Some time ago, a friend asked me for some help in figuring out the differences between Roman Catholicism and the biblical faith confessed by Reformed churches. This was my reply:
I think you hit it dead on when you mentioned the “solas” of the Reformation. The “solas” strike at the heart of the differences between Rome and Reformed churches.
Rome states that salvation is by grace — as your correspondents above have argued. However, it is grace plus man’s effort. The traditional Roman Catholic formulation is, “God will not deny his grace to those who do what is in their power.” In more modern terms, “God helps those who help themselves.” The technical term for this is semi-Pelagianism. Man is not spiritually dead, but only sick and needs a little help from grace.
By contrast, the Reformed churches state that salvation is by grace alone — grace being defined as unmerited or even forfeited divine favour, receiving the opposite of what one deserves. Man is dead in sins and trespasses (Ephesians 2:1), his heart is deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9) and he can do nothing to help himself. This is the traditional Augustinian position — it was emphatically not a Reformation innovation. It is only and entirely by God’s grace that man is saved.
Rome states that people are justified by faith. However, Rome has explicitly denied that justification is by faith alone and in fact condemns Reformed believers who hold to this position:
If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning thereby that no other cooperation is required for him to obtain the grace of justification, and that in no sense is it necessary for him to make preparation and be disposed by a movement of his own will: let him be anathema [accursed] (Council of Trent, session 6, canon 9).
Moreover, according to Rome, justification is a life-long process by which we are made righteous, rather than a one-time event where we are declared righteous. We must, they say, increase and preserve our justification. Finally, faith is also redefined by Rome to include good works and these good works become part of the meritorious basis of justification.
By contrast, the Reformed churches state that justification is by faith alone (Romans 3-4). God declares us righteous (a one-time event) not on the basis of our faith, but through the instrument of our faith. We’ll come to the basis in a moment.
Rome states that Christ is needed for salvation and our well-being for now and eternity. However, one may and should also make use of the merits of the saints, especially Mary. It is not Christ alone, but Christ plus. The worship (devotion) given to Mary is the most glaring example of this. The Catholic Catechism goes so far as to say that she is our Advocate and Mediatrix, and that “the Church’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin is intrinsic to Christian worship.” Also, as noted above, it is not Christ alone when it comes to justification. Instead, it is Christ plus… Here’s Trent again:
…they through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith cooperating with good works, increase in that justice received through the grace of Christ and are further justified (Trent, session 6, canon 10).
And here Reformed believers are again condemned by Rome:
If anyone says that justice once received is neither preserved nor increased in the sight of God by good works, but that the works themselves are no more than the effects and signs of justification obtained, and not also a cause of its increase, let him be anathema (Trent, session 6, canon 24).
The Reformed churches argued that only Jesus Christ is needed for our salvation and for our well-being for now and eternity. They could find no evidence in the Bible of a distinction between devotion and adoration, much less of the idea that we should be offering any kind of worship to a mere human being. Second Timothy 2:5 is clear that there is one Mediator between God and men, allowing no room for a Mediatrix or co-Advocate. Furthermore, Christ alone is the basis for our justification — he lived a perfect life of obedience for us and in our place. He died once for all on the cross for us and in our place. God imputes all his merits to us, and all our sin has been imputed to him and thus we are accounted righteous before God.
Rome states that the Bible has authority. But it is not the Bible alone which has the ultimate authority. Rather, for Rome, it is Scripture plus tradition. So, for instance, even though the Assumption of Mary (the doctrine that Mary did not die but was taken up directly into heaven) is nowhere found in Scripture, the tradition makes it a dogma and it becomes one.
The Reformed churches retorted that only the Bible can be our ultimate authority and we may not add or take away as we please, even if we were angels from heaven (2 Tim. 3:16-17, Deut. 12:32, Rev. 22:18-19, Gal. 1:8). Yes, we ought to give heed to the early church fathers, councils, synods, etc. In fact, the writings of the Reformers are filled with references to these. But because these are all made up of men, they can and have erred. Thus, everything is to be scrutinized with the infallible and inerrant Scripture, which is the norming norm.
The Glory of God Alone
Finally, Rome states that God is to be worshipped and glorified. Yet, Rome also promotes the worship of Mary and the saints, giving glory to human beings. The “Hail, Mary” and “Hail, Holy Queen” prayers on the rosary would be enough to prove this, and much more could be added.
The Reformed have always said, “Soli Deo Gloria,” “To God Alone the Glory.” God alone is to be worshipped and glorified, God alone receives all credit for our salvation and all thanks for all good things (Romans 11:36, Ephesians 1 — see how many times it mentions “to the praise of his glory”).
I think it bears noting that the first generations of Reformers, including the authors of the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism, were raised in the Roman Catholic Church. They were very familiar with what the Roman Catholic Church taught, probably a lot more than many modern day Protestants and Roman Catholics. The Reformation happened for a reason — Rome did not make its case on the basis of the Bible, nor did it evidence a love for a Christ-obsessed and Christ-saturated gospel. Rome forsook the narrow path and opted for an eclectic mix of teachings which diluted the monergistic and God-glorifying doctrines of the apostles and prophets. If a person truly believes (rests and trusts) in Jesus Christ alone for his or her salvation and well-being for now and eternity, that person does not belong in the Roman Catholic Church where such a belief is condemned. The Catholic Church is not found at the Vatican.