Of all of the disagreements between Catholics and Protestants, soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) is probably one of the most fierce. It is easy to understand why this would be the case. If salvation is ultimately the means by which human beings are gratuitously enabled to participate in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), then the failure to understand salvation and so be saved would be a grave tragedy. Disagreements about salvation really matter, then. Having said this, how do Protestants and Catholics understand salvation? Why do they disagree?
In my opinion, Protestants and Catholics do not disagree as much as they originally did.  Recent Protestant scholarship, especially in the so-called “New Perspective on Paul”, has come to call into question the understanding of St Paul the Apostle that the original Reformers had. C. S. Lewis explicitly endorsed a version of purgatory, implying that salvation is more than simply a juridical pardon. Perhaps Catholics and Protestants are not as different as we once were.
However, I recognize that many Protestants still feel very strongly that the Catholic Church distorted the orthodox Christian doctrine of salvation. In this post, I wish to define the Catholic understanding of salvation.
First, a disclaimer is in order. It would be arrogant of me to claim to define the Catholic view of justification in a way that is more clear or more accurate than the definitions that have already been made. As a Catholic, I am obliged of course to admit that the Bible, whatever it authentically teaches, is correct about salvation. That is, as a Catholic Christian, I believe that whatever the Bible actually teaches on salvation must be correct. It is not a question of whether the Bible is correct or not, but a question of what the Bible actually teaches. This is important to remember. The Catholic and Protestant argument was not technically over whether the Bible was right or wrong about salvation, but about whether the Catholic or the Protestant interpretation of the Bible was right about salvation.
Therefore, I recommend first of all for anyone who wishes to understand the Catholic doctrine of salvation to consult the Catholic Church’s official universal catechism, the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It enumerates in great detail how Catholicism understands the drama of salvation. Here I can offer merely a popular level response of how I personally as Catholic Christian understand the Bible and the Catholic Church’s teachings on salvation.
What does the Bible teach about salvation? It seems to me that the Bible teaches that salvation is a gift of God’s grace. That is, there is nothing that a human being unaided by grace can do to be saved. Anything that a human being does to be saved is only possible because of the grace of God.
The Bible also teaches that genuine salvation is accompanied by works. The book of James goes so far as to say that “faith without works is dead”, that in Abraham “by works was faith made perfect” (James 2:14-26). In Jesus’s description of the final judgment, people are not asked what they believed, but what they did, and it is on the basis of what they did (or failed to do) that they are judged as being righteous or wicked (Matthew 25:31-46). Paul clearly says, in line with the Old Testament, that in the judgment “[God] will render to every man according to his deeds” (Romans 2:6), and that there are certain behaviors that prevent a person from being saved (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Galatians 5:19-21). As far as the Bible is concerned, it seems that works are somehow an integral element of a person’s salvation.
In line with the biblical language, the Catholic Church teaches that human beings are justified by grace in such a way that they begin “to will and to do” that which pleases God (Philippians 2:12-13). The Church affirms with the Bible that genuine salvation produces works.
There is something important to say about the Catholic Church’s understanding of salvation. The Church believes that it is possible for someone who is genuinely saved (the initial moment of salvation being Christian baptism) to forfeit their own salvation by freely choosing to commit a so-called “mortal sin”. The first letter of John describes “a sin unto death” (1 Jn. 5:16). I have already noted that Paul taught that some behaviors exclude a person from grace. Catholics believe that it is possible to forfeit salvation. According to the Catholic Church, the sacrament of penance (confession) is the ordinary means by which God restores salvation to Christians who, as a result of freely choosing to commit mortal sin, have fallen from the state of grace that was bestowed on them by their Christian (Trinitarian) baptism (Titus 3:5). By confessing in a spirit of genuine contrition all mortal sins according to kind and number that one is aware of having committed since one’s last confession after making a thorough examination of conscience, the Catholic receives again the state of grace that was abandoned by means of knowingly and deliberately committing serious sin against God. Catholics believe that God is willing to forgive sins through human representatives (John 20:23), namely, those validly ordained through the sacrament of holy orders.
I sometimes wonder if this point causes confusion for Protestants. Someone might say, “How are we saved by grace if we can lose our salvation?” A gift can be lost due to negligence. “How are we saved by grace if we must do certain works to be saved?” If God offers us a medicine of eternal life, we must take the medicine in order to be saved, and we can trust that God is willing to help anyone take that medicine. This does not seem to me to undermine grace. Ultimately, the Catholic believes that God’s grace is such that, if we cooperate with it, we are made to become participants in God’s very nature (2 Pet. 1:4). One of the most beautiful places in which this can happen is in the celebration of the Eucharist, where Catholics trust that Jesus’s “body, blood, soul, and divinity” (Council of Trent) is offered to them truly.
It seems to me that in order to reject the Catholic understanding of salvation, one ultimately has to deny that God intends for human beings to freely participate in His grace. If one rejects the Catholic understanding of salvation, God becomes an enormous secondary cause in competition with creatures rather than the first cause that is the precondition for every possibility for a creature’s free will. God’s causal relationship with the world is not such that a human will can “compete” with the divine will. If this were the case, then how could Christ have had two wills, as orthodox Christology teaches that He does? Accurate Christology suggests that it is possible for a human will to freely cooperate with God’s will. If this is true, then what is wrong with the Catholic view of salvation?
It would be impossible to answer to the critic’s satisfaction every objection that can possibly be raised against the Catholic doctrine of salvation. In this post, I have contended myself merely to suggest that the biblical language is, at the very least, not in obvious contradiction with the Catholic Church’s teaching. If anything, I would argue that the Catholic Church has very carefully and precisely interpreted the Bible on this point.
“Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14)
“Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8)