Help me understand Catholicism vs Protestanism?

I was a well-versed Protestant before becoming Catholic. Since my conversion, I’ve had a lot of time with the “by faith” part, often leaning way too much on “works” and penance. I’ve also put too much effort on learning the fancy terminology (a la Thomas Aquinas) instead of actually understanding the Catholic position in a practical and applicable way. But it’s been a few years, so I’m ready now to understand with a lot less fear and more trust.

So can someone explain to me, in a simple paragraph (don’t worry, legalese isn’t necessary, plain English works fine), the Catholic position on “faith” and “works”?

As I understand it, faith and works (Christian acts of charity, not the works of the Mosiac Law) are two sides of the same coin–God’s grace. Both are gifts of grace and neither functions without the other. Even people who claim faith alone concede that we need to show our faith by how we live it, not merely by what we give mental assent to. When we do works of Christian charity we are cooperating with the grace with which God prompts us to do them. And we do them by faith in Christ. They operate hand in glove rather than bein opposed to each other. The big misunderstanding is that Catholics think we are earning our way to heaven. Nothing could be farther from the truth. We believe, rather that we must cooperate with God’s grace to obtain salvation, through acts of faith as well as through cooperating with God’s grace in doing Christian works of charity. I hope that helps. :slight_smile:

In baptism, we are justified by grace, through faith in Jesus. This justification is entirely a free gift of God. Through baptism, we are made able to perform works of supernatural virtue. These works are credited primarily to God, but we are able to claim a share in their merit, in a secondary way. (Picture a child being taught to ride a bike by his parent; after having held on to the bike, and having encouraged the child to keep his balance and ‘pedal! PEDAL!’, the child manages to go a few yards before falling over or stopping. Proudly, the child beams at his parent and exclaims, “Did you see? Did you see?!?!?!? I rode the bike all by myself!” And the parent smiles knowingly and replies, “yes son, I saw. All by yourself!”)

Through a life of conformity to God’s commands, and by growth in virtue through good works, we nurture the hope of the promise of eternal life made available to us at baptism. As Christ tells us, at the final judgment, ‘sheep’ will be on His one side, and ‘goats’ on the other. The determining factor in their eternal destiny will be the way they lived out the graces given them by God.

(Does that help?)

I think that makes sense.

My previous understanding was that, if we have faith in Jesus’s mercy for us, and by that faith (whatever that means) we do good works, like be kind, forgive, give alms, practice virtues, avoid vices, practice the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, then we grow in good habits which will make us more likely to remain in a state of grace and less likely to commit a mortal sin.

But the part I felt like I was missing was a deeper understanding of the part about faith in Jesus. As I was waiting in line for confession, I saw a beautiful painting of Jesus carrying his cross and being whipped.

When I saw that, I remembered back to my Protestant thinking, that Jesus took our actual sins on his shoulders and bore the punishment for them on the cross, and that it was already done and in the past, and that because of this, if we trust in his mercy towards us, and its infiniteness (literally, “non-run-out-ability”), then our sins are forgiven and no longer held against us, and the punishment for them is already done, and I remembered the great joy it gave me.

But my new Catholic understanding of that last sentence, is that only the fullness of our eternal punishment is now paid for, but only part of the temporal (literally “in this life and/or purgatory”) punishment is paid for, and the rest needs to be paid for, either by my willing penance, or by further punishments from God.

That last part is what scared me a lot when I first became Catholic. Because, the line was very blurry on just how much temporal punishment is still due us for our sins. Especially extremely grave ones like mine, whether or not they’re habitual.

So, sometimes I still wish I could have that same joy I once had as a Protestant, when I never made this distinction, and trusted fully that all my punishment was taken up on the cross by Jesus, and trusted completely and fully in God that any further suffering I had in this life would be either minimal, or only abundant due to sharing in Christ’s suffering in a special way, drawing me closer to Him on the cross. But instead, now I always have this fear after confession, that there’s still a lot more pain and punishment coming my way.

Here is an interesting article Pablope posted yesterday…

ignatiusinsight.com/features/mbrumley_bouyer1_nov04.asp

… I think it articulates some understandings and misunderstandings regarding Justification.

For me, I find James’ epistle quite practical and similar to Jesus’ message. Paul happens to focus on reminding us to never forget God’s grace as a principle behind our salvation as opposed to a works of the Law based life. When we keep this in mind knowing that our works/deeds are ultimately what constitutes whether we lived by faith, we will see the necessity of works of faith. We will also know that faith is the principle means of doing what is pleasing to the Lord.

Faith is a response to God’s grace– No one can come to Me unless the Father Who sent Me draws them (John 6:44). Works are a response to God’s grace–"For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.(Eph 2:10) **You cannot have “faith” without works and you cannot have “good works” without faith. ** They are two sides of the same coin (of God’s grace). Without works, faith is dead (cf Jas 2:17); it is mere intellectual assent and even the demon’s have that. Without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6) so for any “work” to be called “good” it has to be accompanied by faith. And just to be clear we are talking about works of love and mercy-- that is what God has called us to.

Thus, because good works are necessary to animate faith and make it alive, Catholics say that we have to have works-- otherwise, you are no better off than the demons. They also believed in Jesus as the Holy One of God and look how far it got them…:wink:

This journal was written by former protestants:

chnetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/salvation.pdf

This article was the most informative I found in the journal and goes deep in the catholic and protestant understandings:

Justification By Faith
By Dr. William Marshner

youtube.com/watch?v=1QYeST_9FUg

It’s very simple, straightforward and completely Biblical:
Faith without Works Is Dead

James 2:14 - 20
14 What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Of course there are scores more verses throughout the Bible. If you want more detailed explanation, checkout Bible Christian Society - biblechristiansociety.com/home.php

This is true, but it’s not all there is to practicing virtue, which you could sense. :slight_smile:

But the part I felt like I was missing was a deeper understanding of the part about faith in Jesus. As I was waiting in line for confession, I saw a beautiful painting of Jesus carrying his cross and being whipped.

When I saw that, I remembered back to my Protestant thinking, that Jesus took our actual sins on his shoulders and bore the punishment for them on the cross, and that it was already done and in the past, and that because of this, if we trust in his mercy towards us, and its infiniteness (literally, “non-run-out-ability”), then our sins are forgiven and no longer held against us, and the punishment for them is already done, and I remembered the great joy it gave me.

But my new Catholic understanding of that last sentence, is that only the fullness of our eternal punishment is now paid for, but only part of the temporal (literally “in this life and/or purgatory”) punishment is paid for, and the rest needs to be paid for, either by my willing penance, or by further punishments from God.

That last part is what scared me a lot when I first became Catholic. Because, the line was very blurry on just how much temporal punishment is still due us for our sins. Especially extremely grave ones like mine, whether or not they’re habitual.

So, sometimes I still wish I could have that same joy I once had as a Protestant, when I never made this distinction, and trusted fully that all my punishment was taken up on the cross by Jesus, and trusted completely and fully in God that any further suffering I had in this life would be either minimal, or only abundant due to sharing in Christ’s suffering in a special way, drawing me closer to Him on the cross. But instead, now I always have this fear after confession, that there’s still a lot more pain and punishment coming my way.

Many Protestants equate redemption with salvation. I believe you may be having some problem separating the two. When Christ died on the cross he satisfied God’s justice for original sin as well the sins we commit. He presented his one sacrifice to the Father to justify us before God–the action we re-present when we celebrate the Eucharist.

Salvation is what we are aiming at, made possible by Christ’s redemptive act. And in working out our salvation we must satisfy the temporal damage our sins have done to ourselves and to others and to the Church. This is part of our salvation, not part of our redemption–which Christ already gained for us.

It’s true we cannot know how much temporal damage our sins do/can do, so we cannot know how much penance suffices. But, we can offer all our sufferings, prayers, work, charities to God as penance. As Jesus told the Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading: “give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you.” He said this in relation to the Pharisees objecting that he did not wash his hands before eating. Jesus is telling us that doing acts of charity is better than doing outward things that do nothing to wash the soul.

Our daily acts of charity, large and small, if done in great love (as St. Therese of Lisieux told us) are more pleasing to God than doing great things without love. Today’s daily Mass reading from Galatians tells us: “For through the Spirit, by faith, we await the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” It is faith working through love that ensures our salvation because we can only have faith and do works of love pleasing to God through his grace.

Thank God that there are so many well versed Catholics on this site who know their faith because the responses in this thread have really nailed it, I think. There’s only one thing I’d like to add here.

Like you, I’m also a convert from Protestantism. I don’t know about you, but I used to assume that because I knew of Christ’s sacrifice and believed in what it did that I was pretty much all set for life… sins past, present and future were all atoned for. To me, everything else was just “showing off” or “trying to earn heaven.” So let me just ask, do you think you really had a full trusting relationship with God when you were a Protestant? Or was it more of a false sense of security brought on by wishful thinking? For me, I know it wasn’t so much about trust as it was about presumption (obviously I can’t speak for other Protestants).

What many Protestants call the “uncertainty of one’s salvation” in Catholicism, and that “bad feeling” of not knowing how much of the temporal penalty we have to still work out is actually the very thing that tests its validity. Our feelings about something don’t always match the reality of the situation. We can feel “saved” and consoled and actually just be deceiving ourselves. On the other hand, we can feel “damned” and in desolation and actually be very pleasing to God. So in my mind, saying that all temporal penalty is paid for automatically almost becomes a license to sin, as Luther jokingly remarked: “sin and sin boldly…” That’s either presumption, or it’s a slippery slope towards presumption, which as the Catechism teaches us, is the “sin against the Holy Spirit.” It’s dangerous self-deluding pride. (Once again, not all Protestants are like that, I understand).

Trust is not about looking at God and telling him “I’m saved, so make room for me up there” (which can lead to presumption). Trust is about not knowing to what extent you’re saved but knowing that you are loved, and then following God’s promptings, trusting all the while that he knows and that he will open up every avenue for you to reach salvation. That’s the Catholic way. God doesn’t reveal all this to us, but instead often allows us to experience a level of uncertainty about our salvation in order to keep us from becoming too proud and “puffed up,” so we instead focus on what is pleasing to God at all times. The derogatory term for this is “Catholic Guilt.”

You should therefore be happy to embrace your sufferings in life and the “troubles” that come your way, because they are ALL authorized by God, and not simply to “punish” you, but to make you stronger and effect in the patient acceptance of them, your salvation, which is what all God wants for you. If, as many Protestants believe, “once saved, always saved” was true, then there would be no merit to suffering and enduring hardships with patience. We would have no cause for joy in the midst of our woes. But as it is, as the scriptures say, we have every reason to “rejoice in our sufferings.”

I think this (bolded above by me) is very profound, especially in today’s culture. I believe the Protestant notion of once saved / always saved (and the notion of spirituality without religion) has taught people that suffering has no purpose.

Therefore, it allows ideas of euthanasia to grow because people want to spare people from suffering. Same thing with adopting a pro-same sex marriage stance, in-vitro, embryonic stem-cell research, and even abortion in some instances.

Many modern evils in our world are attempts at avoiding suffering and refusal to carry one’s Cross.

God Bless

James chapter 2.

I’ll try and sum up two questions you have.

Faith verses works. We have to believe and the fruit of our belief is works… Spiritual (like praying for people) or Corporal (meaning like services with our hands). These are the fruit of our beliefs. They go hand and hand then. Faith AND works… Not either Or…

Jesus dying for our sins. Jesus offers us mercy through His death AND resurrection. That is an eternal offering that is good for all time. But! We must** offer ourselves up to Him** to accept that offering…That is the choice WE must make in order to become part of divine life with Christ. All this happens with the workings of the cross, an eternal offering.

Romans 12: 1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship.

So Jesus death and resurrection though it happened one time, It is still being offered to us because it is an eternal offering. Jesus forgave sins of those who came before the death, but after Jesus death and resurrection, we still must offer up our sins to Him. It is not a one time deal when we come to believe (as the Protestants believe) but each time we sin, we can be forgiven of them through the sacraments and when we pray for the forgiveness of our sins. Although in the sacraments, we know we are forgiven because the priests of the Church acting in persona Christi were given the authority by Jesus to forgive sins. John 20:23. Jesus is with us… To sum up… Jesus did not abandon us, He remains with us and will forgive our sins.

Thank you all! I’m very encouraged and filled with renewed hope!

Well, hold on a second. The notion of ‘payment’ is a bit foreign to Catholic sensibilities. In Protestant theology, the notion of “penal substitution” is the explanation of how Jesus’ death and resurrection ‘work’: Jesus essentially “picks up the tab” for us. In this context, Jesus is simply a sort of ‘angel investor’ – it’s a good investment, with measurable return, and good things happen as a result. But, in this context, it’s just a business deal: Jesus hands over something of sufficient value to God, who stamps the promissory note “paid in full”, and that’s that. There’s no love, no sacrifice; only “I gave you this, Father, so now give me that.”

But, that’s not how Catholic theologians see it. Rather, the Church sees Jesus’ actions as not merely a kind of “making good” on a contract, but as creating a family relationship – a covenant – through His death and resurrection. Jesus’ death isn’t just a business deal: God looks at it as a true sacrifice. And, it’s the kind of sacrifice that touches God’s heart: through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God relents and opens the doors of paradise. Jesus’ sacrifice, then, is the means by which sin loses its ability to deprive us of eternal life. But, after accepting Jesus and being justified, if we turn away from God through sin, we ourselves are telling God “I don’t want salvation.” It’s an important distinction: if we sin, the doors of paradise are still open to us – but we ourselves are telling God “thanks, but no thanks.” It’s not that Jesus’ sacrifice makes us unaccountable for our sins or makes us unable to sin – both of which are things that some “once saved, always saved” theologies assert – it’s that Jesus’ sacrifice makes it possible for us to attain to heaven.

In this light, let’s look at the notion of ‘forgiveness’ and ‘punishment’. When a Catholic receives absolution, his sins are forgiven. Period, exclamation point, no ‘asterisk’. Just plain forgiven. But, here’s the thing: even though we are forgiven, we’ve still done damage to ourselves: the child who learned that he could take a cookie when Mom said “no cookies” or the adult who learned he could ‘get away’ with fornication have both been harmed by their sins. Both have been deformed by their sins. Even when they’re forgiven, a part of them walks away just a bit more broken than they were before they sinned.

So, the notion of ‘satisfaction’ (and of Purgatory) isn’t one of “incomplete forgiveness” or of “punishments left intact”. After all, Jesus’ sacrifice didn’t make sin consequence free, but rather, just impotent to damn us eternally (as long as we are contrite and ask forgiveness for them). Therefore, the notion of satisfaction really just admits that there is no imperfection in heaven, and although we’re forgiven, we’re still imperfect; therefore, we require purification prior to entering heaven.

Does that make sense? Can you see the distinction between these notions and Protestant theology?

That last part is what scared me a lot when I first became Catholic. Because, the line was very blurry on just how much temporal punishment is still due us for our sins. Especially extremely grave ones like mine, whether or not they’re habitual.

So, sometimes I still wish I could have that same joy I once had as a Protestant… But instead, now I always have this fear after confession, that there’s still a lot more pain and punishment coming my way.

Not ‘pain and punishment’, per se, but ‘cleansing’. When you jump in a mud puddle, Mom might say “I forgive you,” but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a good bath in your future… :wink:

Faith and Works.

With works, we receive grace through the merit of Jesus Christ. Merit? Well, Evangelicals understand merit as fruitfulness.

When God gives us the gift of faith, when we act on the fruitfulness in our heart, place there by God we are doing works.

Yes, thank you, that makes a lot of sense to me.

The particular fear I’ve had is that, after confession, the negative effects of my sins will still outweigh the graces I’m receiving, therefore making it probable that I will fall into some situation where I will mortally sin again. I’ve attributed this to the “temporal punishment” which I haven’t fully paid for yet, which I then try to make up by doing more penance. That’s what led me into all this confusion regarding faith and works. It’s also what’s caused me a lot of grief. And it’s what gave me some kind of hope that maybe I’m not putting enough faith in faith itself, and maybe I need to stop relying so much on works.

But now I think that’s actually way off base. In all reality, my sins are very addictive in nature. I’ll wake up 6 days a week feeling completely normal, and have no mortal sins and very few venial sins (that I know of). But then, that 1 other day of the week, I’ll wake up with a completely different mind. Everything sexual will suddenly seem backwards. Good morals will seem totally confusing, and immoral acts will seem like the best thing in the world. On those days, there’s a faint tug in the back of my mind that, no, this is a wrong thing, stop thinking about it or fantasizing about it, and pray or read something spiritual. But the easily overwhelming/overriding thought is to give in to this thing, there’s nothing wrong with it, go for it, it’s not really all that bad.

Now, tell me you don’t see the devil’s own words written right there! Those thoughts are clearly a temptation by very real demons, I can see that clear as day right now (thanks be to God!). But also, tell me you don’t see signs of a very real and literal chemical addiction! At that moment in time, my mind is literally a different person. To what extent am I culpable for this addiction which I no longer want any part of (except when I’m under the addiction’s evil spell)? I strongly suspect that this means there is not “full consent”, but that’s a really scary gray area, because I know I had some consent, because I was there and made those decisions in my own mind, and I remember the inspirations to pray and I rejected them in favor of continuing to lust. That’s what makes me wonder, why did I reject the inspiration to pray, and accept the lie the devil sold me? Seems like a lack of faith.

So then I started wondering, maybe I have not enough faith? But I’ve earnestly, oh ever so earnestly, asked for a great increase of faith, asked for Jesus to restore sight to my blind eyes, asked for every spiritual thing needed to conquer/overcome/nike (c.f. Revelation) these temptations! So if I asked but did not receive, then what? The answer is definitely not any lack or fault in God. So then what could it be? That I did something wrong. That I lacked either faith or works.

That’s the mind-set that got me wondering about this. I hope it makes sense.

Read the Parable of the Talents. God gives. We receive, if we will. And we’re expected to do the best we can with what we’re given, increasing it, growing in faith, hope, and, most importantly, love, the very definition of our justice/holiness and that which transforms us into the image of God. We can bury our talents, God’s grace, any step along the way-and lose place in His Kingdom. To conflate a couple of verses: Apart from God we can do nothing-but with Him all things are possible. Jesus came to restore communion with God so we can do what we should, so we may be who we were created to be. That’s the New Covenant.

The Catholic perspective, as I understand it, might best be described as that, you cannot gain salvation by good works, but you can loose it with bad works. Protestants tend to take a “once saved, always saved” approach, except in certain cases of apostasy. I personally think the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism are not such a great chasm as some people propose. The spirit is the same in both. I personally would hold that works play absolutely no role in salvation, but faith always, and unequivocally will engender good works.

For me, this also opens up the possibility that those who have good deeds may necessarily have faith despite heterdoxical beliefs. Original sin seems to dictate that virtue is generally impossible without infusion of God’s grace.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.