For more resources on this subject, see our earlier article “Catholicism.”
What role do the sacraments play in the Catholic view of salvation? God gives actual grace to the believer, in order to do good works (this is different from sanctifying grace which is always present for the believer). Catholics would deny that they are saved by their own works. But rather, God empowers them to perform good works. The Catholic Catechism explains:
Sanctifying grace is an habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love. 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.
Sanctifying grace makes us “pleasing to God.” Charisms, special graces of the Holy Spirit, are oriented to sanctifying grace and are intended for the common good of the Church. God also acts through many actual graces, to be distinguished from habitual grace which is permanent in us.
Moreover, actual grace is replenished through the sacraments. Christ gave us seven sacraments according to the Catholic view: (1) baptism, (2) penance, (3) Eucharist, (4) confirmation, (5) matrimony, (6) holy orders, and (7) anointing of the sick. The Catholic Catechism states, “The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation.” These are not magical acts that secure salvation. Instead, the believer also needs to have a proper heart attitude in order for the sacraments to secure salvation.
Mortal sins can be healed through penance (or confession to a priest). The Catholic Catechism explains:
It is through the sacrament of Penance that the baptized can be reconciled with God and with the Church.
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.
Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as “the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace.”
The sinner goes to confession to gain absolution from the priest. The Catholic Catechism states,
Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor. 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.’” 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. We who can do nothing ourselves, as if just by ourselves, can do all things with the cooperation of ‘him who strengthens’ us. Thus man has nothing of which to boast, but all our boasting is in Christ… in whom we make satisfaction by bringing forth ‘fruits that befit repentance.’ These fruits have their efficacy from him, by him they are offered to the Father, and through him they are accepted by the Father.
Roman Catholic scholars usually appeal to John 20:23 to support this doctrine.
A Biblical Response
As we have argued elsewhere (see “Sin: Venial and Mortal”), there is no such thing as venial sin. All sin is mortal. Ezekiel writes, “The soul who sins will die” (Ezek. 18:4). Paul writes, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Jesus said that even inward sins like lust and hatred would result in eternal judgment (Mt. 5:21-30). Moreover, we confess our sins to God for forgiveness—not a human mediator (Ps. 32:5; Neh. 1:4-11; Dan. 9:3-19; Ezra 9:5-10; Ezra 10:11. 1 Jn. 2:1-2. Heb. 4:16. 1 Jn. 1:9). This forgiveness is complete and all-encompassing (Isa. 1:18; Heb. 8-10). We do confess sins to humans, but this is not to gain eternal life (Jas. 5:16).