“Catholic Verses” #4: Sinners in the Church

“Catholic Verses” #4: Sinners in the Church October 26, 2023

Including the Biblical Conception of “Saints” and “Sinners”

[see book and purchase information for The Catholic Verses]

“excatholic4christ” (Tom) was raised Catholic, lost his faith in high school, attended Mass for a while after he married and had children, and then “accepted Jesus Christ” as his Savior, leading to his sole attendance at an independent fundamental Baptist church for eight years. He claims that the “legalism” of this church and the fact that his “trust had been in men rather than God” caused him to “walk away from the Lord for 23 years.” He “returned to the Lord” in 2014. As of April 2020, Tom stated that he was “somewhere in the middle of the Calvinism-Arminianism debate,” but “closer to Calvinism.” I couldn’t determine his denomination. See Tom’s index of all of his replies. I will now systematically refute them. His words will be in blue. When he cites my words, they will be in black. I use RSV, unless otherwise specified.

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This is a reply to Tom’s article, Sinners in the Church? (9-3-18).

With the three passages below, Armstrong argues that both “saints” and “sinners” reside within the church:

2 Corinthians 11:2-4 I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and preaches another Jesus than the one we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough.

Galatians 1:1-6 Paul an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the brethren who are with me, to the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen. I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel.

Revelation 3:1-6 And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. “‘I know your works; you have the name of being alive, and you are dead. Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you received and heard; keep that, and repent. If you will not awake, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy. He who conquers shall be clad thus in white garments, and I will not blot his name out of the book of life; I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’

Directly beneath these passages, Armstrong writes, “…(these verses show) the Catholic position: there are sinners in the Church alongside “saints,” as in the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13:24-30). Many Protestants persist in believing that the Christian Church can be pure and without sinners or instances of hypocrisy, even though these passages show that this was not anticipated by the apostles our by our Lord Jesus.” pp. 16-17.

Armstrong has set up a semi-“straw man” here. To start with, evangelicals refer to the church both in the general sense of all genuine believers around the world who make up the Body of Christ and in the particular sense of a local congregation. Evangelicals certainly believe that when they gather together as a local church (Greek eccleisa [should be ecclesia] “called-out assembly or congregation”), there may be some included who have not genuinely accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior by faith alone.

Only God knows who is of the class of the elect or not. Human beings don’t have certain, infallible knowledge of individuals’ eternal destiny. Even John Calvin agreed with this observation.

But of course Catholics and evangelicals disagree fundamentally on the terms, “sinners” and “saints,” as Armstrong’s comments indicate. We evangelicals believe all people are sinners and deserve eternal punishment,

Catholics hold to original sin as strongly as Protestants do.

but that everyone who repents of their sin and accepts Jesus Christ as their Savior by faith alone are saved and become saints (Latin sanctus, Greek hagios “separated ones“).

Scripture uses the term “saints” in the generic sense of Christian believer (see many examples of this), but at the same time it also notes that there are exceptional people (in effect, saints in the Catholic sense of “exceptionally, heroically holy”) who are more righteous and holier than others:

“All Have Sinned” vs. a Sinless, Immaculate Mary? [1996; revised and posted at National Catholic Register on 12-11-17]

Total Depravity: Reply to James White: Calvinism and Romans 3:10-11 (“None is Righteous . . . No One Seeks For God”) [4-15-07]

Lucas Banzoli’s Mindless Denigration of an Imagined “Mary” (Including Extensive Biblical Analyses of Exceptionally “Righteous” and “Holy” People, and Merit) [9-11-22]

The Bible Is Clear: Some Holy People Are Holier Than Others [National Catholic Register, 9-19-22]

Sinless Creatures in the Bible: Actual & Potential (Including a Listing of Many Biblical Passages About Sin, Holiness, Blamelessness, Righteousness, Godliness, Perfection, and Sanctity) [10-20-22; greatly expanded on 7-27-23]

The Bible presupposes, for example, that there are exceptionally righteous people — such as the prophet Elijah — and that their prayers are more powerful than the prayers of those who are less righteous. James (5:16-18) gave the example of Elijah as “a righteous man” (5:16). noting that “he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth” (5:17). I don’t know of any Protestants (who may think they are so holy and eternally justified since their theology holds that they were merely declared righteous, when in fact they are not) who have successfully prayed such a prayer:

Bible on the Power of Prayers of the Righteous [11-16-22]

I noted in my Reply #2 in this series, the Bible’s reference to “blameless” people:

Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth . . . [are described] as “righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (Lk 1:6; cf. other “blameless” men: Noah [Gen 6:9]; King David [2 Sam 22:24]; King Asa [2 Chr 15:17]; Job [Job 1:1, 8; 2:3], and Daniel [Dan 6:22]). And all of this was even before Jesus died on the cross for our salvation and before the Holy Spirit came to dwell inside of all believers!

The book of Hebrews describes the people that Catholics call “saints” in the following passage:

Hebrews 11:32-38 . . . For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets — [33] who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, [34] quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. [35] Women received their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life. [36] Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. [37] They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated — [38] of whom the world was not worthy — wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

The word “saint” isn’t used, but it is clearly describing the second use of the word, as Catholics use it. The word “Trinity” and several other common Christian terms aren’t in the Bible, either. St. Paul differentiates between varying levels of devotion to the Lord, including heroic self-sacrifice, in noting (as a generalization, but reflecting reality) that the unmarried man is “anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord” (1 Cor 7:32) and that “the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit” (7:34) and that both exhibit an “undivided devotion to the Lord” (7:35).

Although we are saints because of Christ’s imputed perfect righteousness,

No; we are “saints” in the first, biblical sense if we have professed allegiance to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and are “believers” (see 12 NT uses of that term).

we still have a sinful nature and follow the Lord only imperfectly. 

Catholics say that we have a sinful inclination (subject to constant concupiscence, which, if indulged in, leads to temptation and/or sin). But the imperfect following of Jesus and our continued sinning is where we can agree (setting aside for a moment the vexed issue of the nature of justification), and what I am discussing when addressing the topic of “sinners in the Church.” It’s an apologetics topic because some Protestants use the “argument from sin” to claim that the Catholic Church can’t possibly be God’s one true — historically continuous and institutional — Church, founded by Jesus Himself. I in turn argue from the Bible that we are to fully expect and not be surprised at all at the existence of such sinners in the one true Church (because it has always been this way, from the beginning).

Catholic belief, as Armstrong presents it here, generally regards all of those who are not striving to be “good,” those both inside and outside the church, as sinners,

This is untrue. A “sinner” as we define it, is simply one who is presently sinning (as determined by a good examination of one’s own conscience). If a person, for example, steals a coat or visits a house of prostitution, or is a prostitute, then he or she is sinning, and hence, a sinner while they are engaging in those sins. Hence, Jesus said (in agreement with Catholics), “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt 9:13); “the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners” (Mt 26:45). “Tax collectors” are often regarded in the NT as synonymous with “sinners” (because they almost universally cheated their own people, as agents of Rome). See Matthew 9:10; Luke 15:1; 18:13.

St. Paul does indeed use the word “sinners” in the sense of “subject to original sin” (Rom 5:8, 19), but he also uses the word in the Catholic sense:

1 Timothy 1:9 understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers,

The author of Hebrews does the same:

Hebrews 12:3 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.

James is writing to Christians in his letter (“brethren”: 1:2, and 14 other times in the book, including “my beloved brethren”: 1:16, 19; 2:5). Yet at the same time he can call them (at least some of them) “sinners”:

James 4:8 Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you men of double mind.

St. Paul states in the present tense: “I am the foremost of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15) because in his past he “persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor 15:9; Gal 1:13). This utterly destroys the notion that the Bible describes as “sinners” only those who are not professed believers, or the “saved” as Protestants say (wrongly thinking that they are certain of their eternal destiny).

and those who have achieved or are on their way to achieving a super-sanctimonious “state of grace,” as saints.

This is incorrect, too. We believe that those who are in a “state of grace” are those who are 1) regenerated (at baptism) and 2) who are not currently engaged in serious, or mortal sin (a biblical distinction). We refer to people as “saints” in the second meaning, who have been determined (by a long “canonization” process of study in the Church) as ones who exhibited heroic, self-sacrificing, extraordinary sanctity. The Bible teaches that there exist differing levels of grace among human beings (even among believers), too.

But what is Armstrong REALLY trying to address here? It’s obvious he’s responding to Protestant objections to Catholic popes, cardinals, bishops, and priests for the copious instances of outrageous immorality, corruption, and cruelty down through the ages.

Yes, and another way I address this much-abused and much misunderstood topic is to note that all Christian groups — including Protestants — have been guilty of great sin, even including murder and persecution of fellow Christians (sanctioned at the highest levels by folks like Luther and Calvin). This renders the entire discussion a “wash.” Nothing is learned or accomplished by it.

It’s apparent to every thinking reader why Armstrong declines to cite that corruption directly in an apologetics book such as this. He’s not going to voluntarily bring up Catholicism’s embarrassing history if he can avoid it, but still feels he must address the Protestant criticism.

Our history is no better or worse than any other Christian group’s history, but it should be noted that we’ve also been around since the time of Christ, whereas Protestantism was invented fifteen centuries after Him; so we simply have much more history — four times as much —  that includes sinners in it as well as saints (as we would fully expect, human beings being what they are: mixtures of good and evil).

As for my supposedly attempting to avoid bringing up unpleasant instances in Catholic history, I direct Tom and anyone to my extensive web page, “Inquisition, Crusades, & ‘Catholic Scandals’ “. That’s an odd way of trying to supposedly hide such things. I address it in many places in my writings, including in some of the variants of my conversion story — since objection to the Inquisition was one of my own most strenuous objections to the Catholic Church.

I also have a section entitled, “Papal Scandals / ‘Bad Popes’ ” on my Papacy & Infallibility web page. It contains 18 articles. I’m more than happy to address the issue of “scandals in Catholic history”, but Protestants are always very reluctant to talk about the many “skeletons in their own closet and the glaring scandals that occurred during their so-called “Reformation.”

Protestants know full well that all men sin, even after accepting Christ as Savior by faith alone. What Protestants can’t abide is Catholicism’s boast that popes, in concert with their cardinals and bishops, are infallibly guided in all important matters touching upon faith and morals in the face of such blatant corruption.

The Bible doesn’t teach that authority and infallibility must coincide with personal sinlessness or impeccability. Jesus chose a man (Peter) who denied He was Christ three times, to be the first leader of His Church. Peter wrote part of the New Testament, too. Then He chose Paul to be the preeminent evangelist of all time and one who wrote half or more of the New Testament: a man who had persecuted and murdered Christians before his conversion.

God made an eternal covenant with King David, knowing from all eternity that David would have a man killed so that he could marry his wife, that he was already having sex with. But David repented, and the Bible describes him as “a man after his [i.e., God’s] own heart” (1 Sam 13:14). David became the prototype of the Messiah (Jesus) and wrote most of the Psalms. Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, but he had murdered a man as well (Ex 2:12). Many more such biblical examples exist. If sinful men could write an inerrant, inspired Bible with the help of God’s grace (a greater gift), then certainly it’s not implausible (let alone impossible) for sinful men to be protected from error when they are popes proclaiming binding doctrine (a far lesser gift than biblical inspiration).

So some popes were notorious sinners? Very few were, in fact, but in any event, this poses no problem at all, in terms of the office possessing infallibility in carefully prescribed conditions. The two things are distinct. Even Jesus had one bad disciple, Judas, who is called a “disciple” several times in the Bible.

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Related Reading

Sins and Sinners in the Catholic Church [1998]

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Summary: Anti-Catholic Tom is out to sea in his brief examination of the issue of “sinners in the Church.” I take a deeper look at the Bible’s teaching regarding “sinners” & “saints.”

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