ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–As the world observes the election of the first new pope of the Roman Catholic Church in more than 25 years, many Baptists may be thinking through how Catholic beliefs differ from their own.
“The Catholic understanding of God is the same as the Trinitarian view of God held by evangelicals,” said Bill Gordon, an associate with the North American Mission Board’s interfaith evangelism team and author of NAMB’s overview of the faith, Roman Catholicism Belief Bulletin.
“The Jesus of Catholicism is the same Jesus we worship,” continued Gordon, a Southern Baptist authority on Catholicism. “He is the second person of the Holy Trinity, fully God and fully man, who died on the cross and rose again from the dead.”
Gordon said, however, that while Catholics and Southern Baptists alike are ardent defenders of the sanctity of human life and the institution of marriage between one man and one woman, the two groups hold starkly different beliefs about the key doctrine of eternal salvation.
“Catholics will agree that you have to be saved by the grace of God that comes through Jesus Christ,” Gordon said. “Catholicism, however, teaches that one receives God’s grace through the church’s sacraments. Southern Baptists believe, according to Scripture, that we receive God’s grace solely through faith in Jesus Christ, by faith alone.
“Catholics also have a sacramental understanding of how God’s grace is dispensed,” Gordon explained. “To receive the grace of God and eternal salvation, the Catholic Church teaches that you have to receive the sacraments from their church. Southern Baptists believe that the sacraments are contrary to the teaching of the Bible and that grace is received directly from God. We don’t have to go through an intermediary. The church doesn’t control God’s storehouse of grace. We receive all the grace we need directly from God when we believe in Jesus Christ.”
Gordon said the Catholic Church also distinguishes between the seriousness of various sins. Murder, adultery, stealing and lying are called mortal sins which must be confessed to a priest in order to receive forgiveness. Other less serious sins, known as venial sins, according to Catholicism, can be atoned for after death in a place called purgatory.
According to the Bible, all sins are serious, and any sin will condemn a person to hell apart from the grace of God which comes from faith in Jesus Christ, Gordon said.
“Traditionally, Catholics have interpreted purgatory as a place of punishment where a person is purified.” Gordon said. “According to Catholic theology, everyone in purgatory will eventually be purified of the taint of sin and make it into heaven.”
Mike Licona, director of NAMB’s interfaith evangelism team, said the Apostle Paul’s teaching in Philippians that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,” contradicts the Catholic concept of purgatory.
“Christ’s atoning sacrifice covers all our sins — past, present and future,” Licona said.
Gordon said the differences in beliefs about eternal salvation between Southern Baptists and Catholics can be attributed in large part to each denomination’s view of Scripture.
Catholicism holds that its traditions are equal in authority with the teachings of Scripture. For Southern Baptists, the Bible is the sole spiritual authority.
“I do believe that it’s possible for Roman Catholics to be genuinely saved in spite of what their church teaches,” Gordon added. “It’s faith in Jesus Christ that saves, not membership in a church or denomination. Salvation is not determined by church membership. Salvation is determined by personal faith in Jesus Christ.”
For more information about the differences between Catholicism and Southern Baptist beliefs, visit www.4truth.net and download for free the Roman Catholicism Belief Bulletin.