Grace, Works, and a Catholic Convert

I used to think Catholics taught salvation by works, not grace. After all, they do teach that works are necessary for salvation, and that’s pretty much the same thing.

Right?

Well, no. I’ve mentioned before that as a new convert to the Catholic Church, I was continually surprised by the faith and piety that I encountered. I still notice, with joy and wonder, every time I go to a different parish and it, too, is jam-packed with people who obviously take their faith very seriously.

The same thing happened every time I dug into Catholic theology, including on the topics of grace, faith, works, and justification. I expected to find terrible, man-centered heresy. Instead, I found truth, and beauty.

So, I had some things wrong about grace, works, and merit before I converted.

~1~

“Catholics think they are saved by religion, not by Jesus.”

This is a common charge, and I would have said something like that, back in the day. I love this quote from Archbishop Fulton Sheen:

“Christianity is not a system of ethics, it is a life. It is not good advice, it is divine adoption. Being a Christian does not consist in just being kind to the poor, going to church, singing hymns, or serving on parish committees, though it includes all of these. It is first and foremost a love relationship with Jesus Christ.”

A lot of Protestants, my former self included, would be confused at best to hear these words coming from a highly respected Catholic. A love relationship with Jesus Christ”? Sounds like something straight out of a Bible church to me!

~2~

“Catholics think they are saved by their merit, not grace.”

The Catholic doctrines of merit sound like a foreign language to Protestants. Words and phrases like “merit,” the “treasury of merit,” or “indulgences” communicate to Protestants concepts that Catholics do not intend or believe. The main thing to bear in mind is that “merit,” when speaking of the merits of the saints, or our merits before God, doesn’t refer to anything that comes from us. Consider this quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, found online here:

“The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace.” – Catechism, Article 2, Section 1

Or this quote from St. Therese of Liseaux:

“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. Thérèse of Lisieux, “Act of Offering” in Story of a Soul, tr. John Clarke (Washington DC: ICS, 1981), 277

For a more in-depth treatment, try this post from Called to Communion.

~3~

“Catholics think they are saved by faith + works, not faith alone.” There’s no room for grace.

You know, I remember from many conversations among Reformed friends about justification the favorite saying that “we are saved by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone.” I thought that the Catholic view that works, sanctification, etc., are all a part of justification was a corruption of the Gospel, detracting from the work of Christ on the cross.

Not so. Take this quote from Catholic Answers:

“The Church teaches that it’s God’s grace from beginning to end which justifies, sanctifies, and saves us. As Paul explains in Philippians 2:13, ‘God is the one, who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work.’

Notice that Paul’s words presuppose that the faithful Christian is not just desiring to be righteous, but is actively working toward it. This is the second half of the justification equation, and Protestants either miss or ignore it.”

Or these quotes from Saint Augustine, widely loved and respected by Protestants:

“What merits of his own has the saved to boast of when, if he were dealt with according to his merits, he would be nothing if not damned? Have the just then no merits at all? Of course they do, for they are the just. But they had no merits by which they were made just” (Letters 194:3:6 [A.D. 412]).

“What merit, then, does a man have before grace, by which he might receive grace, when our every good merit is produced in us only by grace and when God, crowning our merits, crowns nothing else but his own gifts to us?” (Letters 194:5:19).

If you want to dig into this a little more, this article from Catholic Answers (quoted above) is very thorough and included a helpful compilation of quotes from the Church Fathers. Also, Jimmy Akin has a characteristically super-thorough post on Justification by Faith Alone.

~4~

The Canons Council of Orange (529 A.D.) – the Council all Calvinists should read

I’m going to get really specific here for a minute. I was a Reformed Calvinist Protestant. Anyone who is, was, or knows a Calvinist needs to read and share the Canons of the Council of Orange. (You can find it online here.) It really tears down the idea that Catholics believe that they contribute anything to their salvation that does not come from God in the first place. In trying to select some quotes, I got frustrated, because I really want to share the whole thing with you! But here is a sample:

“That a man can do no good without God. God does much that is good in a man that the man does not do; but a man does nothing good for which God is not responsible, so as to let him do it.” Canon 20

And,

“Concerning those things that belong to man. No man has anything of his own but untruth and sin. But if a man has any truth or righteousness, it is from that fountain for which we must thirst in this desert, so that we may be refreshed from it as by drops of water and not faint on the way.” Canon 22

And,

“Concerning the will of God and of man. Men do their own will and not the will of God when they do what displeases him; but when they follow their own will and comply with the will of God, however willingly they do so, yet it is his will by which what they will is both prepared and instructed.” Canon 23

While I’m getting a little more technical than usual, some say that the Council of Trent (online here) contradicts the Council of Orange. Bryan Cross wrote a good post on that a while ago, found here.

Conclusion

So, when I was investigating the Catholic Church, I found out that my preconceptions and assumptions about the Church’s teaching on grace and works were plain wrong.  You can go as deep as you want on this topic (see some recommended reading below), but Archbishop Sheen summed up the simple truth perfectly in the quote from above:

“Christianity is not a system of ethics, it is a life. It is not good advice, it is divine adoption…It is first and foremost a love relationship with Jesus Christ.”

For Further Study

What is the Catholic Doctrine of Salvation – The Christian Freethinker

The Drama of Salvation – Jimmy Akin

Justification by Faith – Peter Kreeft

The New Catholic Bookshelf – vol. 2


BookshelfHere are some more books that have been helpful to me along the way as we have journeyed from Geneva to Rome. I have linked these to Amazon, but if you want them, please consider saving a tree – and a buck – by borrowing or buying used.


1. The Catholic Controversy – St. Francis de Sales’ Defense of the Faith. 
This is a collection of pamphlets written by St. Francis de Sales on a mission to reach a community of French Calvinists in the late 1500’s. The pamphlets were written to be posted on walls and slid under the doors of folks who wouldn’t give him an ear. After four years, nearly the entire region had been brought back to the Catholic church, about 72,000 people!

This is a really good volume for anyone from a Presbyterian/Calvinist/Reformed background, whether looking at conversion oneself or just trying to understand the issues involved. His writing is incisive and to the point, and he explores issues of deep concern to this branch of the Protestant churches.

2. Catholicism for Dummies, by Rev. John Trigilio, Jr. 
In the early-early days of visiting our parish, I saw this on the shelf in the library. I was silly enough to be too embarrassed to check it out on the spot, but I went and got it from the public library. Now I can giggle at myself and recommend it to you. I like the Dummies books if I can get past being rankled at being called a dummy! This book really lays it all out and is super helpful for navigating both the doctrinal distinctions of the Church, including some very deep and significant issues, and also a lot of the practical details that are so dizzying to newcomers. Even otherwise very knowledgeable and savvy newcomers. 😉


3. The Catechism of the Catholic Church. If you want to the know the church’s teaching on something, it really doesn’t get any more definitive than this. This volume is way more accessible than it looks, and it’s really lovely to read from cover to cover, if you’re the type, which I’m not exactly. For me, it’s a super reference if I have a quick question about something.

Previously: Bookshelf, vol. 1