Ask an evangelical Christian what distinguishes his/her church from the Roman Catholic Church and you may get a wide range of possible answers. These days, “I don’t know” might be the most honest and accurate response, based on what we are seeing among popular evangelical teachers/preachers/musicians. But there are still enclaves of protestant denominations where you’ll hear the answer, “Catholics believe in salvation by works, and we believe Salvation is by Grace Alone”. Though that answer is true, doctrinally, the phrasing is overly simplistic and might actually set up the young protestant for an ill-prepared defense of the Gospel of Grace from a studied Roman Catholic.
Roman Catholic Church Affirms Salvation (Being Born-Again) by Grace
While the Roman Catholic Church does have 7 Sacraments, Pergatory, Indulgences, etc. it does not teach that any of works can earn a sinner his salvation. They teach that we are all born sinners, dead in the sin of Adam, and thus are incapable of earning salvation or getting any credit for any of our so-called good works. Let’s look at some of the canons of the Council of Trent (the very council that anathematized Protestant teaching). We’ll just look at the first 3 canons:
- CANON I.- If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema.
- CANON II.- If any one saith, that the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, is given only for this, that man may be able more easily to live justly, and to merit eternal life, as if, by free will without grace, he were able to do both, though hardly indeed and with difficulty; let him be anathema.
- CANON III.-If any one saith, that without the prevenient inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and without his help, man can believe, hope, love, or be penitent as he ought, so as that the grace of Justification may be bestowed upon him; let him be anathema.
So you see, this is why the aforementioned statement is overly simplistic. Their doctrine does have a role for the free Grace of God. Is it correct? Not really, but you have to follow the doctrine further on down the line to discover the error.
- CANON IV.- If any one saith, that man’s free will moved and excited by God, by assenting to God exciting and calling, nowise co-operates towards disposing and preparing itself for obtaining the grace of Justification; that it cannot refuse its consent, if it would, but that, as something inanimate, it does nothing whatever and is merely passive; let him be anathema.
This canon specifically targets the teaching that is now considered the “I” in TULIP for those of the Calvinist framework. The teaching that God’s election of an individual to receive Salvation is irresistible, that man is just as incapable of denying saving grace as he is incapable of earning it. While some of the wording in this cannon also rubs against Lutheran and Arminian doctrines, I think the target with this one is pointedly Calvinist. We’re going to skip a few canons and get to the heart of the distinction between protestant and Catholic doctrine:
- CANON IX.- If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.
- CANON XI.- If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema.
- CANON XII.- If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema.
- CANON XIII.- If any one saith, that it is necessary for every one, for the obtaining the remission of sins, that he believe for certain, and without any wavering arising from his own infirmity and disposition, that his sins are forgiven him; let him be anathema.
- CANON XIV.- If any one saith, that man is truly absolved from his sins and justified, because that he assuredly believed himself absolved and justified; or, that no one is truly justified but he who believes himself justified; and that, by this faith alone, absolution and justification are effected; let him be anathema
Whoa. The Catholic Church has declared anathema (accursed) any who would hold to these doctrines (and more). So, the trick here is to recognize the forced synergy in the theology. While they have a category of God’s Grace, it does not do the full work of salvation, man must do his/her part. Did the Roman Catholic Church invent this? No. The first form of this synergistic approach to the gospel is the central teaching that the Apostle Paul was confronting with his letter to the Galatians (interestingly enough, it is Paul’s writing that the Council of Trent emulates when it declares teaching to be anathema).
Galatians 3:1-9 (ESV) | By Faith, or by Works of the Law?
1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— 6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? 7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
Galatians 5:1-15 (ESV) | Christ Has Set Us Free
1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. 2 Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. 7 You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? 8 This persuasion is not from him who calls you. 9 A little leaven leavens the whole lump. 10 I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. 11 But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. 12 I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves! 13 For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.
So, what we see happening in Galatians is a group of Judaizers came to the Galatians and gave verbal ascent to the Gospel of Grace as preached by Paul, but they would hijack the Gospel by insisting that in order to “truly live the Christian life” one would have to submit to keep the Law of Moses. Paul called this out plainly as submitting again to a yoke of slavery. The Catholic Church has shuffled around words and definitions but has done essentially the same thing, only instead of the yoke of slavery belonging to the Mosaic Covenant, they’ve instituted their own church doctrines and their own list of sacraments. So, even though the first 3 canons seem to proclaim Gospel truth, the remaining list of canons are a return to Law and an all-out rejection of assurance of salvation. The Catholic church elevates “uncertainty” of one’s salvation to a level of virtue and a measure of piety. It is in this sense, that the Catholic Church indeed teaches Salvation by Works.
If Only it were limited to the Catholic Church
A lecture by Dr Rod Rosenbladt we shared recently took a hard look at where bad preaching even within Lutheran and Reformed churches has run afoul of this phenomenon. If you haven’t watched that lecture, I strongly encourage you to find some time to do so.
There is also a surprisingly strong connection to this works-based theology of the Catholic Church within the Pentecostal/Charismatic camp, where I grew up. Pentecostalism is emphatic in man’s synergistic role in salvation, as evidenced by the generic altar-call (every head bowed, every eye closed, no one looking around… raise your hand and then come forward), give your live to Jesus, give Jesus a try, just say the sinner’s prayer through the airwaves, etc. But these are not the major problem of works… it’s what happens after they’ve become members of that church… do they hear the Gospel preached to them? Not really, it become something that is recited for an altar call or summarized as “the day you were born again”, and from then on the focus is on being “baptized in the Holy Spirit” or “operating in the Gifts of the Spirit”, which then becomes a series of unofficial sacraments of Pentecostalism. Are you hearing from God in a still, small, voice? Are you experiencing life change? Are you walking in victory? Are your prayers being answered? Are you receiving healing? Are you in transition? Are you practicing spiritual warfare? Are you severing soul ties? Are you pressing into the Presence of the Holy Spirit?…
Even in the diluted Pentecostal churches who’ve dropped the Pentecostal affiliation and focus more on “churching the unchurched”, there is a hyper focus on good works. Are you progressing in your Christian walk steadily eliminating sin from your life? Is your marriage healthy/fulfilling/satisfying/exemplary? Do people look at your life and wonder what it is you have that they don’t? When the world looks at you do they see Jesus? Would your closest friends say that you have a heart that is after the things of God?
I’m not saying that each of these things is bad on their own, but we have become fixated on the externals of Christian living at the expense of the Gospel. We’ve become rather dismissive of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as merely a “step 1” to becoming saved and then we spend the rest of our energy trying to be perfected by the Law (3 principles to living a victorious life, 1 discipline to make your marriage fireproof, 5 fundamentals to financial freedom, etc). Stop. We are to lead in with the Law of God at full volume, so that it exposes sin in our lives, leading us to repentance… and then we are to be reminded of the Gospel of Grace, so that when we repent we KNOW with full assurance that He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins (1 John 1 ESV).
Philippians 3 (ESV) | Righteousness Through Faith in Christ
1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. 2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
In Christ Jesus,
— Read More on the Basic Catholic Doctrine of Justification by Faith