John, writing one of the last of the apostolic messages for the Church was particularly keen that God’s people would recognise the distinction between truth and error. Inspired by the Spirit of God he anticipated the false teaching that would be a recurrent theme as the New Testament age developed.
In every period of Church history falsehood has been a constant challenge for the people of God and our generation is no different. It is our responsibility to recognise error and know how to refute it while jealously holding onto the truth.
ROMANISM; The False Church
I describe the Roman Catholic Church as the greatest threat to the pure Gospel of grace, that exists in the world today. I say this because Rome claims to be the true Church and the only Church. If Rome’s claims are true, then we in the Protestant denominations are in grave trouble, because we are outside the pale of Christ’s body. Rome, therefore, claims that salvation can only exist within its sacramental system, not outside it. We must understand how to refute Rome’s claim and her theology. This is important as we come to look at Ecumenism in the next study and also in giving us the tools to reach Roman Catholics with the Gospel.
The terminologies I use are not employed lightly. The Roman Catholic Church claims to the be the true Church, the true Catholic or universal Church on earth. Their claim, however, is that the Catholic Church must have a Roman centre, something which is entirely unbiblical. To insist that the Church must have a Roman heart is to introduce the cult of Romanism into Christianity. It is this cult, this error which masquerades as Christianity which this study focuses upon.
I understand that Roman Catholics who read these words may feel offended and Protestants whose denominations have weakened their stance on Rome may feel uncomfortable. That is not the intention, its a by-product of the truth that must be presented with love but in faithfulness. To such I encourage an open mind to think the issues through; and I will welcome comments or questions.
I appreciate that Roman Catholics and Protestants have a lot in common. We share a common heritage stretching back through the Church Fathers, Athanacious, Jerome, Augustine of Hippo and Justin Martyr to the the days of the Apostles. In saying that there are great differences in our understanding of Christian history, differences which drive me to the conclusion that that the early centuries of Christianity were Catholic in a Protestant sense; and it was this truth that the Reformers rediscovered. We share some of the core truths of Scripture, especially the great Nicene Creed and its affirmation that God subsists as a Trinity of Father, Son and Ghost. We share certain moral values, particularly where the sanctity of marriage, sexuality and the preciousness of life from conception is concerned. Yet there are distinctions, vital and important distinctions that we must not trivialise. It is these distinctions, which directly impact upon the Gospel, which I wish to consider in this article.
The Authority of the Papacy
Romanism is sometimes called Popery by Protestants because the entire system depends upon Papal authority. Without the Pope there is no Roman Catholic communion.
In order to validate this authority Rome claims that there is an unbroken line of succession from Peter, the first Pope through to the present incumbent, Pope Francis. Therefore, Christ still rules His Church with apostolic authority from Rome. All authority within the Church flows from the Papacy. The Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops and Parish Priests cannot exist and do their work without this authority that stems from Rome. Therefore to attack the Papacy is to take an axe to the bottom of the tree, and in so doing the entire edifice will fall. This is why Roman Catholics take such exception to any criticism of the Pope.
The authority that they claim for the Pope cannot be proven from Scripture. There is no Scripture nor is there historic evidence that Peter ever presided over the Church in Rome. While Roman Catholics may trace the history of Christianity back through the ages to the early Church they cannot trace the Papacy back that far. In fact, there is no evidence from history that the Bishop of Rome claimed authority over the entire body of the Church until the capital of the Roman Empire shifted to Constantinople in the fifth Century. When the Bishop of Rome over the centuries attempted to tighten his grip over all Christians this was resisted so strongly, particularly in Eastern Europe and Asia that a great disruption took place and the Orthodox Churches were formed. Nor is there evidence that the early Christian Church in Ireland and Scotland, known sometimes as the Celtic Church, understood that the Bishop of Rome was fundamental to their existence.
The Papacy relies on a false premise and in so doing it replaces Christ with a man, claiming that this man is the sole Vicar or representative of Christ on earth, who can define doctrine on behalf of the Church in an infallible manner. The boasts of the Papacy are breathtaking in the extreme and without foundation. The Pope is a reincarnation of the old Roman Emperor in and for centuries this was how he acted until the Protestant Reformation greatly diminished his power.
The Mediation by the Priesthood
The singular aspect of Romanism which the devout Roman Catholic engages with on a weekly and for some on daily basis is the work of the Parish Priest.
The New Testament Christian requires one Priest, our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ the Righteous. As our Great High Priest, Christ makes intercession, He is our mediator. Romanism teaches that there are many Mediators; the Pope, Mary, the Saints and the Priests. The Parish Priest offers the sacrifice of the Mass for his flock, he prays on their behalf, he hears their confession, he forgives their sins, he administers the Last Rites and continues to care for their souls after death through Masses and the blessing of graves. It is impossible to have any eternal hope without the work of the Priest.
The Scriptures on the other hand teach most definitely that there is but one mediator m, Jesus Christ, and He is all the soul desires or requires.
The Elevation of Tradition
Romanism is well aware that many of its practices are devoid of Biblical authority. Therefore, to protect its system it was important that Scripture be undermined and another authority be elevated to a place of parity.
For this reason Romanism lays great store on traditions and the writings of the Church Fathers. Some of the Church Fathers were good godly leaders who are recognised by Protestants for the value of their work. But there were others who introduced errors into Christianity. But ultimately all were mortal men, only sinners, and to make their work as authoritative as Scriptures was a grave sign of apostasy.
Only the Old and New Testaments as inspired by the Holy Ghost and preserved by divine Providence are authoritative. Only they are truth, only they contain the voice of God. Yet Romanism for centuries persecuted people to the point of death who dared to translate the Scriptures into the common language of the people. It was the work of men like Wycliffe and Tyndale which liberated the world from the dark ages. It only where the Bible exists and rightfully regarded as the sole source of authority, that the light shines.
The Prayers for the Dead
One of the misleading corruptions introduced by Romanism is the myth of purgatory; a doctrine which has deceived the living as well as creating considerable wealth for the coffers of the Church. The idea that one’s sin can be purged through suffering for an indeterminable period of time and that the suffering can only be relieved by Masses and prayers, which the living must pay for, is most unscriptural. Heaven and Hell are the only two eternal places admitted in Scripture; there is no second opportunity.
The Engagement of Images
One of the obvious distinctions between Romanism and Protestantism are the use of images, relics and holy pictures in worship. While the Roman Catholic is quick to assert that these are only aids, one can clearly see how the image takes on the place of Christ in worship.
This is certainly true where the adoration of the crucifix is concerned, a symbol which was never used in the early years of Christianity. There is in Popery, an obsession with the macabre, with the pains and the agonies of suffering. This undoubtedly feeds into penance and the necessity of embracing pain in order to receive absolution.
But Rome has moved beyond images of Christ to images of saints, especially of the Virgin Mary who has become a mediator, a Mediatrix on a par with her Son. Indeed the Church teaches that the compassion and feminine sensitivity of the Mother are sufficient to turn away the anger of her Son.
Therefore, Mary is elevated on a par with Christ, and accorded a place which God and the Gospel never intended her to have. The attachment which Mary has in the psyche of Roman Catholics is evidenced through the immense popularity that the great Marian shrines continue to hold in places like Fatima, Lourdes and Knock. Mariolatry has become a cult within the greater cult of the false Church.
The Sacrifice of the Mass
Since the Reformation, however, the Mass has often been identified as the single greatest blasphemy of which Romanism is guilty. The Mass involves the act of Transubstantiation where the Priest consecrates the bread and the wine transforming their substance into the body and blood of Christ. As the sacrament is offered upon the altar the sacrifice of Christ is presented and offered.
In 2018 an article I wrote entitled “The Protestant at the Mass”, (https://justbyfaithalone.net/blog/the-protestant-at-the-mass) received attention by the Irish News and they published a reply by Patrick McAfferty, Parish Priest of Corpus Christi, Belfast. In his article he called the mass “the Holiest of all that is holy” and he affirmed the faith of Catholic Christians “in the real presence of the Risen Christ in the unleavened bread and the wine in the chalice, after they have been changed, by the power of the Holy Spirit, into the body and blood, soul and divinity, of Jesus Christ” (https://www.irishnews.com/news/northernirelandnews/2018/05/02/news/catholic-priest-describes-mass-is-evil-remarks-as-grotesque–1318802/)
Such thinking generates superstition as the wafer and the wine become God, but it also undermines the atonement procured by Christ on the cross as a singular sacrifice, offered once for all.
The Emphasis upon Works
One cannot examine the elements of Roman falsehoods without identifying the greatest error of all. The sharpest distinction between Protestantism and Romanism, between the theology of the true Church and that of the false Church, is her stance on Justification.
At the heart of the Gospel is the teaching that we are justified though our faith in Christ alone. This was the battle ground of the Protestant Reformation and it continues to at the core of our controversy with Romanism more than five hundred years later. Rome teaches that one is justified on the basis of faith plus obedience to the Church. This obedience involves participation in the sacraments of Church. Romanism has devised its own way of salvation which places the emphasis upon the Church rather than Christ.
Even at the close of a faithful Roman Catholic’s life, the Priest must be called for, opportunity given to confess sin, the holy anointing oil is applied, the Lord’s Prayer is recited, the prayer is offered and if the individual is able prayer is offered. This is known as Extreme Unction or the Anointing of the Sick, here in Ireland it is simply called the Last Rites. The website Catholic Online emphasises the importance of the final sacrament, which highlights just how works based Romanism is:
“As to Anointing by conferring the Holy Spirit completes the sacrament of baptism, so extreme unction is the complement and completion of penance. Penance restores the justification lost by sin, extreme unction takes away the infirmity left by sin; it ‘removes that state which might be an obstacle to the clothing with glory of the resurrection’; and, as every sacrament makes us men in some respect like Christ, ‘so we become by extreme unction like the risen Christ because it will be given to the dying as a sign of the glory to come in which everything mortal will be stripped from the elect’ “
These thoughts regarding the errors of Romanism should fill us with a sense of sadness regarding the plight of millions throughout Ireland and the world who are either faithful to this system or in the case of many, disillusioned by the failings of the Church. We have a message of true hope to bring to them.
We should feel a sense of obligation to appreciate the truth that we possess, not to take it for granted, hold it fast, don’t compromise or weaken the Gospel standard.