I think it is helpful when approaching the Catholic/Protestant debate concerning salvation and justification, to draw a distinction between objective salvation and justification, and subjective salvation and justification. This is another application of absurdity: the seeming conflict between God’s eternal perspective and our individual subjective perspectives. In this case God’s perspective is the objective salvation/justification, and our perspective is the subjective salvation/justification.
In Catholicism, there is a distinction drawn between initial justification and justification. “Initial justification” is the brute fact of whether or not we are justified, whereas “justification” is the degree to which we are justified. To translate into Protestant terminology, “initial justification” becomes simply “justification”, and “justification” becomes “sanctification”.
Romans 5:18 ESV
18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.
Now, initial justification is universal: all men without exception are objectively justified by the cross, descent to Hell, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The atonement was unlimited: it was an infinite, over-abundant payment for all the sins of humanity. Christ suffered Hell so that we don’t have to. All men have life and justification due to Christ’s act of righteousness. Objectively, everyone is already saved and justified. In Christ, all of our sins have been forgiven. All of this is entirely by Grace, as it depends entirely on God and in no way depends on us.
To what degree do individuals have objective justification? This is determined by the quantity and quality of loving works which Christ performs through them. Every good and loving work performed by a soul leads to the heavenly reward of an increase in objective justification. This is the “laying up of treasures in heaven” Jesus speaks about. These treasures “never decay”, which is to say that we can never lose them: Our degree of justification can only ever increase, it can never decrease.
Furthermore, all individuals have the Holy Spirit, and therefore all individuals are predestined to persevere to the end and not ultimately fall away from the salvation that Christ has won for them.
However from our perspective, things are different. Subjectively, we are walking in darkness: despite the fact that we are objectively justified, we do not by default have a strong experience of this salvation. We wander about in guilt and despair, looking for something to place our hope in and finding nothing. Despite the fact that we have objectively been saved, we are subjectively experiencing damnation.
This situation changes when someone shares the Gospel with us. The Gospel essentially is the proclamation of Christ’s death, descent to Hell, and resurrection, along with the objective justification that this implies for the hearer of the message. The Gospel is therefore an unconditional promise of both present and future salvation: The Gospel says “You are righteous, right now, because Christ lives within you” and also “You will eventually arrive in Heaven, where you will enjoy a perfect relationship with God, Creation and all other souls”. These promises are unconditional: no matter what, they are going to come to pass and there is nothing we can do about it. As such the only possible responses are either to have faith in the promise, or reject the promise through disbelief and outrage.
If you have faith in the promise, this faith inevitably leads to joy and love, and the joy and love are in and of themselves a direct subjective experience of the objective salvation/justification which Christ has won. In this way, Subjective justification can be said to come through faith alone, just as all the reformers insisted. It is important to note that we do not “earn” our justification by our faith (faith is not a work), and faith is not merely “evidence” of justification: instead faith in the unconditional promise directly leads to love and joy which is in itself a direct experience of justification. Also important to note is that it is impossible for works of any sort to lead to initial justification in a subjective sense, because you simply cannot do anything to earn an unconditional promise. An unconditional promise depends entirely on God, not on us. Whether or not we believe the promise, the promise still stands and will come to pass.
Sacraments of promise
In a general, generic sense, God’s promise of salvation is spoken to all humanity universally in the tradition of the church and the pages of scripture. However it is extremely useful to our personal experience of salvation to have this general promise made directly and specifically to each of us as individuals. In order for us to put our faith in it, it helps to have the promise spoken to us specifically and personally. This is where the sacraments come in.
In baptism, God sacramentally speaks the promise of present salvation to us individually. In baptism, God declares “Your sins have been washed away; All of your sins, past, present, and future, have been forgiven; You are united to Christ; You are righteous; You are justified.” This declaration – or promise – is a statement of objective fact. When the individual places their faith in this promise, all of a sudden they transition from walking in darkness to walking in light; they are experiencing salvation here and now in their subjective experience of life. They believe and trust that Christ has justified them, and this belief and trust immediately leads to a subjective experience of justification.
In confirmation, God sacramentally speaks the promise of future salvation to each individual. In confirmation God says “I have sealed you with my Holy Spirit; I will never leave you; I will never abandon you; I guarantee your inheritance in heaven; you will not suffer everlasting damnation; you will be perfect”. Confirmation is thus the sacrament of predestination and perseverance. Again, this promise is unconditional and therefore can only be subjectively received by faith. The effect of trusting this promise is to bring the promised future eschaton into the present experience of the believer. The person who trusts in the promise of confirmation is thus living in the end times even before the end times have arrived.
Mortal Sin and Confession
Romans 8:31-39 RSVCE
31 What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; 34 who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us?[f] 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For thy sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Objectively, there is nothing that can separate us from the justification that Christ has won for us. There is nothing we can do, no sin which we could commit, which would remove our initial justification or decrease our level of justification. Our salvation and justification is a brute fact. As St Paul says; “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.“
However subjectively it is possible for someone to fall from a state of walking in the light back into a state of walking in darkness. This is a subjective movement from the state of grace, back into the state of sin. A person ceases to experience the justification that Christ has won for them. This occurs through Mortal Sin.
Faith in the promises of God has two effects: it leads to joy and love, but it also leads to guilt and sorrow. Faith in the promise of God both delights and tortures, as a soul becomes aware of how it has sinned against love and this leads to extreme agony. In this way, sin leads to a damaging of subjective justification via the introduction of subjective guilt. When we commit mortal sins, this constitutes a rejection of God and thus generates guilt in us. Of course, if we have been baptised we have already received the promise of God that all of our sins have been forgiven and that we are therefore objectively “not guilty”. However in our day to day experience of life, this promise made at our baptism becomes foggy and less vivid in our memory as time goes by. As such, guilt creeps up on us when we commit mortal sins and causes us to despair. Again, this despair is unfounded, because we have assurance that we are justified. Nevertheless the despair and guilt creep up on us and reduce our subjective experience of justification and salvation. In the case of apostasy or unbelief, our subjective justification is almost entirely lost.
In confession, God sacramentally reiterates the promise that he made to us at baptism: “You are forgiven; you are justified”. In this way, the sacrament of confession serves as a way to anchor ourselves in the promise that was spoken to us a long time ago. It gives us a sacramental object of faith which is close to the present and fresh in our memory, rather than distant in the past where we can’t remember it. This is particularly important for people who were baptised when they were infants and therefore can’t recall their baptism at all! For people who struggle to recall their baptism, it is incredibly helpful to have the sacrament of confession at their disposal, so that they can hear the promise of God sacramentally reiterated to them again and again as much as is needed. The promise spoken during confession and absolution is the same promise that was spoken during baptism, and so again, it is an unconditional promise that can only be received and activated in the soul by faith alone.
Someone who has a strong faith in the promise of God does not strictly need to go to confession, although it is always helpful to do so and it is therefore mandated by current Church discipline. If they experience perfect contrition due to their strong faith their subjective justification will never take a hit because they will never experience the guilt and despair which destroys faith and damages justification.
Subjective and Objective Beatitude
Objectively, every single good work Christ performs through us leads to an increase in objective justification. There is nothing we can do which will decrease this justification. However due to our imperfect memories and imperfect understanding of the effects of our actions, we do not subjectively experience this ever-increasing justification. When we do a good, loving work, we temporarily experience the heavenly bliss which it won for us. But then time marches on and the experience fades into the dark recesses of our memory. We only ever experience the present moment, and the present moment contains only some memories of the past, not all of them at once, therefore we only subjectively experience a small portion of the justification and salvation that has been won for us. In this way, Justification is something that can ebb and flow in a subjective sense, while it is something invincible that can only grow and not shrink in an objective sense. As mentioned, guilt may creep in and damage our justification despite the fact that we have been declared “not guilty” by God at baptism. This is why we have confession; to bring the promise forward into the present so that we can place our faith in it again.
At the particular judgement, when all is laid bare before us and our perspective is no longer constrained by our limited memories, everything we have ever done will be laid out before us and we will experience all the justification that has been won by our loving actions simultaneously. This will be beatitude: we will experience vision of, and union with, God, in proportion to our amount of justification.
Sacraments necessary for salvation
The Catholic church has dogmatised the necessity of the sacraments for salvation. But the question needs to be asked, “are sacraments necessary for objective or subjective salvation?”
The sacraments are only necessary for salvation in a subjective sense. Baptism is necessary in order to have the promise of God personalised and spoken to you as an individual. However the church also recognises “baptism of desire” and “baptism of blood”. This hints that it is really the faith in the promise spoken through the sacrament that is more important, rather than the sacrament itself. Likewise with confession: Confession is said to be necessary, but it is possible to receive justification and forgiveness via perfect contrition apart from the sacrament.
Objectively the sacraments are superfluous. Christ’s promises will come to pass regardless of if they are spoken to us sacramentally. We are objectively justified and predestined to heaven. Someone can place their faith in Christ’s promises without those promises being spoken to them personally in the sacraments. However this is hard. God gives us the sacraments to help us and reassure us and make his promises tangible. In this way it is faith in the promises alone which leads to subjective justification.
Anonymous Christians and implicit faith
It is a maxim in Catholicism that works and faith are inseparable: faith always leads to works, and works are always a demonstration of faith. This idea leads to the concept of anonymous Christians. An anonymous Christian is someone who demonstrates implicit faith in God and his promises via their loving actions, despite the fact that they do not have explicit faith in the promises of God. These people are laying up treasures in heaven without realising it: they are objectively justified by Christ, and they are increasing their objective level of justification by their loving works, however subjectively they are still largely walking in darkness as they do not have an explicit knowledge of the promise of the Gospel. These people need to be evangelised and told the good news. In this way their objective justification will become subjectively activated and these people will transition from being anonymous Christians walking in darkness into explicit Christians who are walking in the light, overflowing with joy.
The Lutheran doctrine of sola fide, when correctly understood, does not contradict Catholic dogma but rather complements it nicely. Subjective justification is by faith alone: the strength of an individuals faith in Gods promises determines the quality of their experience of salvation. However objective justification is by Grace alone: Christ died in our place and forever paid for our sins, furthermore he works through us and these works are rewarded with an increase in our level of justification.