Many people today claim that St. Paul, not Martin Luther, was the first Protestant. Why? Because Paul was not one of the original twelve apostles and seemed to be going around the country planting churches. Some even claim that each of these churches was autonomous, with no central authority like Peter; that is certainly the model of many modern Protestant churches. Some erroneously say that Paul preached that we are saved by “faith alone.” Those are not the correct assumptions to make about St. Paul, who is very Catholic in his writing. Let’s take a look at some his writings to see.
First, St. Paul did get his commission directly from Jesus Christ, on the way to Damascus. St. Paul didn’t just stand up on his own one day and decide to become a preacher. Like Peter and the other 11 apostles, Paul was sent forth by Jesus Christ Himself. St. Paul even asks, “And how can men preach unless they are sent?” (Rom 10:15) Sent by whom? Either by Jesus Himself, or one with the authority of Jesus Christ, which would be Peter and the Church. We know this from Jn 20:21, where Jesus says to Peter and the other apostles (the Church on earth), “As the Father has sent Me, even so I send you.” Jesus also gave Peter the Keys to His Kingdom, aka The Church, in a sign of authority, in Mt 16:19, where Jesus says that whatever Peter and His Church bind on earth, or loose on earth, will be bound or loosed in heaven. In recognition of this, after Paul had spent three years in Arabia following his conversion, he went and submitted himself to the chair of Peter (Gal 1:18).
However, being sent by Christ to preach to the Gentiles and being submissive to Peter was not the only Catholic things that Paul did. Paul was very keen on oral tradition, which Catholics, in accord with St. Paul, hold to be as important as sacred scripture. St. Paul says, to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” (2 Thes 2:15) Paul equates the traditions of the church in writing (scripture) with those oral traditions of the church. That is very Catholic.
The Real Presence, Sacrifice, and Reconciliation
Paul was also very outspoken on the Real Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. In 1 Cor 10:16-21, St. Paul avers that the cup of blessing is “a participation in the blood of Christ” (which is much more than merely “symbolic”); that the bread, which we break, is “a participation in the body of Christ” (again, not “symbolic”). He then goes on to compare the Eucharistic sacrifice of Christ with the Jewish sacrifice on the altar, as well as with the pagan sacrifices on the altar (an altar is a place for sacrifices). Now either Paul doesn’t know how to write properly and is using irrelevant comparisons with other altar sacrifices, OR the Eucharist is indeed a true sacrifice on an altar, just like the other two sacrifices to which he is comparing it. Why else would Paul compare the Eucharist to other altar sacrifices? Most Protestants don’t even have an altar in their church (but they do have altar calls!).
To emphasize his belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, Paul continues talking about it in the very next chapter, 1 Cor 11:23-30. He writes, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord”. If it’s just a symbol, then this would be impossible. This is why Catholics who practice artificial contraception, sodomy, fornication, looking at porn, or commit other mortal sins, must go to confession before receiving the Eucharist. Otherwise, they are guilty of yet another mortal sin. In further testimony that the Eucharist cannot be just a symbol of Jesus, Paul goes on to say, “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died”.
One reason why non-Catholics are not invited to the Catholic Eucharist is that they do not believe it to be Jesus Himself. Just like in marriage, where the husband and wife become one flesh, in the Eucharist, Jesus becomes one flesh with us. And, just like in marriage, there is a preparation before partaking in the sacrament. In marriage, there is the Pre-Cana preparation; with the Eucharist, there is the RCIA preparation.
So what about the sacrament of confession? Did Paul ever say anything about this? He did, in 2 Cor 5:18-21, Paul says that the ministry of reconciliation (forgiveness of our sins) was given to him by Christ. On behalf of Christ, Paul urges us all to be reconciled with God. Many Protestants believe that they can confess their sins directly to God, and not go through a minister, but this philosophy is only to be found in the Old Testament, not the New Testament. For instance, we have St. John the Baptist’s hearing the people’s sins prior to baptism in Mk 1:5. In Jn 20:21-23, Jesus gives his priests the power to forgive sins. In Jas 5:16, he says to confess your sins to one another. In Acts 19:18, many people came forward confessing their sins and evil practices. Most people trust in a human being to heal their bodies when they are sick; just so, Catholics believe in the power of the priest, acting with the authority of Christ, to heal their souls through the biblical sacrament of reconciliation.
Mortification, Purgation, and Salvation
Paul also believed in personal mortification, like Catholics practice during Lent. In Col 1:24, Paul says, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church”. This doesn’t mean that Paul thinks that Jesus should have hung on the cross for 4 hours instead of 3 hours. What it means is that we, the Church Militant here on earth, in the true imitation of Christ, have to unite our sufferings with His. Why? Because it helps build up the church, also known as the body of Christ. It is only through suffering that many people meet Christ. After all, when we are well off, well fed, healthy, and living the good life, we tend to put our confidence in our own resourcefulness and the things of this world, instead of in Christ. Through self-mortification, we come to know Christ as He came to know us ‒ through suffering. Paul also says in 1 Cor 9:27 that “I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified”. This not only reinforces the personal agonies of Paul’s teaching, it also refutes the heretical “once saved, always saved’ teaching of Protestants, because here, Paul indicates that even he can lose his salvation.
Speaking of the false “once saved, always saved” theory, Paul directly refutes it in Heb 10:26-29, when he says that if one deliberately sins after receiving the knowledge of the truth, then he can expect nothing less than an ordeal of fire, because he has “profaned the blood of the covenant (the Holy Eucharist) by which he was sanctified, and outraged the (Holy) Spirit of grace.” That certainly doesn’t sound like once saved, always saved. It is also fully in accord with the teaching of St. Peter (2 Pt 2:20-22).
St. Paul also believes in praying for the dead. He prayed for the dead Onesiphorus in 2 Tm 1:16-18, asking not only blessings for his household, but for Onesiphorus to receive mercy at the final judgment.
Purgatory? St. Paul says in 1 Cor 3:12 -15, that a man’s work will be tested with fire on his judgment day. If the man has good works, then he will receive an immediate reward. If it is burned up, then he will eventually be saved, “but only as through fire.” Since people who go to hell are never saved, then this can only be referring to the cleansing fire of purgatory.
The Bible, Celibacy, Good Works, The End Times
St. Paul also didn’t preach “The Bible Alone”. Rather, in 1 Tm 3:15, St. Paul says that the Church is the pillar and bulwark of truth. In contrast, many Protestants hold scripture to be the pillar and bulwark of truth. The Church gave the world the Bible, not the other way around.
St. Paul was not only celibate, he recommended celibacy to others. Many Protestants mistakenly believe that celibacy leads to child abuse. That makes no sense. Jeremiah, Jesus, St. John the Baptist, and St. Paul were all celibate. St. Paul says that marriage is good, but it is better to remain unmarried (1 Cor 7:38). The single person can concentrate more freely on pleasing the Lord, not being anxious about pleasing one’s spouse (1 Cor 7:32-34).
St. Paul didn’t believe that good works were useless, filthy rags either, like some Protestants preach. Rather, he believed that they were the fruit of our faith, and a way to increase our knowledge of God (Col 1:10). Paul does acknowledge the works of the Jewish Law (The Torah) are useless, such as circumcision, ritual hand washing, eating only kosher foods, not touching anything unclean, etc. (Rom 3:28). Luther mistranslated this “works of the law” into “good works,” which does not agree with other scriptures like James 2:24, where God says that we are “justified by works, and not by faith alone.” It’s sad that so many people today still believe in Luther’s misconstruing the works of the Jewish Law as good works. To emphasize his belief that salvation is not a one-time decision, but a continuous work-filled journey until death, Paul says, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil 2:12)
And finally, what about the rapture? The Rapture is a mistaken Protestant belief that Jesus will come in secret, and snatch believers up to heaven, leaving everything else behind, including their clothes. Then there will be a seven-year tribulation, where the rest of us will get a second chance to be saved. This is nowhere to be found in scripture. St. Paul mentions the second coming of Jesus in 1 Thes 4:15-17. But Paul says that “the dead in Christ will rise first” and that there will be a huge trumpet blast. Therefore, this event doesn’t appear to be some secret snatching away of believers. Seeing the dead rise first along with a huge trumpet blast is nowhere to be found in any of the “Left Behind” series of novels. And since the dead will rise first before we, the living, are taken up, we know that this will be the last day of human history. This is confirmed by St. John (Jn 6:40).
So don’t let anyone try to hold St. Paul up as some kind of Protestant. St. Peter says of Paul’s writings “There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” (2 Pt 3:16) This was true in the first century: in the 16th century, when Luther and Calvin got it wrong and it is still true today when most of the TV evangelists are falsely preaching health and wealth as the Christian message, instead of charity, love, and suffering.