That man is a fallen creature in need of salvation is acknowledged by Roman Catholics and Protestants alike. It is also agreed that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. This may appear to be an all-important area of agreement, but unfortunately Roman Catholicism must be charged with having distorted the biblical doctrine of salvation to such an extent that in fundamental respects it has departed from the pure Gospel of the New Testament. This is a serious charge to make against an ecclesiastical system; but it is made in a spirit of charity, not contentiousness, and in the hope that Roman Catholic friends will be prepared, as befits Christians, to reconsider their position in the light of the teaching of Holy Scripture.

In the first place, Rome teaches that the fall of man involved only the loss of original righteousness, which is explained as a gift added to man after his creation; this loss therefore leaves him in the state in which he was created—a purely natural state, and a supposedly neutral state, in which he is predisposed neither to good nor to evil. This in turn permits man the ability to incline himself either to good or to evil and to cooperate with God in the achievement of his salvation.

Thus we find the Council of Trent both pronouncing an anathema on all who teach that man is justified by faith alone, and declaring that man must cooperate in obtaining the grace of justification, that his justification may be increased by good works which he performs, and that a man once justified can lose his justification.

These official Roman Catholic pronouncements are still in force today and are aimed directly against the Reformed doctrine, consciously formulated from the apostolic teaching of the New Testament, that a man is justified only by faith in the perfect atoning work of Christ, and not at all by any works of his own doing (cf. Eph. 2:8 f.; Rom. 3:28; 5:1; 11:6; 2 Tim. 1:9; Tit. 3:5); that in Christ his justification is full and complete, and therefore cannot be added to; and that, as it is entirely the work of Almighty God, it cannot fail or be lost (cf. Col. 2:9 f.; 1 Cor. 1:30; Phil. 1:6; John 10:28 f.). The Reformers, none the less, laid great stress on the importance of good works—not, however, in any sense as a cause or root of justification, but as the necessary effect or fruit of the faith which justifies.

The teaching of Roman Catholicism follows from that church’s conception of fallen man as being, as far as his will is concerned, in a state of neutrality, so that he has the faculty of preparing himself and contributing to his own salvation. The Reformers learned from Scripture, however, that man is not morally neutral, but rather that his will is in bondage to sin and hostilely opposed to the will of God. The wonderful thing about God’s grace in Christ is that it is freely bestowed on man when by sin he has made himself God’s enemy and has no strength to help himself (cf. Rom. 5:6, 8 ff.). The complete powerlessness of man to contribute anything towards his salvation is nowhere more graphically stated than in Ephesians 3:1 ff., where the Apostle Paul describes the state of fallen man as a condition of being dead in trespasses and sins.

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Man’s eternal security in Christ rests squarely on his justification’s being entirely the work of God’s grace. To give man even a small part in the achievement of his own justification is to place him in a position of uncertainty. It is to rob him of the full assurance of his salvation which is every believer’s birthright (Rom. 8:15 f.; 2 Tim. 2:19). This fundamental insecurity is reflected in the elaborate sacerdotal system of the conveyance of grace of Roman Catholicism, in its penances, indulgences, and purgatorial perspective, which can flourish only where man is uncertain of his ultimate justification before God because his spiritual status is jeopardized through defections and sins committed after his baptism. The Reformed reply to this is that the New Testament knows only one means of atonement for sin, only one purgatory for the cleansing away of defilement, and that is the blood of Jesus Christ shed on the Cross, which cleanses the believer from all sin (cf. 1 John 1:7 ff.; Heb. 10:18).

The Roman Catholic teaching means, further, that justification and sanctification become hopelessly confused. The voluntary endurance of severe penances, affliction of the body with painful indignities, repetition of prayers, and withdrawal from the world, which together constitute the high road of holiness for the Roman Catholic who can travel it, are in reality a way of preoccupation with one’s acceptance (= justification) before God. The hope all along is to gain favor with God by what one does to oneself and for oneself.

The Treasury Of Merits

The assumption of the neutrality of the “natural” man lends itself to yet another elaboration, namely, that a man may even perform good works over and above what is necessary for his own acceptance and thereby accumulate a reserve of surplus merit. These are known as works of supererogation, and the credit balance thus built up in “the bank of merit” is then made available in the form of indulgences to the common run of church members, whose spiritual accounts are “in the red.” Application of this concept of superfluous merit has in the past provided a lucrative source of revenue for the papal coffers. It was rightly denounced by the Reformers as a dreadful corruption of the Christian Gospel, doing despite to the perfect adequacy of Christ, whose work alone is meritorious for our salvation, and showing an astonishing disregard for the admonition of Christ himself that even if one were to perform all that God demands of him, yet he should still describe himself as an unprofitable servant (Luke 17:10).

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If a man may thus amass surplus merit which others may draw upon, it is not surprising to find the Roman Catholic Church encouraging its members to pray to apostles and saints for assistance (hagiolatry), and if to human creatures, then to super-human creatures also (angelolatry). Once again, all this is contrary to the clear teaching of the New Testament. It is God alone whom we can worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). Thus when Cornelius wished to worship an apostle, Peter forbade him (Acts 10:25 f.), and when the Apostle John was about to worship an angel, he was told by the angel: “See thou do it not … worship God” (Rev. 22:8).

The Worship Of Mary

It is, however, in the cult of Mary (mariolatry) that this extension of worship reaches its fullest expression. Mary has been exalted to a position which in effect is on a par with that of Christ. Adored as “the Queen of Heaven,” she has virtually ousted the Holy Spirit from the Trinity. The title “Mother of God” (Theotokos), which was applied to her at the Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) in preference to the title “Mother of Christ” (Christotokos), has been effectively manipulated by those who have promoted the cult of Mary over the centuries. In more recent times the cult has been immensely strengthened by the official ex cathedra papal definitions of the dogmas of the immaculate conception (1854) and the bodily assumption of Mary (1950). Neither of these dogmas receives any support in Holy Scripture, and until the respective dates of their definition they were both hotly disputed within the Roman Catholic Church. Now, however, all Roman Catholics are bound to believe them for the salvation of their souls.

For centuries, it is true, extravagant claims have been made for Mary; but, bolstered by the definitions of 1854 and 1950, these claims have been hardened into official dogmas. They have been supported, moreover, by a series of papal pronouncements. In 1891, for example, Pope Leo XIII declared that “as no one can come to the Most High Father except through the Son, so, generally, no one can come to Christ except through Mary.” Pope Benedict XV affirmed in 1918 that Mary had redeemed the human race in cooperation with Christ. In 1946, on the occasion of the crowning of Mary’s statue at Fatima, Pope Pius XII made the unequivocal statement: “Mary is indeed worthy to receive honor and might and glory. She is exalted to hypostatic union with the Blessed Trinity.… her kingdom is as great as her Son’s and God’s.” The phenomenal growth, too, of the cult of Mary at places like Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal has not been without strong encouragement from the highest quarters—so much so that there is wide expectation that the next papal dogma to be defined infallibly ex cathedra will be that of Mary’s co-redeemership with Christ.

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This, in any case, is the logical outworking of the Roman Catholic doctrine of salvation. If fallen man is neutrally disposed, so that he both can and must cooperate in his own salvation, then man as well as God has a saving capacity; and, this being so, it is reasonable that one human being (Mary), who is supposed to have been without taint of sin, should become the exponent of all man’s potentialities by being exalted to the status of Christ’s fellow redeemer and fellow mediator, and even to the height of consubstantiality with God.

It is regrettable that it should be necessary to point out that Mary, though highly favored of God (Luke 1:28), was a sinful human creature in need of salvation with the rest of mankind (hence her description of God as her Saviour, Luke 1:47), and that to ascribe to her the glory which is due to Christ alone (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5 f.; Phil. 2:5–11; Rev. 5:9, 12 f.) is both blasphemous and destructive of the Gospel.

Prospects Of Vatican Ii

What, finally, may be said of the Vatican Council, shortly to be resumed under the new pope, which is so largely concerned with the question of Christian unity? We welcome every opportunity for frank and charitable discussion with our Roman Catholic friends on the subject of the vital doctrine of our salvation in Christ, especially in humble attentiveness to the testimony of God’s holy Word.

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But, in the first place, Dr. Hans Küng, whose writings have been so enthusiastically received in Protestant circles, has made it clear that his church’s “dogmatic definitions express the truth with infallible accuracy and are in this sense unalterable” (The Council and Reunion, 1961, p. 163); secondly, Cardinal Bea, president of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity instituted by the late Pope John XXIII, has asserted categorically that reunion, as far as Rome is concerned, must mean “submission in matters of Doctrine and Discipline” under “the supreme pastor, the successor of St. Peter, the Bishop of Rome,” and, with reference to the World Council of Churches, that “the Catholic Church cannot, as has often been asked and desired, become a member of this organization, which has a completely different character from the structure given by Christ Himself to the Church He founded” (Christian Unity: A Catholic View, 1962, pp. 63, 68 f.); and, thirdly, the new Catholic Dictionary of Theology (Vol. I, 1962), now in process of production, has declared, with particular reference to Anglicanism, that reunion can only entail acceptance of “the supremacy of the Holy See and the doctrinal definitions of 1854, 1870, and 1950, together with those of the Council of Trent,” and that any amalgamation of the Church of Rome with the Church of England or the Anglican communion is, “as anyone with the smallest knowledge of these matters knows to be the case, inconceivable.”

On these terms, reunion is inconceivable for those who hold the evangelical doctrines of Holy Scripture.

Philip Edgcumbe Hughes is editor of The Churchman, Anglican theological quarterly. He holds the M.A and D.Litt. degrees from the University of Cape Town and the B.D. from the University of Londan. Vice-president of the International Association for Reformed Faith and Action, he edits its International Reformed Bulletin.

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