I see it happen all the time. A Catholic and a Protestant will be discussing salvation, and the Protestant points out that the Catholic Church teaches that a person is saved by his faith plus his works. But immediately, the Catholic will say, “Oh no! We don’t teach that. Salvation is not by works. The Council of Trent teaches that justification is unmerited and not obtained by works of any kind (Session 6, chapter 8).” But when the Protestant points to other sections of Trent (Session 6, chapters 10 and 16) to show that the Catholic Church does indeed believe in works for salvation, then they will start to back-track and point to certain Bible verses in an attempt to claim that believers really are saved by works. They do a flip-flop. What they first denied, they later try to vigorously defend. You see, what the Catholic Church teaches is often confusing, even for Catholics.
The righteousness we have, as Christians, is based on the righteousness of the Savior, Jesus Christ, and His perfect work. Any type of righteousness that would involve some sort of “progressive justification” is based, to some extent, on the righteousness of the believer and his works. But that would be an imperfect righteousness. And that’s exactly the type of justification that the Catholic Church offers to its members.
In fact, Catholic teaching on salvation falls into the same error as that of the Judaizers. See this article:
It seems that the Catholic Church’s redefining of justification has been subtle enough to confuse and deceive certain Protestants, as well. Note, for example, the famous ECT documents (Evangelicals and Catholics Together), where some Protestants have joined with Catholics to promote “unity” and to stand together against certain evils in the world. They even appear to now agree on justification, as well. This may sound like a good thing. But does this mean that the Reformation was all just one big misunderstanding, and that we should all hold hands and agree now? Then why were there martyrs back then on both sides? Did they all die for nothing? Was it over a mere misunderstanding? Hardly. The differences between Protestants and Catholics were real back then, and they always have been. What was error then, is still error now. The ECT signers, in their quest for “common ground,” have come to an agreement on an unbiblical view of justification / salvation.
The apostle Paul was not so subtle in his view on salvation. He says, “Are you so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are you now made perfect by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3) Notice that Paul equates attempting to add works to the cross with living “by the flesh.”
My friends, out of all the Bible writers, it is Paul who deals with the concept of justification in the most detail (mainly Romans chapters 3-5 and the book of Galatians). But he never tells us of a split justification like the Catholic Church teaches. He uses no examples of “initial” or “progressive” justification in Scripture. He offers no explanations or descriptions of this type of justification anywhere in his writings. There is not even a brief mention of such a concept.
But on the other hand, Paul does tell us over and over that justification / salvation is obtained by faith and NOT by works (Romans 3:28; 4:2-6, 9-10; Galatians 2:16; 3:1-3; 3:11). A man is saved by the grace of God through faith (i.e., trusting) in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, and nothing else. There is no list of good works, no sacraments, and no formulas that can be added to His sufficient work. That is the simplicity of the true gospel. But unfortunately, the Catholic view of justification is another gospel (2 Corinthians 11:4).