One of the most frequent charges I’ve heard from Protestants against Catholicism, who attack it as a heresy or a “false gospel,” is that the Catholic Church teaches “works’ righteousness,” or “salvation by works.” This is what I grew up hearing and believing, so I know the thinking well. Protestants think that Catholics believe they can “save themselves” or somehow merit salvation from God, through their good works, apart from His grace. This couldn’t be further from the truth. So, I thought I would take a moment to present what the Church actually teaches, so that anyone making this charge will at least be informed.
Protestant theology teaches salvation (or justification; Protestants and Catholics have different understandings of this word) by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide), drawing this largely from the epistles of St. Paul, especially Romans and Galatians. Protestants seem to think that Catholics don’t read the same letters. We do, and always have. The Catholic Church fully affirms that salvation is by grace alone, but has a different interpretation of the passages in which Protestants read sola fide, especially in light of other passages, most notably from the Book of James (which Martin Luther famously declared an “epistle of straw” and wanted to discard as uncanonical). Catholics certainly affirm salvation by faith. But Paul never once says by faith alone.
This is a much bigger argument than I have time to get into in a single post — many, many people have written whole books about this issue, and I have no hopes to resolve it here. The Wikipedia article is meaty with evidence and claims from both sides, for anyone who might be interested: there are just as many verses of Scripture cited to reject sola fide as to support it. This is one of the fundamental disagreements between Catholics and Protestants, and as long as people have free thought, we will be of different minds.
What I do hope to do here is to clear up what the Catholic Church actually teaches regarding grace and faith and “works” in salvation. (There’s another much misunderstood doctrine of “merit” that relates to this, but I will save that for next time.) Protestants teach that justification comes from grace alone. Catholics affirm this:
Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life (CCC 1996).
This vocation to eternal life is supernatural. It depends entirely on God’s gratuitous initiative, for he alone can reveal and give himself. It surpasses the power of human intellect and will, as that of every other creature (CCC 1998).
Now, regarding works: let’s go ahead and get this out of the way. The Council of Trent, in its first canon on justification, declared in no uncertain terms:
If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema (Council of Trent, 1547: Sixth Session, Canon I “On Justification”).
Do Catholics believe that works (or deeds, or things we do) justify us? Absolutely not. We are justified solely by the gratuitous grace of God.
But what is the role of works? Do works play a role in our justification? Catholics believe they do. So do many Protestants. One needs to understand what we mean by “works.” Basically, and most importantly, it means one has to work at salvation: we have to do something.
What do we have to do? First, and most essential, we have to cooperate with God’s grace; we have to accept it:
Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent:
When God touches man’s heart through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, man himself is not inactive while receiving that inspiration, since he could reject it; and yet, without God’s grace, he cannot by his own free will move himself toward justice in God’s sight (Council of Trent, 1547: Sixth Session, Chapter V [DS 1525]) (CCC 1992).
This belief that we have to assent to God’s prevenient grace (that is, grace coming before regeneration, drawing us to Christ) is essentially the same doctrine taught by Arminian and Wesleyan theology. In fact, they found it the same place we did, St. Augustine.
The Synod furthermore declares that . . . the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation [calling], whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace . . . (Council of Trent, 1547: Sixth Session, Chapter V). [This quote dovetails with the one above cited in the Catechism.]
So, initial justification and conversion is entirely by grace, but must be assented to in order to receive it. So what about continuing “works”? Well, in our continuing sanctification and conversion to Christ, we have to continue cooperating with God’s grace. And that’s a lot of work. And, as St. James says, “Faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:17, 26 ESV). Do works justify us? No. But through our works, God works with us to bring about our sanctification.
And just to be clear, what “works” am I talking about? Most important is participation in the Sacraments, constantly renewing our relationship with Christ and with His Church. Also prayer, fasting, almsgiving, acts of charity and loving our neighbor: what Jesus commanded us to do. Without these “works,” a Christian isn’t exactly taking part in the life of Christ. St. Paul tells us to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [us], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12 ESV).
God works in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. It is God’s constant and continuing grace that enables us to do the work we do, to even engage with His working in our lives:
The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. This latter is needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity. God brings to completion in us what he has begun, “since he who completes his work by cooperating with our will began by working so that we might will it” (St. Augustine, De gratia et libero arbitrio, 17):
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) (CCC 2001).
Once again, this doctrine of cooperating with God’s grace is very similar to the doctrines of Arminian Protestants. We understand grace in different ways, but both agree that we must work with it. Arminian theologian Roger Olson writes, “If people are working out their salvation, from beginning to end, it is only because ‘God is at work’ in them. That’s prevenient, assisting grace: prevenient leading up to conversion and assisting throughout the entire Christian life” (Olson, Against Calvinism, 172).
So, to draw this to a close: synergistic (requiring our cooperation with God’s grace), Catholic theology is, similar to Arminian and Wesleyan theology; as opposed to monergistic as are Calvinist and Lutheran theology. “Works’ salvation” it is not.