When speaking theologically, one can rarely say “Protestants believe” since there are many variables among different denominations, churches and individuals. Many Protestants claim that Catholics preach a false gospel, and many Protestants claim the same thing about other Protestants (although both groups usually believe in sola scriptura). Finding a Protestant who truly understands Catholic soteriology – the study or doctrine of salvation – is extremely rare. The straw-man logical fallacy of a “works-based salvation” is the most prevalent misapprehension (more on that later).
To understand what people believe, understanding their definitions of words is crucial. Misunderstanding terminology causes confusion among Protestants, and between Catholics and Protestants, since the same theologically technical term is often used to mean different things. For instance, the Protestant reformers developed a new concept of justification called “forensic justification” – which created an ontological and chronological dichotomy between justification and sanctification (note that this was an historical invention). When a Protestant uses the word “justification” they might mean “salvation”, “forgiveness”, “regeneration” or “belief” (with or without “repentance”) or they might mean “forensic justification”, as distinct from “actual sanctification” (being considered holy, rather than made holy). However, Catholics might mean “justification” as something which is both “imputed” and “infused,” and/ or as something “intertwined with regeneration and sanctification”. As the Catechism defines it, “Justification includes the remission of sins, sanctification, and the renewal of the inner man” (CCC 2019). So, for the Catholic, justification involves an actual regeneration, an actual rebirth, not just a forensic declaration of justice with an imputation of Christ’s righteousness alone, but a real being made just, and an infusion of Christ’s actual righteousness accompanying the imputation. Behold all things are new, and the being made righteous is as actual as the forgiveness, not the “dung heap covered in snow” that Luther spoke of.
Even common terms can cause misunderstandings. For instance, the word “salvation”. Some Protestants think “salvation” is a once-for-all, punctiliar event (I was saved on Wednesday) – a thing you are (saved) or aren’t (unsaved). Other Protestants think “salvation” is a process (sometimes started by a punctiliar event like belief, or baptism of water, or baptism of the Holy Spirit) – a thing you currently are (if you have confessed your sins, and aren’t living in sin), and hope to continue to be (the hope of salvation), but might choose to reject (by sinning against your faith, or becoming apostate) since you haven’t yet persevered until the end. Catholics are closer to the second kind of Protestants, and will say things like, “I was saved, am being saved and will be saved” – being “saved” is a thing you currently are (by the regeneration of the Spirit in the waters of baptism) and hope to continue to be (the hope of salvation), but might choose to reject (by sinning against your faith) since you haven’t yet persevered until the end. Note that this doesn’t mean that we are unsure of our “salvation” (we know when we are in a state of grace) – we simply don’t presume we will persevere to the end (Hebrews 3:14), or that God will force us to be with him even if we choose to reject him (Hebrews 3:18). We don’t lose our faith in such a rejection, but, unless we repent, and confess, such a rejection might be our final answer (Hebrews 3:12; I John 1:9).
The Catholic Church has always taught that we are saved by grace alone. Earlier I mentioned the straw-man logical fallacy of a “works-based salvation” (“semi-Pelagianism”). Protestants who make this accusation confuse soteriological terminology – particularly the distinctions between “grace” and “faith”, and the relationship between “justification” and “sanctification”. They also ignore the historical meaning of all pre-Protestant theology, and current Catholic definitions, to “prove” the “errors” they presuppose. It’s salient to note that there are some (very few) Protestant groups who are “legalistic” and believe that following certain “laws” will obligate God to save them; however, most who are accused of believing a “works-based salvation” are theologically misunderstood. Naturally, I am speaking of the theologically adept, not those who are simply poorly educated – Catholic and Protestant – and think things like, “My good deeds will outweigh the bad stuff I’ve done” rather than trusting in Christ alone for salvation.
Catholics do believe that our works (good or bad) have consequences (Matthew 7:15-27). We also believe that our good works are meritorious (not filthy rags¹), that is to say, that God rewards them – not just in heaven, but here and now as we are being saved (Hebrews 11:6). We also believe that merit (grace made operative through faith and works) helps us be saved (made just – justified, not merely reckoned just, and made holy – sanctified, not merely reckoned holy) because, by God’s grace, our cooperation with grace activates its saving power (the power is inherent in the grace, not our cooperation), infusing holiness (sanctification) and growing deep roots which enable us to persevere and bear good fruit.
To put it more simply, Catholics believe that all acts of faith, hope and love toward God, and our neighbors, are preceded and enabled by God’s grace (Ephesians 2:8-10; CCC 1996). Thus, it isn’t correct that we trust in our works for our salvation – Catholicism is not legalistic. Rather, our works (prepared by grace for us to walk in) help us by sanctifying us, building up the body of Christ and worshiping God in a manner that pleases him.
The Sacraments hold a special place in Catholic soteriology. “Sacraments are outward signs of inward grace, instituted by Christ for our sanctification” (Catechismus concil. Trident., n. 4, ex St. Augustine, “De Catechizandis rudibus”). Although the manner of their instrumental causality is a mystery, it is clear that the instrumental causality is through grace alone, “And man is made a member of Christ through grace alone.” (St. Thomas, Summa, A; Q, A).
So you see, Catholics believe in one faith, which works (not to be mistaken by sound exegesis with “works of the [Jewish] law”), but the charges that this (somehow) negates grace, or that we believe in grace plus works, are false. Some say that faith plus works is the same thing as grace plus works, but they are in error – because it would be inconsistent to say that the faith itself can be a gift of grace, but works cannot be. Furthermore, truncating faith and works does not prevent the error of boasting – one could boast in their faith just as much as they could boast in their works (as if our belief contractually obligated God to save us apart from the law of grace, or made us superior to those without faith). It is the grace that prevents us from boasting, so even though we work to cooperate with that grace in what we believe and what we do, it is “all of grace” not of our faith alone, nor of our works alone; not done in ourselves, but in Christ.
We are saved by the law of grace, through the gift of grace: an actual faith which works. The doctrine of salvation by grace alone is clear in scripture, the fathers, the councils and papal teaching; one of the clearest articulations came from the Council of Trent (Decree on Justification: Chapter V; Canons I, II and III on Justification).
A formulation that would be accurate, but not official, since it is my own, is that man is saved by Jesus Christ alone, by the grace of God alone, through the gift of actual grace in faith and works. Our righteousness is imputed (made possible by Christ) and infused (activated to the full strength the grace contains) by our faith and works. Again, both the faith and the good works are gifts of grace, as it is written,
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10 RSV-CE).
Not everything the Catholic church teaches about soteriology – the study of salvation – is dogmatic, so you will find variations within some aspects of Catholic soteriological doctrine. However, in addition to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (esp. Article 2, Grace and Justification – CCC 1987 – 2029), the Council of Trent clarified Catholic soteriology regarding the new ideas of the reformers, and the Decree and Canons on Justification from the Sixth Session are succinct and delightfully dense – if you would like the clarity of context and are theologically minded, you ought to read them in their entirety. In addition to the authoritative, decredal documents from Trent, there are a few significant times when the Catholic Church has met with Protestant leaders to discuss key differences like justification. Perhaps the earliest was the Diet of Ratisbon (also called the “Diet/ Colloquy of Regensburg”) in 1541 (the fifth article discusses justification), but there are also more recent meetings which resulted in documents like the document “Salvation and the Church” written with Anglicans in 1986, the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document in 1994, the follow-up document entitled “The Gift of Salvation” in 1998,
The Joint Declaration on Justification with Lutherans in 1999 and the Official Response to that Declaration. Some pertinent quotes from those documents are as follows:
It is secure and wholesome teaching that the sinner is justified by a living and effectual faith, for through such faith we will be acceptable to God and accepted for the sake of Christ.
A living faith, therefore, appropriates the mercy in Christ and believes that the righteousness which is in Christ will be freely reckoned for nothing and also receives the promise of the Holy Spirit. (Regensburg, Article 5)
Justification and sanctification are two aspects of the same divine act (1 Cor 6:11). This does not mean that justification is a reward for faith or works: rather, when God promises the removal of our condemnation and gives us a new standing before him, this justification is indissolubly linked with his sanctifying recreation of us in grace. This transformation is being worked out in the course of our pilgrimage, despite the imperfections and ambiguities of our lives. God’s grace effects what he declares: his creative word imparts what it imputes. By pronouncing us righteous, God also makes us righteous. He imparts a righteousness which is his and becomes ours. (ARCIC II, Salvation and the Church, 15)
Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works (JDDJ, 15).
The following are some further technical areas of high theology that cause confusion between Catholics and some of our separated Protestant brothers and sisters:
1. The concept of sola fide – salvation by faith alone – was condemned at Trent (Decree on Justification Chapters VI, X and XI; Canons IX and XIX on Justification).
2. The concept of forensic justification, that righteousness is imputation alone was condemned at Trent (Decree on Justification Chapter VII; Canons XI, XXV and cf. Canon XXXI on Justification).
3. The concept of Free Grace Theology (pejoratively called “Easy Believism” by some who call their view “Lordship Salvation”) – that belief alone, apart from obedience, ensures salvation – was condemned at Trent (Decree on Justification Chapter IX and XII; Canons XII, XIII, XIV, XIV and XXI on Justification). However, this does not rule out the Arminian concept of “free will” which is compatible with the Molinist² and Congruist² concepts of how grace and free will meet (predestination based on foreknowledge).
4. The modern concept of Eternal Security – once saved, always saved – was condemned at Trent (Decree on Justification Chapter XI, XIII, XIV and XV; Canons on Justification XVI, XXIII, XXVII and XXVIII).
5. The supralapsarian concept of unconditional reprobation (double-predestination: the concept that some are predestined to heaven – the elect, and others are predestined to hell – the reprobate) was anticipated and condemned at Trent (Decree on Justification Chapter VIII, Canon VI, X and XVII on Justification). However, this does not rule out the Calvinist concept of “unconditional election” which is compatible with the Thomistic² (via physical change of the will of the elect) and Augustinian² (via moral pressure on the will of the elect) concepts of how grace and free will meet.
6. The Calvinist concepts of “irresistible grace” and “total depravity” were condemned at Trent (Decree on Justification Chapter I, Canons IV, VII and XXII on Justification).
7. The Calvinist concept of “Limited Atonement” – that Christ only died for the elect – was condemned at Trent (Decree on Justification Chapter II; Canon XVII on Justification).
¹”We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (Isaiah 64:6 RSV-CE). Eisogetes of this verse try to claim that this is a definition of righteous deeds rather than taking the verse in context. In context, the verse communicates a simile (which could be considered hyperbolic prose) expressing a lament about a people who have fallen into iniquity, not a gloss of what “righteous deeds” are.
²For more information on different Catholic ideas regarding the mysteries of where divine grace and human free-will meet see the Catholic Encylopedia’s articles on Controversies on Grace and the Congregatio de Auxiliis.