How do Catholics believe that people are saved?
Catholics believe that salvation is a life-long process, a gift of God’s grace. Catholics do not describe salvation as a one time event (i.e. ‘I got saved’) as in some traditions. Catholics believe that both faith and works are indispensable parts of salvation. Both things are entirely the fruit of the Holy Spirit. This process does not happen against our will – God initiates and makes it possible to respond, but allows us to say no or even choose to fall away. Thus, where a good Protestant may say, ‘I am saved’ a good Catholic will say, ‘I have been saved, I am being saved, and I hope to be saved.’
Everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23) Because of our sins, we deserve death. Salvation is a gift that we inherit through faith and do not merit or earn in any way shape or form. (Ephesians 2:8) We need God’s mercy. (Romans 9:16) From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God… (CCC 1996)
With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality… (CCC 2007)
The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” and through Baptism. (CCC 1987)
Baptism is one of the tangible means by which God provides grace to us, just as in the Bible God often used physical things like spit or water to provide healing. (cf. II Kings 5:14, Mark 8:23) The Bible talks about Baptism this way:
This prefigured baptism, which saves you now. It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (I Peter 3:21, cf. John 3:5)
We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. (Romans 6:4)
So we receive grace in many ways, including Baptism. ‘The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion.’ (cf. John 6:29, CCC 1989) Note that faith itself is a work of God. Other good works also come from God. (I Corinthians 12:4-6, CCC 2003) Although we are saved through faith, not by works of the Old Testament law, (Romans 3:28) we are not saved by faith alone. Cooperating with the Holy Spirit’s work in our life (especially, but not only, faith) is necessary. There is only one place in the Bible where the words ‘faith alone’ appear:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? …You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble. Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called “the friend of God.” See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:14, 19-24)
Jesus himself makes it abundantly clear that good works are necessary. He pictures God welcoming those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcome to the stranger, clothing to the naked, care to the sick and companionship to the prisoner. Those who did not do these good works, protestations of ‘Lord, Lord, I prophesied in your name!’ notwithstanding, are condemned. (cf. Matthew 25:34-46)
Properly speaking, it is God who elicits good works in the life of the believer. Our job is to cooperate. If we reject God, it is possible to make a shipwreck of our faith or have our love for Jesus grow cold. (Matt 24:12, I Timothy 1:19) Yet, ‘the one who perseveres to the end will be saved.’ (Matt 24:13) In the end, it is the work of the Cross that saves as the sole and sure source of all that is needful for salvation. (CCC 1992)
As an interesting side note, Lutherans and the Catholic Church have formally acknowledged in regards to this issue that they agree on the basics and that ‘the remaining differences of language, theological elaboration and emphasis… are acceptable.’ (Joint Statement on Justification)
For more information: Catholic Answers
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N.B. I am only a new Catholic. Though I have an undergrad in theology and am working on a Masters, I will not be a flawless source of information. But friends and family have many questions since my wife and I began becoming Catholics, and this is an attempt to answer those questions.