Over the past two years, MANY Catholics have written to this blog objecting to my frequently repeated charge that Catholicism teaches its members must MERIT their salvation. They claim their church teaches salvation is by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. But is that REALLY true? I’m no stranger to the Catholic faith, after having been a Roman Catholic for twenty-seven years and studying the religion quite a bit subsequent to my departure, and I know for a fact Roman Catholicism teaches its members must ultimately MERIT their salvation. So why the disconnect? How can myself and other ex-Catholic Bible Christians charge that Catholics believe they must MERIT their salvation while Catholics emphatically deny it?
This controversy is a slippery eel and I must cut through the semantics fog, so I ask the reader for a little patience as I state my case.
The Roman Catholic church (RCC) is fully aware of the many Bible verses which declare that salvation is a free gift and cannot be merited, and yet it is a religious system which demonstrably relies heavily on works. How does it address this dichotomy?
The RCC teaches that all sin is washed away by the sacrament of baptism. If a Catholic is baptized and dies immediately after baptism, the church teaches they will go straight to Heaven, which is why the emperor Constantine gambled by postponing his baptism until he was on his deathbed. However, the vast majority of Catholics are baptized as infants. Because the act of baptism is non-meritorious (the baptized infant is obviously quite helpless), Catholics can claim their initial salvation is an absolutely free gift.
After a Catholic is baptized and matures from a child to an adult, they must regularly participate in the church’s clergy-administered sacraments (confirmation, the eucharist, confession). Catholics are taught the church’s sacraments confer grace (in much the same way that water flows from a tap), which allegedly equips the Catholic to obey the Ten Commandments and avoid sin. The goal of every Catholic is to be holy – without any serious (mortal) sin on their soul. They refer to this as a sinless “state of grace.” Catholics are taught they cannot attain Heaven if they have any unconfessed serious sins on their souls. So, Catholics will readily admit they must obey the Ten Commandments in order to attain Heaven, but attribute the ability to obey the commandments and avoid sin to the grace they receive from the sacraments. They object to anyone who accuses them of trying to merit or earn their salvation because they ascribe their ability to obey the commandments (impossible!) to grace.
So what’s the bottom line for this discussion? Catholics believe obedience to the Law is required for salvation, with the caveat that obedience is dependent on sacramental grace. Evangelicals would rightly counter that obedience to the Law as a means to salvation, whether qualified as dependent on grace or not, is anti-Gospel, not to mention, impossible.
Catholics will eagerly agree that “salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ” but will NOT agree that salvation is by grace through faith in Christ ALONE. They would say instead that salvation is by grace through faith in Christ AND works.
Having said all that, Catholics will STILL insist their salvation is NOT merited or earned, although they undeniably believe that obeying the Ten Commandments is a requirement for salvation. Despite the caveats, qualifications, and double-speak, Catholics believe they must obey the Law (impossible!) in order to attain salvation.
Catholics counter by saying Bible Christians propagate easy believism; i.e., just say a prayer and live like the devil the rest of your life. Genuine Bible Christians would reply that we came to Christ as helpless sinners, without a single plea of our own, and accepted Him as our Savior by faith ALONE. After we accepted Him as Savior, we follow Him in obedience, albeit imperfectly. Any good works we manifest are the fruit of our salvation, not the cause. Catholics hope to die in a “state of grace” and appear before the Lord without any sin on their souls (or only minor “venial sins). In contrast, Bible Christians will appear before God covered by the imputed perfect righteousness of our Savior. The two approaches are worlds apart. One leads to hell, one leads to salvation.
“For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” – Romans 10:3-4
Although “merit” is a dirty word in contemporary Catholic parlance, the official Catechism of the Catholic Church actually DOES recognize works and merit, yes merit!, as parts of its salvation system. See here and here.
Catholic friend, turn from institutional religion, repent of your sins, and accept Jesus Christ as your Savior by faith ALONE.
Is Catholicism a false religion? Are Catholics saved?