Recently my daughter had a conversation with a friend who expressed the idea that Catholics were not Christians. She felt surprised and offended and really did not know what to say. If we are not Christians, she asked me, then what are we? Why would her friend think that?
By the time my daughter began personally embracing her Catholic faith, my husband and I were already well established in the Catholic Church. She did not experience the transitions we made as we slowly came to understand and unravel so many misconceptions we had about Catholics ourselves.
This very simple and basic question—what is it that makes a person a Christian?—has been colored by centuries of doctrinal conflicts between Protestants and Catholics. Her friend’s misconception may stem from many different reasons.
I began my answer to her by pointing out that some Protestant denominations teach that the Pope is the Antichrist. If so, what must they think about people who follow him?
I myself grew up thinking that although there were Christians in the Catholic Church, they were Christians in spite of their Church, not because of it. WHY I thought that, I really had no idea.
My husband grew up believing that Catholics were not true Christians because they did not trust Christ’s atoning work on the cross alone for salvation. They needed to supplement it with their own works.
While there is plethora of other complaints against the Catholic Church, I think the conflict over faith and works is the big issue that leads some Protestants to think that Catholics are not Christians.
So let’s talk about faith and works. When a Catholic talks about salvation by faith and works, this is what he means:
Catholics do not want to be noisy gongs and clanging cymbals—in other words, lacking love (I Corinthians 13). They agree with James that faith without works is dead and cannot save (James 2:14-17). Catholics take seriously the questions Jesus will ask us at His judgment throne when He separates the sheep from the goats, one to eternal life and the other to eternal punishment (Matthew 25:31-46).
When a Catholic talks about faith and works, these are the WORKS a Catholic is talking about:
Corporal Works of Mercy
(those pertaining to our bodies)
1. Feed the hungry
2 Give drink to the thirsty
3. Clothe the naked
4. Shelter the homeless
5. Care for the sick
6. Visit the imprisoned
7. Bury the dead
Spiritual Works of Mercy
(those pertaining to our inner life)
1. Admonish the sinner
2. Instruct the ignorant
3. Counsel the doubtful
4. Comfort the sorrowful
5. Forgive injuries
6. Bear wrongs patiently
7. Pray for the living and the dead
With these fourteen “works”, every human need is cared for.
Catholics do not confuse Paul’s teachings on the WORKS of the Jewish law with the corporal and spiritual WORKS of mercy. When Catholics speak of salvation by faith and works, they are speaking as Paul does: neither circumcision nor uncircumcision (works of the Jewish law) count for anything, but only faith working through love (Galatians 5:6). A Catholic can never disconnect faith from works because the Scriptures never disconnect faith from works.
I love studying salvation texts in Scripture as a Catholic—some verses speak of faith, some speak of works, some speak of both. But no passages ever need to be excluded, ignored or twisted into something other than their straightforward meaning. The Catholic understanding of faith and works embraces all and is certainly one of my dearest Catholic treasures.
Melanie Frei was an evangelical Protestant missionary to Hong Kong with her husband Tom, pastor and seminary professor. But when they studied Scripture and Church history, the two of them decided to leave their ministry and enter the Roman Catholic Church. Melanie is the mother of three incredible young adults and three awesome grandchildren and is also a substitute teacher in the Tomah Area School District. Her favorite ministries are leading Bible studies, music and pro-life work. For fun, Melanie is a total fan of BBC dramas and Regency romance.