The Stumbling Block in My Journey Toward Catholicism

by Stephen Wood

Editor’s note: In light of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation on October 31st of this year, I’ll be devoting newsletters between now and November 1st to the central doctrine that prompted the Reformation: namely, justification.

The Stumbling Block in My Journey Toward Catholicism
The countdown clock to my conversion to Catholicism was ticking down to thirty days. My entire family was scheduled to enter the Catholic Church at Epiphany Cathedral in Venice, Florida on July 1, 1990.

Everything seemed to be progressing well until I hit an unexpected stumbling block that brought my pilgrimage towards Catholicism to an abrupt halt.

I was reading a book written by a nationally-known Catholic apologist and published by a conservative Catholic publisher. I thought I was on safe ground until I got near the end of the book and read something that left me in shock.

This Catholic apologist said he believed that Luther was right on the crucial issue of justification. He even expressed feeling guilt as a Catholic because, he said, at the time of the Protestant Reformation his Church failed to preach the true Gospel.

I couldn’t believe what I had just read. Here was a distinguished Catholic lecturer and apologist saying that Luther’s beliefs on justification were correct and that the Catholic Church failed to preach the Gospel. He went on to exhort Protestants not to compromise on justification, or they would be adopting what St. Paul calls “another gospel.” (By the way, this book is still in print and the author was recently on a nationwide Evangelical radio broadcast reassuring Protestants that Luther got it right on justification.)

Had I totally misunderstood Catholic beliefs on justification after working so hard to understand them? I was stunned, perplexed, and confused. Fortunately, I had a knowledgeable friend whom I called for advice. He convinced me that this author’s statements on justification were inaccurate.

Just to be sure, I went back through the entire process of defining and clarifying justification both from a Protestant and a Catholic perspective.

A big obstacle in my pilgrimage towards Catholicism was finding reliable Catholic resources. The Catechism of the Catholic Church wasn’t yet published and the many fine apologetics works of recent years were not yet available. From my own journey to Catholicism, I want to alert you to the harm that can be done by well-meaning, but inaccurate, resources on the topic of justification.

In the journey of most Evangelical Protestants to Catholicism, few things are more critical than the questions about grace and justification. It isn’t easy to understand the Catholic view of justification. I had the natural tendency to try to understand Catholicism from within Protestant doctrinal categories and definitions. It turned out to be an impossible task since Protestants and Catholics use different sets of definitions and categories, leading to different perspectives and conclusions. Once I gained an understanding of the overall Catholic viewpoint on justification, the details started becoming clear… until I tripped over the stumbling block.

In a way, I’m thankful God allowed me to go through this bewildering experience. It is one of the main reasons I’ve been interested in the doctrine of justification for the past twenty-seven years. You might say that the Catholic author who stated that Luther’s view of justification was right was the catalyst for my new book. Encountering his claims taught me to verify all statements about justification by carefully comparing them with authoritative Church teachings. It was a hard but important lesson.

I hope you can learn from my experience by adhering to clear, accurate, precise, and authoritative resources, such as the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent and sections 1987 through 2329 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Both of these resources are available in print and online and will take only a few minutes to read. This is the only way you will know if you are getting a full and accurate picture of Catholic beliefs on grace and justification.

How to Get a Copy of Grace and Justification: An Evangelical’s Guide to Catholic Beliefs
Members of the Family Life Team, our circle of supporters, are receiving an autographed copy of my new book, Grace and Justification. If you would like to receive the letter describing how to get copies while supporting the Family Life Center, just send an email to team@dads.org.

Dr. Scott Hahn said that the book is “simply the best primer I’ve read. Anyone who reads it — evangelical or Catholic — will be better for having done so.” Dr. Frank Beckwith (Baylor) commented that the book “is an amazingly accessible presen­tation of Catholic beliefs about justifica­tion and grace.”

The book is available in print form and on Kindle at Amazon. If you find the book helpful and informative, I’d appreciate a brief review on Amazon’s site. Please be respectful and charitable towards Protestants in your reviews. I wrote Justification and Grace to Evangelicals and not against them.

Personal
I was an Evangelical Protestant for almost twenty years before I encountered a Catholic who could accurately explain the Church’s beliefs on justification.

That Catholic was a young priest who bravely appeared on an Evangelical television broadcast debating a skilled Protestant apologist. I initially felt sorry for the priest since I thought that he was going to get annihilated in the debate.

To my shock, the priest not only held his ground well but affirmed that Catholics believe in justification by grace.

On September 20th, I’ll be a guest on EWTN Live talking about the differences between Evangelical and Catholic beliefs on justification. My host, Fr. Mitch Pacwa, is the very same priest from whom I first heard the truth years ago that Catholics do believe in justification by the grace of God.

It’s a small world — thanks to the providence of God.

Article first appeared in Dads.org Newsletter August 2017, Volume 23, Number 3.