Attaining Salvation in Roman Catholicism

by Matt Slick

Salvation, in Roman Catholicism, is a process with many steps: Actual Grace, Faith, Good Works, Baptism, Participation in the Sacraments, Penance, Indulgences, and Keeping the Commandments.  Basically, salvation is attained through baptism and good works.  It is maintained by good works and participation in the sacraments.  If lost, it is regained through the sacrament of Penance which only a Roman Catholic priest can administer.  Add to this purgatorial cleansing after a person dies, and you can see that salvation is an arduous process.

In Catholicism, a person can gain salvation and lose it many times depending on the number of sins committed, their severity, and how much of the sacraments they participate in--in order to regain grace which enables them to do good works by which they are justified. Furthermore, justifying grace is infused into the Catholic upon baptism and via the sacraments.  This grace can be gradually lost through venial sins or forfeited all together with mortal sins. 

In light of all of this, I've written three interrelated articles: 


Attaining Salvation, Part 1 of 3

Actual grace

Actual Grace is the first step in the process of attaining salvation in Roman Catholicism.  Actual grace is what God gives to a person to enable the person to seek and respond to God’s call of faith. It helps the person move towards God--where he then freely chooses to accept or reject God’s work in Christ.

  • Actual grace is “A supernatural help of God for salutary [beneficial] acts granted in consideration of the merits of Christ,” (Catholic Encyclopedia, “Actual Grace”).
  • "Habitual grace, the permanent disposition to live and act in keeping with God's call, is distinguished from actual graces which refer to God's interventions, whether at the beginning of conversion or in the course of the work of sanctification," (Catechism of the Catholic Church, herein referred to as CCC, par. 2000).

With actual grace working on a person, he is then able to have faith which is necessary for salvation.  But this faith is not a simple faith in Christ's work on the cross, so that we are justified by faith alone in Christ's work alone (Rom. 4:5; 5:1; Gal. 2:16).  On the contrary, according to Catholicism, the faith that is necessary for salvation must be a faith that also affirms what the Roman Catholic Church teaches.

  • "Faith is necessary for salvation. The Lord himself affirms: ‘He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.’ (Mk 16:16),” (CCC 183).
  • “Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself," (CCC 1814).
  • “Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation,” (CCC 846).


Once actual grace has done its work and the person believes the gospel (and in the Roman Catholic Church), baptism is a necessary element for salvation in Roman Catholicism.  It is where sins are removed and a person is justified before God.

  • ". . . Baptism is the first and chief sacrament of forgiveness of sins because it unites us with Christ, who died for our sins and rose for our justification, so that 'we too might walk in newness of life,'" (CCC 977).
  • Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude . . . " (CCC 1257).
  • "Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ. It is granted us through Baptism. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who justifies us. It has for its goal the glory of God and of Christ, and the gift of eternal life. It is the most excellent work of God's mercy," (CCC 2020).

At baptism, a person is restored to a state of innocence before God by erasing original sin.  Justification occurs in baptism, and sanctifying grace (the grace that saves) is infused into him. 

  • Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ's grace, erases original sin . . . " (CCC  405).
  • Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy,” (CCC 1992).
  • “The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism,” (CCC 1999).

Good Works

According to Roman Catholicism, once a person is baptized and his original sin is removed, he must perform good works because they are also necessary for salvation. 

  • The specific precepts of the natural law, because their observance, demanded by the Creator, is necessary for salvation,” (CCC, par. 2036).
  • The Decalogue [the Ten Commandments] contains a privileged expression of the natural law. It is made known to us by divine revelation and by human reason,” (CCC 2080).
  • " . . . the Second Vatican Council confirms: 'The bishops, successors of the apostles, receive from the Lord . . . the mission of teaching all peoples, and of preaching the Gospel to every creature, so that all men may attain salvation through faith, Baptism and the observance of the Commandments,'" (CCC 2068).

Good works are necessary because Roman Catholicism denies justification by faith alone.  Justification is the declaration of righteousness.  It is where the righteousness of Christ is reckoned to the believer (Phil. 3:9) by faith (Rom. 5:1).  It is not by faith and something but by faith alone (Rom. 4:1-5).  But, Roman Catholicism declares that if anyone believes in justification by faith alone in Christ alone, then he is to be cursed.

  • "If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema," (Council of Trent, Canons on Justification, Canon 9).
  • "If any one saith, that man is truly absolved from his sins and justified, because he assuredly believed himself absolved and justified; or, that no one is truly justified but he who believes himself justified; and that, by this faith alone, absolution and justification are effected; let him be anathema," (Council of Trent, Canons on Justification, Canon 14).
  • If any one saith, that the justice [righteousness] received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema." (Council of Trent, Canons on Justification, Canon 24).

So in Roman Catholicism, attaining salvation is a process that includes faith, baptism, and good works.  Therefore, in Roman Catholicism, attaining salvation and being justified (being right in God’s eyes) is not an instantaneous event received by faith.  It is a long process.

Biblical Response

Salvation in Roman Catholic Salvation is a system of works combined with faith. But, what does the Bible say about salvation when it comes to faith and works?   It separates them and clearly says that works are not part of becoming saved.

  • "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one." (Rom. 3:28-30).
  • "What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness," (Rom. 4:1-5).
  • "Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified." (Gal. 2:16).

So we can see that salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone.  Did you also know that adding works to salvation is condemned in scripture?

  • "You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? 2 This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" (Gal. 3:1-3).
  • "Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3 And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. 4 You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace." (Gal. 5:2-4).
  • “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23 “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’" (Matt. 7:22-23).

In Gal. 3:1-3 above, Paul is clearly teaching that the Galatians were fools.  Why?  They were adding works to the work of the Holy Spirit.  In Gal. 5:2-4, Paul tells them if they received circumcision, that they would not be under grace.  Circumcision represented the works of the Law, and Paul clearly tells them that just getting circumcised (not doing good works) would damn them.  Why?  Because it was a symbol of keeping the Law.  That is why Paul had previously said in Gal. 3:10, "For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.”  Finally, in Matt. 7:22-23 we see an account where Jesus condemns people on the day of judgment. Why would they be condemned? They were appealing to their faith in Christ and their works for their salvation on "bad day." By adding any works into the active salvation, it means that the work of God is not sufficient, but that it needs to be perfected--completed by human effort. This is why salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It cannot be by faith and any of our works.

Rom. 11:6, "But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace."





About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.