Faith, Works, and the Great Judgment

In my last post I looked at a primary passage from St. James that strongly supports the necessity of works as related to salvation.  I will again remind us that in the Catholic view, “works” are not necessary so that God accepts us.  They are necessary for our sanctification, which is not an optional part of salvation.  As Francis Beckwith said in the quote I provided – “the purpose of good works for the Catholic is not to get you into heaven, but to get heaven into you…..they prepare us for heaven by shaping our character.”  I also pointed out that not all works are the same, and the specific works that St. James mentioned are those of meeting the physical needs of others – clothing and food.  Acts of agape – love.

Now we’ll turn to the words of Christ in the Gospels.  He has many things to say about what we must do to be saved.  To believe in him, absolutely yes.  But what does it mean to “believe” in Christ?  Remember from the Catholic perspective, when the Bible speaks of having faith in Christ, it does not mean a mere 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.  You can’t really believe in Christ unless you are willing to do what he tells you.

One of the most striking passages regarding our salvation in the words of Christ are those in Matthew’s Gospel regarding the Great Judgment scene.  Christ had already told his disciples in Matthew 16:27 “For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done.”  And then in Matthew 25:31-46, Christ tells us what will happen when he returns in his glory — “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.  Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’  Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?  And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee?  And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’  Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’  And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

This is clearly about the eternal judgment of our souls and our final destination – eternal punishment or eternal life.  Again, we must look at the kind of “works” Christ is using for judgment – feeding the hungry, providing drink for the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned.  Acts of loveAgape, the love that will sacrifice self for the good of another, and the practice of which, sustained by God’s grace, will transform our character.

Because Christ refers to gathering and judging the “nations,” some want to make this not about individual judgment but rather groups of countries.  That would not be consistent with how Sacred Scripture uses the term “nations.”  In general the term “nations” is used to recognize all peoples in contrast with only the nation of Israel, who was originally called out from among the nations by God to lead the way.  In context, it also makes no sense that eternal life would be determined based upon national membership and that one judgment would fall upon all from that nation.  No, rather the separation of the sheep and goats at the end of time is referring to all the individuals of the world, from all time, and all peoples.

John MacArthur in his study Bible addresses this passage from a Protestant perspective.  He indicates that when Christ says the sheep shall enter the kingdom “prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” this shows that this is a gracious gift of God and not something merited by the good deeds described.  As Catholics, we would absolutely agree that our good deeds do not “merit” eternal life for us.  That does not however lead us to a conclusion that they aren’t necessary, anymore than we would conclude that faith isn’t necessary since we cannot “merit” salvation by our faith.  Allowing ourselves to be perfected in charity is not optional, and Christ clearly sees the good deeds that proceed from that effort as the objective criteria for judging people, and those found lacking are sent into eternal punishment.  So are they necessary?  Christ leaves no doubt.  We would also not conclude as MacArthur (a Calvinist) that because God has prepared His kingdom for these sheep from the foundation of the world that means they were pre-destined by God for heaven while the others were pre-destined for hell.  Rather we would understand that in God’s omnipresence that He always knew who would freely choose to allow grace to transform them into the image of His son and has prepared their place based on that foreknowledge.

Another passage from Sacred Scripture that is important to the discussion is Matthew 7:21-27 – “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’  ‘Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.  And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it.’”

We looked at that passage in this post where it was advocated that this was teaching that works were not necessary for salvation because people were boasting in things they had done (prophesy, cast out demons, mighty works) and these things don’t save them.  I would point out what kind of works these are, or rather are not.  They are not the “works” that both James (James 2:15-16) and Christ (Matthew 25:35-36) identify as being necessary for salvation – acts of love.  Not all “works” are the same.  We can do all kinds of “things” in the name of God. But if we do not allow our heart to be transformed to one of perfect charity, Christ indeed will not know us.

I’ll continue to look at other passages that highlight the Catholic view of the necessity of works in my next post.

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