For Catholics, being challenged by our Protestant brethren with questions about our salvation can be unsettling, and even embarrassing. Why is it that Protestants seem so sure of their salvation, while Catholics are left uncertain as to their eternal destiny? The answer to this question, and ultimately the answer to our Protestant brethren, is that Catholic theology and Protestant theology diverge on this most important issue, forming the foundation for all further protests against Catholic teaching. Ultimately, if this issue of man’s salvation is resolved, all other problems that exist between Catholic and Protestant theology will fall away. Over the next couple weeks, we will consider this topic in some detail, working toward a Biblically-based, authentic Christian concept of salvation.
The first step in our journey must be the consideration of terms. What do we mean by the terms salvation, justification, and sanctification? Being saved by God, or salvation, obviously includes the reality of being saved from something or someone. This something is the devil and his dominion. When we speak of man’s salvation, we mean “the freeing of the soul from the bonds of sin and its consequences and the attainment of the everlasting vision of God in Heaven” (Attwater, Catholic Dictionary). Thus, salvation is, at the same time, our separation from the dominion of the devil and our union with our creator, by which we receive that which God planned for mankind before the fall. To a certain extent, Catholic and Protestant theology is in agreement on this point.
In defining our second term, justification, we come to our first problem. What is justification? For Catholics, justification is the process by which the soul is transferred and transformed from its former state of separation from God, to its proper state of union with its Creator. This process of justification enlivens man’s soul with the life of God—sanctifying grace—thus refashioning man in the image and likeness of God. In Catholic theology, justification can be considered from two perspectives: active and passive. “In its active sense, Justification is the act of God declaring and making a person just; in its passive sense, it is the change in a soul which passes from the state of sin to that of sanctifying grace or justice” (Attwater). It is from this distinction that we can properly consider the Protestant position. For Protestants, justification is simply considered from the “active” position, and even then only partially. Justification, from a Protestant perspective, considers only the reality of God’s declaration; a declaration which has no real power of transformation, but only that of juridical judgment. To understand this position more clearly, consider a judge in a courtroom who declares a defendant to be guilty or innocent of all charges. In this situation, the declaration of the judge does not change the actual culpability of the person on trial, but simply declares a judgment to be recognized by all. Please notice that if the person on trial is guilty of a crime but declared innocent, the person remains guilty, but without the consequences of his illicit action. For Protestants, justification is simply God’s declaration of man’s freedom from sin and death, and does not effect the actual transformation of the soul of man, or infuse it with divine life. Justification, then, leaves man in his sin, while declaring him free of all the consequences thereof.
Our third term, sanctification, is closely related to justification. For Catholics, justification and sanctification are inseparable, since each includes the definition of the other. To be justified in God’s sight is to be declared, as well as made holy, and sanctification is this process of receiving, and being transformed by sanctifying grace, i.e. the life of God in our souls. For Protestants, there is a real separation between justification and sanctification. Justification, as we have said, is God’s juridical declaration. Sanctification, from this perspective, is the reason for God’s judgment, and is simply “a cloaking of sin and an extrinsic imputation of the merits of Christ” (Attwater). Although, from both perspectives, our sanctification relies upon Christ, note the key difference between the Catholic and the Protestant understanding. For Catholics, the saving work of Christ effects a real transformation in the heart of man by making him sharer in divine life, while the Protestant position sees only a covering of our sin, without any real intrinsic change taking place.
In concluding our initial thoughts on this topic, let us keep in mind the conceptual problem that divides Catholics and Protestants on the issue of salvation. For Catholics, salvation consists in God actually making us sharers in his own blessed life (cf. CCC, 1). On the other hand, for Protestants, God saves mankind by divine fiat, declaring man to be justified in his sight, while ignoring the actual state of his soul.