One of the more basic differences between most Protestants and Catholics is what we mean when we talk about “salvation.” Central to this difference is whether salvation is viewed as a one-time event, or a process.
The Southern Baptist Statement of Faith says this – “In its broadest sense salvation includes regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification.” I think that most Protestant faith traditions would agree with that view. However, when most Protestants/Evangelicals (including Southern Baptists) speak of being “saved,” they are not referring to salvation in its broadest sense. They are referring only to regeneration (being born again) and its companion justification, and view this as an instantaneous, one-time event. This is especially true if they hold to a once-saved, always saved theology.
Catholics would agree with the definition used in the Southern Baptist SOF regarding salvation – it includes regeneration (being born again), justification, sanctification, and glorification. When we speak of “being saved” however, we tend to mean salvation in what they refer to as its “broadest sense” – all of the above. And this is a process. That’s why the question “are you saved?” seems to us to be bit premature. We are, as St. Paul says, in the process of working out our own salvation “with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12) When discussing salvation with Protestants it’s important to understand this distinction and make sure we’re talking about salvation in the same way. If not, misunderstanding of each other’s position will certainly occur.
There are some key differences within the “steps” of salvation as well. Regeneration (being born again) from the Catholic view happens at Baptism. Within Protestantism, there is division about what it means to be born again. The original faith traditions of Protestantism (Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans) agree with Catholics in this regard – you are “born again” by being baptized into Christ. The subsequent divisions that occur within Protestantism that produce “Anabaptists” including Baptists and a host of other Evangelical type denominations view regeneration as an event that occurs when the believer accepts Christ as their Savior. This will be discussed more in the topic of Baptism.
Justification is viewed differently as well. In the Protestant world, justification is seen as a one-time event that occurs at the time of regeneration, regardless of whether that is by Baptism or an acceptance of Christ by faith. It is “forensic” or “legal” declaration by God that the sinner is now “justified.” You will often hear terminology that Jesus has “covered” my sins – hidden them in a sense. This view is greatly influenced by Protestant “Penal Substitution” atonement theology and especially an understanding that Christ’s work on the cross is comparable to a courtroom scene whereby a transaction occurs – Christ takes on our penalty of sin from the judge (God) in exchange for his righteousness being given to us. As Catholics we would disagree with this view of the atonement, as discussed thoroughly here.
In the Catholic world, justification is not seen to be a legal declaration but a true change in the person as they grow in holiness. For this reason, justification is closely associated with sanctification in our view. When we are regenerated (born again) in Baptism, we receive what we call the “initial grace” of justification. As we grow in holiness (sanctification) we also grow in justification. The Catechism states in paragraph 1989 that “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.”
While God may indeed declare us “justified” at the time of regeneration, in our view this would be based on his foreknowledge that we will choose to allow the work of the Holy Spirit to fully sanctify us. It is a prophecy that He knows will be fulfilled within our life. Justification is not seen as a “covering” of our sins but our truly becoming “justified” in God’s eyes by our growth in holiness, and ultimately to perfection. This process occurs by the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It’s a work of grace.
Catholic Answers offers this explanation for the difference between the two views:
The Protestant misunderstanding of justification lies in its claim that justification is merely a forensic (i.e., purely declaratory) legal declaration by God that the sinner is now “justified.” If you “accept Christ as your personal Lord and Savior,” he declares you justified, though he doesn’t really make you justified or sanctified; your soul is in the same state as it was before; but you’re eligible for heaven.
A person is expected thereafter to undergo sanctification (don’t make the mistake of thinking Protestants say sanctification is unimportant), but the degree of sanctification achieved is, ultimately, immaterial to the question of whether you’ll get to heaven. You will, since you’re justified; and justification as a purely legal declaration is what counts.
Unfortunately, this scheme is a legal fiction. It amounts to God telling an untruth by saying the sinner has been justified, while all along he knows that the sinner is not really justified, but is only covered under the “cloak” of Christ’s righteousness. But, what God declares, he does “So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Is. 55:11) So, when God declares you justified, he makes you justified. Any justification that is not woven together with sanctification is no justification at all.
We can find support for the Catholic position of salvation as a process within Sacred Scripture as we can find verses that speak of salvation as a past event, a present and ongoing process, and a future event. In my next post I will review those Scriptures. To close this, here is a more pictorial representation of the difference between how Catholics and most Protestants view salvation.