How Do Catholics and Protestants Disagree over Salvation & Justification?
On October 31, 1517, an unsuspecting monk ventured to challenge the prevailing ecclesial authorities of his day by posting his “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
Underlying his disputes with the Indulgence Industrial Complex was a theme that would become one of the single most important rallying points in the Protestant Reformation. John Calvin pointedly named this theme:
The only point in dispute is how we are deemed righteous in the sight of God. (Acts of the Council of Trent)
This point of dispute still sits at the heart of what divides Catholics and Protestants five hundred years later. But how exactly do they differ? And is there no point of agreement when it comes to salvation and justification? Gregg Allison and Chris Castaldo wrote their new book The Unfinished Reformation to bring clarity to such questions.
Below we’ve briefly engaged their nuanced and thoughtful look at the key differences and agreements between Catholics and Protestants with regards to salvation and justification. Their insights will help you better understand what unites and divides these two dominant Christian groups after five hundred years.
Where Do Catholics and Protestants Agree?
“Catholics and Protestants agree that the initiative in salvation lies completely with God. This divine initiative applies to both the accomplishment of salvation and to the appropriation of salvation.” (60)
Importantly, Catholics and Protestants both believe that no one contributed to God’s strategy to rescue fallen humans; accomplishing salvation was divine initiative all the way down. As significant is the reality that no human being experiences salvation without divine initiative. “Protestants may be surprised to learn,” Allison and Castaldo explain, “that Catholic theology denies any role for human initiative and merit at the outset of salvation. Rather its beginning depends solely on the grace of God.” (emphasis mine, 62)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church confirms this, “No one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification.” (62)
Germane to this discussion are the two words outset and initial—for belief that salvation’s accomplishment and application begin with God only at the outset and initially is where Catholics and Protestants part ways.
How Are We Accepted By God?
Given that our being accepted by God is perhaps the singular issue that divides Catholics and Protestants, how do the two answer this question? Key to this difference is how Christ’s righteousness is applied.
For Protestants, people become children of God because Christ’s righteousness is attributed to them (reckoned, credited to, or forensically imputed). Catholicism, by contrast, teaches that God ultimately accepts people because Christ’s righteousness is poured into them (infused or imparted), thus making them actually righteous. (126)
To clarify, it’s important to understand the sharp distinction Protestants make between justification and sanctification, whereas Catholics do not. Protestants believe sinners are positionally not guilty at the point of conversion (justified) and grow in holiness through a process (sanctification). Conversely, “Catholic theology locates the reason for one’s ultimate acceptance not simply in one’s righteous status … but in the renovation of one’s soul by the Holy Spirit, that is, in sanctification (in a state of grace).” (127)
In short, responding to the question “Why are people accepted by God?” Catholics respond that “Grace infused through the sacraments enables them to do good works and become righteous in God’s sight.” (128) Protestants instead reply, “because of the finished work of Christ on the cross, the righteousness of which is imputed to the believer, accessed by faith alone.” (128)
How Do Works Affect Salvation?
Both then and now, Protestants have reacted to the Catholic belief in the meritorious nature of works for our final salvation with the central Reformation rallying cry “Sola fide!” Faith alone.
“Protestants dismiss all notion of merit in relation to works. Any claim to merit obscures divine grace, devalues the cross of Christ, and inevitably promotes human pride.” (130) Though good works are necessary insofar as they illustrate and reveal that we have been justified, “they do not secure your justification or state of acceptance before God.” (130) Not so for Catholics.
First, remember that no human can merit God’s saving grace initially. Catholics and Protestants both agree that merit is not possible prior to justification. Allison and Castaldo explain, however, that “from the Catholic perspective, after a person has been justified, their works are meritorious and they become the reason why God finally accepts them as faithful.” (130) Though merit doesn’t initiate justification, it completes it.
Thus, while Protestants place good works in the category of sanctification separate from justification, Catholics seem to conflate the two.
Written in an accessible and informative style, Allison and Castaldo provide a brief, clear guide to where Protestants and Catholics unite and divide over salvation and justification—as well as a number of other key doctrines and practices.
Engage The Unfinished Reformation yourself to have fruitful conversations about the nature of the gospel of Christ with Protestants and Catholics you know.