Before I begin, I’ll give the quick answer
The quick answer to the question, “Can we earn salvation?” is: “Yes, by the grace and mercy of God.”
“So, let’s begin with an illustration
Are you a bargain hunter? I am. I like to hunt for bargains and whenever I can get a quality product for cheap, I jump on it. Well, let’s say that you are shopping for a good car. And you find this car that you really like, but you know its going to cost around $50,000. But, you approach the owner and he says, “Well, I will give you the car for $100, on one condition.
“What’s the condition?” You ask. “Well, I need a fence right here. I’ve got all the materials, but I need someone to put it up. “It should only take about three hours and I’ll help you.”
Of course, you’re going to jump on that deal, right!? I would. You get the gist, right? Salvation is worth much more than we can afford. But God made it affordable, because of His grace and mercy. If He hadn’t reduced the price of admission, so to speak, we couldn’t get into heaven.
Someone might object that the Catholic Church, in the Council of Trent, declared that it is impossible for men to merit salvation. The response to that is “Bmmp! Wrong!” Here’s the quote in reference:
COUNCIL OF TRENT VI
HOW THE GRATUITOUS JUSTIFICATION OF THE SINNER BY FAITH IS TO BE UNDERSTOOD
But when the Apostle says that man is justified by faith and freely, these words are to be understood in that sense in which the uninterrupted unanimity of the Catholic Church has held and expressed them, namely, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation and root of all justification, without which it is impossible to please God and to come to the fellowship of His sons; and we are therefore said to be justified gratuitously, because none of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification.
That certainly seems to say that we can’t merit salvation!
It seems to say that but let’s look at the canons. The canons sum up the message of the Council.
If anyone says that the good works of the one justified are in such manner the gifts of God that they are not also the good merits of him justified; or that the one justified by the good works that he performs by the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit an increase of grace, eternal life, and in case he dies in grace, the attainment of eternal life itself and also an increase of glory, let him be anathema.
Let’s break that down
If anyone says that the good works of the one justified are in such manner the gifts of God that they are not also the good merits of him justified;
That says that the grace or “gifts of God” are also the merits of the person justified.
or that the one justified by the good works that he performs by the grace of God
That says that we are justified by our good works, in other words, that we merit our justification.
truly merit an increase of grace, eternal life, and in case he dies in grace, the attainment of eternal life itself and also an increase of glory,
That says that we can merit salvation (aka eternal life).
let him be anathema.
“Anathema” means condemned. That says that anyone who denies that a man may merit justification and in the end, salvation, is condemned.
So, it would hardly be logical for the Catholic Church to deny that one can merit salvation and then, in the same breath, to condemn any one who denies that we do merit salvation, would it?
That’s confusing. What is Trent saying?
Trent is saying that without the grace of God, we can’t merit salvation. But, by the grace of God, we can.
If anyone says that without the predisposing inspiration of the Holy Ghost and without His help, man can believe, hope, love or be repentant as he ought, so that the grace of justification may be bestowed upon him, let him be anathema.
So, let’s get back to the question.
The question being discussed is, “Can we, merit or earn, salvation?” The Catholic Church’s answer is, “Yes. With the aid of God’s grace.”
Are we tracking together? Ok, let’s go to the Bible.
Let’s go to an illustration from the Bible.
This illustration shows that the Word of God does not shy away from depicting justification or salvation as an economic transaction.
Let me set it up. This is the parable where the farmer goes out, early in the morning, and hires workers to come out and harvest his grapes. The Farmer is, of course, God. And the first set of workers are the Old Testament Jews. The Farmer goes out later in the evening and hires another set of workers to do the same thing. This set of workers, represents Christians. Let’s read it.
Matthew 20 (NRSVCE)
The Laborers in the Vineyard
1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage,
First of all, the Landowner represents God. Notice that He is hiring someone to do work. He agreed with them, thus, making a contract. Also, keep an eye on this daily wage. It is important.
he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.
These are still different sets of Jews from the Old Testament. Throughout their history, God had to call the Jews back to Him.
6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
This is the last set. This is us, the Christians. Notice how we came at the end. We do very little, except prepare ourselves by learning and studying and beginning to do the righteous things of the Lord. It is the equivalent of RCIA.
8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Ha, ha! We’re making out like bandits! God has given us the very same wage that He agreed to give the faithful Old Testament Jews. And we don’t have to work all our lives for it.
The key word here is, "wage". Notice that justification (what the Christians undergo) and salvation (what the Jews underwent), is spoken of in terms of a labor contract, for wage. The wage being the grace of eternal life.
Turn to Hebrews 11.
I won’t go through all of it. I just want to show you what all these faith filled Jews underwent. Beginning with v. 4, by faith, Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s…, by faith, Noah…, by faith, they all did the will of God and were found righteous. But look at verse 39!
39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised,
These are the first set of laborers. Now here we come:
40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
Once we came around, then God gave them the promised salvation. But how about us? Where’s our coin? We receive justification when we are baptized.
Acts 2:38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Turn to Hebrews 12.
22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
When we are baptized, we are justified and walking with all those faith filled Jews who earned their salvation!
But, you object, the Bible says:
Romans 11:66 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
Well, yes. That is true. If you notice, this is the same thing that Trent said. Nothing that we do is worth the grace of eternal life. Therefore, St. Paul is right. However, St. Paul also says;
Romans 2:13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified.
2 Corinthians 5:10 For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.
And that also mirrors Trent. St. Paul teaches that we will be judged by that which we do. And only those who do good will inherit eternal life.
Do we agree, so far?
Bonus Bible verses
There are very many Bible verses which depict us as working for our salvation. Here’s a few more:
Matthew 19:21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
John 6:26 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”
2 John 1:8 Be on your guard, so that you do not lose what we have worked for, but may receive a full reward.
Philippians 2:12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;
Revelation 22:12 “See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work.
How about the Early Church Fathers?
Pope St. Clement of Rome, writing in the First Century, said:
Epistle to the Corinthians
Chapter 30. Let Us Do Those Things that Please God, and Flee from Those He Hates, that We May Be Blessed.
Seeing, therefore, that we are the portion of the Holy One, let us do all those things which pertain to holiness, avoiding all evil-speaking, all abominable and impure embraces, together with all drunkenness, seeking after change, all abominable lusts, detestable adultery, and execrable pride. For God, [says the Scripture], resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Let us cleave, then, to those to whom grace has been given by God. Let us clothe ourselves with concord and humility, ever exercising self-control, standing far off from all whispering and evil-speaking, being justified by our works, and not our words….
St. Ignatius of Antioch, also writing in the First Century, said:
Epistle to St. Polycarp
Chapter 6. The duties of the Christian flock
Give heed to the bishop, that God also may give heed to you. My soul be for theirs that are submissive to the bishop, to the presbyters, and to the deacons, and may my portion be along with them in God! Labour together with one another; strive in company together; run together; suffer together; sleep together; and awake together, as the stewards, and associates, and servants of God. Please Him under whom you fight, and from whom you receive your wages. Let none of you be found a deserter. Let your baptism endure as your arms; your faith as your helmet; your love as your spear; your patience as a complete panoply. Let your works be the charge assigned to you, that you may receive a worthy recompense. Be long-suffering, therefore, with one another, in meekness, as God is towards you. May I have joy of you for ever!
Epistle to the Philippians
Chapter 2. An exhortation to virtue
Wherefore, girding up your loins, serve the Lord in fear and truth, as those who have forsaken the vain, empty talk and error of the multitude, and believed in Him who raised up our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, and gave Him glory, and a throne at His right hand. To Him all things in heaven and on earth are subject. Him every spirit serves. He comes as the Judge of the living and the dead. His blood will God require of those who do not believe in Him. But He who raised Him up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will, and walk in His commandments, and love what He loved, ….
And, I guess I’ll conclude with the Catechism
2010 Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life. Even temporal goods like health and friendship can be merited in accordance with God's wisdom. These graces and goods are the object of Christian prayer. Prayer attends to the grace we need for meritorious actions.
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