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Should a Protestant Convert to Catholicism?

One reader wrote, “What would you say to a Protestant who is thinking about become a Catholic?”

I have known two people in my tenure who have converted, so to speak, from Protestant to Roman Catholic, and both did so because they wanted a more formal church experience with a more traditional structure. That being said, the difference between Protestants and Catholics is not one of method, but one of doctrine and belief. My goal today is to explain the essence of the divide which led to the Protestant Reformation. Depending on where you fall in this divide determines whether or not you are more likely to align with a Roman Catholic or Protestant church. The practice of a church - how it functions - will vary greatly within the two camps depending on the culture, location, pastor, etc., so that is not really the issue at the core.

Ultimately, the rift centers on the way that the two camps view the doctrine of something called justification. Justification, defined, is God's act of removing the guilt and penalty of sin while at the same time declaring a sinner righteous (right-standing, justified) through Christ’s sin-covering sacrifice on the cross. What Protestants and Roman Catholics disagree on is how and when that justification happens.

According to the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church (which may be different from what many Roman Catholics you know actually believe), justification occurs in two stages. The first stage of justification is known as initial justification. Catholics believe that when an infant is baptized, they are justified before God. Remaining justified before God, permanent justification, is maintained through a lifetime of striving to do God’s will. The Catholic Church explains this from passages such as James 2 where the author says that faith without works is useless (dead). So, in essence, the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification is combination of trusting in Christ’s work on the cross plus a lifetime of striving to be good enough to maintain one’s justified state and earn right standing before God. This is, in part, why there are differing levels of sin in Roman Catholic dogma. Simplified, we could describe the Catholic position as ‘Salvation = Faith + Works.’

For Protestants, justification is the breaking point which led to the Reformation. Protestants do not believe in a synergism of good works plus faith, but instead believe that it is only through faith that one is justified before God. Their good works are a result following their faith, but are not the basis of any merit before God. The work of justification is not a process that is jump started by the cross and finished by our own good works. On the cross, the justification of sinners was established, accomplished, and finalized. It is then offered for free to all who trust in Jesus Christ alone to save them from their sins. Protestants point to Ephesians 2, and other similar passages, to argue their position, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins… But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ… For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” From the Protestant position, salvation is a gift from God, not something that is earned. They argue that the good works that James references in James 2 are a product of genuine faith as opposed to a means to being made right before God. Simplified, we could describe the Protestant position as ‘Salvation = Faith + Nothing.’

So, what would I say to a Protestant who is thinking of becoming a Catholic (or vice versa)? I would ask him or her, “Where do you stand on this crucial doctrine?” Justification is the essence of the Protestant Reformation and it alone should determine whether a person converts from one to the other. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that people receive initial justification and then maintain their justified state through faith and works. In other words, their goods deeds finish Christ’s work on the cross for their own justification. Protestants teach that justification is through faith alone in Christ alone. This means that no one can ever be ‘good enough’ to earn a right standing before God, and any good works that we do are a byproduct of a heart justified before God.

As a Protestant pastor, you know where I stand, but I hope that I have accurately represented the Roman Catholic Church in explaining their position as well.