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By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2003
The authors show how the Roman Catholic church has redefined Christian terms and concepts to make it appear they are teaching a salvation by “faith alone,” when in reality, they teach something very different.

It is crucial to understand that once terms such as “faith,” “grace,” “salvation,” “redemp­tion” and “justification” are filtered through larger Catholic theology, they become so altered they lose their biblical meaning. For example, the manner in which words are used in Canons 1-3 of the Council of Trent on justification sound biblical[1]—but once interpreted in light of larger Catholic theology, they mean something entirely different than what the Bible means.

Catholics themselves frequently admit their interpretation of biblical words differs from that of Reformation Protestantism. For example, The Papal Encyclicals agrees: “Faith has different meanings for a Catholic and a Protestant.”[2] Thus, “… in this faith sacraments and good works are included.”[3]

But this distinction in meaning frequently goes unnoticed by both Catholic and Protestant laymen. Keating is entirely correct when he points out, “As in so many matters, fundamen­talists [e.g., conservative Christians] and Catholics are at loggerheads because they define terms differently.”[4] Keating provides us with two examples: 1) he defines redemption as something distinct from salvation and 2) he sees faith as mere intellectual assent to Church doctrine:

The truth is that we are all redeemed—Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists in the darkest forests—but our salvation is conditional….
For Catholics, faith is the acceptance of revealed truths, doctrines, on God’s word alone. This is called theological or confessional faith. For fundamentalists, faith is trust in Christ’s promises, not belief in a set of dogmas. This is called fiducial faith.[5]

Biblically however, redemption is something that only a believer has, and it is clearly stated to include the forgiveness of sins: “In him we have redemption by His blood, the forgiveness of sins…” (Ephesians 1:7, emphasis added). Muslims, Hindus and animists do not have redemption, biblically speaking, because they are not saved. When Keating distinguishes redemption and salvation in the manner he does, he makes a distinction that is unbiblical. And, of course, biblically, faith is simple trust in Christ, despite what Rome teaches. It certainly involves belief in doctrine, but much more than mere intellectual assent that such doctrines are true. Biblically, faith is not only personal trust in Christ, but involves personal trust in what God has said is true. Faith involves not just intellect, but a person’s will or volition as well.

Nevertheless, devout Catholics do not question their Church’s teaching about the defini­tion of biblical terms because the Catholic Church believes that, “Over the Book [Bible] stands the Church….”[6] The Church has final authority over the Bible, and, therefore, it is the Church’s interpretation of biblical words that is authoritative. In the end, it is the Church’s definition of biblical terms—not the biblical definition—that wins the day.

Thus, The Papal Encyclicals correctly points out that Protestants turn to the Bible alone to determine whether or not a doctrine is true. Nevertheless, it also confesses “This is just the reverse of the Catholic’s approach to belief. As the Catholic sees it, he must accept God on God’s terms and not his own. It is not for him to ‘judge’ the divine message, but only to receive it. Since he receives it from a living, teaching organ, he does not have to puzzle over the meaning of the revelation because the ever-present living magisterium [teaching office] can tell him exactly what the doctrine intends.”[7]

Again, Catholics turn to the Church because they have been promised that the Church exercises an inerrant authority to properly interpret the Bible. In other words, the Catholic man or woman can, in full trust, accept whatever the Church teaches them about salvation and never have to worry that the Church might be wrong. As Keating argues, “the Bible… is interpreted infallibly only by the teaching authority invested by Jesus in the Catholic Church.”[8]

However, in his definitive critique of the Council of Trent (a council convened to oppose Protestant teaching) eminent Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz (1522-1586) correctly noted that the Catholic Popes and teaching office had reserved for themselves the pre­rogative of a biased interpretation of Scripture predicated largely upon Catholic tradition. In the words of Chemnitz, the end result was an entirely new interpretation “so that we must believe not what the Scripture says simply, strictly, and clearly but what they through their power and authority interpret for us. By this strategy they seek to escape the clearest passages [of Scripture] concerning justifying faith… the intercession of Christ, etc.”[9]

That such a situation remains true today is difficult to deny. Consider the term grace. Catholicism teaches that salvation—i.e., forgiveness of sins—occurs through God’s grace—but a form of grace that empowers necessary works of human merit. Thus, salva­tion is by grace and works. The Catholic Encyclopedia asserts that God’s grace is a super­natural power that “makes it possible for them [Catholics] to place [perform] acts directed toward eternal salvation.”[10] And further, the “means of salvation given by Christ” are defined specifically as “the sacraments and sacrifice [Mass]” of Catholicism.[11]

Biblically however, (as it relates to salvation) grace is not a divine empowerment of men to help them earn their own salvation; rather it is a divine disposition toward men that offers them salvation entirely as a free gift of God’s mercy. Collectively, the following Scriptures prove this beyond doubt:

I will love them freely… (Hosea 14:4).
[Believers] are justified freely by his grace… (Romans 3:24).
…the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23; cf., 5:15-16).
…how much more will those who receive God’s… gift of righteousness reign in life… (Romans 5:17).
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ… it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works… (Ephesians 2:4, 8).

Thus, although the Bible teaches that forgiveness of sins comes solely and entirely by grace, through faith in Christ, Catholicism denies this and teaches that actual forgiveness of sins comes not solely by faith in Christ, but also through many or all of the following: a) The sacraments such as baptism and penance, b) priestly confession, c) participation in the Mass, d) the help of the virgin Mary, e) the recitation of the Rosary and f) purgatorial suffering after death. Because the true merit of man, achieved through these and other means, is in some sense responsible for salvation, Catholicism cannot logically deny that it teaches a form of salvation by works.



  1. H. J. Schroeder, trans., The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 1978), p. 42. Canons 1-3 on Justification read:CANON I.-If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema.

    CANON II.-If any one saith, that the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, is given only for this, that man may be able more easily to live justly, and to merit eternal life, as if, by free will without grace, he were able to do both, though hardly indeed and with difficulty; let him be anathema.

    CANON III.-If any one saith, that without the prevenient inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and without his help, man can believe, hope, love, or be penitent as he ought, so as that the grace of Justification may be bestowed upon him; let him be anathema.

  2. Anne Fremantle, The Papal Encyclicals In Their Historical Context: The Teachings of the Popes (NY: New American Library/Mentor, 1956), p. 11.
  3. Dom Bernard Orchard, et. al., A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1953), p. 1049 from Norman Geisler and Ralph McKenzie, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), p. 238, emphasis added.
  4. Karl Keating, What Catholics Really Believe—Setting the Record Straight (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1992), p. 81.
  5. Ibid., pp. 316-317.
  6. Fremantle, 11.
  7. Ibid., 18, emphasis added.
  8. Keating, What Catholics Really Believe…, p. 29.
  9. Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1971), Part 1, p. 213.
  10. Robert C. Broaderick, ed., The Catholic Encyclopedia, rev. and updated (NY: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987), p. 21.
  11. Ibid., p. 115.


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