The Teachings of Holy Scripture and the Teachings of the Roman Catholic Church: Salvation, Part 2

What Every Roman Catholic Needs to Know
Salvation, Part 2
The Teachings of Holy Scripture and the Teachings of the Roman Catholic Church
By Anthony Pezzotta

One day, while sharing with a good Roman Catholic priest, I asked him: “Since you say that you have faith in Christ, what does Jesus do for you when you believe?”

Immediately he replied, “He opens the gates of heaven, which had been shut because of sin.”

“How will you enter?” I insisted.

“By obeying the commandments of God and the precepts of the Church after being baptized,” he replied.

“So Jesus opened the door, but now you must enter by avoiding sin and doing good deeds?” I asked.

“Exactly,” was his response.

“If this is the case,” I continued, “can you really call Jesus your Savior?”

“What do you “mean?” he questioned.

“Let me give you an illustration,” I said. “Suppose you are in prison because of a crime, your feet are chained to the floor, and your hands tied. Suddenly a fire breaks out in the prison cells! Moved by compassion, one of the prison guards opens the door of your cell, and runs away. Has He saved your life? Obviously not, because you are in chains. You will still burn in the fire, because you cannot get out.

“God’s Word tells us that all men have sinned (Romans 3:23), and are in bondage, chained by sin, totally unable to make any spiritual move on their own. So Jesus, in order to save us, must do something more than open the door of heaven. He actually shatters the chains of sin, and takes us out the door, delivering us from condemnation. No one but Jesus can break the chains of sin. He does it whenever a person truly repents and accepts Him, and Him alone, as Savior.”


We have already considered what the Bible teaches about salvation – how a person receives forgiveness of sins, is put right with God, and is given eternal life. Now, we will compare the teachings of God’s Word with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.


When we talk about Catholicism, we speak of the official Roman Catholic teaching, not about what some Roman Catholic theologians teach, or what some priests preach, or what many Catholics believe. There is only one official teaching in the Catholic Church – that which is approved by Rome, established by the Popes, and defined by the Councils, the latest being Vatican II.

Many Catholic teachings are consistent with the teaching of the Word of God. The Bible views salvation as deliverance from sin and from the consequences of it. So does the Church of Rome. This stands in opposition to “Liberation Theology” and some modern views of salvation that have entered both the Catholic and Protestant world. Rome officially teaches that Christ came to save us from sin and from eternal damnation. The salvation Catholicism teaches is not primarily liberation from poverty, from suffering, from war, from hunger, or from disease. Deliverance from these things may, at times, be a consequence of salvation. But the Popes, particularly Pope Pius XII and Pope Paul VI, on many occasions condemned Roman Catholic theologians of South America and some parts of Europe who defined salvation in terms of liberation from the hardships and injustices of life as we know it on earth. Pope Pius XII once said that if this is the kind of salvation Christ came to bring, then Jesus Himself would not have been saved because He was poor!

The Roman Catholic Church affirms the truths of Christ’s death and resurrection. It also maintains that Christ came, died, and rose again, so that those who believe in Him may have everlasting life. These teachings, too, are consistent with the teachings of the Word of God.


1. The teaching that faith is necessary for salvation, but not sufficient

The Bible clearly teaches that salvation is by faith alone. The Catholic Church teaches that salvation is by faith, but not by faith alone. Here, the Catholic Church deviates from the clear teaching of Scripture. First, let’s consider what the Bible has to say:

“For we conclude that a person is put right with God only through faith, and not by doing what the Law commands” (Romans 3:28, TEV).

“Yet we know that a person is put right with God only through faith in Jesus Christ, never by doing what the Law requires. We, too, have believed in Christ Jesus in order to be put right with God through our faith in Christ, and not by doing what the Law requires. For no one is put right with God by doing what the Law requires” (Galatians 2:16, TEV).

Contrary to what the Bible teaches, Rome asserts that while faith is absolutely necessary for salvation, it is not sufficient. Faith is necessary in that without believing in Christ no one will be saved, though they be good and religious people. Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists cannot be saved because they lack true faith. Up to Vatican II, even Protestants could not be saved because they, too, lacked true faith according to Rome.

While faith is necessary to the Catholic, it is not sufficient; other things must be added to faith in order for a person to be saved. Christ does not actually save those who believe in Him, but only makes salvation possible. Salvation is ultimately attained through the sacraments.

* Faith plus baptism

One such sacrament is baptism. Baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation. There are three baptisms in the Catholic Church. A person must experience one of these three baptisms in order to be saved:

1. Baptism of water (the official sacrament)

2. Baptism of blood (martyrdom)

3. Baptism of desire (an expressed desire to be baptized prevented by untimely death)

Baptism alone may be sufficient to save a person from the penalty for sin, but faith alone will never be sufficient. Infants who have no faith, but have been baptized will go to heaven. But no person who has not been baptized will ever go to heaven.

* Faith plus penance

Another sacrament, like baptism, that is necessary for salvation is the sacrament of penance, or confession to a priest. If a person commits a mortal sin and dies without confessing it to a priest, that person will go to hell, taking his faith with him.

Therefore, according to the Catholic Church, a person cannot be saved by faith alone. Whereas, according to the Word of God, a person can be saved only by faith.

* Catholic Objections To the Doctrine of Salvation by Faith Alone

There is one Bible passage usually quoted by Catholics against the biblical teaching of “salvation by faith alone.” It is found in James, chapter 2, culminating with verse twenty four which says:

“You see that a person is justified by what be does and not by faith alone.”

Both Catholics and Evangelicals believe that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God (1) and as such free from real contradictions. All who accept James 2:24 as inspired also accept the following verses of Scripture which say:

“However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Romans 4:5).

“(We) know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16).

“You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ” (Galatians 5:4).

“8 For it is by grace you have been saved through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – 9 not by works so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8,9).

Human reason itself teaches that if the Word of God is free from error, it contains no real contradictions. If a statement is true, a contradicting statement must be false! Since Evangelicals and Catholics accept both statements as infallibly true, they cannot be contradictory. There may be apparent contradictions, but there can be no real contradictions.

Since the Bible clearly states in many passages that salvation is by faith alone and not by works (Romans 4:1-8; Galatians 5:1-6; Romans 10:4, 11; Titus 3:5; John 3:14-17, and many more), James cannot be teaching that salvation is by works and not by faith alone. Actually, when understood in their context, James and Paul complement each other. They are answering two different, yet related questions.

In Romans and Galatians Paul is answering the question, “What must I do to be saved?” He demonstrates that no one can earn merit for salvation by doing good works. Salvation is a gift of grace that God gives to those who have faith in Jesus.

James takes the next step by asking, “What does it mean to have faith?” He proves by his argument that genuine faith produces good works. Faith that does not work is not genuine. Thus, he says:

“18 Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do … 20 faith without deeds is useless” (James 2:18, 20).

Good works are the fruit of faith (James), but they are not the basis for forgiveness (Paul). Faith alone saves (Paul); and a faith that saves, works (James).

The faith we profess is useless when our works prove the contrary! James rightly speaks of the necessity of good works as evidence, proof and result of true and living faith (James 2:12-17). James does not teach that we are justified by works (in front of God), but that good works, the fruit of true faith, justify us before men.

James and Paul complement each other. Paul himself recognizes good works as the fruit of faith. While arguing that we are not saved by works (Ephesians 2:8, 9), he agrees that we are saved to do good works (Ephesians 2:10).

2. The teaching that faith is belief without trust

* Trust is in persons. Belief is in statements.

The biblical word “faith” has two aspects: (1) belief and (2) trust. To have faith is both to trust a person and, as a consequence, to believe what that person says. We trust persons and believe principles or ideas. Trust is in persons. Belief is in statements. Biblical faith is both trust in the person of Christ and belief in what Christ teaches. Biblical faith includes trust (Romans 4:5).

Rome, however, eliminated the idea of trust from faith, when at the Council of Trent, it condemned Luther’s doctrine of Fides Fiducialis or “Trusting Faith.” Yet, this is the clear teaching of the apostle Paul in his epistle to the Romans:

“However, to the man that does not work, but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Romans 4:5).

Therefore, not only Luther, but Paul himself stands condemned by the Council of Trent.

There is a huge difference between faith as belief, and faith as trust. Suppose I’m out in front of my garden washing my car. A young man whom I have never met passes by and greets me.

“Good morning, Sir!”, he says. “Have you read the newspaper this morning? The President was shot!” (I haven’t read the newspaper yet, so I have no reason not to believe the man.)

“That’s shocking!” I say. “What happened?” (He gives me all the details. I believe him.)

Then the young man asks, “Would you allow your teenage daughter to spend a day with me?”

I respond, “You and I just met. I don’t know you well enough to let my daughter spend the day with you. I’m sorry, but I couldn’t allow her to do that.”

I believed him, but I did not trust him.

If faith is merely belief and not trust, then even the devil believes: He knows what is true, but he does not subject himself to the lordship of Christ and he doesn’t trust Him. This is the clear teaching of God’s Word: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder” (James 2:19).

The Bible teaches that it is trust in Christ, not merely belief, that saves. Many people in the Bible had faith in God; all the Jews believed in God. But salvation comes only through faith in the Savior, Jesus (Acts 4:12).

An acrobat illustrated the difference between mere belief and trust at the Niagara Falls one day. First, he walked across the falls on a tightrope pushing a wheelbarrow just to prove that he could do it. Then he asked the crowd if they believed he could push a person across the rope in the wheelbarrow. The crowd screamed, “Yes!” affirming their confidence in his ability. Then he asked them, “Which of you will volunteer to get into the wheelbarrow and let me push you across?” No one would. They all believed he could, but none were willing to trust him to do it.

3. The teaching that a person is saved by his own merit

If, as in Roman Catholic theology, faith is merely belief in certain ideas or statements, it is logical to conclude that faith is not enough. Thus, the Catholic Church teaches that in addition to faith, two things are needed: (1) baptism and (2) personal merit. We have already discussed baptism. Let’s move on now to personal merit.

How does a person merit salvation? By keeping the Ten Commandments. If he fails to keep a commandment and falls into sin, he must immediately go to confession and do penance or else he is doomed to hell. He must do penance, either in this life or in the next, if he will be saved. If a person does not pay through penance, he will pay in purgatory. He will pay until he becomes worthy. He must merit salvation before he can receive it.

* Purgatory denies the sufficiency of Christ’s merit.

The Catholic dogmatic teaching on Purgatory is no secondary or minor doctrine, because it directly denies the sufficiency of Christ’s merit for our salvation. Purgatory is supposed to be a place or state where souls are “purified” from sin and so become “worthy” of heaven. Those who die without unconfessed mortal sins, but with venial sins or without doing full penance of their mortal sins, must suffer for an indefinite period of time until their sins are purged. According to this doctrine, the basis of our claim to heaven is not Christ’s righteousness, but our own merit; not only the sufferings and death of Christ, but also our own.


The All-Sufficiency of Christ

While sharing with a group of Charismatic Catholics in a Bible study, I discussed with them the all-sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice as payment for our sins. Little did I know that their priest was present. He interrupted me, saying that the Bible teaches that the sufferings of Christ were not complete and sufficient, and that we must make up what is lacking by our own sufferings. Then he opened the Bible and read Colossians 1:24 where Paul writes:

“Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.”

I thank the Lord that the group was open to understand my answer. The phrase “what was suffered for you” is a reference to Paul’s sufferings as a messenger of Christ, not Christ’s sufferings as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Paul suffered, not to pay for sins, but to deliver the message of salvation through faith in Christ to those who had not heard.

In the preceding verses, just before Paul speaks of “what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions,” he affirms the sufficiency of Christ’s death by saying:

“21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.

“22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation …” (Colossians 1:21, 22).

While Christ’s death is sufficient to reconcile us to God and to present us holy in His sight, this message must be proclaimed so that people can hear it and believe (Romans 10:13-15). Paul suffered as a servant commissioned by God to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles (Colossians 1:23). Jesus suffered to purchase our redemption; Paul suffered to proclaim it. Jesus suffered as the lamb of God; Paul suffered as a messenger of God. Jesus suffered as a sacrifice; Paul suffered as a spokesman.

The sacrifice for sin has been paid in full. Jesus completed those sufferings. The sufferings that remain are to be endured by those who preach the Gospel to all nations. Christ did not complete these kinds of sufferings, because that responsibility has been entrusted to the Church. Such a task may at times involve great suffering, as it did in the case of the apostle Paul. To suffer in this way is to fill what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions (Colossians 1:22-25).


In many Catholic churches in Europe, there is a picture of a balance or scale on the pulpit. On the one side of the balance are sins; on the other good works or merits. This visual was used in the Middle Ages to fix this idea in the minds of people: “In the end, unless your merits outweigh your sins, you have no hope.”

Contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church, the Bible teaches that salvation is a gift of God, not merited or earned, but granted by grace to all who trust Christ and believe.

“8-9 For it is by God’s grace that you have been saved through faith. It is not the result of your own efforts [works], but God’s gift, so that no one can boast about it. 10 God has made us what we are, and in our union with Christ Jesus he has created us for a life of good deeds, which he has already prepared for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-10, TEV).

“4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior was revealed, be saved us. 5 It was not because of any good deeds that we ourselves had done, but because of his own mercy that be saved us … (Titus 3:4, 5).


Roman Catholicism teaches that baptism, belief, and personal merit are all necessary for salvation. The Word of God teaches that faith (belief-trust) is all that is necessary.

“Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).

The Bible is dear in its teaching. Baptism does not confer grace, it is an act of obedience, a testimony to faith (Acts 2:41). Good works do not bring merit; they are expressions of obedience, the fruit of faith (James 2:17, 18).

* “People are put right with God only because they believe in Christ.” Galatians 2:16

* People are saved by faith alone, not by works. They are saved to do good works. Ephesians 2:8-10

* Faith in Christ only makes it possible for us to merit salvation. And it is through His mercy that he saved us. Titus 3:4, 5



(1) “Holy Scripture comprises the sacred books of the Old and New Testaments. These, with all their parts, are inspired by God and have Him for Author; and are, therefore, free from error, not only in moral and religious statements” (The Teaching of the Catholic Church), by Roos and Neuner, Jesuits; ed. Karl Rahner, Jesuit.