While secular news is drenched with adulation and mourning, Bible believers must maintain Biblical equilibrium in assessing the passing of Pope John Paul II. We sympathize with Catholics who are grieving for their beloved pope and we may agree with them on social and moral issues, but we are worlds apart theologically, and we must graciously hold to the truth. 

At issue during the Protestant Reformation was whether Scripture alone was enough to convey God’s truth and whether faith alone was enough to save the sinner. Those who rejected this stayed with the Roman Catholic Church; those who accepted it left. The divide continues until now. Here is a brief look at some of the key differences between Catholic beliefs and Biblical teaching.


It appears that many assume the pope is in heaven because of his character, compassion, anti-communism stand, social conservatism, moral persuasion and great leadership. The Roman Catholic Church also teaches there can be no salvation if the seven sacraments are not applied or received.

During his papacy, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the need for works in addition to grace. This contradicts justification by faith alone (Romans 5:1). 

Salvation is obtained only by the free grace of God through the merit of Christ and personally accepting the simple gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8 & 9). If anyone—including the pope—relies on good works, making amends, church membership or ritual, he is not saved.

Authority of Scripture

Catholicism holds papal edicts, tradition and Church councils as being equally authoritative as the Word of God. In 1546, the Council of Trent accepted 12 of the 15 Apochraphal books from the period between the Old and New Testaments as canonical Scripture and also added individual chapters of some to Jeremiah, Esther and Daniel. The doctrine of purgatory rests heavily on the Apocraphal books of Tobit and II Maccabees.

As always, the conflict is over the final authority of God’s Word. Revelation 22:18 & 19 says that the Word of God is complete, and we are not to add to it. Jude 3 declares that we are to earnestly contend (defend) the faith (body of truth) “which was once for all delivered to the saints.” “Once” is the same word used of Christ’s one-time death and all men dying only once (Hebrews 9:26-28). It is clear that everything that is needed to understand salvation was provided by the end of the Apostolic era.


According to Roman Catholic teaching, the pope may be in Purgatory if he was not fully fit. The purifying fires of this intermediate place can be mitigated or eliminated by the efforts of those on earth. However, Scripture teaches that there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1). If believers are absent from the body, they are present with the Lord (II Corinthians 5:8). 

The Role of Mary

Catholics believe Mary was sinless from the time she was conceived (the Immaculate Conception), had no other children (perpetual virginity) and bodily ascended to Heaven, a doctrine announced in 1854 and made mandatory in 1950. Mary rejoiced “in God my Savior,” indicating that she needed salvation as a sinner (Luke 1:47). Scripture clearly states that Mary had other children (Matthew 12:46, Mark 6:3). There is no Biblical teaching on the bodily assumption of Mary to heaven.

Pope John Paul II forcefully reaffirmed Mary as Co-Redemptrix, Mediatrix, and Mother of All Graces. He wore an “M” on his robe, and his motto was “Hers Only,” having dedicated his life to Mary. In fact, his casket had two items imprinted on its top: a cross and a large “M”. Christ Himself said that He was the only way to God (John 14:6), and the Apostle Paul said that Christ is the only mediator between God and man (I Timothy 2:5). 

A prime example of the Catholic church’s elevation of Mary over Christ is in Santiago, Chile on the city’s highest hill, where there is a 100-ft. statue of Mary standing on a snake (Satan), an incorrect reinterpretation of Genesis 3:15 with “he” changed to “she.” God told Satan that Christ would bruise his head, not Mary as the statue implies. At the base of the statue is a small, wretched figure of Christ on the cross.

The Priesthood

When Christ died, the veil of the Temple was torn in two, indicating the end of the earthly priesthood as the way to God. Human proxy priest-hood was replaced with the individual priesthood of the believer (I Peter 2:5 & 9). As believers, we enter the presence of God through Christ’s blood (Hebrews 10:19-22). Earthly priests could not continue indefinitely in that capacity because of death, but Christ our High Priest is ever living (Hebrews 7:23-28), and we enter into Heaven through Him (Ephesians 2:6). If human priesthood is ended, the entire system of Roman Catholicism collapses. 

An earthly priesthood also falsely perpetuates Christ’s completed sacrifice (Hebrews 6:6). The Mass crucifies Christ repeatedly in contradiction of Romans 6:9 & 10. The image of the crucifix highly offends the risen Christ.

The Church’s Foundation

The true Church is built on Christ and not on any man. An accurate reading of Matthew 16:18 says, “You are Peter (“petros” = a small stone) and upon this rock (“petra” = a huge boulder) I will build my church.” Christ refers to Himself as the foundational Solid Rock. Paul said that Jesus Christ is the chief cornerstone, and all additional layers of legitimate Church construction rest on Him (Ephesians 2:20). 

The Role of the Pope

According to Catholicism, the pope is the Vicar of Christ—the physical, earthly embodiment of Christ (vicar is from “vicarious” meaning “in place of”). As such, he is the head of the church and his word is infallible. 

The Bible does not teach that there is a human head of the Church. Rather, Christ is the head of the Church (Colossians 1:18). Peter, whom Catholics believe was the first pope, was not infallible. Paul rebuked him sharply for his error regarding Antioch Gentile believers (Galatians 2:11). Further, Peter described his faith as being exactly like every believer’s faith (II Peter 1:1).

The name Holy Father as applied to the pope is a bit of a stretch. Jesus used that term as applied to God, the Father, the first Person of the Trinity (John 17:11).

Years ago, a mother told me of a conversation her young daughter had with a Catholic friend. They were debating their respective religions’ merits. In desperation, the Catholic girl said, “But we have the pope, the Vicar of Christ.” “And what does that mean?” asked the Protestant girl. “He is the personal representative of Christ on the earth,” explained the Catholic friend. “But so am I,” the other girl replied.

As believers in the sufficient work of Christ, each of us is Christ’s representative on earth. Christ dwells in our hearts by faith (Ephesians 3:17). Paul spoke of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27), and in II Corinthians 5:20 says, “…we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us.”

All this and much, much more shows the awesome chasm between Catholic doctrine and simple Biblical Christianity. 

True Salvation

On a flight years ago, I was seated next to a Roman Catholic priest, and we had a most interesting and revealing discussion. When I asked how Mary was somehow conceived without sin, he replied, “Grace.”  I said, “That’s what I’m saved by according to Ephesians 2:8 & 9.”

I also posed this question. “If I had lived in AD 35, how would I be saved?”

“By believing what Christ and the Apostles taught,” he replied.

“You mean I could have been saved without all the popes, councils and tradition?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered.

“That’s exactly the way I was saved,” I said, “only it was in 1948.”

If you are unsure of your own salvation because you have been trying to achieve it through works, sacraments or prayers, recognize that the Bible teaches that salvation is available through faith alone. 

When Christ cried, “It is finished!,” He proclaimed that everything needed to provide our salvation had been provided. The Greek word translated “It is finished,” can also be translated “paid in full” or “completed.” The penalty for the sin has been paid, and nothing more is required beyond personal faith in Christ’s completed work.

This simple outline explains all that is needed to be assured of your salvation.

* Recognize that you are a sinner before a holy God and that a penalty must be paid. (Romans 3:23, Romans 5:12, I Corinthians 15:22)

* Realize that Jesus Christ, through His death, burial and resurrection became your substitute and paid that penalty on your behalf (Romans 5:8, II Corinthians 5:21).

* Receive Christ into your heart through faith in a prayer of belief (Luke 18:13, John 1:12, Romans 10:9 & 13).

* Remain confident of God's promise of the assurance of eternal life (John 10:28, I John 5:11-13). Jesus said, "And the one who comes to me, I will by no means cast out" (John 6:37).

If you make this decision, we would love to hear from you. Please contact us so that we can pray for you and encourage you in your new faith in Christ!

P.O. Box 10, Towaco, New Jersey 07082
by David Virkler

Reflections on the Death of a Pope
A brief comparison of Catholic doctrine and Biblical teaching