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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Jul 22, 2009)
Many of our readers will know that one of the main issues that divided Catholics from Protestants at the time of the Protestant Reformation was the doctrine of salvation. How do we make it to heaven? How are we saved? Can we know for sure if we are among the saved?

A simplistic answer would be that for Evangelical Protestants, we are saved by God's grace alone, through faith alone, whereas the Catholic Church teaches that we are saved by faith and good works. But, in reality, the whole matter was much more complex than that back then, and it still is today.

The first thing to note is that our Evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ are not in agreement among themselves regarding this doctrine.

Those who follow the Calvinist tradition (and this includes many North American Baptists) believe that your salvation is secure on the basis of God's eternal decree of predestination. That is to say, from all eternity, God "elects" some people and not others for salvation. To them alone He gives His saving grace, which will at some point in their lives convert them to Christ and enable them to persevere in faith to the end. Thus, for the Calvinists it is quite literally true that "the elect" are saved by God's grace alone, through faith alone. Salvation is a "done deal," by God's inscrutable will, from all eternity.

Other Evangelical Protestants follow the Wesleyan tradition on this matter (and this includes many Methodists and Pentecostals). They believe that once you have undergone a conversion experience, in which you have accepted Jesus Christ by faith as your personal Lord and Savior, all your sins of the past are forgiven. But you must continually surrender your life to Christ's Lordship. You must continue in the way of holiness or you can lose your "saved" status, in which case you would need to recover it again through repentance and faith.

A third group is sometimes called "semi-Calvinism" — a position in between the other two (and by far the most popular: It is essentially the position of the great Evangelical missionaries Billy Graham and John Stott). These folks believe that with the assistance of God's grace you must freely commit your life to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; this is your "conversion experience," in which you are "born again," but from that point on, your salvation is secure. You can never lose it.

There are a few passages from the Bible that can be cited to support each of these positions. Evangelicals continue to debate these matters among themselves even today.

How does the teaching of the Catholic Church compare with these positions? Sadly, I will bet that many Catholics really have no idea what our Church teaches about all this, much less are they able to defend the Church's position on the basis of the New Testament. Catechesis on these matters has been very poor in our Church over the past few generations, which is one reason why so many Catholics get "poached" by Evangelical churches these days.

Perhaps the shortest way to sum up the Catholic position would be this: We believe that we are initially "saved" in the sense of "brought into a state of grace," a life-giving union with Jesus Christ, through the free gift from God's grace of living faith (Eph 2:8-10), but final salvation, the attainment of heaven at the last, involves "faith working in love" (Gal 5: 6), through the assistance of God's grace, leading to full "sanctification, and its end, eternal life" (Rom. 6:22).

I was recently reminded of these matters through a good letter from an Evangelical friend who was trying to "wrap his head around" the Catholic point of view. For him, what makes Evangelicalism so attractive is that it teaches that our salvation is "secure": whether you are a Calvinist or a semi-Calvinist, you never have to worry about whether you are going to make it to heaven or not. Jesus Christ gives you heaven as a free gift that you don't have to earn or even hang onto in order to keep. Rather, He hangs onto you! Once you have repented and accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, it's a "done deal." My friend's favorite passage on this is Philippians 1:6: "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." He also cites Galatians 3:3, Romans 8:38-39, and John 10:27-29.

We don't have the space here, in this column, to go over the proper interpretation of all of these passages, but let me just make a few comments, especially on Philippians 1:6, before we get down to a detailed explanation and justification of Catholic teaching here.

First of all, it's always dangerous to quote Biblical passages out of context. That passage from Philippians, which looks as if it might teach the Evangelical "security of salvation" view, occurs in the midst of a letter in which St. Paul also writes of the doctrine of salvation as a "two-sided coin," so to speak (2:12-13): "Work out your salvation in fear and trembling [note: why do we have to "work it out" in "fear and trembling" if it is already ours as a "done deal" and we can never lose it?], because it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure." In other words, there is no "working out of our salvation," which we do all on our own. Rather, God's grace is what enables us to work it out every step of the way. Every step we take in the whole process of salvation — from baptism, to repentance and faith, to living out our faith in works of love, to walking through the gates of heaven at our life's end — must be grace-initiated, grace -enabled, and grace-assisted. We can't take a single one of these steps on our own! The only thing we have the power to do all by ourselves is to reject Christ and turn our backs on Him! Thus, it is totally false to say that Catholics believe we are saved by faith plus our own good works. Any good thing that we do along the path of salvation can only happen by His grace that He won for us on the Cross, prompting, enabling, and strengthening us at every moment.

Second, most Catholics do not sit around in constant "fear and trembling" that they might end up in hell after all. That would be to take to heart only one side of St. Paul's two-sided coin from Philippians 2:12-13 (quoted above). Although we tremble at the thought of our own weakness, and it is remotely possible that we might reject Christ's love in the end, we also have a hope that fills us with joy that "God is working in us" as St. Paul says, to lead us every step of the way on the path to heaven. The virtue of hope lies somewhere between the presumptuous certainty of final salvation ("I am going to heaven no matter what!") and constant anxiety about eternal loss ("I probably won't make it, because I am such a hopeless case!"). Hope is based simply on trust in the merciful love of Jesus — that our Good Shepherd will do everything possible to bring His sheep safely to heaven — and on the signs we can discern within ourselves that we are growing in the knowledge and love of Him, abiding in His grace, continually restored and refreshed through the sacraments, especially the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Eucharist. In other words, we see ourselves swimming within the stream of grace and "going with the flow," and that fills us with hope and joy.

Third, what kind of love-relationship would it be if God's love compelled you, by an irresistible grace, to be converted and saved? The Calvinist and semi-Calvinist viewpoints, however, teach that this is how God's grace deals with the saved, for only in such a way could it be said that our salvation is a "done deal" by God's eternal decree of predestination or that from the moment we are born again He will not permit us ever to stray from Him. A true lover neither attempts to compel his beloved to love him back, nor forces his beloved to stay. God's gracious love certainly enables us to love and trust Him, but it never compels us to do so. The freedom of will that He gave to us as one of His most precious gifts He surely will not take away from us.

Fourth, how could anyone possibly know for sure that they going to heaven, apart from an extraordinary revelation from God? Just having a heart-felt "conversion experience" is no absolute guarantee (after all, people can deceive themselves into thinking they have truly surrendered their hearts to Christ, when, deep down inside, they really haven't); nor is it guaranteed by any growth in holiness that we may undergo after their conversion (after all, they might spiritually grow for a time and then fall into mortal sin later in life revealing the true state of their hearts only then). Thus, the most that any Evangelical Christian can say about his or her salvation is: "I have a good hope that I am among the saved, because one time I had what felt like a deep and full conversion experience, and I seem to be growing in holiness and in my love for Jesus even now. But since it is only the Lord who really knows our heart of hearts, how could I be absolutely sure I am irrevocably His?" In other words, even on the basis of his own theology, the Evangelical Christian must rely on the virtue of hope, just as the Catholic does. He can no more be absolutely sure that he was saved than the Catholic can be absolutely sure that he will be saved in the end. With regard to assurance of salvation, the playing field is entirely level here.

In short, neither the book of Philippians, nor the meaning of hope, nor logic of love, nor the psychology of "assurance" fit with the doctrine of salvation taught by the Evangelical Calvinists and Semi-Calvinists.

Still, our readers will want a more detailed exposition of the Catholic view of salvation, and especially of its roots in the New Testament. My Evangelical friend actually wrote a very kind and peaceable letter to me, asking if there was some way that the viewpoints of Catholics and Evangelicals one day could be reconciled after all. For those who really desire to dig into this doctrine in depth, I have listed his two brief questions below, and my own answers to them. The bottom line, I think, is that once the Catholic view is fully understood, we are not as far apart from some Evangelicals on this matter as many people used to think, and the ecumenical dialogue process has made some progress in this area as a result. But I doubt the Evangelical and Catholic views ever can be fully harmonized.

So, get out your Bible and your Catechism and follow along!

1. "How does Catholicism define 'Faith'?"

You will find this discussed in depth in entries 26-197 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Perhaps the best "in-a-nutshell" definition is found in entry 143: "By faith man completely submits his intellect and will to God. With his whole being man gives his assent to God the revealer. Sacred Scripture calls this human response to God, the author of revelation, 'the obedience of faith' (Rom 1:5, 16:26)." See also entry 150: "Faith is first of all personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. ... It is just and right to entrust oneself wholly to God and to believe absolutely what He says." This seems very close to what the Protestant Evangelical tradition generally means by the word "faith."

2. "If, for the sake of discussion, we were to define 'faith' as meaning an attitude of trust toward Christ that by nature produces good works — by that definition could we then agree that believers are saved by faith alone?"

I think the answer to your question here is both "yes" and "no."

Catholics would define "faith," in the full sense of the word, as an act or state (in traditional Catholic terminology, a "virtue" or disposition of soul) of entrustment (or surrender) of our whole self to Jesus Christ, God incarnate, our Savior. As such, it includes the entrustment of our intellect and will to Him (see Catechism, 143 above and 1814) — and as such, it also admits of degrees (e.g., one can have no faith, weak faith, or strong faith) which is why the apostles asked Jesus: "Lord, increase our faith" (Mk 9:24). That is also why "living faith" (a phrase used by both Protestants and Catholics to describe "faith" in its full sense, as defined above) includes at least some measure of love for God and hope in Him (love being primarily a submission of the will to Him, and hope being in part a submission of the intellect to Him). On all this, see Catechism 1814-1815, and especially the Joint Declaration on Justification of 1999, in which Catholics and Lutherans tried to come to a common mind about the best use of this terminology. (An interesting aside here: At the time of the Reformation, Catholics generally used the term "faith" to mean the assent merely of the human intellect to all that God has revealed, a meaning that the word sometimes seems to carry in Scripture (e.g., in the book of James, and in Hebrews), whereas Protestants tended to use the word more in the way that St. Paul did, as a complete trustful surrender of our whole self to God. That is one reason why the two sides misunderstood each other when they used slogans at the time such as "saved by faith alone" (Protestant) or "saved by faith, hope, and love" (Catholic). The word "faith" was being used differently in these two phrases!]

If we can agree on what the word "faith" means in the sense of "living faith," then the next question is: "what do you mean by 'saved' in the phrase 'saved by [living] faith alone'?" This word "saved" is another word that seems to have a variety of nuances of meaning in Scripture, and in various theological traditions. Suppose we avoid getting too technical, and just agree that what "saves" us is what enables us to get to heaven. For Catholicism, the gift of "living faith" is the root of the whole salvation (or getting to heaven) process (see Catechism 163), because it establishes our hearts in a deeply personal, life-giving, and transformative union with Jesus Christ. Given that such "living faith" necessarily includes the gift from the Holy Spirit of the virtues of love and hope as part of it (as explained above), therefore "by nature" it will tend to result in "good works," as you say. Of course, for Catholics that result is not automatic, since God's love and grace is never coercive. Thus, the initial gift of "living faith" does not guarantee that one will live out one's life as a true disciple of Jesus Christ. People can receive that free gift of the virtue of "living faith" from the Holy Spirit (in fact, every Christian does through baptism) and the life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ that it entails, and yet through sheer obstinacy of will fail to use or cooperate with that gift, and even squander it. But the initial gift of living faith is still a free gift from God that enables us and predisposes us (though it does not compel us) to do good works.

Moreover, anyone who receives the gift of "living faith" from the Holy Spirit is certainly "saved" in the sense that if they were to die in that state, they would not go to hell. A person with "living faith" is spiritually united with Jesus Christ, and therefore united with the merits of Christ's passion. If that person's "living faith" (i.e. surrender to Christ and personal union with Him) is weakened by sin and half-hearted repentance (Catholics traditionally call this having mere "imperfect contrition" for sin, involving a weak love of God and some remaining "attachment" to sin), then that person's living-faith-union with Jesus Christ is incomplete, the merits of Christ's passion cannot fully apply to him, and therefore after death he may need to spend some time in purgatory where, by God's grace, the person's sanctification process can be completed, so that the he can attain "that holiness without which no one shall see the Lord" (Heb 12:14, cf. Mt 5:20, 5:26, 5:48, Rom 6:22, 1 Cor 3:11-15, 2 Macc 12: 45-46, Rev 21:27). But such a soul, by grace of the Holy Spirit, is still headed for heaven.

Also, if a person who has "living faith" (what Catholics traditionally call being "in a state of grace") commits a "mortal sin" (1 John 5:16-17), he can lose that "saved," "state of grace," "personal-union-with-Jesus Christ-through-living faith" status altogether. He would then need to recover it, by the help of the Holy Spirit, through repentance and faith (here the Catholic teaching seems to be on par with the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition), as well as through sacramental confession, which includes an expression of contrition that deepens repentance and faith and which relieves the conscience through the authoritative assurance of divine pardon that this sacrament provides (see Jn 20:21, Jas 5:16, 1 Jn 1: 8-9).

In the Catholic tradition, therefore, to receive the initial gift of living faith is not seen as a lifelong guarantee of salvation. Indeed, serious failure to live out our faith by doing the good works that Jesus Christ may call us to do could result in a falling away from grace (Gal 5:4) and a putting to death of that living faith union with Jesus Christ that we once had, so that our final salvation really can be affected by our works, or lack thereof (cf. Mt 7:21, 10:22, 16:27, 25:14-26, Lk 10:25-28, 18:18-29, Jn 3:36, 15:1-10, Rom 2:5-13, 11:20-22, 1 Cor 9:27, 10:12, 2 Cor 6:1, Gal 5:4, 5:6, 5:19-21, 6:7-9, Eph 5:5, Phil 2:12-13, 3:11-14, Heb 5:9, Jas 2:14-26, 1 Jn 4:12, 16-17, Rev 20:12, 22:12).

Moreover, by living out our faith in works of loving service we can "grow in grace" (2 Peter 3:18), and receive a greater reward in heaven (Mt 16:27, Lk19:11-27, Gal 6:7-9, Rev 20:12, 22:12). That is why St. Paul can write, paradoxically, that on the one hand we are "saved by faith, and not by works" (Eph 2:8-10) in the sense that the initial gift from the Holy Spirit of the "living faith" that unites us with Jesus Christ is a free gift of God's grace that cannot be earned or merited in any way, and if we die in that state, in possession of that free gift, united to Christ by His merciful love, we shall not be lost. And yet St. Paul can also say that nothing is "of any avail except faith working in love" (Gal 5:6), and that "if I have all faith so as to move mountains, and have not love I am nothing "(1 Cor. 13:2), in the sense that we need to live out our faith in loving service, with the help of God's grace — in other words, surrendering to, and cooperating with God's grace, as we have opportunity — if we are finally to attain eternal life in heaven (Gal 6:7-9).

I doubt that all of the above is what you have in mind when you ask if Catholics and Protestants can confess together that we are "saved by [living] faith alone." But in recent years the Catholic Church has admitted that we could, indeed, say we are saved "by faith alone," as long as we meant by that the kind of surrender of faith to Jesus Christ that includes love and hope in it, and as long as we were clear that almost always, to attain the complete and irreversible surrender of our hearts to Jesus is a life-long process rather than something that can be entirely accomplished in a single conversion experience. Thus, for Catholics we have been saved through the free gift of God's grace to us, we are being saved by His grace right now as He strengthens within us the gifts of faith, hope, and love, and enables us to serve Him, and finally, if we surrender to His merciful love and do not run away from Him in to the darkness, we will be saved by His grace from eternal loss, and for eternal life with Him in heaven.

And that is good news, indeed!

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at

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