by Craig Branch – (Introductory article to the Areopagus Journal Vol. 4 No. 3

Many Protestant Evangelicals will wonder why we have chosen this title. “Of course the Reformation wasn’t a mistake! Roman Catholicism is as apostate as ever, and most Roman Catholics are lost and going to hell.”


Other Protestants will disagree with the statement, claiming that the Reformation was a mistake.  Some of these people have embraced a postmodern, relativistic ecumenism in which doctrinal precision or even clarity is seen as divisive and therefore unnecessary, irrelevant, and intolerable.


Other Protestants who may think that the Reformation was a mistake believe that there have been significant changes or progressions in Roman Catholic dogma, coupled with numerous dialogues and formal agreements, and ecumenical cooperation that render the issues raised in the Reformation no longer relevant.


An example of that last group would be Chuck Colson who wrote in the Forward of Roman Catholic Keith Fournier’s book, Evangelical Catholics, “It’s high time that all of us who are Christians come together regardless of the differences of our confessions and our traditions and make common cause to bring Christian values to bear in our society.  When barbarians are scaling the walls, there is no time for petty quarreling in the camp.”[i]


I can empathize with those who denounce “petty differences” that would hinder Catholics and Protestants from cooperating as co-belligerents in the battle against dangerous ideas and trends that are leading our cultural institutions in the slide toward death.  There is indeed much in common between our two communions both theologically and morally.

For example, both Protestant and Roman Catholic communions have historically agreed that the Old and New Testaments are the infallible word of God; that God is triune; that Man is fallen and in need of redemption; that Christ is God incarnate, born of a virgin, crucified, dead, buried, and risen again; that the unredeemed will suffer eternal punishment in hell; and that Christ will return in final judgment.  There is much we agree upon in personal and social ethics as well.  We sanctify marriage and the family, encourage temperance, sacrifice for others, and stand against murder, abortion, homosexuality, adultery, fornication and racial prejudice.

But are Colson and others correct when they say that we are all Christians who should “come together regardless of our differences”?  Those Protestants responsible for starting and conducting the Reformation did not think so.  And the Catholic Counter-Reformation Council of Trent said no as well.  But what shall we say today?  It is true that many Protestants and Catholics hold erroneous views about each other’s beliefs, and those need to be corrected.  But there are major and essential areas of disagreement.  In particular, the Reformation centered on differences over these essential issues: justification or how one has right standing before God (salvation, the gospel), and the source of infallible authority.  These two issues relate to what are called the material and formal principles of the Reformation respectively.

This issue of Areopagus Journal will present an overview of the Roman Catholic church, covering a little of its history and important doctrines.  We will also address some current issues and developments, outlining where we agree and what still separates us.  Specifically, we will discuss such important doctrines as the authority of the Pope and the role of Mary in redemption.  Most importantly, we will discuss and defend the material and formal principles of the Reformation—sola Fide (Faith Alone) and sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone).  After reading these articles we hope that you can agree that “The Reformation Was Not a Mistake!”

What I will do in the reminder of this column is further explain why this topic is so important as well as address a few other key issues that will not be discussed in the remaining articles.  I invite you to share this journal with Roman Catholic friends so that you may help remove the impediments that stand between them and a deep personal relationship with Christ alone through the true and glorious gospel of grace.


How It All Got Started
The most important doctrine debated in the Reformation was the doctrine of justification by faith alone. As mentioned above, this was the material principle of the Reformation, the major issue that sparked the Reformation in the first place.  Many other doctrines, including those debated in the Reformation, may not be necessary for salvation.  The gospel, however, is (cf. Gal. 1:5-9).  And the concept of justification is at the very heart of the gospel.  We need clarity in understanding of this doctrine since it is here that the controversy and confusion abides.  Permit me to introduce the issues that precipitate the confusion.

Although there were a number of prior attempts to challenge Roman dogma, Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk, was the spearhead for the Reformation (1517-1648).  While studying Romans 1:16-17, Luther’s eyes were opened and he began to understand the Bible’s teaching on the alien righteousness of Christ imputed to us by grace alone through the instrument of faith, and not on the basis of any of man’s efforts or merit.  Thus enlightened, he began to teach and preach that sinners are justified by faith alone.

The growth and popularity of Luther’s teachings provoked what is called the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation, which produced the “infallible” Council of Trent’s “Decree on Justification” (1547).  This decree irreversibly pronounced an “anathema” (curse, divine condemnation[ii]) on the doctrine of justification by faith alone:

If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone . . .If anyone says that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ or by the sole remission of sins. . .If anyone says that the justice received is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works but that those good works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not the cause of increase . . . If anyone says that after the reception of the grace of justification the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out to every repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be discharged either in this world or purgatory before the gates of heaven can be opened . . . If anyone says that. . .the one justified by the good works that he performs. . .does not truly merit and increase in grace and eternal life—let him be anathema.[iii]

In other words, justification by faith alone is declared to be a heretical doctrine. Thus, all Protestants were condemned.  Instead, Roman Catholicism teaches that justification is a process and is a result of one’s cooperative efforts with the grace of Christ in sanctification that merits eternal life for one.


More Recent Developments

But then came Vatican II and the Decree on Ecumenism (1962) which set out to “restore unity among all Christians.”  Included as an “ecclesial community” are Protestants which were now declared to be “separated brethren” and “imperfectly joined.”[iv]  The logical question arises: how can we be anathematized and imperfectly joined at the same time?  To further complicate matters, the most recent official Catholic catechism states under the heading “Outside the [Roman] Church there is no salvation,” the following:

Those who through no fault of their own, do not know the gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation.[v]

This is totally at odds with Scripture which declares that faith is Christ is necessary for salvation (cf. John 14:6; Rom. 1:18-25; 2:14-15; 3:10-11, 23; 6:23; 10:8-15; Acts 4:12).  And what does “through no fault of their own” mean?

Yet more recent developments have confused the matter of the continued relevance of the Reformation even further.  There has been an interesting and significant movement stirring among some Catholic theologians in recent years, initially influenced by Hans Kung and Karl Rahner.  Taking another reflective and scholarly look at Trent and Luther,  these and other Catholics have engaged in numerous dialogues with Protestant theologians.  These dialogues (from 1957-1999) have produced eight major documents.  I will mention three of them.[vi]

The documents which have caused quite a stir are Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT1), The Gift of Salvation (ECT2), and the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JD) between the Vatican and the World Lutheran Federation.  ECT1, a document of agreement produced in 1994 after dialogue between some prominent American Evangelical and Catholic leaders, received wide coverage and reaction.  Some noted Evangelical signatories were J. I. Packer, Chuck Colson, and Timothy George.  Prominent Catholic signers were Richard John Neuhaus, Avery Cardinal Dulles and John Cardinal O’Connor.  The major thrust of the document was the expression of the need for a united witness in addressing the evils of a pagan and secular “public square.” Thus, the document underscored that what unites us is greater than what divides us.

However, ECT1 was strongly criticized by other Evangelical leaders primarily because of the vagueness of what it said (and didn’t say) regarding the cardinal issue of justification.  The brief statement in ECT1 regarding justification was: “We affirm together that we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ.”  Many prominent Protestant theologians correctly pointed out that this wording was a capitulation to Trent’s formulation, and that justification by faith alone was not mentioned in the section on the points of difference that still divide Protestants and Catholics.

ECT1 also prompted a number of collaborative efforts at clarifying and defining the doctrine of the Reformation, namely, the gospel and justification.  Documents were
drafted by prominent Protestant theologians from many denominations, including some of the signatories of ECT1, like J. I. Packer.

In order to rectify the clear problems in ECT1, a group of 18 Evangelical and 15 Roman Catholic leaders met to draw up a second document titled, The Gift of Salvation (1997).  The most significant aspect of this new document are the seven paragraphs it includes on justification.  In particular, it states,

Justification is central to the scriptural account of salvation and its meaning has been much debated between Protestants and Catholics. . . .In justification, God, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone, declares us. . .forgiven. . .and by virtue of his declaration it is so. . . .We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation tradition has meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide). . . .Thus it is that as justified sinners we have been saved, we are being saved, and we shall be saved.”

This is an extraordinary agreement by these Catholic leaders and theologians.  ECT2 even acknowledged that “despite the unity we have discovered. . .there remain necessarily interrelated questions [doctrines] that require further and urgent exploration.”  These doctrines include baptismal regeneration, sacramental salvific grace, merit, purgatory (where a Christian must make expiation—atoning punishment, suffering, and purification—for sins), indulgences, and clarity on the assertion that while justification is by faith alone, the faith that receives salvation never remains alone.  Even with this extraordinary wording, though, there were still a number prominent Protestant theologians who rightly pointed out that the language still allowed traditional Catholics and Protestants to interpret them in different ways without real reconciliation.

Finally, the most significant development to date is the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, published in 1999 and signed by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation.  The document, with a jointly signed annex attached which offered genuine clarification to the JD, included the acceptance by Rome of the sola fide formula!  In the Joint Declaration it is affirmed that “the doctrine of justification is the measure or touchstone for the Christian faith. . .an indispensable criterion.”  The JD specifically states that both Catholics and Lutherans jointly believe that “whatever [works] in the justified precedes or follows the free gift of faith is neither the basis of justification nor merits it.”  It acknowledges that Lutherans hold the Reformation understanding of grace alone by faith alone (sola fide), and the imputed (alien) righteousness of God to the sinner (“at the same time righteous and sinner”).  And most significantly, the JD explicitly states that “the mutual condemnation of former times do not apply to the Catholic and Lutheran doctrines of justification.”

So what does this mean?  Is the Reformation now null and void?  Has Roman Catholicism admitted it was wrong? Has the Roman Catholic Church finally understood the biblical distinction between justification (our permanent standing as righteous before God based on Christ’s alien righteousness imputed to us) and sanctification (the gradual holiness that results from justification)?  Or Has Protestantism changed from its earlier understanding of the gospel and salvation?

Respected Jesuit priest, Avery Dulles, a signer of ECT 1 & 2, wrote a telling commentary on the JD. Dulles believes that the JD definitely favors the Lutheran Reformational perspective regarding justification.  This, he suggests, would imply that several of Trent’s anathemas no longer apply.  But, Dulles reiterated Trent’s position that “justification consists of inner renewal,” and, “the justified, by performing good works, merit the reward of eternal life.” (First Things, December 1999, pp. 25-30).

So are we now in real communion?  Not so fast.  There are several major problems.  First, the JD agrees that Lutherans and Catholics receive justification through the sacramental grace of baptism, contrary to most all Protestants (except some Anglicans).  Secondly, the JD (although partly drafted by Cardinal Ratzinger, chief theologian in the Vatican, signed by Cardinal Cassidy, head of the Pontifical Council for the Unity of Christians in the Vatican, and affirmed by Pope John Paul II) is still not the official dogma of the Magisterium.  That requires that a doctrinal decree be originated and promulgated directly by the Magisterium (i.e., the Pope and the bishops in communion with him).

So the ECT1 & 2 clearly do not represent an official church position.  Ultimately, even the JD, though having some authority, is not dogma.  But because it was approved and ratified by the Vatican (even partially drafted there), its use by informed Protestants can be very effective in removing old barriers while witnessing to Roman Catholics and can be used as a bridge for the gospel.  As we consider the conclusions reached in the JD, however, it should be clear that the Roman Catholic Church and its corollary doctrines have been rendered contradictory.  I urge you to study thoroughly the article on justification in this journal by William Webster, “The Article on which We Stand.”  It will help you understand why the Reformation was not a mistake.

Are there Roman Catholics who are Christians?  I believe yes indeed.  They have always taught that one is saved by grace through faith in Christ and I believe one can hear those words and apprehend the gospel.  But a studied understanding of the actual meaning behind those words as used by Roman Catholic theologians, and an embracing of other distinctive doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, nullifies the biblical meaning of those words.  Roman Catholics then become like the Judaizers that Paul and Peter encountered in Acts 15.  Peter said to them, “Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (v. 10).



Because of the doctrines that separate Protestants and Catholics, the issue of authority is paramount.  The Roman Catholic Church teaches that there is one visible, institutional Church, ordained by God, which exercises authority in all matters.  Their line of reasoning is as follows:

  • All authority from Jesus is given to the Apostles (Luke 9:1-13)
  • The Apostles ordained other bishops and elders (priests) to minister in authority (1 Tim. 3:1,5; Titus 1:5a)
  • There is a unity which must be maintained and it is the apostolic authority which perpetually delivers and interprets doctrine as well as presides over all matters of the Church (Eph. 4:3-6; Acts 15).

The Roman Catholic Church also maintains that Jesus gave Peter the singular office of authority over all bishops and priests.  This office, known as the papacy, is occupied by the Bishop of Rome who is called the Pope (Father) and Vicar (representative) of Christ.  This office is permanent and preeminent in the church (Matt. 16: 18-19).

The third component of authority is “Sacred Tradition” and the Magisterium (or teaching authority) which interprets it.  As the new Roman Catholic catechism states, “The entire Revelation” of God is handed down as a “living transmission” in two ways: orally and written. The Tradition, distinct from Scripture (the Bible) are composed of the books, special writings, and statements of the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church made “under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”[vii]

The Magisterium is comprised of the “the Pope and. . .the bishops in communion with him.”[viii]  To this Magisterium has been entrusted the “authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition.”[ix]  The Pope is claimed to be infallible (i.e., preserved from the liability of error) when he teaches, rules, or defines ex cathedra, that is, when he speaks intentionally for the Church in order to bind all the faithful in matters of faith and morals.[x]  The Catechism of the Catholic Church concludes, “It is clear, therefore, that in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. . .all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.”[xi]  Thus, when a Protestant contends with the alien doctrines found within Roman Catholicism and points out their scant or misused Scriptural basis, the Roman Catholic Church depends on Tradition and the infallible authority of the Magisterium to justify those doctrines.

Since Protestants find a lack of real Scriptural support for doctrines such as baptismal regeneration, sacramental justification, purgatory, veneration of Mary, and congruent merit, we reject them.  Why?  Because we believe that Scripture alone is our authority.

So, in this journal we have also included articles critiquing these aspects of Roman Catholicism.  Dr. Steve Cowan of the Apologetics Resource Center and editor of Areopagus Journal, presents the case for Sola Scriptura and responds to the Roman Catholic position on Tradition in his article, “Conscience Captive to the Word of God: A Defense of Sola Scrriptura.”  You will also find an article by Dr. Harold O.J. Brown, the John R. Richards Chair of Theology & Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina entitled. “That They May Be One? A Response to the Claims of the Papacy.” Brown challenges the Roman Catholic view of the Pope’s authority.

Additionally, the Apologetics Resource Center’s Clete Hux describes the development and importance of the doctrines of Mary in Roman Catholicism and how it obscures and dilutes the central & exclusive role of Christ in his article, “Will the Real Mary Please Stand Up?”


Protestant Disunity?

Let me close this column by addressing another issue that often comes up in discussions with Roman Catholics.  One of the most common objections to Protestantism has to do with the visible disunity that appears to characterize Protestant churches.  Catholics claim that the Roman Catholic Church alone embodies a consistency, continuity, and security that the myriad of Protestant denominations do not have. Roman Catholic dogma declares that their visible, institutional church is the “one true, holy, catholic and apostolic church,” as stated in the Apostle Creed and Nicene Creed.  Catholicism teaches that its church “in this world is the sacrament of salvation, the sign and the instrument of communion of God and men.”[xii]

In response, we will agree that the Protestant churches have more outward divisions than Roman Catholicism.  But we challenge the alleged unity of Catholicism.  The Roman church is hardly monolithic.  For example, among Catholics there are liberation theologians, charismatic, theological liberals (the majority of U.S. bishops), pre-Vatican II traditionalists, Mary cults, Byzantine and Eastern rite churches which include Armenians, Chaldeans, Copts, Ethiopians, Marianites, Syrian, Syrian Jacobites, and Malebars.[xiii] The differences between these groups can be as stark as between any Protestant groups.  And it should be said that all Protestant denominations, despite their differences, have historically affirmed their unity in the fundamentals of the gospels of grace.


Craig Branch is the Director of the Apologetics Resource Center, Birmingham, Alabama.



Glossary of Terms

Immaculate Conception.  The Roman Catholic doctrine that the Virgin Mary was conceived without original sin.


Indulgence.  The remission of the temporal punishment for sins that may be granted by the Catholic Church to persons presently alive or to souls in purgatory.  Such indulgences may be purchased for money.  It was the sale of indulgences that prompted Martin Luther to post his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church, an event which sparked the Protestant Reformation.


Justification.  The theological concept of the sinner’s legal standing before God.  To be “justified” is to be accepted and treated by God as just or righteous.  The questions of how a sinner comes to be justified was the central controversy of the Protestant Reformation.


Papacy.  The ecclesiastical office occupied by the Pope.  For Catholics this office was instituted by Christ and is to be occupied by the Bishop of Rome, the alleged successors to the Apostle Peter.


Pope (from Gr. pappa, “father”).  According to Roman Catholics, the Bishop of Rome is designated the Pope, the Vicar of Christ on earth and successor of Peter, the head of the universal church.  When speaking on doctrinal and moral matters ex cathedra (“from the chair”), the Pope is believed to be infallible.


Purgatory.  According to Catholicism, the place where those who have died in a state of grace but who still have moral imperfections are sent to have their remaining sin purged by suffering to prepare them to enter heaven.


Reformation, Protestant.  The movement which began in 1517 to reform the Church in response to the doctrinal and practical corruptions that had been introduced by Roman Catholicism.  Followers of this movement were called “Protestants” (i.e., “those who protest”).  The primary leaders of the Reformation were Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin.


Sacrament.  A religious rite ordained by Christ.  Roman Catholics teach that there are seven sacraments (baptism, Lord’s Supper, penance, matrimony, annointing the sick, confirmation, ordination).  Protestants accept only the first two.  Moreover, Catholics believe that the grace conveyed by some of these sacraments is necessary for salvation, while Protestants typically reject this belief.


Sola Fide (Faith Alone).  The material principle of the Reformation which asserts that justification is by faith alone, apart from works.  Roman Catholicism teaches that justification is achieved by faith and works together.


Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone).  The formal principle of the Reformation which asserts that Scripture alone is the Christian’s infallible authority for faith and practice.  Roman Catholicism teaches that Scripture and Church Tradition are equally authoritative.

Craig Branch



[i] Keith Fournier, Evangelical Catholics (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1990, p. iv.

[ii] See Robert C. Broderick, ed.,  The Catholic Encyclopedia, rev. ed. (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1987), s.v. “Anathema.”

[iii] The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, Canons 9, 11, 12, 24, 30, 32.

[iv] See Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v., “Ecumenism.”

[v] Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 847.

[vi] For an in depth study of these important developments, see N.S. Lane,  Justification by Faith in Catholic-Protestant Dialogue:  An Evangelical Assessment (Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd., 2002).

[vii] Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 75-79.

[viii] Ibid., paragraph 100.

[ix] Ibid, paragraph 85.

[x] See Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 1960), 287.

[xi] Ibid., paragraph 95.

[xii] Catechism of the Catholic Church (Liguori Publications, 1994), paragraphs 750, 780.

[xiii] Throughout this journal, we use the term “Roman Catholicism” to cover both the Roman and Eastern Rite traditions as they are in basic agreement on the major distinguishing doctrine held by the Roman Church.


William Webster