A (Very) Brief Explanation: Why are there Catholics and Protestants?

It may seem a bit arrogant, but I think this might be the shortest summary of the historical development of the Roman Catholic Church and the basic reason why there is such a thing as a Protestant.

My purpose in this explanation is not to throw negative light on anyone who claims to be Catholic or anyone who is a member of the Roman Catholic Church. Not all Catholics believe the same things, just like not all Baptists believe the same things, and there are many members of churches (of all sorts) who have no idea what their church actually teaches on a given subject. So, I invite further conversation; I do not purposefully condemn any particular reader or someone you might know.

First, it is complicated, but Catholics have no unique claim on history.

Simply put, the Roman Catholic Church as it is today, in its doctrines and in its administration, did not exist until (at the earliest) the year 1215 AD. The Fourth Lateran Council ratified some of the teachings and most of the organizational forms that are distinctive of and essential to Roman Catholicism today.1 But it was not until the Council of Trent, which met sporadically from 1545 to 1563 that the main doctrines which separate Rome from Protestants were clearly articulated and ratified.2 Therefore, regardless of what my Roman Catholic friends might say, the Roman Church is not the oldest and most united church. It has a complicated past, and it has no unique claim on the Apostles or early Christians.

Second, Catholics and Protestants alike see the need for reform in the late Middle Ages.

Before and during the 1500s, there were many Christians within the Roman Church who were calling for reform. At least as early as the 1300s, with John Wycliffe in England in and Jan Hus in Bohemia (as well as many others), good Roman Catholics were writing and preaching and working for reforms within the Roman Catholic Church. By all observers, including Roman Catholics, Western Christianity had become so abusive and scandalous that something had to change.

Many historians look back and see that the leadership of the Roman Church was unwilling to change, so Catholic priests, local friars, and Church theologians started protesting. The quintessential moment which seems to capture the scene in the early 1500s was that evening of October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther (a German monk, Catholic priest, and promising theologian) nailed his invitation to scholarly debate on the castle-church door in Wittenberg. The nailing of the 95 theses was a historic moment, but there were others like it happening all over Europe.

Zwingli, in Zurich, encouraged his congregation to eat meat during a Roman fasting day. English men and women were sharing copies of Wycliffe’s translation of the Latin Bible, and they were illegally memorizing passages to recite to one another so that they might all hear the Bible in their own language. Spain and France were killing and exiling those who taught against Rome, and that’s how John Calvin (a Frenchmen) ended up in Geneva, where he wrote the first comprehensive systematic theology textbook for instructing new Christians.

All of this came to a head when Rome called a council to deal once-and-for-all with the reformers. This was the notorious Council of Trent.

Third, Rome formally and officially condemned all Protestants.

It is a historical and present fact that the Roman Catholic Church has formally set itself against Protestants, and it has never pulled back from that clear and official statement. At the Council of Trent, Rome condemned to hell anyone who believes some of the most fundamental doctrines among all Protestants. The canons or decrees of Trent anathematize3 anyone who believes that the Bible is the chief authority over all tradition and papal decrees. They also condemned anyone who believes that sinners are justified by grace alone through faith alone in the person and work of Christ.4

These statements are clear, they are recorded for anyone to see in the records of that council, and they are repeated in the Roman Catholic Catechism that is still used by Rome today.

It seems to me that Protestants and Roman Catholics can indeed be friends today. But it also seems to me that we must all recognize the differences between them are not mere preference nor are they minor. As I said above, though, it is likely that most Roman Catholics do not know the official teaching of Rome, just the same as most people who claim to be Baptist do not know what Baptists have historically taught.

Therefore, rather than using labels and throwing verbal grenades, I think we all might do well to simply have good conversations about the biblical gospel.

Endnotes

1. The Roman Catholic Church today shares many common doctrines with Protestants. These are not the doctrines that make Rome distinct as a Church. As time moved on, Rome increasingly articulated and demanded adherence to doctrines and organizational structures that are clearly absent from Scripture.

2. This article by Joe Carter does a good job of summarizing some of the main points of the Council of Trent as a historical moment that continues to impact Protestants and Roman Catholics today. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/9-things-you-should-know-about-the-council-of-trent/

3. Anathematize is a fancy word that refers to a religious condemnation. The word anathema is a transliteration from the Greek ἀναθεμα. This was the word the Apostle Paul used to condemn any preacher of a false gospel (Galatians 1:8-9), and the word was and is used by the Roman Catholic Church to condemn anyone who opposes or diverts from official church teaching.

4. The key word in these doctrinal phrases is “alone.” Rome did teach and still teaches that faith in Christ is necessary for justification. The disagreement was never about the necessity of faith, but the sufficiency of it. Is a sinner justified before God by simply believing or having faith in the finished work of Christ? Rome says, “No!” Protestants say, “Yes!”

Paradoxical Christian Growth

By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples… These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (Jn. 15:8, 11).

The Christian life is a paradoxical combination of simultaneous striving and resting. Anyone who has ever set out to live in light of Christ’s commands can testify to this enigmatic and exhausting and enlivening experience. On the one hand, the Christian hears the warnings and calls to strive. We are to strive for holiness, for godliness, and for righteousness. In all these, we hear the ultimate call to abide or remain steadfastly in Christ.

On the other hand, the Christian hears the promises of God, in which the Christian may rest. God promises to give life, adopt as sons, lavishly bless all those from among the world. In all these, we hear the ultimate promise that God graciously unites believing sinners to Christ.

While the Bible never explains the mechanics of this relationship, the Bible commonly implores sinners everywhere to rest in the joy-filled promises of God in Christ and to strive to abide in this marvelous Savior. For, God the Father glorifies Himself in the fruit-bearing, in the joy-possessing, and in the persevering of true disciples.

May God help us to both rest in and strive to abide in Christ today.

Loving God and Keeping His Words

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart” (Deut. 6:5-6).

Love from the heart may sound like the theme of a Valentine’s Day card, but there is much more for us to consider in such a phrase. It is the expression of love, the authentic and tangible reality of love, in focus here. After all, God directly follows His command to love Him with a command to intimately know and apply His words.

What does it mean for any human to love God? It may mean more, but it certainly means no less than giving God – especially His words – attention and affection. Don’t we listen carefully to the wise words of a loving friend? Don’t we read kind and thoughtful notes from our spouse with great care? In the absence of someone’s presence, we cherish and attend their words. However, God is present with us in and through His words.

God’s words are more than mere instructions; His words are life-giving, healing, invigorating, and enlightening. God’s words are perfect, sure, right, and true; they are clean, pure, desirable, and rewarding (Ps. 19). In God’s words, we may find God Himself (Jn. 1:14-18), and we may gain the great joy of genuine love for the God who made and sustains us by His word (Heb. 1:1-3).

Discerning Truth

Therefore it is against the LORD that you and all your company have gathered together” (Numbers 16:11).

Traditions are important to us, whether we know it or not. Traditions are those beliefs and practices that have been handed down to us from those who have gone before. At their best, traditions keep us from stepping too far outside of the boundaries that maintain our stability and order. However, traditions can sometimes give us only an illusion of stability and order without the reality of such things.

Traditions are only as good as the truths which undergird them. If our traditions are based on sound and solid truths from the Bible, then they will be a help and benefit to us. Therefore, it is vitally important that we make an effort to think about the basis or foundation of our beliefs and practices. We must discern truth (i.e. try to objectively evaluate our traditions in light of God’s word) in order to ensure that we are submitting to our good and wise God, rather than rebelling against Him.

If we believe or do something that merely feels right or seems right, then we may find ourselves gathered against the Lord. This would certainly be disastrous. If, however, we ultimately hold to the Scriptures and live according to God’s word, then we will enjoy the blessings of God.

May God help us to be a discerning people, finding our confidence chiefly in the God who gave us His authoritative words – the Holy Scripture.

Love One Another

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another”(Jn. 13:34).

In poetry, music, theater, movies, novels, and history itself, any observant person can see that humans are obsessed with love. Love intrigues us, it compels us, and it befuddles us. Just as people are fascinated by love, so too people are often unable to define or explain love in any genuinely coherent way. We talk about love as though it were an irresistible feeling, a fleeting charm, and an unbreakable bond. And yet, each of these descriptions contradicts the others.

Like many meaningful concepts in life, God’s word speaks clearly as to the nature and expression of love. But we are often so preoccupied with fantasy that we are unable to consider the beauty and glory of reality. Jesus Himself is offered as the exemplary loving person, and He calls His disciples to love as He did and does.

Far from the romantic imagery of teenaged longings, true and genuine love is robust, textured, and panoramic. Furthermore, there is one place on the planet where God has designed Christ-like love to take its truly expansive shape. In the context of the local church, Christians display the kind of sacrificial, persevering, gracious, radical, and inspiring love that Christ both exemplifies and empowers.

Light in the Darkness

“I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he… Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me”(Jn. 13:19, 21).

In Jesus’ final hours, we see Him troubled by the darkness surrounding Him. One of His closest friends betrayed Him unto death, and the devil himself takes on a personal assaulting role. Jesus seems utterly alone and victimized as the night intensifies.

However, Jesus is not merely a passive sufferer. No, right in the midst of this deepest darkness, Christ makes Himself known as the God of light. Moreover, God is revealed in Christ as the truly sovereign ruler of all – even the darkness.

We see the God of the Bible as one who is greater than we ever knew and more awesome than we could have imagined. His power and might extend far past the boundaries we often envision in our finite assumptions. To the watchful eye, God shows His brilliant light in the midst of darkness. For He is the God who forms light and creates darkness, and He is the God who has promised that darkness will one day be no more.

Can Anyone Really Live Like Christ?

Jesus said, “I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you… If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (Jn. 13:15, 17).

In the final days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, He seems to have concentrated His time and attention upon His closest disciples. In John’s Gospel, we read about an evening meal during which Jesus took to an awkward task. Jesus – the Son of God, the Holy One of Israel, the Messiah of old – dressed Himself as a lowly servant and did a humiliating chore. In washing the feet of His disciples, He was illustrating His posture in all-of-life and calling His disciples to follow His example.

Christians may rejoice to know that Christ alone has performed the role of savior and redeemer. What joy fills the heart of the sinner who is washed clean by the glorious sacrifice of Christ in their place! Indeed, this cleansing is something only Christ can do.

And yet, it is no contradiction for Christ to summon His disciples to do as He did. The Christian can by no means heal the sick, raise the dead, or atone for sin. But the Christian is called to follow Christ’s example by analogy. As Christ lived (selfless, humble, compassionate, loving, etc.), so too Christians are to live. There is even the promise of blessing from Christ Himself to all who know and do these things.

Taking Jesus at His Words

Jesus said, “The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day” (Jn. 12:48).

In some parts of America, the label “Christian” is still a celebrated identifier. What someone means by claiming such a moniker is usually little more than simply saying, “I believe in Jesus.” But even this phrase begs greater specificity. What do you mean by “believe?” And who is “Jesus?” The Bible reveals substantial answers to these questions, and the Bible warns us to take the words seriously.

In fact, Jesus Himself so closely associated His person and His words that one cannot receive or reject one without doing the same to the other. To receive Jesus is to receive His words, and to reject His words is to reject Jesus. The plain and absolute nature of this proposition rubs against our modern sensibilities, but it is no less reasonable or consistent.

The words of Jesus Christ are indeed the promises and precepts of eternal life. The one who hears and obeys Jesus has no judge, but rather enjoys freedom from condemnation altogether. But the one who does not receive Christ’s words… who does not hear and obey Christ’s words… that one will be judged and condemned by those same words on the last day.

Distinct Christian Prayer

Many people pray, and not just Christians. It seems that prayer, talking to someone or something greater than ourselves, is natural to humanity. Christian prayer, however, is quite peculiar and unnatural. While Christians offer petitions of hope and desire, the same as non-Christians, Christians pray with a distinctive approach and goal.

The Christian knows that his or her only basis for acceptance before God is the person and work of Jesus Christ. Therefore, his or her approach to God is as heavenly Father by way of adoption through Christ. Such an approach is by sheer grace and divine mercy.

The Christian also understands that God’s will is wiser and truer than his or her own desires. He or she knows that God is always working towards better ends, as a good heavenly Father. Therefore, his or her goal in prayer is not so much to get something from God but to align himself or herself to the will of God being worked out in the world.

May God not only teach us to pray but may He also create within us an unnatural desire to pray as fervent and sincere Christians.

Dying to Live: The Gospel Paradox

Jesus said, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour.” (Jn. 12:25-27).

There are glorious promises in the Gospel of Jesus Christ! The King of glory offers eternal life, present companionship with Himself, and honor from God the Father. What joy must fill the heart of anyone who contemplates such rewards as these! Only consider what you (and every sinner) deserve from God, and these promised blessings will become ever so sweet.

And yet, the astute reader will notice a disturbing paradox among these pleasant words. When was it that Christ earned these blessings for His followers? It was at the troubling hour of His crucifixion! Where does Christ beckon His disciples to follow Him? It is to suffering He calls! How is it that Christ’s servants become partakers of everlasting life? It is by hating and losing life in this world!

May God grant to us all the fullness of His blessed promises in the Gospel of Christ, and may He empower us to follow the Savior with selfless abandon.

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