In an article called “The Gospel for Roman Catholics” put out by the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM) the claim is made that Roman Catholics lack a fundamental understanding of the true and undefiled gospel of Jesus Christ. Meanwhile, the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the Lord’s Prayer a “Summary of the Gospel” (CCC 2761) and Pope Francis himself penned a book titled “The Joy of the Gospel.”
Catholics and protestants are using the same word, here, but are we talking about the same thing? And do Catholics really hold to an unbiblical and errant understanding of the “The Gospel“?
Let us start by clarifying on the term “gospel.” The word “gospel” simply means the Good News according to Jesus. Catholics and protestants generally agree on the definition of the word: Christ came with a message for humanity. The gravity of any misunderstanding is usually centered on what that good news [message] is, essentially.
A prominent stereotype is that for Catholics, the “Good News” is that if you are a good person, pray to Mary everyday and go to mass that the catholic will then earn their way into heaven (as the CARM article suggests). Is this how Catholic’s really view the Gospel, or is the “Good News” something else, entirely?
The Gospel According to Protestants
A flier put out by a protestant ministry called “9 Marks” may be a good representation of modern, mainstream protestant-evangelical thought on what Gospel means in its basic articulation. The protestant endeavors to root their understanding of this good news of Christs mission in the New Testament accounts.
Great care is taken to draw the lines around the central mission of Christ — to usher in the Father’s Kingdom and draw all men to himself — and the central mission of Jesus’ followers, especially after Pentecost, to “preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23) and raised (1 Cor. 15:14) for the salvation of men.
Although not all protestants make the same doctrinal confession or share the same articles of faith, within the orthodox circle of protestant Christianity the basic meaning of Gospel will be similar: Jesus is enough, nothing else will do. His work is all sufficient. There is no other way to heaven except through this man, the Son of God. The Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the gospel.
The Gospel According to Catholics
Is this what Catholics believe to be the good news?
Let us quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church straightaway, wherein we read:
All the Scriptures – the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms – are fulfilled in Christ. The Gospel is this “Good News.” (CCC 2763)
The orientation of the Catholic towards this good news cannot be separated from the man Jesus and his saving work: his life, death and resurrection. He came to fulfill the law and the prophets. He came to redeem humanity and to save and to draw all men to himself. But this redeeming work of Christ is merited on the work of Christ alone:
The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the “one mediator between God and men”… (CCC 618)
After agreeing to baptize him along with the sinners, John the Baptist looked at Jesus and pointed him out as the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”. By doing so, he reveals that Jesus is at the same time the suffering Servant who silently allows himself to be led to the slaughter and who bears the sin of the multitudes, and also the Paschal Lamb, the symbol of Israel’s redemption at the first Passover. Christ’s whole life expresses his mission: “to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.“ (CCC 608)
Cause for Confusion
Many Protestants speak of the Gospel as a central and unifying aspect of Christianity. In fact, many protestants might look at Christians of other denominations — ones with fundamental differences on issues such as infant baptism, baptismal sprinkling versus submersion, the essence of communion — and posit the following: as long as they believe the “gospel” then at heart they are our brothers and our sisters.
The essence is Jesus Christ and how man can know him and experience salvation and the other doctrinal issues are secondary.
When a Catholic is asked to talk about the gospel in the same way that a protestant would usually talk about it, then Catholics and protestants might be surprised to find that they are actually in agreement. And this lends a helpful lesson: often times how protestants and Catholics speak of certain theological issues can cause confusion (and even alarm) not because they diverge on those central issues of the faith, but because the same terms may be used in different ways.
There are Big Differences Between Protestant and Catholic Theology
There are undeniably big differences between protestant and Catholic Theology. From Sola Scriptura, to purgatory to Marian Devotion, to Transubstantiation, Catholics and protestants have plenty of room for dialogue.
But if a protestant wants to know what the Catholic believes about the Gospel message, then they may be surprised to find the the Catholic sees the essence of the gospel as much the same as they do.
There is no salvation without Jesus Christ and his entrance into humanity. There is no salvation outside of his life, death and resurrection. He is the only sacrifice sufficient to remediate the sins of man and make a way for us to enjoy the presence of God in heaven (CCC 1987).
Indeed, for Catholics, the Gospel, “The Good News” is that Jesus came. Not only that “Jesus saves” or that “Jesus loves” or that he came to redeem us. The Good News is that Jesus came at all, and that to fulfill a promise made in times before. When God stepped beyond that celestial and eternal plane and took on flesh, the whole of reality was altered by the Incarnation of the God-man. In this moment humanity began to recover its memory.
We were made by design to bear the image of God and we lost our way; Jesus coming to us as a man reorients us back to that original moment in time. So the Good News is not a newspaper article but a person. Nor is it merely a doctrine, but rather a Person: Jesus Christ.