This is a brief introduction to an issue I am looking into, mostly to get some feedback going. It has to do with whether or not works are being “added” in the Roman Catholic view of salvation.
The first thing to understand is that Evangelicals often refer to “salvation” and “justification” equivalently. At other times “salvation” refers to a three-stage process which includes “justification” (initial salvation / born again / freed from sin’s power) which is set apart from “sanctification” (ongoing process of becoming godly through doing God’s will) and ends with “glorification” (attaining perfection in the presence of God). This alone causes a lot of confusion.
And it does not help that the Bible uses salvation terms somewhat differently as well. Even the word “salvation” in Scripture is a slippery term – one that can mean deliverance from physical danger (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:15) or spiritual destruction (1 Cor. 3:15), and the term is also used as a catch-all term for what most Evangelicals recognize as the above process (e.g., justification [Rom. 5:9], sanctification [Acts 26:18], and glorification [Rom. 8:17]). And these three terms are not used consistently in meaning or in chronology in the Bible either. Consider these examples:
“And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor. 6:11)
So it would seem that sanctification happened in the past. But then we have . . .
“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thess. 5:23)
Now it seems God sanctifies us in the future! Moreover . . .
“And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Rom. 8:30)
Now glorification happened in the past too? And did God do this without sanctification?
All these important terms, then, are understood differently in Scripture and between different Christian groups.
All that to say this: when anyone (Evangelical or Roman Catholic) speaks of “salvation by faith alone,” we have to be careful to distinguish what exactly that person means.
Second, because of the above terminology issue we also run into another problem. Even when we are more clear and speak of justification, there is a difference between what Evangelicals and Roman Catholics mean by that word too. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that,
“The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, . . . . Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high. Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.” (CCC, 1989)
So in the Roman Catholic view, justification includes sanctification. In their view,
“Justification follows upon God’s merciful initiative of offering forgiveness. It reconciles man with God. It frees from the enslavement to sin, and it heals” (CCC, 1990).
As this takes place,
“With justification, faith, hope, and charity are poured into our hearts, and obedience to the divine will is granted us” (CCC, 1991).
In other words, for the Roman Catholic, the move from “initial justification” to “sanctifying obedience” is seen as a process – a seamless work of God (not unlike the Protestant “Lordship Salvation” view). So good works come about as one lives out the salvation God alone provides – thus good works are not absent from salvation. So, while a Roman Catholic might say people are not justified apart from works, the Evangelical can say that people are justified apart from works. And they are both right - just in different ways:
“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24)
“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Rom. 3:28)
In neither case are works necessarily being “added” in a way contrary to, say, Ephesians 2:8-10 – which includes works in the salvation process (but, Evangelicals would say, just not in the initial justification stage).
So when CCC 1992 says that salvation “conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy. Its purpose is the glory of God and of Christ, and the gift of eternal life,” I don’t see why anyone would have a problem with that. The Roman Catholic and the Evangelical might use different words, however. In the above quote, the Roman Catholic speaks of justification whereas the Evangelicals would probably call it sanctification.
In conclusion, I would say that if Evangelicals and Roman Catholics understand the salvation process in this way, then they might be said to agree in theory even if practically or terminologically. However, if either Evangelicals or Roman Catholics state that we must work for our initial justification, or that our works can earn it, or that they can put God in a position of obligation, then there is a problem. Yes, plenty of Roman Catholics have gotten this wrong – and so haves a lot of Baptists, Calvinists, Pentecostals, etc. What counts in judging a given group’s teachings, however, is its official teachings – not its misunderstandings by adherents.