Faith and Works – An Overview

One of the more basic questions in a discussion of salvation is, what exactly are we being saved from? 

When we turn to Sacred Scripture, we see this question answered in more than one way.  Protestant theology will often direct us to a passage like Romans 5:8-9 — “But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.  Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”  The Catechism (CCC1846) brings us to this passage — “But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’” (Matthew 1:20-21).  And we often see passages that speak to being saved from our enemies, as when Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit, speaks the prophecy that God has raised up for us a savior “that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us” (Luke 1:71). 

As Catholics, we recognize our “enemy” in this life is Satan and the fallen angels who follow him.  This is why in our understanding of the atonement, we see Christ as doing battle for us against the powers of Satan, sin, and death.  Christ frees us from the power of sin by winning the ultimate victory over these powers on our behalf.  Yet everything Christ does for us, he also does with us.  By dwelling within us he calls us to this battle (Ephesians 6:10-12 ) and sustains us by his grace as we allow ourselves to be sanctified, perfected in charity.  This indeed saves us from the “wrath” of God, who could have simply abandoned us to the power of our enemy. 

Another most important question – when the Bible speaks to “believing in Christ” or “having faith” in Christ as the way to salvation – what exactly does it mean?  What does it mean to believe in Jesus?  In my last few posts I’ve looked at while Protestant theology is based on an understanding of salvation by “faith alone” and not “works,” there can be significant disagreement about what is part of a “saving faith” and what is considered to be a “work.”  So what is the Catholic view of a “saving faith”?

The Catechism tells us that faith is both a grace and a human actCCC153 says that “Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him.  ‘Before this faith can be exercised, man must have the grace of God to move and assist him; he must have the interior helps of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and converts it to God, who opens the eyes of the mind and makes it easy for all to accept and believe the truth.'” And CCC154 — Believing is possible only by grace and the interior helps of the Holy Spirit.  But it is no less true that believing is an authentically human act.  Trusting in God and cleaving to the truths he has revealed is contrary neither to human freedom nor to human reason.

And in describing faith as a theological virtue, the Catechism also says this in CCC1814 — By faith “man freely commits his entire self to God.”  For this reason the believer seeks to know and do God’s will.  “The righteous shall live by faith.”  Living faith “work[s] through charity.”

In my post on grace I reminded us that the key “takeaway” about a Catholic understanding of grace is that it is everything in regards to our salvation.  It’s by grace we are enabled to believe, and it is by grace we are able to persist in faith and cooperate with God in allowing the Holy Spirit to sanctify us, and truly save us from our sins.

So, Biblical faith in the Catholic view is not simply an intellectual assent to what Christ has done for us.  It is a choice to pick up our cross daily and follow him (Matthew 10:38, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23), to seek and follow God’s will in all things (Matthew 7:21), to be obedient to him (Hebrews 5:9), and to cooperate with God’s grace to conform us to his image.  And this change in us happens most certainly as we allow our faith to “work through charity” (Galatians 5:6).

So while those who profess salvation by “faith alone” would often interpret those verses in Sacred Scripture about faith in Christ to mean only an intellectual belief and acceptance that he died as payment for our sins, from the Catholic perspective these verses about faith mean much, much more.  And that is especially found in the necessity of obedience to Christ.

Consider for example one of the most famous verses from Sacred Scripture, John 3:16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  This would be the type of verse that is often used to profess that salvation is by “faith alone” and not by works.  But then consider a verse like Hebrews 5:9 that tells us that Christ “became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.”  Do these two verses contradict each other?  If one believes that faith in Christ is merely an intellectual assent that doesn’t require obedience, it would seem so.  If one takes the Catholic view that when the Bible speaks to having faith in Christ that by necessity means to obey him, we find harmony in these two passages, and throughout all of Sacred Scripture. 

There are a few key points we should always remember and stress when in any discussion about faith and works. 

First, when many Protestants speak of salvation, they are often referring to a one time event of being “saved” – believing in Christ and becoming born again (regenerated) and justified.  When Catholics speak of salvation, we are referring to salvation in a much broader sense – regeneration, justification, sanctification and glorification.  That was covered thoroughly in this post.  It is important to stress that when Catholics speak to salvation, for us that includes sanctification.

“Faith” to a Catholic means much more than an intellectual assent that Christ died for our sins.  It includes repentance, a surrender of ourselves to God’s will, trust in His goodness, obedience to Christ, and working in charity.  In our view, that is what Biblical “faith” is, and any other view will result in multiple conflicts within Sacred Scripture.

“Works” in the Catholic view are not done so that God will accept us.  “No one can merit the initial grace of justification” (CCC2010).  Rather, the works that we see as necessary for salvation are those that sanctify us. Sanctification is not optional, and it requires participation on our part, as was discussed fully here.  We also recognize that our ability to participate in our sanctification is totally dependent upon Divine assistance — God’s grace. Also, not all “works” spoken of in Sacred Scripture are the same as we shall see, and especially in the writings of St. Paul.

As Catholics, we would agree that there is such a thing as a “works based” salvation.  This was the battle St. Augustine fought against Pelagius in the 5th century.  St. Augustine never argued that good works were not necessary for salvation.  He strongly argued that a person could not persist in charity without divine assistance – God’s grace.  In the Catholic view, salvation is not “works based” because it requires active participation on our part.  It is “works based” if a person believes they can achieve holiness on their own, without the necessary help of God’s grace. 

 The Council of Trent (1545-1653) that was a response to Protestantism was clear that any “works” necessary for salvation are only achievable by God’s grace.  Canon 1 – “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.”  And Canon 3 – “If any one saith, that without the prevenient inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and without his help, man can believe, hope, love, or be penitent as he ought, so as that the grace of Justification may be bestowed upon him; let him be anathema.”

 So how could we ever “boast” in our own works, or think that our cooperation in salvation is “works based” if our ability to “work” is totally dependent upon God’s grace?  We are in full agreement with St.  Paul who says in Romans 7:18 that “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it,” yet also says that “ I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).

And this can raise a question we can bring to discussion if someone insists that because we believe works are necessary for salvation that means we can “earn” salvation by our works.  If someone accepts that as “truth,” would it not also require them to conclude that if they believe faith is necessary for salvation that they have therefore “earned” salvation by their faith?  Or is it rather true that just because something is necessary on our part for salvation, that doesn’t mean we “earned” it at all? 

The reality is that while Catholics believe that works are indeed part of a saving faith, we don’t believe that we can earn our salvation by either faith or works, because we recognize that we are totally dependent upon God’s grace for all of it.  We are enabled to believe by God’s grace, and we are enabled to perform good works by God’s grace.  Everything is, and always will be, grace.

In the next few posts we will be taking a very deep dive into what Sacred Scripture says about faith and works, and there see the Catholic understanding in a very clear way. 

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