Catholic Salvation: My Dialog with a Catholic

In our teaching ministry, we spend considerable time teaching one-on-one through e-mail exchanges. Occasionally, we have an opportunity to exchange e-mail with people from other religious faiths and traditions.

I often engage in conversations with Catholics on the true definition of the Gospel and Biblical Christianity, and when I go my intent is always the same: to present to them the Biblical truth of salvation by grace through faith alone in Christ. As you might imagine, I receive a variety of responses, and unfortunately this exchange is typical of what I hear. Today, I want to share with you one such exchange between myself and a spokesperson for the Catholic archdiocese of a major U.S. city, who I will call "Nancy."

We join the exchange toward the end of our conversation, beginning with a final question from me to Nancy regarding her belief on how we may be saved:

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Hi Nancy,

You said that one must “secure” salvation by living like Christ, by doing works, etc. To paraphrase, would you agree that one can only achieve salvation by being obedient to God (once we have believed in Christ)? If so, then is it fair to say that the Catholic church teaches that we become righteous by our obedience to Christ? I’m just trying to clarify what [you have been] taught. Your response has been helpful, and more than I normally get.



Hi, Brian,

Yes, by obedience, if by that you mean living according to the Gospel - to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. We, Catholics, believe that this truth has been given to us by Christ and was entrusted by Him to the Church He founded for this purpose (to receive and understand the truth, led by the Spirit of Truth, to safeguard it and faithfully transmit it.)

Of course, there have been lots of theological debates around the topic of which you inquire, regarding what St. Paul meant by saved by faith, and what Luther meant by saved by faith alone, and what St. James and Christ Himself meant by works and the need for works in achieving one's salvation. I [am] no expert in these theological debates and in the terminology of each denomination (and believe me, many a misunderstanding has to do with terminology and nuance -and prejudices- rather than real belief!), but I can say that we do not believe that we "earn" or "win" or "merit" salvation and grace without or apart or aside from Christ, or without Him. Never! (One exception: those who, by no fault of their own, never come to know Christ, but live as best they can, according to the dictates of their consciences and the natural law written by God on our hearts: these may possibly be saved... but always and only by Christ! - thanks to the redemption He won for all.)

Our whole living and "working out our salvation in fear and trembling" (St. Paul) is in response to Christ: a response of faith, and a response of love. If we "merit" anything it's in the sense in which the Lord Himself says that we will hear the Father say, "Well done, good and faithful servant..." - not as if we could, of ourselves and without Christ and a commitment to Him, receive eternal life. Can't! It's all about Christ for us. He's the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega, the Head of the Body, the Church! He is Our Lord and Savior, the Gate to Heaven, the Door by which we enter, without Whom we cannot see God and attain heaven, which Pope Benedict XVI has said is a Person: God! We want to be with that Person, in fact, with the Triune God, Three Persons in One, for all eternity - so we are baptized into Christ so as to become one with Him and then spend our lives striving to live like that which we are: children of God, lest He not recognize us in the end. (cf. Matthew 8:15-23 and Matthew 25: 31-46)

Now... do all baptized Catholics (or Christians in general) live as they ought, as saints? No. Sadly. But Christ knew that... and made provision for that, as we see in the Gospels. He knew we would fall short. He knows we will not all be perfect or perfected by the time we die and must give an account. So... do we all go straight to hell? No. We render an account. We ask forgiveness. And we make reparation - as we all ought when we have wronged someone. Like community service for misdemeanours and "time out" for children who have misbehaved. Like buying flowers and mowing the lawn and taking care of old repairs and spending more time talking and listening and stuff like that for husbands who have wronged their wives and failed to live as the husbands they ought to be. Make sense? Simple examples to explain what we believe about "purgation" or purgatory after death: we believe we make reparation, we acknowledge our shortcomings and wrongdoing, and make up for it - before being admitted into the King's Court. We are purified by fire, as St. Paul says, and pay the last penny to the King, as Christ says in a parable about heaven. We get rid of the dross - because we do not "deserve" hell, but do not deserve heaven quite yet either! It's a time, place, state of mercy on God's part - a mercy won by One on the Cross!

Hope this helps for now.




Thanks for your response. You really covered most of what I have read the Catholic church teaches on how to go to heaven. While there are several issues I’d like to discuss with you, for now I would like to ask you specifically about our obedience making us righteous.

There are several things I could quote regarding the Catholic church’s teaching about the necessity for one to become inherently righteous, but I think the following, from the Council of Trent (sixth session), sums it up best:

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 XXIV.-If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.

CANON XXVI.-If any one saith, that the just ought not, for their good works done in God, to expect and hope for an eternal recompense from God, through His mercy and the merit of Jesus Christ, if so be that they persevere to the end in well doing and in keeping the divine commandments; let him be anathema.

CANON XXXII.-If any one saith, that the good works of one that is justified are in such manner the gifts of God, as that they are not also the good merits of him that is justified; or, that the said justified, by the good works which he performs through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life,-if so be, however, that he depart in grace,-and also an increase of glory; let him be anathema.

Clearly, Trent’s declarations agree with what you said. Our obedience and good works, done by God’s grace, merit eternal life for us, according to Trent. In other words, we are made righteous by our obedience. My question to you is how do you reconcile this infallible doctrine of the Catholic church (and Trent is considered infallible), with the teaching we find in Scripture that says we are made righteous by Christ’s obedience?

Specifically, Romans 5:19 says, “For as through the one man's [Adam] disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One [Christ] the many will be made righteous.”

I am impressed by your knowledge of Scripture. So as not to take the above verse out of context, permit me to review Romans chapters 1-5. I realize you are probably familiar with it, but a quick overview sets the context for verse 5:19 to show I have not taken this verse out of context.

In Romans chapters 1-3, Paul lays out the case that all mankind has sinned against God, they know God exists, but they do not acknowledge Him as God nor do they seek Him. There is none righteous, no not one, not Jew, not Gentile. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Having convicted all humanity of sin, Paul now moves on to how one can be reconciled to God in chapter 4. Using Abraham (who transcends both Jew and Gentile) as his example, Paul demonstrates that a person is justified (i.e., counted righteous in God’s eyes) by faith, not by works.

It’s important to mention here that Paul is not talking about works of the Law, for Abraham came before the Law; therefore, works refers to any human works. We read in v. 4:3, “For what does the Scripture say? "ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS."” Paul’s point is clear: like Abraham, we are saved by faith, and by faith, God credits, imputes, assigns to us His righteousness. More could be said, but the key point is that it is by faith that God credits righteousness to us, not works.

Having made his case that we are justified by faith, Paul begins chapter 5 with this conclusion, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” To make sure we understand this, Paul makes a comparison of how we became sinners and how we can become righteous. He does this by making a parallel comparison and contrast with Adam and Christ. Before we were born, before we did anything, we are counted sinners because of Adam’s transgression (5:12).

In other words, sin was imputed, credited to Adam’s progeny because of his transgression. We sin because we are sinners. The Catholic church rightly recognizes this as “original sin”. Paul then shows that, similarly, believers are counted righteous by Christ’s obedience (as contrasted with Adam’s transgression). This point was made in chapter 4, and Paul makes it clear that he means we are counted righteous not by what we do, but solely by Christ’s obedience.

I have always found it odd that the Catholic church recognizes original sin (i.e., the belief that Adam’s sin is imputed to all humanity), but at the same time you reject the teaching that our salvation is solely by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us (see Canon XI above). The entire point of Romans 5 is to emphasize how the two are the same principle, and if the one is true, then the other is true as well. One leads to sin and death, while the other leads to righteousness.

Therefore, in context, 5:19 clearly teaches that we are made righteous not by our obedience, as you stated, but by Christ’s obedience. This also ties in with many other Scriptures that speak about the righteousness of God. I think 2 Corinthians 5:21 says it well, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Christ took the penalty for our sin, and gave us His righteousness, which is imputed to us by faith.

It is on this basis alone that we are counted righteous, not by any works we do. As Paul makes clear in Titus 3, “4 But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, 5 He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” It is also why Jeremiah says we will call Him “the LORD our righteousness.” (Jeremiah 23:6)

Now, just to make sure I’m not reading my view into what Paul has said all the way through chapter 5, I’d like to take the Catholic view of salvation and compares it against where Paul goes next in Romans. Throughout Romans, Paul asks the very questions he anticipates his reader will have. If salvation is by grace through faith in Christ yet still depends on our own obedience, I would expect Paul would now move into teaching us how to be obedient to ensure that we will be saved.

Instead, Paul's sixth chapter begins with this question, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” This question fits perfectly with the logical flow of what Paul has just previously taught. If I am not saved by what I do, but rather am saved solely by faith and Christ’s righteousness imputed to me, then the most logical question for Paul to tackle next is, "Does it matter if I continue to sin?" Paul goes on to deal with this erroneous thought, proving that his earlier point was that we are saved apart from our own works.

I really appreciate your willingness to discuss this.