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“What do Roman Catholics mean when they say that salvation is by grace?”

Written by | October, 2017
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Grace is a word that one will hear in almost any church that claims to be Christian. Even those denominations that deny Christ’s deity as well as those who don’t speak about the cross will talk about grace. Grace is a recurring word in the Bible, and those who claim to be speaking for Christ are compelled to use it in their preaching and teaching. The problem comes when such denominations force their own definitions into the word so that it no longer represents the biblical meaning.

According to the Bible’s use of the word, grace is simply a free gift of love. When it says that it is “by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:8 ESV), it explains itself by continuing with these words, “it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” In other words, grace excludes the idea that we can do anything that results in our salvation. From beginning to end, salvation is a free gift given to us only because of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus.

If the Roman Catholic Church were to teach this truth, we would most certainly rejoice. Sadly, this is not at all what they mean when they talk about being “saved by grace.” In their own writings and official teachings, they not only deny salvation by grace, but also condemn those who believe that salvation is a free gift.

So, what do Roman Catholics mean when they say that salvation is by grace? From their own website (catholic.com), their understanding of grace is “a supernatural push or encouragement . . . .  It’s a supernatural kick in the pants.” This “supernatural kick in the pants” understanding of grace betrays the whole theology of Roman Catholicism. From their theological perspective, grace becomes the motivation that spurs the individual to a life of good works so that he can be saved. With this understanding of grace, they can still give God some of the credit, even while making their good works the cause of salvation.

Besides the fact that the Christian needs no motivation for a life of good works (he simply performs good works because he is a new creature in Christ), those good works are not the cause of one’s salvation, but rather the result of it. Roman Catholicism’s theology of salvation amounts to a driver looking at the speedometer and believing that the movement of the needle is what makes the car go faster.

Ultimately, what Roman Catholicism teaches the sinner to do is to look away from Christ and His cross and look instead to himself for salvation. If he produces enough good works, then he will be saved. Jesus and the Gospel become nothing more than a motivating factor that will allow the individual to do what is necessary to be saved. They call it “salvation by grace” because grace kicks them in the pants to perform good works so that they will finally be saved.

The Bible’s presentation of salvation by grace is far more wonderful than that. It leaves our salvation completely in the only place it is secure, which is in Christ, whom God gave to be our Savior because of His great love. With this understanding, grace is most definitely a sweet sound, for only by it can a “wretch like me” be saved.

Your pastor is given by Jesus to help you in your study of God’s Word, especially when it comes to this central teaching of grace. If you have more questions or would simply like to study this topic in more detail, let him know. He will be happy to study it with you.

Frank Gantt is pastor of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Atlanta, Georgia.