Regaining 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 that 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: 

Salvation, or the state of being in sanctifying grace (infused grace that makes a person holy and acceptable to God), can be entirely lost if Mortal Sin is committed.  Mortal sins are extremely serious sins such as murder, adultery, homosexuality, etc.  Mortal sin is a transgression of God’s law that is willful, knowledgeable, and on purpose.  Mortal sin results in the complete loss of all grace.  The person’s relationship with God is severed.  Mortal sins damn a person.  If the person dies in a state of mortal sin, he goes to hell and will never escape.

  • “Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell,” (CCC 1861).
  • To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell,’” (CCC 1033).


In the article Maintaining Salvation in Roman Catholicism, penance was a means to replenish the lost grace due to venial sins.  But, in regards to mortal sin, the Catholic must also perform penance in order to regain the sanctifying grace that is needed for salvation.

  • "Penance is “necessary for salvation for those who have fallen after Baptism," (CCC 980)
  • The whole power of the sacrament of Penance consists in restoring us to God's grace . . . Reconciliation with God is thus the purpose and effect of this sacrament,” (CCC 1468).
  • "As a means of regaining grace and justice, penance was at all times necessary for those who had defiled their souls with any mortal sin,” (Council of Trent, Session 14, c. i.).
  • "As regards those who, by sin, have fallen from the received grace of Justification, they may be again justified, when, God exciting them, through the sacrament of Penance they shall have attained to the recovery, by the merit of Christ, of the grace lost: for this manner of Justification is of the fallen the reparation: which the holy Fathers have aptly called a second plank after the shipwreck of grace lost," (Council of Trent, Session 6, Decree on Justification, Chapter 14).

In order for penance to work, the person must be sincerely repentant and willing to perform the necessary actions given by a priest.  In this process, a priest absolves the person’s sins and assigns penance--a series of things he must do.

  • "In the forgiveness of sins, both priests and sacraments are instruments which our Lord Jesus Christ, the only author and liberal giver of salvation, wills to use in order to efface our sins and give us the grace of justification," (CCC 987).
  • “Penance is a sacrament of the New Law instituted by Christ in which forgiveness of sins committed after baptism is granted through the priest’s absolution to those who with true sorrow confess their sins and promise to satisfy for the same,” (The Catholic Encyclopedia, Penance).
  • "the absolution given by the priest to a penitent who confesses his sins with the proper dispositions remits both the guilt and the eternal punishment (of mortal sin)," (Catholic Encyclopedia, Penance).

Penance can take different forms including reading scripture, restitution to the offended party, saying certain prayers such as the “Our Father” or the “Hail Mary” a specified number of times. 

  • “The penance the confessor imposes must take into account the penitent's personal situation and must seek his spiritual good. It must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed. It can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear. Such penances help configure us to Christ, who alone expiated our sins once for all. They allow us to become co-heirs with the risen Christ, "provided we suffer with him." “The satisfaction that we make for our sins, however, is not so much ours as though it were not done through Jesus Christ,” (CCC 1460).

What is important to note is that the works of Penance performed by the Roman Catholic help “make satisfaction” for sins.

  • “Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must "make satisfaction for" or "expiate" his sins. This satisfaction is also called "penance," (CCC 1459).

The Catholic Catechism says that Penance is a work when it says, “works of penance” (CCC 1430).  Therefore, we can see that Penance is, essentially, taking care of your own sins by undergoing a work that releases you from sins’ debt.  This is works' righteousness, no matter what the Roman Catholic Church teaches!

Biblical Response

There is nothing we can do in any way to merit the forgiveness of God.  All that we need has been accomplished in the person of Christ who was made under the law (Galatians 4:4) and fulfilled the law perfectly having never sinned (1 Pet. 2:22).  Because of the work of Christ, we receive his righteousness (Phil. 3:9) by faith (Rom. 5:1). What the Roman Catholic Church does is add a huge burden of works by which a Roman Catholic attempts to attain, maintain, and regain salvation. It is a hopeless process because it cannot save.

  • "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law." (Rom. 3:28).
  • "But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness," (Rom. 4:5).
  • “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly," (Gal. 2:21).
  • "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).

The addition of works to salvation invalidates salvation. Essentially, is saying that the work of God in flesh is not sufficient.  This is why we have such verses that condemn salvation based on faith and works . . .

  • “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).
  • “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer. 11 “The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. 12 ‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ 13 “But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ 14 “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted." (Luke 18:10-14).

In essence, the Roman Catholic is supposed to perform works under the Roman Catholic system of law . . . it cannot save.

  • "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," (Gal. 5:2-3).
  • "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," (Gal. 3:10).
  • "For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all," (James 2:10).





About The Author

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