Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me
I once was lost but now am found
Was blind, but now I see…
During a recent discussion, a statement was made that perhaps Catholics really believed that they could earn their salvation by 'works'.
As a former Protestant, I naturally picked up on this and had to point out that Catholics do not believe that they are saved by 'works'. Although there are very many Protestant denominations that believe this and revile the Catholic Church because of this unfortunate misunderstanding of Catholic teaching, it simply is not true.
Where does a Catholic go to get “right teaching” regarding their faith? To Holy Scriptures and to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Article 2 – Grace and Justification, paragraphs #1987 – #2029 concern this very subject, “How are we saved?”
#1987 – Romans 3:22; cf. 6:3-4 The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us; that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ and through Baptism.
Grace is given to all who repent and believe, as proclaimed in the Gospel: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” – Matthew 4:17 Now the very act of repenting could be seen as a ‘work’; what it truly is, however, is “co-operation” with the grace that was given to us through Christ. It is a response to God’s gracious gift; not something we could initiate without that grace being given first.
#1989 – The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification in accordance with Jesus’ proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high. “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.” (Council of Trent (1547): DS 1528)
There is simply nothing that we ourselves, in our fallen human nature, could do to merit justification (the righteousness of God). We could never initiate, nor follow through, with anything on our own that would satisfy the requirements of a just God.
#1992 – Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men. Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy. Its purpose is the glory of God and of Christ, and the gift of eternal life.
Now we know that our justification has been merited by Christ alone and has been conferred upon us in our Baptism. Now what? God requires our co-operation as He will not infringe upon the freedom (free will) that He has given mankind.
When God touches man’s heart though 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): DS 1525)
#1996 – 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. (John 1:12-18; 17:3; Romans 8:14-17; 2 Peter 1:3-4)
How do we then, co-operate with God’s grace? If we are to exercise our free will, we have the choice to reject or accept God’s grace and thus confirm our justification. Is this a ‘work’? Again we turn to the Catechism:
#2001 – 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.”
So even our “co-operation” as a ‘work’ is a work initiated by God’s grace beforehand; we can respond in accordance with our free will, but we can never initiate our own co-operation.
St. Augustine, in his Confessions, went on to further elaborate on the initiation of ‘good works’:
If at the end of your very good works… you rested on the seventh day, it was to foretell by the voice of your book that at the end of our works, which are indeed “very good” since you have given them to us, we shall also rest in you on the Sabbath of eternal life. (Confessions 13, 36, 51: FL 32, 868; cf. Genesis 1:31)
The Catechism goes on in Paragraphs #2003 – 2004, to describe the various gifts of the Spirit that enables us to “associate us with his work” and to collaborate in the salvation of others and the growth of the Body of Christ, the Church. We all receive these gifts of the Spirit in accordance with the grace given us.
How do we, then, know that God’s grace has been given to us? Perhaps it is my own ego, my own sense of ‘righteousness’ that is working in me. Would that be sufficient? The obvious answer is ‘no’. There is nothing in human experience that would justify that approach.
#2005 – Since it belongs to the supernatural order, grace escapes our experience and cannot be known except by faith. We cannot therefore rely on our feelings or our works to conclude that we are justified and saved. However, according to the Lord’s words –“Thus you will know them by their fruits”—reflection on God’s blessings in our life and in the lives of the saints offers us a guarantee that grace is at work in us and spurs us on to an even greater faith and an attitude of trustful poverty.
It is our faith that enables us to experience and cooperate with God’s grace. Based on that experience of faith, we are then able to ‘do good works’ in His name; to produce the good fruit that points to our justification in Christ.
And this leads us back to the beginning: what can we do to “merit” God’s justification?
The term “merit” refers in general to the recompense owed by a community or a society for the action of one of its members, experienced either as beneficial or harmful, deserving reward or punishment. Merit is relative to the virtue of justice, in conformity with the principle of equality which governs it.
#2007 – 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.
God has chosen to associate man with the work of his grace (#2008); this is of his own initiative; man cooperates and the merit of good works is attributed to the grace of God and secondly, to those who respond in faith.
“After earth’s exile, I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. I want to work for your love alone… In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself.” – St. Theresa of Lisieux, “Act of Offering” in Story of A Soul; tr. John Clarke (Washington DC: ICS, 1981), 277.
And all I can add to this is: Amen.