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The Catholic Church Teaches Salvation by Works

Question: You mentioned something about how the Catholic Church teaches that salvation is through works. This is contrary to everything that I’ve discovered about the Catholic Church.

Answer: Many Catholics will not agree with you. They frankly admit that they hope to be saved by living a good life. They seek to obey the commandments, participate in the sacraments, go to church, do penance and give alms, recite prayers and so on, in order to merit salvation. In its official writings, the Catholic Church teaches that faith is important; but it also insists on the necessity of good works to merit eternal life. Please read carefully the following quotations from the Council of Trent on Justification:

Canon 11. If anyone says that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ or by the sole remission of sins, excluding grace and charity which is poured into their hearts by the Holy Spirit and inheres in them, or also that the grace which justifies us is only the favour of God, let him be anathema. (see note 1)

Canon 12. If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ's sake, or that it is this confidence alone that justifies us, let him be anathema.

Canon 24. If anyone says that the justice (righteousness) received is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not the cause of the increase, let him be anathema.

Canon 30. If anyone says that after the reception of the grace of justification the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out to every repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be discharged either in this world or in purgatory before the gates of heaven can be opened, let him be anathema.

Canon 32. If anyone says that the good works of the one justified are in such manner the gifts of God that they are not also the good merits of him justified; or that the one justified by the good works that he performs by the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ (of whom one is a living member), the justified does not truly merit an increase of grace, and eternal life, provided that one dies in the state of grace, the attainment of this eternal life, as well as an increase in glory, let him be anathema.

Official Catholic teaching would not allow the sinner to rely by faith on the mercy of God or to believe that his sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake only. Something more is required. You must keep yourself justified by your own good works. You must merit grace and eternal life by your works. You must pay the debt of sins by your penance and your purgatorial sufferings. That is Rome's salvation by works!

What about Canon 1?

Question But you forgot to mention canon 1, which clearly asserts that we are not justified by our works. "If anyone says that man can be justified before God by his own works, whether done by his own natural powers or through the teaching of the law, without divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema."

Answer This canon gives an initial impression that Rome denies justification by works just as the Bible (and evangelicals) also do. In fact it does not! The canon simply says that a man cannot be justified by performing the works of the Law by his own natural powers. However, the same canon indicates that a man can 'receive divine grace through Jesus Christ' to perform the works necessary for justification. In other words, Rome teaches that God helps man to do good works and hence to fully satisfy the Law. Only then is a person qualified to enter heaven. The Council of Trent elaborates this idea in chapter 16:

"For, whereas Jesus Christ Himself continually infuses his virtue into the said justified, - as the head into the members, and the vine into the branches, - and this virtue always precedes and accompanies and follows their good works, which without it could not in any wise be pleasing and meritorious before God, - we must believe that nothing further is wanting to the justified, to prevent their being accounted to have, by those very works which have been done in God, fully satisfied the divine law according to the state of this life, and to have truly merited eternal life, to be obtained also in its (due) time, if so be, however, that they depart in grace..."

To be fair, we should acknowledge that a great emphasis is placed on Jesus Christ and the grace of God. Good works do not originate in man's natural ability but can only be performed through Jesus Christ. Yet, it is also true that these works do not cease to be the good works of the Christian; personal works give him the right to heaven.

So then, what is required for a person to be justified at the end, that is, to be accounted to have fully satisfied divine law, and therefore to merit eternal life? Trent answers: THEIR GOOD WORKS! Their good works fully satisfy the divine law. Their works merit eternal life.

Catholic theology insists that the Christian's good works are truly his good merits, and by these works, he preserves and increases the initial righteousness received in baptism to finally attain eternal life (canons 24 and 32). Without doubt, the official documents of the Roman Catholic Church teach justification by works.

In contrast to this, the Bible declares:

“Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes (reckons, credits to one’s account) righteousness apart from works” (Romans 4:4-6).

The Bible asserts that he who "does not work" but "believes" is justified before God. Justification is not the reward for our works. Justification is the free gift of grace which we do not merit. The works that a Christian performs - and every true believer performs good works - are not the basis of their acceptance before God. The blood and righteousness of Jesus is the only basis for the believer's justification. "Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him... by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous" (Romans 5:9, 19).

That is the true Gospel; Rome’s message is counterfeit.

Note: When reading Trent's canons on Justification, keep in mind that the Protestant teaching is constantly caricatured as if we hold that there is nothing more to salvation than the remission of sins. Nothing could be further from the truth. We believe that regeneration and sanctification are integral aspects of salvation. So, for example, concerning canon 11, we do not exclude the grace and love poured in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, we do not believe that our standing before God is based on our inherent righteousness, but only on account of the righteousness of Christ imputed (credited) to us by faith and His substitutionary sacrifice for our sins.

Copyright Dr Joe Mizzi. Permission to copy and distribute this article without textual changes. < BACK TO Q&A