The Catholic Way of Salvation

By: McCarthy, James; ©2001
What exactly does the Roman Catholic Church teach is the way of salvation? Jim McCarthy provides an answer from a popular post-Vatican II catechism in this month’s article.


The Catholic Way of Salvation

What exactly does the Roman Catholic Church teach is the way of salvation? A popular post-Vatican II catechism provides the following summary of the Church’s teaching.

Question What is necessary to be saved?

Answer You have to be brought into spiritual contact with that saving death of Jesus by faith and Baptism and loyal membership in His Church, by love of God and neighbor proved by obedience to His commandments, by the other Sacraments especially Holy Communion, by prayer and good works and by final perseverance, that is, preserving God’s friendship and grace until death.[1]

Note the lack of emphasis on Jesus in this answer. The only mention of Him is with reference to being “brought into spiritual contact with that saving death of Jesus.” What the catechism means by this is that the person must have sanctifying grace in his soul. This, says the Church, unites a person to Jesus and gives him a participation in the divine life of God. According to the catechism, to obtain sanctifying grace and preserve it in one’s soul, a Catholic must accomplish a list of ten requirements:

  1. believing
  2. being baptized
  3. being a loyal member of the Church
  4. loving God
  5. loving his neighbor
  6. keeping the Ten Commandments
  7. receiving the sacraments, especially Holy Communion
  8. praying
  9. doing good works
  10. dying in a state of grace

Based on this list, I have developed a technique for sharing the gospel with Catholics called the Pocket Evangelism Kit. It is made up of a number of illustrated cards, each representing one aspect of the Catholic plan of salvation. The cards are placed before the Catholic with a brief explanation of what each represents. The person is then asked to pick up those cards that he or she considers necessary for salvation. The purpose is to help the person see what he is trusting in for his salvation.

Catholics typically pick up several cards. A well-taught Catholic will take most, if not all of them, as the catechism answer above instructs. Most Catholics make their selection with an attitude of the more the better!

Once the person has made his selection, he is asked several questions to help him rethink his selection. For example, should the person select the card titled “Keeping the Ten Commandments,” he is asked: “Are you able to keep the Ten Commandments to God’s standard?” If he picks the card titled “Loving Your Neighbor,” he is asked: “Do you love your neighbor with the kind of love that God requires?” If he selects the “Doing Good Works” card, the question is: “How many good works do you have to do to get into heaven?” It is surprising how readily most Catholics admit that they can’t do the things that they have selected as being necessary for salvation.

Should the Catholic pick up the card titled “Believing in God”—and most do—the person is asked, “What must you believe in order to go to heaven?” Here one would hope to hear something about the Lord Jesus and His saving work on the cross. More often than not, however, Catholics say nothing about Him. Instead they speak of the necessity of believing that God exists, that He is loving and merciful, or that He will forgive those who are truly sorry for their sins.

It is interesting to see the reaction of Catholics who fail to make any mention of Jesus when the omission is pointed out to them. Linda was such a person. I showed her the cards and asked her to pick up the ones that she thought were necessary for salvation. Linda chose most of them. When I asked her to explain her selection, she mentioned neither Jesus nor the cross. When I brought this omission to her attention, she became defensive.

“Your question was unfair!” Linda protested. “You asked what I had to do to be saved. If you had asked me about Jesus, I would have—” Linda suddenly paused and became reflective. She then continued in a quieter voice. “No, I have no excuse. I should have mentioned Jesus. I think I have just learned something very important.”

I hoped that Linda had learned that no true Christian could forget to mention Jesus when asked how to get to heaven. I hoped that she realized that she needed to place her trust in Christ for salvation. But despite her admission, Linda continues to cling to the Ro­man Catholic Church and the false gospel that it teaches.

Knowing Where You’re Going

When we asked Pat, a Catholic woman from Ohio whom we interviewed outside of Saint Patrick Cathedral in New York how she hoped to get to heaven, she answered, “Catholicism isn’t any different than any other religion. You obey the Ten Commandments, and I think you’ve got a pretty good chance. You can’t go wrong with the Ten Command­ments.”

At least with regard to her first remark, Pat is correct. Catholicism isn’t any different from most other religions. Whether it is Islam, Hinduism, a mixture of Chinese religions, or one of the Christian sects such as Mormonism or the Jehovah Witnesses, most religions are basically the same. Like Roman Catholicism, they all teach: Live a good life here on earth and you have a pretty good chance of enjoying blessing in the next life.

Biblical Christianity stands apart. It teaches that “no one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18), that “all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment” (Isaiah 64:6). True Christianity teaches that sinners can be accepted by God through the righteous work of another (Romans 3:21-26; 2 Corinthians 5:21). It proclaims a Savior who paid our penalty for us with His own life (Mark 10:45; 1 Peter 2:24). It tells of God’s offer of eternal life to anyone who repents and believes (Mark 1:15; John 3:16; Ephesians 2:8-9). Those who accept this free gift of God can know that they are going to heaven, because their accep­tance before God is in Christ, not themselves. The Lord assured His disciples, saying, “rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven” (Luke 10:29). He said, “I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:28-29). The Holy Spirit also participates in guaranteeing

the future of the redeemed. At the moment of salvation the Spirit comes to dwell in each believer “as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own pos­session, to the praise of His glory” (Ephesians 1:14).

Rash presumption is what Rome calls this. And right it would be if salvation were de­pendent, even in part, upon our own righteous deeds. Believing the promises of Scripture, however, is not presumption but faith in God.

Adapted from Conversations with Catholics by James G. McCarthy (Harvest House Publishers: Eugene, 1997)


  1. Father William J. Cogan, A Catechism ofr Adults (Youngstown: Cogan Productions, 1975), p. 50.

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