As we continue to look at why we are not Catholics it is important to revisit the five mottos or sayings the Reformers rallied around when they separated from the Roman Catholic Church: sola scriptura (scripture alone), sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone), solo Christo (Christ alone), and sola deo Gloria (glory to God alone). Previously, we looked at how Scripture alone is our authority, and how this distinction explains why Catholics and Protestants disagree on so much. Protestants look to Scripture alone as their chief authority whereas the Catholic Church claims to have three equal authorities (Scripture, Church tradition, and the Church teaching office of the Pope and Bishops).
Now, I would like to address two of the slogans together and show how they demonstrate why the differences in belief and practice between Catholics and Protestants are so sharp. We are going to look at sola gratia and sola fide (grace alone and faith alone). To an extent none of the five sayings should be viewed in isolation since they were made and put out together, but these two especially should not be separated, so we are going to examine them together. Salvation, more specifically justification, comes by grace through faith alone. Martin Luther viewed sola fide as an absolutely central view of the Church stating that correctly understanding this teaching will determine whether the Church stands or falls.
Ephesians 2:8-9 states this doctrine for us, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast”. This passage, among others, makes it clear that works do not lead to salvation. It is only through faith that we are saved and faith is a grace from God that cannot be earned by any work. So it is by grace alone that we are saved—God in his mercy saves us, not according to anything we have done or ever will do, but we are saved solely based on God’s gracious character.
The Catholic Church believes in grace and in faith but those alone are not enough for someone to be saved—you must partake in Church mandated work. The Catholic doctrine of salvation includes the necessity of certain works including partaking in their Sacraments (Baptism, Communion, Penance, Anointing the Sick, Confirmation, Holy Orders, and Marriage).
The official teaching of the Catholic Church is that the Sacraments give grace and cleanse away sin from those who partake in them. For instance, the Catholic Church teaches that Baptism actually cleanses someone from original sin and that taking communion actually restores someone to God. The work of partaking in these sacraments are necessary parts of someone’s salvation (according to the Catholic Church). For Catholics, you are saved not just by grace through faith but also through your works.
To put it another way, in Catholicism Christ’s substitutionary death on the Cross is not enough to wholly cleanse you from your sin. The doctrine of purgatory reflects this reality. According to Catholicism, even good Catholics go to purgatory in order to be fully cleansed of the remaining sins they committed (which have not been dealt with through the Sacraments). In purgatory, the punishment Catholics are to receive is every bit as severe as suffering in Hell except it is not eternal. Once all of someone’s sins are purged and cleansed, then are they allowed to enter heaven. There are many problems with this belief including the example of the thief on the cross who is told, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” He is not promised further cleansing in purgatory, rather, he is allowed into paradise immediately after death because of his faith.
The main difference here is really an argument over the definition of justification. As Protestants, we believe justification is the legal declaration God makes for every believer as soon as they believe that their sins are completely and totally atoned for by the work of Christ. Jesus gets our sin; we get his righteousness. This does not negate the reality that when someone is justified they then go on to do good works (Eph. 2:10).
The Catholic Church unites justification and sanctification as one work. Justification requires your works as it is united to sanctification. For Protestants, we believe that justification necessarily leads to sanctification but your sanctifying good works do not save you. We affirm this wonderful statement made by Paul in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” For those who are in Christ there is no punishment left. Christ’s blood has taken care of all it. It is finished. There is nothing I can add through my own works to the work Christ did for me on the Cross.
Do all Catholics then get the gospel wrong? No. I believe the Catholic Church’s official teaching is an incorrect gospel, but Catholicism is far from unified on this issue. Evangelicalism has greatly impacted the Catholic Church to the extent that many everyday Catholics affirm a Protestant understanding of justification by grace through faith alone. In fact, in 1994 a group of evangelicals and Catholics signed a document, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, where the Catholic signees affirm a protestant view of “by grace through faith alone”. This is a welcome development as the Roman Catholic Church officially condemned this Protestant view during the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, and its decision has yet to be officially reversed.
So while many within the Catholic Church have embraced the Scriptural reality of sola gratia and sola fide the official stance of the Roman Church remains in opposition to it. This is important for us to remember because this is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. Christ’s work was enough and there is nothing anyone or any church can add to it. His sacrifice was enough and it can only be accessed by grace through faith so that none can boast of their works.