The Catholic View of Faith vs. Works

This was emailed to me from a good friend. He said, “This is the best explanation I have seen regarding the Catholic view of faith vs. works.”
I copied and pasted directly from here.

“So, again, good works do not save us, but by doing the good works which God has prepared for us beforehand, we can, by the grace of God, stay united to Christ and die in a state of grace and thus spend eternity in Heaven with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

In terms of topics to cover in future newsletters, I would suggest the faith/works debate with one important distinction. I may be completely wrong on this point on Church teaching (as I was raised in the Baptist church) but when I began to read about this topic from the Catholic side, the point I missed for quite a while is that when Protestants hear Catholics talking about works, they automatically assume the works are solely those of the person actually doing them who can then take credit for doing them. However, if I’m correct, although the person is doing them, they are doing them as to be obedient to God and His will and the works He wants us to perform. When the works are presented as being done by the person, the protestant lenses I used to read through quickly dismissed that as a works based system but when I realised the full picture, the long standing objection to the Catholic position fell away. 

The above then changed my previous understanding of salvation: if salvation is now by grace through faith in order to perform good (His) works, this would have to be an ongoing process covering our entire lives whereas my Baptist family members would all agree they were saved at a point in time and there is no ongoing process.

I may be talking absolute nonsense so I apologise for that but thank you for the newsletters. I always read them because I learn from them and I have a lot to learn about Catholicism.
Kind regards,
Scotland, UK

     Andrew, thanks for the question.  My initial thought is that you are almost there in your understanding of this topic, and you might actually be all the way there, but I want to make sure of one very important point regarding works and the role they play in the salvation process.  And that is this: That works have nothing at all to do with us gaining salvation, but they could have everything to do with us losing salvation.  I’ll explain and clarify in the paragraphs below. 

     As Ephesians 2:8-9, which you were alluding to in your question, states, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast.”  This is one of the 1st verses that Protestants will turn to in order to “prove” to a Catholic that works play no role in our being saved.  What the Protestant doesn’t understand, nor do some Catholics, is that it is a dogma of the Catholic Church that we are not saved by our works.  As the Council of Trent states: “…we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because ‘faith is the beginning of human salvation,’ the foundation and root of all justification, ‘without which it is impossible to please God’ [Heb 11:6] and to come to the fellowship of His sons; and are, therefore, said to be justified gratuitously, because none of those things which precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace itself of justification; for, ‘if it is a grace, it is not now by reason of works…’” (Council of Trent, Decree on Justification; Denzinger, p. 252).  Which means to accuse Catholics of a “works-based” salvation is absolutely ludicrous.

     Again, as the Council of Trent says, nothing which precedes justification – whether faith or works – merits the grace of justification.  We are not saved by our faith or by our works, we are saved by God’s grace and God’s grace alone.  Salvation is a gratuitous gift of God to any given individual.  God doesn’t owe anyone salvation no matter how much faith they have or how many works they do.  It is a free gift that we receive throughfaith, but not becauseof our faith.  The question is, though, when does God give us this free gift of salvation?  When we say a sinner’s prayer?  When we “accept Jesus into our heart as our personal Lord and Savior”?  No and no!  We receive God’s free gift of salvation when we are baptized. “Baptism, which corresponds to this [being saved through water], now saves you,” (1 Peter 3:21). “[God our Savior] saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit [Baptism], which He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by His grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life,” (Titus 3:5-7).

     And nowhere is it demonstrated more clearly in Catholic theology that we believe salvation is a free gift of God that we cannot earn by our faith or our works, than it is in infant Baptism.  The infant has no faith.  The infant can do no works.  Yet, we believe, as Catholics, that the child is saved…washed clean…receives the Holy Spirit…brought into covenant with God…given the free gift of God’s salvation…through Baptism. 

    Okay, if we are saved by God’s grace, through faith, not because of works (lest any man should boast), at the moment of our Baptism, then exactly how is it works have anything to do with our salvation?  Works, as I stated above, do not save us, but if we do not do the works God calls us to do (Eph 2:10), then we could lose the salvation God has freely given us.  Or, if we do works we are not supposed to be doing (sins), that could also result in the loss of our salvation.  The former being sins of omission, the latter being sins of commission.

     Does Scripture back me up on this?  Absolutely.  First, Ephesians 2:10 says that we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has prepared beforehand, that we shouldwalk in them.”  “Should” walk in them!  Well, what happens if we refuse to walk in these good works that God has prepared for us beforehand?  Are we still saved?  Protestants have to say, “Yes,” because according to the dogma of Sola Fide, works have nothing to do with our salvation.  However, when the Word of God says that God has prepared these works for us to walk in, we need to recognize that means it is the will of God for us to do those works.  What if we decide we don’t want to do the will of God in regard to those works?  The Word of God tells us what happens if we don’t do the will of God – “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven,” (Matt 7:21).  You don’t do the will of God for your life, you don’t enter the kingdom of heaven. If you don’t do the works God has prepared for you to do, you don’t do the will of God, you don’t enter the kingdom of heaven.  So, again, our works don’t save us, but they could keep us from losing our salvation. 

     We see this also in Matthew 25 with the parable of the sheep and the goats.  The sheep fed Jesus in the hungry, gave Him drink in the thirsty, clothed Him in the naked, and visited Him in the sick and the imprisoned.  The goats did not do those things.  The sheep will go away into “eternal life” and the goats will go away into “eternal punishment”…the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” (v. 31-46).  Sins of omission can cause you to lose your salvation and land you in Hell. 

     On the other hand, sins of commission can do the same, as evidenced by what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount.  By looking lustfully at a woman, you commit the sin of adultery.  It is very clear from Matt 5:27-29, that this sin will cause you to lose your salvation and land you in Hell.  In Romans 2:6-10, it is also exceedingly clear that by doing good you will be given eternal life (verses 7 and 10) but by doing evil you will receive eternal damnation (verses 8 and 9).  But, again, your good works do not gain you salvation, they work to help you keep the salvation you have already been given.  The evil works (sins), work to cause you to lose the salvation that has been given to you.

     One more time to Matthew 25 and the Parable of the Talents (verses 14-30) to make this crystal clear.  In the Parable of the Talents, the 3 servants do nothing to earn what their Master gives them.  2 of the servants go out and earn interest on what they have freely been given.  The 3rd servant buries what he has been given by his Master.  When the Master returns, the 2 servants who did something with what they had been given, were told, “Well done, good and faithful servant…enter into the joy of your Master.”  The servant who gave back to the Master exactly what the Master had given him, with no added interest on it whatsoever, was excoriated by his Master and had what he had been given taken away from him and he was then thrown into the outer darkness where “men will weep and gnash their teeth.”  Servants #1 and #2 represent Catholic theology.  They were given something freely by their Master…something they had not earned.  They bore good fruit with what they had been given (see also John 15:1-6).  By doing so, they got to keep what they had been given and were praised by their Master.  Servant #3 represents Sola Fide theology.  He was given something freely by his Master…something he had not earned.  Then, he did absolutely nothing with it.  Didn’t think he had to do anything with it.  He bore no fruit.  Earned no interest.  The result?  He was ripped into by his Master and had what was freely given to him taken away.  

     To sum all of this up, and to address the main point you were making in your question: Yes, the works we do – the good works we do – are done by Christ working His will in us and through us (Phil 2:13; 1 Cor 15:10).  But, the saving grace of God is not working in us and through us to do good works, to bear good fruit, until after we have already been saved through Baptism…until after we have already been united to the Body of Christ through Baptism…until after we have already received the Holy Spirit through Baptism.  So, again, good works do not save us, but by doing the good works which God has prepared for us beforehand, we can, by the grace of God, stay united to Christ and die in a state of grace and thus spend eternity in Heaven with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

     Hope that all makes sense and answers your question…

“Canon 1: If anyone shall say that man can be justified before God by his own works which are done either by his own natural powers, or through the teaching of the Law, and without divine grace through Christ Jesus: let him be anathema.” (Council of Trent; Denzinger, p.258)

Closing Comments
I hope you have a great week, and please know that I keep all of you in my prayers! 

If you could spare a minute during the week, please pray for the Bible Christian Society and, if I might be so bold as to ask: Please pray for a special intention that I have that, if it comes about, could be a big help in growing the work of evangelization that we do.

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