Saved by Sacraments or by Grace?

Catholic soteriology appears to me to be an incredibly complex examination of an indistinct doctrine concerning an ephemeral condition. Salvation in the Catholic manner is a sometime status that must be earned and maintained in accordance with rules and requirements established by the rulers of the Catholic Church. Once conferred by Mama Church, this earned salvation is subject to withdrawal at the whim of the Catholic priestly hierarchy.

As a cradle Catholic raised in the Roman Church, I don't recall having been taught much about salvation by faith. What I was taught involved ticking off steps in a virtual checklist.

I clearly remember my very first lesson at Sts. Peter and Paul elementary school. As Sister walked me down the hall to my new classroom, she required me to say with her, over and over, the mantra known as The Hail Mary. The great bulk of other religious training I received in that school apparently was intended to cement me into a master/slave relationship with the Catholic priesthood—and I was the slave.

In this school, which stood in the shadow of a truly enormous Catholic seminary, it was made crystal clear that one is saved by faith in Jesus Christ. Any benefits from such faith, however, were controlled by the Church and doled out by her priests. Man is born in sin, I was taught; being baptized cleans one from the stains of original and subsequent sins committed up to the moment of receiving what Catholicism calls the Sacrament of Baptism.

978. 'When we made our first profession of faith while receiving the holy Baptism that cleansed us, the forgiveness we received then was so full and complete that there remained in us absolutely nothing left to efface, neither original sin nor offenses committed by our own will, nor was there left any penalty to suffer in order to expiate them....Yet the grace of Baptism delivers no one from all the weakness of nature. On the contrary, we must still combat the movements of concupiscence that never cease leading us into evil '[Roman Catechism I, 11,3.]Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed., © 1994/1997 United States Catholic Conference, Inc.

This cleansing and salvation is not permanent and can quickly be compromised or lost by sinning after baptism. This means that the sinner, now fallen from grace, is destined to the fires of Hell, unless he participates in various RCC Sacraments for cleansing the stains of sin. The sinner's state of grace may be restored or enhanced by one or a combination of Sacraments and ancillary acts (The names change from time to time, so I will name them as I was taught as a child: Confession, Penance, Communion, attendance at Mass [Eucharist], Extreme Unction). There are other provisions for the removal of some or all the effects of sin, such as indulgences and so forth, but all these means to be restored to a state of grace are controlled not by God but by the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church. In other words, salvation is not so much a gift of God but a beneficence controlled and bestowed by the Roman church.

Should the out-of-grace sinner die before having been shriven by a Catholic priest, he would be bound for an eternity of torment in the fires of Hell. Thus, fear of condemnation was instilled in we Catholic children as an incentive to go frequently to Confession, so that our priest could absolve us of the consequences of our sins. In the confessional, the priest would listen to our recitation of childish sins and then pronounce us forgiven, subject to our doing a penance and making an act of Perfect Contrition. Modern Catholic jargon identifies this process as the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

1496 The spiritual effects of the sacrament of Penance are:
- reconciliation with God by which the penitent recovers grace;
- reconciliation with the Church;
- remission of the eternal punishment incurred by mortal sins;
- remission, at least in part, of temporal punishments resulting from sin;
- peace and serenity of conscience, and spiritual consolation; - an increase of spiritual strength for the Christian battle.

Once I had made my first Confession, I was eligible to make my First Holy Communion. My training for this great moment in Catholic religious life involved quite a bit of teaching on the priest's role as a surrogate Christ; on the Real Presence in the consecrated host, or communion wafer; and on the importance to my spiritual journey of taking this sacrament frequently. I also was taught that it was forbidden to consume either food or drink from midnight until an hour after having taken Communion. So strict were the rules that we children were warned to exercise great caution when brushing our teeth; lest even a drop of water find its way down our throats. We were to kneel at the communion rail, our eyes looking downward, until the altar boy passed the paten under out chins; at which point we were to raise our heads, keep the eyes closed, and stick out our tongues to receive the host from the priest's fingers. Then, after a brief interior prayer of thanksgiving and the making of the sign of the cross, we were to return to our pews. As we walked back to the pews, we were to keep our eyes cast downward and hold our hands in a prayerful clasp. Under no conditions were we to chew the host, which we were told was the “real and substantial body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ.” Being made of flour and water, the host soon turned to a glutinous paste when combined with saliva. This gooey mass quickly deposited itself on the roof of the mouth, where it would stay as it slowly dissolved.

1324 The Eucharist is "the source and summit of the Christian life." "The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch."Ibid.

As I grew older, I began preparations for my Confirmation. This is another Catholic sacrament of initiation that is intended to enhance the gifts received at baptism. It presupposes a mature Catholic commitment and, Sister often told us, would make us “Soldiers of Christ.” My Confirmation was a ritual thing of beauty; celebrated during a special High Mass. During the ceremony, Archbishop John T. McNicholas blessed me and laid hands upon me, thereby giving me the Holy Spirit. At least, this is what I was taught.

1316 Confirmation perfects Baptismal grace; it is the sacrament which gives the Holy Spirit in order to root us more deeply in the divine filiation, incorporate us more firmly into Christ, strengthen our bond with the Church, associate us more closely with her mission, and help us bear witness to the Christian faith in words accompanied by deeds.Ibid

Once the Sacraments of Initiation were completed, I was a full-fledged member in good standing of the Roman Catholic Church.

But was I truly saved?

I sometimes ask Catholic apologists what is, to me, a simple and straightforward question:

What must I do to be saved?

In every instance when my Catholic antagonist responds, his reply cites things that I must do, if I am to be saved. What follows is a typical Catholic apologist's simplified declaration of Catholic soteriology:

“What must I do to be saved?” 1) Accept God's grace, 2) Believe in God and be baptized 3) Persevere to the end.

My reply would go something like this:

Your response seems to reflect RCC semi-Pelagian soteriology, but how do you know that what you believe is correct? You have provided no sources to authenticate the four requirements you list.

According to your response, man is not only a partner in his own salvation, but actually controls the process. Let us examine the steps:

1) Accept God's grace: Does man choose to accept or reject God's grace, thereby negating the sovereignty of God? Scripture is quite clear that it is God who chooses and that those whom He chooses will be saved. Does it not seem just a bit unlikely that God would elect an individual to salvation and eternal life and then leave it up to that individual to decide whether to conform to God's will and accept His gracious gift? Such a point of view makes Almighty God no more mighty than the mother who buys a shirt at K-Mart and offers it to her son, hoping he will accept and wear it.

28 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.
29 For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.
30 Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.
—Romans 8:28-30

2) Believe in God and be baptized: Certainly, one must believe in God, but the Scriptures tell us, over and again, that salvation comes by faith in Christ, by believing in the Son of God. For example:

16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
—John 3:16-18

Every Protestant professing Christian I know considers the ordinance of baptism to be of great importance, but not necessary to salvation. In baptism, the Christian publicly identifies with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ; thereby proclaiming his faith to the world. He is not saved by baptism, nor are any sins forgiven as a consequence of being baptized. There is nothing in Scripture to suggest that, in baptism, sins are forgiven. Catholic spokesmen sometimes point to John's baptism for repentance as a proof that baptism removes the stain of sin. This is not so, of course, for it was but a call to Jews to publicly declare their intention to repent of their worldly ways and to return godly living. Jesus submitted to John's baptism. Surely He had no sins of which He needed to be cleansed. Baptism is a work, in the Roman Church it is a sacrament; in Protestant churches it is an ordinance. Having water dribbled on the forehead or taking a dip, in either church, does not erase sin and its effects on man. Salvation is by faith, not by works.

3) Persevere to the end: This is a tough issue. Even in some non-Catholic churches, there are those who believe that God's mercy and salvation are sometime things to be given and taken away repeatedly. The Bible is clear that not one soul that God gives to the Son will be lost – not a single one. Is God a liar?

37 All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.
38 For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.
39 And this is the Father's will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day.
40 And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.
—John 6:37-40

We've looked at the Catholic requirements for salvation. Now, it's time to see what Scripture says:

4 But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us,
5 Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved)
6 And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus:
7 That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.
8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.

10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.
—Ephesians 2:4-10

In His written revelation to man, Almighty God tells us:

1 For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect.
2 For then would they not have ceased to be offered? because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins.
3 But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year.
4 For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.
5 Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me:
6 In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure.
7 Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me) to do thy will, O God.
8 Above when he said, Sacrifice and offering and burnt offerings and offering for sin thou wouldest not, neither hadst pleasure therein; which are offered by the law;
9 Then said he, Lo, I come to do thy will, O God. He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second.
10 By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
11 And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins:
12 But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God;
13 From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool.
14 For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.
—Hebrews 10:1-13

What more need be said?

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