What Do Roman Catholics Believe About Salvation?

Roman Catholicism

Dr. John Ankerberg: As I see it – maybe you see it different – there are at least four different kinds of Roman Catholics to start off with in the Roman Catholic Church. I wanted to say that, and then I am going to ask you the question. I see some Roman Catholics that are so solidly evangelical that they do not know, or have put away the stated documents of Trent which many Protestants look at to find out what Roman Catholics believe. 

Dr. Walter Martin: That’s true. 

Dr. John Ankerberg: Alright, the second are the traditionalist Roman Catholics that still hold to the doctrine that we have got printed at Trent. The third would be some of our charismatic friends inside the Roman Catholic Church that can be on one side or the other. And fourth you have, like we have on the Protestant side, some stark raving mad liberals that don’t hold to the Bible at all. They’re out there floating on their own theology. They’re all underneath the umbrella of the Roman Catholic Church. I wanted to say that before we started here. The thing I want to say is that in Roman Catholic theology when we talk about “faith” and “faith plus works,” the Reformation came in on this topic and traditionally the split between the Protestant Church and the Roman Catholic Church has come on this thing, is it “faith,” or “faith plus works?” I would like you to define that as sensitively as you can and tell us what you think the Scripture is saying that brings good news on this topic. 

Dr. Walter Martin: Classic Catholic theology teaches that faith and works cooperate together with grace for the salvation of the soul. The church is the channel of all blessings. It’s called sacerdotalism, which means that through that channel flow all the blessings of God: through the church, through the constitute of authority. So, if you’re going to judge them classically the reformers were right. They did indeed do that. However, you outlined four different groups in the church today. And there are people in the Roman Catholic Church – priests, nuns, laymen, I’ve met them, I’ve talked with them – some of them are very high placed and with good authority who just don’t buy it. They believe in salvation only by grace through faith. They have a different understanding of the mass than classic Catholic theology does. They do not pray to the Virgin Mary nor worship the saints. You say, “Well, they’re not Catholic.” Don’t tell them that because they say, “We are Catholic but we just don’t agree with the church in these certain areas. After all, if Hans Kung, and Schillebeeckx, and a whole batch of other liberal theologians can get up and deny everything that the church believes, don’t tell me that I can’t have differences with the church in these areas.” It’s a hard argument to refute. 

Dr. John Ankerberg: If you take Roman Catholic theology as traditionally given, why is it good news to believe in justification by faith that Luther said just brought floods of joy into his life and it caused the Reformation? Why is it not just a pedantic point? But why is this something beautiful if you can grasp it? Can you comment on how it frees a person? Why if you’re under the other system, why it doesn’t free you, and if justification by faith, if you understand that, why it does free you? 

Dr. Walter Martin: Well, you see if you add works to salvation then you are falling into the error of the Galatians that Paul condemns in the strongest possible language, “If righteousness comes by the works of the law, Christ has died for nothing. O foolish Galatians, having begun in the spirit do you think you can end in the flesh? That is fulfilling the works of the law.” [Gal. 2; 3] What Paul is getting at, of course, is the idea that somehow or other you are going to add to the cross as a means of salvation and you can’t do that. Now here you’ve got a terrific paradox in Catholic theology. You’ve got a whole school of Catholic theologians who sound exactly like Luther and they talk vigorously for salvation by grace and justification by faith. You’ve got another school that is way back at the Council of Trent and we are heretics. Everybody that disagrees with them is lost. You are not going to get anywhere. So the only way I can answer the question is by saying that salvation by grace and justification by faith frees people because it is dependence upon Christ only, rather than upon Christ and the church’s sacerdotal system. I think the freedom comes, as Catholics have told me, when they realize that “Hey, the Word of God is sufficient! If God said that I passed out of death to life, I don’t have to depend on the priest or the pope to confirm it for me.” 

Dr. John Ankerberg: And if it’s the other way, it’s like Luther said, “I can have faith, but if it’s something else, the question is, when can I know that I have done enough that I have passed the test and God will accept me?” 

Dr. Walter Martin: Never, never! That’s your problem. 

Dr. John Ankerberg: And Eric Erickson, the psychologist, writes a big deal on Luther and he can’t figure out why Luther was troubled. Boy, if you can just realize standing before a holy God and you don’t know if you’ve made the test, if your sins are forgiven, that ought to shake you. Dr. Walter Martin: But you see, in Roman Catholic theology the average – and I know, I was trained in Roman Catholic schools; I graduated from parochial school – I can tell you right now in Catholic theology you are constantly being threatened by the fact that if you do not acknowledge the sovereignty of the church that you will be separated forever from the kingdom of God, because they equate the church and the kingdom of God. So a Catholic who says, “I can’t buy this anymore. I mean, I just can’t pray to the Virgin Mary and call her my life, my sweetness and my hope,” that person would be condemned out of hand by a traditionalist rather than right on the spot.

Editor’s note: In 1983 we asked Dr. Walter Martin, author of The Kingdom of the Cults, to comment on what various groups believe about The Bible, God, Jesus, Salvation, and a number of other topics. This article is excerpted from that interview. Some groups mentioned may have changed names, disbanded, or modified their beliefs since this interview took place. 

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