Most Catholics are at a loss when they have to answer questions like: “Are you saved” or “have you been saved? or “if you die now will you go to heaven?” Quite a number have left the Catholic Church after listening to the “good news” without trying to seek and to study the Catholic Church’s position on salvation. Some former Catholics may even state that there is no salvation in the Catholic Church or the Catholic Church teaches salvation by works and they proudly declare that salvation is by faith (in Jesus) alone. However the Catholic Church also teaches that faith or belief in Jesus and God who sent Him (John 3:16, Revelation 7:10) is necessary for our salvation.
Believing in Jesus Christ and in the One who sent him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation. Since “without faith it is impossible to please [God]” and to attain to the fellowship of his sons, therefore without faith no one has ever attained justification, nor will anyone obtain eternal life “but he who endures to the end”.
CCC # 161 (emphasis added)
So what is the difference? The difference between the Catholic view on salvation and that of other Christians comes from (1) how original sin affects humankind and (2) how we are justified to be saved.
Most Christians (except those belonging to the Church of Christ) believe that when Adam committed the first sin, sin entered the world and afflicted all us, his descendants (Romans 5:12). Both Adam and Eve were created immaculate or in the words of the Catholic Church they were constituted in an original state of holiness and justice (CCC # 374). When Adam sinned he lost this original holiness and justice, which he transmitted to all human beings (CCC # 416-7). This deprivation is called original sin (CCC # 417). The term “original sin” is not in the Bible and the Catholic’s doctrine of original sin came to develop through the work of Augustine in the fifth century, the second council of Orange in 529 and the sixteenth century ecumenical Council of Trent. How original sin is transmitted to all human is a mystery (CCC # 404). What Adam and Eve committed was personal sin (cf. Deuteronomy 24:16, Ezekiel 18:14-20) but it affected human nature and made us born in a fallen state. It causes the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice (CCC # 404). The Catholic Church teaches that original sin makes human nature weakened (but not totally corrupted) in its power, subject to ignorance, suffering and the domination of death and inclined to sin (CCC # 418). Because original sin only weakens and does not make human nature totally corrupted, man does not lose his freedom, i.e. he is a rational being created with free will and therefore can initiate and control his own actions (CCC # 1730-1). While other Christian churches might teach the same, there are those who believe that original sin makes the human nature totally corrupted and therefore man lost his freedom.
The Old Testament provides the detail of how the expiation of sins should be done, i.e. through animal sacrifices (Leviticus 4 to 6). The sacrificed animals give their life for the sinners’ sake. The Bible says that those animal sacrifices cannot take away the sins (Hebrews 10:4) and only prefigure the eternal and single sacrifice of Jesus (Hebrews 9:12-14), the Lamb of God who takes the sins of the world (John 1:29) and who gave His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we love God but that He love us and sent His Son to be the expiation for our sins
1 John 4:9-10 (emphasis added)
Catholics believe that Jesus’ single and eternal sacrifice on the cross redeems all men (CCC #605): both Christians and non-Christians, from Adam to the last person on earth. Catholics reject the belief that Jesus died only for those predestined by God to enter heaven. In fact the Bible says that God desires all men to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), thus He predestined no one to hell (CCC # 1037).
Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness lead to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteousness.
Romans 5:18-19 (emphasis added)
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.
1 Peter 3:18 (emphasis added)
However while Jesus redeems all men, not all of them will attain salvation (enter heaven upon dying). Thus while redemption and salvation are related, they are not the same. The next question is then how men are justified to be saved, a question that leads to different answers from different churches.
The Catholic Church teaches that justification has been merited for us by Christ’s passion and is conferred in Baptism (CCC # 1992). It requires cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom (remember that Catholics believe original sin does not make man lose his freedom). Thus by his own free-will alone man cannot justify himself (CCC # 1993); he still needs God’s grace. Furthermore In Catholic understanding justification includes remission of sins, as well as sanctification and renewal of the inner man (CCC # 1989). Thus Catholics understand justification not as a one-time act but as a process. Are there scriptural supports for the Catholic’s understanding of justification?
In Catholic teaching justification begins with the grace of God that touches a sinner’s heart, and calls him to repentance and to believe in Jesus. This grace cannot be merited; it is a free gift that proceeds solely from the love and mercy of God.
Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith.
Romans 3:23-25 (emphasis added)
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast.
Ephesians 2:8-9 (emphasis added)
Catholics believe that man may receive or reject this precious gift of God, i.e. he is able choose to turn to God or to remain in sin. Thus God’s grace does not constrain our free will (CCC # 180). Perhaps the best illustration is a picture of Jesus knocking at the door with no handle at the outside. The person inside must take the initiative to open the door and to welcome Jesus. This illustration is based on the following verse (notice the conditional statement, i.e. Jesus will come in only if the person inside hears His voice and opens the door):
Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.
In the Catholic teaching justification is conferred in the (sacrament of) Baptism where the sinner is cleansed (Acts 22:16) from both original sin and other sins and makes him reborn as child of God and become the member of the Church (CCC # 1279). Thus Baptism is necessary for our salvation (CCC # 1257) as the Bible itself testifies:
He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned
Mark 16:16 (emphasis added)
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
John 3:5 (emphasis added)
Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ
1 Peter 3:21 (emphasis added)
As the (Sacrament of) Baptism cleanses us from original sin, the Church applies it to the infants and children below the age of reason (CCC # 1250). This practice started in the early Church where the entire household, that may have included infants or children, were baptized (Acts 16:15, 33, 18:8, 1 Corinthians 1:16).
Those who disagree with the necessity of Baptism will quote from John 4:2 which says Jesus Himself did not baptize, and from 1 Corinthians 1:17 where Paul stated that he was not sent to baptize but to preach the gospel. The fact that Jesus Himself did not baptize is not a proof that He was against the necessity of Baptism. His disciples would not baptize without His approval (John 3:22, 4:2). What Paul did after his conversion was get baptized (Acts 9:18), which he would not do if he did not believe its necessity. His statement in 1 Corinthians 1:17 indicates that he had a more important role to preach the gospel because Baptism can be performed by anybody.
As in Catholic understanding justification also includes sanctification and the renewal of the inner man, sanctification is part of justification. The Bible testifies that we are saved through sanctification.
But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning to be saved through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.
2 Thessalonians 1:13 (emphasis added)
However unlike faith in Jesus, the Bible never says that sanctification is also a free gift (which means it requires no merit from man). Hence man with his free will must cooperate with God’s grace and participate (CCC # 2010) in the sanctification process. Man can receive this sanctifying grace through the Church. Yet the Catholic Church teaches that man’s merit is from God (CCC # 2008-9) and man can merit only in his sanctification (CCC # 2010). The fact that man is not a passive recipient of God’s grace but he must do his part is shown in the following verses:
Therefore, my beloved, as you always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Philippians 2:12-13 (emphasis added)
Catholic position that justification is a process that continues throughout the person life until the day he will be judged is supported in the following verse:
I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.
Matthew 12:36-37 (emphasis added)
Here Jesus gave us warning that on the (future) Day of Judgment, i.e. when we die (cf. Hebrews 9:27) we will also be justified by whatever we said. Further biblical support that justification is not a one-time act and not by faith alone can be found in Romans and James’ epistle. In Romans 4:10 Abraham was justified by faith before his circumcision (Genesis 17:24) but in James 2:21 he was justified again (after his circumcision) by his obedience to God when he offered his son Isaac (Genesis 22:10).
When one asked Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life Jesus answer was “to keep the [Ten] Commandments” (Matthew 19:16-19; Mark 10: 17-19; Luke 10:25-28), which can be summarized into the two greatest commandments:
And he [Jesus] said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”
Jesus clearly indicates that the person who obeys these two greatest commandments shall live (Luke 10:28). The Bible never says that those who already believe in Jesus will automatically practise these two greatest commandments. Thus it requires our efforts. On the Last day Jesus will act as a judge who separates all humans into two groups, one for eternal life and the other for eternal punishment. The requirement to enter the kingdom of heaven is showing love to others.
“Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcome me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”
Similarly in Galatians 5:6 Paul wrote that what counts is faith working through love and in Romans 2:6-7 he wrote that eternal life will be granted to those who persevere in doing good.
Protestants and those who believe that faith in Jesus is the only requirement for justification may not notice that the word “only” or “alone” is never coupled with the word “faith” or “believe” except in James 2:24. However James 2:24 even reinforces the Catholic position on the requirement of works (of love) in justification.
You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.
James 2:24, 26 (emphasis added)
1 Corinthians 12:3 says that no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit, but Jesus said:
“Not every one who says to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Matthew 7:21(emphasis added)
As justification is a process that one must endure in to the end, Catholics believe that man will enter heaven if he dies in the state of grace, i.e. he is cleansed from all the mortal sins at the time he dies. The Bible testifies that there are mortal and non-mortal sins (1 John 5:16-17).
But if a wicked man turns away from all his sins which he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of his transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness he had done he shall live. But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity and does the same abominable things that the wicked man does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds which he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, he shall die. When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, he shall die for it; for the iniquity which he has committed he shall die. Again, when a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is lawful and right, he shall save his life. Because he considered and turned away from all transgressions which he had committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.
Ezekiel 18:21-22, 24, 26-28 (emphasis added)
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In agreement with these verses is Jesus’ parable of workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), all receive the same wage at the end of the day regardless how long they work. What God defines as being righteous in Ezekiel is again showing love to God and to others and observing His commandments.
If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right – if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of impurity, does not oppress any one, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commit no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not lend at interest or take any increase, withholds his hand from iniquity, execute true justice between man and man, walks in my statutes, and is careful to observe my ordinances _ he is righteous, he shall surely live, says the Lord God.
Are Catholics saved? The answer is: They were saved (when they believed in Jesus and were baptised) and are being saved as they must endure and persevere to the end.
Wibisono Hartono The Catholic Legate November 17, 2002 Reference
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Note: While content aims to align with Catholic teachings, any inconsistencies or errors are unintended. For precise understanding, always refer to authoritative sources like the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Always double-check any quotes for word-for-word accuracy with the Bible or the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
- Herbermann, C.G. (Editor in Chief): The Catholic Encyclopaedia, online version.
- McDonald, W.J., Most Rev. (Editor in Chief): The New Catholic Encyclopaedia.
- Sungenis, R.A.: Not by Faith alone, Queenship Publishing, Santa Barbara, 1997.