Protestantism and Roman
Catholicism Compared:



The sacrament of penance is one of the principal means of grace on the Roman Catholic Church. It is necessary to confess your sins to a priest. The Roman Catholic catechism (revised edition 1971), defines penance as '... a sacrament whereby sins, whether mortal or venial, which we have committed after baptism are forgiven'. Thus the Church of Rome teaches that all must ordinarily come to the priest to have sins forgiven. Baptism remits all sins up to the point at which it is received, that of course is usually in infancy. But every sin committed afterwards must be removed by penance, and only a priest can give absolution. Mortal sins are serious sins which cut the soul off from God; venial sins are not so serious and do not have that effect.

It is commonly thought by Protestants, and sometimes Roman Catholic apologists suggest, that contrition, i.e. sorrow for sin and the resolve to forsake it, is an essential part of penance. But when the teaching is examined it is seen that contrition is not really demanded. The Roman Catholic catechism goes on to say that the fear of punishment, i.e. attrition, is enough for making a confession to a priest. People are thus encouraged to come and confess and receive absolution for mortal as well as venial sins time after time on these terms, with the assurance that to receive such absolution from a priest is the same as receiving it from God.

Recently, a conference of Roman Catholic priests, doctors, social workers and psychiatrists was held to consider the problem of why a quarter of the prison population of Britain is Roman Catholic when Roman Catholics form only one-fifteenth of the total population. One doctor suggested that it was because Roman Catholics were less successful criminals than others, and therefore got caught while the others got away. The conference ought to have considered the harm done by the system of sacramental confession which encourages the offender to confess and receive absolution without the spirit of true contrition.

Confession, which the Roman catechism defines as, 'to accuse ourselves of sins to a priest', was not made compulsory until 1215 AD when the Fourth Lateran Council decreed that it was necessary, 'under pain of mortal sin to confess at least once a year to a priest'. It seems strange that something which was then regarded as necessary was discovered so late. As John Wycliffe put it, 'It seemeth that it is not necessary... for Christ, all-knowing, used it not, nor none of his apostles after. And if it were necessary to man Christ would have used it or taught it'. He went on shrewdly to suggest that the real purpose of the decree regarding confession was to make all men subject to the Pope so that he could lead them where he liked. 'Lord, where is freedom of Christ when men be cast in such bondage? Christ made his servants free but Antichrist hath made them bound again. And certainly there is no authority that gave him leave to make men thus enthralled'.

When confession has been made and absolution given there is still penance to be done. This is sometimes no more than saying a few 'Hail Marys', but whatever the penance given the catechism warns that it does, 'not always make full satisfaction for our sins. We should therefore add to it other good works and penances, and try to gain indulgences'. There is always some debt or other to be paid for sin and what is not met in this life is to be met in the life to come in purgatory.

For those familiar with the teaching of the Bible about forgiveness and justification by free grace there can be no greater travesty of the Gospel than this system which has been fabricated by the Church of Rome. The wonder is that people still believe it. But they do and that makes it imperative that we should set forth plainly the true path of justification by faith alone.

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