In Sunday bulletin, San Francisco priest explains age-old theological dispute over salvation

The following is taken from the March 18 Sunday bulletin of the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi in San Francisco. It was written by the shrine’s rector, Fr. Gregory Coiro, O.F.M. Cap.

Today’s second reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians seems to contradict itself when it says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.”

This is immediately followed by, “For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.”

If good works have no part in our salvation, as the first line seems to suggest, then why on earth would the second line exhort us to live in the good works that God prepared in advance? And since we cannot take isolated verses apart from the entirety of holy writ, how can this be reconciled with what St. James wrote in his epistle: “See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”? (James 2:24) 

It is an ongoing theological dispute between Catholicism, which holds that we are justified by grace and that grace is caused by faith and good works, and Protestantism, which believes that we are justified by grace and that grace comes through faith alone.

Notice that Catholics and Protestants agree that we are justified by grace. This means that achieving acceptance in God’s sight is his free gift to us; we cannot earn grace. Where we differ is on the question of how to obtain grace. From the Protestant perspective, the only way to obtain God’s grace is through faith, which is itself also a gift of God. In faith, one accepts that Jesus suffered and died, taking upon himself the sins of the world — including my sins — and suffered the penalty, the death that I deserved. Once we have been “born again” in this acceptance of Christ’s death and resurrection, we live our lives striving to do good which demonstrates that we have been “saved”…these good works, however, do not contribute to our salvation.

The Catholic take is that, through grace, we exercise faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, just as our separated brethren affirm. But for us, the acceptance of faith and the performance of works are virtually simultaneous. Being “born again” for Catholics takes place in a work — reception of the sacrament of baptism. This is the introduction to the life of grace, which is sustained through other works such as the reception of the other sacraments, especially the Eucharist.

Jesus tells us that we will be judged by our good works, or by our failure to perform them, in his imagery of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25. So it is necessary that we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, care for the sick, and welcome the stranger. These are not mere demonstrations of having faith but are themselves graced actions, which contribute to the process of being saved.

This brings up another area of dispute between Protestantism and Catholicism. Protestants, especially Evangelicals, talk about “being saved” as though it were something already accomplished. Indeed, many, if not most, Protestants hold to the doctrine of “eternal assurance” that says once saved, always saved. One cannot lose one’s salvation, not even through grave sin, according to this theological construct.

Catholics do not go around saying that we are “saved.” Our belief is that we are redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus but that we are working out our salvation in fear and trembling (cf Philippians 2: 12). Why fear and trembling? Because we hold within our grasp the ability to lose salvation by failing to live according to the Gospel; we could choose to be damned rather than be saved.

Catholic belief stresses the role of human freedom in the work of salvation. We are free to cooperate with grace in accepting the death and resurrection of Jesus; we are free to cooperate with grace by doing “the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them;” and we are free to change our minds, rejecting the gift God offers us by choosing to separate ourselves from him and the life of grace through sin.

That is why we need Lent. We need to focus even more intently on doing good and avoiding evil so that our capacity to receive grace, and live in it, grows and expands. We perform penitential works to express our sorrow for sin and our determination to be free from it, with God’s help.

While it is true that we are active participants, and not merely passive recipients, in the life of grace, we must never forget that the gift of salvation begins and ends with, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”


Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2012 12:24 AM By Dan
Some of my Evangelical friends view Catholicism deficient precisely because it denies one can know with full assurance that one is saved. That promise of full-certainty of salvation is part of the “once saved always saved” package that comprises the “full gospel.” Anything short of this is deemed to contain a defective view of Divine Election. All Catholics should know well these disputations and be able to hope in God’s mercy without despair, yet not presume all is settled without a life of human cooperation with Divine Mercy.

Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2012 1:17 AM By charlio
It’s interesting that Martin Luther’s “epistle of straw”, The Letter of James that says that we’re NOT saved by faith alone, came to be included in the Canon of Scripture under the criterion: What books do the various Catholic Churches use during THE LITURGY? Now, even though many Lutheran Synods still use a modified form of the Liturgy, in main, the Protestant movement was away from Liturgy and a Sacramental view of God’s Plan. But, if you’re going to have a Canon of Scripture, it’s necessarily going to involve Liturgy – “The Work” of the People of God by which they work out their salvation in fear and trembling.

Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2012 6:14 AM By JLS
To me, it is even simpler. If one buys the Protestant line, then one gives up one’s common sense that we have to achieve good things and that there is a hierarchy.

Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2012 6:39 AM By Carson Weber
What this article fails to emphasize is that we are indeed, “saved by grace” in baptism that that is our firm assurance. Yes, we can reject this salvation through serious sin.. however, there is such an emphasis on not being saved and on works that to the average reader, this may all appear to be a form of semi-pelagianism.

Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2012 6:56 AM By JMJ
Thank you Father Corio, this is why I am so grateful to God that I baptized into the only True Church of Jesus. It is sad that we have far too many Catholics that believe by wearing a Scapular or Miraculous Medal or even as Joe (where is my Rosary?) Biden saying the Rosary will get us a free pass into Heaven. All of these are wonderful, but, just as taking Communion while in the state of serious sin, they will be our condemnation when we take our last breath. It is only by the Grace of God that I haven’t been sent to hell yet and it is only by His Grace and my true repentance, will I someday get into Heaven. Please keep me in your prayers as I am keeping every one of you in mine. +JMJ+

Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2012 7:14 AM By Bud 
I think this is one of the most tiresome and pointless arguments on both sides of the fence. The Catholic Professors of Salamanca put on their big black hats and start their rather vague and microscopic details of what Christianity must believe. The Protestant professors start their version of how we are saved and profess without their version we are lost. Both arguments cause nothing but confusion and un-necessary for redemption.

Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2012 7:19 AM By MacDonald
Love this bulletin article! It always annoys me when some born again person asks me, “are you saved?” It implies I need to have had some holy-roller experience, once and for all, watched by adoring fans. Father Coiro makes much more sense to me, in that Jesus saves us through His sacrifice on Calvary, and we must embrace that salvation, or not, with the free will God gives us. Some emotional antics in church on one particular day will not suffice.

Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2012 7:36 AM By MIKE
Good article. The Righteous Judgement of God – Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Rom 2:6) “For He will render to every man according to his works.”. John 14:12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do” – Jesus. Concerning self-deception – Mt 7:21 “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Faith without Works is Dead – James from Jas 2:14-26 which includes: “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead”.

Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2012 8:32 AM By Dan
It was late last night when I posted my remarks about the way some Evangelicals view the Catholic doctrine of salvation as deficient. It occurs to me that this same mindset taken further holds that Catholics are not saved because they do not believe in the gospel of salvation by faith alone. If we have to “do” anything to be saved, then in this mindset we have returned to that legalism condemned in Galatians. Just as Luther asserted that James was a “true epistle of straw” due to its expressly Catholic persepective, many today view Catholicism as preaching a “gospel of straw” because it is supposed that anything other than “faith alone” detracts from God’s working of grace. Yet, Jonathan Edwards, the great Puritan theologian, in a sermon I read in the 70s argued that the same work of grace in the soul that towards God results in faith, towards our neighbor results in love and good works. The two were inseparable. It could be argued this is a “Romish” way of looking at things from a very strict Calvinist, because the disposition of heart, which is the result of Divine grace, cannot be bifurcated into a “faith” compartment and a “works” compartment. And if this is the case, it should follow that there is no such thing as “faith alone” in the first place. A great article by Fr. Coiro.

Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2012 11:13 AM By k
Catholicism does teach that we are justified by grace through Baptism. It does not teach that this is a result of faith and good works. This priest is really confusing. Once you are baptized you are justified, you have recieved sanctifying grace. Actual grace can be earned. Sanctifying grace cannot. It is merited for us by the Passion of Christ.

Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2012 1:43 PM By Juergensen
Too many of you are confusing salvation and justification. We are SAVED by GRACE, as nothing we do – or believe – merits salvation; it is a gift from God, and “comes from God alone” (CCC 169). However, we are JUSTIFIED before God, and with that justification have hope in salvation, by our FAITH AND WORKS. “For you see that a man is JUSTIFIED BY WORKS and NOT BY FAITH ALONE” (James 2:24). It is interesting that the phrase “faith alone” appears only once in the bible, here in James 2:24, and clearly says we are NOT justified by faith alone, and yet Protestants continue to be contra-scriptural and insist we are. The clarity of the Epistle of James on this matter is why Luther called it an “epistle of straw”, rejected it, and indeed it was not included in the earliest Lutheran bibles.

Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2012 3:34 PM By JLS
Faith is like a mustard seed: Those who are not working to build the Kingdom sprouting from that seed, then have nothing at all to do with faith or salvation. Jesus says the seed grows, and becomes an environment for many … It can only do this if those involved in it do the work. If they do not do the work of growing this seed into a mighty habitat, then they are not exercising faith and have nothing to do with salvation. So, the Mustard Seed Parable can certainly turn the tide on the Evangelicals who believe it is their parable alone (sola parabalae).

Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2012 3:38 PM By Catherine
MacDonald, You wrote, “It always annoys me when some born again person asks me, are you saved?” Where is the compassion and patience for that “annoying born again person?” Where is that same kindness, patience and compassion that you have exhaustively posted for those very annoying killers on death row?

Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2012 4:43 PM By Dana
Thank you Fr. Coiro, for your insightful and helpful article. Many millions of souls are lost because they bought into the ‘once saved always saved’ error. It makes me sad because so many of my relatives are ‘born again Baptists’ and I see the many life choices they make that are perfectly legal and acceptable these days, but are totally in error according to God’s law. They have the ‘blessed assurance’ that no matter what they do, they’re going to go to heaven. They think I’m totally wrong (as in sin) to doubt that we’re all going straight to heaven when we die if we’ve accepted Christ as our personal savior. I don’t know where to begin…I’ve tried, but they have all the pat verses, and the pride. I pray for them every day. I feel that’s all that I can do. Believe me, it’s very difficult when they’re related to you!

Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2012 6:32 PM By Abeca Christian
Catherine brings up very good observations! People would find it more annoying for a “born again” person to be asking if you are saved, then be annoyed and disgusted with a person who rapes and kills victims!

Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2012 7:24 PM By dan
One more word: in Evangelical circles one has the definition of justification as God’s declaration that the sinner is righteous, not because he is no longer a sinner, but because he believes in Christ’s atonement for him. Upon this faith there is an exchange wherein our sins are imputed to Christ and His righteousness is imputed to us. The future judgment is brought into the present as God’s affirmation that the sinner meets the divine standard through faith in Christ and is consequently free from guilt. That’s the basis for “once saved, always saved,” since the justified are those whom God has declared to be righteous in the sense of being in a right relationship with Him. The future judgment of either acquittal or condemnation is brought into the present by Christ’s sacrifice and appropriated by faith alone. There is no waiting until the Day of Judgment to learn of one’s fate. All is settled here and now when God decrees the sinner “not guilty” in Christ. That is also why Evangelicals will say we are saved “unto good works,” not “by good works.” This is also why justification and salvation are nearly synonymous terms. Whether this accurately reflects the New Testament teaching is another matter.

Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2012 7:28 PM By MacDonald
P.S. to Catherine — truth be told, I don’t HAVE any good feelings for the murderers on death row. My stance against the death penatly is not about “warm fuzzies” toward criminals, but rather about what the Church teaches, which has drawn me away from my former support for killing people to teach people that killing people is bad.

Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2012 8:20 PM By JLS
Calvinism, aka fatalism, says individual men are either saved or damned no matter what they do.

Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2012 8:25 PM By JLS
MacDonald, you might benefit from a study of the Old Testament Law, and also the decisions of God concerning life or death. God determines whether a life is worth saving or should be snuffed. There is no indication in Scripture that all human life should be saved at all times and in all situations. This means, MacDonald, that man must make decisions concerning whether other men should live or die. Government is tasked to do this. Since the USA constitutional government involves the citizenry in its process, then it is important that each citizen assume some responsibility in the govt determining whether individuals should live or die. These are often hard decisions, MacDonald, but they have to be made. When you make some blanket decision such as the govt shall never execute anyone, then you abdicate your role in government … Why? Because it is the nature of government to reign over life and death in this world … consult the dialog between Pilate and Jesus.

Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2012 8:58 PM By k
Why did this have to turn into personal attacks completely off the subject?

Posted Thursday, March 22, 2012 6:32 AM By MacDonald
@ k 8:58 PM — you are, as usual, a voice of reason in these rooms, which are often filled with crankiness. (Sometimes I think we’d all benefit from a good nap.) So back to the subject, I believe ONE reason the Catholic Church is against the death penalty is because it does want even great sinners to be saved, and for many this takes time. If you kill them, they won’t have the time to change their hearts. In my teenage years, for example, I was indifferent about life issues such as abortion and capital punishment, so I’m glad God didn’t smite me then. Now, I’m open to the Church’s admonition to follow Jesus more faithfully, not relying on Old Testament smiting, but rising above it: “you have heard it said that you must not kill, but I tell you…”

Posted Thursday, March 22, 2012 7:12 AM By Lauren
“and being found in Him, not having my own righteousnes, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith;” Philippians 3:9 and “..the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” Sorry folks, If you don’t trust that you are not trusting (believing) in Jesus and you are not saved. You are not on your way to heaven. The word of God repeatedly promises us eternal security.”that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:15 and “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already,…” John 3:18 in part. “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.” Ephisains 1:13-14. People repent and believe the gospel and be saved.

Posted Thursday, March 22, 2012 8:24 AM By Larry
Lauren: Belief requires works, as St. James says. Mere intellectual assent to an idea is not belief and does not save. Belief expresses itself in works and will, at the Last Judgment, be measured by the works expressed.

Posted Thursday, March 22, 2012 10:23 AM By Don Guillermo
As much as I appreciate Fr. Coiro’s eloquent articulation of Catholicism, “separated brethren” makes light of the heresy that is Protestantism and its dire consequences…. Let us pursue ecumenism, but let us also avoid trite euphemisms.