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Are Catholics saved by works?

Catholics, salvation and Christian works

An old accusation against the Catholic Church is that we believe we are saved by works. It is a false accusation, but it persists.

Why Catholics conclude that good works play a role in salvation

  •  Let's get this said first -- It is Catholic dogma that forgiveness is of grace, not of works. “It is necessary to believe that sins neither are remitted, nor ever were remitted save gratuitously by the mercy of God for Christ's sake.” Council of Trent, Decree on Justification chapter IX
  • When a Catholic speaks of salvation, he is speaking of a relationship with God and of a process. If asked “When were you saved?” he will not likely reply with a specific day and time. To be sure, baptism begins his salvation for we believe the scripture teaches baptismal regeneration. But in speaking of the question whether Christian works play a role in salvation, a Catholic is likely to view the question quite differently from a person who thinks of being saved at a moment in time at an altar call or the praying of a single prayer. If one’s salvation is thought of as gained in a specific moment, then Christian works will be viewed differently, compared to another person who thinks of salvation as a process and a relationship.
  • Catholics believe our personal obedience, our Christian works, are linked to Jesus’ obedience. This comment is from the Catechism para. 2825 on the obedience of Jesus described in Heb. 5:8: " ‘Although he was a Son, [Jesus] learned obedience through what he suffered.’ How much more reason have we sinful creatures to learn obedience - we who in him have become children of adoption. We ask our Father to unite our will to his Son's, in order to fulfill his will, his plan of salvation for the life of the world. We are radically incapable of this, but united with Jesus and with the power of his Holy Spirit, we can surrender our will to him and decide to choose what his Son has always chosen: to do what is pleasing to the Father.”
  • A wording in the point above is so important, I want to emphasize it here. The Catechism says “We can surrender our will to him, and decide to choose what he has always chosen.” Not only does this express the interplay between human will and the will of God very nicely, but it also identifies the source of our obedience -- the source is abandonment to the will of God.
  • Does anyone believe a person could be saved without loving God? Yet loving God and obeying him are expressed as equivalent in I John 5. “This is the love of God, that you keep his commandments.” What could be more right, more proper and holy than to do the will of God? Jesus did not come to abolish the law -- he came to fulfill it, to make it fully what God intended, and to equip us to live these commands in grace and in justice. Jesus says, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” Matt 19. The Catechism speaks movingly of the Ten Commandments and at great length. Nowhere in it is there any hint that the Decalogue is optional, but neither is there any hint that the commands are somehow obeyed outside of God’s grace. “What God commands he makes possible by his grace” paragraph 2082. Thus God’s grace and human response are united in Christian life.
  • The Christian’s goal is to become like Jesus (“it is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher” Matt 10:25) to such a degree that we can believe he lives in us (“it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” Gal 2). There is reciprocity here, inasmuch as action molds character and character produces action -- there is a tendency to become what we do, so part of the process of becoming like Jesus is to do the things he did. [Just as a note… the recent second volume of Pope Benedict’s book Jesus of Nazareth has as convincing a presentation of this as I have encountered. It’s in the chapter on Jesus washing the feet of the disciples.]
  • Sometimes an analogy makes a point well. I want to be very careful here -- the analogy is to the conduct of humans, not the conduct of God. Consider the simple, yet irrational command of Exodus 11 to smear blood on the doorpost -- “when I see the blood, I will pass over you”. If the Israelites in Egypt had argued that they believed and loved God -- that they had full faith in his will and his power to deliver them from Egyptian bondage -- that they would never base their understanding of his deliverance (salvation of a very tangible sort!) on mere human work, thus there was no absolute need to smear lamb’s blood on their doorpost -- if they had reasoned thus and trusting that logic failed to smear blood on the doorpost with a hyssop branch, does anyone really believe the Angel of Death would have passed over their house? Wouldn’t a failure to obey God seem to be hubris? If omitting obedience causes deliverance from the Angel of Death (salvation) to be omitted also, then how can it be the physical obedience has no connection to the deliverance (salvation)? Let me say again, the analogy is to human behavior, not to God’s.
  • To word the thing crassly, salvation is a package. Eph. 2:8,9 says that salvation is 100% the product of God’s grace, then in the very next sentence Paul describes the outcome of that grace: “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which he prepared beforehand”. The critical phrase is “in Christ Jesus”. Outside of Christ, there is no salvation. In Christ, there have always been good works for us to do; they were created “beforehand”. In Eph. 2:8-10 it sure looks like Paul is comfortable discussing an intimate connection between God’s grace and the good works he gives us to do. So is the Catholic Church. Leave out the works, and salvation is threatened to say the least.
  • There are passages pertaining directly to salvation and to judgment that mention good works. “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord… for their deeds follow with them” Rev 14. In the description of the final judgment in Matt. 25:31-46, Jesus refers exclusively to deeds of mercy done for his sake; this exclusivity does not mean that the deeds are the only thing relevant to salvation, but how can one conclude they are irrelevant? Earlier in the same chapter, the one who is welcomed into heaven hears “well done, good and faithful servant”. The Lord refers to what was “done”. When Catholics connect good works and our eternal salvation, it is passages such as these we have in mind. We dare not ignore the Lord’s connection of judgment and our deeds.

There are three false accusations to get out of the way.

  • Catholics do not believe we make God our debtor or otherwise obligate him because of our works. God forgives sins for his own sake, not for ours, Isa. 43:25. Nothing I do, nothing I believe, nothing I try to become can merit his salvation. Everything is of grace. Everything. “Salvation comes from God alone” para. 169 of the Catechism. By the 4th century when the church fought the perceived error of Pelagius, the unalloyed role of God’s grace in man’s salvation was firmly maintained by the Catholic church.
  • Nor do Catholics believe that a Christian’s external good works please God in the absence of interior conditions, as if good works are all that is needed. Paul is dead serious in I Cor. 13:1-3 when he says that preaching, miracle-working, extreme generosity and even martyrdom are of no use in the absence of Christian love.
  • The church has enumerated a list of what must be done at a minimum in order to be a faithful Christian. This may be what makes people accuse the Catholic Church of teaching salvation by works. The list is called the precepts of the church. It is not a formula for salvation by works. It is a minimum list that is given to Christians in a spirit of pastoral love and guidance. Would any parent raise a child without setting minimum rules (as well as “higher” ones) to ensure the child matures in virtue and love? The precepts are (a)to go to worship every Sunday and other days of obligation, (b)to confess mortal sin at least annually, (c)to receive the Eucharist at least at Easter, (d)to fast, and (e)to support the church’s mission with money and personal time. “The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor.” Paragraph 2041. As a Catholic, I’m grateful for leadership that helps me grow with concrete directions, as well as more general exhortations.