Justification among Catholics and Protestants


This Sunday morning at NCC we will have a Q&A session in the fellowship hall following the morning service in which we consider how to talk with Catholic friends about the gospel (with copies of my new book on the subject for sale at a discounted price). In the interest of priming the pump, here is a question that I am commonly asked concerning our similarities and differences on the doctrine of salvation.

How does the Catholic teaching on salvation compare to an evangelical Protestant understanding? 

There are numerous ways to compare the Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant approaches to salvation. Once again, our common commitments are significant. We agree, for instance, that salvation is Trinitarian: The Father declares sinful man to be righteous, upon the merits and saving grace of Christ, by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.[1] We believe that salvation is rooted in history with implications that are spiritual and moral. We affirm that justification has been merited for us by Jesus Christ whose blood atones for our sins. And we recognize the aim of salvation to be the realization of holiness in service of the glory of God.[2]

For all of our similarities, however, we also have important differences. Our fundamental disagreement concerns the reason why God ultimately accepts us. For the Catholic, this acceptance is the culmination of a religious journey, a faithful life nurtured by the sacraments in which one grows in grace. In the course of growing, one merits divine favor and by doing so eventually receives the divine declaration of acceptance.[3] While initial grace of salvation cannot be merited, according to Catholic teaching, faithful men and women merit for themselves and for others all the graces needed to obtain eternal life.[4]

Evangelical Protestants, on the other hand, recognize fallen humanity as incapable of securing even the smallest amount of divine merit by performing good works. We consider our most noble attempts as unworthy of the glory of God. Instead, divine acceptance is based upon the perfection of Christ’s righteousness which is accounted to the sinner (Romans 4). Because we are clothed in Christ’s perfection, God regards us as fully righteous. Unlike the Catholic system,in which the decisive verdict of God’s acceptance comes at the end of life following the accumulation of sacramental grace, evangelical Protestants generally emphasize the decisive moment when an individual believes in the gospel by faith alone. From a Reformed Protestant point of view, this results in a permanent conversion to the position of God’s child.[5] Of course, children are occasionally disciplined, but they are not disowned by loving parents. For this reason, one’s relationship as a child of God is secure.

Once converted, children of God participate in a journey toward holiness called sanctification. Regarding the necessity of this process, Paul the Apostle says:

But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel (Colossians 1:22-23).[6]

Notice Paul’s qualification: “if you continue in your faith.” Such perseverance is necessary to authenticate the reality of one’s faith, without which one demonstrates that he or she was never genuinely converted in the first place. For evangelical Protestants who don’t have a Reformed outlook on salvation, such texts indicate that it is possible to lose salvation. In either instance, the Protestant vision insists that while justification is secured by faith alone, it is a faith that never remains alone since the Holy Spirit lives within God’s children, actively conforming us to the image of Christ.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, Par. 1988-1995.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, Par. 1992.

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, Par. 2006-2011.

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, Par. 2010.

[5] As John the Apostle states, “Yet to all who did receive him [Jesus], to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).

[6] Emphasis Added.

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