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Salvation by Works?

July 11, 2012

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

The Doctrine of Salvation is a contentious debate between different Christians.  It is no secret that there is a huge schism between the thoughts of the two camps in that dialog.  In fact, it is what many would say was the basis of the Protestant Reformation.  When Martin Luther determined that Salvation and Justification could be obtained through faith alone, he created a theology that became the sustaining force and, in many case, the sole driving force of Christian faith for many Protestant denominations.

Catholics and mainline Protestants eventually came to be viewed by Evangelicals as people who believe that their works save them and because of that belief their works substitute the final saving work of Christ and render His sacrifice and His saving work on the Cross incomplete and ineffective.

I believe this is the conclusion drawn by Evangelicals today because they believe that ‘works’ means physical, manual work or involvement in a field of Christian ministry of some sort or that it means punishing oneself and one’s body to make oneself holy.  ‘Works’ to them mean to participate in an action or event that will, because it is a ‘good work’, render to the doer a kind of credit on their account and that it gains them holiness because they did a good deed, thus helping them to secure Salvation.

However, reading the book of Romans shows us that this is a theological error.  Often cited by Protestants as the source of ‘faith alone’ and the proof text that calling upon the name of Jesus is the only thing you need to do in order to be saved (Romans 10:9-10,13), Protestants refute the idea that relying on works will save your soul calling it fallacy.  In fact, the most revealing verse to this idea is in Chapter 9 of Romans when Paul tells us that the Israelites did not obtain righteousness through the Law of Moses because they did not pursue it through faith, they pursued righteousness as if it was based on works. (Romans 9:31-32).  Therefore, reasons the Protestant, the Law does not have the ability to make you righteous and neither do works obtain righteousness for you so there is no use relying on works to save you because they cannot.

I say ‘Amen’ to the idea that pursuing holiness on my own merits or efforts (works) in order to obtain Salvation will always have me at a loss to find it and the grace of God.  In essence, work done for its own sake is a circular pathway to Heaven and those who attempt to find Heaven through these means will always fail.  St. Paul tells us this himself throughout the first part of Romans by refuting the ability of the Law of Moses, the Torah, to save souls and that Israelites sought to obtain righteousness not out of their faith and love of God, but in relying on their own ability to obtain it for themselves by adhering to the Law in order to gain the righteousness by their own efforts.  Therefore, the Law could not save them or give them the holiness they so desired.

This is why when Paul speaks of Abraham he points out that it is because Abraham had what the later Israelites lacked: faith.  James also speaks of this saying that Abrahams good works were credited to him as righteousness because of his faith in God and because he did it for love of God and the desire to please God and follow God (James 2:21-23). Therefore, his good works were meritorious and he was considered righteousness.  However, the Israelites good works were not because they strived for holiness, not through faith in and love for God, but solely by their own efforts.

This then creates the disagreement between what some Protestants believe regarding good works in the role of Salvation and those whose faith does incorporate it into their theological beliefs. Catholics and mainline Protestants adhere to the belief that works are an essential part of the Christian’s role in practicing their faith and it is a difficult thing to explain, for many, why and how exactly that is necessary or even possibly without doing a disservice to the saving work of Christ.

The theological belief of the role of works in Salvation is first laid out with the understanding that the works themselves are not always or specifically defined as a commitment to a ministerial, evangelical, or teaching role within the Church.  Nor does it necessarily require that the individual commit to overseas evangelizing or that they absolutely have to abide in a committed service to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend to the sick, or visit those in prison.  Works doesn’t mean an involuntary requirement to build houses for the homeless or work in a soup kitchen simply because it’s there to be done and it’s a good work.  It doesn’t mean an absolute unbending requirement to do rigorous acts of strict penance assigned to oneself or to fulfill extreme acts of piety.  A Baptist lady once told me that we should and are required to do any work that fills a need simply because it is there and that is God’s will.  However, she ironically abhorred the Catholic doctrine of a “works-based Salvation”.  However, this mentality is directly refuted by Paul.  It does not lend itself to an increase in grace or righteousness in men and is therefore rendered useless to the soul.

Works, for Catholics can be separated into two different categories: Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy.

Corporal Works of Mercy

Spiritual Works of Mercy

Feed the hungry

Instruct the ignorant

Give drink to the thirsty

Counsel the doubtful

Clothe the naked

Admonish sinners

Harbor the harborless

Bear wrongs patiently

Visit the sick

Forgive offenses willingly

Ransom the captive

Comfort the afflicted

Bury the dead

Pray for the living and the dead

It is not only limited to these things.  Going to church on Sunday, praying, religious observances, devotionals, reading the Bible, etc. are all forms of what we call works, because all of it is beneficial to our souls, if it is done through, by and with the grace of God and only if it is carried out that way can it be meritorious to us and Sanctify us.  Without the grace of God we can do nothing and nothing that we do is pleasing to Him.  Catholics believe that by cooperating with the grace of God we share in the labor suitable to the faith we live out as Christians in the Will of God.  We can never infuse righteousness onto our souls by doing works solely because they are a “gain” for us.  We will never receive benefit or grace that way.  Only in cooperating with God’s love and grace will our works bear fruit and obtain righteousness for our souls.

In fact, our Lord tells us to produce good fruit or we too shall be cut off from the vine which is Christ Himself. (John 15:1-2,8)  He also plainly explains in this chapter that not only are good works required but that we (“the branches”) cannot produce good works on our own apart from the vine and that by choosing not to do good works we are cut off from the vine, we wither, die, and go to Hell. (John 15:4-5)

“You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” James 2:24

I believe the difference then between ‘Faith Alone’ Protestants and Catholics understanding of producing “good fruit” or doing “good works” is truly not so different except that to a Protestant the works are simply a natural reactive act to becoming a Christian and that they naturally follow the decision to become a Christian as a work of the Holy Spirit within them but the work itself has no merit upon the soul of the Christian, it doesn’t benefit them in any way to actively cooperate with the Will of God by progressing in the work God has for us.  In fact, by the theological definition of Protestantism the believer themselves is not ever considered truly righteous in and of themselves.  Their souls can never obtain, either by God’s grace or their cooperation with it, any form of righteousness whatsoever.  No matter what they themselves are never holy or righteous in the eyes of God.

A frustrated Martin Luther decided this because he went about attempting to do “works” but did them, not out of love for God, but for their own sake.  Because by doing them, they were supposed to “save his soul”, “sanctify him”, “make him holy”.  Not for love of God.  Not by the prompting of the Holy Spirit which moved upon his soul and give him a longing to please God did he “work”.  He did it out of a morbid fear of not obtaining Salvation and going to Hell.  In essence, Martin Luther was the Israelite St. Paul speaks of, and his works never obtained for him any righteousness because they were done for the wrong reasons.  Therefore, when he jettisoned Catholicism, this is a big theological point he changed.

Despite what anyone thinks, or what even Catholics themselves think, man cannot obtain Salvation by doing good works simply because, as the Baptist lady put it, they are there to be done and the works are God’s Will.  Only things done through Him, with Him, and in Him in unity with the Holy Spirit – in cooperation with God’s Grace – will merit a soul or its intended intentions, and reckon one as righteous before God.  Only the works a soul is called to do by the Heavenly Will of God Our Eternal Father can be fruitful.

This is the Catholic position.  This is Catholic teaching.

Therefore, the Catholic position is not that it is by ‘faith alone’, nor is it what some Protestants think we believe: that we believe it is by our own efforts, abilities, and actions.  It is works that gain a soul merit and make a soul righteous by faith in God and the acting out of those works by His grace.

Indeed we also work, but we are only collaborating with God who works, for his mercy has gone before us. It has gone before us so that we may be healed, and follows us so that once healed, we may be given life; it goes before us so that we may be called, and follows us so that we may be glorified; it goes before us so that we may live devoutly, and follows us so that we may always live with God: for without him we can do nothing.

 – St. Augustine, De natura et gratia, 31:PL 44,264.

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