“How come you Catholics try to earn your way into Heaven? Didn’t you ever read the Bible? Salvation is by FAITH ALONE. St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.’ You Catholics insult Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross by trying to earn your way into Heaven. That’s why you’re not real Christians!”
* * *
Wow, have you ever been confronted with these questions by a friend or co-worker or, most zealous of all, a family member who USED to be Catholic? How do you respond? Is it really true that we Catholics believe we must earn our way into Heaven?
Well, the first problem is that the issue is often framed with “either-or” language: we are saved either by faith or by works. However, it’s really more of a “both-and” situation: we are saved by both faith and works.
Let’s look at the above biblical quotation from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Yes, he definitely wrote that we are not saved by works, so no one may boast. This comes from chapter 2, verses 8 and 9. But do you think when Paul wrote that sentence, he also expected people to continue reading? The very next sentence, verse 10, says, “For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.”
Wait. What? Did Paul just say “good works”? I thought this was the “faith alone and NOT good works” biblical reference? It sure sounds like Paul wants us to make good works a key part of our lives.
This argument pretty much dissolves when we realize one very important fact: faith is a verb. Faith is not a noun, a thing that we acquired because we once recited a sincere 30-second prayer while watching Billy Graham on TV. Faith is much more than simply acknowledging that certain claims about Jesus are true. Faith is putting that belief into action. St. Paul summarizes it beautifully in his letter to the Galatians: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” That sure sounds like a verb to me.
True saving faith and good works are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other.
By the way, there is a “faith alone” reference in the Bible. It’s in the epistle of St. James, who writes, “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone….faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:24,26). In the only place in the entire Scriptures where we find the phrase “faith alone,” the message is the exact opposite of what our zealous friends, co-workers, and family members are proclaiming.
And if you’re not a big fan of St. James, how about Jesus Himself: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of Heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father” (Matthew 7:21).
So, does this mean that we Catholics try to earn our way into Heaven? No, not at all. Our zealous friends are correct: no one can work his way into Heaven. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that salvation “comes from the grace of God….the free and undeserved help that God gives us” (1996). But the Catechism also says, “God’s free initiative demands man’s free response” (2002). We have to put our faith into action to receive God’s saving grace.
So it’s not that complicated. We are saved by faith expressing itself through love, which often takes the form of good works. But in the end, it’s all grace. No one can earn his way into Heaven.
Oh, and one last thing, in case you’re not sure: Catholics definitely ARE real Christians.