Does Rome need the Gospel? How and Why We Engage with Roman Catholicism

As a cross-cultural missionary relocating to Rome, a question I’m often asked centers around why there is a need to plant evangelical churches in predominantly Roman Catholic contexts.  For evangelicals in the West, Roman Catholicism is a blind spot. Dr. Al Mohler even highlighted Catholicism as a leading temptation to contemporary evangelical theologians at his 2021 Evangelical Theological Society presidential address.*  While evangelicals know that the beliefs of the Roman Catholic church have some unique differences from our doctrinal confessions, many also assume Roman Catholics to be faithful brothers and sisters in the global Christian church.

However, below the surface, Roman Catholic doctrine and its practice is rooted in a rejection of core doctrines of the biblical faith.  The Roman Catholic Church builds upon its tradition alongside and often above the authority of Scripture. Roman Catholic doctrine rejects the biblical affirmation of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, apart from merit or works (Ephesians 2:8-9) that was recovered by the Reformers.

While we don’t have the space to do a full evangelical assessment of the Roman Catholic system, and there is a treasure of resources more adept at outlining these key differences – see the Reformanda Initiative and Dr. Gregg Allison – this blind spot must continue to be brought into clarity by evangelical churches.

But what are our next steps once we begin to understand these differences and the gaping contrast of theological confessions?  How do we as faithful Christian friends and neighbors engage with Roman Catholicism in order to share the hope and life that can be found only in the gospel of Jesus Christ?

*Mohler, Albert.  “The Temptations of an Evangelical Theologian: ETS Presidential Address 2021.”  Albert Mohler.  December 14, 2021.

Here are four strategies that I’ve found are key to engaging with Roman Catholics:

1. Realize we use the same words with different realities.

It comes as no surprise that evangelical and Roman Catholic beliefs seem to have a lot of similarities. We seem to share a common orthodoxy rooted in Christological and trinitarian confessions. This is further evidenced by use of the same basic words of the gospel message: baptism, salvation, God, Jesus Christ, Scripture, sin, faith, salvation, church and so on. However, a look below the surface and we can quickly begin to see profound differences in core doctrines and their practice that have been established between Roman Catholicism and Biblical Christianity. These common terms come to represent totally different realities. In the Roman Catholic view, baptism is the first sacrament and necessary entry point into salvation. Sin is a rupture in God’s perfect design and leaves mankind only wounded, but not totally dead, in order to cooperate with God’s grace in salvation and the Christian life. Salvation is the life-long journey of believers meriting the rewards of grace and eternal life through faithful living and practice of the sacraments. Jesus is the Son of God who died to make salvation available to all but did not complete it apart from the believer’s meritorious obedience. As we engage with Roman Catholic neighbors, we must realize that though we may use the same words, they do not speak of the same gospel.* 

*For more, see Leonardo De Chirico, Same Words, Different Worlds (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2021).

2. Share with Roman Catholics the truth of Scripture.

When I asked a pastor located in a city dominated by Roman Catholicism how they seek to be fruitful in a very hard place, he responded, “Our only hope is to get them into studying the Scriptures.” Bible reading and meditation are not common in the Roman Catholic church. Even faithfully practicing Roman Catholics rely heavily on the teaching of priests or bishops for their spiritual nourishment. Combine this with the reality that much of Roman Catholic doctrine and practice finds its roots in Tradition over Scripture, and the result is many Roman Catholics who are largely unaware of what the Bible actually teaches. We need to come alongside our Roman Catholic neighbors and patiently study the Scriptures with them, praying that eyes open and hearts soften to the message of God’s redemption through faith in Christ.  The entirety of the Bible reveals to us the very nature of God and how He is reconciling to Himself all things through His Son, to His glory. We must be willing to do the slow and faithful work of showing our Roman Catholic neighbors the truths God has revealed to us in His word concerning key doctrines like salvation, baptism, faith and works, sin and judgment.  Most importantly, we must allow the Scriptures to reveal to them the true person and work of Jesus Christ, who offers salvation and life to all who believe and confess Him (John 20:31; Rom. 10:13).

3. Pray with/for Roman Catholic friends and neighbors.

Our Roman Catholic friends desperately need the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, and we can intercede in asking for the Spirit’s work on their behalf. Along with the revelation of Scripture, prayer is our most necessary means by which we minister to Roman Catholics. We faithfully pray with the hope of seeing blinded eyes opened and lost souls finding salvation in Jesus. Praying with Roman Catholics has the power to open their hearts to their need for true restoration with God through Christ.  Many Catholics I have prayed with have been surprised and intrigued with how personal and intimate our prayer life can be.  Many have never heard or experienced the ability to approach the Father so directly with the needs, struggles and desires of our hearts.  We can walk with Roman Catholic neighbors through the gift of communing with God in genuine intimacy, where we speak to Him and hear from Him through an unrestricted relationship. It is important to show that we can approach God this way through our one and only mediator in Jesus who intercedes for us with God (Romans 8:34), and we do not depend on the saints, Mary or priests to represent us before the Father. Due to this, I would encourage us to lead in prayers with Roman Catholic friends and model to them personal communication with God through Christ alone. Be cautious in prayer events where Roman Catholics pray to or through any other mediators who are not the one true mediator in Christ. We also should be cautious praying in public platforms or ecumenical settings with Roman Catholics to avoid confusion that we share commonality in gospel and mission. By praying with and for our Roman Catholic friends and neighbors in personal settings, we have the opportunity to put on display our deep and personal communion with God the Father, through Jesus.

4. Refute Roman Catholicism; Love Roman Catholics.

Finally, we always remember that our labor is to reveal the truth and hope of the gospel of Christ to Roman Catholics in humility, love and grace.  Our struggle is always against the Roman Catholic doctrinal teaching which influences the church and is never pointed at lost Roman Catholics. Individuals living in opposition to the authority of Scripture by adhering to Roman Catholic beliefs are in spiritual darkness and are suffering apart from the hope of salvation offered in Jesus Christ through faith. They are sheep who wander without their shepherd (Mathew 9:36). We need to walk alongside these friends and neighbors, praying for them and sharing the hope of the true gospel that God has revealed through His Word. Our prayers are that faithful Roman Catholics would have eyes to see and ears to hear the truth of the Word. We patiently hope they will turn away from a  message of meriting grace and turn to the free gift of salvation which comes through Christ alone by faith alone. We labor to combat such a false gospel, which is in fact no gospel at all (Galatians 1:6-7). Through all, we refute any false gospel in Roman Catholic teaching that is not the true gospel, while we love and minister to Roman Catholics in the mind and spirit of Christ.

Josh is a leader in missions and mobilization at The Journey Church in Lebanon, TN.  He oversees the church partnership with Breccia di Roma in Rome, Italy.  His family is relocating to serve in Europe as missionaries and church planters later this year.  He is married to his wife, Selena, and they have two sons: Elijah and Silas.


  • Missions,  The Church