"You Catholics Think You Need to Earn Your Salvation"

You're talking to your Protestant friend and he drops this one on you....

"You Catholics think you need to earn your salvation"

What do you say?

Here, we'll help.

The idea that Catholics think you need to earn your salvation is another holdover from the Protestant Reformation. When the Reformation began, Protestants preached that we are justified “by faith alone” (Latin, sola fide). They then accused Catholics of teaching a false gospel that based salvation on good works.

To support their position, many pointed to verses like Romans 3:28, which states, “We hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.” In his German Bible, Martin Luther even added the word alone after faith, though this word is not in the Greek, and so it generally isn’t found in Protestant Bibles today.

One problem with the Reformation-era use of this verse is that Paul probably does not mean by “works of the law” what many suppose he does. If you examine the context immediately before and after this verse, you will see that Paul is discussing the possibility of salvation for both Jews and Gentiles.

When he denies that people are saved by “works of law,” then, the law he is thinking of is the Law of Moses. He’s saying that one does not need to be circumcised and become a Jew to be saved. In essence, he’s making the same point in the letters to the Romans and Galatians that the Council of Jerusalem made in Acts 15.

But if Paul is saying that works of the Mosaic Law are not necessary for salvation, he’s not talking about “good works,” which is what the Reformation-era controversy was about. On this subject, Paul insists that they are part of the Christian life, saying that we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).

So, what does the Catholic Church teach, and how does it relate to this set of issues?

Although Catholics don’t use the formula “by faith alone” (because it conflicts with the language of Scripture; see James 2:24), it is possible for this formula to be given an acceptable meaning. As Pope Benedict XVI stated, “Luther’s phrase ‘faith alone’ is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love. . . . So it is that in the letter to the Galatians, in which he primarily developed his teaching on justification, St. Paul speaks of faith that works through love (Gal. 5:6).”xvi

But does the Church teach that we need to do good works to enter a state of justification? No. The Council of Trent states, “None of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification” (Decree on Justification 8).

In fact, Catholic theology holds that it is impossible to do supernaturally good works before we are justified and become “a new creation” by God’s grace (2 Cor. 5:17, Gal. 6:15). Good works thus flow from the state of justification. They do not bring us into it.

God does promise to reward us when we cooperate with his grace and perform good works. He “will reward each one according to his works: to those who, by perseverance in good work, seek glory and honor and immortality, eternal life” (Rom. 2:6-7, LEB; cf. Gal. 6:7-10). However, these rewards are based purely on God’s promise, for, “With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator” (CCC 2007).

Thus, we do not “earn” our salvation. The Catholic Church does not teach salvation by works.

Fortunately, as Reformation-era passions have cooled, Catholics and many Protestants have realized that they are closer together on these issues than they thought, and in 1999 the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. In 2006, the World Methodist Council also signed it, and in 2017 the World Communion of Reformed Churches did the same. Unfortunately, the myth of salvation by works still persists in many circles.

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May 7th 2024

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