The question of whether our good works get us to heaven is a huge issue in Catholic-Protestant discussions. In fact, it’s the spark that set off the entire Protestant Reformation. Generally speaking, we Catholics believe that God saves us on the basis of both our faith and our good works, while our Protestant brethren believe he saves us on the basis of our faith alone (either way, salvation is ultimately a gift of God’s grace, but since both sides agree on that, I’m going to let it remain an unspoken assumption throughout the rest of this article).
However, as with most theological questions, things get a bit more complicated once you look below the surface. Despite the way most people approach this debate, the issue here isn’t really whether good works are necessary. Sure, there are some radical fundamentalists who think all we need to do is believe and then we’re saved no matter what we do after that, but there’s also another, much more sophisticated Protestant position out there.
According to this other view, good works are necessary for salvation, but they don’t actually save us. Instead, God saves us on the basis of our faith, and good works are simply the natural outgrowth of that faith. In other words, if we have true faith, the kind that saves us, then it’s going to flower into good works, but it’s still our faith that actually gets us to heaven. On the flipside, if we don’t perform good works, then we don’t have true, saving faith, but once again, the real determining factor in our eternal destiny is our lack of faith, not our lack of good works.
That’s a much more challenging view than the simple fundamentalist position, so many of the typical prooftexts we Catholics appeal to in these kinds of discussions don't disprove it. Instead, to really refute this view, we have to take a slightly different approach, one that pays closer attention to the nuances of the New Testament's teaching on this issue.
See, a lot of texts teach the necessity of good works, but they don’t say those works actually save us. For example, take a look at these passages:
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)
For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. (Romans 2:6-8)
Both of these texts teach that good works are necessary for salvation, but they don’t go quite so far as to say that God saves us on the basis of those works. This is pretty easy to see with the first passage, but the second one is a bit more complicated. It says that our salvation will be “according to” our works, and at first, it’s easy to take this to mean that God saves us because of those works. However, that’s not the only way to interpret the passage. It could simply mean that our eternal destiny will correspond to our works (whether good or bad) without actually being based on them, so at first glance, the sophisticated Protestant view we’re examining here actually seems to explain the evidence pretty well.
Evidence for the Catholic View
But it can’t explain everything. There’s a ton we can say about this, and I obviously can’t cover it all in a single article. Instead, I just want to look at one piece of evidence for the Catholic view: the Gospel of Matthew makes it very clear that our salvation doesn’t merely correspond to our good works. Instead, God saves us on the basis of those works. Take a look at these passages:
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:44-45)
Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-4)
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. (Matthew 16:27)
In all three of these texts, Jesus tells us that we need to do good works to get to heaven, but he doesn’t stop at that general principle. He goes even further and says that God will bring us to heaven on the basis of those works. For example, in the first passage, he describes salvation as being “sons of your Father who is in heaven,” and he says that we need to love our enemies “so that” we might receive this appellation. Loving our enemies doesn’t just show that we’re true children of God. No, we become God’s children precisely because we love our enemies.
Similarly, the second passage says that God will “reward” us for giving alms “in secret,” and once again, it’s clear that the good work of almsgiving isn’t just proof that we have real faith. Jesus says that God rewards the almsgiving itself, not just the faith it expresses. And finally, in the third text, Jesus says God will “repay” us for our works, and once again, he’s not saying that our good works are simply evidence of what really counts. No, he’s telling us that salvation is a recompense for the works themselves, not simply for the faith that underlies them.
Like I said before, there’s a lot more we can say about this issue, but those three passages are enough. They show that our good works aren’t simply evidence of what really matters for salvation. Instead, they themselves are the basis of our salvation (along with our faith, of course), so on this issue, we can be confident that the Catholic view is in fact correct.