Faith and Works
In order to grow our understanding that Catholics and Protestants have more in common than many might realize, we’ll continue our discussion with Faith and Works.
In many publications, certain Protestants state that Catholic teaching on salvation is “works based.” “Works based salvation” in this context seems to mean “earning your way to heaven”; a person only needs to do certain practices to be “saved” or go to heaven. The accusation is that no belief in God is necessary.
In an online chat conversation with the web master of a local Protestant radio station, I was told by my interlocker, who identified as “ex-Catholic”, the Catholic Church did not teach it was necessary to believe in Jesus Christ to go to heaven, you only needed to say certain prayers, go to church and do certain things to go to heaven, according to this person’s understanding of Catholicism. They even claimed to have a Catholic Catechism implying the Catholic Church taught works based salvation. When I asked for a specific quote from the Catholic Catechism, they were unable to give me one.
I know most Protestants are not as ardent as this particular one was, but the knowledge is in the water in most Protestant circles, as it were, that Catholicism teaches that faith is not necessary, only works (works being defined as trying to be good enough without God).
This is entirely false.
First, the belief that one can be saved, without Grace, by just doing good works is called ‘Pelagianism.’ The Catholic Church condemned Pelagianism in the 5th Century. The Catholic Church even condemned ‘semi-Pelagianism’ the belief that God does His part in salvation and man, separate from God, does his part.
On the contrary the Catechism of the Catholic Church states unequivocally, “’Believing in Jesus Christ and in the One who sent him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation.’ Since ‘without faith it is impossible to please [God]’ and to attain to the fellowship of his sons, therefore without faith no one has ever attained justification, nor will anyone obtain eternal life ‘But he who endures to the end.’” (Emphasis added). In addition, the Catholic Church teaches that Justification is by Grace alone, through faith.
So what is this about works? I mean, everyone knows Catholics think they must do good works to go to heaven, right? Yes, BUT… these are not works separate from God’s Grace. In a nutshell, Catholicism teaches that God’s Grace is SO POWERFUL it not only makes our faith salvific, but our works as well.
“…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.” Phil 2:12-13;
“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. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Eph 2:8-10
“You see that faith was active along with his [Abraham’s] works, and faith was completed by his works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness”; and he was called friend of God.” Jam 2:22-23.
According to official Catholic teaching, all these passages show God acts first – Grace is present first. Grace then empowers belief and good works.
‘Merit’ is the word the Catholic Church uses for good works that are a result of God’s Grace working in us. This is often misunderstood by Protestants who believe merit means we can force God, through our actions, to give us heaven. Quite the contrary, the Catholic Church states that strictly speaking man has no right to merit anything apart from God and any merit is first and last entirely due to God’s Grace.
Far from condoning a “works based salvation,” the Catholic Church teaches that without faith – which is only possible as an unearned gift from God (i.e. Grace) – no one is ever justified, nor will anyone get to heaven.
To end, here’s a little story that shows Catholic teaching on Salvation, Grace, Faith and Works: There was a man who died and found himself at the Pearly Gates. In front of the gates was a kiosk with St. Peter sitting inside. St. Peter called the man up and said, “I need you to tell me all the good things you’ve done in your life. I will put them into my computer and they’ll be scored. When you reach a score of 1000, you can enter heaven.”
A big smile crossed the man’s face. He immediately said, “I went to church every Sunday, Holy Day and most other days as well.”
St. Peter typed on his computer and a few seconds later said, “Very good. That’s 1 point.”
“One point?!?” gasped the man. “Ok, my wife and I ran a soup kitchen for 30 years where we served dozens of people, three meals a day, seven days a week.”
St. Peter looked at his computer. “Very good. That’s another point!”
The man blanched and a cold sweat came upon his brow. “Um, I was married to my wife for 50 years. I was a virgin when we married and I never so much as thought about another woman!”
“Great! Another point!”
The man began to get desperate, his knees began to shake. “I said a Rosary every day for my entire life!”
“Wow! That’s a half a point!”
At this the man collapsed onto his knees. The realization of his unworthiness hit him like a ton of bricks. He began to sob. “The only way I’m going to get in is by the Grace of God!”
“Congratulations, that’s 1000 points. Welcome to heaven!”
This is Catholic teaching.
 Named after Pelagius, a 5th Century heretical theologian who taught Original Sin did not exist and essentially that man could save himself without God’s help.
 CCC 161
 cf CCC 1983, 1996-2005
 Note that the Ephesians passages denotes a difference between ‘works’ – believed to be a reference to ‘Works of the Law’ or the Jewish ritualistic cleanliness laws – and ‘good works’ which are not only not condemned, but shown to be the reason for our existence!
 Cf CCC 2006-2011