Saving Faith: How does Rome Define It?

Is There a Basis for Unity Between Roman Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism?

by William Webster

The Roman Teaching on Saving Faith

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that justification is by grace through faith on account of Jesus Christ. This sounds quite orthodox, but on closer examination it becomes clear that the meaning of the terms faith, justification and grace are defined differently by the Roman Catholic Church from that of the Protestant. Though the two churches use the same terms they do not mean the same things by them. This is similar historically to the Pelagian controversy in the early 5th century. Pelagius was a heretic vigorously opposed by Augustine and the orthodox Church of his day. But both Pelagius and Augustine would have passed the test for unity as proscribed by the proponents of ECT 1 and 2. Both men affirmed the truth of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds and the fourth century Councils. Was Augustine then wrong in opposing him? No, because his salvation teachings were indeed heretical. And yet Pelagius used orthodox theological terms in his teaching. He stated without qualification that he believed in salvation by grace through faith. But the problem is that the way he defined his terms contradicted their biblical and orthodox meaning. If one did not press Pelagius for definitions and was simply satisfied with general statements of belief, then he would appear to be orthodox. Definition of terms is crucial because these words and what we say they mean must conform to their biblical meaning. It is of the utmost importance that we ask the question: What does the Roman Catholic Church mean by faith? What is the content of that faith and what precisely does it mean by justification? The Roman Church has not left us in doubt as to what it teaches about justification or faith and the doctrinal content of faith that is saving. By its dogmatic decrees as promulgated by Popes and Councils the Roman Catholic Church has clearly defined the meaning of such faith. We need to keep in mind that, in Roman Catholic theology, papal decrees when they are given ex cathedra are infallible as are the decrees of Ecumenical and Roman Catholic councils.

Thus, the decrees of the Council of Trent and Vatican I and the papal decrees on Mary form part of the doctrinal content of saving faith. These decrees are defined as being necessary to be believed for salvation and the Roman Church anathematizes all who would disagree with or reject these teachings.

We need to say a word here about the meaning of the term anathema. In the formal sense the term means excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church. However, the essential meaning of the word goes far beyond this. Ultimately to be anathematized by the Church of Rome means to be cut off from the Church which is the source of salvation. Consequently, the term indirectly involves a condemnation of the individual anathematized to hell unless there is repentance and a return to the Roman Church and an embracing of its teachings.

Therefore, it is important to understand that, according to the Church of Rome, apart from an embracing of its doctrines there is no salvation. This is clearly seen from the teaching of Vatican I on the meaning of saving faith and the role of the Church in defining the doctrinal content of such faith. Therefore, the gospel according to Rome consists of justification that is a process and is dependent upon the works and merits of the individual, the Roman Catholic sacraments as a means of salvation, the full embracing of the Roman Catholic teaching of papal infallibilty and jurisdiction and the Marian doctrines of the immaculate conception and assumption. Unless one believes these things and submits to them there is no justification or salvation. Is this the biblical gospel delineated in the scriptures and proclaimed by the apostles? Most assuredly not! It is a fundamental denial of the biblical teaching of salvation. As such there is no grounds for the appeal for unity of those involved in the ECT accord, for the Evangelical and Roman Catholic Churches are not unified on the meaning of the gospel. Unity that is not grounded in truth is a false political uniformity that must be vigorously yet graciously opposed by all who love the scriptures and who would stand true to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our ultimate loyalty must be to the person of Christ. The culture and the darkness that is enveloping it is not the overriding issue. The ultimate issue is truth and on that basis the evangelical and Roman Catholic Churches are irreparably divided.

Vatican I

Vatican I states that it is necessary for salvation that men and women not only believe all that is revealed in scripture but also everything which is defined and proposed by the Church as having been divinely revealed. To reject anything taught by the Roman Church is to reject saving faith and to forfeit justification and eternal life:

Further, all those things are to be believed with divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the Word of God, written or handed down, and which the Church, either by a solemn judgment, or by her ordinary and universal magisterium, proposes for belief as having been divinely revealed. And since, without faith, it is impossible to please God, and to attain to the fellowship of his children, therefore without faith no one has ever attained justification, nor will any one obtain eternal life unless he shall have persevered in faith unto the end (Dogmatic Decrees of the Vatican Council, On Faith, Chapter III. Found in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (New York:Harper, 1877), Volume II, pp. 244-245).

Ludwig Ott explains the relationship of Dogmas defined by the Church and faith in these words:

By dogma in the strict sense is understood a truth immediately (formally) revealed by God which has been proposed by the Teaching Authority of the Church to be believed as such…All those things are to be believed by divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the Word of God written or handed down and which are proposed for our belief by the Church either in a solemn definition or in its ordinary and universal authoritative teaching. (Vatian I).
+++Two factors or elements may be distinguished in the concept of dogma:
+++A) An immediate Divine Revelation of the particular Dogma…i.e., the Dogma must be immediately revealed by God either explicitly (explicite) or inclusively (implicite), and therefore be contained in the sources of Revelation (Holy Writ or Tradition)
+++B) The Promulgation of the Dogma by the Teaching Authority of the Church (propositio Ecclesiae). This implies, not merely the promulgation of the Truth, but also the obligation on the part of the Faithful of believing the Truth. This promulgation by the Church may be either in an extraordinary manner through a solemn decision of faith made by the Pope or a General Council (Iudicium solemns) or through the ordinary and general teaching power of the Church (Magisterium ordinarium et universale). The latter may be found easily in the catechisms issued by the Bishops.
+++Dogma in its strict signification is the object of both Divine Faith (Fides Divina) and Catholic Faith (Fides Catholica); it is the object of the Divine Faith…by reason of its Divine Revelation; it is the object of Catholic Faith…on account of its infallible doctrinal definition by the Church. If a baptised person deliberately denies or doubts a dogma properly so-called, he is guilty of the sin of heresy (Codex Iuris Canonici 1325, Par. 2), and automatically becomes subject to the punishment of excommunication (Codex Iuris Canonici 2314, Par. I).
+++As far as the content of justifying faith is concerned, the so-called fiducial faith does not suffice. What is demanded is theological or dogmatic faith (confessional faith) which consists in the firm acceptance of the Divine truths of Revelation, on the authority of God Revealing…According to the testimony of Holy Writ, faith and indeed dogmatic faith, is the indispensable prerequisite for the achieving of eternal salvation (emphasis added) (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma(Rockford: Tan, 1974), pp. 4-5, 253).

This point is further emphasiszed by the Roman Catholic theologian John Hardon in his authoritative and popular catechism:

44. What must a Catholic believe with divine faith?
A Catholic must believe with divine faith the whole of revelation, which is contained in the written word of God and in Sacred Tradition.

45. Can a person be a Catholic if he believes most, but not all, the teachings of revelation?
A person cannot be a Catholic if he rejects even a single teaching that he knows has been revealed by God.

46. What will happen to those who lack ‘the faith necessary for salvation’?
Those will not be saved who lack the necessary faith because of their own sinful neglect or conduct. As Christ declared, ‘He who does not believe will be condemned’ (Mark 16:16).

47. Why is divine faith called catholic?
Divine faith is called catholic or universal because a believer must accept everything God has revealed. He may not be selective about what he chooses to believe (John Hardon, The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism (Garden City: Image, 1981).

From the above citations it is clear that, according to Rome, it is incumbent upon all who would experience salvation that they embrace by faith the doctrinal content of the faith as it is authoritatively defined by Popes and Roman Catholic councils. Vatican I specifically states that one cannot experience justification and eternal life apart from a complete embracing of Dogmatic Faith which is the Faith as it is authoritatively defined by the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, as one analyzes the decrees, teachings and anathemas of the Popes made ex cathedra and those of the Councils such as Trent, Vatican I and Vatican II one can clearly ascertain the content of saving faith as it is defined by the Roman Catholic Church. In so doing it becomes very apparent that there is an inherent contradiction between the teaching of Vatican II and that of the popes and Councils which have preceeded it. Vatican II states that Protestants and Orthodox believers are ‘separated brethren,’ implying that they are in fact true Christians and can experience salvation outside of the Roman Catholic Church. This is a clear contradiction to the authoritative papal and conciliar teaching of the Roman Catholic Church prior to Vatican II. The popes in defining the Marian Dogmas have anathematized all who would in any way reject or doubt their teachings. And Trent and Vatican I state that they had met specifically to define dogmas of the faith in order to counter heresy, the teachings specifically held by Protestant and Orthodox believers, and both Councils condemn with anathema all who do not submit to their teachings and embrace with a positive faith what they have promulgated. As Trent states:

With this view, in order to destroy the errors and to extirpate the heresies which have appeared in these our days on the subject of the said most holy sacraments, as well as those which have been revived from the heresies of old by our Fathers, as also those newly invented, and which are exceedingly prejudicial to the purity of the Catholic Church and to the salvation of souls, the sacred and holy, ecumenical and general Synod of Trent, lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost, the same legates of the Apostolic See presiding therein, adhering to the doctrine of the holy Scriptures, to the apostolic traditions, and to the consent of other councils and of the Fathers, has thought it fit that these present canons be established and decreed…(The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Baker Book House (1919 ed.), Seventh Session, Decree on the Sacraments, Foreword, pp. 118-119).

And Vatican I states:

And this his salutary providence, which has been constantly displayed by other innumerable benefits, has been most manifestly proved by the abundant good results which Christendom has derived from ecummenical Councils, and particularly from that of Trent, although it was held in evil times. For, as a consequence, the sacred doctrines of the faith have been defined more closely, and set forth more fully, errors have been condemned and restrained…But while we recall with due thankfulness these and other signal benefits which the divine mercy has bestowed on the Church, especially by the last ecumenical Council, we can not restrain our bitter sorrow for the grave evils, which are principally due to the fact that the authority of that sacred Synod has been contemned, or its wise decrees neglected, by many. No one is ignorant of the heresies proscribed by the Fathers of Trent…Considering these things, how can the Church fail to be deeply stirred? For, even as God wills all men to be saved, and to arrive at the knowledge of the truth, even as Christ came to save what has perished, and to gather together the children of God who had been dispersed, so the Church, constituted by God the mother and teacher of nations, knows its own office as debtor to all, and is ever ready and watchful to raise the fallen, to support those who are falling, to embrace those who return, to confirm the good and to carry them on to better things. Hence, it can never forbear from witnessing to and proclaiming the truth of God. We, therefore, following the footsteps of our predecessors, have never ceased, as becomes our supreme Apostolic office, from teaching and defending Catholic truth, and condemning doctrines of error. And now, with the Bishops of the whole world assembled round us, and judging with us, congregated by our authority, and in the Holy Spirit, in this ecumenical Council, we, supported by the Word of God written and handed down as we received it from the Catholic Church, preserved with sacredness and set forth according to truth, have determined to profess and declare the salutary teaching of Christ from this Chair of Peter, and in the sight of all, proscribing and condemning, by the power given to us of God, all errors contrary thereto (Dogmatic Decrees of the Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution of the Catholic Faith. Found in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (New York: Harper, 1877), pp. 234-238)).

According to Vatican I, all who reject its teachings are declared to be heretics and schismatics. This obviously applies in a direct sense to the Protestant and Orthodox Churches and its decrees are considered to be infallible by the Roman Catholic Church. Vatican I reaffirmed the Council of Trent and its decrees, and itself defined papal infallibility and primacy as doctrines necessary to be believed for salvation. And Vatican I was later reaffirmed by Vatican II:

In order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided, He placed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and fellowship (Cf. Vatican Council I, Session 4, the dogmatic constitution ‘Pastor aeternus’). And all this teaching about the institution, the perpetuity, the force and reason for the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and of his infallible teaching authority, this sacred Synod again proposes to be firmly believed by all the faithful (The Documents of Vatican II (Chicago: Follett, 1966), Chapter III.18, p. 38).

Thus, if we ask, what is the content of the Faith defined by the Roman Catholic Church, which all men must embrace to experience salvation, what would the overall doctrines consist of? In addition to the teachings of the major Councils and the Creed, there are additional doctrines which comprise the faith of Roman Catholicism that relate to Mary, the Papacy, the Church, the Sacraments, Justification, Purgatory and the Canon. Those teachings and their documentation are listed below. To deny any of these teachings and to refuse to embrace them with a positive faith is to come under an anathema and to experience loss of saving faith:

The Papacy


Justification and the Sacraments

Grace and Merit


The Mass

The Priesthood

Confession and Penance

The Eucharist

The Roman Church and Salvation

The Canon