Salvation is a complicated thing. It is not as simple as walking an aisle and saying a prayer. It is God-designed, God-formulated, God-completed, and God-provided. There are, however, misconceptions not only by Protestants but by many Catholics regarding what salvation is and how to obtain it. An easy way to understand it is to think of it like a coin. A coin has two sides, and both sides are needed to make the coin have value. When we think of salvation being a two-sided coin then we see the total picture.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is a gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8)
“Faith, of itself, if it does not have work, is dead.” (James 2:17)
There is a common misconception and Protestant promulgation that preaches falsehoods about what the Catholic Church believes in terms of salvation. The deception by Protestants claiming Catholics believe in a works-based salvation exclusively is false and, in fact, that accusation is claiming the Catholic Church promotes heresy. This kind of heresy has been strictly condemned and forbidden by the Church.
Protestants, and other opposers to Catholicism, will often use Ephesians 2:8 for their evidence that it is by faith alone (sola fide) one can be saved and receive justification. There are a couple different things wrong with this belief and, specifically, when it comes to the weaponization of this verse against Catholics. The primary problem is the claim is rooted in ignorance of Catholic history, truth, and doctrine. (Oftentimes it is willful ignorance, but ignorance none the less)
Catholic salvation theology (soteriology) comes from Sacred Scripture paired with Apostolic Tradition. It is directly opposed to the confusion propagated by Protestants about Catholics. The Church teaches it is only by God’s grace -completely unmerited by works – that one is saved. It does not, on the other hand, discount and disregard the importance of good works. We must distinguish between God’s grace regarding salvation and works in regard to salvation. To understand the totality of salvation, all scripture must be taken into account and in context. A single focus on Ephesians 2:8 can easily give the impression grace by itself is the only thing needed. However, Paul also writes to the Philippians, “God is the one, who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work.” (Philippians 2:13)
Unlike an exclusive focus on one verse in Ephesians, Paul’s writing to the Philippians presupposes that faithful Christians are not only desiring to be righteous and to live for Christ, but they are actively living and working toward that goal. This is the other side of the salvation coin that Protestants, and even some Catholics, miss or ignore.
One of the strongest teachings against works-based righteousness by the Church comes from the Council of Trent. “If anyone says that man can be justified before God by his own works, whether done by his own natural powers or by the teaching of the Law, without divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema.” (Session 6; Can. 1)
As we work our way through Sacred Scripture, in conjunction with official Church doctrine and teaching, let’s not forget about James 2:17 that reminds us “faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” If we read a few more verses down from this verse, in the same chapter, we read “for just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” (James 2:26)
What do the Church Fathers and official Church doctrine say about a works-based salvation? “If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema.” (Council of Trent, Session 6; Can. 9)
Anathema, contrary to how it is used in Sacred Scripture, is not in reference to a condemnation to hell. Many believe the language references a person’s eternal damnation. It does not. From the Church’s official writings, the phrase “let him be anathema” means “let him be excommunicated.” The word, although used in reference to Scripture does, indeed, reference condemnation. However, the phrase from the Council of Trent references excommunication and not eternal damnation. The phrase was used in conciliar documents in a technical and theological sense. The threat and permissibility of excommunication as a result of belief in faith alone salvation or works-based salvation exclusively is a high price for actually following Church teaching. (Theorizing, of course, if the Protestant view of what Catholics teaching about salvation was accurate)
The Catholic Church teaches both sides of the coin, which is the true, Biblical doctrine of justification. It is essential to understand salvation, sanctification, and justification are all different. They all work together for eternal life for those in Christ. It is not, however, “Jesus and only Jesus.” It is not, “work your way to heaven by doing good things.” It is a two-sided coin. It is faith AND works. It is the work of Jesus on the cross that provides us forgiveness and builds the bridge between sinners and eternal life with Christ. It is the Holy Spirit and the graces which flow through our works that keep our salvation until the end. The two-sided coin of salvation analogy is a complete and accurate Biblical view of how we are to live our life. It is a proper understanding of Catholic theology. It demolishes the “once saved always saved” (Eternal Security) Protestant theology and opens the door to a liberating life in Christ.