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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.
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.
“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!
“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.
“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 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 is very thorough and includes a helpful compilation of quotes from the Church Fathers. Also, Jimmy Akin has a characteristically super-thorough post on Justification by Faith Alone.
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
“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
“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.
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