Richard Lee is the Lead Pastor of Bethany Well Church in Fort Lee, NJ. The views expressed here are his own and not those of the church.
This post is one in a series called, Ask the Pastor. If you would like to ask a question, please email: email@example.com. Of course, I don't speak for all Christians, but I do speak for one.
Q: What is the difference between being Catholic and being Christian? ~ Tracy M.
If I were to ask you, “What is the difference between being Korean and being Chinese?” we would quickly see the inherent difficulty in answering specifically a question that involves such broad elements. There are differences between Korean people and Chinese people, but one cannot speak so generally, without incurring the dissension of those who are exceptions. “Not all Koreans are like that...”
The difficulty of answering the Catholic/Christian question is even more severe. There are so many different types of Christians and Catholics and there may not be an easy or simple answer to that question. So long as you grant me the disclaimer that this will certainly not pertain to all Catholics or all Christians, I will try and answer the question as best as I can.
First of all, we have to redefine “Christians”. By distinguishing Christians from Catholics, we’re really talking about Catholics and Protestants (Martin Luther, Protestant Reformation, 95 Theses...). During the Protestant Reformation, the main distinctions between Protestantism and Catholicism were called the Five Solas (‘sola’ means ‘only’ in Latin). I will deal with each of these and try and present them from both sides.
SOLA SCRIPTURA – Scripture Alone
Protestants would say: The source of authority for all Christians is found in the Bible* alone. This was a rejection of office and authority of the Pope as a source of revelation from God.
Catholics would say: The Scriptures cannot be properly interpreted by individuals alone and must rely upon the tradition of the church and interpretation of Scripture by the Pope.
I say: The importance of this issue lies in the question of who has authority in life of a believer. To place emphasis on Scripture alone is to seek to keep the authority in God and not in any human beings or human constructs. As part of my occupation as a pastor, I spend most of my time researching and writing sermons that help my congregation interpret the Scriptures. However, I am there to help them in their understanding of Scriptures. I don’t think I would have a hard time convincing anyone that the moment that ultimate authority is placed on a human and not on God, then bad things are sure to follow.
*The Catholic Old Testament contains 7 books that are not part of the Hebrew Scriptures or the Protestant Bible.
SOLA FIDE – Faith Alone
Protestants would say: Salvation is received through faith alone. It is not something that is earned in the beginning through works, nor maintained to the end through works. The emphasis is on the faith at conversion that secures your eternal promise in God and heaven.
Catholics would say: Faith is not sufficient without maintaining it through your works. Baptism and participation in the sacraments is what determines the quality of your faith throughout your life. Some Catholics would say that your faith at conversion is not as important as your faith at the end of your life.
I say: I have a hard time believing any religion that places the emphasis on human behavior. At worst, you have human beings held to impossibly high standards and are all ultimately doomed to hell. At best, you have people who are hounded by rules and standards that end up in perfunctory, fearful, or even heartless worship. Any emphasis on works reminds me of the Israelites in the Old Testament. Christ came to bring salvation through faith precisely because the people were unable to achieve their salvation through works.
SOLA GRATIA – Grace Alone
Protestants would say: God’s grace is not based on anything that we have done, but based solely on God’s free gift of grace. Salvation is not earned or deserved. In fact, as a result of our sin, we deserved eternal punishment and banishment from his presence. But his grace offers salvation through the absolution of our sins through the death of Christ on the cross.
Catholics would say: God does save his people through Grace, but that grace is not haphazardly disseminated, it is delivered through the 7 sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders & Matrimony). It is our participation in these sacraments that allows us to experience God’s grace.
I say: The idea of grace is central to our proper understanding of God. When does a gift cease to be a gift? When it is attached to modes of behavior. Then it becomes a reward. God pursued me when I was fleeing from him. God loved me when I deserved hatred. God saved me when I deserved condemnation. Grace is God’s pursuing me, loving me and saving me. And it has nothing to do with what I do or do not.
SOLA CHRISTO – Christ Alone
Protestants would say: The emphasis here is that Christ alone is our mediator and we don’t need to rely upon any human beings for forgiveness. The offices of clergy should not replace the direct access we have to God through Christ.
Catholics would say: God has commissioned people (in this case, clergy) as instruments of forgiveness. God is the one who forgives sins, but he has chosen to do it through people.
I say: Again, the difference seems to be here an emphasis on God or an emphasis on man. The offices of Pope and canonized saints cloud the picture. Christ alone is our mediator and we should never think of any human being as a mediator between me and God.
SOLA DEO GLORIA – To the Glory of God Alone
Protestants would say: Any veneration or worship of any human being is ultimately idolatry. Our life is lived not for the pleasure of any ‘saint’ but rather in worshipful response to the salvation that we have by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone.
Catholics would say: It is acceptable to honor human beings for their obedience to God and should be lauded appropriately.
I say: God alone is worthy of glory.
The more emphasis we place on human beings, whether as a source of authority, a means of salvation, a mediator of confession or an object of veneration, we place ourself firmly on a slippery slope that will ultimately end in idolatry.
I take comfort in the fact that I believe in a God that, even though I am hopeless and powerless in my own attempts at salvation, he saved me through faith by grace in Christ.
As I stated before, the terms Protestant and Catholic are so broad that I may have misrepresented some of your own experiences. There are certainly Protestants that erroneously believe that their salvation is accomplished through their works of righteousness. There are certainly Catholics that believe that their salvation is through grace and Christ alone. However, in general terms, it seems that these are the major distinctions between these religions.
(Not to mention that priests in the Catholic church can’t marry, whereas I thank God every day for my wife and kids!)
Have a question for Pastor Richard Lee? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and he may answer your question in a future column.