Whenever the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism are enumerated, one of the most common items on the list is “Faith and Good Works.” The role of good works in human salvation was one of the crucial issues of the Protestant Revolt of 1517, Martin Luther going so far as to interpolate his own spin on the matter right into the Bible.
Calvin picked up Luther’s theme and varied it up a bit, to make it more consistent, and eventually all the Reformers were singing the raucous chorus of sola fides (“faith alone”). To this very day, Catholic and Protestant apologists argue over the issue of Faith and good works as if it were one of the top three subjects of dispute (along with sola scriptura -“scripture alone” — and the Papacy).
Most of what is said and written on the issue of Faith and good works is superficial in that it ignores what lies at the heart of the matter. The real issue is the difference between the Catholic conception of salvation and its Protestant opposite. Essentially, this difference lies in the role each person plays in his own salvation.
From the start, it should be mentioned that although Catholicism is one particular system of dogmatic teaching, Protestantism is not. Therefore I should specify that when I refer to the Protestant teachings on this subject, I refer to the general teachings of the so-called Reformers. As with every religious issue, so too with good works, the individual Protestant is free to believe or reject whatever he wants without jeopardizing his status as a Protestant. It should also be pointed out that, though the position of the Reformers on the issue is still officially believed by Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, and some sub-sects of major denominations (Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists…), most Protestants believe exactly the opposite of what these others profess. That is, most Protestants believe in salvation by works alone. I write this because, in my personal experience, I find that the vast majority of Protestants believe one can be saved without any particular faith “as long as you’re a good person and don’t hurt anyone.” This is the opposite heresy of the Reformers.
In this article, I will defend the Catholic position against the (official) Protestant one by using Holy Scripture and common sense.
Luther’s German Bible, a vehicle for advancing the heresy of “Faith alone.”
Salvation: A Free Gift
I mentioned that the heart of the issue is the difference between the Catholic and Protestant conceptions of salvation. That difference is the role each person has as a free agent in securing his own salvation. Now I will expand on that concept somewhat. Protestants and Catholics both agree that salvation (entry into heaven after death) is a free gift of God. We also both accept that justification (holiness in this life, a necessary preparation for salvation) is a free gift of God. What this means is that, independent of any merits of our own, God gives to us the grace by which we can become holy in this life, and be counted fit for heaven upon death.
Catholics and Protestants differ on many particulars regarding Justification / Salvation, but the basic point upon which we most strongly disagree and which most enters into the Faith / Works debate is this: Man has the ability and obligation to cooperate with God’s grace in securing his own salvation. In the practical order, this means that he must do good and avoid evil in order to be saved. He is not merely a passive recipient of God’s salvation.
The related issues of the exact nature of justification and the doctrine of merit are important but beyond the scope of this article. We are satisfied with first establishing that man is obliged to do certain things for his salvation. We call these things “good works.” Secondly, we wish to reconcile the “free election” of God with the necessity of good works.
Beginning at the End
The first proof has to do with last things. The final judgment furnishes an excellent argument to prove our point. Keep in mind what we are establishing here. Protestants say that the believer does not have to do good works to be saved. Making that all-embracing act of faith, the Christian is saved and needs do nothing more. The Bible agrees with the Catholic position, not the Protestant one. In the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew, Christ our God tells of the judgment at the end of the world. The sheep and the goats, representing the elect and the reprobate are gathered into two groups, one on his right, the other on his left. When He tells the elect that they are going to heaven, He says, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred ["hungry," that is], and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.”
Upon asking when they had done these things, the elect are told, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
Then, turning to the reprobate, he gives them their awful sentence of damnation, which parallels that of the righteous, this time enumerating deeds omitted: “ye gave me no meat” “ye gave me no drink,” etc. The chapter ends with this verse: “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.”
So what have we? Certain people go to heaven because they did certain things, and others are cast into hell because they did not do those things. Can it be any clearer? Does this mean that all one has to do is good works for salvation? Absolutely not. Faith is necessary. To be consistent with the rest of the message of the Gospel, we must say that those who will be sentenced to eternal bliss will all have the Faith. But, for reasons of His own, our Lord did not see fit to mention Faith in this judgment scene. All we are left with is that the good works performed by the blessed caused their salvation, while the omission of the same works merited eternal damnation for the reprobate.
Another passage in which our Lord affirms the same teaching is this: “Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.” (Mt. 7:24-27) Here doing and not doing are criteria for being judged favorably or unfavorably. The Protestant may protest that by “[doing] these sayings of mine,” our Lord means simply believing, but this is ruled out by the context, which has a list of actions (“seek,” “knock,” “ask,” etc.) commanded by our Lord. The reader is referred to the whole of chapter 7 of St. Matthew.
Another “Judgment verse” which proves our point is this, from the book of the Apocalypse (“Revelation,” in the KJV): “And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.” (Apoc. 20: 12-13) Again, both the good and the bad are judged according to their works. In this last passage, at the very least, we are bound to conclude that good works have something to do with our salvation. They certainly do not hinder it, so they must help it.
St. Paul teaches the same doctrine of good works in his Epistle to the Romans: “[God] Who will render to every man according to his deeds: To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath.” (Romans 2:6-8. Read verses 5-13 for the complete context, which provides more “good works” arguments.)
The Bible even specifies certain types of works that “justify” a man or “condemn” him. In the following passage, it is spoken words: “O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things. But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.” (Matt. 12: 34-37)
If speaking good words will justify a man — either by making him just, or increasing the justice in him — then justification is not by Faith alone, but by works too. The Protestant may be quick to add that the “words” our Lord refers to are an affirmation of the Faith that is in one’s heart. In saying this, the Protestant would be correct, but if he were further to conclude that the words uttered have nothing to do with justification, then he is denying the very words of Scripture. In the end, it is still an act (a deed) done by the believer, which “justifies.”
Further testimony of the merit of spoken words — this time bringing about salvation, is in Romans 10:10, which says, “For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.”
Those who call themselves Christians, whether Catholic or heretic, will all say that to be a Christian is to “follow Christ” or to be a “disciple of Christ.” Both of these concepts have very obvious ramifications. To follow someone, is to go wherever he leads. To be someone’s disciple is to learn his teachings, to belong to his “school of thought.” Both of these concepts imply commitment. When our Lord invited people to follow him, it was never an unconditional relationship in which the follower could “do his own thing.” Now we will see what Holy Scripture tells us about this commitment in terms of our subject.
In the Gospel of St. Luke, Jesus says, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it. For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away?” (9: 23-25)
This tells the would-be follower of Christ that the Christian commitment is a serious one and cannot be entered into half-heartedly. It also establishes a requirement for following Christ: self-denial. Self-denial is an act (or a series of acts becoming habitual). If to follow Christ it is necessary to deny oneself, and if following Christ is necessary for salvation (which it is), then self-denial is necessary for salvation. Since self-denial is a work, then at least this work is necessary for salvation. Consequently, the proposition “Faith alone” fails.
The following passage drives the point home even more clearly: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple. [...] So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14: 26-33)
In this passage, the italicized phrases affirm in strong terms that, unless certain deeds are done, then being a disciple of Christ is impossible. If being a disciple of Christ is impossible to a person, so is salvation impossible to that person. Therefore, those deeds (carrying the cross, hating parents, and forsaking material goods) are necessary for salvation.
The objection may be raised that hating one’s parents is not really necessary for salvation. Obviously our Lord meant something by this statement, and He obviously does not want everyone unconditionally to hate his parents, therefore the only sensible conclusion is that if one’s parents stand in the way of his salvation, then he has the duty to oppose them. The same holds true with forsaking all one has. There are conditions where such things are necessary under serious obligation.
Sin is an obstacle to human salvation. Being defiled with sin is, according to the Bible (Apoc., or “Rev.” 21:27), something which keeps one out of Heaven. If being unsullied by sin is a requirement for entrance into Heaven, then the Christian is obliged to avoid sin. This could lead into two possible tangents, namely (1) how believing Christians can be forgiven their sins in this life, and (2) what happens if they are not forgiven. I will avoid these tangents and limit myself to this simple fact, which I will prove with Scripture: To be saved, it is necessary to die without the guilt of a serious sin on one’s soul. From there, we can reason that, to be saved, it is required that the Christian avoid sin.
St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 6: 9 says, “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.”
Here, St. Paul is saying that people guilty of certain sins will not be saved. It may help to know that in the context, he is writing to believing Christians (“them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus” — 1:2) to exhort them not to do these things. Since even the Corinthian believers will not be saved if they go to their judgment guilty of these particular crimes, then avoidance of them is necessary — even for true believers. Now, “avoidance” is an act — a work. Since it is a work that conforms us to God’s will, then it is a “good work.” Where that leaves us is — good works are necessary for salvation.
Further confirmation for the need of the good work of avoiding sin is found in the manifold passages of Holy Scripture that urge us to fight the temptations of the devil; as well as those passages that encourage us to pray not to be tempted. In the first category we have 1 Pet. 5:8-10 where we are told to “resist” Satan. In the second category, we have our Lord telling the Apostles, “Pray lest ye enter into temptation”; and the Lord’s prayer, “Lead us not into temptation.”
If avoiding sin is “not a big deal,” if avoiding certain sins is not necessary for salvation, then for the believer to pray to be delivered from evil and led away from temptation is pointless. But since the avoidance of sin is necessary, then the true Christian is called upon to fight sin, sometimes with violent means. (To this end, St. Paul chose to inflict bodily pain on himself: “Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” — 1 Corinthians 9: 26-27 NIV)
Forgiving the Sins of Others
Our Lord said, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”(Matthew 6:14-15) This passage is in the Sermon on the Mount, and it follows immediately after Jesus teaches the crowd the Our Father (the Lord’s Prayer). It provides additional commentary on the part of that prayer which says, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Does Matthew 6:14-15 prove our point? Yes, because in it, God instructs us that He will not forgive us unless we forgive others. If we refuse to forgive others, God refuses to forgive us.
We have already established that being forgiven our sins is necessary for entry into heaven. This, combined with what we have cited from St. Matthew’s Gospel concerning “forgiving others” leads us to a bit of inescapable logic:
(1) To enter heaven, we must have our sins forgiven.
(2) But if we do not forgive other men’s sins, we will not be forgiven.
(3) Therefore, if we do not forgive other men’s sins, we cannot enter heaven.
Forgiving other men’s sins is certainly a good work. If Bob offends Molly and asks for forgiveness, but Molly refuses to forgive Bob, then Molly will not have her sins forgiven. Therefore, Bob puts Molly in a catch 22. She now has to forgive in order to be forgiven. This forgiveness — this good work — is necessary for salvation.
For further proof of the necessity of forgiving the sins of others, the reader is referred to the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt. 18: 23-35), in which the debtor who refuses to forgive the debt of another is punished by his master.
A telling caricature: Martin Luther being played as bagpipes by the Devil.
Our Father Abraham
Abraham, the “Father of all believers,” is a perfect illustration of our doctrine. He is held up by two New Testament authors, St. Paul and St. James, as a model and pattern of the justified believer. St. Paul (Rom. 4 and Gal. 6) cites Abraham to show that justification does not come from the law, and neither from our own unaided works, but by grace through faith. St. James, complementing (not contradicting) St. Paul, shows how Abraham was justified by faith and works. In the following passage, the reader is asked to note the italicized sections, which need no commentary:
“Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (James 2: 17-26)
As was pointed out in the beginning of this article, Luther dishonestly inserted the word “alone” in Romans 3:8 (“a man is justified by faith alone“). Here in St. James is the only time in the Bible that the words “faith alone” or “faith only” appear in succession, and the passage says the very opposite of what Luther taught!
There should be a note of explanation here before we continue. Does the Catholic Church teach that Faith is not necessary and only good works are? No. Do we believe that a man can “save himself” by performing good works? No. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2: 8-9) Faith comes to us through God’s grace, and the ability to perform salutary good works comes to us through God’s grace as well. Without our cooperation with God’s grace, we can do neither. Both are necessary.
Any non-Catholic who tries to parrot the Catholic position by claiming that we believe man can “save himself” is dishonestly setting up a straw man. He is also confounded by numerous Church documents (both ancient and recent) including texts of the Council of Trent, which clearly show that Faith, coming to us through God’s grace, is necessary before man can do anything in relation to his own eternal salvation.
Building on the Foundation
At this point in the article, I have established, I think, that good works are necessary for salvation. I would like to go a little further, picking up the theme of “faith and works together” to which St. James introduced us in the preceding passage. Supposing a good-willed Fundamentalist or Lutheran were to ask me to explain how Faith and Good Works are related. He might say, “Brother, I was raised a Bible-believing Christian and taught (as per Ephesians 2: 8-9) that it is by grace through faith I am saved and not of works. You seem to make the Holy Bible contradict itself. How does your ‘good works’ doctrine not contradict God’s sovereign grace through faith?”
This would be a fair question. It would necessitate an explanation of one simple fact, a fact we mentioned toward the beginning of this article. In the matter of salvation, human cooperation with God’s grace is necessary. God’s grace is free and unmerited, but once He gives it, we must respond. Scripture shows, in many places, the nature of this cooperation with grace.
“For we are labourers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building. According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.” (1 Corinthians 3: 9-15)
This verse is a standard proof of Purgatory (see footnote #4), but it also illustrates our point of the necessity of cooperation with God’s grace. “Cooperate” literally means “to work with.” In this passage from 1 Corinthians, St. Paul says “we are labourers together with God.” Since “labor” means “work,” then the phrase “labor together” is synonymous with both “work with” and “cooperate.” The passage also tells us that we can “build” on the foundation which is Jesus Christ. If we build good things (gold, silver, or precious stones) we will be rewarded; if we build bad things (wood, hay, or stubble), we will “suffer loss.”
Another Biblical illustration of how we are to work with God in our own salvation is the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25: 14-30), one of the parables of the kingdom of heaven. Three men are given three different sums of money by their master, who obviously represents God. When the master returns, the first two have produced more money than they were given. They were, therefore, rewarded by their master. The third one merely returns the amount he was given. In anger, the master (a “hard man” — showing God’s severity) punishes the “wicked and slothful servant,” casting him “into outer darkness.”
To explain it in modern financial terms, we could say that God gives us the “start-up capital” (money here representing grace, which includes Faith), and we “invest” it (“make it work,” as a financial planner might say). Without the capital, we can produce nothing, just as “without Faith it is impossible to please God” and “without me [Jesus] you can do nothing.” (Hebrews 11:6; Matt. 15:5) But once we get the Faith, we are expected to produce; else, when our Master returns, we will have no profits for him.
The Parable of the Pounds, related in the Gospel of St. Luke (19:12-27), is similar to that of the unprofitable servant and teaches the same basic lesson. The master commands his servants to trade until he returns. The two good servants are rewarded in direct proportion to their differing amounts of gain. The “wicked servant” is reprimanded and punished.
If good works are not necessary for salvation, then a large proportion of Bible verses are totally useless. For instance, St. Peter’s admonition to “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: Whom resist stedfast [sic] in the faith…” If one does not have to resist the devil to be saved, then such an admonition on St. Peter’s part is useless; and not only useless, but cruel, since he is unnecessarily putting a difficult responsibility on his followers. The same would apply to any passage in the Bible that enjoins watchfulness, perseverance, fortitude, avoidance of sin, praying to be delivered from temptation, and many other like virtues and actions. Protestants often remind us that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” (2 Tim. 3:16) Since all of it is profitable, then there can be no useless verses.
“Suffer the Little Children”
For the sake of completeness, one small point should be made in this article before giving some closing thoughts. It should be mentioned that the necessity of good works does not apply to baptized infants. Since Baptism equips them with all they need for Heaven, they do not need them. They cannot willfully reject to do good works and thus positively merit punishment. Neither are they able to “build on the foundation” and increase their merit, because they have not full use of intellect or will. But, since God “will have all men to be saved,” (2 Tim. 2:4) and knows who His elect are, He washes his chosen ones in the laver of Baptism. Therefore, we must conclude that good works are not necessary for infants or their mental equivalents (e.g., severely retarded people).
Every study of Christian doctrine, either from an apologetic perspective, or from a speculative, theological one, must focus on one aspect of the Faith at a time without distorting the entirety of the Sacred Deposit left to us by our Lord. For instance, when studying the Trinity, one has to study each Person individually, while not losing sight of the fact that the Trinity is undivided. This kind of “taking apart” of the Faith, is necessary for getting a closer look at any Mystery of God’s Revelation, but we should not dissect the Faith for analysis unless we “put it back together” again at the end. Therefore, it will help, after we study this doctrine of Faith and good works, to step back a bit and look at the whole picture.
Our two closing thoughts will help to do this. The first point is that the Catholic position on the issue is the only one that actually reconciles two apparently contradictory positions in the Bible. Certain passages that seem to indicate the sufficiency of “Faith alone” for salvation are completely reconciled with other passages that oblige human cooperation with grace. Those passages in St. Paul (e.g., Romans 9), which seem to make good works useless are reconciled with St. James’ Epistle, which shows Abraham and Rahab to have been justified “by works.” In short, only the Catholic doctrine avoids the heretical extremes of “good works alone are enough” and “faith alone is enough,” while, at the same time, guarding the inerrancy of Scripture.
The second point is this: Some Protestants will personally admit that the Catholic doctrine on works makes sense. Any Protestant who reads this article and sees the case made for Catholic Doctrine is forced to make a choice: Either consciously reject the truth and remain in a man-made religion, or admit that the Catholic position is correct and join the Catholic Church. The other alternative, remaining a Protestant while accepting this one doctrine of Catholicism, is to belong to a religion that officially opposes truth, while personally adhering to that truth. Such a position is best condemned by St. Paul: “And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel.” (2 Corinthians 6:15) Any real commitment to the truth of God’s Word will lead one to the Catholic Church.
The Sacrifice of Abraham: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, When he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?” (James 2:21)
 This is the heretic’s famous (infamous) insertion of the word “alone” into Romans 3:28: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith [alone] without the deeds of the law.”
 Probably the simplest way to state the Catholic / Protestant difference is the way a Protestant did with me one day, in the course of an argument we were having in a barber shop. He looked at me from his barber’s chair and said, “The problem with you Catholics is that you believe in grace plus.” I thought for a couple of seconds and realized that he had put his finger on the issue. “We do,” I said. “And the plus is human cooperation.”
 Some Protestants may object, “I don’t believe that! Of course you have to do things in order to be saved.” To such a one, I would ask, “Then you believe Catholic doctrine. Why do you belong to a church which rejects what you believe?”
 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture citations are from the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. Regular readers are familiar with our tactic of citing the Protestant Bible on purpose to show that the Catholic Faith can be proven even from it. For the record, we do not like this version, but prefer the Douay-Rheims version, the best English language Catholic Bible.
 The conditions during the age of persecution provide examples. The early martyrs had to forsake their military titles, riches, rank in the Empire, etc. when their pagan rulers forced them to choose between God on the one hand and “all they had” on the other. Another example would be the Catholics in England during the Reformation who were taxed into poverty by the Anglican Establishment.
 Sin being an obstacle to salvation is also shown in these verses: 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:3-5; Heb. 10: 26; Heb. 13:4-5.
 The first tangent would involve the sacrament of confession, which was addressed in a very brief article in From the Housetops #40; the second tangent would regard Purgatory, treated in a longer article in FTH #45.
 The Corinthians were Catholics.
 Incidentally, this also disproves the ridiculous assertion of Calvinists: “once saved always saved.”
 For this one passage, I chose the (Protestant) New International Version, because it says “beat” and not the vague “keep under” of the KJV. Other Protestant Bibles are just as clear as the (Catholic) Douay-Rheims Bible’s “chastise”: Various translations have “pommel,” “discipline,” “buffet,” and “chastise” in that place.