The Holy Spirit is leading millions of faithful and sincere people to Jesus and to all His biblical truth. This includes Roman Catholics. So how do we reach them? We must first acknowledge that beyond methods, equipment, or strategies, the most important thing is not what we have, but who owns us, as the conversion of people is the work of the Holy Spirit. It happened in the first century with the disciples with almost unbelievable results, and it will repeat itself in a glorious way in the last century.
The Roman Catholic Church makes the contentious and biblically questionable claim that it originated in New Testament times, with Peter as the first pope. The Roman Catholic Church applies the words of Jesus, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church. . . . And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 16:18–19, NKJV), to claim that the pope was given divine authority, and on that basis they take the position that the authority of the church is superior to that of the Scriptures. Alternatively, Seventh-day Adventists regard the Rock on which the church was to be built as “Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16, NKJV; see also 1 Cor 10:4).
Truth, Catholics claim, comes from the Bible being interpreted by the church and the priests, combined with the traditions of the church. The teachings of the church councils—through the centuries, the encyclicals, and other decrees of the pope—constitute their basis of truth.
When addressing these topics, we must use lots of tact and avoid heated discussions. No one wants to be wrong or admit they hold the wrong belief.
These are some doctrines that Seventh-day Adventists have in common with Catholics:
1. The inspiration of the Bible
2. The Trinity
3. The second coming of Christ
4. The need to obey God
5. Mary’s virginity prior to the birth of Jesus (not her immaculate conception)
6. The importance of prayer
Also noteworthy is its emphasis on the sanctity of the family and the sanctity of life. There are millions of sincere Catholics whose devotional life and spirit of sacrifice towards the needy and forgotten in society is admirable. Of course, other religious denominations also make similar efforts on behalf of these people.
There are, however, several Catholic beliefs that lack biblical support, such as:
1. Tradition is superior to the Bible: the belief that Scripture must be interpreted by the church and placed alongside the conciliar decrees of the church to be properly understood (cf. John 5:39; 7:17; 16:7–13; 2 Tim 2:15; 3:16).
2. The immortality of the soul: the belief that each individual has an immortal soul, indestructible and independent of the body, which leaves at the time of death to go through a cycle of heaven or hell (cf. Gen 2:7; Ps 6:5; 115:17; 146:4; Eccl 12:7; John 11:11– 14; 1 Tim 6:15–16). Let us remember that the Bible uses the word “soul” 1,600 times and never mentions it as “immortal soul.” And the Bible refers to death as a sleep fifty-three times.
3. The sanctity of Sunday: the belief that because Jesus rose from the dead on the first day, all Christians should worship on that day (cf. Gen 2:1–3; Exod 20:8–11; Isa 66:22–23; Ezek 20:12–20; Matt 12:8; 24:20; Luke 4:16; 6:5; Acts 13:42–44; Rev 1:10).
4. The papal succession: the concept that Jesus gave authority to Peter, which has been transferred through the centuries to each pope as the “head” or foundation of the church (cf. Deut 32:3–4; Ps 62:1–2; 1 Cor 10:4; Eph 1:22; 4:15; 1 Pet 2:6–7).
5. The immaculate conception: the idea that Jesus was sinless because Mary was miraculously protected from sin by the Holy Spirit (cf. Isa 64:6; Jer 17:9; Rom 3:9–12, 23).
6. The sacraments: the concept that God dispenses grace through the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, confession, holy communion, marriage, sacred rites, or extreme unction; Jesus is God’s channel of grace to the world (cf: Rom 3:25–31; 6:14–15; Eph 2:5).
7. The Purgatory: the belief that individuals who do not deserve heaven, but who are not bad enough to deserve hell, suffer in an intermediate state until their sins are purged. This concept is based on the false belief in the immortality of the soul and a mistaken understanding of salvation (cf. Ps 6:5; 115:17; Eccl 9:5; John 11:11–14 and also Heb 4:15; Rom 3:25–26; Eph 2:8).
8. Prayers for the dead: the belief that prayers can influence God to deliver suffering souls from Purgatory (cf. Ps 6:5; 49:7–8; 115:17; Eccl 9:5; John 11:11– 14; 1 Tim 2:6).
9. Miracles, visions, signs and wonders: the belief that miraculous signs authenticate, confirm, and establish the truth. The biblical position is that since Satan can counterfeit miracles, all signs must be proven by God’s Word (cf. Deut 13:1–3; Isa 8:20; Matt 7:21–23; 24:24; Luke 16:31; Rev 16:13–14; 19:20).
10. Infant baptism: babies are baptized to cover Adam’s sin, called “original sin” (cf. Matt 28:18–20; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38–42).
11. The confession: the belief that an earthly priest is the mediator between God and man (cf. Heb 4:14–16; 1 Tim 2:5; 1 John 1:9).
When addressing these topics, we must use lots of tact and avoid heated discussions. No one wants to be wrong or admit they hold the wrong belief. That’s why we can kindly dialogue by saying something like, “I understand what you say, and I’m trying to see if it coincides with what the Word of God says.”
God has not left us in the dark as to how to work with others, and that includes Catholics. Ellen G. White offers the following counsel:
“We should not, upon entering a place, build up unnecessary barriers between us and other denominations, especially the Catholics, so that they shall think we are their avowed enemies. We should not create a prejudice in their minds unnecessarily, by making a raid upon them. . . . From that which God has shown me, a great number will be saved from among the Catholics.”1
“There should be no going out of the way to attack other denominations; for it only creates a combative spirit and closes ears and hearts to the entrance of the truth. We have our work to do, which is not to tear down but to build up. We are to repair the breach that has been made in the law of God. It is the nobler work to build up, to present the truth in its force and power and let it cut its way through prejudice and reveal error in contrast with truth.”2
“Among the Catholics there are many who are most conscientious Christians, and who walk in all the light that shines upon them, and God will work in their behalf.”3
“Decided proclamations are to be made. But in regard to this line of work, I am instructed to say to our people: Be guarded. In bearing the message, make no personal thrusts at other churches, not even the Roman Catholic Church. Angels of God see in the different denominations many who can be reached only by the greatest caution.”4
REACHING ROMAN CATHOLICS
Sharing the Word of God in an atmosphere of friendship, honesty, and simplicity has a powerful effect. Keep the following ideas in mind:
1. Catholics generally have great admiration and reverence for the Word of God, although many are unfamiliar with all of its teachings. However, there is a growing group of Evangelical Catholics who study the Bible regularly.
2. Catholics often have great internal spiritual conflicts because of their belief in salvation by works. They need the assurance of salvation in Christ (cf. 1 John 5:11–17).
3. Catholics are often willing to learn more about biblical truth, particularly prophecies. They are fascinated by topics such as Daniel 2, Matthew 24, and teachings about the life of Christ.
4. Begin your studies by establishing the authority of the Bible, move on to prophetic topics, and then lead into the topic of how we are saved. Leave topics such as the law, the Sabbath, and the change to Sunday until they have had a minimum of ten previous studies.
5. When you introduce the Sabbath, pay special attention to the fact that it is part of the commandments, the ones that Catholics accept, and that it is the center of God’s law.
6. Gently guide your Catholic friends to the understanding that the Bible, not the church, is the basis of all doctrine and the foundation of all moral decisions.
7. Catholics will appreciate that you pray earnestly and sincerely on their behalf. Catholics are often avid students of the Word. Their hearts burn to learn more of the truth. They want to know the will of God. If the truth is presented with love and logic, thousands and millions of Catholics will accept it.
8. The belief in Mary the mother of Jesus, and in the apostle Peter as the rock, are rooted in the life of the faithful Catholic.
Some years ago, at the beginning of an evangelistic series in Mexico City, at the end of the meeting, a Catholic man, a highprofile politician, approached me with some biblical issues, and this is a summary of our dialogue:
Man: “I like what you preach, but I must tell you that I am a Catholic and I believe in the Virgin Mary. That is why I could never be part of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.”
My response: “I congratulate you. Although I don’t worship her, I am also a faithful believer in the Virgin Mary. God chose her for a special ministry, just as He also called the apostle Peter to be one of His disciples. What they both did or wrote is part of the Word of God today and has helped millions.”
Man: “I thought that you Adventists did not believe in or respect Mary.”
My response: “Not only do we believe in her as a woman ‘blessed among women,’ but we faithfully follow her wise advice.”
Man: “What is her advice?”
My response: “Her wise advice was, ‘Whatever He says to you, do it’ (John 2:5). That advice blessed everyone at a wedding party and led to the beginning of the ministry of her Son, Jesus. That same advice, applied today, continues to be a source of blessing for believers of all times. If you find something in your church that is not in accordance with the advice of Mary and what her Son taught, you must decide whom to follow.”
After attending all the topics in the two weeks of meetings and hearing the Word of God and the distinctive truths from the Bible, on the last Friday he requested baptism by immersion and to be a part of the body of Christ.
Most of our Catholic brothers and sisters are Catholics by family tradition, not so much by doctrinal conviction. They have a great respect for their church and what it teaches, without distinguishing between what God says in His Word and what the church teaches. They take it for granted that what the priest says—as God’s representative—is the final word. But when they discover the pure biblical truth and are confronted with what the Bible says, without the mixture of tradition, they embrace that truth, and many become faithful Adventist Christians.
So, when you study the Bible with Roman Catholics, you can politely dialogue by saying something like, “I understand what you are saying, but I am trying to match what you are saying to me and what the Word of God says.”
“None need to feel that the Catholics are beyond their reach.”5
1 Ellen G. White, “The Need of Earnest, Intelligent Workers,” March 7, 1887, Manuscript 14, 1887.
2 Ellen G. White to D. T. Bourdeau, Letter 39, 1887.
3 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1909), 9:241–244.
4 “A Call to Service,” June 22, 1901, Manuscript 6, 1902.
5 White, Manuscript 14.
Robert Costa is an associate secretary of the Ministerial Association at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, MD, USA.