The core beliefs and the enshrined practices of Roman Catholicism deeply concerned the Reformers five hundred years ago. Those same concerns remain largely unalleviated for contemporary Protestants today — problems that we still see in the latest teachings of the pope and even in the most up-to-date version of the official catechism of the Catholic Church. It all leads to a question over whether a devout Roman Catholic can be genuinely saved. It comes from a listener named Jimmy.
“Hello, Pastor John. A close friend of mine passed away recently. He was a great man, a good friend, a mentor to many young men like myself, and a devout Roman Catholic. My questions for you are these. Will I see my friend in heaven? Or do his theological views make this impossible? Can I rightfully experience Paul’s ‘sorrowful, yet always rejoicing’ mantra, or was my friend merely a devoted husband, a wonderful friend, and a good man? In other words, do you believe devout Roman Catholics can be genuine Christians?”
Before I answer that specific question, let me lay out again the reasons we should be seriously concerned with Roman Catholic teaching. At numerous levels, its contradictory stance toward Scripture produces a kind of religion that I fear has led many people astray, even into destruction.
I do not mean that Roman Catholicism has a corner on that kind of misleading teaching. There are lots of brands of so-called “Christian tradition” that have damaged people by the errors that they represent.
Let me give seven examples of what concerns me about Roman Catholic teaching that I think we should be very concerned about and steer clear of.
1. Tradition Versus Scripture
First, we should be concerned that the Roman Catholic Church elevates the authority of the pope and the church councils (when speaking in their official capacity as teachers of the church) to the same level as Holy Scripture.
This has led many Roman Catholics away from a personal engagement with the Scriptures into a reliance on the church, even though the church is fallible. They ought to be relying on the Scriptures, the very word of God inspired and written.
2. The Virgin Mary
Second, we should be concerned that the blessed virgin Mary (and I have no problem calling her that) is elevated to a position in practice where she mediates between the people of God and the son of God. This undermines the direct priestly ministry of Christ between his people and God.
This elevation of Mary beyond anything in the Scriptures, based solely on church tradition, distances the people of God from the enjoyment of personal fellowship with Jesus and the kind of relationship and assurance they might otherwise enjoy with him.
3. Baptismal Regeneration
Third, we should be concerned about the teaching of baptismal regeneration. The idea that by the very work of putting water on a baby’s head — ex opere operato — by the very operating of the thing itself, the very work of the water in the priestly act causes a change in the nature of the baby from lost in original sin to saved through regeneration.
This notion has produced, I would say, untold ill-founded confidence in the people of God who have little or no personal faith, or relationship with Christ, or love to Jesus. Yet, because of their baptism believe they are heaven-bound.
Fourth, we should be concerned about the offering of so-called “indulgences,” which the very present pope himself — not in some distant sixteenth-century past — the present pope himself has offered in our day. It involves certain kinds of pilgrimages, or special buildings, or special payments, which one can perform, or attend, so that an indulgence is granted by the pope, which provides forgiveness of sins.
This is an appalling detraction from the absolute uniqueness of the death of Christ as the provision for sins and personal faith as the means by which that provision becomes ours.
Fifth, we should be concerned about the confusion over the doctrine of justification by grace alone, on the basis of Christ alone, through faith alone, to the glory of God alone.
The Roman Catholic insistence that justification consists in the infusion of righteousness, which as our own virtue qualifies us to be accepted by God, is not the same as the biblical doctrine of God becoming one-hundred percent for us in the moment when by faith we are united with Christ so that his blood and righteousness alone become the ground of that acceptance.
6. The Lord’s Supper
Sixth, we should be concerned about the centrality of the Mass in the Roman Catholic practice. There the bread and wine are actually said to be transubstantiated — they become the physical body and physical blood of Jesus.
The Lord’s Supper takes on a power of salvation by the entering of the blood and the body of Jesus into us, which it never was intended to have in the Bible. It misleads millions of what’s happening there.
Finally, we should be concerned about the doctrine of purgatory, in which a person after death may be given another chance of bearing some punishment.
In this view, they can make their way to heaven after doing appropriate penance there. The Bible holds out no such hope for those who die in unbelief. It is not found in the Scriptures.
Now, having waved a flag of concern for those seven matters of Catholic belief, my answer to the question, nevertheless, is yes. I think there are genuine Christians who are devout and inconsistent Roman Catholics. Devout in the sense that they’re earnest, serious, and sincere. Inconsistent in the sense that their true heart embrace of Jesus is better than their mental ideas or doctrines.
If a person has a genuine encounter with the living Christ and recognizes the depth of human sinfulness and the hopelessness we are in without grace and without Christ, and if they see in Jesus the substitute that God provided to bear our punishment and provide all we need for acceptance with God, and if that person throws himself on the mercy of Christ, despairing of all self-reliance, and cherishes Christ as his supreme treasure and hope for eternal life, then that person will be saved — even if many doctrinal ideas are confused or erroneous.
In other words, it is possible for a person’s heart and his essential grasp of Christ to be far better than the structures of his doctrinal framework. We may all be very, very thankful for this.