Ask Steve: Catholic Salvation








Question: Steve, many are saying that there is no significant difference between Roman Catholicism and what we believe as Evangelicals in regard to salvation. Would you give me a specific critique of the Roman Catholic view of salvation? 

Answer: There are many who are trying to say that Catholics and Evangelicals believe the same saving doctrine, or that both groups will be saved though they have different interpretations on some issues. This spirit of ecumenism, although a seemingly noble idea according to the world, is ultimately dangerous according to God’s word (Gal 1:8; 2 Jn 1:10) and must be rejected, since Roman Catholics do not preach the gospel as the means which someone can be reconciled to God. There are significant differences in Roman Catholic and Evangelical theology, and the core difference has to do with soteriology (the study of salvation). This is important to establish because it teaches us the error of non-evangelical views and the need to lovingly bring the saving message of the gospel to them so Catholics can turn away from their false system of religion.

The historic Roman Catholic view of salvation constitutes a work-righteousness system of religion that is not salvation by grace alone, although some within the camp would adamantly deny this claim. Roman Catholicism teaches that salvation begins at the stage of baptismal regeneration, in which water baptism cleanses the person from original sin, imparts sanctifying grace, and unites the soul to Christ. This salvation is consequently maintained through a lifelong commitment to not only faith, but membership to the Catholic Church, the sacraments, morality, and other religious deeds that supplement this grace. Catholic theology teaches that salvation cannot be guaranteed (contrary to what Scripture says) and must be maintained by one’s willingness to work out their salvation through a lifetime of obedience. 

These good works are comprised of a few key things. The first one, as I’ve mentioned, is water baptism that regenerates the soul and cleanses one of original sin, granting him the power of free will to come to faith in and obedience to Christ/God. The good works that maintain grace in one’s life and merits favor before God are sacraments (such as the Eucharist), confession of sin to a priest, and obedience to God’s Law (the Ten Commandments). Prayer is also important in maintaining a saving relationship with God, in which the Virgin Mary can be petitioned, since she is regarded as the Queen of Heaven and a Co-Redeemer.

Based on this brief survey of Catholic soteriology, it becomes apparent that it does not resemble what the Bible teaches about saving faith. Catholics and Evangelicals clearly believe in two different gospels, or ways of salvation. Ephesians 2:8-9 and Titus 3:5 teach that works do not add to or win one’s salvation. Salvation is purely a work of God. The Bible does not even teach that one is able to lose his salvation if he does not uphold it with enough works and obedience to church sacraments. The whole of Scripture teaches that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Justification by faith is a truth taught not only in the New Testament, but in the Old Testament as well (Hebrews 11; Gen 15:6).

Therefore, no works (such as water baptism) can save or cleanse a sinner from sin and grant him salvation. Regeneration comes from God alone in the hearts of dead sinners, which enable the sinner to come to God in repentant faith for salvation. And that faith is what justifies a sinner and makes him righteous in God’s sight. This implies that justification is a one-time event, never to be repeated again. Therefore, the believer is saved and guided by the Holy Spirit to undergo the lifelong process of sanctification and ultimately reach glorification at Christ’s return for the church. This clearly contradicts the Catholic view that regeneration happens by the work of water baptism, and that justification does not happen at one’s conversion, but happens at the end of one’s life when his life’s merit is ultimately assessed by God. The Bible teaches that Christians do not work to get saved or to maintain salvation, but work because they are saved. They are indwelt by the Holy Spirit as guarantee of that promise.

I will explain a few key areas to show how Catholic and Evangelical salvation is different and mutually exclusive. The first area is the relationship between God’s part and man’s part in the salvation process. Catholicism is essentially synergistic, which means that salvation is a two-way process of man working with God in the accomplishing of the salvation. Man is spiritually sick, but not totally dead and incapable of action. People still have a measure of goodness, free will, and capacity to work in order to reach out to God for help and receive salvation. Catholic soteriology is semi-palagian in that they believe men have a measure of goodness within them that can merit God’s favor and be a means for boast.

In contrast, Evangelical soteriology is monergistic, which means that it is God alone who accomplishes salvation for us. One must not misunderstand this to mean that men do not have the responsibility to respond in repentant faith. Men are not to be passive and believe they will be saved while doing absolutely nothing. They will be held accountable for their choices, which is why they must respond in faith. But the main point of mongerism is that all credit is given to God for salvation because He is the one who elects, regenerates men, calls them to saving faith, sanctifies them in good works, and glorifies them (Rom 8:29). Because men are dead in their sin and incapable of saving themselves and coming to the Lord, God must take initiative in reviving dead hearts and guiding them to salvation, which is why Christianity is rightly monergistic.

Another difference between Catholicism and Evangelicalism is the soteriological doctrine of justification. This is no minor issue, as one’s understanding and commitment to a particular stance can be an indicator of what he is trusting in for salvation, and ultimately reveal his true spiritual condition. Catholicism views justification as not happening at the beginning of one’s faith, but at the end of one’s life. It is not an event, but a lengthy process. The justification process begins with baptism and continues throughout the person’s life. Justification removes past sins and remits grace into the soul, but does not totally make one right with the Lord. In fact, justification can be lost if a believer commits mortal sins. Justification does not involve the concept of imputed righteousness, which is a doctrine that Catholicism rejects as dangerous since it supposedly causes one to be apathetic about living a righteous life. Finally, Catholics believe that an assurance of justification is not possible in this life, but the results are only seen when one dies and stands before God’s judgment to be evaluated for entrance into heaven.

Catholics view justification and sanctification as essentially one and the same process, whereas Evangelicals view justification and sanctification as two different stages. For evangelicals, justification is a one-time event that precedes a life of sanctification. Once someone is justified, he is forever right with God and has eternal life. The sanctification process is not meritorious in gaining or adding to one’s salvation, but is the result of one’s salvation in Christ, in which Christ empowers the believer toward Christlikeness. The sanctification process does not make a believer sinless, but shapes him into an obedient child of God. The sanctification process is complete upon glorification, when the believer becomes completely sanctified in holiness and righteousness, forever set apart from the presence of sin and its effects.

A last analysis I want to make is the role of sacraments (ordinances) in the life of a believer, interpreted differently by Catholics and Evangelicals. Roman Catholicism believes that sacraments are a crucial part of one’s salvation and justification process. The sacraments are a means of conferring grace and thus maintaining one’s salvation before God. These sacraments, such as the Eucharist, physically confer the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice onto the believer when he partakes in them. In other words, sacraments are works that confer grace to the believer, which is entirely apart from faith or reverent attitude of the heart. Sacraments work in and of themselves (apart from faith) when administered by an authoritative representative of the Catholic Church. This is not what the Bible describes as the role of the sacraments in a believer’s life. Evangelical soteriological teaches that sacraments do not play a part in a believer’s salvation, since salvation is by faith alone in Christ as Lord and Savior. Sacraments, such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper, are more appropriately categorized as belonging in the sanctification process. They do not merit or uphold a believer’s salvation, but are a testimony of one’s salvation (and justification) and adoption into God’s family. These sacraments are done to honor Christ as an act of celebration and public witness of one’s salvation in Christ. They do not confer grace whatsoever or infuse any of Christ’s righteousness or merits to the sinner. In fact, one cannot participate in sacraments unless if has already experienced God’s grace which comes by faith.


Recommended Resource: The Gospel According to Rome by James G. McCarthy