A Question I Was Asked:

Can Catholics Be Saved?

The Question:

Will Catholics be saved? I am not expecting you to place yourself in the position of God, but what are the guidelines - if any - which one might apply to such a question? I admit this is a very big question and only God can really know. How would you evaluate/explain the problems?

UK Apologetics Reply:

As you point out, only God can have the full answer to such questions. However, having studied the Word of God from a very young man (I am now in my seventieth year), I might obviously draw certain opinions and tentative conclusions on such a question, based on my studies of the Bible. I give my opinion here for what it is worth, but it should not be interpreted as being the full answer to such a big question. I would commence by making this statement:

1. Catholicism (especially Roman Catholicism) unquestionably has certain doctrinal confusions.
In short, one can put together Paul the Apostle's comments on faith, works and justification in the New Testament, especially in the more doctrinal books such as Romans, Galatians, Ephesians and Hebrews (the latter probably not written by Paul), and one arrives at a different teaching to the teaching which one finds within Roman Catholicism. Of that, in my honest opinion, there can be little genuine doubt. Simply the position of pope as 'vicar of Christ' obviously raises certain doctrinal questions when set aside the New Testament. Interestingly, many Catholics would actually agree with some of this but nevertheless point to their belief that God gave them the right, authority, scope and jurisdiction to form their own rules and teachings. This is based on their own understanding of two chapters in Matthew, although only a very few verses within those two chapters. So let us just briefly consider this:

"Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." (Matthew 18:18).

Catholicism puts this together with the following verses in chapter 16 of the same book:

"And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." (Matthew 16:18-19).

So, within this form of theology, Peter is reckoned as the first pope and he was given full permission, together with all the 'popes' who would follow him, to form and teach the doctrines of the church. Catholicism sees 'Church' as one physical, institutional, somewhat grandiose ruling body upon earth, under a succession of popes who are the successors of Peter (the teaching of 'apostolic succession,' but see this). They believe that they have been granted the right and authority to adjust doctrines, but only according to biblical principles, which is fine just as long as they uphold and teach the name of Christ and preach Him as being the Saviour of the world. So this is about the authority which they see as having been granted to them alone. So a Catholic looks at a Protestant who may question or quibble over a particular doctrine and he or she will smile in a disdainful manner because - they believe - full authority for Bible teaching is in their hands alone. They see any Protestant view as being completely irrelevant. In short, authority becomes more important to them than biblical doctrinal accuracy (and don't forget, that they have always opposed ordinary people being able to read Scripture in their own languages).

From Vatican II (1962-1965) Roman Catholicism has recognised that some true believers exist outside of Roman Catholicism but they continue to insist that there is only one 'true church,' namely themselves. They still tend to reject the concept of a 'spiritual church' (essential within Protestantism), and insist that 'church' is necessarily a physical body in which mass is administered to the flock. They are not able to cope with Calvin's picture of an invisible, spiritual church, though many of us see that as an essential understanding.

2. The Protestant response to Scriptures such as Matthew 16:18 and Matthew 18:18.
Protestants insist that the authority which is given to the church from Heaven in the Scriptures which we just looked at only concerns matters of church discipline and mainly only until the Bible canon was established. It concerned the discipline of wayward members until the early church was properly set up and established. For sure, Matthew 18:18, for example, is preceded by Matthew 18:15-17 which specifically addresses discipline in the early church! Doctrinally, however, it is the Comforter, the very Holy Spirit, Who would guide God's people into full doctrinal understanding. See John 14:26, John 16:13 and so on. So there would indeed be leadership from Heaven but not through the offices of fallible men, rather, through the activity of the Holy Spirit! It is also udeniable that some popes (to say nothing of some cardinals) have been greedy, evil and corrupt, something that modern Roman Catholicism no longer attempts to deny. Moreover, 'apostolic succession' has not been consistently maintained with a few corrupt popes even buying the office for money (known as the practice of 'simony').

3. Serious errors, however, also exist in parts of Protestantism.
The Protestant cannot pretend that everything is whiter-than-white and 'hunky-dory' within the Protestant movement. Quite frankly, much of it is a mess at the current moment! Without doubt Luther simply wanted a complete reform of Catholicism. A little later, Calvin probably only saw one or two organised Protestant bodies at most which would be needed in opposition to Catholicism, these men could not possibly have imagined that hundreds of Protestant groupings would appear within a few hundred years of their deaths! This has undeniably led to much confusion. Catholics, of course, say that this proves them correct, that God only placed His authority in one church institution and that same grouping continues to exist just as Jesus founded it! Actually, this is an erroneous and fallacious argument because Paul seemed to believe that there would eventually be many Christian ministries. Yes, one faith but more than one ministry. See 1 Corinthians 12:3-31; Ephesians 4:3-6, 11-16. Also, did not Jesus rule out the concept of a single future Christian ministry in Mark 9:38-40 and Luke 9:49-50? That comment of Jesus is not liked too much by Roman Catholicism! As for Paul, one cannot but help seeing Paul's comments as being those of a man who knew there would eventually be many differing Christian ministries - not just one! Nevertheless, the New Testament writers continually warn about the need to uproot dangerous heresies. So perhaps we should expect to see the abundance of Protestant ministries which we do today. However, this is all the more reason to oppose heretical teachings and mark them wherever we may find them; without doubt, there are certainly dangers in the more free approach of Protestantism. See Matthew 7:21-27; 2 Peter 2:1-3; 1 Timothy 1:18-20; 1 Timothy 4:1-2,6; 2 Timothy 2:15-18; 2 Timothy 4:3-4; 1 John 4:1-6, for example.

4. Knowledge cannot save.
There is no doubt that faith and grace are the biblical ingredients which are involved in salvation - not knowledge! So logically we can say that the Protestant - in an overall stronger position on doctrinal knowledge - does not necessarily hold any great advantage. Rather, the totality of Scripture seems to show it is how we handle that knowledge which is the important thing. Rahab is saved, but how much did she really understand? Possibly very little! How au fait was Ruth with with 'good, solid biblical doctrine'? Probably not too strong at all but she had faith, committment and love, more importantly yet, God's calling was confirmed to her. How about the thief on the cross? He probably had very little understanding. So we may perceive that it appears to be about how we handle that level of knowledge, and fruits, which God has granted to us which is the all-important thing. God calls His elect and equips them with what they need in the areas of faith and grace. So we can observe from this that the deficient doctrinal understanding of the Roman Catholic will not necessarily bar them from Heaven.

So yes, we should always strive for greater biblical understanding (Acts 17:11; 1 Corinthians 3:1-2; Hebrews 5:11-14; Hebrews 6:1-3; 1 Peter 2:2; 2 Peter 3:18), yet understand that Bible knowledge - very important though it is - will not save us. Indeed, more is going to be expected of those whose knowledge and teaching skills are deeper (James 3:1).

My Tentative Overall Conclusion...

Salvation is not according to knowledge even though Scripture always advises growth in knowledge and understanding. Salvation comes through grace and faith, both granted to those whom God calls. Actual knowledge and understanding, however, will vary; just compare Paul the Apostle with Rahab, the former harlot, yet both are saved and in God's kingdom!

This being so, Catholics and all those of possibly a more deficient spiritual understanding can and will be saved, according to God's abundant mercy. According to the sum total of Bible teaching it seems that it is how we handle those gifts which God has granted to us which is the revealer.

Robin A. Brace. March 29th, 2014.