The Catholic Church: A Friendly Discussion with Our Catholic Friends (3c)

The Catholic Church

The Catholic Church

 A Friendly Discussion with Our Catholic Friends

(Part 3c)


  • What are the most important things
    that a Catholic needs to know?
  • What truths will a Catholic priest never tell you?
  • What are the amazing origins of the Catholic Church and Catholic doctrines?
  1. The Sacrament of Penance

Formerly, faithful Catholics would confess their private sins to their priest to obtain forgiveness of those sins.  While this private confession is not as frequent today, at least among nominal Catholics, penance itself is looked upon as extremely important by the Catholic magisterium.  The Code of Canon Law states: “In the sacrament of penance the faithful, confessing their sins to a legitimate minister, being sorry for them, and at the same time proposing to reform, obtain from God forgiveness of sins committed after baptism through the absolution imparted by the same minister; and they likewise are reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by sinning.”[1]

The Church’s doctrine states that “individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the only ordinary way by which the faithful person who is aware of serious sin is reconciled with God and with the Church.”[2]  “Only a priest is the minister of the sacrament of penance. . . . The confessor acts as both judge and healer in the sacrament of penance; he is to act with prudence and in fidelity to the magisterium of the Church.”[3]  “The Church teaches that it is necessary by divine law to confess to a priest each and every mortal sin—and also circumstances which make a sin a more serious kind of mortal sin—that one can remember after a careful examination of conscience.”[4]   Another source states: “The priest has the power to forgive sins from Jesus Christ. . . . We can truly say that Christ forgives sins, using the lips and hands of the priest, or we can say that the priest forgives sins by the power Christ gives him. . . . The priest forgives sins with the words: ‘I absolve thee from thy sins in the name of the Father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen’”[5]

After confessing to a priest, the next step in the process of penance is this:

The third [step] is satisfaction for sins according to the judgment of the priest, which is mainly achieved by prayer, fasting and almsdeeds.  The form of this sacrament is the words of absolution spoken by the priest when he says: I absolve thee etc. . . . The effect of this sacrament is absolution from sins.[6]

Absolution or forgiveness is not sufficient, according to Catholicism, but there must be this additional element—penance.  “The priest gives us a penance after confession that we may make some atonement to God for our sins, receive help to avoid them in the future, and make some satisfaction for the temporal punishment due them.”[7]  Notice particularly that this penance is viewed as an actual “atonement” to God and that this makes a “satisfaction” for the punishment the sin deserves.  This has great theological implications, for Scripture teaches that Jesus Christ is the only one who makes atonement and reconciliation for sin, and this He did when He died on the cross for all of our sins (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12, 26-28).

Not content with making confession to the priest and receiving forgiveness from him, the Catholic Church also teaches that we must “satisfy the debt of our temporal punishment, besides the penance imposed after confession.”  They answer: “The chief means of satisfying the debt of our temporal punishment are: prayer, attending Mass, fasting, almsgiving, the works of mercy, the patient endurance of sufferings, and indulgences.”[8]  Unable to accept the freely offered forgiveness of God in Christ, by grace, the Catholic is required to work and labor to satisfy the debt that his sin has incurred.

Yet Scripture tells us that we cannot make our own satisfaction.  This is what Jesus did on Calvary.  It was Christ “whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith” (Romans 3:25).  Propitiation means satisfaction for sin, and it is something that Jesus is and did (cf. 1 John 2:1-2). God “loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (4:10).  We simply can’t satisfy God’s wrath ourselves; only Christ could do that.  Further, we can do nothing to merit our own salvation and standing with God: “By grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).  Every Catholic needs to impress those truths on his heart.

The Catholic Church

The sacrament of penance has been a means of terrorizing sensitive Catholics.  They believe that they cannot be forgiven by God alone and directly, but must bare all before their priest.  Even the most intimate and shameful of sexual sins are to be disclosed to an unmarried male priest!  One former Catholic writes: “As I grew older and my offenses moved from social misdemeanors to mortal sins, the occasion and frequency of those sins had to be recalled at each confession: I committed this sin eight times, that sin twice, and the other sin 18 times.  Confession made me feel better, but had little effect on my sinful behavior.  The practice of confession continually reinforced in my mind the idea that the Church held the keys that could unlock the way of heaven for me, and that without the Church and its sacraments all that awaited me after death was an eternity in hell.”[9]

The Catholic doctrine of priestly forgiveness (or absolution) is based on Jesus’ words given in the upper room after His resurrection: “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained” (John 20:23).  Jesus gave this statement to ten of the twelve apostles (Judas was dead and Thomas was absent, v. 24), and it was also given to others than the apostles (John 20:19 with Luke 24:13, 18, 33-43).  Therefore, this included common followers of Jesus, and not just specially chosen apostles.

Chacon and Burnham give a Catholic interpretation of this passage: “Note that Jesus gives the disciples the authority to forgive, and not to forgive.  This means a priest has to hear the sins in order to know whether to forgive them or hold them bound.”[10]  These authors assume that the priest does this, but Jesus doesn’t have an official priesthood in mind.  It would either be a reference to the apostles—or to all the Christians.  Second, they assume that the priest actually forgives sins himself, but Scripture teaches that God alone forgives sins against Him (cf. Mark 2:5, 7; Matthew 6:9-12).  Obviously, we can forgive the sins that others commit against us, personally (cf. Matthew 18:35).  Third, Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them” (John 20:23).  We don’t personally have the power to forgive sins; we simply pronounce the forgiveness that God has granted when the person comes in repentant faith (cf. 1 John 1:9; Acts 3:19).

What does our Lord mean by the words He uses?  Literally, the words can be translated: “Those whose sins you forgive have already been forgiven; those whose sins you do not forgive have not been forgiven.”  “God does not forgive people’s sins because we do so, nor does He withhold forgiveness because we do.   Rather, those who proclaim the gospel are in effect forgiving or not forgiving sins, depending on whether the hearers accept or reject Jesus Christ.”[11] “Jesus was saying that the believer can boldly declare the certainty of a sinner’s forgiveness by the Father because of the work of His Son if that sinner has repented and believed the gospel.  The believer with certainty can also tell those who do not respond to the message of God’s forgiveness through faith in Christ that their sins, as a result, are not forgiven.”[12]

Is it true that “absolution is given by a priest, who acts as judge”?[13]  Instead of Christ teaching the authority of the Catholic priest to absolve or forgive the sins of those who privately confess their sins to him, this scripture teaches that God has already forgiven the repentant person and we have the right to declare that fact to the forgiven penitent person.  If someone refuses to repent, we may declare that he is not forgiven, for this comes only through genuine faith and repentance—both in the case of the alien sinner (Acts 2:38; 3:18) and in the case of the believing baptized person who has sinned (cf. Acts 8:12, 20-24; 2 Cor. 2:6-8; 1 John 1:9).  Peter told the sinful Ananias, “Repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you” (Acts 8:22).  He didn’t say that he—Peter—would forgive this sinful person’s sins.  He simply said for Simon to confess and pray to God for His forgiveness.

As we look at the practice of the early Christians and the teachings of the New Testament, we are struck with a very wide gulf between Catholic teaching and practice of the sacrament of penance, on the one hand, and Biblical teaching and practice, on the other hand.  Several kinds of confession are mentioned in the Scriptures.  When one comes to the Lord in baptism, there is a measure of confession.  We read that the Jews “were being baptized by him [John the baptizer] in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins” (Matt. 3:6).  This baptismal confession was not at all like Catholic confession.

We also know that there is the need of secret confession to God.  If one sins a private, secret, or heart sin—which doesn’t affect another person—he may approach God directly and receive His forgiveness.  “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).  No one else may know of this kind of sin and confession, but God is pleased to extend mercy and forgiveness through Jesus Christ, our only Mediator.   There is also private confession.  When a Christian has sinned against another person, he needs to go to that person directly and seek his forgiveness (cf. Matthew 5:23-24; Luke 15:18-21).  If you have been sinned against by a brother, Jesus says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3).  This is a personal offense that is to be handled in a private way, between the offended and the offender.

Next, we read of confession of a sick person to elders of the fellowship (who were married family men—1 Timothy 3:1-2; Titus 1:5-7), or perhaps to fellow believers: “Is anyone among you sick?  Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.  Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed.  The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (James 5:15-16).  This confession in the context of healing is unlike present-day Catholic confession.

There was also the confession of sins before the body of Christ.  In the New Testament period, when a brother would sin and refuse to repent, he would be excluded from the assembly of saints (cf. 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Thess. 3:6-15; Matt. 18:15-18).  This was meant to bring about repentance on the part of the sinning brother (cf. 2 Thess. 3:14-15; 1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:19-20).  When such a sinner eventually repented, he confessed this to the body of Christians (2 Cor. 2:1-11) and was forgiven (v. 7).  This public confession is very different from private Catholic confession to a priest.

In all of these cases, there is no need of an intermediary priest or anyone else who can pronounce forgiveness.  A priest has no right to forgive (or absolve) anyone’s sins!  We are right to ask the pointed question: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7).  We can see, therefore, that the Catholic doctrine of sacramental penance is far removed from God’s word as practiced in the first century.

  1. Excommunication

We have discussed this briefly under the subject of sacramental penance.  In Catholic doctrine, excommunication is “a penalty imposed by the Church for serious offenses.”  The Code of Canon Law states, “An excommunicated person is forbidden: (1) to have any ministerial participation in celebrating the Eucharistic Sacrifice or in any other ceremonies whatever of public worship; (2) to celebrate the sacraments and sacramentals and to receive the sacraments; (3) to discharge any ecclesiastical offices, ministries or functions whatsoever, or to place acts of governance.”[14] This would mean that when a Catholic commits a serious (mortal) sin, he is forbidden to engage in public worship or participate in any of the Catholic sacraments.

While there is some element of truth here, it is very limited as compared with the New Testament practice.  In the apostolic period and under the direction of the apostles of Christ, certain offenses were grounds of complete disfellowship. This means that the believers were not permitted to greet a person or associate with him (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:2, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13; cf. Matthew 18:15-18; 2 John 9-11).

Some of the grounds for this exclusion from fellowship would be for those who committed serious moral and personal sins (1 Corinthians 5:11), those who sinned and refused to repent or reconcile with a brother (Matt. 18:15-18), those who refused to walk after the tradition of the apostles (2 Thess. 3:6-15), those who taught a false doctrine (Romans 16:17-18), and those who disrupted the unity of the body (Titus 3:10-11)—all were to be banished from the body of Christ.  This involved a complete removal from Christian fellowship or association, including eating with the unrepentant brother (cf. 1 Cor. 5:11; 2 Thess. 3:14).  As long as the brother remained in sin, he was in the realm of the world and of Satan (cf. 1 Cor. 5:4-5; 1 Tim. 1:20).

This had nothing at all to do with church dogma or violation of church policies, but it had very much to do with violating the revealed will of God found in Scripture.  In the case of Catholicism, generally the excommunicated person is not out of fellowship with his fellow Catholics.  Furthermore, there are masses of sinful persons who are not excommunicated by the Church—but in the New Testament body of Christ, they surely would be excluded from fellowship.  In fact, very few people face this extreme Catholic penalty.  Therefore, there is a huge gulf separating Biblical withdrawal of fellowship from formalistic Catholic excommunication.

  1. Holy Days

We will remember that, according to the Law of Moses, the Israelites were to observe certain yearly feasts, festivals, and remembrances.  This included the weekly seventh-day Sabbath, the monthly New Moons, and the yearly feasts, such as the Passover, Pentecost, and Booths, including the Day of Atonement.  These shadows and types passed away when the reality of Christ came (cf. Colossians 2:16-17; Galatians 4:9-11; Romans 14:5-6).

The Catholic Church has specified certain days of the year as “Holy Days of obligation.”  These were designated by the third Plenary Council of Baltimore in the nineteenth century.[15]  The Code of Cannon Law states that, besides the Lord’s day or Sunday, “Also to be observed are the day of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Epiphany, the Ascension and the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Holy Mary Mother of God and her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, Saint Joseph, the apostles Saint Peter and Paul, and finally, All Saints.”[16] The Code then states, “However, the conference of bishops can abolish certain holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday with prior approval of the Apostolic See.”[17]

What are the obligations for Catholics on these Holy Days?  “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass; they are also to abstain from those labors and business concerns which impede the worship to be rendered to God, the joy which is proper to the Lord’s Day, or the relaxation of mind and body.”[18]

It is important to note that these days arose after the apostolic period, except for the Lord’s day.  Easter (the day of the resurrection) can be dated to the early second century.[19] Around the time of Constantine, the number of yearly holy days or feasts multiplied.  Lent (the forty day period before Easter) was established.  Along with this, Feasts of the Ascension (40th day after Easter) and Pentecost (fiftieth day after Easter) were set.  By the mid-fourth century, Christmas (December 25) and Epiphany (January 6) were celebrated.[20]

As we’ve said, the early followers of Christ didn’t celebrate any of these human religious days.  Paul warns us, “No one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day” (Colossians 2:16).  Although this would be a reference to Jewish days, the principle would likewise disallow any holy days—whether Jewish, Gentile, or arising from a compromising Church.  The apostle wrote, “You observe days and months and seasons and years.  I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain” (Galatians 4:10-11; cf. Romans 14:1-6).

Many of these early religious or “holy” days either came from pagan sources or were influenced by them.  These modern “holy days” have been established by human authority, namely the “conference of bishops” and the Roman Pope.  They are not Scriptural, not apostolic, and do not date from the time of Christ and the apostles in the first century.  For the Christian, every day is “holy” in the sense that it is given over to God and His service.  While it does seem like the early Christians held a special devotion to the first day of the week, in commemoration of the resurrection of Christ, and met on that day to break bread and give of their means (cf. Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1-2; Rev. 1:10?), we have no record that there was any other special day among the Gentile Christians of the first century.  (Probably many of the first Jewish Christians did continue to observe the Sabbath and the yearly feast days.)

If the early believers lived for years without celebrating such holy days and feast days, why should we establish any of them, without apostolic authority?  How can it be right for mere man to establish what God hasn’t established?  Scripture warns us not to “exceed what is written” in Scripture (1 Corinthians 4:6) and Revelation 22:18-19 places a curse on anyone who would “add” to the Word of God.  Even under Moses, God issued a warning: “You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you” (Deuteronomy 4:2; cf. 12:32; Proverbs 30:6).  We must carefully guard against deviating from what God has already specified for His people.

  1. Holy Orders

The Catholic Church

The Catholic Church has instituted certain offices and positions within the Church, but these are far different from those positions of gifted men in the early body of Christ.  “Holy Orders” is one of the seven sacraments of the Church, defined by the Code of Canon Law: “By divine institution some among the Christian faithful are constituted sacred ministers through the sacrament of orders by means of the indelible character with which they are marked; accordingly they are consecrated and deputed to shepherd the people of God, each in accord with his own grace of orders, by fulfilling in the person of Christ the Head the functions of teaching, sanctifying and governing.”[21] These orders are “the episcopacy, the presbyterate [priesthood], and diaconate.”[22]

It is true that the Lord planned for men to fulfill the functions of overseer or elder as well as servant (deacon), but the New Testament positions are far from the officers ordained in the Catholic Church.  First, in the early body of Christ, there were “overseers” (wrongly translated as “bishops”) (episkopos, meaning “an overseer”), and these were also called “elders” (presbuteros, an old man, an elder), or “shepherds” (poimen, a shepherd).  These terms were used interchangeably, thus they refer to the same position in the body of Christ (see Acts 14:23; 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5, 7; 1 Peter 5:1-3).

These men were older—not younger (Acts 14:23).  They were married men—not celibate (1 Timothy 3:1-2; Titus 1:5-6).  They were family men with believing children—not childless men (1 Timothy 3:5-6; Titus 1:6).  They were men chosen from the local body of believers—not imported from a seminary or elsewhere (Acts 14:23; 20:28; cf. also Acts 6:3).  Significantly, these elders/shepherds/overseers were always in the plurality within the local assemblies, rather than a single overseer over a plurality of assemblies/churches (cf. Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1).  Little is known of the servants (deacons) in the assembly (1 Timothy 3:8-13), but they also must have been local men chosen to serve in the believing community (Philippians 1:1).

The Catholic Church has many other positions that are not Biblical, offices created after the days of the apostles.  The monarchial bishop, the metropolitan bishop, and eventually protopatriarchs arose, with the Bishop of Rome, who claimed succession to Peter’s position, gaining more authority.  Today, the Pope, the archbishops, the bishops, and other officers occupy positions unknown in the body of Christ of the first century.  The parish priest, found in Catholic congregations, is also far removed from New Testament practice.

This reminds us that Paul the apostle warned the elders in Ephesus of the apostasy or falling away from the truth that would come from among their own body of overseers: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.  I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:28-30).  From the latter first century, through the second and third century, and into the massive apostasy of the fourth century—we see a constant digression from the truth and from New Testament organization, and this included the functionaries that we have mentioned.

The Catholic Church of today is not at all like the body that Christ founded and began to build in AD 30 in Jerusalem, that spread through the Roman world of the first century.  It is a highly structured and hierarchical organization with a myriad of church officials very unlike the simple organization of the first century.

  1. Organized Institutionalism

The Catholic Church

Probably no religious organization on earth is so highly-structured and institutionalized as the Roman Catholic Church.  The Encyclopedia of Catholicism describes how this developed institutionalism arose:

As the Church spread through the Roman Empire, it adapted itself to contemporary social and political structures.  By the latter half of the second century there were synods and councils and the emergence of the monarchial episcopate (one bishop governing each diocese).[23]

Presently, the “Pope” governs the church in the independent state of the Vatican, with the College of Cardinals (Bishops who have been chosen to have a higher rank than common Bishops), along with the Roman Curia, the administrative arm.  This body is composed of Archbishops and Cardinals who are heads of the various departments.  “The Tribunals have judicial powers.”[24]

All Catholics in a geographical area constitute a territorial parish, whereas a national parish is for a given ethnic group.  Religious institutes include the Jesuits, Franciscans, and Dominicans.  Women Institutes include Sisters of Charity, the Ursulines, and the Benedictines.[25] Indeed, the Roman Church has a sophisticated hierarchical order, with the “Pope” at the apex.

Every student of the Bible will immediately see the vast difference between the Catholic organization and the simple arrangement provided by the Lord Jesus and exemplified in the life of the early believers.  In the body of Christ, all were brothers and sisters in the same family and were on the same level (Matthew 23:8).  Paul wrote, “We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (Romans 12:5).  He further said, “Even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12).

The early Christians did not have Rome or any other city as their headquarters, including Jerusalem.  Their headquarters was heaven, where their “head” reigned (1 Peter 3:22).  No individual congregation or assembly had authority over others.  Each local community was autonomous with regard to their local matters, but there was also an interdependence of love, for those disciples knew that every Christian was a member of the body (Romans 12:4), a part of the same temple of the Lord (1 Corinthians 3:16-17), and a stone in the same building (1 Peter 2:4-5).  As we mentioned before, there were no Popes, Bishops, Archbishops, Cardinals, priests, or other officials in Holy Orders, but they simply had men who functioned according to their individual gifts—overseers, servants, proclaimers, teachers, etc.

As we stand back and view both the Bible and the Catholic Church, we immediately see a huge contrast.  In the Bible, the “church” refers to people who were under the authority of Christ.  The word “church” itself comes from the Greek ekklesia, meaning assembly, congregation, community, gathering, or group.  (In reality, the word “church” should probably not be found in our English translations since it has connotations very different from the term ekklesia.).  The ekklesia (“church”) refers to people themselves—rather than an entity in which people are placed.  But in Catholicism (and often in Protestantism), the Church is often something separate from the people and even over the people.  Instead of the “Church” being the people of God under the authority of Christ, in Catholicism the “Church” (capital “C”) is an institution, governed by unscriptural Church leaders—Popes and Bishops—that has authority over the people!

This is manifested throughout the Catholic literature.  For example, we read, “The history of the Bible attests that it was the Church exercising its Apostolic authority that determined what is and is not Scripture.  We need the authority of the Church to tell us what belongs to the Bible.”[26]  “The Church with the authority to determine the infallible Word of God, must have the infallible authority and guidance of the Holy Spirit.”[27]  Much could be said here, but again we see that this “Church” is thought of as an institution, ruled by the Catholic magisterium, that has authority over the members.  The New Testament views the ekklesia as the people of God and only people, under the authority of Jesus Christ.  The ekklesia is the body of Christ, composed of “members” who have Christ Jesus as their Head.

Please check all of the articles in this series on the Catholic Church:

Part 1a

Part 1b

Part 1c

Part 2a

Part 2b

Part 2c

Part 3a

Part 3b

Part 3c

Part 4a

Part 4b

Part 4c



[1] Essential, p. 225.

[2] Ibid., cf. Ryan, Catholic Questions, Catholic Answers, pp. 55-56.

[3] Essential, p. 225.

[4] The Teachings of Christ, p. 486, in Coffey, Once a Catholic, p. 95.

[5] The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism, Revised, p. 185.

[6] Karl Rahner, Teaching of the Catholic Church, pp. 308-309, quoted by Rhodes, Reasoning, p. 179.

[7] The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism, Revised, p. 199.

[8] Ibid, p. 200.

[9] Once a Catholic, pp. 93-94.

[10] Beginning Apologetics I, p. 24.

[11] NASB Study Bible note.

[12] MacArthur Study Bible.

[13] Coffey, Once a Catholic, p. 95.

[14] Essential, p. 174.

[15] See Ekstrom, A New Concise Catholic Dictionary, pp. 124-125.

[16] Essential, p. 186.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., p. 187.

[19] Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, p. 541.

[20] Ibid., p. 543; cf. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, p. 116).

[21] Essential, p. 187.

[22] Ibid.

[23] P. 314.

[24] World Book Encyclopedia.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Chacon and Burnham, Beginning Apologetics I, p. 13.

[27] Ibid., p. 12.

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