When Catholics and Protestants engage in the polemics of theological polarities they quite often misrepresent one another. In the process they miss the deeper fruit of real ecumenism in doing confessing Christian theology. Non-theologians often do this more poorly because they adopt the views they have been taught by their favorite teachers and then treat them as the gold standard.
One of the central issues between Protestants and Catholics has always revolved around the subject of God’s grace and our(human) response to divine grace. We can very easily get the wrong end of the stick in this debate. On one side we separate the life of the Spirit from the salvation of God. This can be seen in a number of Protestant and evangelical responses to grace and works. Donald Bloesch noted: “To separate the life of the Christian from the salvation of God is to divorce ethics from religion. It was precisely this non-ethical religion or religiosity that was attacked by the Old Testament prophets and by many saints and reformers through the ages” (The Christian Life and Salvation, 14). This direction often leads to extremes of ceremonialism or antinomianism. An example of the latter can be seen in American evangelical tendency to separate the Lordship of Christ from his actual saving work, suggesting that we can accept Christ as our Savior and later, if we grow, accept him as Lord.
The biblical prophets did not call for ritual sacrifices but for the sacrifice of obedient lives. Jesus clearly placed emphasis upon inwardly loving rather than the kind of outward performance that was in accord with formal acts of piety. Modern evangelicalism has even tended to separate the gospel of grace from the concerns of daily Christian living. The “once saved, always saved” notion, which seems to remain widely popular, is an aberration of grace. But this particular aberration is consistent with this biblical distortion. Add to this the popular notion of “carnal Christians” and you have a very deadly mix.
The other basic error is to make the Christian life the cornerstone of salvation. In this case we end up with a religion of ethical culture. Our salvation can even appear to be dependent upon our human works, albeit our works united with God’s help! In this error right conduct is more important than divine grace! This often results in moralism and/or legalism. Salvation is finally won by some form of obedience to the law. Bloesch added, “Such works-righteousness is to be found not only in humanistic liberalism but also in much conservative Protestantism, despite its outward adherence to the message of free grace” (14).
How does this second error happen in real life? If our salvation is made contingent upon our acceptance of a particular confession of faith, or the “right” way to interpret Scripture, we have fallen into the trap (or the sphere) of legalism. Some forms of post-liberal theology fell into the trap of making salvation equal “neighbor-love and humanization.” In every such instance salvation was severed, in some way, from its transcendent basis in God alone.
Roman Catholic theology sought to guard against the two errors by upholding divine initiative (grace alone) in salvation while stressing the human agency in cooperation. This theology made a strong plea for “meritorious works.” While this has been popularly labeled as “salvation by works” the claim is, strictly speaking, false. Catholic theology has never taught something this clearly opposed to the grace of God in the good news. Polemical writings aside this is slanderous and wrong. But Catholic scholastic theology did teach a cooperation in the operation of grace through which man cooperated in justification on the basis of prevenient grace. Thus Donald Bloesch rightly noted, “