A Primer on Roman Catholicism (pt. 3)
Confirmation, or Communicant Church Membership
Let us now see what Rome does with a person who is deeper in the pit now than he was before he met Roman dogma and practice. She teaches seven sacraments. The first of these is baptism. Five of them have to do with the way of salvation a la Rome. The other two are for some members of the Roman communion, but not for all. The five salvation sacraments are baptism, confirmation, eucharist, penance, and extreme unction. The two special sacraments are ordination and matrimony. No Roman Catholic needs to be married, nor does he or she need to go into orders and become what they call “religious.” But all Roman Catholics are to be baptized, to be confirmed, to receive the Mass, to observe confession and penance, and finally to have forgiveness at the time of death. We will consider only the five sacraments which deal with the way of life as they see it. Baptism has been discussed. Then comes confirmation.
Confirmation is normally administered to a baptized infant when he or she reaches 12 years of age. In the case of an unbaptized adult, it can occur any time that he is ready to profess the faith of Rome. Confirmation is based on accepting the explicit and implicit teaching of Rome.
If our criticism of baptism has been sound, the reader can see that confirmation would be a confirmation of death. It could not be a confirmation of life when no life takes place in so-called “baptismal regeneration.” We have shown that baptismal regeneration is a fiction that even Rome does not hold consistently, but contradicts at various points. The point here is that if a person is not regenerated at the time of baptism, there cannot be any confirmation of an event which never took place. Rome would have administered the baptism contrary to the Lord’s command, and now wrongly but consistently sees the person as ready for confirmation.
Such a “regenerate” person accepts the truth of God as represented by the Roman Catholic church. So the church instructs this person more thoroughly in the faith, which he or she affirms. As he understands more he will affirm more. Because he cannot ever understand all, he will be asked to exercise “implicit faith.” Implicit faith is in the Roman Catholic teaching hierarchy. It maintains that that hierarchy, ordained and guided by God, will teach the truth of God. Though the person does not know all that the church has taught in the past, not to mention all that she may teach in the future, he simply accepts the church as appointed by God to be the infallible interpreter of truth. Therefore, whatever she says, he will believe.
That is in and of itself a very consistent view. If Rome did have the role which she claims, I too would place implicit faith in everything she teaches.
We Protestants ascribe ultimate authority to the Word of God while Roman Catholic parishioners ascribe that to the Roman church. That is, we believe that the Bible is the Word of God. We acknowledge that we have never begun to know all the teachings of the Bible. We do know that anything it does teach is true. We do not have to hear what it is before we accept it. We accept it because of its source. Its authority is its being the Word of God. God cannot err. Therefore His Word cannot err. Therefore anything it teaches is true. Whether we at the present moment know what it teaches in a given area or not, we know this: What it teaches in a given area is true. We also know that the moment we know what it teaches in that area, we know the truth in that area. We are full of implicit faith. I, for one, know that I have far more implicit faith than explicit faith. That is, I know far less about the teachings of the Bible than I am ignorant of the teachings of the Bible. Though over 80 years of age, I am far, far from ever exhausting all the truths and have only minimal knowledge. But I do know that whatever you discover and can show me is the teaching of the Bible, that is not only your truth but it is my truth.
We have Protestant debates, but the debates are simply as to whether we are correctly interpreting the Bible or not. We do not debate about the truthfulness of what the Bible says.
We may debate one another as to whether he or she correctly understands the Bible. Debate ends the moment we have become persuaded of the Bible’s teaching. We have implicit faith in everything it teaches from today to eternity.
Rome claims all that for her magisterium, the hierarchical church. Excuse me for laughing. This is an awful comedown from the Protestant parallel to it. It is one thing to believe that God cannot err. It is another thing to believe that the Pope cannot err when he speaks ex cathedra. But that is what all Romanists have to believe. The hierarchy cannot err. Whatever a synod of the church has ever ascertained (the Pope assenting or confirming or agreeing or really establishing it), that is the truth of God. If you do not believe that, you cannot be confirmed as a Roman Catholic. If you do believe that, I am sorry to say, you confirm yourself as an unbeliever. You cannot believe in God and believe that any present human beings have the authority of God. But that is what you have to believe if you want to be confirmed as a Roman Catholic!
Let me remind the reader that confirmation rests on the parishioner’s accepting all that the Roman church teaches, including her fatally wrong doctrine of justification.
In the 400-plus-year controversy on justification, it is usually said that Rome teaches justification by works and Protestantism justification by faith. That description is true and false. It is true and false depending entirely on whether one understands the meaning of justification by works in Romanism and the meaning of justification by faith in Protestantism. (See section 7 of this primer.)
Most of the persons who comment on justification do not understand either the Roman view of justification by works or the Protestant view of justification by faith. So on the “article by which the church stands or falls,” there is a singular, widespread, almost omnipresent misunderstanding. Persons engaged in the Reformation debate usually did understand the issue. John Calvin certainly understood it, though he used some rather imprecise language at times.
Cardinal Bellarmine understood it as a defender of the Roman doctrine. But that cannot be said of all the Roman theologians at the Council of Trent (1546–63).
Speaking generally about Trent, I would say that while it correctly stated some parts of the doctrine, comprehensively speaking, it did not articulate soundly the doctrine which it anathematized. If that is so, it means that after the Reformation had maintained clearly the central doctrine at issue, the Roman church rejected the Protestant position without fully understanding or articulating it. If that is so, it is sad indeed.
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of understanding this extremely critical doctrine. If many of those who waged war concerning it did not know whereof they spoke and thought, that is a warning to all who come today to consider this crucial teaching.
If one understands the way the proponents advocated these positions, he can accurately say that Rome teaches justification by works and Protestantism teaches justification by faith alone. According to the Council of Trent’s “infallible” definition of justification, the “root” of it is faith. This faith, informed by love, produces good deeds as its fruit. When a perfect measure of good works is achieved, the person enters heaven. “Saints” actually inherit the kingdom of God or go to paradise as soon as they die. Those Romanists who have not achieved that degree of perfection in this world must suffer further punishment for their remaining sins in purgatory. When they have suffered sufficiently, they will, by the merit of the works which they did, go to heaven. That is justification by works, on the basis of works, on the merit of works (even though Rome formally attributes all “merit” to Christ). In that sense, the Roman Catholic church teaches that justification before God is an achievement of the human being who does the works of righteousness perfectly.
This teaching of Rome is misunderstood and virtually caricatured when it is represented as teaching justification by works alone. According to Rome, faith is the “root” of these works. One cannot do works pleasing to God apart from faith in Jesus Christ. No wonder many Roman Catholics become enraged with Protestants who accuse them of teaching justification by works apart from any faith whatever.
Romanists believe that faith is essential, just as Protestants believe that faith is essential. They do not think it is sufficient for justification, but they do not believe justification can come about apart from faith.
It is true that Rome teaches that ultimate justification is by the works or good activities of the baptized person. They will accept that attribution. They think it is true and infallibly defined by the Holy See itself. But do not tell a Roman Catholic that he is opposed to faith or does not believe in faith or does not realize the necessity of faith. He does indeed. The Council of Trent stressed the fact that faith is necessary as the root of the good works which we do for justification. Roman Catholicism teaches justification by works alone, but not by the works that are alone.
The reader can see that I am playing with the Reformation formula. The Reformation insisted that justification is by faith alone, but not by the faith that is alone. Justifying faith is working faith. Faith produces good works. Those works do not contribute to the justification, but they are inseparable from the faith which does justify. Likewise, Rome is saying, “Justification is by works alone, indeed, but not by the works that are alone. Works are dependent on faith. Faith leads to the works. So yes, we Romanists believe in justification by works alone, but not by works that are alone.”
Now that we are seeing the two positions properly and comparing them properly, let us evaluate the Roman position and, later, the Protestant position. Understanding Rome to teach justification by works in the manner just explained, is that doctrine the sound, biblical, saving doctrine of justification? Rome says it is. What does the Protestant say? As we know, Protestants in general, and the Reformed in particular, say it is not the true doctrine. It is not the saving justification of Holy Scripture.
So the question before us now is why do Protestants say that, and can such a contention be proven? We prove it this way. First, after a person is regenerated, he is still not fully sanctified. His corrupt nature is crucified and dying, but it is not yet dead. That is the reason Scripture is urging the saint to put to death the old man, and to clothe himself with the new man, to put away the works of darkness and to put on the works of light. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to confess our sins. As long as a man is required to confess his sins, he must have sins to confess.
Rome seems to feel that her “religious” are like that servant who did not only what he was required to do in the field, but did what he didn’t need to do—serving his master in his spare time at home (Luke 17:7ff). But there are no works of supererogation. Every man and woman is required to be perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48). They are to serve God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, loving Him and their neighbor as themselves. That is minimal duty for every person. If, therefore, a man is able to serve the Lord in a ministry by being celibate, he has the obligation to serve the Lord in that ministry by being celibate. It is perfectly true that marriage is legitimate for any man or woman, but not true for that man or woman who thinks that he or she can serve God more fully in the celibate state. If that person has the gift to live the celibate life, he or she has the duty to do so. Such persons are not going beyond the standard of perfection, they are only conforming to it.
Our Lord indicates that not everyone has that gift (Matthew 19:11–12). Those who do not have the gift for living a continent, celibate life have no obligation to avoid marriage. On the contrary, it is better to marry than to burn (1 Corinthians 7:9). Perfection is the standard and the goal for every person. If a person has “celibacility,” and concludes that they can love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love their neighbor as themselves better as a celibate than as a married person, they have no option to marry. Rome sins in making something mandatory for religious orders which God does not make mandatory. God does require every person to serve God perfectly, and to do so by the celibate life if and only if he has the gift to live continently in such a condition. Rome requires everyone who would be an ordained minister of the Word to forego marriage, whether he has the gift or not. The history of the church is full of the lapses from that model and terrible sins which men and women have brought upon themselves and others by endeavoring to do something they had no gift from God to do, but only a command from the church, countermanding God, which Rome is wont to do.
The Roman church’s salvation does not begin where she says it does, with baptism. Nor can it continue, as she says it does, in sanctification. And if there were sanctification, it would achieve no merit, which she claims. Certain-ly, if there were any merit in it, the most meritorious of all individuals is told by Scripture to say, “I am an unprofitable servant” (Luke 17:10). Unprofitable servants do not aspire to heaven on the basis of their perfection.
So Rome has not begun on the way, and even if she had she has not continued on that way. Her way to heaven is merit, and the Bible makes it perfectly plain that no mere human ever achieved justification by his merit. Our duty here is perfection. By divine grace it will be achieved in heaven. It will not be achieved in this world even by the truly regenerate, though they must ever strive for it.
So we see that the Roman Catholic way of justification is not the way of justification but of damnation. Why do I say damnation? Is the implication not obvious? If justification is the way by which a person is made just and acceptable to God, and the person is not justified, does he not remain in the state of condemnation from which justification alone could deliver him? That is to say, if Rome does not achieve justification, as I have shown she could not possibly do on her principles, she leaves the person in the state of condemnation in which he was born. Only now there is an aggravated guilt. Rome gives him the impression, falsely, that he is no longer in a state of condemnation, but actually is in a way of salvation. His last condition is far worse than his first when he entered the Roman church, by which he is made twofold more a child of hell (Matthew 23:15).
So the author of the book Rome Sweet Home denies the only way of justification, and yet fancies, by false Roman doctrine, that he is on his way to justification. If he really understands and believes the Roman Catholic way of salvation, he is in a state of condemnation worse than the one when he first believed this false gospel! How I pray that he and his followers may see that his last condition is worse than his first, and seek the Lord, who alone justifies, while He may be found.
Rome teaches different methods of sanctification. She believes in prayer, for example. One would be inclined to say that anyone who prays would surely be blessed by a prayer-hearing and a prayer-answering God. So whatever other error she may have in her scheme of salvation, certainly calling upon her people to pray regularly the Lord’s Prayer and other prayers, and leading them in prayer in worship services and so on, is an unmitigated good. However false their system may be, certainly this is a redeeming element: prayer.
But is it? Scripture says that the prayer of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord (Proverbs 15:9; 21:27; 28:9). Prayers like that would be better unmade. God is alienated by such rather than cultivated. He is angered rather than inclined to bless. Someone might say, “But look, He is a prayer-hearing and a prayer-answering God.” Yes, He is, but He is not an abomination-hearing God. The prayer of the wicked is not a prayer, it is an abomination. The way we would write that particular proverb would be by putting prayer in quotes, and reading it like this—“prayer” is an abomination. It is not prayer, it is a parody of prayer; it is a takeoff on prayer, a counterfeit of prayer, a mockery of prayer. An abomination is better left unuttered. Peter tells us that is the way pagans live who choose “living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry” (1 Peter 4:3). The prophecy of Amos has a section in which he represents wicked, unbelieving people offering sacrifices and singing and praying to God. God’s response is to cover His eyes, stop His ears, and hold His nose as the incense ascends. That incense is putrid when offered by the wicked. The hypocrites make worship into a crime against the Most High. He will by no means clear the guilty of such “prayer.”
The indictment of prayer in the Roman system may be the hardest one for the reader to bear. But you can see that once a person starts on the wrong road, then everything he does on that road is going to bring him closer to final destruction. Rome has started on the wrong road, and even if she does some things which are externally right, she still is on the wrong road and is moving closer all the while to destruction. People must recognize and remember this fact; otherwise they will be easily deceived into thinking that they are on the right road because they are doing some right things along the wrong road.
I call these “bad good works.” I mean by that that they are bad in their motivation because the person is wrongly related to God in the first place, even though the things themselves, such as giving money in church or kneeling to pray or going the second mile with someone who has misused you, are good in themselves. They are corrupted by the source from which they come. They are, as we say, poisoned springs. Even good things are poisoned when they come from a poisonous source. Mafia members often pray about their “hits.”
Manifestly, if one confuses this matter, he is prone to think he is an acceptable individual because a particular thing he is doing is in itself acceptable. As long as he is an unacceptable person, all that he does is unacceptable.
As a matter of fact, it becomes more offensive than ordinary evil deeds. An evil person always does evil deeds, even though they may appear to be good—grapes among thorns. When one seems to be doing what is good, and purports to be doing what is good, and claims to be doing what is good, and is considered by people as doing what is good, he is playing the role of hypocrite in all these circumstances. Hypocrisy makes a seeming good work worse than an obviously bad work for the simple reason that it seems to be what it is not. Evil as evil is at least seen as what it really is. Evil seen as good is a compounded evil. So none can sin like the saint. That is, none can sin like a person who seems to be a saint while actually being a sinner in false clothes. He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. None can blaspheme like the pious. “As it is written, ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’ ” Romans 2:24. You are a devil appearing as an angel of light. And the devil is never more devilish than when he appears as an angel of light.
I will not go on with this theme any longer because it ought to be apparent to everyone. But let me mention just one other matter before I proceed. Take the matter of a Roman Catholic observing the Lord’s Supper, which they call the Mass. Let’s right now overlook the fact that the Roman church wrongly deprives the people of the cup of communion, restricting that to the clergy. Also let us overlook the error of their doctrine of transubstantiation. That is, let us overlook any faults there may be in communion as administered by the Roman Catholic church. Let us simply consider it as an act of purported obedience to Christ who commands us to observe the Lord’s Supper until He comes again. Is it not clear that even when a group of falsely professed Christian people profess to do this communion in remembrance of Him they are sinning most profoundly? Yes, the communion is commanded by Christ. Yes, it is a duty of Christian people. Yes, it is a moment of greatest fellowship with God if it is done properly. But it is not right if the participant is himself not reconciled to God. If we have correctly shown that the Roman way of reconciliation is nonreconciling and actually alienates more than does making no such profession at all, then manifestly this person has no right to come to the Lord’s Supper at all. So while it is a duty of true Christian people to come, it is a duty of unconverted persons not to come, unless they choose to eat and drink damnation, as Paul says.
You shrink from this, but the conclusion is inevitable that when an unreconciled Roman Catholic comes to the Lord’s table, he eats damnation. At this particular point, you cannot help but observe rather sardonically that the Roman error of depriving the people of the cup turns out to be a benefit to her people, preventing them there-by from drinking condemnation and confining them solely to eating condemnation. The priest, of course, by participating in both the bread and the cup, brings upon himself a double condemnation.
So that which virtually every Catholic considers a high point in his journey toward heaven, namely communion, is where he touches spiritual bottom. There is no place at which a person can be more sacrilegious than when he eats and drinks condemnation to himself by participating in a communion to which he has no right.
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.