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iStock_000003501504SmallAsk a serious Protestant today what is the biggest threat to orthodox Christianity today, and he might mention cultural hostilities, the sexual revolution, or nominalism in our churches. But if you would have asked a Protestant the same question a hundred years ago, he would have almost certainly mentioned the Roman Catholic Church. Until fairly recently, Protestants and Catholics in this country were, if not enemies, then certainly players on opposing teams.

Today, much of that animosity has melted away. And to a large extent, the thaw between Protestants and Catholics has been a good thing. Sincere Protestants and Catholics often find themselves to be co-belligerents, defending the unborn, upholding traditional marriage, and standing up for religious liberty. And in an age that discounts doctrine, evangelical Protestants often share more in common theologically with a devout Roman Catholic steeped in historic orthodoxy than they do with liberal members of their own denominations. I personally have benefited over the years from Catholic authors like G. K. Chesterton, Richard John Neuhaus, and Robert George.

And yet, theological differences between Protestants and Catholics are still wide and in places very deep. As the 500th anniversary of the Reformation draws near, it’s important to be conversant with some of the main issues that legitimately divide us, lest we think all the theological hills have been laid low and all the dogmatic valleys made into a plain.

Below are a few of the main points that still separate Catholics and Protestants. Of course, many Roman Catholics may not believe (or even know) what their formal theology states. But by seeking to understand official church documents we can get a good idea of what Catholics are supposed to believe and see how these differ from traditional Protestant beliefs (unless otherwise noted, quotations are from the Catechism of the Catholic Church).

The Church

Since Vatican II, the Catholic Church has softened its stance toward Protestants, calling them "estranged brothers." Nevertheless, to be a part of the church in its fullness one must be immersed in the Roman Catholic system of sacraments, orders, and under the authority of the Pope. "Fully incorporated into the society of the Church are those who . . . are joined in the visible structure of the Church of Christ, who rules here through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops."

Further, the Pope is considered infallible when he speaks ex cathedra (from the chair); that is, when he makes official doctrinal pronouncements.

The Catholic Church also has seven sacraments instead of two--Eucharist (or Lord's Supper) and baptism like Protestants, and then penance, holy orders, marriage, confirmation, and last rites.


Catholics have a larger biblical canon. In addition to the 66 books in the Protestant Bible, Catholic Bibles include the Apocrypha, with books like Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccebees, Sirach, and Baruch. Catholic teaching also elevates tradition more than Protestants do. Granted, many evangelicals suffer from ignoring tradition and the wisdom of the past. But Catholic theology goes beyond just respecting the past; it sacralizes it. "Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence," the Catechism states.

Likewise, the Magisterium has the authority to make definitive interpretations. "The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching, office of the Church alone . . . to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome." The issue of authority continues to be the biggest practical divide between Protestants and Catholics.

Lord's Supper

Central to the Catholic faith is the Mass (their worship service), and central to the Mass is the celebration of the Eucharist. Catholics believe that bread and wine are transubstantiated into the actual, physical body and blood of Jesus Christ.

The elements are offered as a sacrifice from the church and a sacrifice of Jesus Christ's work on the cross. This is not simply a remembrance of Christ's sacrifice, but the same atoning work: "The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice . . . the sacrifice [of the Eucharist] is truly propitiatory."


Catholics teach that "justification is conferred in Baptism." The waters of baptism wash away original sin and join us with Christ. Baptism is not merely a sign and seal of grace, but actually confers saving grace.


Mary is not only the Mother of Christ, but the Mother of the church. She was conceived without original sin (the immaculate conception) and at the end of her earthly life "was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things" (assumption). She intercedes for the church, "continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation," and is "a mother to us in the order of grace."

Mary was more than just the faith-filled mother of Jesus: "The Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix."


Those who die in God's grace, but still imperfectly purified, are assured of eternal life, but must first undergo purification in purgatory. Because of the presence of this intermediate state, the Catholic Church has developed the practice of prayer for the dead. "The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead."

Concerning the salvation of those who do not hear the gospel, the Catholic Catechism is committed to inclusivism: "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."


It is not really fair to say "Catholics teach that you can earn your salvation." That may be what many Catholics believe, but the official teaching of Rome is more nuanced, though still a long way off from the Reformation understanding sola gratia. The Catechism summarizes: "Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life."


Catholic teaching rejects the Protestant doctrine of imputed righteousness. The question is this: is the righteousness whereby we are forgiven and made right with God a righteousness working in us or a righteousness reckoned to our account? Catholics say the former, Protestants the latter. According to Catholic teaching, justification is more than God's declaration of our righteousness based on Christ's work, it is also a renewal of the inner man and reconciliation with God. Of course, these are good things too, but Catholics make them present in and through justification, rather than by faith alone.

The Council of Trent, from the 16th century Catholic counter-reformation, declares: "If anyone says, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of grace and charity that is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favor of God: let him be anathema." While individual Protestants and Catholics may work to find common ground on justification, the official teaching of the Roman Church is still opposed to any notion of an imputed righteousness through faith alone.


Should Catholics and Protestants treat each other decently and with respect? Of course. Will we labor side by side on important moral and social matters? Quite often. Can we find born-again Christians worshiping in Catholic churches? I’m sure. But are the disagreements between Protestants and Catholics, therefore, negligible? Hardly. The differences still exist, and they still matter.

Sanctify us by your truth, O Lord; your word is truth.

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24 thoughts on “Protestant and Catholic: What’s the Difference?”

  1. Simon says:

    I think that’s a useful summary of the differences between Catholics and Protestants. I would just add a few things. The sacraments are not just confined to baptism and the Eucharist for Catholics. They are only 2 of 7 sacraments held to by Catholics (and Orthodox as well). This has had a major impact I think. Think of the same sex marriage debate. Marriage is now seen simply as a contract that can be entered into between any 2 (or perhaps more) parties. The Protestant treatment of Scripture is akin to how a lawyer approaches a piece of legislation. I think this has led to the kind of contractual worldview we see modern society. In the traditional Christian view, however, is that marriage is sacramental. Marriage is to be mediated by the Church and is a means of grace. This places the definition and regulation of marriage firmly within the Church’s realm. Of course traditional marriage is testified to by nature itself, however it’s meaning is most fully realised in a sacramental setting with the establishment of the Church by Christ. I think this is crucial.

    On Mary, the title most used for her by the Church is “Mother of God”. Most Protestants technically agree to the appropriateness (and even necessity) of this title for her. However, they are extremely reluctant to actually refer to Mary as the Mother of God, as was decided at the Ephesus Council. Even the author here refers to Mary as Mother of Christ, which was actually what the title that the Ephesus Council was called to decide upon. Nestorius asserted that Mary be called Mother of Christ only and not Mother of God. He was defeated at Ephesus on this issue. Here I think Protestants should reflect on the Christology this position implies. Even avoiding the title by not using is almost like rejecting it. I think this is actually a serious doctrinal issue given that an Ecumenical Council has decided upon it.

    Another major difference is the fact that Protestants outright reject the conclusions reached at Nicaea 2 concerning icons. This is a huge difference between Protestantism and Catholics as well as Orthodox.

  2. Andy Muhlenkamp says:

    Kevin, I appreciate this post but would also add that Catholics do not officially believe that transubstantiation changes the bread and wine into Christ’s “physical” body. I’ve never seen “physical” or “local” in the Catholic Catechism, instead terms like “real” and “substantial” are used instead to distinguish the mode of his presence from “physical” and “local” modes. Like merit it may be popularly misunderstood, but it’s an important distinction. Additionally, I understand that some Protestant bodies (Lutheran, Anglican, some Federal Vision Presbyterians) are a lot closer to Catholics on baptism than you portrayed. I think you were actually contrasting Catholics and most Presbyterians at that point rather than Catholics and all Protestants.

  3. Jesse says:

    I’ve been reading ‘ Roman Catholic theology and practice- an evangelical assessment’ by Greg R. Allison. Allison boils down the difference to two major points, one of which is views on total depravity. Catholics are much more emphatic on the goodness of creation and thus employ the physical in God’s salvific work (Baptism, Eucharist, natural revelation, etc.) Whereas us protestants are more Cartesian in my estimation: We prefer to label the material as idolatrous.
    I also want to agree with Andy that there are some denominations who avoid this Cartesian/Gnostic impulse and balance works and faith very eloquently… Which is one reason why I still count myself a protestant!

  4. Urban Monk says:

    its interesting to see this as most of these points for Catholicism are historical teaching and considered orthodox by the early churchZ The changes came from the Protestant side and I’m wondering how the two can be reconciled.

  5. Paul Carter says:

    Well said. Love the tone and the clarity.

  6. Peter Charlebois says:

    Grateful for the example of being able to be clear and gracious at the same time I feel I often tend to struggle with sacrificing clarity in my efforts to be gracious. May His Grace use such articles to reach deep into the hearts of those held captive by such a system that will NOT confer eternal joy with Christ….

  7. KG says:

    The apparently intentional decision to avoid the “Mother of God” title also struck me.

  8. Nick says:

    I’m realizing I lean Catholic in my theology. This reaffirms that growing realization. I went from Baptist roots, to Anglican. The further I press into the historical church, the more Catholic theology makes sense to me.

  9. Mike says:

    Kevin,thanks for the article that you wrote.As a northern transplant to the South (27 years ago)I am annoyed, I will have to admit, at seemingly “protected” status that Catholicism enjoys here in the Southern U.S. where I now live, where it seems that southern Protestants confer for the sake of their reputation, or for correctnes, they are all too willing to sacrifice the one and only gospel (grace alone through faith alone, by Christ alone) that the apostle Paul talked about.I may be missing a larger history of southern treatment of Catholics prior to my generation, but evidently Protestants have something from the past that they feel the need to apologize for. Perhaps it is the result of the murder of one Catholic priest in Birmingham Alabama years ago, for performing a marriage ceremony involving a “mixed” marriage,
    (Catholic man and Protestant woman) that southernen Protestants generally lack objectivity when dealing with this subject.I don’t understand.

  10. Skeeter says:

    Kevin, you went soft, maybe because of your position, I don’t know. There is a point in which we need to call the catholic church for what it is. It is a deceptive, wicked, idolatries institution that keeps people trapped in a dangerous religion while cloaked in fake pious platitude leading to eternal destruction.

  11. Phil says:

    2 Corinthians 11:3 (NKJV) But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.

    2 Corinthians 11:4 (NKJV) For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted–you may well put up with it!

    Galatians 1:8 (NKJV) But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.

    The “Christ” who must be offered daily to appease the wrath of God, and whose mother plays the role of the Holy Spirit is another Jesus. The sacramental gospel is a burden which no man can bear; no one has ever been justified by it.

  12. chris says:

    Perhaps the most important question by comparing/contrasting Protestants vs Catholics, how you define “Protestants.” In seminary I wrote a paper “The Roman Catholic Church and Scripture.” In my research as well reflection of my first hand experience in country with 85% belonging to the RCC I was confirmed that the gap is not closing. One of the statements that yesterday’s truth (Scripture) is inferior to today’s truth (teaching of the RCC). does that make it clear. In the early 80’s I met a well educated 30something fellow, who grew up in a Lutheran Church. That year Austria celebrated the toleration Edict. He told me that he was a 2nd class citizen because he was not Catholic. I’m aware this is not so much an issue in North America.

  13. Thanks for this article. Over the years I’ve become increasingly persuaded that Roman Catholicism is actually an apostate religion; a cult. The #1 problem is their lack of dependence on Scripture – which leads to the #2 problem (logically second, not a “lesser” problem): the denial of the sufficiency of the Cross. Jesus declared, “It is finished!” (John 19:30) – but Catholics say, “No, Jesus, it isn’t; we have to continue sacrificing you perpetually; we don’t believe that you actually solved the sin issue 2,000 years ago.”

    I’m sorry, but if you reject the Cross – you’re NOT SAVED.

    And in that continual “propitiatory sacrifice” of theirs we find the #3 problem: Romanists believe it’s the priest who offers that sacrifice up to God. This directly contradicts the doctrine of the High Priesthood of Christ, who, “having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God” (Heb. 10:12; cf. 1:3; 7:27; 9:14, 28).

    @Nick, and other interested readers, I highly recommend _Nothing in My Hand I Bring_, by ex-Catholic Ray Galea (now an Anglican pastor in Australia).

  14. Urban Monk says:

    Remember, the beliefs of the church were established way before the reformation. The Catholic councils are the historical church. So i would suggest taking a different perspective to the verses that warn about those preaching a different/new gospel. The reformation theology was not taught prior to it…just something to think about

    I recommend reading Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Henry Cardinal Newman (former Anglican)

  15. Sharee says:

    I work alongside RC’s and so to get along we focus on Jesus. I have prayed with them, listened to them, gone to church with them and one year I invited this friend to an inter denomination, outdoor Easter ‘Son’ rise Service. I was thrilled when she showed up, (maybe she came b/c we were not at our church building) but still so happy to have her there. After the service I decided to go to her Easter service with her since she came to ours, and since the service prior to the RCC’s was outdoors I was so overdressed. At the same time she was under dressed to attend the outdoor one and was quite cold. I was so hot in their service. It reminded me that Jesus said that He would rather us be cold or hot just not lukewarm. There are many roads that we just do not go down together. And like so many; they call themselves, Christians. The main problem with both sides is being in the Word of God. Jesus is the Word! With the Spirit of Holiness as our Guide. He knows the Way, He is the Truth, and He is Life everlasting. Let’s keep our eye on Jesus.

  16. John says:

    The Papist religion worships dead people and kisses their dead bodies, it worships a piece of bread, it worships pictures of deities and saints, it worships a mere human woman (I don’t care that they say venerate – it’s the same). The Papists have the religious novelties, not the Protestants.

  17. Dylan says:


    You claim that the Catholic Church “is a deceptive, wicked, idolatries institution that keeps people trapped in a dangerous religion while cloaked in fake pious platitude leading to eternal destruction.” Your statement is nothing more than an assertion presented without any evidence.

  18. Dylan says:


    You claim that “The “Christ” who must be offered daily to appease the wrath of God, and whose mother plays the role of the Holy Spirit is another Jesus.”

    This is a gross misunderstanding of the meaning of the Eucharist
    There is nothing in the catechism that speaks about appeasing God’s wrath. Also, the Eucharist is not offered ‘daily’. Furthermore, what do you mean that Mary plays the role of the Holy Spirit?

  19. Tim Keene says:

    This has been a fascinating post and response. Some remarks.
    1. On marriage. The advantages of the RC view of marriage is well argued but I think overly demeans the Protestant view. Eph 5 is central to the Protestant understanding just as much as to the RC understanding. It is not purely contractual even if we Prots have sometimes erred in this respect. And there is the troubling RC rejection of marriage for priests that only seems to go back to around 1000 AD and so cannot be seen as going back to the early church.
    2. The title for Mary from the Council of Ephesus was theotokos, or God-bearer. And this emphasises an important aspect. What was affirmed was something about Jesus. The fear the majority had about Nestorius’ Christology was that it seemed to make Christ, part man and part God. And this fear was encapsulated by Nestorius preference for Christotokos – Christ bearer. This was part of the Christological debates and not really about Mary at all. The issue was who did she carry in the womb not who was Mary. Translating theotokos as Mother of God has a tendency to change the meaning of the term into an assertion about Mary. Using Mother of Christ runs the risk of making the same mistake combined with a watering down of the deity of Christ and so I agree that Mother of Christ is not the best term.
    3. Re the Eucharist. Transubstantiation goes back a long way in church history and it was only after centuries that Aquinas found intellectually convincing language to explain it. But his terminology is part of a discourse quite alien to us. And this is why we Prots tend to misdescribe it.
    4. Jesse’s point about the RC greater respect for creation is only partly true. Neo-Calvinism (Kuyper and all that lot) is a good example of the great respect Protestants can have for creation. And Thomism can be quite otherworldly. The blessed state for Aquinas was about heaven and not a renewed creation.
    5. Andy Doerksen draws attention to one problem of Catholic soteriology. How does the Mass relate to salvation and how does it relate to the cross? Andy is wrong to assume that the Mass rejects the cross as the Mass is built upon the cross. The Mass seems to me (as a Protestant) to be a re-enactment of the cross and not a rejection of it at all. But that still leaves me confused as to how it relates to salvation. Is the Eucharist necessary for salvation? Surely this is wrong (although John Frith was burned at the stake for denying the necessity of a transubstantial account of the Eucharist). Perhaps Catholics could explain more on this.

  20. nl says:

    Thank you, Rev. De Young for defining Catholic positions (including use of the Catechism of the Catholic Church).

    What defines the Protestant positions?

  21. Doug Bartholomew says:

    I am not Catholic and find this article laughably arrogant. “Of course, many Roman Catholics may not believe (or even know) what their forma theology states.” This statement is not followed up by a statement that most Protestants I meet obviously have no clue what their forma theology states, although your comment makes the assumption they all do.
    “Can we find born again Christians worshiping in Catholic Churches?” I would like to find some born again Christians in Protestant churches, you know ones who actually read and apply the red words in the last third of their favorite book.

  22. Mark says:


    One question: who (if anyone) can correct your interpretation of Scripture (or general approach to revelation)? For example, complete this sentence: “I, Kevin DeYoung, am personally convinced that X is the correct interpretation of Scripture, but [insert authority, if any] confirmed that, in fact, Y is the correct interpretation, so it turns out I was mistaken, and I will now affirm that Y is the correct interpretation.”

    Protestants want to correct Catholics’ interpretation of Scripture (and general approach to revelation). And Catholics want to correct Protestants’ interpretation of Scripture (and general approach to revelation). Both sides have highly-educated post-doctoral theologians spilling gallons of ink providing rigorous support of their interpretations of Scripture (and general approach to revelation), but neither is persuaded.

    What provision (if any) did God make for this situation?

    One reflection: People who heard Christ teach often noted that He spoke with the absolute certainty of someone who knew they had been authorized to issue that teaching. The Father authorized (and the Holy Spirit empowered) Christ to teach, and He did. Christ authorized (and the Holy Spirit empowered) the Apostles to teach, and they did–some of it was even reduced to writing. The Apostles authorized (and the Holy Spirit empowered) other men to teach, and they did.

    If a Protestant says that the men authorized to teach eventually departed from [what he personally believes to be] the correct interpretation of Scripture (or general approach to revelation), that person has arrogated to himself the authority to to declare the correct interpretation of Scripture (or approach to revelation).

  23. Rev Peter says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful article, Kevin. As an Anglican evangelical in the UK, I have to say that we have probably progressed further in our ecumenical relations than in the US, and would certainly not harbour some of the hostility towards Roman Catholicism reflected in some of the above comments. Yes, there are differences of doctrine which need to be worked through in a spirit of loving fellowship and dialogue with one another. But let’s not forget that what essentially unites us is much greater than what might divide us.

  24. Michael says:

    Thanks for quoting the Catechism! I converted to Catholicism from Southern Baptist evangelicalism a few years ago, and was raised opposing the Catholic Church in a general sense, having been told what they believed and why it was wrong…however, I was never presented with their beliefs as they expressed it themselves. I’d read Luther and Calvin and such, and come out after the commentary on Galatians convinced that the Catholic faith was indeed very like to the Law as opposed to the true Gospel. I no longer hold that view, but I appreciate that we both care deeply about the truth and about unity, and an important step to union is not to gloss over differences nor to create straw men, but to properly understand where each side stands. So thanks for the balanced presentation and for the gracious spirit in which this was written.

    In the peace of Christ,


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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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