Friday, June 11, 2010

Salvation by Works?

While trolling the internet looking for more anti-Catholic claims, I came across an article, naturally titled "The Truth About Roman Catholicism," which contained the following statement:
Roman Catholicism, although teaching that faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation, actually denies the truth of the Gospel by adding sacraments, good works, and purgatory as additional requirements for forgiveness of sin and eternal life. This amounts to the preaching of a false Gospel which places the Roman Catholic Church under God's curse.
Is there any merit to this claim? Does Catholicism require a "works-based" salvation? Do Catholics reject the idea that salvation is by grace through faith, as is put forth in Ephesians 2:8-9? In other words, according to Catholic doctrine, how does one gain eternal life? The charges expressed in this statement are actually too large for a single post in this blog. The first post will be dealing with the relationship between faith and works. The second will address the Sacraments, and the last post will focus on the (entirely Biblical) doctrine of Purgatory.

The first issue to be resolved is this idea of "works." Works is mentioned by Jesus, and St. Paul, and St. James. For instance, Jesus says this:
Truly, truly, I say to you , he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the father. (John 14:12)
For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother. (Matthew 12:50).

St. Paul, too, speaks of the need to act upon our faith:
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)
and lest we forget:
For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. (Romans 2:13)
We must also remember that St. James also wrote of the role of works in salvation:
You believe God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe--and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you foolish fellow, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not Abraham our father justified by works , when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and Scripture was fulfilled which says "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness"; and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the Harlot justified by works by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body apart form the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead. (James 2:19-26)
Why have all of these verses been repeated here? And trust me, there are many more. To show that it is a Biblical teaching that work is a component of faith. Of course the Sola Fide crowd, never one to give up a fight easily will chime in with their own Scriptures. Probably the first one will be the most well-known verse in the entire Bible, thanks to giant signs at televised sporting events:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16)
It does seem convincing, at least on the surface. The problem is that it seems to be in direct contradiction with the second chapter of James, previously quoted. Faith or faith plus works? We know that the Bible cannot contradict itself. Si what we must do is final out how to reconcile these two passages. One passage is not "more inspired" than the other. It is all God's Written Word. The two passages can be reconciled first by looking at what John 3:16 does not say. There is no indication of belief being the only requirement, or a t least a faith devoid of good works. In fact if a few more verses are read, a reference to behavior can be found in connection with salvation:
And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light , lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be seen that his deeds have been wrought in God. (John 3: 19-21)
With this addition, it seems that faith alone is less certain. The closing verse in the chapter is even more direct to the connection between faith and works:
He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Sonshall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him. (John 3:36)
It becomes absolutely clear with this verse. Belief in the Son carries with it an obligation to obey the Son. The supporter of Sola Fide will not give up easily, for he has more references in his arsenal. For example, he may quote Ephesians 2:8-9:
For by grace have you been saved through faith; and this is not your own dong, it is the gift of God--not because of works. lest any man should boast.
Here it clearly says (or so it seems) that works has no role whatsoever in salvation. It is a gift that cannot be earned. As a Catholic what is the proper response? We do agree that in no way can salvation be earned. but these verses in nay way do not relegate works done as nothing. If reading is continued to the next verse, we will see that works are a vital part of our Christian life:
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)
Isn't that interesting. Not only are works simply a good thing to do, but God has prepared works for us that He wants us to do. Sola Fide fails here as well. At the risk of flogging a deceased equine, one further example will be provided to finish the discussion of works in this vein:
But if it is not by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. (Romans 11:6)
Again, this seems fairly clear that salvation has no basis on works whatsoever, as works nullify the doctrine of grace. But it is not so, as this passage is not even discussing salvation at all. This passage is explaining that God has not turned His back on Israel, and there is a faithful remnant who were saved by the grace of God, and not of their own merits. In other words those who are saved are saved by the grace of God, and not because they are righteous, but the mere presence of obedience and works does not nullify the idea of grace. If we think of works as "faith in action," as is inferred by Ephesians 2:8-10 and James 2:19-26, it becomes illogical to think that works have no role whatsoever in our salvation.

If this is true,we must ponder on the source of this confusion between faith and works. I believe it is to be found in the understanding of the use of the word "law" in the writings of St. Paul. St. Paul does not use this word consistently in his writings, which makes his epistles challenging to properly interpret. St. Peter bears witness to this in the Scriptures (2 Peter 3:15-16). Here are some of the differing ways St. Paul uses the word "Law" (all of these references are form his letter to the Romans):
  • When Gentiles who have not the law...: The Old Testament ceremonial law (2:14)
  • They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts: Natural law (2:15)
  • So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand: principle (7:21)
The challenge now becomes to determine in which sense the word "law" is being used. I find it to be true that when St. Paul refers to "works of the law," which is the source of the confusion, he is referring to the Mosaic Covenant, that is, to the ceremonial Old Testament Laws which are insufficient for the forgiveness of sins.


  1. Welcome to the Catholic blogs directory. I'd like to invite you to join Sunday Snippets--A Catholic Carnival. We are a group of Catholic bloggers who gather weekly to share our best posts. This week's host post is at

  2. Suppose ye lived and died in a time before any word of God was available, in a country such as Africa, the back parts of Australia,what suppose was the outcome of that persons soul?

    And, did that soul have a choice in any of it?

    If God His creator made no attempt to save that soul, who would?

    If only the few, who did have the privilege of knowing the salvation of God,as you and I, are going into the Kingdom, what about the rest of the world?

    If, the High priests who accused Jesus of blasphemy and put Jesus to death, were saved for their miss deed, how is it that many in the world who did nothing of the sort, would not?

    You see, the Mercy of God is at stake here, either God is all merciful, or He is selective.

    That is the question one must seek an answer to, if salvation by faith alone is to be understood, otherwise, personal works becomes mandatory and God being merciful selective.

    Was He?

    Blessings, AJ

  3. We know that the normative way of salvation is through by grace through faith. The Sacraments are efficacious means of this grace. That being said, we also know that the Scriptures say that it is His will that all men come to salvation. Therefore, we know that there must be a way that this is possible, even for those who have never heard the Gospel message. Even though this way has not been revealed to us, there is some way that those who have not heard the Gospel may be saved. But you and I, having heard the Gospel message, are judged by a higher standard. Knowing that Christ demands obedience, we cannot assume that just believing is enough.