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By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2003
Catholicism teaches that penance, confession, the Mass, the Rosary, purgatorial suffering and even Mary all play a role in the remission of sin or the guilt of sin. How does that teaching relate to the Biblical model for the remission of sins?

In previous articles we briefly examined what the Catholic Church teaches concerning forgiveness of sins and the sacraments such as penance, priestly confession of sins, the Mass, the Virgin Mary, the Rosary, and purgatorial suffering. In some sense, Catholicism teaches that all these practices remit sin or the guilt of sin.

Perhaps it is now a bit easier to understand the strong Protestant reaction to Catholic doctrine. The Bible teaches that full forgiveness of sin, including all its penalty, occurs solely by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, based upon the complete adequacy of His propitiatory atonement. Catholic teaching, on the other hand, implies (at least) the death of Christ was in some sense insufficient in these areas. While Catholics would dis­agree with this assessment, it is the logical conclusion of their own beliefs and practices.

In essence, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that there are many additional ways, besides personal faith in the death of Christ, through which forgiveness of sins can occur. This teaching is far removed from the simple biblical declarations of “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved…” (Acts 16:31) or “by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Heb. 10:14) or, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Eph. 1:7), or, “…having forgiven us all our sins” (Col. 2:13).

In other words, if Christ already accomplished full salvation on the cross, it is logical to conclude that the Catholic sacraments and other requirements can offer nothing in the way of salvation. Once a person has received Christ as their personal savior, it is only a matter of growing in sanctification or personal holiness. As we will see in our next chapter, every­thing relating to the forgiveness of sins and their right standing before God has already been accomplished.

If we remember that the Bible teaches the following basic points about salvation and, unfortunately, that all of them are denied in Catholic theology, we can perhaps understand why many Christians are so concerned over Catholic teaching. Let us recall the important points of salvation according to the Bible.

Biblically:

  1. Salvation, or an eternally valid right standing before God, occurs solely due to the death of Christ (what Christ accomplished on the cross) entirely apart from the agency of the Church and its practices (1 Jn. 2:2; 1 Pet. 2:24; Rom. 10:14; Jn. 14:6; Acts 4:12).
  2. On the cross Jesus Christ paid in its entirety the full divine penalty for all sin (Heb. 10:12, 14): Church sacraments, the Mass, or purgatorial suffering after death are unneces­sary to remove the divine penalty for sin in this life or the next.
  3. In terms of our standing before God, full salvation occurs at a point in time (1 Cor. 5:17-21; 1 Pet. 2:23); it is not a lifelong process that occurs or increases over time, which is sanctification.
  4. Complete salvation is secured solely by personal faith—by trusting in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins (Jn. 1:12; Rom. 10:11; Eph. 2: 89). Good works enter the picture only as a result—not a cause—of our salvation (Eph. 2:9-10; Rom. 12:12). Thus, good works are not even a partial cause of our salvation (Rom. 11:6). According to the Bible, activities such as baptism, penance and other sacraments contribute nothing to the salva­tion of a believer (e.g., Gal. 3:13,21; 4:9-10; 5:1,4).
  5. At the moment of saving faith a person is fully—not partially—justified (Rom. 3:28; 5:1). In other words, a person is declared righteous by God Himself—fully and finally. All his sins are forgiven and God declares him legally righteous, that is, perfectly righteous in God’s own eyes—even though he continues to remain a sinner because of the presence of a sinful nature (Rom. 3:28-4:6; Jas. 2:10; 3:2; 1 Jn. 1:8-10). What this means is that in an instant of time a person has passed over from spiritual death to spiritual life, and that noth­ing else is required for them to go to heaven. (Please read Jn. 5:24.) Once justified, a person can never lose her/his justification. (Please read Rom. 8:30-38; 11:29.) Thus, justifi­cation is not a slow process of spiritual growth whereby infused grace/supernatural power permits a man to actually become righteous before God; it is far more.
  6. At the moment of saving faith a person has also been regenerated—God has made him alive spiritually and imparted eternal life to him. Regeneration does not occur at the point of baptism, rather it occurs at the point of saving faith. The fact that regeneration involves the imparting of eternal life underscores the finality of biblical salvation (Jn. 6:47; 1 Jn. 5:13).
  7. Because a person now possesses eternal life, his salvation, as a result, can never be lost (Eph. 1:11-12; 1 Pet. 1:35). Such a person is eternally secure from the point of saving faith regardless of his sins or his works (Rom. 8:28-38).

This is not at all to say that God is unconcerned with our sanctification or good works— He clearly is (Eph. 2:10). It is merely to emphasize that works play no part at all in salva­tion, whether forgiveness of sin, regeneration or justification.

Thus, a person does not need to fear he or she may lose their salvation from the com­mission of mortal sin or by any other cause.

But so there can be no doubt that Catholicism teaches salvation by works we offer the standard Catholic response as illustrated in Karl Keating’s book Catholicism and Funda­mentalism. As a good Catholic, Keating is correct in opposing the biblical teaching on salvation by grace through faith alone. He emphasizes that, in Catholicism, men and women learn that they will merit heaven by their good works and personal righteousness, but that to merely “accept Jesus” as Savior accomplishes nothing:

For Catholics, salvation depends on the state of the soul at death. Christ…. did his part, and now we have to cooperate by doing ours. If we are to pass through those [heavenly] gates, we have to be in the right spiritual state…. The Church teaches that only souls that are objectively good and objectively pleasing to God merit heaven, and such souls are ones filled with sanctifying grace…. As Catholics see it, anyone can achieve heaven, and anyone can lose it…. The apparent saint can throw away salvation at the last moment and end up no better off than the man who never did a good deed in his life. It all depends on how one enters death, which is why dying is by far one’s most important act…. [what this means is that] “accepting Jesus” has nothing to do with turning a spiritually dead soul into a soul alive with sanctifying grace. The soul [that “accepts Jesus”] remains the same [i.e., dead]…. The Reformers saw justification as a mere legal act by which God declares the sinner to be meriting heaven…. The Catholic Church, not surprisingly, understands justification differently. It sees it as a true eradication of sin and a true sanctification and renewal. The soul becomes objectively pleasing to God and so merits heaven. It merits heaven because now it is actually good….
The Bible is quite clear that we are saved by faith. The Reformers were quite right in saying this, and to this extent they merely repeated the constant teaching of the Church. Where they erred was in saying that we are saved by faith alone.”[1]

But if the Bible teaches that salvation is entirely by grace, then salvation is by faith alone. To add meritorious works would mean that salvation is by faith and works. However, the Bible clearly indicates that the very concepts of “grace salvation” and “works salvation” involve entirely opposing principles. A study of the biblical books of Galatians and Romans will prove this. One cannot have a salvation based 75 percent on grace and 25 percent on works—salvation occurs entirely by one means or entirely by the other. As Scripture itself emphasis, “And if [salvation is] by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace” (Rom. 11:6).

Consider a final example. In “My Ticket to Heaven,” a popular Catholic tract that has sold over 3,000,000 copies, the reader is told that his “ticket to heaven” is good works and, permanent abstaining from mortal sin.[2] Thus, “If I do my part, God will do His part.”[3] This booklet is labeled as “A Tract of Salvation,” and a “straight forward presentation of Christian faith”—but its principal effect is to produce the fear of never achieving heaven since salvation is so clearly laid out as involving a practical perfectionism. Although written by a priest of 40 years, it never once mentions personal faith in Jesus Christ as the basis for salvation.

Unfortunately, to the extent that Catholicism denies salvation is solely by grace through faith alone, it places itself under the condemnation of God spoken in Galatians 1:8-9: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: if anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!”

The reason for the severity of Scripture’s warning at this point should be evident. If it is only the true gospel that gets one into heaven, then the unrepentant acceptance of a false gospel will condemn one forever.

What this means is that Christians who maintain that Roman Catholicism is a Christian and biblical religion should perhaps give serious reconsideration to their views.

Notes

  1. Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on “Romanism” By “Bible Christians” (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1988), pp. 166-68, 175, emphasis added.
  2. Joseph F. Bernard, “My Ticket to Heaven,” nd., npp. 3-10. On p. 24 of this tract, John A. Hardon, S.J., calls it “A straightforward presentation of the cardinal mysteries of the Christian Faith.”
  3. Ibid., p. 12.

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