A Primer on Roman Catholicism (pt. 5)
Another one of the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic church which we want to look at briefly is the penitential system. This system begins with a contradiction in terms. The Roman church teaches that when a person is born again and repents, he is forgiven. The guilt of his original sin is canceled. The remaining sin (which Rome calls concupiscence) is not sin at all. I say this is a contradiction at the very beginning of the penitential system. It says the sin has been forgiven and is no longer sin but is now concupiscence. Nevertheless, it has to be repented of and it has to be punished.
The nonsensical character of this teaching may be seen more evidently by contrasting it with the understandable Protestant view. Even a person who may not believe the Protestant view will see that it is comprehensible, while the Roman view, even if he does believe it, is not comprehensible. So I am requesting all of you, whether you are Protestant or Roman or secularist, to read carefully as I try to show that the Roman view is actually a contradiction in terms.
That is to say, the Roman church teaches that original sin is really remitted and the remaining sin is not sin at all, but they treat it as if it were. Manifestly, as soon as you treat something as if it existed when, according to your teaching, it does not exist, you are communicating incomprehensibles. It would have to be one or the other. Either it is sin or it is not sin. Either it is punishable or it is not punishable. You cannot have something which is sin and yet not sin, punishable and yet not punishable. Yet this is the heart of the penitential system which in many ways is the heart of the Roman Catholic lifestyle.
To make matters more absurd still, the punishment of non-sin actually continues into purgatory. Persons who go to purgatory are persons whose sins in this world have not been adequately punished in this world. We have already indicated that, according to Roman theory, these things are being punished in this world, not to mention punished further in the world to come, are not sins at all! But that is the oxymoronic Roman Catholic penitential system. The penitential system which is what is occupying most Roman Catholic minds most of the time is, strictly speaking, a nonexistent system, an incomprehensible system.
Someone is very inclined to say at this juncture, “Gerstner, you are the one who is talking in contradictory terms. You are telling millions of people who are living in this system that they are living in a nonsystem. Now who is the idiot around here, they or you? Aren’t you like a person saying to a flesh-eating animal that flesh-eating animals cannot eat flesh?” Yes, if you wish to put it that way. This doctrine is as absurd as saying that a certain creature is a flesh-eating animal who cannot eat flesh. Man is a person who has no sins, but whose sins must nevertheless be punished in this world and in the world to come. When you ask how I can be sane when I contradict something that millions of people testify to, my answer ought to be very evident. Crazy as it may sound, they are testifying to something which does not and cannot exist. They must have some sort of coherent concept in their own minds if penitence is meaningful to them. What they must have in their own minds which is meaningful is, however, not what the Roman Catholic church teaches which is unmeaningful, nonmeaningful, impossible to be understood meaningfully.
I will now point out the Protestant way to show the absurdity of the Roman view in contrast to a comprehensible view. Protestantism, I would say, is a meaningful teaching, that a person can understand who nevertheless may deplore it, hate it, and reject it. But he can know what it is. Even though he rejects it, he knows what he is rejecting. If he accepts it, he knows what he is accepting. The Roman view, by contrast, is something which a person cannot know, whether he says he believes or disbelieves it.
The Protestant doctrine teaches that all the guilt of a person’s sin (past, present, and future) is eternally forgiven the moment he receives justification by the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness. Also, the power of his remaining sinfulness and sins remains but does not reign. These remaining sins bring chastening (not wrath or punishment), by his Father who loves him and for that reason chastens him so he becomes more and more like the One who died for him. That is understandable doctrine, and the Bible proves it true.
Excerpted from Primitive Theology by John H. Gerstner.
Note: This primer is intended to give an overview of the significant theological differences between historic Protestantism and historic Roman Catholicism. In a primer of this size, it is not possible to give a thorough examination of a theology that has been controverted for centuries. For a fuller treatment of the main difference between Catholicism and Protestantism—justification by faith alone—see Justification by Faith Alone or, for Dr. Sproul’s response to “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” see Getting the Gospel Right: The Tie That Binds Evangelicals Together.