Can praying to Mary or the saints keep a professing Christian out of heaven?
SPROUL: It’s a gross act of idolatry to be praying to Mary and to the saints. That is a very serious matter.
I think there are thousands—perhaps millions—of people within the Roman Catholic Church who really are trusting in Christ and Christ alone for their salvation. They are not trusting the way of salvation that their own church teaches, just like there are multitudes of people in Presbyterian churches that don’t believe in the Reformed doctrines. That’s the happy inconsistency of our friends who are in Rome. However, they have to understand that Rome has categorically, consistently, and clearly denied the gospel. No matter all the other good things Rome does, such as opposing abortion and affirming the Trinity, the anathematizing of the gospel at the Council of Trent has never been rescinded and was reaffirmed as recently as the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In my opinion, that disqualifies Rome as a valid church. I think it’s an apostate body.
With that in mind, I believe that every true Christian who really is trusting in Christ has a moral obligation to leave the communion of Rome and to identify themselves with a church. They will not find a perfect church, but they should find a valid church that doesn’t deny an essential truth of the Christian faith. As long as the gospel is an essential truth of the Christian faith, you don’t want to be in a communion that denies it. You don’t want to say, “I believe in Jesus, but I’m praying to His mother,” or, “I’m praying to these saints.” In doing so, you’re attributing to Christ’s mother and the saints the powers of intercession that belong only to the Mediator, Christ Himself.
Now, I think that you can be a Christian and have all kinds of errors in your theology, just like John talked about in his congregation. We have the same approach at Saint Andrew’s. You don’t have to affirm the Westminster Confession of Faith to be a member of Saint Andrew’s. You do have to affirm it to be an officer, but not to be a member.
All of us have error mixed in with truth in our faith, but some of this error is extremely dangerous. Most people who go to church, regardless of their communion, are not deeply informed about the theology of that particular communion or what’s going on in the worship service. I, for example, being a student of Roman Catholic theology, could not possibly participate in a Mass because I know what the doctrine of the Mass is. The church teaches that you have a real sacrifice of Christ in the Mass. It’s unbloody, to be sure, but it’s still a sacrifice. At Trent, it was defined in terms of sacrifice.
I had a friend who was in the Roman Catholic communion and was leaving it, and we had a discussion about the sacrifice in the Mass. He went to his priest and complained about this business of the sacrifice, and the priest told him, “Your friend doesn’t know the Latin of what we really teach.” My friend came back to me, so I showed him Trent. I said, “You ask your priest what the Latin term sacrificio means in English,” and that was the end of it. It’s a real sacrifice. There are priests out there who don’t believe it’s a real sacrifice, even an unbloody one. The official teaching of the church, however, is that it is a real sacrifice. How can you believe in the once-for-all atonement of Christ and participate in a celebration of His being sacrificed again, as unbloody as that may be? That’s ghastly.
Other than that, I don’t have an opinion.
MACARTHUR: I would add a footnote to that, and of course I believe what has just been said. Probably over 50% of the people in our church through the years who have come to Christ have come out of Roman Catholicism. We have a large Hispanic and Asian population in Los Angeles with a Catholic background, so we’re very used to seeing people liberated from Catholicism.
One of the other tragic things about praying to the saints and to Mary is that it strikes a blow against the gracious character of God and Christ. The idea is that God is very tough and wrathful. He’s somewhat transcendent rather than imminent. You don’t really want to go directly to God, which flies in the face of what Scripture says. Scripture teaches that God is compassionate and marked by loving-kindness. He shows mercy to thousands, is tender-hearted, and weeps through the eyes of Jeremiah. The same would be true of Christ.
The idea is that you don’t want to go directly to God because He’s preoccupied, somewhat indifferent, and transcendent. You also don’t really want to go to Jesus because He can be pretty tough as well. However, Jesus can’t resist His mother, and God can’t resist Jesus, so that’s the chain. You go to Mary because Mary can soften up Jesus and then Jesus can take it to the Father. That whole idea is an assault on the saving nature of God, who is by nature a Savior and full of compassion and mercy toward sinners. He can be pled with directly, and this layering assumes that God is less than gracious, merciful, kind, compassionate, and sympathetic to the sinner. It is a blow against His nature and the nature of Christ as well.
This is a transcript of R.C. Sproul’s and John MacArthur’s answers given during our 2012 West Coast Conference, and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, just visit Ask.Ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.