Perhaps the greatest difference between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism lies in their teachings on how people are saved. Do Catholics teach that meritorious works play an important part in salvation?
Recent conversations with former Catholics—including a former nun—who have become Protestants but maintain close contact with Catholic lay people, have helped me to understand that, at least here in the United States, many Catholics are "coming around" to a more Bible-based understanding of salvation.
But in my travels throughout the world, I see evidence that many if not most of the Catholic faithful still believe they must rely at least in part on their own works to earn salvation. Whether this belief is translated into penitential exercises in self-abasement, such as crawling the length of the Black Christ cathedral in Manila, or simply attending a mass in the Lvov cathedral in the Ukraine, the reasoning behind the activity is the same.
But rather than passing judgment on Catholics, other Christians need to ex amine the motivations behind their own activities. The heart, according to Jeremiah, "is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked." Furthermore, "who can know it?" (Jer. 17:9). It is not difficult for Christians of any denomination to slip into the slime of salvation by works.
The apostle Paul labels meritorious works in the Christian life "rubbish." His desire was to "be found in him [Christ], not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith" (Phil. 3:8, 9, NIV).
Peter makes it clear that we are not redeemed "with perishable things such as silver or gold . . . but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect" (1 Peter 1:18,19, NIV). These and other passages make it clear that neither sacraments, pilgrimages, baptism, commandment keeping, penance, confession, gifts to the church, candle-burning, faithful church attendance, assisting the poor and needy, nor any other good work will ever help merit salvation!
Paul, in his letter to Titus, which deals in part with the problem of Jewish legalism, speaks of the "kindness of God our Savior . . . for mankind." Then he declares that "He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy" (Titus 3:4, 5, NASB). The pure principles of the gospel found in the Scriptures in both the Old and New Testament make it clear that our salvation and acceptance by God is based not on our obedience, but on Christ's, for "by one Man's obedience many will be made righteous" (Rom. 5:19, NKJV). This obedience is available to believers who are "justified freely by his grace" (Rom. 3:24).
How many, Catholic or Protestant, believe that their standing before God does not depend on their good and bad deeds? Addressing this point Paul emphasizes that we are justified through faith by God's grace, not by works of the law. He pointed to Abraham who "believed, God and it was counted ["credit ed," NIV] unto him for righteousness" (Rom. 4:3; see also Gen. 15:6). He was justified before he underwent circumcision, not on account of it (Rom. 4:9, 10).
What kind of faith did Abraham have ? The Scriptures reveal that "by faith Abraham obeyed" when God called him, leaving his homeland and traveling, "not knowing where he was going" (Heb. 11:8, NKJV; see also Gen. 12:4; 13:18). It is evident that Abraham had a genuine, living faith in God. And his faith was demonstrated by obedience. But his works of obedience never were meritorious, never recommended him to God, never paid for or helped pay for a single sin!
Tragically, the entire sacrificial system of the ancient Old Testament sanctuary was turned into a system of works. This perversion of the true gospel became so nauseating to God that He proclaimed through the prophet Isaiah, "The multitude of your sacrifices what are they to me? ... I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and rams and goats.. . . Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New moons, Sabbaths and convocations I cannot bear your evil assemblies" (Isa. 1:11-14, NIV). Finally the Lord made this mighty appeal: "Come now, let us reason together. . . . Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool" (Isa. 1:18, NIV).
How does a person become clean, justified, and saved? On what basis are we accepted by God? It is through the merits of Christ alone. Nothing we do or ever can do will recommend us to God. God's justification of the sinner rests not on what the sinner does. Even if a person has a perfect character and renders absolute obedience, his justification is based on Christ's act of righteousness (see Rom. 5:18, 19).
Some pervert this tremendous truth by going to the opposite extreme. They ignore works entirely. Works done to earn merit should be ignored, but we cannot ignore the response of a Christ-loving Christian who senses God's tremendous love. We understand that while we have been "without strength," "ungodly," "sinners," and "enemies," God "commendeth his love toward us" (Rom. 5:6- 10). This irresistible, unfathomable, in comprehensible love is what changes a person is what converts a person. When we concentrate on God's magnificent love, not sporadically, but consistently, the Holy Spirit creates in our hearts an unconquerable desire to obey and serve Him. Like Paul at his Damascus road conversion experience, we cry out, "Lord, what do You want me to do ?" But this response and our activities are founded on love, not on a desire to earn merit.
It is time for Christians of all persuasions to examine their own hearts on this subject. Our modern scientific society with its egocentric emphasis creates a formidable barrier to a correct under standing of the true gospel. We live in an age of rewards an age of human glorification. Our proud, world-loving hearts clamor for recognition. Our educational system is built on the foundation of re wards. Our work force is rewarded on the basis of performance. Our pay scales, even church pay scales, are reward-oriented. The entire spectrum of sports is overwhelmingly related to rewards. The Olympic gold and silver awards are coveted almost above life itself! Some of the athletes in a recent Olympic competition were asked which they would choose a gold medal with a shortened life, or a longer life without the medal. Some said they would accept an early death if they could only receive the gold medal!
The reward system is certainly found in Scripture but it must never be con fused with the gift of salvation by faith alone in Jesus Christ. Eternal life is a gift, not a reward. Salvation cannot be earned! It cannot be bought! It cannot be deserved even by the greatest Christian!
Finally, the enormous amount of energy and money spent on books and seminars designed to raise the level of self-esteem may give a sense of security to some. But nothing elevates a proper self-respect and appreciation for the value of one's own soul as much as an understanding of salvation by faith alone in the Lord Jesus Christ. When we behold the glory of the God of heaven, and recognize to what depths our Saviour stooped to re deem us, we can then, and only then, begin to understand how valuable we re ally are. Such an understanding will eliminate any proud boasts of our achievements in the spiritual realm. One little ray of the glory of God, one gleam of the purity of Christ, one tiny vision of God's love exhibited on the cross makes it manifestly clear that attempts to work our way into heaven are based on a pro found misunderstanding of the plan of salvation.
One wonders how many Christians of any persuasion have really grasped this tremendous truth.