Catholicism, Calvinism, and Salvation
by Wibisono Hartono
If you die now will you go to heaven? Do you want to have assurance of salvation? are the two most common questions raised by “born -again” Protestants and “Bible only” Christians when they meet and challenge Catholics. Most Catholics are not ready or are not aware of the teaching of the Catholic Church on salvation. Many, instead of trying to look for the information from the Church, believe the allegations of Bible only Christians about what the Church teaches on this issue. As one may expect what they hear or read is the distorted teaching of the Church. Protestants and “Bible only” Christians are divided on the issue of salvation into two groups: Calvinist (after John Calvin) and Arminianist (after Jacobus Arminianus). Among the followers of Calvinists are Reformed (Presbyterian) churches and some Baptists (i.e. Reformed Baptist) churches. Arminians, on the other hand, find adherents in Methodist and other Baptist (i.e. free-will Baptist) churches. This article examines the differences between the teaching of the Catholic Church and Calvinism on this issue of salvation. It is divided into seven parts: (1) Original Sin (2) Predestination (3) Grace (4) Jesus Christ (5) Merit (6) Justification and (7) Heaven & Hell and Purgatory. The official teaching of the Catholic Church is taken from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (shortened to CCC) while that of Calvinism is taken from the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646).
1. Original Sin
Original sin corrupts us but not totally and therefore we still have our freedom, although inclined to sin, to exercise our free will. But we cannot attain salvation without God’s grace. God desires all men to be saved but we can choose to accept or to reject His grace.
Original sin makes us totally corrupted and we lose our freedom. Thus our salvation depends entirely on God’s grace. If He chose us to be saved then we are saved, if He bypassed us then we are doomed to hell.
All the differences between Catholic and Calvinist teaching on salvation can be traced back to the different view on the effect of original sin. The term “original sin” is not found in the Bible and was coined by Augustine. Romans 5:19 gives allusion to original sin, and elsewhere, Scripture talks about the unrighteousness or wickedness of man (cf. Genesis 6:5, LXX Psalms 14:1-3 quoted in Romans 3:10-12). Both Catholics and Calvinists agree that there is original sin but they disagree on its impact on man. Catholics believe that man, though inclined to sin, still has true freedom. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the effect of original sin this way (emphasis mine):
CCC # 405. “Although it is proper to each individual, Original Sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called concupiscence’.
CCC # 407. “The doctrine of Original Sin, closely connected with that of redemption by Christ, provides lucid discernment of man’s situation and activity in the world. By our first parents’ sin, the devil has acquired a certain domination over man, even though man remains free.
In contrast the Calvinist believe that man lost his freedom due to Original sin.
Man, by his fall into a state of sin, has wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.
Westminster Confession IX.3 (emphasis mine)
Despite the belief in human freedom, Catholics also say that, without God’s grace, we cannot attain our salvation. The absolute need of God’s grace in our salvation, despite of our freedom, is stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as (emphasis mine):
CCC # 1993: When God touches man’s heart through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, man himself is not inactive while receiving that inspiration, since he could reject it; and yet, without God’s grace, he cannot by his own free will move himself toward justice in God’s sight. “
The Catholic’s belief in free-will of men is stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as follows:
CCC # 1730. “God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. ‘God willed that man should be ‘left in the hand of his own counsel,’ so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him.’ Man is rational and therefore like God; he is created with free will and is master over his acts.
We will see later the scriptural supports of Catholic belief that man remains free after the Fall.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, predestination is the divine decree by which God, owing to His infallible prescience of the future, has appointed and ordained from eternity all events occurring in time, especially those which directly proceed from, or at least are influenced by, man’s free will (cf. Catholic Encyclopedia).
For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My council shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man from my council from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.
Isaiah 46:9-11 (emphasis mine)
The Scripture mentions the predestination of the Elect in a number of verses:
Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of God; and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Romans 8:28-30 (emphasis mine)
However, unlike Calvinists, Catholics believe that God predestines no one to hell (Cf. CCC # 1037) because it contradicts Scripture which says God loves the world (Cf. John 3:16); that He desires all men to be saved (Cf. 1 Timothy 2:4); to come to repentance (Cf. 2 Peter 3:9); and that He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Cf. Ezekiel 33:11). Certainly God is not double-minded. He cannot say that He desires all of us to be saved but at the same time predestine some of us to hell! Thus while the following verses talk about the preordained destruction of the wicked, it is their own fault in abusing their freedom which God, by His grace, makes available to everyone.
The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory,
Romans 9:22-23 (emphasis mine)
In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (emphasis mine)
CCC # 600. “To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of ‘predestination’, he includes in it each person’s free response to his grace: ‘In this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. For the sake of accomplishing his plan of salvation, God permitted the acts that flowed from their blindness.
The Calvinist view that God predestines both the Elect and the Reprobate is stated as follows:
By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.
Westminster Confession III.3
At first it might be difficult to see the difference between Negative (Catholic position) and Positive (Calvinist position) Reprobation. If God predestines the Elect to heaven, does it automatically mean He predestines the Reprobate to hell? The best illustration is using Jesus’ parable of the talents (Cf. Matthew 25:14-30). In the parable, the Master gave a different number of talents to his three servants according to their abilities. The servant with only one talent was later condemned because he was culpable for his own wrong doing. i.e. hiding the single talent entrusted to him. This demonstrates what Catholic Church means by Negative Reprobation. On the other hand, the Positive Reprobation of Calvinism would have the Master demand a profit from the servant while refusing the servant the talent to invest.
To this point in history, the Catholic Church has not defined the exact mechanism of predestination. Thus Catholics are free to choose from a number of predestination concepts which include Thomism (after Thomas Aquinas), Molinism (after Luis de Molina), Augustianism (after Augustine), Congruism and Syncretism. Those who are interested to know the difference among these four concepts may refer to the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Because Catholics believe that the Elect are those who persevere or endure to the end (cf. Matthew 24:13), as long as they are still on earth and still persevere, only God knows who they are. Only with special revelation would we know that they belong to the Elect while they are still alive. Two examples include the criminal on the other cross to whom Jesus said that he would be with Him in paradise (Cf. Luke 23:43) and the seventy-two (or seventy) disciples to whom Jesus said their names are written in heaven (Cf. Luke 10:20). The apostle Paul, on the other hand, when he was still alive indicated that he did not know that he belongs to the Elect.
Every athlete exercises self control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
1 Corinthians 9:25-27 (emphasis mine)
The perseverance of the Elect is shown in Jesus’ parable of the vineyard workers in Matthew 20:1-16. Note first that the owner chose the workers (not the other way around) at different times of the day. Provided that they worked until the end of day they received the same reward, regardless from what time they started working. Thus, the Elect are those who persevere to the end, while how long they persevere does not make any difference.
Since we cannot know for sure who the Elect are, Catholics rely on the biblical virtue of hope to be saved. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (emphasis mine)
CCC # 1821. “We can therefore hope in the glory of heaven promised by God to those who love him and do his will. In every circumstance, each one of us should hope, with the grace of God, to persevere ‘to the end’ and to obtain the joy of heaven, as God’s eternal reward for the good works accomplished with the grace of Christ. In hope, the Church prays for ‘all men to be saved.’
Being Catholic does not guarantee us heaven:
CCC # 837. Even though incorporated into the Church, one who does not however persevere in charity is not saved. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but ‘in body’ not ‘in heart.”
This should not surprise us because in his parable of the weeds (Cf. Matthew 13:24-30) Jesus already predicted that sons of the evil one are part of the kingdom and they would not be separated until the judgment day.
In contrast, Calvinists believe that when they placed their faith in Jesus and became born-again, they are the Elect and thus are guaranteed heaven.
Although hypocrites and other unregenerate men may vainly deceive themselves with false hopes and carnal presumptions of being in the favor of God, and estate of salvation (which hope of theirs shall perish):yet such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love Him in sincerity, endeavouring to walk in all good conscience before Him, may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed.
This certainty is not a bare conjectural and probable persuasion grounded upon a fallible hope, but an infallible assurance of faith founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God, which Spirit is the earnest of our inheritance, whereby we are sealed to the day of redemption.
This infallible assurance does not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be partaker of it, yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto: And therefore it is the duty of every one to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance; so far is it from inclining men to looseness.
Westminster Confessions XVIII.1-3 (emphasis mine)
Catholics, on the other hand believe that those who became Christians may fall away from the faith later, i.e. they are not automatically guaranteed to persevere to the end. The following are a number of scriptural supports for the Catholic position:
- · Luke 8:13 speaks of those who believe for a while and later fall away because of temptation.
- · Luke 12:42-46 tells us that one can start out as a faithful and wise servant, but later begin to mistreat the other fellow servants, eat, drink, and get drunk. When Jesus returns he will be punished and assigned a place with the unfaithful.
- · In John 15:1-10, Jesus says that he is the vine and we are the branches. But if we do not bear fruit, we will be cut out of him, wither up, and finally be burned in the fire. In order to bear fruit we must remain in Him and He in us. According to 1 John 3:23-24 it means we need to continue believing in Jesus and loving one another.
- · In Romans 11:20-33, Paul says that the Jews were broken off from the olive tree of God’s grace because of their unbelief, and that we are grafted into it because we believe. We should be afraid because God does not spare the natural branches (the Jews) He will not spare us either, i.e. it is possible for us to be cut-off even after we put our initial faith in Christ.
- · In 1 Corinthians 15:1-2, Paul warns us that we will be saved by the gospel if we hold fast to it, otherwise we believe in vain.
- · In 2 Corinthians 11:2-3, Paul wrote about those who were already betrothed to Christ may be led astray.
- · In Philippians 2:12 Paul reminded the saints in Philippi to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, a phrase he would not use if he knew they were guaranteed heaven.
- · In Colossians 1:21-23, Paul tells us that we who have been reconciled will be presented holy and blameless provided we continue in our faith and not shift from the hope of the gospel.
- · Hebrews 6:4-6 speaks about those who have once been enlightened but who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit still can fall away and become apostate. The fact that at one time they were enlightened indicates that they were once true Christians.
- · 2 Peter 2:20 says: For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first. Thus, it is possible for a believer to fall away.
Calvinists generally rely on the following verses to support their belief that once a person put his faith in Christ, he is guaranteed heaven:
All that the Father gives me will come to me, and him who comes to me I will not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my will, but the will of him who sent me; and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day. For this is thy will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”
John 6:37-40 (emphasis mine)
My sheep hear my voice; and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.
John 10:27-28 (emphasis mine)
A Catholic will reply that it is true that Jesus will not cast out those who believe in Him and nobody can snatch them from Him but the above verses do not rule out the possibility that they are the ones who decide (using their freedom) to leave Jesus. Furthermore in John 17:12, Jesus states: While I was with them, I kept them in thy name, which thou hast given me; I have guarded them, and none of them is lost but the son of perdition, that Scripture might be fulfilled. God the Father gave the twelve disciples to Jesus and following John 6:37 they came to Jesus and He would not cast them out but one of them (Judas) later betrayed Him.
Catholics understand grace (cf. CCC # 1996) as favour, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons (Cf. John 1:12), partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life (Cf. 2 Peter 1:4). Catholics differentiate between actual grace and the sanctifying grace.
CCC # 2000. “Sanctifying grace is an habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love. Habitual grace, the permanent disposition to live and act in keeping with God’s call, is distinguished from Actual graces which refer to God’s interventions, whether at the beginning of conversion or in the course of the work of sanctification. “
While God gives grace lavishly to the Elect (cf. Ephesians 1:8) there are scriptural supports that God gives His grace to everyone.
And from the fullness have we all received, grace upon grace.
John 1:16 (emphasis mine)
For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men.
Titus 2:11 (emphasis mine)
In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (emphasis mine):
CCC 836. “‘All men are called to this catholic unity of the People of God…. And to it, in different ways, belong or are ordered: the Catholic faithful, others who believe in Christ, and finally all mankind, called by God’s grace to salvation.’
In contrast, Calvinists believe that God withhold His grace from the Reprobate:
As for those wicked and ungodly men whom God, as a righteous Judge, for former sins, does blind and harden, from them He not only withholds His grace whereby they might have been enlightened in their understandings, and wrought upon in their heart; but sometimes also withdraws the gifts which they had, and exposes them to such objects as their corruption makes occasion of sin; and, withal, gives them over to their own lusts, the temptations of the world, and the power of Satan, whereby it comes to pass that they harden themselves, even under those means which God uses for the softening of others.
Westminster Confession V.6 (emphasis mine)
For Catholics, they can receive God’s grace through (1) the Sacraments: “Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify (CCC # 1127) and (2) prayer: “Prayer is both a gift of grace and a determined response on our part(CCC # 2725).
Catholics believe that men using their freedom can indeed reject the grace given by God. The scriptural support is found in Acts 7:51 where Stephen said to those who falsely accused him that they always resisted the Holy Spirit. In the parable of the wedding banquet (Cf. Matthew 22:1-14) the invited guests may reject the invitation and those who accept may be thrown out if they don’t wear the wedding dress. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (emphasis mine)
CCC # 1993: When God touches man’s heart through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, man himself is not inactive while receiving that inspiration, since he could reject it; and yet, without God’s grace, he cannot by his own free will move himself toward justice in God’s sight. “
Those who receive grace can later lose it when they, upon using their free will, choose to do it (refer again to Part 2: for scriptural supports that men can indeed fall away and lose the grace). Catholics believe we can lose grace if we commit mortal sins. While the Scripture says the wages of sin is death (cf. Romans 6:23), it clearly differentiates between mortal (deadly) and venial (non-mortal) sins.
If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal.
1 John 5:16-17
As we can lose grace, we can also regain it as illustrated in the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. The prodigal son, who chose to abandon his father, was considered dead but later he decided to return home to regain back his sonship.
4. Jesus Christ
The scriptural support that Christ died on the cross for everyone is overwhelming.
Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men.
Romans 5:18 (emphasis mine)
And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
2 Corinthians 5:15 (emphasis mine)
And they sang a new song, saying: “Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation,
Revelation 5:9 (emphasis mine)
Other verses like John 4:42 describes Christ as the Savior of the world; 1 Timothy 4:10 calls God as the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe; Hebrews 2:9 says that Christ tasted death for every one and 1 John 2:2 states that Christ is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (emphasis mine):
CCC # 605. “At the end of the parable of the lost sheep Jesus recalled that God’s love excludes no one: ‘So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.’ He affirms that he came ‘to give his life as a ransom for many’; this last term is not restrictive, but contrasts the whole of humanity with the unique person of the redeemer who hands himself over to save us. The Church, following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men without exception: ‘There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer.”
CCC # 1019. “Jesus, the Son of God, freely suffered death for us in complete and free submission to the will of God, his Father. By his death he has conquered death, and so opened the possibility of salvation to all men. “
In contrast, Calvinists believe that Jesus died on the cross only for the Elect as stated in the Westminster Confession as:
God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect, and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins, and rise again for their justification: nevertheless, they are not justified, until the Holy Spirit does, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them.
Westminster Confession XI.4 (emphasis mine)
Calvinists counter with verses which say Christ died for His friends (Cf. John 15:13) and for the Church (Cf. Acts 20:28, Ephesians. 5:25). Yet, they are all subset of the whole of mankind, i.e. the fact that He died for all men means He also died for His friends and for the Church.
Both Catholics and Calvinists agree that faith in Jesus is not merited:
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.
John 6:44 (emphasis mine)
For by grace you have been saved through fait; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God–not because of works, lest any man should boast.
Catholics refer to this faith of Jesus as the initial grace from God, given to us at the beginning of our conversion, which we cannot merit at all as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion (CCC # 2010). However we can either accept or reject this precious gift from God. Grace does not constraint our free will as shown in the following verse:
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.
Revelation 3:20 (emphasis mine)
Notice the conditional statement (starting with “if”) in the above verse, i.e. Jesus will come in to the person if the latter hears His voice and takes the initiative to open the door. Jesus will not force Himself in; He waits for our response and respects our freedom. Thus it is possible that the person does not hear Jesus’ knock for whatever reason. Alternatively, he hears the Lord, but rather decides not to open the door. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
CCC # 160. “To be human, ‘man’s response to God by faith must be free, and. therefore nobody is to be forced to embrace the faith against his will. The act of faith is of its very nature a free act.’ ‘God calls men to serve him in spirit and in truth. Consequently they are bound to him in conscience, but not coerced. . . This fact received its fullest manifestation in Christ Jesus.’ Indeed, Christ invited people to faith and conversion, but never coerced them. ‘For he bore witness to the truth but refused to use force to impose it on those who spoke against it. His kingdom… grows by the love with which Christ, lifted up on the cross, draws men to himself.’
Both Catholics and Calvinists agree that faith in Jesus is necessary condition for salvation. The position of Catholic is stated in the Catechism as:
CCC # 161. “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.”]”
While Calvinists believe we cannot lose our faith (if they do then they were not born-again in the first place) Catholics say that we can lose this precious gift of God through our own free action. The Scripture talks about those who shipwrecked their faith (cf. 1 Timothy 1:18-19).
CCC # 162. “Faith is an entirely free gift that God makes to man. We can lose this priceless gift, as St. Paul indicated to St. Timothy: ‘Wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting conscience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith.’ To live, grow and persevere in the faith until the end we must nourish it with the word of God; we must beg the Lord to increase our faith; it must be ‘working through charity,’ abounding in hope, and rooted in the faith of the Church.
We cannot merit our initial grace of conversion but we can merit the grace for our sanctification.
No human merit required in salvation, it comes entirely from God’s grace. Good works are fruits and evidence of true faith.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines merit as the recompense owed by a community or a society for the action of one of its members, experienced either as beneficial or harmful, deserving reward or punishment (CCC # 2006). Thus the good workman certainly deserves the reward of his labour, and the thief deserves the punishment of his crime. In relation to salvation obviously we only consider merit that produces reward.
The relation between grace and merit in men’s salvation has been a subject of dispute. In the fourth century, Pelagius taught that men, by their own merits, and without God’s grace, could attain salvation. Thus his motto was “merit only, no grace”. Moving in the other extreme direction, the sixteenth century Reformers cried out: “grace only, no merit”. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, always teaches the role of both grace and merit in our salvation. Only in the initial grace of conversion does our merit not play any strict salvific role (refer again to Part 4).
The scriptural support that God does reward us for our good works is overwhelming. The source of reward is mainly acts of charity and love (Cf. Proverbs 25:21-22, Marks 9:41, Luke 6:35) including alms giving (Matthew 6:3-4), but also being righteous (Psalm 18:20, Proverbs 11:18 & 13:13, Matthew 10:41-42), prayer (Cf. Matthew 6:6) perseverance under persecution (Cf. Luke 6:23) and fasting (Cf. Matthew 6:18). It must be done without any hidden motives (Cf. Matthew 6:2, 5, 16) and must go beyond the norm (Cf. Matthew 5:46).
For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;
Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense, to repay everyone for what he has done.
Revelation 22:12 (emphasis mine)
However it does not mean that we can earn our salvation by doing good and charitable works. The Catholic Church rejects the principle of salvation by works. At the height of Reformation the ecumenical council of Trent declared:
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 I on Justification (emphasis mine)
Our relation with God is not like that of the employer and the employee, i.e. the latter do works and receive reward or wages from the former upon satisfactory completion of the work. God is far above us and He owes us nothing and does not need our merit at all. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (emphasis mine):
CCC # 2007. “With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator. “
If this is the case, then why does the Catholic Church still teach the role of merit? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it as follows:
CCC # 2008. “The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit. “
Thus, Catholics believe that our merit first comes from God and with God’s grace. We perform good works that please God and God chooses to reward us. The three elements are: God’s grace given to us, the acts that please God coming from that grace, and the reward God chooses to give us (i.e. He does not have to). These are the key elements in the Catholic teaching on merit.
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Catholics do not earn salvation through good works. We do it because it is the commandment from God who wants us to cooperate through our works with His given grace. When one answered correctly to Jesus that to inherit the eternal life one must love God and his neighbour, Jesus replied (Luke 10:28): “Do this and you will live”! In John 15:1-10 we, the branches, are connected to the true vine, Jesus. We receive God’s grace through Him but in order to remain connected to Him we must abide in Him and He in us. According to 1 John 3:23-24, abiding in Him and He in us means we need to continue believing in Jesus (God’s grace) and loving one another (our merit). Similarly in Philippians 2:12-13, Paul urged us to work out our salvation (i.e. our merit) because God is at work (i.e. He gives us His grace) in us. In Galatians 5:6, Paul wrote that what counts is faith (from God’s grace) working through love (our merit).
The Church’s teaching that we cannot merit initial grace, but we can merit the grace in our sanctification:
CCC # 2010 Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.
Justification comes from the grace of God and has been merited for us by Christ. It is granted to us through Baptism and includes the remission of sins, sanctification, and the renewal of the inner man.
Justification comes from the grace of God and we are justified only in our faith in Christ. Baptism is not part of justification; while sanctification and renewal of inner man is the fruits of justification.
The Council of Trent defines justification as a translation from that state in which man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace and of the adoption of the sons of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Savior (4th chapter of the Council of Trent’s Decree On Justification). In order to be saved, we need to be justified first and both Catholics and Protestants agree that justification comes from God’s grace (Cf. Titus 3:7) and has been merited by Christ who offered Himself as sacrifice on the cross (Romans 3:23-25, 5:9).
CCC # 1992. “Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men.
CCC # 1996. “Our justification comes from the grace of God.
Yet Catholics and Protestants disagree on what constitutes justification. It is one of the main issues that split Catholics and Protestants. Together, with all Protestants, Calvinists believe that we are justified only by our faith in Christ. In fact “by faith alone” (sola fide) and “by scripture alone” (sola scriptura) are the battle cries of the sixteenth century Reformers against the Catholic Church. To give support to “by faith alone”, Luther, in his German translation of the New Testament, deliberately added the word “only” in Romans 3:28 and labelled James as epistle of straw for teaching justification by faith and works (cf. James 2:24). Catholics on the other hand, while believing justification comes from God and merited by Christ, also consider our cooperation (based on our freedom) in our justification. As explained earlier, Catholics believe that we have freedom either to accept or to reject God’s free gift of faith in Jesus (part 4) and with the grace given by God we are to do good works, which God chooses to reward us (part 5).
CCC 1993. “Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent:
While (some) Protestants consider justification as one-time act, i.e. when they first believe in Jesus, to Catholics, justification is a process that starts from our conversion and ends when we are judged upon dying. To Catholics justification is conferred in the (Sacrament of) Baptism and also includes remission of sins, sanctification and inner renewal of man.
CCC # 1992: Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy.
CCC # 2019. “Justification includes the remission of sins, sanctification, and the renewal of the inner man. “
Before we continue on the scriptural support of the Catholic belief of justification, let us examine whether the Protestant’s belief that we are justified only in faith in Christ has scriptural support. The Scripture says that we are justified in Christ (cf. Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:16) apart from the works of Law, but it never says that we are justified only in faith. In fact, it says justification comprises more than faith.
But 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.”
This verse tells us that on the Day of Judgment we will be justified based on our utterance, not only in faith in Christ. In Romans 4:10, Abraham was justified by faith before his circumcision (Cf. 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 (Cf. Genesis 22:10). Throughout the whole New Testament the word faith is never coupled with the word “only” or “alone” except in James 2:24 but this verse does not support justification by faith alone. It actually supports the Catholic position on the role of works of love in our 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
Now coming back to the Catholic position, the belief that justification is conferred in the (Sacrament of) Baptism is supported by the following verses.
He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
1 Peter 3:21 also talks about Baptism that saves us. The fact that (Sacrament of) Baptism is not just a ritual but will renew us, is supported by the following verse:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
He saved us, not because of the deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.
While Catholics consider sanctification and renewal of inner man as part of justification, Protestants consider them as fruits of justification. Both agree, though explaining it in different way, that without them we cannot reach salvation. Protestants will say that if there is no fruit of justification, then that indicates that the person was not justified in the first place. In effect, he is a false believer.
To sanctify simply means to make holy According to 1 Thessalonians 4:3, sanctification is to abstain from immorality. In 1 Corinthians 6:18-19 Paul wrote that an immoral man sins against his own body, the temple of the Holy Spirit that is holy (Cf. 1 Corinthians 3:13). In short, to be holy is a commandment of God (Cf. 1 Peter 1:14-16).
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived, neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
1 Corinthians 6:9-11
The Bible testifies that we are saved through sanctification and not just “justification”.
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
Renewal of inner man means we should change inwardly from our old behaviour to a person who turns away from sins and who loves God and others. The Scriptures say that anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. The old has gone, and the new has come (Cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17, Colossians 3:9-10) and that we are being renewed every day (Cf. 2 Corinthians 4:16).
7. Heaven, Hell and Purgatory
The Elect will go to heaven directly or through purgatory while the Reprobate will end up in hell.
The Elect will go to heaven while the Reprobate will end up in hell. There is no purgatory.
Both Catholicism and Calvinism believe in the existence of heaven and hell. Other than hell (Greek Gehenna) Scripture uses a number of words to describe a place where souls go: Hades or nether world, abyss (Cf.Luke 8:31), Tartarus (Cf.2 Peter 2:4, borrowed from Greek mythology), lake of fire (Cf.Revelations 19:20) etc., but the most common is Hades or nether world that comes from the same Greek word (Sheol in Hebrew). From the Scriptures, we know that Hades is the abode of the dead, and before Christ’s resurrection, everyone went to the Hades upon dying. For example, Jacob (cf. Genesis 37:35) and Job (cf. Job 17:16) went to the Hades and so did Korah, Dathan and Abiram in Numbers 16:30. Both Lazarus and the rich man in Jesus parable (Luke 16:19-31) were in Hades but in different lots. Lazarus was with Abraham in one lot (which Catholic theologians refers as Limbo of the Fathers). There was a deep chasm between them and the rich man who was tormented. Even Christ descended into the Hades (Cf. Romans 10:7, Ephesians 4:9, 1 Peter 3:19) to deliver His Holy ones in Hades.
CCC # 633. “Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, ‘hell’ – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into ‘Abraham’s bosom’. ‘It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Saviour in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.’ Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.
The Catholic belief in the existence of purgatory is related to the Catholic teaching on the remission of sins in justification. Catholics believe that the Elect must be really purified or cleansed for their sins. If they are not purified completely on earth, then they will undergo purification upon death. The word purgatory itself is not in the Bible, but neither is Trinity, Original Sin, and Rapture. There are allusions to purgatory in the Bible following the Catholic Church interpretation. However, it poses no problem to Catholics, as the Church does not derive her teachings from the Bible alone. The Bible nowhere claims that it is the only authority and the only source of our belief.
CCC 1031. “The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire: As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.”
Scripture uses the imagery of fire for the purging of sins (cf. Isaiah 6:6-7) and 1 Corinthians 3:15 says that a man whose works is burned up will be saved through fire. In Matthew 12:32, Jesus says those who sin against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven either in this age or in the age to come. Catholics understand this verse to imply that there are sins that can be forgiven in the age to come. Another allusion is found in 2 Maccabees 12:46 (not considered inspired by Protestants) that mentions prayer for the dead. As we don’t need to pray for those in heaven and there is no point to pray for those in hell, this verse provides evidence of the existence of purgatory. Prayer for the dead was practised by the early Christians as recorded in the walls of the catacombs where early Christians performed their secret worship due to persecution and in the writings of Church Fathers like Tertullian in the early 3rd century AD.
The Catholic Legate
April 1, 2003