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On Protestant theology, Sola Fide is understood as:

Sola fide—the doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from works—is simply recognizing what is taught over and over in Scripture—that at some point in time God declares ungodly sinners righteous by imputing Christ’s righteousness to them

But I hear many Protestants, such as John MacArthur, who claim that Catholicism doesn't teach the true Gospel:

As long as the Roman Catholic Church continues to assert its own authority and bind its people to “another gospel,” it is the spiritual duty of all true Christians to oppose Roman Catholic doctrine with biblical truth and to call all Catholics to true salvation.

But how can this be? I think that every (faithful and informed) Catholic you meet on this site and in real life will say that they have faith in the resurrection of Christ and his teaching. So on the view of Sola Fide, can’t Catholics still be expected to go to heaven since they express faith? Or am I missing something here?

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    It is important to keep in mind that Protestants differ quite a lot on what the full meaning and correct application of Sola Fide is, and many (most?) Protestants believe that Catholics are generally also saved despite differences in our faith and theology. Jun 14 at 14:11
  • Maybe they don't understand, and your question has an imbedded, unwarranted assumption. (But since "Protestant" covers so much ground, the question may be a little too broad). Jun 15 at 12:26
  • I asked a series of (4) questions about the distinction between Salvation and Justification that may shed some light on a few of the subtle differences in approach by Protestant (reformed), Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Swedenborgian faith communities. I think it's related to your question. Jun 15 at 12:42
  • @KorvinStarmast the reason I don’t think this is merely a question for “Protestants” is due to the fact that I scoped it to a specific group of Protestants who make claims that “Catholics aren’t saved”
    – Luke Hill
    Jun 15 at 14:28
  • One of the many things Protestants and Catholics will disagree on is the matter of Indulgence. Many Protestants have problems consolidating Indulgence with Sola Fide.
    – Mast
    Jun 15 at 21:12

6 Answers 6

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(Well taught and informed) Protestants don't make such unqualified statements as "All Catholics are heading to hell". Instead we say that many Catholics are not yet saved, as of course are many people in Protestant churches. And we would say that the saving Gospel of the person, life, and work of Jesus Christ is neither taught accurately nor clearly in Catholic Churches. But wherever the scriptures are read and listened to then God is at work, and many people have true saving and justifying faith even if their understanding of that faith is imperfect. I include myself in that of course!

So to the specific doctrine of Sola Fide, Justification by Faith Alone, I have written an answer to another question showing the continuing dispute between Catholics and Protestants over the exclusivity of Faith, so I won't go into more detail about that here. Protestants would say that anyone with saving faith is saved, but that doesn't mean that they understand or accept the doctrine of Faith Alone.

The closest secular analogy to the Protestant doctrine of Justification is a judicial pardon. A governor/president may issue a pardon purely out of their mercy, but the person who receives the pardon may mistakenly believe it is because of the pleading of their family, or the acts of service they made to the community, or donations made to a charity or a political party, or even their personal character or physical appearance. The pardoned person believes this, but their beliefs do not determine the reality of why they were pardoned. Those wrong beliefs may however upset or offend the pardoner.

Likewise we may believe that God saves us for many various reasons, but that doesn't determine what the reality of our salvation is. But it could be disappointing to God if we believe he has saved us for reasons contrary to scripture.

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As a protestant, I think Roman Catholicism is full of heresies. I also think Roman Catholic churches probably have at least some, if not many, Christians in them.

The problem with the RCC is when it puts things in the way of faith. The idea that you have to do penance to "pay" for your own sins (which sure looks like a form of works-righteousness), or that Mary and/or other Saints are of equal or greater importance than Christ. The question comes down to whether any particular individual actually lets any of these things replace, or come before, a faith in the saving power of Christ.

In other words:

  • If you trust in Mary (or Peter, or...) to intercede on your behalf...
    • (and / or)
  • If you have faith, but believe you must also avoid certain sins and/or jump through specific hoops (i.e. penance) in order to "make up for" those sins...

...then you aren't relying on faith alone in Christ alone. That isn't Sola Fide, and protestants would call it heresy. The first also goes against Solus Christus. The second also goes against Sola Gratia.

Mike Winger has a series of videos on Catholicism from an Arminian perspective; you can find him on YouTube or at https://biblethinker.org. Even if you don't agree with his theology (I, personally, agree with him on many, but not all, topics), I think his videos could serve as a good explanation of the Protestant perspective on Roman Catholicism.

I should further note that Protestant understanding of Roman Catholicism may or may not even be correct. But you didn't ask about correctness, but about why Protestants "claim that Catholics will be condemned to hell". For that, the Protestant understanding of Roman Catholic theology is what matters, and not what the RCC actually teaches. (Or what individual Roman Catholics believe, which, as noted, is not necessarily the same thing.)

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    So are you saying that Sola Fide is better understood as “having faith in Christ with no other beliefs that may get in the way of that”?
    – Luke Hill
    Jun 13 at 18:56
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    And also the second doesn’t go against sola Gratia because Catholics accept sola Gratia. It’s only by Gods grace that we can be saved. We cannot get ourselves to heaven on our own.
    – Luke Hill
    Jun 13 at 18:57
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    @Matthew if someone commits heresy and has faith in Christ, from the sola fide standpoint, are they eligible to be forgiven of their heresy and saved by grace? Jun 14 at 1:11
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    as someone born and raised in the heart of the RCC, I feel you have a bit of a misconception about what "penance" is for Catholics. See particularly point 1430 of the Catechism: vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P4A.HTM
    – Federico
    Jun 14 at 9:03
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    To mischaracterize someone else's faith is a perilous course of action to take. Jun 15 at 12:31
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OP: "So on the view of Sola Fide, can’t Catholics still be expected to go to heaven since they express faith? Or am I missing something here?"

What you are missing is the Catholic's defining of a difference between the initial act of meritorious grace (justification) and the continuing acts required to merit that grace (sanctification). In theological terms, it is the Catholic and Protestant very different answers to the question of how is one justified and how is one sanctified?

Both denominations (Catholic and Protestant) would agree that Justification is the initial act of salvation given solely by God (faith alone). There is nothing you can do to earn this initial act. We are saved by grace through faith; it is a gift (Eph. 2:8).

2010 Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Catechism of the Catholic Church

After this initial initiative, the two vastly differ on sanctification.

For the Catholic, your works, motivated on love and Spirit, merit (work) the graces needed for eternal life.

Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life. -ibid-

For the Protestant, your works, also based on love and Spirit, are an expression of your salvation already intact. The following verses of Ephesians define this.

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. Eph 2:10

The Protestant says, We are (present tense) His. We walk in good works, not from a salvific point of view to merit His graces, but because He created us in Christ Jesus for this very purpose.

The Catholic says, we were (past tense) His, and we might be (future tense), if our works merit it.

As to the question of going to hell, it is a question about the gospel.

In Gal 1:8-9, the Apostle declares in the strongest manner that the Gospel he preached was the one and only way of salvation, and that to preach another was to nullify the Death of Christ. Vines

No one knows the heart of a person, but God. The Protestant faith in God begins with (all sins paid for) justification done by God and ends with (walk out your salvation) sanctification done by God. The Catholic faith in God begins with justification done by God and ends with sanctification done by you.

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  • So the reason Catholics don’t have “true faith” is because they try to do too much? Is that what you are saying?
    – Luke Hill
    Jun 14 at 16:06
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    This is a good explanation of the relevant difference in view between Catholicism and Protestantism, particularly as pertains to Sola Gratia, and as such, I would judge this information very helpful. Thanks! (@LukeHill, IIUC, it's not "trying too much", it's "making into a (claimed) requirement something that isn't". Hopefully that made sense. Put differently, Catholics say "you are saved because you do works", Protestants say "you do works because you are saved".)
    – Matthew
    Jun 14 at 16:13
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    @LukeHill No. not quite. Jun 15 at 12:29
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"Faith" in both the Bible and common usage includes both belief in someone's reliability, and reliance on them. Saving faith is both belief that Christ's life, death, and resurrection provide everything needed for salvation, and reliance on Christ's life, death, and resurrection as the grounds for personal salvation.

A Roman Catholic who is faithful to his church's teachings, and tries to live his life by them, will not rely totally on Christ's life, death, and resurrection for salvation (he won't practice sola fide). Instead, the Roman Church teaches, and a faithful Roman Catholic believes, that it is necessary to rely partly on Christ's work, partly on the Catholic Church's work through the Sacraments, and partly on your own good works for salvation.

The Bible is clear that the Old Testament ritual law cannot save you, both in the Old Testament:

[Isa 1:11 KJV] 11 To what purpose [is] the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the LORD: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats.

[Amo 4:4-5 KJV] 4 Come to Bethel, and transgress; at Gilgal multiply transgression; and bring your sacrifices every morning, [and] your tithes after three years: 5 And offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving with leaven, and proclaim [and] publish the free offerings: for this liketh you, O ye children of Israel, saith the Lord GOD.

and in the New Testament:

[Heb 10:4 KJV] 4 For [it is] not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.

and Protestants apply the same principle to say that the New Testament Church's work, even the true Church's work (which the Roman Church is not) can also have no merit for salvation.

So anyone who relies on the Church's work for part of their salvation is relying on something that cannot save them.

Similarly, your own works of obedience cannot contribute to your salvation:

[Gal 3:21-22 KJV] 21 [Is] the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. 22 But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.

So, again, relying on your own works for salvation will not work. (Many many Protestants make this mistake too!)

Salvation can only come through reliance on Christ's work alone. Paul says of one specific ritual from the Old Testament law:

[Gal 5:3-4 KJV] 3 For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. 4 Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.

If you depend on Christ's work plus anything else for salvation, Christ's work becomes ineffective in your case. Salvation comes by Christ's work alone, and by your dependence on Christ's work alone.

Since the Roman Church does not teach total dependence on Christ for salvation, Roman Catholic's won't hear that message from their Church; so it is the responsibility of those who do understand sola fide to teach it to Roman Catholics, as well as to those in the world and those in their own churches.

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  • So belief in faith alone is required for salvation. I think under that definition it works, but you are also condemning literally every Christian before Martin Luther to hell, along with all the people after him who don’t accept Sola Fide. Nice answer, +1 accepted.
    – Luke Hill
    Jun 15 at 18:17
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    "Salvation comes by Christ's work alone, and by your dependence on Christ's work alone." What sources do you have for the second part of this statement? I'm not convinced it's true.
    – curiousdannii
    Jun 15 at 21:43
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    @LukeHill I think it's a major stretch to assume this answer condemns "literally every Christian before Martin Luther to hell." Isn't that a bit dramatic? He's simply offering an explanation of how a Protestant understands the Catholic portrayal of the gospel. Matthew 7:21-23 is a very interesting thing that Jesus says. My take is that this applies to protestants and Catholics alike because each person has a faith to wrestle out before God, and he sees the heart. This makes having healthy public disagreements on the theology of salvation very important since that's upstream from all this.
    – C. Tewalt
    Jun 16 at 4:02
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    @LukeHill I think there may be a misunderstanding here. This view only condemns people who rely on works or the church for salvation. This certainly doesn't condemn most early believers nor does it condemn non-Catholics during the Catholic era. The ideas summed up by Sola fide didn't start with Luther, in fact they were taught by many of the apostles. To a large extent Luther was calling people to return to the historical beliefs of the early believers rather than starting something new.
    – Cole
    Jun 16 at 6:54
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    @LukeHill The road to salvation is indeed narrow.
    – mbomb007
    Jun 16 at 20:53
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I think a big part of the confusion here is that Catholics and Protestants have different definitions of what it means to be "saved".

Roughly speaking:

Protestants believe that faith alone makes you fully "saved".

Catholics believe that faith partially saves you (what they would call "saved") but then you have to do a substantial amount of good works and participate in many church rituals (sacraments) in order to earn your way into heaven (ie full salvation). This is also why Catholicism has the concept of purgatory, so that partially/initially "saved" people who didn't do enough good works can be prayed into heaven by the living. Protestantism has no such concept because it doesn't make sense in their framework, either you are fully saved or not at all.

So with regards to Ephesians 2:8-9

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

Protestants interpret this literally, while Catholics would say this is true of (initial) "salvation" but that you still need to do good works and participate in church rituals in order to get into heaven/be fully saved.

To put it in mathematical terms:

Protestantism

grace + faith + Christ = salvation (full)

Catholicism

grace + faith + Christ = salvation (initial)

initial salvation + good works + ritual + other saints + Christ = full salvation (entrance to heaven)

initial salvation - enough works OR - enough ritual = purgatory

So, from a Protestant viewpoint, true salvation is "by grace alone, through faith alone, by Christ alone". They have a huge issue with Catholicism adding works, participation in church ritual, and prayers to the saints as requirements for entrance into heaven/full salvation.

Whether Catholics are actually saved is a debate among Protestants. Some believe that as long as you believe Christ payed for your sins, that is enough. Others would say that believing you need to add works to your salvation indicates you don't think Christ fully paid for your sins, which means you don't actually/fully believe in the gospel and thus are not really saved.

Your quote actually covers both of these bases, all Protestants believe that Catholics need to be called to true salvation (all faith, no works) but whether those that follow a "false/flawed" salvation (faith + works) are actually saved is controversial and not addressed by your quote (although I certainly can see how you thought that is what it implied). As a Protestant myself, I think you will find most Protestants are less interested in arguing about whether Catholics are actually saved and more interested in trying to get Catholics to drop the belief they need to earn their full salvation.


There is still a decent amount of variability in views even among Protestants that believe Catholics are not saved. Most of these views, however, boil down to aspects of Catholicism that Protestants see as directly contradicting scripture, especially those that pertain to salvation. This includes

  • Praying to anything other than Christ or the Father
  • Belief that salvation is applied to believers by the church
  • Belief that any form of ritual or act is needed to ensure salvation
  • Belief that works or human effort need to be added to salvation
  • Belief in purgatory

Their view is that belief in any one of these things indicates you do not believe in the salvation that the bible teaches. If you do not believe in the salvation that the bible teaches, then you are not saved.

Probably the most common objection is with regard to works. Protestants will point out that Eph 2:8-9 (and other passages) explicitly mention that salvation is not through human works or effort, and that the Bible goes to extensive lengths to emphasize this as a core aspect of both salvation and saving faith. Since Catholics do not believe this, Protestants view this as rejecting a critical aspect of faith and so they cannot possibly be saved.

Some Protestants even go so far as believing Catholicism is a fundamentally different religion closer to Islam than it is to true Christianity. This is because both Islam and Catholicism teach that salvation is a combination of belief, faith, good works, church attendance, and ritual observance, and that it is impossible to know if you have done enough to merit salvation until you have died and your soul is weighed/judged. This is in stark contrast to what Protestants view as true Christianity: faith alone being sufficient and an absolute guarantee of salvation regardless of your past, present, or future deeds.

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  • You didn't answer my question. You just affirmed the plain fact that the salvation of Catholics is debated. I know it is. I'm asking about the position of a side of the debate.
    – Luke Hill
    Jun 15 at 4:53
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    The answer is that there is not uniform agreement in Protestantism, to the point that your quote that you thought was an example of one side of the debate actually side steps the debate.
    – Cole
    Jun 15 at 6:17
  • If you want to know more about the side that believes they are not saved, I eluded to it at the end of my answer, but I will update it so it is more clear
    – Cole
    Jun 15 at 6:21
  • Alluded, not eluded. 😉 Also, do not signal edits in the text. And if you are going to cover 'works' you may need to address James' observation about faith and works ... Jun 15 at 12:31
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    @Cole I’m well aware it sidesteps the debate :) that is the point. I’m trying to demonstrate how one sides view seem to be in contradiction with another sides view.
    – Luke Hill
    Jun 15 at 14:27
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Some things off the top of my head:

  • RCC (Roman Catholic Church) promotes the creation and worship of statues and images
  • RCC teaches to pray to Mary, apostles, etc, instead of exclusively to the Trinity
  • RCC elevates men (e.g. the Pope) as objects of praise and authority other than the Trinity
  • RCC adds to the bible
  • RCC upholds tradition with equal or greater value to scripture
  • RCC has many examples of people who take the name but not the living of a Christian (e.g. infamously known more than any other group for history of sexual abuse)

I personally believe the spirit of sola fide is in statements like:

  • "I do not need certain wealth or status to receive salvation"
  • "I do not need to pay money for my sins"
  • "I do not need a 365 day streak of sinlessness before I can receive salvation"
  • "I do not need another man's approval for me to receive salvation"

I believe this statement was established to encourage people's faith and to separate their faith from external abusers who might say the opposite of the statements above.

Another interpretation of sola fide could be "I can be as sinful, heretical, and unbiblical as I want, as long as I have that key phrase that still gives me righteousness before God in Christ." I do not believe that was the intention of sola fide.


Note 1

The statements made above are not fact-checked, they are merely anecdotal impressions I've had (which is the way most people form opinions, so it's a good example I suppose)


Note 2

My personal stance is that I hold the protestant faith, and while I definitely see corruption in the Catholic Church as a system/entity, I see some good people there.

I do not believe "Catholic" as a label is sufficient condemnation before God, but rather that He is the Righteous Judge who is capable of a more nuanced understanding than the "catholic=bad" some people have.

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    Had the Catholic/Orthodox faiths not kept the faith alive and growing for over a thousand years (after the Council of Nicaea, and then Chalcedon) , there'd be no Faith for Protestants to adopt and then corrupt through their schismatic behaviors and arbitrary decision to lop six books from the canon that had been extant for over a thousand years ... if you are going to get polemical, you'd better be able to take as good as you give. Jun 15 at 12:37
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    I don't mean to come across as polemical, the question was simply "why do protestants not consider catholic faith as sufficient for sola fide?" and my response is that the spirit of sola fide is not for the purpose of excusing heresy or unbiblical practices, as such found within the catholic system (though there are elements of the same in protestant faiths too, plenty of statues/images/worshipped men there too)
    – Mirror318
    Jun 15 at 22:31
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    I suggest that you attempt to become more self aware. What you wrote (which are opinions) contains attacks that are opinions (spin, if you like) on a different faith community that your own. That approach is not how Christianity SE has grown and thrived over the years. If you can't grasp that maybe you crossed a line there, then I am telling you: you crossed a line there. What I offered you in that obviously over-the-top-comment was a taste of your own medicine. Jun 16 at 0:46
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    If this is a subject that interests you, I might suggest taking a "quick" read through the Catholic Catechism. Because it actually addresses most of what you've got there. Your last two points have some merit, but unfortunately tradition of interpretation of the words of scripture is rather important since there are many places which make little sense without knowing the cultural context in which they were written, and also unfortunately, being inducted into the official hierarchy of any organized religion does not magically convert someone into a perfect saint.
    – Perkins
    Jun 17 at 0:20

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