The Three Great Churches: Comparing the Beliefs of Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox
by: Kerby Rials
Orthodox Bishop Timothy Ware writes, “The Orthodox Church has never formally endorsed any particular theory of atonement.” 1
With that said, let us look at the differences between the three great branches of Christianity on salvation (soteriology), followed by an explanation of the Catholic/Orthodox viewpoint, and then an explanation of the Protestant viewpoint.
First it should be noted that any short statement of differences is bound to be a distortion. It is not possible to summarize all the positions on salvation in a few sentences. Nonetheless, in order to help clarify these issues, below are short summations of the major differences:2
1) Catholic/Orthodox teaching says certain works (rituals or sacraments) are needed to be saved. Protestants say sincere faith is all that is needed.
2) Catholic/Orthodox teaching emphasizes the process of salvation. Protestants emphasize salvation as an event.
3) Catholic/Orthodox doctrine speaks little or not at all about assurance of salvation. Protestants teach that we can be sure we are saved.
4) Orthodox doctrine, and to some extent Catholic, often treats justification and sanctification as one thing. In effect, little is said about justification. Protestants treat them separately, and put great emphasis on justification.
5) Catholic/Orthodox leaders say that other things may be required to be saved, such as membership in their churches, use of icons, priests, and gifts and prayers for the dead. Protestants do not believe these are required to be saved.
Difference one: Faith is not enough
As mentioned, Catholic/Orthodox teaching says that belief alone is not enough to be saved, based on James 2:14-26: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? ...You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone...faith without deeds is dead.”
The Catholic Council of Trent condemns those who say that faith alone justifies us to God: “If anyone says...that it is that trust alone by which we are justified: let him be anathema.”3
Orthodox Bishop Timothy Ware says faith plus sacraments save us: “Our salvation is founded first and foremost on baptism and the Eucharist (communion). It also involves the sacrament of confession.”4
Orthodox and Catholic leaders teach that these sacraments, or rituals, change the person, and contribute to his salvation. Without them, they both say, it is impossible to be saved.
“The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation.” (Catholic Catechism 1129)
Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff writes, “These sacraments are ... redeeming man from sin and death and bestowing upon him the glory of immortality.”5
Catholic and Orthodox churches observe seven sacraments, although they differ somewhat from each other.
The Catholic sacraments are:
• Communion (Eucharist).
• Repentance (penance).
• Anointing of the sick (formerly called last rites).
The Orthodox sacraments are the same as the Catholic except chrismation replaces confirmation. Chrismation (anointing with oil for receiving the Holy Spirit) occurs during infant baptism, after which the infant is given communion. Catholics do not offer communion, usually, until age 7. (See the chapters on communion and chrismation/confirmation.)
These sacraments, especially baptism, communion and confession, grant salvation: “...A human being ... is introduced to new life by partaking of baptism, chrismation, and holy communion.”6
However, even though the Catholic church states that the sacraments and baptism “are necessary to salvation,” (Catechism, 1277) they also say a person can be saved without baptism in exceptional situations (1281, 1258, 1259): “Those who die for the faith, those who are catechumens, and all those who, without knowing of the Church but acting under the inspiration of grace, seek God sincerely and strive to fulfill his will, are saved even if they have not been baptized.” If a person willingly refuses baptism, however, they will not be saved (1257).
Difference two: Salvation is a process
Catholic and Orthodox doctrine emphasizes the process of salvation, while Protestant teaching more often refers to salvation as an event in time when we were forgiven (justification), followed by the process of becoming holy (sanctification).
Orthodox Bishop Timothy Ware says: “Our salvation is a process...and not a single event...I cannot speak as if its successful termination was already certain and secure, and for that reason.. I prefer to answer, not ‘I am saved,’ but ‘I am being saved.’”7
Catholic doctrine shows this also, referring to baptism as the beginning of the process: “The faith required for baptism is not a perfect and mature faith, but a beginning that is called to develop... Preparation for baptism leads only to the threshold of new life.” (Catechism 1253,1254).
In both Catholic and Orthodox writings, the concept of salvation as a process is often assumed more than it is spoken of doctrinally.
This may be because salvation as a process naturally follows infant baptism — if the infant is already forgiven and justified before God by baptism, only the process of sanctification remains.
Salvation as an event is rarely seen, as most rely upon their infant baptism and the other sacraments for making them acceptable to God. Most who were baptized as infants cannot look to a certain day (event) when they made a decision to follow Christ, as would be the case if they had made a conscious decision to repent later in life.
Difference three: No assurance of salvation
Perhaps because of the emphasis on salvation as a process, Orthodox doctrine (and to a lesser extent Catholic) tends not to speak about assurance of salvation, until life is over. Protestants, by contrast, emphasize that since their salvation rests wholly on Christ, they can be sure they are going to heaven as long as they continue in repentance and faith. (For a fuller explanation of this topic, see the next chapter: “SALVATION: Can we be sure we are saved?”)
Difference four: Justification combined with sanctification
Orthodox teach that justification (forgiveness) and sanctification (becoming holy) are one process which they call theosis. (See the chapter on theosis.) Bishop Ware says, “...When we Orthodox speak about salvation, we do not have in view any sharp differentiation between justification and sanctification. Indeed, Orthodox usually have little to say about justification as a distinct topic... Orthodoxy links sanctification and justification together, just as St. Paul does in 1 Cor. 6:11: ‘You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ...’” 8
Catholic teaching, while not as strongly stated, also mixes justification (forgiveness of sins) with sanctification (becoming holy): “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.” (Catechism 1989)
Difference five: Other factors affecting salvation
1) Some say that a person must be a member in either the Catholic or Orthodox church to be saved. Bishop Ware writes: “The Orthodox Church in all humility believes itself to be the ‘one, holy, Catholic (universal) and Apostolic’ church, of which the Creed speaks.... Many people may be members of the Church who are not visibly so; invisible bonds may exist despite an outward separation..... But there also exists in the Orthodox Church a more rigorous group, who hold that since Orthodoxy is the Church, anyone who is not Orthodox cannot be a member of the Church.” 9
Orthodox Archimandrite Amvrosi agrees: “The Lord did not found many churches. He founded only one Church, only one faith. And these 22,000 sects were not founded by God, but by people, specifically human wanderers. These are not churches, but associations of people. There is no salvation there, no fullness of grace, only the grace of the call to repentance, which exists everywhere... We must keep the faith of Orthodoxy. In her only is there salvation, because the Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth.” 10
The Catholic Church, while not as strong in its statements, says similarly that it is the only true church and that full salvation is only through it: “The sole Church of Christ is that which our Savior... entrusted to Peter’s ... care... This Church subsists in the Catholic Church. For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone....that the fullness of salvation can be obtained.” (Catechism, 816)
“The Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation... Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it, or to remain in it.” 11
This, however, seems to contradict the following statement in the Catechism (818) stating that non-Catholics can be saved: “All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; They therefore have a right to be called Christians, and...are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.”
2) A person can be saved through the prayers or money given for them by others. Catholic and Orthodox leaders accept the apocrypha as scripture, which teaches that money or prayers for the dead can save them:
“For alms doth deliver from death, and shall purge away all sin. Those that exercise alms and righteousness shall be filled with life...” (Tobit 12:9. See also Tobit 4: 8-11, 14:10-11)
“Water will quench a flaming fire, and alms maketh atonement for sin.” (Ecclesiasticus 3:30)
The Orthodox churches, like the Catholic, believe that prayers and good deeds done for the dead, even if they are in hell or purgatory, can result in their salvation: “The usefulness of prayers, public and private (at home), for souls — even if they are in hell — is written about in the lives of the saints and the ascetics, and by the holy Fathers.”12
The Catholic Catechism (1479) says similarly regarding the dead, “one way we can help them is to obtain indulgences for them, so that the temporal punishments due for their sins may be remitted.”
Indulgences are the forgiving of punishment for sins in purgatory (“temporal punishments,” — see the chapter on purgatory). They can be obtained from the Catholic church by “works of devotion, penance and charity,” such as praying for them, or asking that they be mentioned in the liturgy or mass by the priest. (Catechism, 1478). (See the chapter on prayer for the dead.)
3) A person can have their sins forgiven by the priest. This is related to the sacrament of penance, but includes the belief that priests have a special power to forgive sins that others don’t. Some go so far as to say that it is impossible to be saved without a priest. (See the chapter on the priesthood).
4) A person must honor or venerate icons or statues in order to be saved.
This statement may be offensive to some Orthodox or Catholics, who may have never heard such a statement. In all fairness, this is a condition to salvation that is rarely or never spoken, but is nonetheless part of official Catholic and Orthodox teaching. This is because both accept the seventh ecumenical council rulings (787 A.D.) as foundational and infallible. (See the chapter on the ecumenical councils.) That council stated, “...We salute the venerable images (icons and statues). We place under anathema those who do not do this.”13 (Anathema means a person is cut off from God and will go to hell unless they repent.)
1 Ware, Timothy, How are we saved?, p. 49
2 Another distinctive of Orthodoxy is an emphasis on salvation as a restoration of a relationship ruined by sin. “Sin...is to be viewed not primarily in juridicial terms, as the transgression of a moral code...It is above all else a loss of relationship,” (Ware, How are we saved?” p. 10) Sin in Orthodoxy is not seen as much as offending God as simply falling short of God’s glory. “To sin is first and foremost to miss the mark.” (ibid, p. 8) Catholic and Protestant doctrine puts more emphasis on sin as an offense to God, and salvation as atoning for those offenses through Christ’s death. Protestants agree that salvation is a restoration of a lost relationship with God, but also believe the Bible stresses juridicial salvation. Col. 2:14 says: “... having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. 1 John 4:10 says: “...He loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” 1 Peter 3:18 illustrates both the reconciliation and atonement: “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.”
3 Session 6, “Decree on Justification,” canon 12.
4 Ware, How are we saved?, p. 79
5 Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology, p. 19, as cited in Biola report.
6 Ibid, 192-193
7 Ware, How are we saved? p. 6, 7, 14
8 Ibid, p. 66
9 Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 315-317
10 O vere i spacenii (About Faith and Salvation), p. 42
11 Second Vatican Council, “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”, no. 14
12 U Boga vse zhivi (With God all are alive), Akafist, p. 17
13 Nicene/Post Nicene Fathers, Ser. 2, Vol. 14, p. 1326-1327
14 The Gospel According to Rome, p. 50