Salvation in Catholicism
This post is meant to give brief (and simple) explanation of Catholic Church’s teaching on salvation. Other than from Scripture (RSV) I may quote from or refer to Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC for short), which is the official teaching of the Catholic Church.
Salvation is, perhaps, the always raised topic when Catholics meet Protestants and/or “Bible only” Christians, especially those with strong zeal of evangelism – after all Catholics are usually their favourite and easy targets. Many Catholics do not understand the teaching of the Church on salvation and therefore are easily to be led away to believe what the Catholic Church does not teach (and never taught).
To begin with, we cannot understand Catholic Church’s teaching on salvation without understanding first the other closely related and inseparable issues. They are Original Sin, God’s Grace, Human Freedom, Predestination and Justification.
We start first with Original Sin. Catholics believe that the first sin committed by the first man, Adam, affects all of us (Romans 5:12, 19). This first sin makes us deprived from original holiness and justice (CCC # 405). The Church refers this deprivation as Original Sin (CCC # 417). In relation with salvation, Original Sin weakens our nature (we will see later what it means), makes us inclined to sin and subject to ignorance. From Scripture we know the serious consequence of sin. Nothing unclean can enter heaven (Revelation 21:27); he who commits sin is of the devil (1 John 3:8) and the soul that sins shall die (Ezekiel 18:20). Our sins therefore do not entitle us to enter heaven and to enjoy eternal fellowship with God. By ignorance Catholics mean we cannot even will our salvation. In other words the initiative of our salvation belongs to God. It is God, not us, who takes the first step to save us. He does so by providing us with His Grace. Thus Catholics believe in Salvation by Grace and never believe in Salvation by Works. This leads us to the next issue: God’ Grace and what it does in our salvation.
First, what is Grace? Catholics understand Grace (CCC # 1996) as favour, free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons (John 1:12), partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life (2 Peter 1:4). The word “free” means we do not need to do anything worthy enough to receive God’s Grace and it is underserved because God is not under any obligation to save us. When He sent His only Son, Jesus, to die for us is His Grace. As an analogy for grace, think Grace as initial push from God, without which we cannot move towards our salvation. Catholics believe that the Three Persons in the Holy Trinity together participate in giving us Grace. The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it (CCC # 1999). How do we respond to God’s Grace is related to the next issue, Human Freedom.
Catholics believe that God’s free initiative demands man’s free response (CCC # 2002). It means we have freedom to choose whether to cooperate with God’s Grace or to reject it. God did not create us to behave like robots, i.e. that we will automatically move in prescribed manner after being switched on by God’s Grace. Thus when Catholics say our nature is weakened, but not totally corrupted by Original Sin, its implication means we still have the ability or freedom to choose between good and evil. Keep in mind that our freedom comes after being first moved by God’ grace – without God’ Grace, he cannot by his own free will move himself toward justice in God’s sight (CCC # 1993). In contrast heresies like Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism teach that we can use our freedom to take the first step in our salvation and then God’s Grace will assist us. What does Scripture say regarding our freedom? In the parable of wedding banquet (Matthew 22:1-14) the invited guests were able to reject invitation. The first martyr, Stephen, told those who falsely accused him as those who resisted Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51). In Revelation 3:20 while Christ takes the initiative to knock at our door, it is up to us whether we open the door to welcome Christ or not (note the conditional statement starting with “if”).
Related to God’s Grace and Human Freedom is the next issue, Predestination. Many would say that in Catholicism there is no predestination because we believe in human freedom. This is not true – there is predestination in Catholicism because the initiative of our salvation belongs to God, not to us. God takes the first step by giving us His Grace and we, in using our freedom, response back. Catholics believe in the existence of the Elect, i.e. those whom God predestines to heaven (Matthew 25:34, Acts 13:48, Romans 8:28-30). But Catholics also believe that God predestines no one to hell (CCC # 1037) – this means those who end up in hell do so because they use their freedom to reject God’s grace. Scripture is pretty clear in stating that God gives His Grace through Christ to every one and calls every one through Christ to salvation. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22) and For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men (Titus 2:11). Christ came to save the lost (Luke 19:10) and sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), which means all mankind, not only the Elect (CCC # 605, 1019). Obviously not all will go to heaven. God gives His Grace lavishly or in abundance to the Elect (Ephesians 1:7-8). He has mercy but also hardens the hearts of whom He will (cf. Romans 9:18). Thus Catholics believe those who end up in hell also receive God’s grace, which they pervert (Jude 4). The Elect are the ones who have what we call as assurance of salvation. However Catholics believe that unless God reveals it to us we cannot know who the Elect are. In Romans 16:3-16 Paul greeted a number of persons and only Rufus (Romans 16:13) he singled out as God’s Elect. This does not mean the rest will not go to heaven but Paul was given the revelation of only Rufus’ Election. This is the reason why in Catholicism salvation is conditional. Among Scriptural verses that support conditional salvation are: Luke 12:42-46, John 15:1-10, Romans 11:20-33, 1 Corinthians 15:1-2, 2 Corinthians 11:2-3, Hebrews 3:12 and 2 Peter 2:20-21. While Christ said no one can snatch his sheep from his hands (John 10:28) it does not rule out the possibility that His sheep are the ones who decide to leave Him – here we talk about human freedom again. Our salvation does indeed come from God’s grace and we have freedom to receive or to reject it.
The last but the most important issue related to salvation is Justification. How does God justify us to enter heaven? On this issue of Justification the 16th century Protestant Reformers broke away from Catholicism. First what is Justification? Following definition given in council of Trent Catholics understand Justification as a translation from that state in which man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace and of the adoption of the sons of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Saviour. The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (page 118) defines Justification as the merciful and freely-given act of God which takes away our sins and makes us just [righteous] and holy in our whole being. It is brought about by means of the grace of the Holy Spirit which has been merited for us by the passion of Christ and is given to us in Baptism. Justification is the beginning of the free response of man, that is, faith in Christ and of cooperation with the grace of the Holy Spirit. From Protestant’s side I borrow definition given by Reformed scholar R.C. Sproul: The Reformers viewed justification as being forensic, resting on God’s judicial declaration that the sinner is counted as just or righteous by virtue of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.” (R.C. Sproul: Faith Alone, page 44). Comparing the two definitions their striking difference comes from the words “translation” (Catholic) and “declaration” (Protestant). Translation implies a change in our state, from being unrighteous (or sons of Adam) to righteous (or sons of God, 1 John 3:7, 10) through Christ, our Saviour. Declaration does not imply any change within us – we are simply counted as righteous because Christ’ righteousness is imputed on us. Thus Reformer John Calvin defined justification as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favour as if we were righteous (John Calvin: Institutes of Christian Religion 3.11.2, underlined emphasis is mine). This does not mean that to Protestants change of state does not happen in our salvation. It does! But to them it happens through our Sanctification, a process we undergo after our conversion to Christ. Protestants believe that we are justified by faith alone and therefore separate Sanctification from Justification. Catholics, on the other hand, consider Sanctification as integral part of Justification. In other words to Catholics Justification comprises both faith and Sanctification (CCC #1989). This makes Justification a process to Catholics while to Protestants it is one-time event. Keep in mind that while Protestants separate Sanctification from Justification, these two must come together in a saved person’s life. Reformer John Calvin wrote: as Christ cannot be divided into parts, so the two things, justification and sanctification, which we perceive to be united together in him, are inseparable (Calvin: Institutes of Christian Religion 3.11.6). The implication of separating Justification from sanctification and at the same time making these two inseparable is expressed in the words of Reformed scholar R.C. Sproul: Justification is by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone. Saving faith is not a “lonely” faith, having no works following as a companion (R.C. Sproul: Faith Alone, page 156). Here works refers to works as the outcome of regeneration, that is, a saved (and regenerated) person should turn away from his/her old sinful ways to become new person who obeys God’s commandments. Protestants are divided on the issue when this regeneration takes place – does it precede faith (in Christ) as according to Reformed (Calvinism) teaching or does faith precede Regeneration as according to Arminianism? Both believe this regeneration produces works in Sanctification. Scripture says that we are saved through faith (Ephesians 2:8) and through Sanctification (2 Thessalonians 2:13). Since Sanctification is separated from Justification Protestants correctly say, using their terminology, that Justification is by faith alone – works they do in Sanctification do not belong to (their) Justification. Catholics who consider Sanctification as integral part of Justification believe works are part of Justification. However instead of saying we are justified by faith plus works, the correct expression is we are justified by grace – it is God’s Grace that first moves us to believe in Christ and to obey God’s commandments in our Sanctification. Without God’s Grace we cannot do both, not even have the initiative, but we, in using our freedom, have to cooperate with it. It is worth to note that not all Protestants and “Bible only” Christians believe that Sanctification is inseparable from Justification, i.e. they believe that works during our Sanctification are optional, not obligatory, for salvation.
Both Catholic and Protestant’ definition use the word “righteous” or “just”. In Greek the word Justification (dikaios) and Righteousness (dikaiosune) have the same root, righteous or just (Greek dike). Justification does have something to do with righteousness – the righteous will go to eternal life (Matthew 25:46) while the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9). Because Catholics consider Justification as a process, comprising both faith and Sanctification, “to justify” means “to make righteous”. To Protestants who consider Justification as one time event, “to justify” means “to declare one to be righteous”.
Catholics and Protestants believe that our righteousness comes from God – they disagree on how it is applied to us. Is it infused in us (Catholic position) or imputed on us (Protestant position)? Infused righteousness implies that with our cooperation it becomes integral part of us or we are made righteous. Imputed righteousness, on the other hand, means we use Christ’ righteousness to cover our unrighteousness – His righteousness remains external and we are only declared righteous. The Catholic Church declares that through Justification the righteousness of God, through Christ, is infused in us (by the Holy Spirit). It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy (CCC # 1992). Scripture defines righteousness as “he who does right is righteous, as he [Christ] is righteous (1 John 3:7) and through Christ we are made righteous (Romans 5:19). Keep in mind that being righteous is not equal to being sinless. To do what is right certainly include “to repent” but one does need to repent unless he/she sins in the first place. Scripture says (Proverbs 24:16): “for a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again.” Catholics and Protestants agree that our justification comes from God’s grace (Titus 3:7, CCC # 1996) and has been merited by Christ (Romans 3:23-25, 5:9, CCC # 1992). By ourselves, using our own efforts and freedom, we can never reach the justified state to enter heaven. It is God, through His Grace, who takes the first initiative to move us towards our salvation.
Catholics believe that our Justification starts when we, first moved by grace and then in using our freedom, accept the gift of faith from God. Note that both Catholics and Protestants consider faith as gift from God, that is, it is given not because we do something to deserve it (Ephesians 2:8). It is worth to mention that Catholics believe unless we are first moved by grace we cannot have faith in Christ (CCC # 2010). No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day (John 6:44). Catholics do believe in Justification by faith but not in Justification by faith alone, because Catholics understand Justification to be a process, not one-time event.
Once we receive the gift of faith Catholics believe that our Justification is conferred in Baptism (CCC # 1992). Most Protestants consider Baptism only as symbol or public declaration of one’s faith in Christ – neither of them has scriptural support. Baptism has something to do with salvation as Scripture testifies: He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned (Mark 16:16) and when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you (1 Peter 3:20-21). The reason why Baptism has something to do with salvation is because it regenerates us – through Baptism we have new life (Romans 6:3-4) because we are cleansed from sin (Acts 2:38, 22:16). To Catholics sins that are washed away through Baptism are Original sin and personal sin (CCC # 1263). Through Baptism we receive Sanctifying grace that entitles us to enter heaven (CCC # 1999). Thus to Catholics Baptism is necessary for salvation of those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for it (cf. CCC # 1257). This explains why the thief crucified with Christ and repented was with Him in paradise without Baptism. God has bound salvation to the Sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments (CCC # 1257). We just mention Sanctifying Grace that comes through Baptism. In Catholicism there are Actual Grace and Sanctifying Grace. The former is the Grace that first moves us to believe in Christ in our conversion and to obey Him through our Sanctification (CCC # 1999).
While sanctifying grace makes us entitle to enter heaven, Catholics believe we can lose it through mortal sins. Scripture does differentiate between mortal and non-mortal (or venial) sins (1 John 5:16-17, CCC # 1854). Scripture also testifies that committing sin after our conversion does affect our salvation (Hebrews 10:26-27). He who commits sin is of the devil (1 John 3:8). Note that God will not let us be tempted beyond what we can bear – He even provides his grace in the form of way of escape (1 Corinthians 10:13). Thus if we sin it means we use our freedom not to cooperate with His grace. God again takes the initiative to save us – His (actual) grace will move us to repent and to ask forgiveness. If we cooperate then Catholics regain back sanctifying grace through Sacrament of Reconciliation. It is worth to mention that in the forgiveness of sins, both priests and sacraments are instruments which our Lord Jesus Christ, the only author and liberal giver of salvation, wills to use in order to efface our sins and give us the grace of justification (cf. CCC # 987). Christ did give the authority to forgive sins to His Church (John 20:23). Those who die with un-repented mortal sin will end-up in hell – all their good works, no matter how numerous and impressive they are, will be forgotten and will not save them (Ezekiel 18:24) – there is no such thing as salvation by works in Catholicism. Those who die with venial sins must go through purgatory through which they are purified as nothing unclean can enter heaven (Revelation 21:27). Scripture refers God as refiner’s fire (Malachi 3:2), who refine us as one refines silver, and test us as gold is tested (Zechariah 13:9). To Protestants purgatory is not required because in their Justification they use Christ’ righteousness to cover up their unrighteousness.
The other issue related to salvation is the role of our good works. Catholics and Protestants agree that good (or evil) works we did before our conversion to Christ do not merit (or demerit) the gift of faith from God. How about good works in our Sanctification? Protestants generally consider them as fruits or signs of true faith – they are done because we were saved, not for being saved. Catholics agree that good works in our Sanctification are fruits or signs of our Justification because in Catholicism Sanctification is integral part of Justification. Yet Catholics also relates works with God’s Grace – unless we are first moved by His (actual) Grace we cannot do them. Scripture says: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13) and “But by the grace of God I am what I am. and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Related to good works is the issue of merit or reward. Do we merit something from God for our good-works performed in our Sanctification? Catholics believe that we cannot merit anything from God, because we receive everything from Him (CCC # 2007), including our ability to do good works (CCC # 2008). If God rewards us for doing good works, which He does (Psalms 18:20, Proverbs 25:21-22, Matthew 6:6, 18, Luke 6:35, 2 John 8, Revelation 22:12 etc.) then our reward is also His gift because we do not deserve it. Because the reward is a gift then it may come in the form of grace and even eternal life (CCC # 2010). Scripture does testify that God rewards us with eternal life for our good works, which Catholics view as His gift (Matthew 25:34-36, John 5:28-29, Romans 2:6-10). The concept of “grace merits grace” in Catholicism (CCC # 2010) may confuse or even scandalize Protestants. How can we merit grace if it is a free gift from God? The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace (CCC # 2008). In scripture the title Saviour is applied only to Christ (Luke 2:11, Acts 13:23, Philippians 3:20) and God (Luke 1:47, 1 Timothy 1:1, Titus 1:3, Jude 25). Our salvation comes from God’s Grace – but God let us participate in salvation of others when we pray for others or share the good news with them or work as missionary. Note that God can do everything Himself – He does not need any help from us. Catholics understand that it is God’s Grace that first moves us to work as missionary or to share the good news or to pray. Using our freedom we cooperate and the outcome of our cooperation is salvation of others. Thus grace moves us to work and our graced work merits grace for others or for ourselves. Does Scripture say through Christ we receive grace upon grace (John 1:16)?