son of God, fully divine. She is a blessed woman because she was the mother of our Savior and Lord (Luke 1:42, 48). And she is a model of the obedience of faith because she yielded to God’s difficult will for her (Luke 1:38, 45).

Still, the key doctrines that Protestants reject include Mary’s immaculate conception, sinlessness, perpetual virginity, participation in the sufferings of Jesus to accomplish salvation, and bodily assumption into heaven. Protestants also reject Mary’s “titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix” (CCC, 969). The role of Mary continues to be a major difference.

The Sacraments

The Catholic Church embraces seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Matrimony, and Holy Orders. The Reformers reduced this number to two, underscoring that only baptism and the Lord’s Supper were ordained by Jesus and have accompanying physical signs (baptism: Matthew 28:18–20, water; the Lord’s Supper: Matthew 26:26–29, bread and cup).

Moreover, Protestants disagree that these sacraments are effective in conferring grace ex opere operato — just by the sacrament being administered. For example, when a priest administers Baptism, grace is infused into the infant and she is cleansed from original sin, born again, and incorporated into Christ and his Church. Her baptism is effective no matter the moral state of the priest administering the sacrament, and clearly she is not disposed to salvation. Protestants emphasize the association of baptism and the Lord’s Supper with the word of God and with faith that embraces God’s grace, which is not infused into people.

The number, nature, and administration of the sacraments continues to be a major point of division.


According to Catholic theology, if a Catholic dies in the grace of God (so, not having unconfessed mortal sin that would doom her to hell) yet not fully purified, she goes to purgatory. This is a temporary state of final cleansing of the stain of forgiven sin, purifying her so she will eventually go to heaven. While she undergoes passive suffering in purgatory, her experience can be shortened. The saints in heaven intercede for her. Living Catholics also pray for her, pay money so that Masses will be celebrated for her sake, and obtain indulgences on her behalf. An indulgence remits the temporal punishment either in full or in part.

Protestant theology dissents from this doctrine because its support comes from 2 Maccabees 12:38–45, an apocryphal writing, and from a misinterpretation of other biblical texts (1 Corinthians 3:15; Matthew 12:32). Moreover, if justification declares a sinful person “not guilty,” but “righteous” instead, there is no need for further purification of sin after death.

Purgatory continues to be a major difference.

Still Reforming

While some things have changed with the Roman Catholic Church to bring Catholics and Protestants closer together after five hundred years, many major differences remain to divide them. One approach to this quandary is to minimize the division. For example, it is anticipated that within the next year, Pope Francis will declare that the Reformation is over. Working from the Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification, he will emphasize the agreements achieved on this once divisive doctrine and underscore that the sixteenth century anathemas (condemnations) of Protestants by Catholics and of Catholics by Protestants are removed. Thus, the Reformation will be formally finished.

Tragically, this perspective fails to address the continuing differences between the two traditions. The Catholic Church still holds to untrue doctrines of justification, salvation, authority, transubstantiation, Mary, seven sacraments that are effective ex opere operato, and purgatory. It is not helpful to skirt those issues for the sake of unity in a lowest-common-denominator approach.

While we can agree that much has changed, we must also agree that the Reformation remains unfinished.

Gregg Allison is professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and co-author of The Unfinished Reformation: What Unites and Divides Catholics and Protestants After 500 Years.