As I wrote previously, the fundamental point that divides Catholics and Protestants is the question of salvation. Although issues about Mary, the Papacy, or the Eucharist may, in fact, be the most popular topics of debate, the issue of salvation and the related issues of justification and sanctification are the foundation for all that divides western Christendom. If this is resolved, all other issues will fall away. Again, 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.
The fundamental reality that is at stake here is the nature grace; what is it, and how does it affect man’s life? In order to gain a proper perspective of the issue, we must once again define our terms. From a Catholic perspective, grace is the supernatural gift of God’s own life “inhering in the soul, by which we are made friends of God, adopted sons, coheirs with Christ, ‘partakers of the divine nature’” (Attwater, Catholic Dictionary). In other words, by granting man the gift of his own life in Jesus Christ, God has refashioned man in his own image and likeness. When we speak of “friendship with God,” or “adopted sonship,” this is simply the meaning of our terms; by becoming a sharer in God’s own life, men, in the state of grace, can be said to be like God in that they now share God’s own life.
From the Protestant perspective, especially Protestants of the Calvinist school, grace is not something that “inheres in the soul,” but rather is something wholly exterior to man. As one theologian once put it, for Protestants, ‘grace is the smiley face upon God.’ In other words, grace is God’s gift of forgiveness by which man is considered cleansed of all guilt, while remaining steeped in the sin of our first parents. Grace, then, from this perspective, is God’s judgment of innocence upon his guilty people. Thus, by God’s gift of grace, man is declared “justified,” apart from man’s persistent state of sin.
The complete division between the two above-stated positions is clear, and the effects of such divergent theologies of grace are far reaching. Consider for a moment the effects of each position upon the Christian life. From a Catholic perspective, baptism, the beginning of the Christian life, is the moment when God first shares his supernatural life with man, justifying him by means of the Sacrament. Here, man is considered justified in the eyes of God because he is remade in God’s own image; refashioned according to the plan of God in the beginning. From a Protestant perspective, Baptism is no more than a public declaration of man’s freely chosen adherence to God, and does not make him share in God’s own life. Thus, Baptism becomes an external proof of God’s declaration of justification in the Christian life, and a witness to the Christian community of the person’s dedication to Christ. The Eucharist can be considered from the same vantage point. Among the Protestant communities, the Eucharist is not a real participation in Christ’s flesh and blood, but rather a way in which individual Christian’s are invited into a symbolic communion with God, by way of obeying Jesus’ command to “do this in memory of me.” From a Catholic perspective, the Eucharist is a real participation in Christ’s resurrected flesh and blood, granting to the communicant an actual relationship with the most Holy Trinity.
How clear it is that this issue lies at the heart of all Protestant / Catholic dialogue. Does God save man by returning to man all that God had planned for him in the beginning, or does he save man by deciding to ignore man’s state of fallen nature and recognize instead the work of Jesus Christ? For Catholics the answer is fundamental: God saves man by granting him a share in his own blessed life, through participation in the life of the God-man, Jesus Christ. In Baptism, we are resurrected with Christ and in Confirmation we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit. In the Eucharist, we are fed with life of God himself and in Holy Confession we speak intimately with our Lord and Savior. For Catholics, salvation is not a courtroom declaration of a judge but rather the loving gift of God’s own life.