Friday, February 22, 2013

A sketch of the Catholic view of Salvation

A fellow Catholic blogger asked me to write a post explaining the Catholic view of Salvation. He made a good point: We hear a lot of why Sola Fide is wrong, but we don't hear enough about why Catholicism is right. It's not enough for Catholicism to just disprove Protestantism.

In this post I will try to lay out the main facets of Catholic soteriology (the Catholic understanding of salvation), which can be further appreciated with the Protestant view shown in contrast. Since this is a sketch view, I will not really focus on proving Catholicism here (but I've done so elsewhere).

The first question to address is: What is salvation?
The very essence of salvation means a person is in a relationship with the Trinity. (John 14:23; Eph 3:17; 1 Cor 3:16) A person "is saved" when Trinity indwells in the soul of the Christian. Adam was originally in a relationship with the Trinity, he was created in a "saved" state, but through grave sin he broke this communion and became "unsaved." This is why the Bible describes believers "getting saved" in terms of reconciliation, adoption, in-grafting, etc. (Rom 5:10; Rom 8:14-17; John 15:4-5) It is in restoring of the communion through the Divine Indwelling that one "gets saved."

While the Catholic and Biblical view of salvation is a state of being, the contrast to this is the Protestant view of salvation, which an aftereffect of a performance. The Protestant view of salvation is that to "get saved" one must keep God's commandments perfectly, and upon doing so they are awarded a legal status of "perfect law-keeper." This status makes one legally worthy to enter Heaven. Since Adam and all mankind failed to keep God's commandments perfectly, Protestants reason that the only way to get awarded the status of "perfect law-keeper" is if Jesus keeps the law perfectly in our place and 'imputes' this to us. So when a Protestant speaks of "getting saved" they are speaking of believing that Jesus lived the life you were supposed to live, and the Father crediting you with the status of "perfect law-keeper," as if you yourself had kept the commandments perfectly, making you now worthy of entering Heaven.

The second question to address is: Why are Catholics so concerned about works?
From the previous paragraphs, one can see the radical difference between Protestantism and Catholicism. In Protestantism, one is saved independently of being in a relationship with God. (Protestants certainly believe Christians enter into a relationship with God, but it is not this relationship that determines their salvation.) On the flip side, it is clear why sin can cause a Catholic to lose salvation, because sin undermines the relationship with God, and if the sin is grave enough then it can sever that relationship, causing one to become "unsaved." (John 15:6; 1 John 3:15; Rom 11:19-22) This is why Protestants generally believe one cannot lose salvation, because even when they sin, God only looks at the "perfect law-keeper" status that Jesus credited to them. (Luther described this situation as Christians representing piles of dung covered with snow, where God only "sees" the pure white snow and not their own filth.)

From this it becomes clear what "good works" mean in the Catholic context. In the Catholic view, good works (acts of love) are what grow and deepen the relationship with God. It's similar to when a married couple grows in love and appreciation for each other. The relationship gets stronger or weaker in response to how much love or sin is committed. It is not only a duty, it's crucial for maintaining a strong relationship. But from the Protestant view, "good works" are anathema in the "getting saved" context, because we are law-breakers by nature and we'd be deceived to think our good works could contribute towards a "perfect law-keeping" status. (Recall that in that view, God the Father looks at Jesus' "perfect law-keeping" alone, not our sinful record.) So from the Protestant perspective, "good works" (quite logically) don't "save" us, but Protestants insist that we should do good works out of gratitude for God, as a way of saying thank you and being a witness to others about what Jesus already did for you.

The third question to address is: What about the Cross?
The Cross is viewed very differently by Protestants and Catholics. Most people don't realize this, but after the above sketches it should be apparent that there must be radically diverging views. The Cross was about making Atonement for sins, but what most people don't know is that to make atonement in the Biblical sense means to repair a damaged relationship through offering up something of value. Given this, the Catholic view of the Cross is that of Jesus offering up his life, with His shedding of blood signifying He held nothing back. This act of Jesus offering up everything out of love of God was so pleasing in the Father's sight, that this act of Atonement carried a value greater than all the sins in history combined. The Bible describes this as an aroma that blots out the stench caused by sin. (Eph 5:1-2; Lev 4:31; Gen 8:21) It is from this Atonement that our relationship with God can be restored, for instead of approaching God 'empty handed' asking to restore this, through faith we now appeal to God "in the Name of Jesus," to which God is pleased to listen to the Intercession of His Beloved Son. 

Unfortunately, Protestants don't follow the Bible (or Tradition) on this matter, and so they have a radically distorted view of the Cross. They see "Atonement" in an almost pagan form, in which their sin is punished in a substitute. The reason why Protestants believe this is because they view salvation in terms of a legal status, where the Judge must punish the guilty and acquit the innocent. Before God can look at the "perfect law-keeping" of Jesus credited to them, the sinner's 'criminal record' must first receive the punishments due to those crimes. Thus, Adam's sins and our sins had to be punished in Christ. From this they mistakenly think the Old Testament sacrificial animals were receiving the death penalty in place of the sinning Jew who offered it. But worse yet, from this mistaken idea Protestants think God the Father punished Jesus with the divine wrath and vengeance our sins deserved, which translates into God the Father unleashing hellfire and damnation upon His Beloved Son while He hung on the Cross. (It is no wonder that Protestants don't like to view the Crucifix or the Sacrifice of the Mass, because the conscience rightly shudders thinking that Jesus endured damnation and hellfire.)

Since this is a sketch, I guess that covers three of the most important issues. Other important questions I hope to address in a second part to this post will be the various aspects of the nature-grace distinction (similar to what I wrote in this post). 


Restless Pilgrim said...

Great stuff, thanks man.

"Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires" - 2 Peter 1:4

Rodolfo V said...


That is very helpful, thanks!

Rodolfo V.

chase said...

Nick protestants believe that a relationship with God IS salvation (the state of being in a perfect love relationship with God). The method of salvation is that of faith alone and by that forgiveness of sin. In addition, one needs sanctification, that is losing all sinful desires, in order to have what we might call a complete salvation (in my opinion, this may imply a model of purgatory).

Nick said...

Chase, the problem is the relationship is external in the Protestant scheme. There is no intimacy. The so called Union With Christ is legal. In the Catholic and Biblical view, the Trinity indwells and divinizes.

Anonymous said...

This is ridiculous!

Gary said...

Very interesting post, however your presentation of the Protestant position on Salvation seems a little off, my Catholic brother.

Unfortunately, there is not just one concept of Salvation in Protestantism. There are really three: Lutheran, Reformed, and Evangelical.

Most Evangelicals teach that the sinner is saved by faith alone, which in their interpretation of that term, means "asking Jesus to come into your heart" to be your Savior, and repenting/turning from sin. Most evangelicals do not believe that a true believer can lose his salvation.

Most Reformed, otherwise known as Calvinists, believe that God predestined some people to be saved and go to heaven and others to be damned and go to hell. The sinner really has no choice in the matter. The believer's belief is an automatic reaction to being chosen.

We orthodox (conservative) Lutherans teach that:
1. God chose who would be saved, but did NOT choose who will go to hell. We call this a paradox or a mystery of God.
2. We believe that God saves by the power of his Word in Holy Baptism. We believe in baptismal regeneration as do Roman Catholics. We baptize our infants believing that God saves them. The Reformed baptize their infants believing that baptism creates a relationship or covenant only. The evangelicals do not baptize infants, only believing adults. We also believe that God can save adults who hear the Gospel and believe by faith. These adults should then be baptized for the forgiveness of sins, but if they die before they are able to be baptized, they are saved and will go to heaven.
3. Lutherans believe good works are a result of true belief. We do not do good works to assist in our Salvation, but out of love for God. However, unlike Evangelicals and the Reformed, Lutherans believe that a true believer can lose his salvation by outright rejection of Christ or by neglect of his faith through willful, ongoing sin, or refusal to worship, read the Word, and partake of the Lord's Supper. Salvation is not a "Get into heaven free" card. Take your salvation for granted, fail to produce "good fruit", and you may wake up one day in hell.