Christ Has Done His 99 Percent

By: James McCarthy; ©1999
Was Christ’s work of redemption really finished at the cross? Or is there more that we must add to it by our own efforts?

Climbing the steps of the bus that would take me across the width of Ireland from Galway to Dublin, I prayed that God would direct me where to sit. I wasn’t disappointed. About halfway to the back of the bus there was an empty seat next to an elderly nun. I sat down and we exchanged names.

Sister Teresa sized me up pretty quickly. From my name she knew that I was of Irish descent, and from my accent that I was an American. “Did your parents raise you in the Catholic faith?” she asked in a tone attesting to the fact that she already knew the answer.

“Yes,” I responded politely, feeling somewhat as if my second-grade teacher, Sister James Timothy, was speaking to me.

“And are you still practicing your faith?”

“No, I began reading the Bible several years ago and became a born-again Christian. I left the Church two years later.”

Sister Teresa frowned. “I don’t understand why so many people feel that they have to leave.” After a short pause she added, “You should have remained a Catholic.” “It was a matter of doctrine. The Bible teaches that salvation is by grace.” “I believe that,” Sister Teresa replied with conviction. “Salvation is from God. That’s what the Church teaches.”

“But the Bible says that ‘by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.’”

“I agree. Salvation is by faith in Christ. Christ died on the cross for our sins. We are saved through Him.”

Sister Teresa’s confident replies were unexpected. She seemed to believe as I did. I decided to test her further.

“Do you think that you will go to heaven when you die?”

“Yes. I’m trusting Christ to get me there.”

I asked a few more questions and found every answer “spot on,” as the Irish would say. Maybe she’s a believer, a sister in Christ, I thought to myself. It’s common to hear Christians today claim that there are lots of true believers in the Roman Catholic Church. I had met very few.

Sister Teresa brought the topic back to the Roman Catholic Church. “Read the lives of the saints,” she told me. “They’ll restore your faith. And I’ll pray for you.”

We chatted most of the way to Dublin. I found Sister Teresa, like most nuns, to be a kindhearted woman. And regardless of what Rome taught, I couldn’t find anything wrong with her own understanding of salvation. Nothing, that is, until we reached Dublin.

“Are you visiting family?” I asked as we pulled into the bus station.

“No, I’m on my way to Rome. Pope John Paul has declared this a holy year. Anyone taking a pilgrimage to Rome can earn a plenary indulgence.”

The truth comes out! I thought to myself. Catholicism maintains that every sin incurs a penalty, called temporal punishment. The Church teaches that the sinner must pay this penalty either through suffering while alive on earth or after death in purgatory. There is one other option. Rome claims that it is the steward of a vast reservoir of merit earned by Christ, Mary, and the saints. It dispenses from this reservoir credits, called indulgences, that cancel the debt of temporal punishment. A partial indulgence takes away a portion of a person’s penalty. A plenary indulgence, like the one that Sister Teresa was attempting to obtain, cancels all the temporal punishment that a person has accumulated up until that time.

Pope John Paul II, I came to learn, was offering Catholics visiting Rome that year a plenary jubilee indulgence. Pilgrims were required to receive the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist, visit the basilicas of Saint Peter, Saint John Lateran, Saint Paul, and Saint Mary Major. At each location they had to pray for the pope’s intentions (his personal prayer requests). Those Catholics meeting these requirements would receive a complete remission of the temporal punishment of their sins. I couldn’t let Sister Teresa’s admission of reliance on such an unbiblical practice to get her into heaven pass without comment.

“I thought you said that Christ had died for your sins, that salvation was through trust­ing Him!”

“Christ has done His 99 percent,” Sister Teresa answered. “We have to cooperate by doing our one percent.” With that she grabbed her bag and disembarked.

Ecumenical Catholicism

Apparently, Sister Teresa had no qualms about adapting the explanation of her faith for my evangelical ears. Her attitude was: Our differences are minor, maybe one percent. Since we’re both Christians, let’s try to be agreeable. Hopefully in time you will reconsider and return to the Church.

In years gone by, the attitude of a nun encountering a born-again ex-Catholic would have been different. She probably would have refused to talk to me, seeing me as an enemy of the Church, a threat to all that is good and true. But for more than 50 years, the Roman Catholic Church has been taking a conciliatory approach toward non-Catholic Christians. The Roman Catholic Church has changed its tactics. Rather than calling coun­cils to condemn its critics and their teachings, the Church now chooses to ignore them. The one-time heretics have become the separated brethren, as the Church now calls them, for whom the welcome mat is always out. These are wooed, rather than warned. Baptized non-Catholic Christians who decide to formally join the Roman Catholic Church no longer even have to “convert.” Now, as fellow Christians, they simply “enter into full communion with the Church of Rome.”

The spirit of the day is ecumenism, the modern movement seeking to unite Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, and every other group naming the name of Christ. The “heart of ecumenical thinking,” explains Pope John Paul II, borrowing a quote from Pope John XXIII, is that “What separates us as believers in Christ is much less that what unites us.”[1] Ecumenism views the differences within Christendom as complementary rather than exclu­sive. And so, when engaged today in dialogue with non-Catholic Christians, Rome stresses what is held in common. It prefers to blur the lines of doctrinal distinctions, rather than delineate them and thereby further the division. Every major decision Rome now makes is considered in light of how it will affect the potential of future ecclesiastical union. The Church of Rome has committees working for unification with the Orthodox Churches, the Anglicans, and the Lutherans. Some Catholic leaders are talking of the possibility of Martin Luther being formally forgiven. I once heard a priest predict that the Church will one day recognize Luther as a Roman Catholic saint.

Year 2000 Offer

Despite the change in attitude, the doctrinal differences remain. Some may try to minimize them, thinking that they amount to a mere one percent, but the fact remains that we have different gospels. In the year 2000, for example, Catholics traveling to Rome can once again obtain a plenary indulgence. With the publication of Incarnationis Mysterium, the “Bull of Indiction of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000,” Pope John Paul II is offering a plenary indulgence to all who travel to Rome, fulfilling certain requirements. The person must:

…make a pious pilgrimage to one of the Patriarchal Basilicas, namely, the Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican, the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior at the Lateran, the Basilica of Saint Mary Major and the Basilica of Saint Paul on the Ostian Way, and there take part devoutly in Holy Mass or another liturgical celebration such as Lauds or Vespers, or some pious exercise (e.g., the Stations of the Cross, the Rosary, the recitation of the Akathistos Hymn in honor of the Mother of God)….[2]

Is this the message of salvation found in the Bible? Can Christians really get to heaven quicker by making pilgrimages to Rome? Scripture says that on the cross Christ “made purification of sins” (Hebrews 1:3). As He breathed His last, Jesus proclaimed “It is fin­ished!” (John 19:30). He did it all, 100 percent. The Bible says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved” (Acts 16:31). Consequently, the one who is trusting in Christ for salvation has no fear of ending up in a place such as purgatory. He has no need of the Pope’s offer of an indulgence.

Unity is a noble goal, but not at the cost of truth. We can be thankful that Catholics and Protestants are treating one another with charity and talking openly. Let us, however, use this opportunity to deal with the doctrinal issues that divide us. This is not a time to play “let’s pretend,” as Sister Teresa did that day on the bus to Dublin, acting as if we were in agreement, though both of us knew we were not.

Adapted from Conversations with Catholics by James G. McCarthy (Harvest House Publishers: Eugene, 1997)


  1. Quoted by Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (New York: Knopf, 1995), p. 146.
  2. Pope John Paul II, Incarnationis Mysterium (1998)

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