CATHOLIC: It seems that many non-Catholics in America misunderstand the Catholic doctrine of salvation. They think that the Church teaches salvation by works as if Catholics were trying to earn their way to heaven. This frustrates knowledgeable Catholics because we know that the Church does not teach salvation by our own good works.
OBJECTOR: Perhaps the reason is that we hear this view from so many Catholics. When we ask them how they hope to go to heaven, they tell us that if they are good, they hope they will be in heaven with God for eternity. But I do know better. I know the Catholic Church teaches salvation by grace coming from God through faith in Christ.
CATHOLIC: I am so glad to hear you say that.
OBJECTOR: Nevertheless, I still think that the Church compromises the true gospel of Jesus Christ by its belief that salvation is a process rather than a one-time act of God. In essence, the Catholic doctrine is semi-Pelagian. It believes that salvation is a cooperation between God and man in which man plays at least as important a role as God does.
CATHOLIC: We believe that salvation is a process by which we come closer to God throughout our whole life as we participate in the sacraments and the grace that comes through them. But it is not true that man plays as important a role as God. God the Father planned our salvation, not man. God the Son gained our salvation by his death and resurrection; no one else did these things. And God the Holy Spirit infused the very love of God into our hearts by his presence (cf. Rom. 5:5). This is beyond our human ability. Still, we must cooperate with God’s grace to find eternal happiness with God. If we don’t, we will be cut off from God forever. In contrast, Semi-Pelagianism is only a weakened form of Pelagianism, which taught that a person could save himself. To be a semi-Pelagian is to believe that we could save ourselves but God just helps us to make it easier.
OBJECTOR: But that seems to me to be exactly what the Catholic Church teaches when it says that we must work with God to achieve our salvation. It takes glory away from God the Savior.
CATHOLIC: No, the Church teaches that only God can save us. If that weren’t true, then Christ died for nothing. All that we do is respond with faith and obedience to God’s offer of grace in Christ. We insist that this is a lifelong commitment that should grow over time. God’s grace grows within us as we trust in God more and follow his commandments. The final outcome of a life of faith and obedience is eternal life with God.
OBJECTOR: What you describe sounds like a compromise. How can salvation be a process when Acts 16:31 says, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved"? Paul affirms this same decisive act of salvation in Romans 10:9: "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."
CATHOLIC: The Church affirms the teaching of these texts. They are calling us to decisive trust in Christ. We affirm that trust in Christ is essential to salvation. But are faith in and confession of Christ a one-time event, or are faith and verbal confession necessary for one’s entire life? We believe the Bible teaches that one cannot just profess faith once and then be eternally secure, as it were. One must live out this faith by a life of obedience and good works.
OBJECTOR: Anyone who takes the Bible seriously must affirm that obedience and works flow from true faith. What is objectionable is that the Catholic faith confuses faith and works by making both of them necessary for salvation.
CATHOLIC: Wouldn’t you say that works are necessary? Doesn’t James 2:17 teach that faith without works is dead?
OBJECTOR: Of course works are necessary as evidence that the faith of the person believing is real and genuine, but that is different from believing, as the Catholic faith teaches, that works play an essential role in our final salvation. The root of the problem with Catholic teaching is that it confuses justification and sanctification by seeing salvation as a process that lasts one’s lifetime.
CATHOLIC: We do believe that works are evidence of true faith, but that is not the only role they play. Works also play a role in our final justification. If we take Paul’s statements about Abraham being justified by faith in Galatians 3:6 and Romans 4:3–4 and put them together with James’s statement about Abraham being justified by his work of offering up Isaac in James 2:21, we rightly conclude that salvation is a process with many points of justification along the path to heaven.
OBJECTOR: That cannot be right, because justification is an act of God’s grace. This means that God justifies us when we believe in Christ. He declares us righteous for Christ’s sake, not because of our own merits. James is saying that Abraham’s offering of Isaac was a work that justified his faith. Sanctification or the pursuit of holiness is essential to prove our faith but it is not what saves us. Christ saves us!
CATHOLIC: But sanctification is Christ actively saving us! You say that Abraham’s work of offering up Isaac justified his faith as being real. But James 2:21 asks, "Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?" From this James concludes in verse 22: "You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works." This language of "active along with" and works "completing" faith is the language of cooperation.
OBJECTOR: I agree that we must cooperate with God in our sanctification because it is a process that lasts a lifetime. But sanctification is not what really saves us. What saves us is the merits of Christ being credited to our account. This "credit exchange" takes place in justification, an act of God’s grace that occurs when we believe in Christ and trust him completely.
CATHOLIC: We agree that justification begins the Christian life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls baptism the sacrament of justification because in it all our previous sins are forgiven (cf. CCC 1266, 1992). And as I implied above, acts of justification or forgiveness may occur at many points in our lives. For example, when a priest declares a sinner forgiven in confession, this is an act of justification. We insist that many justifications take place in our lives as we journey toward heaven. These acts of justification are necessary for our growth in holiness or sanctification.
OBJECTOR: Well, as I said, the Catholic Church muddies the waters of salvation by its conflation and confusion of justification and sanctification. This makes our salvation depend on our degree of personal holiness. But because our growth in holiness cannot ever be complete in this life, we can never know whether we will be saved or not. That shows that the Catholic view cannot be true, because the New Testament is full of assurance of salvation. One of the more well-known verses is 1 John 5:13.
CATHOLIC: We think that many Christians seriously misread the New Testament when it comes to the assurance of salvation. Though we can’t examine many texts on assurance right now, I can say that 1 John 5:13 has been ripped out of its context in John’s letter. If you examine chapters 4 and 5 of this small letter carefully, you will see that "this" refers to acts of love of neighbor, love of God, holding to orthodox teaching, and so on. In other words, John is not giving a blank check for assurance of heaven. He is giving a conclusion of a long list of indicators by which a person can know he is saved. John agrees with James. Good works give a relative assurance that one is in good standing with God.
OBJECTOR: Maybe you have a point on 1 John, but making our salvation dependent on a certain degree of personal holiness is wrong, because it transfers our trust from Christ to ourselves.
CATHOLIC: I don’t see that the pursuit of holiness in any way takes our trust away from Christ and puts it in ourselves. It seems to me that Hebrews makes it very clear that without holiness "no one will see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14). Why would the author say this? Because God is holy and, if we’re going to live with God forever, we too must be holy. So our entire life should be a pursuit of the holiness that Christ gained for us by his death on the cross. God desires to put this holiness within us, or as Hebrews 12:10 says, "that we may share his holiness." That is the ultimate rationale behind the Catholic view of salvation: to share in the holiness of God. Nothing less will save us!