What Does the Catholic Church Teach Concerning Salvation?-Part 1

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2003
The Catholic Church teaches that after baptism, if a man or woman commits mortal sin, he or she loses salvation. What must they do to regain it? According to the Catholic Church, confession and penance are necessary.

Brief of Issues For Penance and Confession

We will now explain in more depth what the Catholic Church teaches concerning salva­tion. Here it will help the reader to first understand the issues of penance and confession.

As we have seen previously, the Catholic Church teaches that after baptism, if a man or woman commits mortal sin, he or she loses salvation. In order to regain salvation a person must perform the sacrament of penance. Catholicism defines the sacrament of penance as having three parts: first “contrition”—that is, a person must be sorry for his sins; second, a person must fully confess each one of his mortal sins to a priest; and third, he must do works of satisfaction such as fasting, saying prayers, alms giving, or doing other works of piety the priest gives him to do. According to the Catholic Church, after baptism, anyone who commits mortal sin and does not do penance will not regain salvation and will not be forgiven by God.

Is Catholicism’s doctrine of penance truly biblical? Is Catholicism correct in saying that it is absolutely necessary for a person to do penance before God will forgive him?”

Protestants believe man cannot merit God’s justification and forgiveness of sin by work­ing in cooperation with God’s power. If we could, salvation and forgiveness would not be entirely a free gift of God (Romans 3:24). They believe that Catholicism’s sacrament of penance infers that the sacrifice of Christ was not sufficient to atone fully for man’s sin and that Christ’s sacrifice must be supplemented by man’s good works. They believe that it is solely the merits of Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross which are imputed or transferred to the believer that cancel out the sinner’s debt. This is why Protestants maintain justifica­tion and forgiveness take place in a single moment—the moment the sinner, through faith, asks Christ for forgiveness of his sins. However, Roman Catholics believe that much more than faith is needed in order for a person to obtain forgiveness. They insist there must be both faith and works.

The Council of Trent declared, “If anyone says that the good works of the one justified… do not truly merit an increase of grace, [and the obtaining of] eternal life, let him be anath­ema.”[1]

But Protestants respond, “Only Jesus Christ can atone for man’s mortal sins, and He did this once for all, when He died on the cross and completely satisfied the divine law.” Prot­estants maintain that what God desires in the sinner before He grants forgiveness is not works of satisfaction, or self-punishment for sins through penance, but repentance, which is a change of heart, a turning away from sin, and a complete trust in the work of Christ for the forgiveness of sin.

Protestants assert that I John 1:9 denies priestly confession because, in context, it speaks of confession only to God, never even mentioning a priest: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Yet at the Council of Trent the Catholic Church declared priestly confession was necessary: “The Universal Church has always understood that the complete confession of sins was also instituted by our Lord, and by divine law necessary for all who have fallen after baptism; because our Lord Jesus Christ… left behind Him priests, His own vicars, as rulers and judges, to whom all the mortal sins into which the faithful of Christ may have fallen should be brought, in order that they may, in virtue of the power of the keys, pronounce the sentence of remission or retention of sins.”[2]

Catholicism claims the evidence for their practice of confession stems from two sources: first, from Jesus’ own words in John 20:23, and second, the unanimous agreement of the Church Fathers. Jesus said in John 20:23, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But does this verse teach Christians must confess their sins to a priest, or is Jesus describing what God will do as a result of the apostolic preaching the gospel?

John is not saying that the apostles or anyone else has the power to “forgive” sins in a priestly confessional, as Rome teaches. Instead, the apostle is teaching that when we go out and preach the gospel, as Jesus commanded us to, we are doing exactly what His Father sent Him to do. If men accept the gospel, then we have the right to say to them, “Your sins are forgiven because you have placed your trust in Jesus Christ.” If men reject the gospel, we also have the right to say to them, “You are still in your sins; they cannot be forgiven before God until you believe in His Son.”

Thus, Protestants do not believe that it is necessary for a person to confess his sins to a priest before God will forgive him. Protestants assert that all believers have been given the right of access to God through Christ and are able to go directly to God in prayer. 1 Timothy 2:5 declares, “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.” If Christ is the true Mediator between God and man, then men should con­fess their sins to Him, not to a priest.

All Christians will agree that nothing is more important than the doctrine of salvation. Although it is clearly a vital theological truth, on the individual level it has eternal, practical importance. Further, all Catholics will claim that the popes have always taught, in the words of John Paul II, that “man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”[3]

Despite changes in Catholicism, most priests remain loyal to Rome and this explains why, according to one of the most thorough polls of American clergy ever made, “Over three-quarters of Roman Catholic priests reject the view that our only hope for heaven is through personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. They hold instead that ‘heaven is a divine reward for those who earn it by their good life.’” Priestly loyalty to Rome (i.e., the pope), also reveals why “four-fifths of all priests reject the Bible as the first place to turn in deciding religious questions; rather, they test their religious beliefs by what the Church says.”[4]

The reason why the majority of Catholic priests reject the biblical doctrine of salvation is because as priests—loyal to the pope—they are required to reject the idea that divine authority resides only in the Bible. For them, divine authority resides in the Catholic Church and its Tradition. Priests, therefore, look primarily to the Church for answers to religious questions because they believe only the Catholic Church can infallibly determine proper doctrine through its infallible interpretation of the Bible. Thus, a study of Catholic history will show that it is the Church, and not the Bible, which has developed Catholic doctrine over the years.

These doctrines are, in part, upheld by the unique definition Rome gives to biblical words.

Biblically speaking, the problem faced in a discussion of the Catholic concept of salva­tion is similar to that of many other religions and even cults that claim allegiance to the Bible and yet through various means reject its authority. Among such groups are Mormons, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Way International. Typically, biblical authority is undermined because the Bible is read through the eyes of a new source of authority that is itself anti-biblical. Whether it is the occult writings of Joseph Smith (Mor­monism), or of Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science), the Watchtower Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses) or Victor Paul Wierwille (The Way International), the teachings of the Bible become distorted—because now their true interpreter has become an alien source of information rather than the biblical words themselves. Unfortunately, this is also the case with Catholic Tradition—and it occurs as well through both Protestant and Catholic use of higher criticism.

Thus, because of the larger Catholic theology (Tradition) into which biblical words and concepts are placed, their final meaning is frequently unbiblical. The end result is that when Catholics use proper terminology and sound evangelical, they tend to confuse even many Protestants about Catholic teaching on salvation.

For example, Catholic writers often speak of “salvation by grace” and cite biblical Scrip­tures to that effect. In response to the Protestant charge that, “The Catholic church teaches we earn salvation by good works,” Karl Keating offers the following response: “The Catholic Church has never taught such a doctrine. In fact, it has constantly condemned the notion that we can earn salvation. Only by God’s grace, completely unmerited by works, is one saved. The Church teaches that it’s God’s grace from beginning to end which justifies, sanctifies, and saves us.”[5]

While this sounds perfectly orthodox, we must realize these words mean something quite different to a Catholic than to a Protestant. Keating and other Catholics are simply reiterating the position of the Council of Trent that no one can do good works or please God apart from the prior infusing of sanctifying grace. But—and this is key—Catholic theol­ogy goes on to teach that these very works which are inspired by grace are, in the end, what helps to save a person.


  1. J. H. Schroeder, trans., The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 1978), p. 46.
  2. Ibid., p. 92.
  3. Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1983, Part I, 10.
  4. Editorial, “What Separates Evangelicals and Catholics,” Christianity Today, October 23, 1981, 14- 15, emphasis added.
  5. Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on “Romanism” by “Bible Christians” (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1988), p. 103.


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1 Comment

  1. Maureen on July 23, 2021 at 3:50 pm

    With all the misunderstanding, miscommunication re: type of Mass, and more, no wonder Catholics are confused. can you expound on what it means, “salvation is through the church”?

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