In trying to figure out what divides Christendom, it is easy to get caught up on issues such as Mariology, prayers to saints, and ecclesiology. However, the most relevant and serious issue to most Protestants is the doctrine of justification, and ultimately, how one is saved.

The following is my attempt to honestly portray the positions of each group so that what is similar, and different, can be easily discerned. As for the Biblical and traditional merits for each position, this can be argued about elsewhere.

Ed: This article was made when I was a Protestant and upon greater learning and reflection my thoughts have evolved. However, this list was compiled with the help of an Orthodox priest.

Orthodoxy Roman Catholicism Protestantism
Atonement Recapitulation Satisfaction Penal Substitution
Righteousness Imparted Infused Imputed
Justification Upon Conversion N/A, Orthodoxy does not view justification in a chronological sense, but it is possible to have faith alone if not enough time elapsed for works (i.e. deathbed conversion) By faith alone By faith alone
Justification after conversion Must have works that flow from faith Must have works that flow from faith N/A–Justification is a one time event
Sanctification N/A–Part of justification, being made righteous/just is the same as being transformed into the likeness of Christ N/A–Similar to Orthodoxy, accrual of merits needed for salvation takes place Includes works, theoretically a linear process but usually has peaks and valleys, no bearing on justification
Merits Inconsequential to salvation or justification, salvation is not earned–the question of how sins of varying degrees which are left unrepented of is unanswered Necessary to accrue to satisfy God’s justice in light of post-baptismal sin, salvation is in part recompense for works–any demerits must be corrected in Purgatory to satisfy God’s justice and make man holy for heaven Accrued by Christ and satisfies God’s justice, salvation is recompense for Christ’s work–purgatory unnecessary
Treasury of Merits N/A Merits of saints can be acquired by the believer and in so doing satisfy God’s justice N/A–Closest analogue is that Christ is this treasury
Works Accomplished by the grace of God without violating the free will of man Accomplished by the grace of God without violating the free will of man Accomplished by the grace of God without violating the free will of man
Efficacy of Works Proves that faith is real, increases reward in heaven, improve faith, forgives sins Proves that faith is real, increases reward in heaven, improve faith, forgives sins,in part earns salvation as recompense from God Proves that faith is real, increases reward in heaven, forgives sin (baptism among Lutherans and Anglicans)
Sacraments, including Sacraments by Desire Necessary to partake in God’s divinity, which is synonymous with justification Same as Orthodox view, also needed to achieve a state of sanctifying grace after post-baptismal sins Not necessary for salvation, but necessary for the sake of obedience
Works and Salvation Those who are saved must perform good works, but salvation is not a reward for works in any degree Those who are saved must perform good works, salvation is in part recompense for works No bearing on salvation, but they evidence saving faith and improve one’s lot in heaven
Grace Uncreated, it is man’s literal participation with divinity Created, sanctifying grace is an effect wrought by God on the believer’s soul N/A, the state of the believer’s soul is judicially decided by God, grace is merely a reference to God’s dispositions and actions
Judgement Good rewarded, evil punished–both in varying degrees according to works wrought in the body Good rewarded, evil punished–both in varying degrees according to works wrought in the body Good rewarded, evil punished–both in varying degrees according to works wrought in the body
Salvation Can be forfeited Can be forfeited Depends on group. Reformed assert that all of those who are justified can never be lost. Others believe that salvation can be forfeited.

Let me offer the following observations:

  • Protestantism is obviously a rejection of the Catholic tradition that salvation is on some level earned. Yet, Protestantism is ultimately a system of merit, it was merely revised so that the merit of the individual believer would not be taken into account for anything other that the degree of reward or punishment.
  • The key difference between Protestant and Orthodox soteriology is that the Orthodox do not separate justification from sanctification. To speak of sanctification without the existence of good works is an absurdity to the Protestant. In the same way, speaking of justification without good works is absurd to the Orthodox. Justification, in the Greek, simply means “righteous-fication.”  The Orthodox believe one is righteous by a literal union with God accomplished by the indwelling of the Spirit. We grow in righteousness the longer we walk with God is similar to the Reformed idea that we grow in sanctification the longer we believe. So, the good works are part of a growth in righteousness resulting from an increased growth in the Holy Spirit. These are fruit of the Spirit that do not earn salvation, because salvation is an on-going process of growth in the Spirit–one is already saved to begin with but one is also undergoing the process of being saved/redeemed in Orthodoxy in real time. These works are indispensably part of salvation. This is why the Orthodox will confess works are absolutely necessary as part of salvation, that works are not merely proof of salvation, and that works do not earn salvation. Protestants find this hard to understand because they 1. differentiate between sanctification and justification and 2. still concern themselves with the issue of merit vis a vis the Roman Catholics.
  • The Orthodox view of the atonement is probably why their view of justification is not merit based, unlike the Roman Catholics and Protestants. In Satisfaction and Penal Substitution, Christ is paying back justice rightfully owed to the Father. This need for payback necessitates merit on some level. Recapitulation, put simply, is the idea that Christ redeemed man’s nature as the image-bearer of God by undoing all the damage done by Adam and subsequent sin. Christ did this by living a perfect life and conquering death. Those who have faith in Christ are given the ability to participate in the life of Christ, in which they are transformed and slowly redeemed into the image-bearers God intended them to be.
  • Some Protestants, as well as Roman Catholics and Orthodox, maintain that works play a role in forgiving sins. Protestants are careful to note that while this may occur in baptism via implied faith, sins are otherwise not forgiven in any ultimate sense because they are completely forgiven upon justification. Sins can be forgiven in a temporal sense (i.e. sickness as a punishment for sin), however. The Scripture says, “[I]f we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin…If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7, 9). The work of Christ on the cross forgives all sin, but a continuing walking in the Light is what makes this forgiveness happen. Orthodox and Roman Catholics believe this continuing walk includes the sacramental life of the Church.

Please contact me with any improvements with the above list. I am trying to condense what each group believes to the best of my ability so if I have fallen short, I am sorry.