The Roman Catholic Teaching on Salvation and Justification

by William Webster

       Roman Catholic theology does not embrace the interpretation of salvation and justification as that presented by Scripture and the Protestant Reformers. The Roman Church does teach that we are justified by grace through faith on account of Christ. What is missing, however, is the word alone. By omitting this word the Roman Church redefines grace, faith and justification in a way that undermines and invalidates the teaching of Scripture. This will become clear as we examine the specific definitions given these terms by the official Magisterium of the Church of Rome.

The Roman View of the Work of Christ

Rome says that Christ made an atonement for sin, meriting the grace by which a person is justified but that the work of Christ is not the exclusive cause of an individual’s justification and salvation. Ludwig Ott makes this statement:

Christ’s redemptive activity finds its apogee in the death of sacrifice on the cross. On this account it is by excellence but not exclusively the efficient cause of our redemption....No one can be just to whom the merits of Christ’s passion have not been communicated. It is a fundamental doctrine of St. Paul that salvation can be acquired only by the grace merited by Christ (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford: Tan, 1974), pp. 185, 190).

According to the Church of Rome, Christ did not accomplish a full, finished and completed salvation in his work of atonement. His death on the cross did not deal with the full penalty of man's sin. It merited grace for man which is then channeled to the individual through the Roman Catholic Church and its sacraments. This grace then enables man to do works of righteousness in order to merit justification and eternal life. Robert Sungenis expresses the Roman Catholic perspective in these words:

What did Christ's suffering and death actually accomplish that allowed the Father to provide the human race with salvation? Did Christ take within himself the sin and guilt of mankind and suffer the specific punishment for that sin and guilt, as Protestants contend? The answer is no...Christ did not take upon himself the entire punishment required of man for sin. Rather, Scripture teaches only that Christ became a 'propitiation,' a 'sin offering,' or a 'sacrifice' for sins...Essentially, this means that Christ, because he was guiltless, sin-free and in favor with God, could offer himself up as a means of persuading God to relent of his angry wrath against the sins of mankind. Sin destroys God's creation. God, who is a passionate and sensitive being, is angry against man for harming the creation. Anger against sin shows the personal side of God, for sin is a personal offense against him. We must not picture God as an unemotional courtroom judge who is personally unharmed by the sin of the offender brought before him. God is personally offended by sin and thus he needs to be personally appeased in order to offer a personal forgiveness. In keeping with his divine principles, his personal nature, and the magnitude of the sins of man, the only thing that God would allow to appease him was the suffering and death of the sinless representative of mankind, namely, Christ (Robert Sungenis, Not By Faith Alone (Santa Barbara: Queenship, 1997), pp. 107-108).

What Sungenis is saying is that Christ's death merely appeased God's anger against man. He persuades God to relent of his anger and to offer a means of forgiveness to man. And that means is through man's own works cooperating with the grace of God. Grace is not the activity of God in Christ purchasing and accomplishing full salvation and eternal life and applying this to man as a gift. And it is not a completed work. Rather, grace is a supernatural quality, infused into the soul of man through the sacraments, enabling him to do works of expiation and righteousness. These works then become the basis of justification. In the Roman theology of justification there is an ongoing need to deal with sin in order to maintain a state of grace, and a need for positive acts of righteousness, which originate from that grace and then become the basis for one’s justification. So man’s works must be added to the work of Christ, in particular, the work of the sacraments. Consequently, justification is not a once–for–all declaration of righteousness based upon the imputed righteousness of Christ, but a process that is dependent upon the righteousness of man produced through infused grace.

The Sacraments

In Roman Catholic teaching there is no salvation apart from participation in the sacraments mediated through its priesthood. The Roman Church teaches that she is the mediator between Christ and the individual. Saving grace is mediated through these sacraments. John Hardon, author of The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism (which carries the official authorization of the Vatican) says this:

Why did Christ establish the Church?
Christ established the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation.

How is the Church the universal sacrament of salvation?
The Church is the universal sacrament of salvation as the divinely instituted means of conferring grace on all the members of the human family.

What does the Catholic Church believe about the forgiveness of sins?
She believes it is God’s will that no one is forgiven except through the merits of Jesus Christ and that these merits are uniquely channeled through the Church He founded. Consequently, even as the Church is the universal sacrament of salvation, she is also the universal sacrament of reconciliation.

How does the Church communicate the merits of Christ’s mercy to sinners?
The Church communicates the merits of Christ’s mercy to sinners through the Mass and the sacraments and all the prayers and good works of the faithful.

Are the sacraments necessary for salvation?
According to the way God has willed that we be saved the sacraments are necessary for salvation

(John Hardon, The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism (Garden City: Image, 1981), Questions # 401, 402, 461, 462, 1119).

These words clearly express the official position of the Church of Rome. There is no salvation apart from participation in the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. There is no other means of obtaining saving grace. Hardon’s words echo the teaching of the Council of Trent:

If any one saith that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary unto salvation...and that without them, or without the desire thereof, men obtain from God, through faith alone, the grace of justification...let him be anathema (The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent. Found in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1919), Canon IV, p. 119).

According to Rome, there are three main sacraments necessary for justification and ultimate salvation. These sacraments supposedly communicate grace to an individual and help to maintain him in a state of sanctifying grace. They are baptism, penance, and the eucharist/mass. Through baptism, an individual is brought into a state of regeneration and sanctifying grace. The guilt and punishment for original sin and for all sins committed up to the point of baptism are forgiven in the sacrament of baptism. However, sins committed after baptism must be dealt with through the sacraments of penance and the mass. This is especially true for mortal sin which is said to kill the spiritual life in the soul and cause the loss of sanctifying grace and, therefore, of justification. In order to regain the state of grace the individual must participate in the sacraments. As Ott stated, the atonement of Christ is not the exclusive cause of man’s redemption. Man must supplement the work of Christ for sins committed after baptism by partially atoning and expiating his own sin through penance. Trent states that no one can be justified apart from the sacrament of penance (the confession of sin to a Roman Catholic priest, receiving his absolution and performing the required penance):

As regards those who, by sin, have fallen from the received grace of Justification, they may again be justified...through the sacrament of Penance...For, on behalf of those who fall into sins after baptism, Christ Jesus instituted the sacrament of Penance...and therein are included not only a cessation from sins, and a detestation thereof, or, a contrite and humble heart, but also the sacramental confession of said sins...and sacerdotal absolution; and likewise satisfaction by fasts, alms, prayers, and the other pious exercises of the spiritual life...for the temporal punishment, not always wholly remitted.
If any one saith that he who has fallen after able to recover the justice which he has faith alone without the sacrament of Penance...let him be anathema (The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent. Found in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1910), Decree on Justification, Chapter XIV. Canon XXIX.

John Hardon also emphasizes the necessity of penance as a work of expiation:

Penance is...necessary because we must expiate and make reparation for the punishment which is due our sins...We make satisfaction for our sins by every good act we perform in the state of grace but especially by prayer, penance and the practice of charity (John Hardon, The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism (Garden City: Image, 1981), Question #1320).

In addition to Penance the Church teaches the necessity for the mass as an expiation for sins committed after baptism. The mass is the re–sacrifice of Jesus Christ as a propitiation for sin. It is declared by Trent to be a propitiatory sacrifice and necessary for salvation:

In this divine sacrifice...that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner who once offered himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross...This sacrifice is truly propitiatory...If any one saith, that the sacrifice of the mass is only a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; or that it is a bare commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the cross, but not a propitiatory sacrifice...and that it ought not to be offered for the living and dead for sins, pains, satisfactions and other necessities: let him be anathema (The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent. Found in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1910), Doctrine on the Sacrifice of the Mass, Chp. II, p. 180, Canon III).

John Hardon says:

The Sacrifice of the altar... is no mere empty commemoration of the Passion and death of Jesus Christ, but a true and proper act of sacrifice. Christ, the eternal High Priest, in an unbloody way offers himself a most acceptable Victim to the eternal Father as He did upon the Cross...In the Mass, no less than on Calvary, Jesus really offers His life to His heavenly Father...The Mass, therefore, no less than the Cross, is expiatory for sins (emphasis mine) (John Hardon, The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism (Garden City: Image, 1981), Questions #1265, 1269, 1277).

Note the assertion here that in the mass Christ offers himself as a Victim for sin in sacrifice just as he did on Calvary. The mass, no less than Calvary, is expiatory for sin because the mass is supposedly the same sacrifice as Calvary. According to Rome, then, the offering of Christ in sacrifice is not finished but continues and is perpetuated through time. But such teaching contradicts Scripture. The word of God teaches that Christ has made a complete propitiation for sin through his once–for–all sacrifice of atonement. It is finished. The Greek word translated once–for–all is ephapax. It is used in particular with reference to Jesus’ death and communicates the thought that Christ’s death is a finished work which cannot be repeated or perpetuated:

Knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin, once for all; but the life that He lives He lives to God (Rom. 6:10).

Jesus' death was a unique historic event which is completed and therefore he can never experience death again. In addition to Paul’s affirmation of this, Jesus himself states: ‘I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore’ (Rev. 1:18). The word used to describe the death of Jesus as a finished work—ephapax—is the same word used to describe his sacrifice and the offering of his body (Heb. 10:10; 9:25–26). Just as Christ cannot die again, neither can his body be offered again or his sacrifice be continued for sin. This is because apart from his death there is no sacrifice that is propitiatory for sin. What made his sacrifice propitiatory in God’s eyes was his death. Hebrews 9:22 makes this point: ‘Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.’ As a result then of this one sacrifice, the bible teaches that God has accomplished a sufficient and finished atonement. Since Christ cannot die again there is no more sacrifice for sin and therefore the mass cannot be the same sacrifice as Calvary. On the basis of that finished work God now offers complete and total forgiveness to man.

There is no more sacrifice for sin: ‘Where there is forgiveness of these things there is no longer any offering for sin’ (Heb. 10:18). And since there is no need for further sacrifice, Scripture also teaches that there is no need for a continuing sacerdotal priesthood. Christ has fulfilled the Old Testament ceremonial law and it is now abrogated (Heb. 7:11–19). He has become our Sacrifice and Priest and the only Mediator by which we approach God (1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 7:22–25). Christ’s atonement has completely removed the guilt of our sin and its condemnation because he has paid the penalty in full. To suggest that a sacrament is necessary to continue to offer Christ’s body and blood to make sacrifice for sin is completely antithetical to the teaching of Scripture, and undermines the sufficiency of Christ’s work. This teaching of the mass as a perpetuation of the sacrifice of Christ which is propitaitory for sin was a point of universal opposition by the Reformers. They vigorously objected to this teaching on Scriptural grounds that it made void the cross of Christ. These comments from Scottish Reformer, John Knox, and English Reformer, Nicholas Ridley are representative:

John Knox: How can you deny the opinion of your Mass to be false and vain? You say it is a sacrifice for sin, but Jesus Christ and Paul say, The only death of Christ was sufficient for sin, and after it resteth none other sacrifice...I know you will say, it is none other sacrifice, but the self same, save that it is iterated (repeated) and renewed. But the words of Paul bind you more straitly than that so you may escape: for in his whole disputation, contendeth he not only that there is no other sacrifice for sin, but also that the self same sacrifice, once offered, is sufficient, and never may be offered again. For otherwise of no greater price, value, nor extenuation, should the death of Christ be, than the death of those beasts which were offered under the Law: which are proved to be of none effect, nor strength, because it behooves them often times to be repeated. The Apostle, by comparing Jesus Christ to the Levitical priests, and his sacrifice unto theirs, maketh the matter plain that Christ might be offered but once (John Knox, A Vindication of the Doctrine That the Mass Is Idolatry. Found in The Works of John Knox (Edinburgh: James Thin, 1895), Volume III, p. 56. Language revised by William Webster).

Nicholas Ridley: Concerning the Romish mass which is used at this day or the lively sacrifice thereof, propitiatory and available for the sins of the quick and the dead, the holy Scripture hath not so much as one syllable...Now the falseness of the proposition, after the meaning of the schoolmen and the Roman Church and impiety in that sense which the words seem to import is this, that they, leaning to the foundation of their fond transubstantiation, would make the quick and lively body of Christ’s flesh, united and knit to the divinity, to lurk under the accidents and outward shows of bread and wine; which is very false...And they, building upon this foundation, do hold that the same body is offered unto God by the priest in his daily massings to put away the sins of the quick and the dead. Whereas by the Apostle to the Hebrews it is evident that there is but one oblation and one true and lively sacrifice of the church offered upon the altar of the cross, which was, is and ever shall be for ever the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, and where there is remission of the same there is (saith the Apostle) no more offering for sin (Nicholas Ridley, Examinations of the Eucharist. Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966), Volume XXVI, pp. 314–315).

In addition to expiation through personal penance and the mass, the Roman Catholic Church also teaches that sin can be expiated through the sufferings of purgatory after one dies and through indulgences. Many are acquainted with the fact that the doctrines of purgatory and indulgences were the catalyst for the Reformation but are unaware that they are still part of the official teaching of the Church. While the abuses of the doctrine of indulgences which led to the Reformation have been repudiated, the actual doctrine itself is still in force. The Church of Rome teaches that through indulgences the temporal punishment for sin can be expiated. Indulgences are applied through the authority of the pope from what is known as the Treasury of Satisfaction or Merit. This treasury consists of the merit of Christ in addition to the merit of all the saints and can be applied to individuals as remission for sins thereby mitigating the punishment due them either here or in purgatory. In 1967 Pope Paul VI issued an encyclical on Indulgences entitled Indulgentiarum Doctrina. This encyclical reaffirms the medieval teaching:

The doctrine of purgatory clearly demonstrates that even when the guilt of sin has been taken away, punishment for it or the consequences of it may remain to be expiated and cleansed. They often are. In fact, in purgatory the souls of those 'who died in the charity of God and truly repentant, but who had not made satisfaction with adequate penance for their sins and omissions' are cleansed after death with punishments designed to purge away their debt...Following in Christ’s steps, those who believe in him have always tried to help one another along the path which leads to the heavenly Father, through prayer, the exchange of spiritual goods and penitential expiation. The more they have been immersed in the fervor of love, the more they have imitated Christ in his sufferings. They have carried their crosses to make expiation for their own sins and the sins of others. They were convinced that they could help their brothers to obtain salvation from God who is the Father of mercies. This is the very ancient dogma called the Communion of Saints...The “treasury of the Church” is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. In Christ, the Redeemer himself, the satisfactions and merits of his Redemption exist and find their efficacy. This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable and even pristine in their value before God. In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission the Father entrusted to them. In this way they attained their own salvation and at the same time cooperated in saving their brothers in the unity of the Mystical Body...God’s only-begotten Son... has won a treasure for the militant Church... he has entrusted it to blessed Peter, the key-bearer of heaven, and to his successors who are Christ’s vicars on earth, so that they may distribute it to the faithful for their salvation. They may apply it with mercy for reasonable causes to all who have repented for and have confessed their sins. At times they may remit completely, and at other times only partially, the temporal punishment due to sin in a general as well as in special ways (insofar as they judge it to be fitting in the sight of the Lord). The merits of the Blessed Mother of God and of all the elect ... are known to add further to this treasure (Paul VI, Indulgentiarum Doctrina, January 1, 1967).

Through its doctrines of confession and penance, the mass, purgatory, indulgences the Church of Rome adds sacramental and moral works to the work of Christ. Justification and salvation are not through Christ alone but are instead a cooperative effort between Christ and man. Rome claims that it teaches justification by grace alone through the merits of Christ alone. The problem is that her interpretation is not the Scriptural teaching of grace alone and Christ alone. Just using the word does not mean that one is using it in a scriptural way. After all, Pelagius did not deny the need for grace. He used the term and affirmed it.

The problem was not in the use of the word but in the interpretation he applied to it. Though he used the word his interpretation undermined its biblical meaning. This is precisely what the Roman Catholic Church has done with respect to its interpretation of grace and the work of Christ. While affirming these biblical doctrines, its interpretation of what they mean actually undermines their biblical meaning. When scripture says that justification is by grace on account of Christ it means on account of Christ exclusively, completely apart from the works of man or sacraments.

The Roman Teaching of Grace and Justification

When Rome states that an individual is justified by grace she means that grace has been infused into the soul of man. This makes him righteous before God and enables him to perform acts of righteousness. These then become the basis of justification and the means whereby he merits heaven. Justification is a process then by which the individual is made righteous in a moral sense. The Roman Catholic Church interprets the phrase the righteousness of God to mean a human righteousness which has its source in the grace of God, channeled through sacraments. But the righteousness itself is the work of man cooperating with that grace. The righteousness of God then is not the righteousness of Christ but rather the righteousness of man which results from the gift of grace, the source of which is God. The Roman Catholic theologian William Marshner explains the Roman Catholic position in these words:

Now, if what Paul means by dikaiosune theou (righteousness of God) is not something to remain in God but something to be conferred on us, then we must reckon with that mysterious possibility: a quality of man which is the property of God! Does St. Paul say anything to indicate a knowledge of this possibility? Indeed he does: ‘God has made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that we in him might become justice of God’ (II Cor. 5:21)...It is not a question of replacement but of participation, and the participation is real in both directions. First in Jesus: just as really as the Word took our humanity, just that really his humanity became God. And then in us: just as really as Christ–God took our sins (so really that even the Father forsook Him—Mark 15:34), just that really we receive God’s justice. For if we dare to believe that in the Incarnation our nature, without ceasing to be a human nature, received God’s subsistence, then we may easily believe that we, in Christ, receive God’s justice as our quality. In fact, St. Paul even has a name for this quality. In the very next verse (II Cor. 6:1) he says: ‘As God’s co–workers, we beg you once again not to have received God’s grace in vain.’ What we should not ‘receive in vain’ is exactly what Paul has just said we have ‘become’ in Christ. God’s justice is His grace, a gift given to men. That is why the justice of God is identically ‘the justice which comes from God through faith’ (Philippians 3:9). What emerges from these texts then, is the existence in man of a justice conferred by God (William Marshner, Justification by Faith. Taken from Reasons for Hope: Catholic Apologetics (Front Royal: Christendom College, 1978), pp. 232-233).

Marshner equates the righteousness of God in justification with the righteousness of man in sanctification. This view is a fundamental contradiction of the biblical teaching that the righteousness of God in justification is the righteousness of Christ in his work of atonement. Marshner is correct in stating that just as our sins were imputed to Christ, so a real righteousness is given to the believer. However, it is a righteousness that is already complete and not something that must be worked out by man. We can agree with him when he says that ‘God’s justice is His grace, a gift given to men.’ This is the point the Reformers made in their controversy with Rome. God’s grace in justification is the provision of a completed, finished righteousness given as a gift which eternally justifies us in the eyes of God. But Marshner misinterprets the Scriptures when he refers to this righteousness as the process of sanctification in the life of the believer, rather than the righteousness of Christ himself. By defining justifying grace as God’s gift of the righteousness of sanctification, Marshner, and Roman Catholicism as a whole, misinterprets the biblical meaning of grace with respect to justification.

The Council of Trent explicitly condemned the biblical teaching of the imputed righteousness of Christ himself for justification:

If any one saith, that men are just without the justice of Christ, whereby he merited for us to be justified; or that it is by that justice itself that they are formally just, let him be anathema (The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent. Found in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1910), Decree on Justification, Chapter VII, Canons X, XXXII).

Trent teaches that men are justified by the righteousness of Christ only in the sense that in his atonement he has merited the grace which is infused into man for salvation. Trent denied that men are justified by the righteousness of Christ alone imputed to the believer. Trent taught that the righteousness which justifies is the work of the regenerated believer cooperating with the grace that Christ merited. So justification is equated with regeneration and sanctification. Rome does not acknowledge sanctification and justification as separate works of God in salvation. It makes human works the basis for justification which merit eternal life: not the remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man.
If any one saith, that the good works of the one that is justified are in such manner the gifts of God, that they are not also the good merits of him that is justified, by the good works which he performs through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, and does not truly merit increase in grace, eternal life, and the attainment of eternal life, if so be, that he depart in grace, and an increase in glory, let him be anathema (The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent. Found in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1910), Decree on Justification, Chapter VII, Canons X, XXXII).

Ludwig Ott emphasizes this in these words:

Justification is the declaration of the righteousness of the believer before the judgment seat of Christ...The Council of Trent teaches that for the justified eternal life is both a gift or grace promised by God and a reward for his own good works and merits... According to Holy Writ, eternal blessedness in heaven is the reward...for good works performed on this earth, and rewards and merit are correlative concepts (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford: Tan, 1974), pp.254, 264).

John Hardon likewise confirms this point of view when he writes:

Habitual or sanctifying grace is a supernatural quality that dwells in the human soul, by which a person shares in the divine nature, becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit, a friend of God, his adopted child, and able to perform actions meriting eternal life (emphasis mine) (John Hardon, The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism (Garden City: Image, 1981), Question #1074).

So Roman Catholic theology teaches that justification is obtained by receiving grace through baptism, and is maintained through the sacrament of penance, the mass and the works of sanctification which in turn merit eternal life. It is important to point out that sanctification in Roman Catholic theology is not only the righteous acts of individuals cooperating with the grace of God but participation in the sacraments of the Church. A state of sanctifying grace, by which a person is justified, cannot be maintained apart from the sacraments. Justification then is not by grace alone (in the biblical sense) or on account of Christ alone (in the biblical sense). Therefore it is not by faith alone (in the biblical sense). In fact, the Council of Trent condemned the teaching of justification by faith alone stating:

If anyone saith that by faith alone the impious is justified in such wise as to mean that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtaining the grace of Justification...let him be anathema...After this Catholic doctrine on justification which whosoever does not faithfully and firmly accept cannot be justified...(The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent. Found in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1910), Decree on Justification, Chapter XVI, Canon IX).

John Gerstner gives a clear and concise summation of the Roman Catholic view of justification in contrast to the Protestant view in these words:

Some Romanists will say that they too teach justification by grace—by Christ’s righteousness, in fact. But the righteousness of Christ which they claim justifies is not Christ’s own personal righteousness reckoned or credited or given or imputed to believers. Romanists refer to the righteousness which Christ works into the life of the believer or infuses into him in his own living and behavior. It is not Christ’s personal righteousness but the believer’s personal righteousness, which he performs by the grace of God. It is Christ’s righteousness versus the believer’s own righteousness. It is Christ’s achievement versus the Christian’s achievement. It is an imputed righteousness not an infused righteousness. It is a gift of God versus an accomplishment of man. These two righteousnesses are as different as righteousnesses could conceivable be. It does come down to the way it has been popularly stated for the last four and a half centuries: Protestantism’s salvation by faith versus Rome’s salvation by works...The Protestant trusts Christ to save him and the Catholic trusts Christ to help him save himself. It is faith versus works. Or, as the Spirit of God puts it in Romans 4:16 (NIV), ‘Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace, and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring.’ It is ‘by faith so that it may be by grace...’ If a Romanist wants to be saved by grace alone, it will have to be by faith alone. ‘The promise comes by faith so that it may be by grace.’ You can’t be saved ‘sola gratia’ except ‘sola fide.’...We agree with Roman friends—salvation is by grace. That is the reason it must be by faith. If it is a salvation based on works that come from grace, it is not based on grace but on the Christian’s works that come from grace. The works that come from grace must prove grace but they cannot be grace. They may come from, be derivative of, a consequence of, but they cannot be identified with it. Faith is merely union with Christ who is our righteousness, our grace, our salvation. 1 Corinthians 1:30, ‘It is because of Him that you are in Christ Jesus who has become for us wisdom from God,’ that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Christ is our righteousness. Our righteousness does not result from His righteousness, it is His righteousness (Justification by Faith Alone, Don Kistler, Ed. (Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria, 1995), John Gerstner, The Nature of Justifying Faith, pp. 111–113).

We need to be clear about the fact that justification is only one aspect of the overall work of salvation. Scripture teaches that salvation means more than justification and also involves election, regeneration, adoption, conversion, sanctification and glorification, all applied as a result of union with Christ. Each of these is a separate and complete work in its own right. That is, justification is not the same as sanctification. They are completely independent works though they cannot be separated because they both come from union with Christ.

The error of Roman Catholicism is that it equates sanctification with justification stating that the two are interchangeable terms resulting in a perversion of the biblical teaching of justification. This is equivalent to the error of some in the early Church regarding the person of Christ. They failed to maintain the integrity of Christ's person because they did not retain the biblical balance of the truth of his humanity and deity. They subsumed either his deity into his humanity thereby denying his true deity, or his humanity into his deity thereby denying his humanity.

The biblical and orthodox teaching is that Christ is both God and man, two truths which must be held in conjunction with one another. Similarly, the biblical teaching of salvation is that justification and sanctification are different aspects of the overall work of salvation which also must be held in conjunction with one another. If we subsume sanctification into justification we will deny the biblical teaching on the necessity for the works of sanctification. On the other hand, if we subsume justification into sanctification we will pervert the biblical teaching on justification.

To fail to maintain a proper balance between justification and sanctification leads to the perversion of the biblical teaching on salvation, just as failure to maintain the biblical teaching on the humanity and deity of Christ leads to perversion of the biblical teaching of the person of Christ. The Protestant Reformers emphasized the Scriptural truth that in salvation an individual not only possesses an imputed righteousness which eternally and completely justifies but also the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which results in the works of sanctification. It is a misrepresentation of the teaching of the Reformers to imply that their concept of salvation was limited to justification only and that faith alone meant the denial of works. Please refer to the article on the teaching of the Reformers on works and sanctification.


Roman Catholicism teaches that saving faith is not trust in Christ alone for justification and salvation. While the Church of Rome affirms the necessity for faith in the justification of adults, her definition is different from that of the scriptures and the teaching of the Protestant Church. To a Roman Catholic, justifying faith is called dogmatic faith. This has to do with the doctrinal content of the faith necessary to be believed for salvation. Essentially it means intellectual assent to everything the Church teaches. In order to be saved an individual must believe and hold to every doctrine dogmatically defined by the Roman Catholic Church. This entails not only the teaching of the Creed, the sacraments and justification but also the doctrines related to the Papacy (papal rule and infallibility), Mary (immaculate conception and assumption), the canon of scripture and purgatory. Vatican I states that it is necessary for salvation that an individual believe not only all that is revealed in Scripture but also everything defined and proposed by the Church. To reject anything officially taught by the Roman Church is to reject saving faith and to forfeit both justification and eternal life:

Further, all those things are to be believed with divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the Word of God, written or handed down, and which the Church, either by a solemn judgment, or by her ordinary and universal magisterium, proposes for belief as having been divinely revealed. And since, without faith, it is impossible to please God, and to attain to the fellowship of his children, therefore without faith no one has ever attained justification, nor will any one obtain eternal life unless he shall have persevered in faith unto the end (Dogmatic Decrees of the Vatican Council, On Faith, Chapter III. Found in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (New York: Harper, 1877), Volume II, pp. 244-245).

Ludwig Ott explains the relationship of Dogmas defined by the Church and faith in these words:

By dogma in the strict sense is understood a truth immediately (formally) revealed by God which has been proposed by the Teaching Authority of the Church to be believed as such. Two factors or elements may be distinguished in the concept of dogma:

A) An immediate Divine Revelation of the particular Dogma...i.e., the Dogma must be immediately revealed by God either explicitly (explicite) or inclusively (implicite), and therefore be contained in the sources of Revelation (Holy Writ or Tradition).

B) The Promulgation of the Dogma by the Teaching Authority of the Church (propositio Ecclesiae). This implies, not merely the promulgation of the Truth, but also the obligation on the part of the Faithful of believing the Truth. This promulgation by the Church may be either in an extraordinary manner through a solemn decision of faith made by the Pope or a General Council (Iudicium solemns) or through the ordinary and general teaching power of the Church (Magisterium ordinarium et universale). The latter may be found easily in the catechisms issued by the Bishops.

Dogma in its strict signification is the object of both Divine Faith (Fides Divina) and Catholic Faith (Fides Catholica); it is the object of the Divine reason of its Divine Revelation; it is the object of Catholic Faith...on account of its infallible doctrinal definition by the Church. If a baptised person deliberately denies or doubts a dogma properly so-called, he is guilty of the sin of heresy (Codex Iuris Canonici 1325, Par. 2), and automatically becomes subject to the punishment of excommunication (Codex Iuris Canonici 2314, Par. I).

As far as the content of justifying faith is concerned, the so-called fiducial faith does not suffice. What is demanded is theological or dogmatic faith (confessional faith) which consists in the firm acceptance of the Divine truths of Revelation, on the authority of God Revealing...According to the testimony of Holy Writ, faith and indeed dogmatic faith, is the indispensable prerequisite for the achieving of eternal salvation (emphasis added) (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford: Tan, 1974), pp. 4-5, 253).

And John Hardon says:

What must a Catholic believe with divine faith?
A Catholic must believe with divine faith the whole of revelation, which is contained in the written word of God and in Sacred Tradition.

Can a person be a Catholic if he believes most, but not all, the teachings of revelation?
A person cannot be a Catholic if he rejects even a single teaching that he knows has been revealed by God.

What will happen to those who lack ‘the faith necessary for salvation’?
Those will not be saved who lack the necessary faith because of their own sinful neglect or conduct. As Christ declared, ‘He who does not believe will be condemned’ (Mark 16:16).

Why is divine faith called catholic?
Divine faith is called catholic or universal because a believer must accept everything God has revealed. He may not be selective about what he chooses to believe.

(John Hardon, The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism (Garden City: Image, 1981), Questions #44, 45, 46, 47).

The dogmatic teachings of Vatican I are a perfect example of this point of view. After giving extensive teaching on the need to be submitted to the bishop of Rome for salvation the Council makes this statement:

This is the teaching of Catholic truth from which no one can deviate without loss of faith and salvation (Dogmatic Decrees of the Vatican Council. Found in The Creeds of Christendom by Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1910), Chapter III, On the Power and Nature of the Primacy of the Roman Pontiff).

There are similar statements made by the Bishops of Rome in their decrees on Mary, as well as numerous anathemas which have accompanied the doctrinal promulgations of Trent and Vatican I on the sacraments and the papacy on papal rule and infallibility. According to Rome, all these dogmas must be believed and embraced for salvation. But where are these teachings found in scripture? Where are we told that it is necessary to believe in the assumption of Mary or papal infallibility in order to experience salvation? Such teachings not only are absent from scripture, but from the teaching of the Church historically. Not one of these doctrines was taught in the early Church.

From a Roman Catholic perspective, the concept of saving faith is far removed from the biblical teaching of commitment to and simple trust in Christ alone for salvation. The Roman Catholic Church has distorted the gospel of grace. It has fallen into the same Galatian error of legalism (a sacerdotal/sacramental/works salvation) addressed by Paul in his letter to the Galatian Churches. In that letter Paul dealt with the heresy of the Judaizers, who attempted to add the Jewish ceremonial law to faith in Christ as a basis for salvation. Temple worship and the ceremonial law included circumcision, an altar, daily sacrifices, a laver of water, priests, a high priest, special priestly and high priestly vestments and robes, candles, incense and shewbread. In the routine religious life of the average Jew there were feast days, prayers, fasts, adherence to the tradition of the elders and certain dietary restrictions.

All of these things were included in the Judaizers’ teaching on salvation. So it was Jesus plus the Jewish system. How does this relate to Roman Catholicism? The doctrines of salvation embraced by Rome are, in principle, identical to the Judaizers. The Roman Church teaches that salvation is achieved by believing that Jesus is the Son of God who died for sin, by being baptized, by being a part of the Roman Catholic Church, by striving to keep the Ten Commandments and partaking of the sacramental system (which involves ongoing sacrifices, altars, priests, a high priest, along with the exercises of prayers, fasts, almsgiving, penances and until recently adherence to certain dietary regulations). The following lists demonstrate the parallels between Roman Catholicism and the Judaizers:


1. Belief in Jesus as Messiah and Son of God

2. Circumcision

3. Become a Jew

4. Sacrificial System

5. Priests

6. High Priests

7. Altars

8. Feast Days

9. Laver of Water

10. Dietary Regulations

11. Candles

12. Incense

13. Shew Bread

14. Keep the Ten Commandments

15. Tradition of the Elders

 Roman Catholicism

1. Belief in Jesus as Messiah and Son of God

2. Baptism

3. Become a Roman Catholic

4. Sacrificial System

5. Priests

6. High Priests

7. Altars

8. Feast Days

9. Font of Holy Water

10. Dietary Regulations (Until recently)

11. Candles

12. Incense

13. The Eucharist Wafer

14. Keep the Ten Commandments

15. Tradition of the Church Fathers

The parallels are obvious. The Roman Catholic teaching on salvation is essentially the same as that preached by the Judaizers. Paul warned the Galatian believers that if they embraced this false gospel they would actually desert Christ (Gal. 1:6). Those evangelicals who would promote spiritual cohabitation with the Church of Rome need to heed to the warning of Paul. He saw no basis for unity with the Judaizers even though they professed faith in Christ. Likewise, there is no basis for unity with the Church of Rome today. If evangelicals jettison the Reformation gospel distinctives for so called unity with Rome they will deny Christ.

How to be Saved from the Bible