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By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2003
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that sacraments such as the mass, and confession contribute to, or are in some sense responsible for salvation. Why is this equivalent to “salvation by works”?

Since the Roman Catholic church teaches that the true merit of man, achieved through sacraments, Mass and other means, is in some sense responsible for salvation, Catholi­cism cannot logically deny that it teaches a form of salvation by works.

A brief discussion of these points will show this.

A) Priestly Confession

(dictated by Holy Orders)

Although it is frequently lost upon the faithful, the Catholic Church has made it clear that in personal confession of sin, the priest does not have intrinsic authority to forgive a person’s sins—his only authority is a derived one in that he is a representative for Christ, and that Christ is working through him.

Thus, when the priest says, “I absolve you,” he does not mean that he alone is absolving a person from their sins. It is Christ through him. Nevertheless, it is also true that priestly confession is said to be necessary for salvation. Further, because Christ actually is, in Person, working through the priest, his absolution is as valid as if done by Christ Himself.[1] In Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma we read, “Confession is the self-accusation by the penitent of his sins before a fully empowered priest, in order to obtain forgiveness from him by virtue of the power of the keys…. The Sacramental confession of sins is ordained by God and is necessary for salvation.”[2]

No less an authority than the Council of Trent declared,

If anyone denies that sacramental confession was instituted by divine law or is necessary to salvation…. Let him be anathema [cursed by God]…. If anyone says that the sacrament of penance it is not required by divine law for the remission of sins… let him be anathema…. If anyone says that the sacramental absolution of the priest is not a judicial act but a mere service of pronouncing and declaring to him who confesses that the sins are forgiven,… or says that the confession of the penitent is not necessary in order that the priest may be able to absolve him, let him be anathema.[3]

It’s important to realize that priestly confession must be sincerely done to be valid.

The individual Catholic must genuinely be sorry that he has committed the sin, he must also resolve not to repeat it; in addition he must agree to make restitution to any individual that his sin might have harmed and finally he must be willing to accept any penances imposed by the priest.[4]

Even though the Catholic Church maintains that the priest per se does not forgive the believer’s sins, it is difficult to deny that in the minds of many Catholics, in effect, the priest is “forgiving” the same sins for which Jesus died on the cross.

The Bible teaches that we are to “confess our sins one to another” (James 5:16); it never mentions confession to a priest. The reason why Protestants “confess their sins one to another” and not to a priest, has nothing to do with the issues of forgiveness of sins but rather individual reconciliation among true believers in Christ. In fact, there is no reason to confess our sins to a priest if Christ’s death on the cross has already paid their full divine penalty.

Catholics almost universally refer to John 20:21-23 as the proof of the priest’s power to forgive sins on behalf of Christ. This verse reads, “whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them: and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.”

The problem with the Catholic interpretation is that this Scripture teaches that all Chris­tians have this power, not just priests. In other words, every Christian has the right to tell a new believer in Christ that their sins have already been forgiven them by Jesus Christ. Thus, we don’t believe that any priest has the exclusive right to forgive sins on Christ’s behalf. This is a prerogative of all believers which comes under the biblical teaching of the universal priesthood of believers, e.g., the fact that every believer in Christ is “a priest unto God” (1 Peter 2:9).

There is no necessity for the often humiliating experience of the confessional if Jesus Christ alone has already forgiven us the full divine penalty for our sins. Thus there is no fear that the individual Catholic might not perform the acts of penance properly. There is no reason to be concerned about obligations to the Church, no confusion over whether or not one’s sins are truly forgiven, and no terror of purgatory for errors committed in such matters in this life.

In conclusion, we believe that priestly confession negatively impacts the biblical doctrine of the atonement. Even if we grant the Catholic denial of this charge relative to their interpretation of their official doctrinal position, it has been our experience that in individual Catholic practice, priestly confession works to undermine full confidence in Christ’s atonement.

B) The Mass

Although the Catholic Church claims that the Mass in no way detracts from the atone­ment of Christ, it nevertheless believes that it is principally through the Mass that the bless­ings of Christ’s death are applied to believers. The principal reason for this is Catholic teaching that in the Mass Christ is actually, in a real sense, re-sacrificed (Catholics prefer the term re-presented).[5]

Because the fruit of Christ’s death is applied at the Mass, one can see why Catholics attach such importance to the practice. The Catholic Catechism cites the Council of Trent as providing the standard Catholic view: “This sacrifice [of the Mass] is truly propitiatory,… through the Mass we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need. For by this oblation the Lord is appeased,… and he pardons wrongdoing and sins, even grave ones.”[6]

Another standard Catholic work observes, “In the Sacrifice of the Mass, Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross is made present, its memory is celebrated, and its saving power is applied.”[7] Thus, “As a propitiatory sacrifice… the Sacrifice of the Mass effects the remission of sins and the punishment for sins;… “[8]

The Sacrifice of the Mass does not remit the guilt of sins immediately as do the Sacra­ments of Baptism and of Penance, but mediately by the conferring of the grace of repen­tance. The Council of Trent teaches: “Propitiated by the offering of this [Mass] sacrifice, God, by granting the grace and the gift of penance remits trespasses and sins, however, grievous they may be.”[9]

(to be continued)


  1. Paul G. Schrotenboer, ed., Roman Catholicism: A Contemporary Evangelical Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980), pp. 68-69, citing the encyclical Ad Catholic sacerdotii, 1935, and Pope Paul VI in Mysterium fidei, no. 38.
  2. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, 1974), p. 431, emphasis added.
  3. H. J. Schroeder, trans., The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 1978), pp. 102-103, citing Fourteenth Session, Sacrament of Penance, Canon 6, 7, 9.
  4. Walter Martin, The Roman Catholic Church in History (Livingston, NJ: Christian Research Institute, Inc., 1960), p. 63.
  5. Karl Keating, What Catholics Really Believe—Setting the Record Straight (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1992), p. 248, emphasis added, citing Rev. John A. O’Brien.
  6. John Hardon, The Catholic Catechism: The Contemporary Catechism of the Teachings of the Catholic Church (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975), p. 468, emphasis added.
  7. Ott, p. 407.
  8. Ibid., p. 412.
  9. Ibid., 413.


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