Regarding salvation: "Catholics claim that salvation is secured by faith in Christ plus good works." John 3:16 teaches that anyone who believes in Jesus Christ will be saved. It doesn't say anyone who believes in Jesus AND does all the right things. Salvation is a free gift to us. To say that we must do good works -- or works of any kind -- to secure our salvation is to say that we must earn it, and therefore it is not a free gift. Furthermore, the concept that I could ever earn the right to be saved is beyond my comprehension. I am incapable of being worthy of anything in the presence of a perfectly holy God. I will never, ever deserve anything from Him: not salvation, not heaven, not even for good things to happen in my life. In comparison to God's perfect standard, I am completely and totally unworthy. The Bible describes our good works as filthy rags. That's how much value they have in comparison to God's perfection. Many times I have heard "filthy rags" described in more accurate detail. The phrase literally describes the rags that leapers used to clean their sores. After use, the rags were thrown into the fire to be burned so as not to spread disease. Gee, sounds like our good works are really worth something, doesn't it! Aside from the fact that our good works really are worthless, to say that they are required for salvation is to say that Christ's sacrifice was not enough. Not enough?! The God of heaven put on dirty flesh and lived in a sinful world for over 30 years, was brutally beaten and killed by His creation, and still chose to ressurrect so that we could have salvation and a relationship with Him. To call this anything less than enough seems like a huge slap in the face of God to me.
"Catholics blend justification and sanctification into one process as the believer must work to merit eternal life; Protestants believe God justifies the believer by declaring him or her righteous, and that sanctification is a lifelong process of becoming holy as God works within." At the moment we believe in Christ's sacrifice as the means of our salvation, God declares us righteous. He no longer sees us for the sinful people we really are; He now sees Jesus Christ in us, and therefore views us as righteous. That is justification. Justification is often described as "just as if I never sinned." God erases our sins and His memory of them. Sanctification, on the other hand, is basically this: when God enters your life you begin to desire the things of God. From the point of salvation onward, the Christian begins to grow in Christ which is to grow more like Christ. By no means will we ever be perfect as Christ is, but we do begin to take on His characteristics.
Not only do Catholics believe that good works are a necessary element of salvation, they also "believe they cannot pay for all their sins in this life, and at death they go to purgatory for an undetermined time to be made totally fit for heaven." During the life of a Catholic, penances are done as payment for sins. When they die, they go to purgatory for the sins they did not get a chance to do penance for. So basically, not only is Christ's sacrifice not enough, His sacrifice plus their good works is also not enough. While in purgatory, it is believed that individuals cannot help themselves any more. They either complete their entire "sentence" or are helped by other Catholics on earth. The Catholics on earth can gain indulgences for those in purgatory. "When we speak of indulgences we are speaking of God 'indulging' (being kind to) a believer by giving to the believer from an inexhaustible supply of spiritual merits that have accumulated in the Church's treasury through the work of Christ and the prayers and good works of the Virgin Mary and the saints." So the way I see it, this says a person's salvation depends on the work of Christ, Mary, the saints, the individual, and the other Catholics left on earth after the individual's death. This method of salvation seems to depend on an aweful lot.
An additional note: This didn't fit into my two-point outline, so I'll just throw it in here. I'm not comfortable with the high level of focus and attention given to Mary in the Catholic church. Many beliefs about Mary grew from the traditions of the church, but as stated before, the Catholic church holds those traditions to be equally as important as the Scriptures themselves. First, tradition taught "that Mary's virginity continued after the birth of Jesus and that she never had any more children." To begin with, this is very false because the Bible mentions the literal brothers and sisters of Jesus. [Furthermore, some would argue the point that for Mary to remain a virgin after her marriage to Joseph would have been wrong or "sinful" based on the scripture that says a man and woman become one flesh in marriage. I'll save this argument for someone else though!] Regardless, I do believe Mary and Joseph went on to have a "normal" marriage and that they had other children. The Catholic tradition also teaches the Immaculate Conception, which says that Mary "was conceived without sin and lived a sinless life." This would basically put her on an equal level with Christ Himself. Based on the teachings of the Bible, I am convinced that Jesus was the only person ever to live a sinless life. Catholic tradition also teaches the Assumption, meaning that Mary did not die but "was taken up body and soul directly to heaven." While this is possible, the Bible does not mention it. I cannot say that it did not happen; I am just curious where the Catholic church found this information or evidence for it. Here comes the big problem I have with the focus on Mary. The Catholic church views her as a "co-mediator with Christ between God and man." The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ alone is our High Priest through whom we have access to God. It teaches that no man can approach the Father except through the Son. The Catholic church added the phrase "no man goeth to Christ but by His mother." This is never taught in the Bible. The Bible teaches that we have access to God by Jesus, not by Mary first, then Jesus.
In conclusion: I'm not really sure how to wrap this all up, but I think I'll just restate what I believe is my key point. I believe the message of the Bible is simple: faith in Christ alone brings salvation. The Catholic church tries to add things to this message to make it more feasable and comprehensible for us humans. The idea that people who do good works will be the ones who are saved makes sense to us; we like it. But God doesn't work that way. He says anyone who wants salvation can have it; it is equally free to all, regardless of behavior. The receiving of salvation should compell us to be better people for the sake of Christ's name, but our salvation is not contingent upon us actually becoming better people. Nor is it contingent upon any act or deed or accumulation of such that we or any other human (saint or otherwise) could ever do or have ever done. My point in all this research, and in these three lenghty posts, was to help myself determine my thoughts on Catholicism and its doctrine. I believe what I have discovered boils down to this: I am fine with any church that teaches that salvation is through faith in Christ alone and nothing else. I understand that individual churches vary from one another in many cases, therefore this is the standard. I also understand that even in churches that teach a works-based salvation there may be individuals who disagree with the teachings, and chose to believe in salvation through faith alone. I can't understand why these individuals would chose to go to these churches, but that's not my problem. As for those who believe in Christ plus works for salvation, I am in no position to say what their true spiritual standing is. While I do believe they have some things wrong with their faith, to God those things may be no bigger than the things I have wrong with my faith... because I obviously don't believe that I have everything exactly right all the time. All I know is that faith in God is a condition of the heart which other people are not capable of judging. This faith is usually displayed through a person's life, and is therefore often obvious to others, but a person's true standing with God is between the individual and God and no one else. These are my thoughts. Do with them what you like.