Cemented in the Protestant doctrinal ethos is the great Reformation declaration, Sola Fide! We are justified before God by faith in Jesus Christ alone, not by any efforts or works of our own. Even this faith is a gift from God. Justification for most Protestants (especially those in Reformed circles) means the declaration before God that we are made right with him by virtue of Christ’s merits. It is a forensic in nature…that is, it is an objective, legal pronouncement outside of ourselves that does not require any actual righteousness on the part of the one being justified.
For most Protestants, the natural implication of this is that the one that is justified is simultaneously saved and (it is often asserted) eternally secure in their salvation. Consequently, Protestant language about justification often uses the terms “justification” and “salvation” and their variations interchangeably. If one is “justified” they must also be “saved.”
Roman Catholics, on the other hand, see justification as an entire process. What many Protestant Evangelicals would separate out into categories (Justification, Sanctification, Glorification) Roman Catholics see as the journey of “being saved” in the present from all sin in their lives. It is the process of being conformed to the image of Christ.1
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that one may reject Christ and lose one’s salvation post-conversion. Because the RCC tends to emphasize right living as the fruit of a continual choice to follow Jesus, it can come across to Protestants that they practice a theology of “works salvation”–that they depend on themselves to earn or merit their initial justification and ultimate salvation. It is extremely unfortunate that this misunderstanding persists, among both self-identified Protestants and Roman Catholics.
Most Protestants identify the kind of the faith that saves as “living faith” that also produces good works.This is surprisingly close to the official Roman Catholic position. One RCC theologian says,
The faith that leads to salvation is an act of acknowledging our utter dependence on God and committing our lives totally to him…It is also part of Catholic teaching to consider “faith” as a way of life rather than a major decision that happens once, twice, or a few times in one’s life. Catholics realize the importance of the initial conversion…but they also emphasize the challenge of living out faith…by God’s grace…2
This is confirmed in Roman Catholic doctrinal statements. The Council of Trent, for instance, affirmed that we are
said to be justified gratuitously (i.e., by grace), because none of those things which precede justification, whether faith or works, merit grace itself of justification, for ‘if it is a grace, it is not now by reason of works, otherwise (as the same Apostle says) grace would no longer be grace’ [Rom 11:6].3
It’s taken even further in other places:
We are therefore said to be justified by faith, because “faith is the beginning of human salvation,” the foundation and root of all justification; “without which it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6) and to enter the fellowship of his sons.4
This part sounds down right Reformed, if I may be so bold:
…far be it that a Christian should either trust or “glory” in himself and not “in the Lord”, whose goodness towards all men is so great that He wishes the things that are His gifts to be their own merits.5
Allow me to drive this home with one final quote from Catechism of the Catholic Church:
…the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit…Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion.6
I hope it is plain at this point that the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and her theologians do not advocate a “works righteousness.” Any “merit” that human beings have as a result of their good works is consistently understood to be attributed directly back to Jesus Christ.
Roman Catholics do teach strongly on the necessity of constantly choosing to follow Christ in order to persevere to the end, however this isn’t so different from what many orthodox Baptists, Methodists, and others have taught for generations.
Let’s leave the caricatures and generalizations behind us.
What we have here are issues of semantics and emphasis…obstacles that are easily overcome if we approach each other with charity, grace, and the love of Christ.
Essential further reading: Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church (If Roman Catholics and Lutherans can come to an agreement on this…what are the rest of us waiting for?)