Salvation and Good Works: Evangelical vs. Roman Catholic

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.

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10 thoughts on “Salvation and Good Works: Evangelical vs. Roman Catholic

  1. Good clarifications.

    Yes, Catholics define justification to include both one’s initial justification and the ongoing process (sanctification), which is confusing since Protestants define it only as initial justification. And the Bible uses the terms ambiguously.

    No wonder N.T. Wright has come up with yet another version of what justification means!

    I’d also point out that, as you alluded to, Reformed Protestantism especially emphasizes that salvation includes both (initial) justification and sanctification, and works (done in God’s grace) are required for sanctification, so works are a part of one’s salvation. Check out Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology, topic 17: “Are good works necessary to salvation? We affirm.”

    So in fact Catholics and Protestants are close to each other on this critical issue, yet so many misunderstandings abound due to word definitions and misinformation that it is a confused muddle for most people.

  2. Good post Doug! Yeah, since both camps have very clearly taught and emphasized that a person is saved through the grace and mercy of God, I frankly have never quite gotten why this is such a big issue of division. (When you read that Newman book, I think he expresses this too.) In anyone’s view (Catholic, Lordship or N. Geisler), good works are entailed in a saved life. Good works follow, and whether they follow necessarily b/c God’s in control of all anyway, or whether by human and divine working in concert thru God’s overriding grace, or whether initial justification can be forfeit later in time, we still all come back to the same basic teaching, right? A person is saved by the grace and mercy of God and in such a life, good works follow. They just do, according to all these various camps. So, I’ve just never quite gotten the big stink on this one. The “why” and “how” of good works does bring legitimate variance in the teachings. But, it seems to me that the fact of good works is there in all teachings.

    I suppose another part of the problem has entered in via presenting a certain Protestant theory of salvation as if it were dogma. That is, many Protestant and Evangelical pastors and teachers likely think of their view of “salvation by faith alone, in Christ alone, through grace alone” as dogma. The way it is.. Rather than of viewing it more humbly as a theory open to later modification, revision and perfection, as the case may call for. I mean, when a Catholic hears that view of salvation put in quotes above, he usually has a knee-jerk reaction, a James 2:24 reaction, because he’s aware of the fact that the only time the phrase “faith alone” occurs in Scripture is when it’s denied by James. So, presenting as dogma a teaching which is, prima facie, undermined by a fairly clear teaching of the text, may seem like an overstepping of bounds a little bit.

    But, ultimately I refer to my first paragraph above. If good works accompany the life of the “justified” follower of Christ, that’s enough for me to see significant agreement. So, I agree with you Doug that “in fact Catholics and Protestants are close to each other on this critical issue.”

  3. On paper, both groups seem far apart. But as far as how the Christian life is lived out, Protestants and Catholics are closer than either side is probably willing to admit (not that this clears up issues about who/what/where the Church is). I’m over-simplifying a bit, but works are necessary for the Protestant in terms of evidence and for the Catholic in terms of merit – either way if you remove works from the equation you don’t have Christianity. Unless we’re talking about silly easy-believism a la most modern evangelicals who appear to have no idea that Christianity existed before their lifetime.

    DOUG. Where’s the love for Orthodoxy dude? The Orthodox understanding of salvation as theosis and viewing all of these issues through a non-legal lens unlike the West (Protestant and Catholic alike) makes this conversation a whole lot more interesting, imo :).

  4. I quickly glanced through the article and comments, and so I could be wrong in mentioning that I don’t think in the article or comments infused/imputed righteousness was discussed. A snow-covered dung is quite different from a dung that has been transformed (divinized) by the grace of God via the merits of Christ into precious gold.

    Also, there is the issue of nominalism/realism and its impact on the debate over imputed vs. infused righteousness or both ;).

    But in regards to the “faith vs. works” issue in general, I agree that Catholics and Protestants are closer than probably many people realize or admit, especially when it comes to how the Christian life is lived out practically. Of course, while many in both camps agree that good works are included in salvation broadly speaking, the way that salvation is “worked out” for a Catholic involves the sacramental life of the Church. So one’s ecclesiology has a profound impact on one’s soteriology, another difference between Evangelicals and Catholics.

  5. We cannot view salvation from a legalistic and judicial perspective. Salvation is communion with God in Christ through love. For such communion we need nothing less than “synergy” between God and man.

  6. Since it has been mentioned, I would also point out that Catholics can agree with the Orthodox perspective that Christ incorporates us into Himself, and by that we are justified. Hopefully I said that correctly and understandably. Union with God. Quite simple. But in the West the theology developed with a different emphasis and it was necessary for the Catholic Church to rebut the erroneous Protestant understanding of justification by faith alone (which was interpreted to mean truly alone, that is, without agape, which was unacceptable, as Trent pointed out).

  7. But if I have to evaluate things by the official teachings I am denied all the Straw Man arguments I could use against people who don’t believe exactly as I do (i.e., correctly). What fun is that?

  8. Pingback: Tiber Treading No More | Soul Device


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