Salvation: Catholic vs. Protestant

1. Outline the key differences between the classical Protestant understanding of “salvation” and the official Roman Catholic understanding. (i.e. the official position of the Vatican, rather than informal-level popular Roman Catholicism).

 This response will quickly discuss the viewpoints of the Roman Catholic Church and the classical Protestant understanding of salvation. For the purposes of this response salvation will be referred to in terms God reuniting his people to himself through the forgiveness of sins and the giving of righteousness. This is achieved through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This essay will discuss the view points on the human portion of responsibility in salvation.

 The official Roman Catholic understanding is that the initial responsibility of salvation is God’s. He’s grace empowers man to respond to that grace. A man can respond and add to or detract from the work that God has done, not only for himself, but for his family and community thereafter.

 The traditional reformed view commences the same as the Roman Catholic, in that salvation is a choice of God, not of man (Eph 2:5; 2Thess. 2:13; Tit 2:11). God chose before creation, with no regard to man’s actions or thoughts, who would and wouldn’t be saved. The reformed view differs as salvation is never regarded as a human right or achievement, (Rom 3:20; Eph 2:8-9; Titus 3:5)[1] rather it was fully achieved by Jesus by shedding his blood on the cross (Mk 14:24; Rom 5:9).

 Roman Catholicism believe that the response to God’s grace is displayed in Holy Sacraments. The sacraments are a sign of God’s grace. When faithfully celebrating the sacraments award the grace that they signify.[2]

 The Roman Catholic Church states that baptism is an essential part of salvation. Through baptism the grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us.[3] We should follow the example of our lord as he voluntarily submitted himself to baptism, which was intended for sinners in order to “fulfil all righteousness.”[4]

 Although the initial responsibility of salvation is God’s, when receiving the sacraments the outcome of the sacraments (God’s grace) will depend on the nature and character of the recipient.[5] Further, the Roman Catholic church says that if one lives a sacramental life, it is the sacraments that unite the recipient in a divine union with Jesus as their Saviour. Therefore the Roman Catholic church insists that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation.[6]

This view of sacramental response stands in contrast to the Reformed view, even where human responsibility is stressed in the response to salvation, the emphasis always falls back to the saving works of Jesus Christ. No amount of praying, baptising, repenting or performing charitable deeds will increase the effectiveness of God’s grace upon one’s soul. Unlike the Roman Catholic view baptism is not a means of salvation, but it is a sign pointing to the covenant grace of Jesus Christ.[7]

Although The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the pathway to eternal life is supernatural and depends entirely of God’s gratuitous initiative[8] it clearly shows that justification establishes the mutual work of God’s grace and man’s actions. (1993). It says that grace is bound with the participation in the life of God (1997).

The most pivotal point in the salvation process for the reformed Christian is undoubtedly justification. The reformed view of salvation revolves heavily around God pardoning our sins and granting us an undeserved righteousness. The reformed view emphatically states that God does all the work in the salvation process from beginning to end. There is no contribution or mutual work involved. We are made right with God by His grace and it is the power is God’s mercy, not our works that fuels the process. (Titus 3:5-7)

The Roman Catholic idea of mutual salvation is highlighted by the fact that men are taught they can earn extra favour, (or lack thereof, that needs to be worked off by others), by either good or bad actions, not only for themselves, but also for their community. This is called ‘merit’.[9] According to the Catholic church the graces needed for sanctification can be merited for ourselves and for others. We can merit extra grace and love for the attainment of eternal life.[10]

 For the reformed believer God does all the work in salvation in enabling men to have faith,[11] and men are required to respond with repentance. Repentance is the changing of attitude towards God’s will with a behavioural change that follows.[12] Any good action that a Christian performs for themselves or their community is deemed to be in response to the saving work already completed in their lives by Jesus Christ. The reformed view is that a Christian’s good works point other people to Jesus Christ, rather than earning extra merit for themselves or for others.

Another contrasting point between the two views is ‘why Christians are saved?’ For the Roman Catholic church the outcome of salvation is heaven. The catechism describes heaven as ‘the ultimate end and fulfilment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.’[13]  This is essentially saying that we should expect heaven to be a glorious magnification of the things we like on Earth. Christians after death are perfectly purified and live forever with Christ. They become like God and live eternally.[14] They reign with Christ forever and ever and their job is to fulfil God’s will in relation to other men and to all creation.[15]

 As for the traditional reformed view the Westminster Shorter Catechism makes it clear that our purpose, on earth and in heaven, is to glorify God and enjoy Him. This is adequately proven with scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 10:31, Psalm 73:24-26 and John 17:22,24. The two views on why Christians are saved share the fact that salvation is eternal, and our job is to serve God. However the Roman Catholic view is man-centric and the reformed view is God-centric.

 To surmise, the official Roman Catholic view of salvation is that through Jesus, God has done the initial work that is required to be saved unto eternal life, however this must be followed up by a response of sacraments and merit. The Catholic view becomes Jesus, plus works. Whereas the traditional reformed view shows that it is God’s predetermined grace that enables man to have faith. This faith is displayed to the world by obedience to God’s will with the intention of displaying his glory, both here, and when we die in heaven. The reformed view equates to a Jesus only salvation.


[1] M.J. Harris, Salvation, p.764

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church – Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Citta del Vaticano 1993 (as found online: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM) (para. 1127) Cf. Council of Trent (1547): DS 1605; DS 1606.

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church (para.1987)

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church (para.1224)

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church (para.1128)

[6] Catechism of the Catholic Church (para.1129)

[7] Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) XXVIII.1

[8] Catechism of the Catholic Church (para.1998)

[9] Catechism of the Catholic Church (para.2006)

[10] Catechism of the Catholic Church (para.2010)

[11] Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) XIV.1

[12] M.J. Harris, Salvation, p.764

[13] Catechism of the Catholic Church (para.1024)

[14] Catechism of the Catholic Church (para.1023)

[15] Catechism of the Catholic Church (para.1029)

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