If we were sum up the difference between Protestantism and Catholicism when it comes to soteriology it would be this: Protestants are saved by faith alone and Catholics are saved by faith plus works.
As Protestant apologist James White puts it, “Only that empty hand of faith can grasp the hand of grace.”
However, are Protestants and Catholics really that far apart?
One devout 19th century thinker wrote the following about justification:
After earth’s exile, I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. I want to work for your love alone…. In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself (CCC, 2011).
The above is not written by Charles Spurgeon. It is a quote from a Catholic, Saint Therese of Lisieux. It is quoted word for word in the Roman Catholic Catechism and it is expected that all Roman Catholics believe it.
So, both Protestants and Catholics believe we approach God with empty hands. Both Protestants Roman Catholics believe they are saved by being “clothed in” Christ’s righteousness with no desire to earn heaven by good works.
What’s going on here? Are Roman Catholics just really inconsistent and unlearned, or are we not understanding what they are saying?
Without getting into indulgences and sacramental theology, I am going to make the argument that Catholics believe that people go to heaven by faith alone in the sense Protestants define the term “faith.” When we understand this, I think it is possible for us to identify that its is not faith or works, but rather sacraments that separates Roman Catholics and Protestants.
Getting Our Protestant Definitions Straight. “Faith,” in Protestantism is not mere intellectual assent. Calvin wrote that we are “saved by faith alone but not by a faith that is alone.” Luther concurred with this definition.
It is possible to believe that salvation is by faith alone, but that it can also be lost. For example, Luther allowed for the possibility that justified believers can fall away and lose their salvation (though he was inconsistent on this point.) How could someone lose their salvation according to Protestant theology? Obviously, it’s not by doing bad stuff (because doing good stuff does not save you). Rather, it’s by losing the faith someone once had.
Being that the faith that saves contains good works, then if one is saved by faith alone, someone who gives into temptation and commits great sin has evidently betrayed the faith and forfeited salvation. True faith, cannot include unrepentant sin. So, those with unrepentant sin are faithless and are therefore not saved–not because they did bad stuff but specifically because those who “unrepentantly” do bad stuff do not have faith.
Catholicism’s Similar Application of the Above Concepts in Different Words. Does Catholicism teach something similar to the idea that one is saved by a faith alone, but this faith includes works, and that such a faith can be forfeited via unrepentant sin? Yes.
Roman Catholicism teaches, “Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial* grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion” (CCC 2010). In translation, one does not have faith by his own willing. “The human heart is heavy and hardened. God must give man a new heart. Conversion is first of all a work of the grace of God who makes our hearts return to him” (CCC 1432). This conversion, according to Catholics, instantly makes one saved:
The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification…Justification is at the same time the acceptance of God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ…Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men (CCC, 1989, 1991, 1992).
As one can see, none of this is any different than Protestantism.
Where Catholicism begins to differ with Calvinists is over what happens after the believer has a new heart. Calvinists believe that the faithful will persevere to the end. However, Catholics otherwise agree with the rest of Protestantism which teaches that man must cooperate with God’s grace specifically by maintaining the faith lest he fall and forfeit salvation through his faithlessness:
The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit…The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God (CCC 2008, 2011).
So, like Protestantism, Catholicism teaches that one is saved entirely by the merits of Christ.
However, there is one surface level difference between Protestantism and Catholicism on this point: these merits of Christ are achieved (at least in part) by works performed by man through the grace of Christ, according to the Catholic. Protestantism teaches that this merit has nothing to do with works performed by man (even if God is the one performing them through man.)
Yet, Protestants also affirm that those same works affect how good Heaven will be (or how bad Hell will be). So, while the Catholic says we are saved by faith and made righteous through works done through us by Christ, the Protestant says we are saved and made righteous by faith, and works don’t make man righteous but rather solely affect his judgement.
However, this difference rings hollow if we understand what salvation is. If we are judged as righteous by God, we are rewarded with salvation. Salvation is communing with God. Not all people commune with God equally, as some are rewarded with more communion than others. Most Protestants (here is John Piper’s take on it) affirm this idea, including the Reformers.
If communing with God includes literally being like God (being transformed into His likeness and goodness starting in this life and going into the next) then good works are an essential part of being saved. Why? Because salvation is more than being accounted as good–it is being good because God is good and the good we do in this life has a proportional effect on how much “saving” God is going to do to you (i.e. the “rewards” in heaven God gives you).
This means for all practical purposes the Protestant position is no different than the Catholic one. Nominally, Protestants simply avoid speaking of man being saved or justified more than another man, because they prefer to speak about one man being rewarded more than another. What Protestants call the “rewards” of heaven, Catholics call an “increase of justification” (Council of Trent, Canon X).
The concepts are identical in fact, but the wording is completely different. Catholicism teaches that we are indwelt by Christ’s righteousness and do consummate good which makes them more righteous–and salvation is the process of becoming more righteous. Protestantism teaches that we are indwelt by Christ’s righteousness and do consummate good which merits more reward–salvation is the process of getting in 1. right standing with God and then 2. doing good works by God’s grace, resulting in increased rewards in heaven.
But do Catholics believe that the “rewards” for our good works are “earned” by those good works? No more than Protestants believe the rewards we merit earn salvation.
According to the CCC, “With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator” (2007). By God’s grace, man does good which merits more reward in heaven–they are not man’s work, but the work of God.
Being that merit by Catholicism’s own definition does not include a “strict right” to reward, we are compelled to understand merit as something we merely have a claim to by God’s grace due to His promise that he recompenses the faithful for the good they have done, not as something we deserved in of ourselves. I believe this is much closer to the Protestant view of meriting heavenly rewards than we think.
Closing Note. So, being that Catholics do not teach one is saved by works any more than Protestants do, what is the difference? Sacraments. Protestants, ultimately, say, “I don’t need no stinkin’ sacraments to be saved!” Catholics reject this, other than in those cases where it is literally impossible for the faithful to receive physical sacraments.
So, let’s stop arguing over the doctrine of justification. Catholics and Protestants are not as far apart as they think. They are pretty much in the same place, but they employ different words to explain the same thing.
The argument, rather, is over sacraments. So do we need sacraments or don’t we? That’s the argument. Waste your time with that one, maybe you’ll get somewhere.
*The issue of infant salvation throws a wrench in the works. Most Catholics believe they are saved upon “implicit” faith in Christ when they were baptized. Lutherans and Anglicans believe the same thing (and those who affirm Infant Salvationism essentially believe the same thing too.) Being that this whole topic is sticky and not really sensible to begin with, I am simply going to leave it there and focus on cognizant believers.
You’ve made some very good points. Jimmy Akin has made similar observations.
The biggest struggle I have when I discuss these issues with many Protestants is their refusal allow Catholics to define their terms ie pray can only mean worship therefore praying to the saints is always worship. I’m sure you have similar experiences from Catholics.
The only thing I would add to your question is is do we need “valid” Sacraments?
we need sacraments, they need to be valid, but i do not think I agree with your view as to what makes them valid (and the Orthodox view varies from Bishop to Bishop, particularly baptism.) My personal opinion is that there are a lot more sacraments by desire attained by the faithful outside the official channel of the Church then people think. We have persecuted believers in Burma who happen to be Protestants. RCC and O have not made inroads. I don’t think they all lack sacraments.
Craig I think I understand what your goal is, which I believe is to make it as easy as possible to unify Christians, but it seems you are approaching it the same way Protestants do with “we just need to believe the essentials” wave away differences and settle on exceptions, rather than normative methods prescribed by God. Relying on exceptions brings disunity. I agree that many of the faithful can get some Sacraments outside the channel of the Church but that is only valid if you are ignorant of the Church or can’t get it any other way. If you not ignorant and don’t become a member of the Church because they don’t have female priests then it’s a different story. In your example of orthodox Bishops disagreeing on some Sacraments I’m assuming they still can administer valid Sacraments because the have valid Holy Orders. I doubt an Orthodox Church would encourage their faithful to receive Sacraments from a non apostolic church or call it valid.
You’ve mentioned the importance of apostolic succession (Holy Orders). In your view if I desire to be a priest and I don’t like some of the Catholic theology (Roman or Orthodox)I can by desire alone be a priest/bishop and with that I can administer the sacrament of reconciliation and sacrifice of the mass etc… schism.
Ultimately I believe it’s valid Sacraments that can unite us. To approach it the same way Protestants do with their differences leads to watered down Christianity where just about anything goes just as long as you “believe” in Jesus (whatever that can mean).
Just my 2 cents.
Have a great weekend.
Good points. And I agree, God’s grace is not license to circumvent the Church. So I will be more specific–normatively, the sacraments are only within the Church. As to what constitutes a holy order, I am less clear, as I think 2 Nicea would almost invalidate everyone (due to simony.) The RCC and Orthodox teach that certain ecumenical canons pertaining to governance are not infallible, so I am unclear on this.
Some Protestants could learn a lot from this article. I might reference it in future. Whenever I encounter the Protestant who is dead set on the idea that faithful Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox Christians want to merit salvation by their works, I ask if they’ve ever read what Catholics have said. The answer unsurprisingly is that they tend to read statements of Catholic councils but not the spiritual application of such texts or the wider tradition as a whole.
It seems quite absurd to imagine there being someone who thinks they can approach the holy God and say my works make me worthy of salvation, not Christ’s sacrifice. Yet some believe their opponents say this.
Still I think discussing the distinctive of soteriological visions is helpful. Particularly those Protestants who seem to imply salvation is only about being declared righteous instead of being made righteous. That is grounds to continue the discussion.
The forensic question is problematic.
In so many ways, this sounds like something I would write.
Unfortunately, I would have to include a bunch of caveats.
Though it is true that Thomistic and Augustinian soteriologies are pretty much compatible with (much of) Calvinism on a technical, philosophical level, few Catholics subscribe to Tridentine orthodoxy any more. Catholics will look you right in the eye and SAY that they are saved by faith AND works. They’re proud of it! Furthermore, they will insist that JBFA is rank heresy.
I ran a few St. Therese quotes by Bryan Cross (Called to Communion) one time, and he brushed it off. For him, this was just a saint employing a preternatural humility. It was hyperbole, pure and simple, not the clearcut JBFA it looks like.
Catholics don’t mean at all the same thing when they use words like regeneration and conversion. Born-again experiences are usually tolerated but frowned upon. It’s considered a Protestant innovation, pure emotionalism. And it is the rare exception, certainly not the rule. I heard one Catholic broadcaster call it a “St. Augustine experience.” Others, like Dr. David Anders rail against it pitilessly.
I try not to get my dander up, but most forms of Arminianism become clones of one another. Catholics don’t like the term because it is anachronistic, but it fits them like a glove. And just like Protestant Arminians, many of them have become Semj-Pelagian or worse.
For the Catholic, salvation is an ongoing process, including works in a pivotal role. That’s why sacraments come into play so prominently. A believer needs sustenance to keep himself/herself in a State of Grace. There is SO much focus on what we do it’s not even funny. Even you, Craig, in your articles involving works sound doggone legalistic to me. To my mind, Catholics are so dead set against forensic declarations and the imputation of an alien righteousness because they find the whole notion of actual grace offensive. They are simply too proud to accept gratuity.
I will listen to Catholics and Orthodox speak of Sola Gratia when they cease their vendetta against JBFA. The well-known Catholics who signed the different portions of Evangelicals and Catholics Together have done this and deserve to be heard. Men like Peter Kreeft, Richard John Neuhaus, Avery Cardinal Dulles, and Edward T. Oakes.
There’s no need to seek ecumenical agreements with the rest. It’s a waste of time.
So much of your concerns, almost verbatim, are covered in the first five chapters of a manuscript I am writing. If you are seriously interested in my take on it I can send it to you.,
Well, sure. I’d love to see what you have.
ok stay tuned i will post links in a day or 2 in a comment
To me the sacraments make sense because they are the normative “vehicle” through which grace is imparted to Christians. Notice I said “normative” and not “only”–I have often wondered about how many people obtain sacraments by desire, as you mentioned in a comment. I may be totally mistaken about the Protestant notion of the vehicle through which grace is given, but it seems to me that under Protestant theology (a rather broad term, I realize), there is no explicit “vehicle” to impart grace. It is just sort of like an invisible cloud that surrounds the believer once faith in Christ is exercised, and departs if the believer stops having faith. But I am open to being corrected.
The Catholic emphasis on the physicality of the sacraments has been a problem for many. Many Protestants seem to object to this physicality and the necessity for it (which is evidence for my statement about the invisible cloud). But I believe there is a reason for this physicality: it speaks to the goodness of the physical creation, to Christ’s humanity and physical body, to the idea that the physical is good, God loves the physical, and he uses it for our good. That is how it looks to me. The Catholic emphasis on the physical is evidence to me of how correct the Church is and how anti-gnostic the Church is, not evidence that the Church is wrong as so many others seem to believe.
Thanks for a great post, BTW. Well written, well said.
P.S. I did not see that you are becoming Orthodox until after I submitted the last comment. Your blog has taken a bit of a different tone, more peaceful I think. I am happy for you and am sure God will bless you–it seems like he already has. 🙂
I think it most unfortunate when various Christian groups label another Christian group’s version of the Eucharist as Gnostic or Nestorian or the like. It’s demonstrably untrue and invariably mean-spirited. Plus, it opens your own version up to ridicule.
The Catholic Eucharist isn’t any more physical than any from the magisterial Reformation: Anglicanism, Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, and Methodism. And it has the disadvantage of positing a physical Christ in two places at once. Corporeally at the right hand of the Father in glory and sacramentally in the Sacrifice of the Mass.
Also, the Catholic Eucharist makes a mockery of the term “transformation.” Christ transforms the water into wine at the wedding at Cana. Both the substance AND the accidents change. If it were not so–if just the substance changed–we would be left with the oddity of wine that looked and tasted like water and that left the heavy imbiber stone cold sober. Nobody but nobody would have extolled this “marvelous” transformation!
Hans, by what authority should I accept your claims here?
Never accept anyone else’s authority. Study it yourself so that you know what’s going on. It’s your life that’s on the line. Take it seriously.
I’ve spent tens of thousands of hours researching this stuff. I could definitely be wrong, but I don’t think so.
Give me any example. Ask me any question. I’ll do my best to give honest answers to honest questions.
But most people don’t want honest. They want easy.
Hans, I don’t doubt your time spent in research or your sincerety. But I do reject your claim as an authority on what Christ wants, and it seems to me that this is ultimately the claim you make–you know what he wants because you are smart and have put in the research to discover it. Yes, you are smart, and yes, you have put in the research. But this is not enough. Your communion with the Church established by Christ is incomplete.
I had a long answer here but decided against posting it. Recently, my thinking on Protestantism has been heavily influenced by Bryan Cross, and I see from a comment above that you have already crossed swords with him. So I doubt I can present anything to you that you have not already rejected.
I’ll just tell you how it looks to me. I cannot make an ad hoc leap regarding the infallibility of the canon, then reject the Church that codified that canon. That just does not make sense to me. Dr. Cross described that phenomenon as shooting an arrow into a wall then painting a target around it. I agree with him–that is how it looks to me as well. The Christ I worship is big enough and loving enough to keep his Church from error. Setting dogma and doctrine is not my job.
You asked me to pose a question. Here it is: how do you know what most people want?
It may surprise you to know that the Reformers thought of the church that they established as the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and that when we recite the Nicene Creed, we are not in any way referring to the Church of Rome in using that same title. I already AM in communion with the church Christ established…AND YOU ARE NOT.
Yeah, I have indeed “crossed swords” with Bryan Cross and wish it were not so. I have learned a ton from him; he is a top-notch intellect. I even think an infallible magisterium is a lovely idea…in theory. It’s a marvelous providential apparatus for the continuity of Orthodoxy. Unfortunately, it is also a great way to set error in cement!
But where does the idea come from?
The Jews never had any semblance of a magisterium. The Sadducees and Pharisees differed on the canon of Scripture…and whether or not there was life after death! A little more fundamental than “mode of Baptism.”
The New Testament never speaks of such a thing, and the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) is more administrative than doctrinal. Heck, Rome eventually abrogated the ruling!
I have major problems with the arrow-target analogy. I think it clumsy and misconceived. No effort is ever made to identify what each is supposed to stand for.
It would make sense that the target would symbolize a standard of truth and the arrow, any attempt to live up to that standard. One who paints his own target does so not in the interest of truth but to give the appearance of truth to a prior commitment. Big Tobacco is accused of favoring data that minimized the effects of smoking. Big Oil is accused of favoring data that runs against the prevailing notion of anthropogenic Climate Change.
This is not, however, how C2C presents its case. Instead, they rail against those who pick a denomination based on their personal agreement with that particular denomination NO MATTER HOW they reached such agreement.
If one reaches such an agreement based on no prior commitment, then the one is not dependent on the other but merely coincident. (People can and do concur with one another totally independent of one another.)
There is nothing relativistic or subjective about reaching a conclusion based on best evidence, especially when one leaves one’s work open to peer review!
The Christ I worship is big enough to allow us to deal with error and work through it. He doesn’t continue fastening training wheels on our bicycles well into our teens!
It’s not my job either to set doctrine. But it is my job to learn of Christ and to think his thoughts after him.
How do I know what people want? (I asked them all, and they told me! 😉 )
In all seriousness, that’s my pervasive experience and my intuition, as well. Are you genuinely challenging the truth of my statement?
Hans, we are not going to agree, not at this juncture. I wish you all the best.
I guess I hit the nail on the head. Dialogue is hard. You want easy.
I wish you all the best, as well: a future outside of Catholicism…and in the arms of Christ. (When it comes down to it, you sound pretty Protestant anyway.)