by Bill Nugent
The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century was about salvation. The controversy was about how does a nonchristian become a Christian and receive forgiveness of sins. There were many other issues involved, including worship and church government but the central issue was salvation. The Protestants adhere strictly to the Bible as the final court of arbitration on Christian doctrine. Roman Catholics highly respect the Bible but appeal to the church councils as the final court of theological arbitration.
First, allow me to give you my own background. I was raised Roman Catholic and my family, especially my dad, was deeply committed to Roman Catholicism. There were two Catholic priests in my family. My great-uncle, Anthony May (1902-1985) led a Catholic missionary society and my dad’s first cousin, John Gerard Nugent (1922-2011) was president of a Catholic university.
I was a deeply committed Catholic and attended parochial school up to the fourth grade. I later drifted off into atheism in my teen years after switching to public school and learning about atheistic evolution. I came back to God while in college when I embraced Protestant evangelicalism and saw the scientific flaws in evolution theory.
Protestant and Catholic theology are, in some ways, remarkably similar. Both are trinitarian and both have rock solid positions on Christ being the divine Son of God who came in fulfillment of Old Testament Bible prophecies to die for our sins and rise from the dead to offer forgiveness of sins.
It is in the area of salvation, also called soteriology, that Reformed Protestants and Roman Catholics differ in a profound way. Let’s start with the authority from which Catholics and Protestants operate. Roman Catholic theologians believe the Roman Catholic church has unique authority to set doctrinal dogma. This authority is called the magisterium, of which there are two levels: the solemn and the ordinary. The solemn magisterium consists of the proceedings of the twenty-one church councils from Nicaea to Vatican II and the two papal encyclicals which were given ex-cathedra. Up until the First Vatican Council (1870) a pope could not solemnly establish Catholic dogma without the backing of a council. The First Vatican Council gave the pope the power to establish dogma but only when he wrote to the church “ex-cathedra.” The ordinary magisterium consists of the papal encyclicals (non ex-cathedra) and the day to day teachings and writings of the pope, bishops, priests, nuns and theologians who are obliged to teach in accordance with the councils.
The councils and ex-cathedra papal encyclicals are considered to be infallible and no future council can repeal a proceeding from a previous council. A council can re-interpret or re-apply a prior council’s proceedings but cannot contradict them. The Bible is highly respected in Catholicism and considered to be the infallible word of God but the Bible is interpreted by the councils and that interpretation is final.
The Protestant reformers, beginning with John Wycliffe (c.1328 – 1384), Jan Hus (c. 1369 -1415) and Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) came to the conviction that the only repository for the inspired words of God was the Bible and not the councils. They claimed that the councils, especially the councils of the late medieval period, contradicted the plain teachings of the Bible.
An interesting aside is that Jan Hus, as he was being led to the pyre to be burned at the stake, said to the executioner: “You may roast this goose (the name ‘Hus’ actually means ‘goose’) but there will come after me a swan that you will not be able to burn.” That swan would be Martin Luther, born sixty-eight years after Hus’s martyrdom. Luther was never burned and he ultimately died of natural causes. That’s why Martin Luther’s portrait is often displayed with the silhouette of a swan as backdrop.
Luther was an Augustinian monk. Augustine (354 – 430 AD) disputed the teachings of the British monk Pelagius (c. 360 – 418 AD). Pelagius denied original sin and claimed that people can obey God flawlessly by their own strength and earn salvation. Pelagius claimed that grace helped the sinner achieve salvation but grace was not absolutely necessary. The ancient Catholic church condemned Pelagianism at the Council of Carthage (412, 416, 418 AD) and at the Council of Ephesus (431 AD).
Augustine is highly esteemed in Catholicism as a pre-eminent theologian and he is often called the father of the medieval church. Luther, Calvin and other sixteenth century reformers contended that the Catholic church drifted away from Augustine’s position that salvation is by faith apart from works of the law. Thus, the reformers claimed that the Catholic Church deviated not only from the Bible but also from Augustine, the highly esteemed doctor of the church. The reformers claimed that Rome had embraced a modified salvation by works position. The reformers claimed the Catholic position was not far removed from outright Pelagianism. The term, semipelagianism, was later coined to describe what they saw as the Catholic view of salvation.
The Protestant reformers’ position on salvation is claimed to be derived directly from the Bible. They claimed the Bible teaches that salvation is by faith alone, by grace alone by Christ alone. Good works are important but works are not meritorious to gain forgiveness of sins. You cannot earn salvation by good works even if the good works are aided by the grace of God. Good works are the result of salvation and flow from the faithful heart of the born-again believer in Christ.
The scriptures often quoted to support the Protestant position on salvation include Ephesians 2:8-9 which reads: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” The reformers also cited Romans 4:2-5 which reads: “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God. For what does the scripture say? ‘AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.’ Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (NASB). They also cited Romans 11:6 “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (NASB). They cited Galatians 2:16 “nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but by faith in Christ Jesus” (NASB).
Some Catholic apologists have claimed that the above cited passages merely refer to works that are based on Old Testament Jewish Law. In response, Protestant apologists cite Galatians 3:21, which reads: “For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law” (NASB). The passage refers to law in a general sense, not specifically to Old Testament law. This passage teaches that if ANY law (Jewish law, church canon law, or any other moral code) could save a person by works, then salvation would have been based on works of law. Hence, the Bible teaches that good works based on any legal system are not meritorious to earn salvation.
In the scripture from Romans 4:2-5 cited above, we see that Abraham had righteousness (salvation, justification, forgiveness of sins) reckoned unto him because of his faith in God. Faith is a relationship word. Faith is heart to heart trust in God in a one on one relationship with God. This is how a person receives forgiveness of sins. Abraham, in Old Testament times received salvation by faith. In New Testament times, we also receive salvation by faith. It is Christ who did the work of bearing His cross and suffering and dying for us and took upon Himself the punishment we deserved for our sins. We are saved by Christ’s work, not our own works. The Old Testament believers looked forward to the atoning work of Christ. We New Testament believers look back to the finished work of Christ on our behalf.
The reformers and their successors also appealed to the words of Christ in John 6:44 “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (NASB). These words, spoken by Jesus, show the total dependence of man upon God for salvation. A person cannot even come to Christ in a salvific way without the drawing power of God. Man does not draw himself to God by good works.
Let me be fair to the Catholic position and say that no self-respecting Catholic theologian or bishop or priest would ever say that a person can earn salvation by good works by self-effort. That would be blatant Pelagianism which has been repeatedly condemned by Catholic councils. Even the Council of Trent condemned Pelagianism in 1546. However, and this is a big ‘however,’ the Catholic church does give a prominent role to works that are done in faith with the help of the grace of God to enable a person to obtain merit to receive the impartation of justification to the soul.
The words, ‘salvation’ and ‘justification’ have very similar meanings theologically. The meaning of the words is: to receive forgiveness of sins and right standing before God. I use the words interchangeably.
The Catholic position is that sanctification (right living, good works, sacraments) precedes justification. Justification is not earned in the basic, Pelagian, crude sense of human self-effort. However, justification in the Catholic view is incremental and indefinite. Infant baptism puts a person in a state of justification but later in life a person can lose justification by committing a mortal sin. Catholic theologians have argued that most Catholics commit mortal sins during their lives. The list of mortal sins is quite long. The person can regain his justification by confession, repentance and doing acts of contrition as commanded by a priest.
Canon 30 of the Council of Trent’s Decree on justification, sixth session, 1547, claims that the grace of justification is inadequate for full remission of guilt. It reads: “If anyone says that after the reception of the grace of justification the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out to every repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be discharged either in this world or in purgatory before the gates of heaven can be opened, let him be anathema.” The canon lays out the unbiblical claim that even a person who is justified before God must discharge some temporal punishment. Temporal punishment must be discharged in this world (by good works or by being chastened) or the person must undergo punishment in purgatory after death according to this canon. A Catholic has no firm assurance of salvation and may dread the prospect of the punishment in purgatory. The Catholic does not know the duration or pain level of purgatory. The concept of purgatory is not taught in the Bible. Catholic theologians have attempted to read purgatory into certain Bible passages.
The council of Trent (1545-1563) was held in response to the reformation and it hammered out the Catholic position on salvation.
Catholic apologists often quote James 2:14-26 which in part, reads: “Even so faith, if it has no works is dead . . . faith without works is useless” (James 2:17, 20 NASB) and “Seest thou how faith wrought with his works and by works was faith made perfect” (James 2:22). Nowhere in James 2:14-26 does it explicitly say that good works are meritorious to earn salvation or qualify for salvation. The protestant reformers freely acknowledged the importance of good works as the outflow of saving faith. The reformers rightly argued that if James was claiming that works are meritorious to receive salvation it would be a direct contradiction to the many passages in the epistles that explicitly state that a person is justified by faith in Christ, apart from works of the law, any law. Salvation is granted by God on the basis of the merits of Christ, not one’s own merits. Saving faith is a living faith that bears the fruit of good works done in the name of Christ.
To sum up, we can say that the Catholic position is: faith in Christ plus good works obtains salvation. The reformed Protestant position is: faith in Christ obtains salvation plus good works.
Both Protestant doctrine and Catholic dogma firmly agree that Christ died for our sins. Both steadfastly agree that Christ’s substitutionary death on our behalf is the very fundamental basis on which we receive forgiveness of sins. Centuries before the birth of Christ, the ancient Hebrew prophet Isaiah wrote about Christ’s then future substitutionary atonement: “the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). Jesus said that He came “to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). It is written in the First Epistle of Peter: “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sins and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed” (I Peter 2:24 NASB). “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God” (I Peter 3:18 NASB).
Christ died and rose from the dead, conquering sin and death. In the final analysis, we must look with the eye of faith to the work of Christ on the cross, not our own works. We must turn to Christ to receive forgiveness of sins and entrance into eternal life. Humility is key. Jesus said: Truly I say to you, he who does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all” (Mark 10:15 NASB).
Steps to salvation:
Jesus said “Ye must be born again” (John 3:7).
Prayer to receive salvation:
“Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13).
To receive the salvation that Jesus purchased for us at the terrible cost of His suffering and death on our behalf I invite you to pray this simple prayer:
“Dear heavenly Father, I thank you for sending Jesus, the promised Messiah, to die for my sins. I admit that I am a sinner. I repent of my sins and I ask for your forgiveness on the basis of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I ask you to fill me with your Holy Spirit to empower me to serve you under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, Amen.”
If you prayed this prayer in the humble sincerity of your heart then you have received everlasting life, which includes power to live right in this life and entrance into heaven in the afterlife!