What is Behind the Protestant Catholic Conflict?

By Stephanie Ismer

Catholics and Protestants have been arguing (both violently and non-violently) for centuries. What is really behind the Protestant Catholic conflict? Aren't we all Christians? After all, both religions find their origin in the Acts 2 church. Is it just that we need to be more tolerant of each others' interpretations of Scripture? Are we squabbling about non-essentials?

Paul the Apostle says this by inspiration of the Holy Spirit:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. Galatians 1:6-9
Let him be accursed? Pretty strong stuff. Why is Paul getting so upset about this? And do Catholics really preach "another gospel"?

Throughout the history of Christianity, there has been a lot of strife between the Protestant and Catholic churches, and one of the big reasons for this conflict is a differing understanding of the gospel. I would like to try to shed some light on this, because I think it is very important that we know what the gospel is and what it is not, and why it matters.

First, at the heart of the conflict is the meaning of the words "repent and believe." Jesus said we should "repent and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15). We all recognize that Christians do not become sinless once they have believed. Believing in the gospel does not eliminate sin. This is a common point of confusion. The traditional Catholic position is that we 1) repent of sins and 2) believe. The biblical Christian view is that we 1) repent of self-effort and 2) believe. For the Catholic, sins (all the things we do that are contrary to the Law) are the issue. For the Protestant, the desire to justify oneself by the Law is the issue.

If you interpret Jesus' words to mean "repent from sins," you wind up trying even harder, by human effort, to justify yourself. Fear of God is supposed to lead to wisdom (Proverbs 9:10), the understanding that we are unable to do what is required (Galatians 3:24), and an attitude of humility before Him that calls out in faith for salvation. Only then, can love and gratitude enter the heart, and drive away fear (1 John 4:18). But the attempt to self-justify throws a monkey-wrench in the works. Seeing God's displeasure with sin, we cringe, and instead of taking hold of the gift by faith, we hold on to our self-effort, winding up further away from the Grace we need. The Catholic church is simply brilliant at encouraging and furthering this mindset. Each person experiences it differently, but in general, it goes something like this:

1.  You believe that Jesus died for you (but you aren't quite sure what that means)

2.  Every time you commit a sin, you think that God will be unhappy with you

3.  You feel conflicted, wondering why you like to sin so much, but you remember that you love Jesus, and you don't want to make Him sad, because after all, He died for you

4.  You do penance for sin in the form of prayer, confession, tears, guilt, etc. fully aware that you will sin again soon, but trusting that your confession and guilt about it will be acceptable to God

5.  You find further assurance in the fact that you are a nice person who does nice things

6.  You repeat the pattern, ad infinitum

Now, to be fair, it's not just the Catholic church that promotes this oppressive mindset and calls it the Gospel. Many, many Protestant or Evangelical churches are heavy on legalism too. But the original purpose of Protestantism (the Reformation) was to defy legalism and promote a biblical gospel — a gospel that relies entirely on God's work. Repentance means not "self-denial" but "denial of self-effort" and relies, by faith, entirely in Christ's effort. Here is the wonderfully freeing pattern that results from this:

1.  Recognize that nothing you do, or don't do, affects your eternal destination (Romans 3:20)

2.  Recognize that nothing you do, or don't do, affects your eternal destination (Romans 3:28)

3.  Really grasp the fact that nothing you do, or don't do, affects your eternal destination (Galatians 2:16)

4.  Fall at the foot of the cross and accept the amazing free gift of Grace (Ephesians 2:8-9)

5.  Feel a genuine love for God flowing out of the reality of this Grace (Romans 11:32-36)

6.  Love others because God has loved you, thus fulfilling the whole Law (Romans 13:8)

You don't have to do anything. Not now, not ever (Hebrews 10:10). There is no purgatory to go through, there is no Mass to perform, there is (dare I say it) not even any need for confession. There is only Christ and what He has done. Your conscience is purified (Hebrews 9:9b-14). No consciousness of sins is left (Hebrews 10:2). There is now no condemnation (Romans 8:1). You are dead, Christ lives in you, and you live by faith (Galatians 2:20). There is now only faith, working itself out through love (Galatians 5:6).

A friend of mine, upon seeing this argument, brought to light an argument that I believe is important to include, because it brilliantly exposes the weakness in my own argument, and ultimately leads to a clearer understanding of the issue.

He writes:
What justifies the author's claim that repentance is from self-effort rather than sin? No Scriptural reference is provided. Rather, the only "evidence" in favor of the premise is the observance of what conclusions would logically follow. However, if one has studied Logic 101, one should know that neither the inverse nor the converse of a proposition is necessarily true. Ergo, in the absence of further information, the author's conclusion appears faulty.
My answer is below:
Your observation is valid — thanks. I looked up "repentance" and "sin" in the concordance, together, and found two interesting things. First: in Matthew 9:13 and Mark 1:4 the phrase "proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" appears. This seems to support the idea that repentance leads to the forgiveness of sins, rather than the elimination of them. Secondly, in Luke 5:32 we hear Jesus say "I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance." This phrase seems to indicate that acknowledgement of one's status as a sinner is the key factor in repentance — and that those who believe themselves to be righteous are missing the point. I believe these verses (arguing from the negative) support my premise. Furthermore, in 2 Timothy 2:25, repentance leads to a knowledge of the truth, not to a sinless state. Also, in 2 Corinthians 7:10, "godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret," which seems to imply that salvation eliminates the need for guilt. And most beautifully, Hebrews 9:13-14 which says "For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God." I am reading this to mean that we no longer focus on our works, but upon service to God, because, as it says in Romans 5:1, we now have peace with God, through faith in Jesus.
His response:
I don't disagree in any way with the theology you express. There is no question that our reliance for salvation is on Christ's atonement and not on impotent works. Your references above — even absent my preexisting agreement — support this and do a great job showing that repentance is the key.

Unfortunately, even with your references, I'm still getting hung up on the bit saying that we "repent of self-effort" rather than "repent of sins." More likely than not, this is a case of me being unable to ride the electrical signals through your synapses to exactly understand every nuance of your thought and its expression. We might be thinking the same thing, but saying it in different ways. How I read your denotational distinction, however, is that "repenting is not putting off sin, but rather putting off the effort to justify ourselves through work" — and I would argue that seeking to justify ourselves through works is a type of sin, so certainly it is something of which to repent. However, I think an individual could feasibly repent of his self-effort, recognizing that there is nothing within his power that will earn him salvation, while at the same time refusing to repent of his sins; in this case, I argue, he remains unsaved and in a miserable state of hopelessness. Envision one of the millions in this world that understands that they, as humans, do awful things for which, even by their standards, they cannot make right, ergo hopelessness stemming from weakness; while at the same time seeing no error and having no qualms about many of their other actions, thus admitting nothing of which to repent, ergo absense of salvation.

As I've been pondering much in proportion to what I've written, trying to assure my thoughts are sound and are clearly expressed, I think I realize my hangup with the definitions exists because I don't see the situation as an either-or. Rather, I think the two are inextricably tied. I must repent of my sin in order to claim the salvation that Christ offers to me — not meaning that I will sin no more, for I am still encumbered by earthly flesh — but this entails repenting of my self-effort to find justification before God, because if I am relying on myself to pay the impossible price for my sin, then I am obviously not relying on Christ as atonement. Basically, in repenting of my self-effort, I am liberated from works because my sin no longer matters with regards to my salvation (Isaiah 43:25, Jeremiah 31:34); and in repenting of my sin, I do not try to make good with God, but acknowledge that I am still flawed and focus ahead toward the being into which God continues to form me.
Here is my response:
I totally agree. In fact, I was pondering the problem earlier, and wondering whether I should include in my post this "next step" in the progression of thoughts regarding the gospel.

In this post, I wanted to "hammer home" to those who (like myself) have a tendency to rely on self-effort and guilt, the idea that no amount of consideration of sin and self will lead towards salvation, and that continual dwelling on those things will only lead towards estrangement from God.

But your argument is straight out of Romans 5 and 6...in Chapter 5, Paul makes the argument that our justification and sanctification is by faith alone, which is the focus of my article. But then, in Chapter 6, he takes up your argument, by asking "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?" And then, he goes on to discuss how a person who has died with Christ will also live with Him, that is, will show by their works (as it says in James also) that he has faith. That is, faith will work itself out in love, which is the fulfillment of the Law. As Christians, we will become more like Christ. That is sanctification, and is also His work (Hebrews 10:10,14). Our works are now spurred on by love for Him and love for others, which is motivated by the knowledge of our salvation by faith.

So, yes, it does all work together. But without the initial understanding that it is first entirely a gift of God — not only the justification, but the sanctification too — the whole thing unravels and we land back in legalism, trying either to earn or to prove our salvation by what we do.

Published 7-7-11; Revised 6-3-15